The summer of 1990: the World Cup, World In Motion, Big Jack’s Army and all the rest of it. I’d come back from my first year at university needing a job to tide me over until the autumn and I got one – washing up in the kitchens of Bromley Hospital.
The work was hard – I spent my working days elbow deep in suds at a huge sink full of scalding hot water in a windowless corner of the kitchen while outside the country baked in a heatwave: runways at Heathrow melted, railway lines buckled and a waxwork dummy of a knight at an Essex castle was reduced to a pool of ooze and chainmail.
With the relentless heat outside and the sweltering humidity at the sink, every now and again without warning my nose would start bleeding profusely. Scarlet globules would plop into the soapy water in front of me like the first fat drops of a spring shower. Once the flow had been stemmed and the blood soaked catering tissues disposed of, I’d have to start that particular load of giant, grease-encrusted pots and pans all over again.
Believe it or not, I loved it. I had a ball. The staff were some of the loveliest people I’ve met. The kitchen was managed by John, a ringer for René from ‘Allo ‘Allo, kindly, quietly spoken and wanting nothing more than a quiet life. The cooks were cheerful, middle-aged Afro-Caribbean women who all adopted me to an almost maternal extent, racing to be first with the kitchen paper when my nose started gushing claret again, and Heather, a cheerful girl not much older than me who dreamed of becoming a chef at the Dorchester and whose catchphrase was, “if you can’t have a laugh then what’s the bleedin’ point, eh?”
It was the kitchen porters with whom I worked closest. Both were Spanish: Victor had jet black hair, a hint of Javier Bardem about him, a short temper and a deep-set resentment for being told what to do, especially by John. You could always tell when Victor had been told what to do by John as the pots and pans would crash about more than ever, underpinned by a ferocious muttering. Victor adopted me as a kind of confidant. He’d complain to me in urgent machine-gun tones about John not respecting him, usually about five minutes after John had been moaning to me wistfully about Victor’s attitude. Then I’d generally have another nosebleed.
The other porter was Manuel, who had been at the hospital for twenty-five years. In his sixties, Manuel was bald but for a slicked ear to ear valance of grey hair and had the most amazing, piercing blue eyes that were constantly a-twinkle with good humour.
Despite having lived in London for more than a quarter of a century Manuel’s grasp of English was still rudimentary. In the locker room during my first week I commented to him about how John seemed nice. “Dzhon?” he said, wrinkled his nose, stood up, made a ring of his thumb and index finger, mimed drinking a cup of tea with it, said “cuppa tea” in a high pitched voice, raised one knee and pretended to break wind expansively. As a summation of his opinion regarding John’s management of the kitchen it was wonderfully eloquent.
Despite this John liked Manuel and told me that in his younger days the veteran porter had been on the books at Real Madrid. I wasn’t sure whether to believe him or not until one day I asked the man himself as he sat smoking on a break in his customary position in the shade outside the delivery door.
“Manuel,” I said, “is it true you used to play for Real Madrid?”
A slight smile flickered across his face and the blue eyes twinkled. He stood up, threw his cigarette aside, rummaged in his trouser pocket and pulled out a fifty pence piece. He held it up between thumb and forefinger in a manner that said, “watch this”, spun the coin into the air and just before it hit the ground trapped it stone dead on his instep. Given he was wearing the curious white clogs we kitchen staff had to wear it was a feat in itself.
Then with an almost imperceptible movement of his foot Manuel flicked the coin into the air. It arced upwards, spinning slowly, and plopped cleanly into the breast pocket of his kitchen overalls. I was stunned. It was probably the most remarkable piece of skill I’ve ever seen. He patted the pocket, clapped me on the shoulder, winked and strolled off towards the meat slicer, whistling.
Manuel retired shortly before I went back to university. At the end of a particularly hot August Friday about half a dozen of us sweltered in the locker room where John poured warm Lambrusco into flimsy plastic cups, thanked Manuel for his long service and wished him all the best for his retirement. We drank the sweet, sticky liquid, dropped the cups into the bin, Manuel stood up, walked to the door, turned round, saluted, smiled, and walked out of the hospital for the last time.
Bromley Hospital closed in the early 2000s and was demolished soon afterwards. There are flats there now. If Manuel is still with us he’ll be nearly ninety, and I hope he’ll be looking forward to the Champions League Final tonight and the World Cup this summer.
I’m sure he wouldn’t remember the student washer-up with the penchant for nosebleeds, but as he watches the two Madrid teams do battle tonight I hope he’ll finger a fifty pence piece in his trouser pocket and wonder if he’s still got it.