Above all else, maintenance of the Plate Policy is critical. It is imperative not only for the smooth running of the breakfast service but also in setting a moral standard. When moral standards are allowed to slip in any group of individuals thrown together through necessity rather than choice, it brews unrest and, ultimately, rebellion. There will be circumstances that test adherence to the Plate Policy; nonetheless, it must be maintained.
– The Management
The Policy in practice: three nights of rain in September 1988.
That first night the rain fell in metal rods, ricocheting off the sloping Velux windows which ran the length of the guest house and topped the previously dungeon-like attic rooms, allowing them to be flooded with natural light. And, as it turned out, sound.
Four of the nine bedrooms in the Victorian seaside guest house had been retro-fitted, and in the extension another five ‘Executive Rooms’ enjoyed the light-giving windows. None lacked a heaven-facing eye. From the front the hotel was no different to the identical stately residences surrounding it, and proudly thrust its chest out at the English Channel with its neighbours. Inside, though, dusty corners had been banished and once shadowy corridors basked in luminous daylight, and the hotel owner marvelled at how clever he had been to install Velux. In the ceaseless quest for natural light, he was victorious.
He hadn’t reckoned on the rain, though, which that September fell steady and vertical with an unnatural force. On the first night the hotel had lain awake, at first thrilled and then, as the hours wore on, irked by its persistence. I heard the rain too, even though I was lodged in a tiny staffroom in the bowels of the hotel. The noise it made as the sloping panes deflected its progress to earth must have been deafening for those trying to sleep beneath.
At breakfast the next morning the guests arrived in dribs and drabs, moving languidly to their tables and then from their tables to the buffet bar, where I stood vigil over the plates. The manager of the hotel was very particular about plate usage and it fell to me to ensure strict rules were adhered to as to the number of plates taken by a single guest. A guest should only take one plate, for multiple uses. Should a guest take a plate for, say, toast, and then another on which to have fruit, and then perhaps a further plate for, for example, bacon fat (I’ve seen this happen), then the kitchen would soon be awash with dirty plates and, what’s more, the clean plates would run out. This could not be allowed to happen. A small, laminated sign sat next to the plate pile. It read: Guests are politely asked to limit the number of side plates used to ONE ONLY. With thanks, The Management. I installed it myself; a written policy is always easier to implement.
After that first night of rain I began my breakfast service as usual, tending to tables, taking orders for coffee and tea and any cooked food. The guests were quiet, which wasn’t unusual, but a number mumbled about the rain, the noise and their lack of sleep. I nodded sympathetically, reluctant to get drawn into lengthy conversation, keeping one eye always on the buffet table and the neat stack of white ceramic plates. The guests ate slowly, glancing now and then at the enormous Victorian bay windows looking out onto the leaden-grey seafront. A young boy, probably about eight, stood at one of the windows, his index finger tracing the journey of one bead of rain as it chased down the glass, speeding up as it collected others on its journey until it had transformed into a rivulet. His parents watched him impassively, silently sipping their tea.
‘Time for some toast,’ the middle-aged man I had been serving suddenly announced to nobody in particular, and pushed back his chair. I quickly scanned his table.
‘Could you use your fruit plate? Rather than taking a fresh one? Otherwise we tend to run low.’ I smiled, removed two curves of melon rind from his plate and passed it to him. He peered at it for a confused moment before taking it from me, saying nothing. I followed him to the buffet table to resume sentry, but I could see the plate situation was under control and I allowed myself to relax a little. In truth, having to challenge guests as they reached for a plate was a job I’d rather not have had, but the manager was unwavering in his belief that the entire efficient running of the breakfast service relied almost solely on strict adherence to correct plate usage.
