My very first job was in the town where I was born, Haddington, a short bus ride (or, given bus infrequency, a daunting cycle) from my village. I had a Saturday job in an art gallery and coffee shop called “Peter Potter's”, a job my sister had had before me, working alongside a selection of Haddington teenagers, one of whom, a Glaswegian, became my boyfriend for a while. I never met Mr Potter, and know nothing about him, but he did exist, a fact perhaps known to the local kids who used to delight in shouting into the letter box at the front door: “Peter Potter picked a snotter!”
Peter Potter's was a genteel, rather pretentious little place run by elderly ladies who seemed to enjoy playing power games. I was 14 when I started there, and was paid GBP2 an hour (even at the time, circa 1983, this was insultingly low pay, barely enough to get the bus to Edinburgh afterwards) to work in the coffee shop, serving ploughman’s lunches, baked potatoes, toasted sandwiches, coffees, teas and cakes to the good folk of Haddington (as well as tourists getting out of the rain, and once, excitingly, Ronnie Corbett, who enjoyed a bowl of our cauliflower soup). As ambivalent as I was about working there, I’m sure I sometimes behaved ungraciously in my role as waitress, but there were only two complaints about me from four years of Saturdays: I was taken aside by one insufferable woman and told that I was “scruffy”; and I refused to serve tea to the daughter of some local knight of the realm, because she arrived, demanding to be served, when the place had closed, and I was packing up for the day and no longer on the clock. This was an early experience of imperiousness that I’ve never forgotten.
I remember wearing a particular pair of tight black cords with a broken zip which I tried to fix, ineptly, with lashings of sellotape, only to have some grinning men point out to me that my zip was down. I remember making the best toasties ever for my own lunch, stuffed with grated cheese, ham, raw onion and Branston Pickle. I remember the smell of fresh paint and wholemeal flapjacks. I remember looking out at the rain and longing for my shift to end.
I'm sure lots of things about this job have stood me in good stead: the ability to be incredibly polite (almost to the point of sarcasm, where they're not quite sure you're not being rude, but don't dare suggest it) to people who clearly think you (as a waitress, or a teenager, or a woman, or all three) are beneath them, and, as a corollary, a lifelong appreciation for waitresses; naturally, a distrust of the sort of people who run small-town art galleries; and the ability to make a damn good toasted sandwich.