‘Consider,’ he expounded when I questioned the necessity of the Plate Policy; ‘if the guests use all the plates and more are needed, then the dirty ones will need to be washed. If they need to be washed then chef will have to interrupt his breakfast preparations to wash them. If he has to interrupt his preparations then bacon burns, beans catch, eggs spoil. Delays occur. Guests complain. Do you not see this?’ I volunteered that perhaps I could wash them, in a quiet moment, to which he rejoined, ‘It is a matter of principle. Besides, if you leave the breakfast room the guests will run riot, believe me. They’ll overload the toaster, help themselves to more juice than they can drink, and use a new plate to ferry a solitary swirl of butter to their table. No. It’s far simpler to just make sure they use an appropriate number of plates in the first place. I don’t know what happens to people in hotels. I’m sure they don’t behave so extravagantly in their own homes, but enter a hotel and all moral code goes out the window and they become strangers to reason.’ With that he seemed to consider the matter closed. I could have asked why he didn’t simply buy more plates, or even employ a plate washer, but I could also have guessed his answer. And, in all honesty, he was right about the guests. They were a peculiar breed.
During the second night the rain fell in fits and starts. Just as the jaded, already sleep-deprived guests were lulled by the steady, gentle patter on the Velux, they were jolted back to wakefulness by a sudden cloudburst, shrilling off the glass like the crashing of cymbals. They staggered into breakfast, shadows of their pre-holiday selves. The dining room atmosphere fizzed with their resentment. A young couple trudged into the room, their steps unnaturally laboured, and headed miserably to their allotted table.
‘Is the weather often like this?’ the woman enquired as I placed their tea before them. She regarded me as though I was entirely to blame for the rain and their sleepless nights. ‘Not really, no. Sorry.’ I shrugged and tried a smile. She didn’t return it, but instead glared at me with red-rimmed eyes, her bottom lip trembling just slightly.
‘I don’t want tea today, I want coffee. I need the caffeine.’
I took her tea away, and perhaps would have dwelt more on her plight were it not for the group of guests I noticed gathered at the buffet table talking in hushed voices. They were each holding a plate, and glanced sidelong at me as I approached. There was something unsettling in the way they lowered their voices still further as I passed.
On my return with the coffee one of the guests who had been in the huddle confronted me, saying, ‘Excuse me, do you think I could possibly swap my room to one without a Velux window?’ She was still holding a clean plate from the pile, which I looked at, pointedly. I knew full well it was her second, and so did she. ‘I’m afraid I can’t help you with room changes. You’ll need to talk to Reception.’ Of course, I didn’t mention that there were no such rooms. I looked from her face to my laminated sign and back again. Her expression hardened, but she lowered her eyes, peering at her plate. ‘Well, there never seems to be anyone on Reception, particularly at this time of the morning. Perhaps you could check for me? I’m in room four.’ Then, she raised her gaze to mine, defiant. I waited, just a moment or two, saying nothing. Without taking her eyes off me she slowly replaced her plate on the pile. ‘I’ll see what I can do.’ I said.
I turned away to find the young boy who had been tracing raindrops on the window the previous morning looking with interest at the few small remaining pastries. He reached for a plate. I flicked my gaze to his table – he had a plate already, with toast crusts on – and firmly placed two fingers on top of the plate pile just as his small hand reached up to take one.
‘Could you use the plate you had toast on?’ He looked startled, and I felt compelled to add, ‘It saves me masses of washing up.’ He relaxed a little then, performed a brief nod and went to fetch his plate. His parents wore glazed expressions and picked at their cereal as the boy dumped his toast crusts on the cloth in front of them and brushed the crumbs onto the floor.
Just as I was about to start clearing some of the tables, I heard:
‘Could you get me a clean plate, darling?’
I swivelled, hawk-like, in the direction of this last utterance. I found it had been made by an elderly woman to her husband, who was shuffling off towards the buffet table, stifling a yawn. She was holding a piece of toast aloft above her plate of full English, looking agitated. I could see the problem straight away. She wanted to butter her toast and required a flat surface. Being of a certain age she would never simply use the table (which as far as I was concerned would be acceptable in the circumstances), nor would she tolerate the clumsiness of trying to butter the toast on the sloping edge of her full plate of food. It’s a common problem, even today. I noticed, however, that her husband had an unused plate, so I swiftly intercepted him and in a low whisper said ‘I’m sure your wife can use your side plate for her toast. We’re getting a bit low on clean plates, you understand.’ I could see he was conflicted, but he replied, ‘Yes, of course, of course,’ and shuffled on.
Satisfied that I had thwarted several unnecessary plate usages I began clearing the empty tables. As I did so, I noticed the mother of the young boy stroll nonchalantly to the buffet table, pause for a moment by the pastries, then with practised deftness slide a clean plate from the pile and return to her table. I was surprised at her, but sleep deprivation does strange things to people.
On the third night the wind joined in with the rain. It howled along the promenade, whipped the sea into a frenzy and gathered the rain in angry squalls to hurl at the windows. The noise in the rooms changed constantly as the gusts of wind rose and fell. The guests clung onto rare moments of deep sleep, but over and over again were dragged unwillingly through their dream fog back to consciousness, as though being hauled from the bottom of the ocean.
In the morning none of the guests arrived for breakfast early. I occupied myself, adjusting the displays and straightening chairs, becoming uneasy as the minutes ticked by, until finally they began to stagger in. That third night of rain had broken them. They moved as if through water, every movement slowed to the point of vagueness, their eyes like purple bruises on otherwise colourless faces. They were dulled versions of themselves, all hope extinguished by the merciless combination of incessant rain and Velux. They ate in silence, staring at the bay windows as the rain tapped lightly on them, insidious in its attempt to gain entry to their refuge.
Perhaps I was myself tired, or bored. At the very least I was inattentive. I realised, after taking some orders through to the kitchen, that the Plate Policy was in flagrant disregard. Used ones littered the tables with the merest coating of crumbs or fruit debris – nothing that couldn’t be dealt with. Guests seemed unthinking in their actions, meandering around, picking a plate up and putting it down, taking another. It was feckless anarchy. There seemed to be a logjam at the buffet table and I noted that there were only a few clean plates left on the stack. Something had to be done.
‘Would you mind using your previous plate?’ I announced to the gathering. ‘There aren’t many clean plates left.’ The group halted in their actions and turned to look at me with hostile eyes. A young man nearest to the plates hesitated, then slowly and deliberately reached for one, locking his gaze onto mine as he did so. Sensing trouble, my eyes darted from him to the plate and back again. He paused, plate in hand. Suddenly, though, the tension seemed to drain from his body and with relief I reached to take the plate from him. But quick as lightning, he stepped back and hurled it frisbee-style across the room. It hit the wall above table six, where the young boy and his parents were sitting, and shattered, spraying them with white ceramic.
The room fell entirely silent, save for the soft, mechanical whir of the toaster. I could feel the guests’ eyes on me, anticipating my reaction. They were like coiled springs, their trembling fingers resting on their side plates, their stupefied minds ready to follow any example. The room had been electrified, but I froze, my eyes fixed on the wall where the plate had smashed. I noticed a flicker of movement out of the corner of my eye and before I could do anything the plate thrower had taken another. He stopped as I turned to meet his maniacal stare. Then, cutting through the charged silence, one shouted word:
We both turned in the direction of the small but strident voice. It was the young boy, standing on his chair, his hands in fists by his sides, his hair flecked with tiny pieces of white china. He looked magnificent.
‘Put that plate back,’ he commanded.
The guests seemed to collectively hold their breath. Then, as abruptly as it had arrived, the electricity drained from the room, sparking and fizzling out as it snaked under the windows and made contact with the watery exterior. The plate thrower stared at the boy for a moment, then turned back to me. I noticed his lips moving slightly, as though trying to speak. Cautiously, I placed my hand on his arm and with the other removed the plate from his grasp, placing it carefully back on the pile. He let out a long breath, his whole body shrinking like a slowly deflating balloon. A woman arrived at his side and gently put an arm around his shoulders, then guided him like an invalid from the room.
Gradually, a low murmur of conversation resumed and the guests recommenced their breakfast. Some returned plates to the stack, shamefaced. The boy’s parents, suddenly animated, were urging him down from the chair, brushing at his hair and clothes to remove the plate fragments. In all the excitement my laminated sign had fallen irretrievably between the buffet table and the wall. It would be a pest to make another, but I couldn’t help thinking it had earned its place in the breakfast service.
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