By Jane Hyphen
‘You horrible lot will be working at Royal Ascot this summer.’
He looked at us as if we should feel honoured. A horrible lot, teenagers from Birmingham college of cakes, learning how to lay tables, wait on tables, learning how to serve. To serve at an event such as Royal Ascot was surely an accolade something to put on a cvs, we rushed home to tell our parents.
We went down on a coach and stayed at Brunel University. It was exciting to be on a university campus, we felt like real students, preppy youngsters, breezing about the place, exuding worldliness, except we weren’t. There was a shop, a proper little supermarket where we could stock up on whatever we liked, including booze; most of us were barely seventeen but the woman on the till didn’t ask any questions. One of the mature students, Peter, an heir to his father’s pharmacy fortune and a veritable oddball purchased a large jar of Bournvita. That wasn’t going to achieve the kind of oblivion the rest of us were seeking. We bought Diamond Whites and bizarrely, perhaps to up the ante, a bottle of Asti Spumante, a low budget attempt at sophistication.
It turned out somebody outside of our little friendship group stole the Asti Spumante very early on in the evening and we never got to drink it, later we made up a song about this crime and sang it all around the campus. Other drinks had appeared at the table which we consumed ad lib, mixing and merging, singing and letting off proverbial steam. I climbed up onto a roof and danced at some point and for the rest of the trip and for some period afterwards I was known as ‘fiddler on the roof’, except there was no fiddling, I’d just like to point that out.
In the morning the work started. We got up at early, to be on the coach for 7.15am and driven to the race course which took at least forty five minutes. The sun shone and we assembled and were divided into groups and taken off in different directions. Together with another three students, I was placed with an Australian man, the head waiter and another very stressed man who looked and spoke like Rik Mayall. He looked at us very seriously and said, ‘Listen this is very important, you have been hand-picked to serve in the VIP area, you will be serving some extremely important people and you must be on you very best behaviour at all times.’ The guy went on and on ad nauseum about how important the guest was and how we mustn’t speak or laugh or slouch or cough, must keep our distance and be respectful etc etc.
Looking back we were chosen because we were tidy looking and possibly mature compared to the others or at least good at giving that impression when it mattered. We were taken to a large, dark green tent and we set up tables as if it were a five star hotel, white table clothes, pale yellow linen napkins, polished glass and silver. Large bouquets of flowers perfumed the air and the smell of fresh salmon and dill drifted from the frenzied chefs in the kitchen area, champagne was placed on ice.
The Australian man was dressed in a white shirt, black bow tie and suit with tails. He gathered us for a meeting about the menu, wild salmon, pheasant, sorbet, caviar, blah blah blah, then he told us about the very important person we’d be serving, the Sultan of Brunei.
The name meant nothing to me although I liked the sound of the word sultan. We waited around, waited and waited, occasionally we got a bit chatty and the stressed man who looked like Rik Mayall would rush over to shush us and remind us to be on our best behaviour. Eventually the sultan arrived with his entourage, wives and assistants, smoothers and pacifiers, overseers, security, hushers and ushers.
He was shown to his seat like a child and he sat and nodded slightly, he didn’t speak much and held a half-smile, a mona lisa smile. We served the table quietly as directed, holding our breath as we poured drinks and collected plates, detecting some strange VIP energy field all around him which made us super tense. He was somewhat like one of those Japanese Anime characters, a dark cloud drifting around silently, parting the commoners.
My memory around actually serving him is hazy and I don’t think any of the girls were allowed near him. I think, from what I recall, the head waiter actually served him and I have a vague memory of someone tasting his food first. I served his wives, left and right, demure and charming, perfectly turned out. He looked sort of bored as we pussyfooted around, worrying about trips and spills. The very notion of displaying elements of human frailty in front of the man: accidents, burps, nosebleeds, even sneezing could be viewed as a shocking faux pas and would not go without serious reprimand from Rik Mayall.
All the time we were observed regularly by the entourage, the hangers-on who watched our every move. How would react if we did something wrong, would they be reacting on the sultan’s behalf and did it matter if he was genuinely offended or not, or would he even notice. The entourage were the ones talking, making gentle, appeasing statements about the venue, the day, the food, carefully chosen words and sentences delivered mildly. The whole situation felt strange and unnatural.
I couldn’t help but wonder what the sultan was thinking, he looked entirely disinterested in the whole affair. There was an expectation upon everyone around him to behave cordially and be his subordinates but there was also an expectation on him to be a certain way. I never saw him laugh and look at anyone else at the table with any genuine affection, he was sort or stiff and muted in his expensive suit, a mute in a suit that’s what he was. Dining on expensive food, such great pains had been taken, everything from crockery to garnish carefully thought out. If he’d have popped into Slough for a kebab instead would he have enjoyed it the same, quite possibly.
They finished their food and sloped away and we were allowed to take a break. We headed outside of the tent into the fresh air. It was close to midsummer and the sun almost blinded us after being inside that dark tent all day. The effects of our hangover came in waves, it made us extra photosensitive. We cleared the tables, tidied and got Rik Mayall to sign our time sheets then headed back to the coach for another evening of drinking.
The rest of the week continued in a similar vein, sultans and sheikhs floated in and out like anime characters, we served and bowed our heads and behaved. The VIPs meant nothing to us, they were as anonymous to us and we were to them, we were just kids from Birmingham earning a bit of pocket money on a college trip.
On our final evening, last thing as we were walking to our coach a group of very lairy young men with strong London accents all done up in top hats walked towards us and started shouting and whistling. One of them picked me up, a large man with curly black hair, pulled up my skirt and straddled me onto him in a standing position and then proceeded to bounce me up and down in a simulated sex motion. The others laughed and hollered as did people around, I went bright red in shock. He dropped me and yelled, ‘Oh don’t go all cherry on me!’ Everything about these men screamed Traders and I am 99% sure that’s what they were, at Royal Ascot, doing what they do best, gambling.
My friend laughed at me and told everyone on the coach. It didn’t occur to me that it was in fact an assault. First the guy assaults me then he shames me for blushing. I never told my college teachers or my parents since I’m sure they would have laughed too and written it off as high jinks.
Royal Ascot, that high class event, full of elegant people. It’s been twenty eight years since I served in the VIP tent but it’s come to the forefront of my mind recently. Since the Sultan of Brunei has suddenly announced that he will stone some of his civilians to death along with other barbaric punishments for infidelity, forty lashes for lesbian relationships, removal of limbs for theft. I then read that he had multiple honorary degrees from various universities, not really sure why, it might be connected to the fact that he’s worth 20 billion £s and perhaps throws a few coins at them here and there.
The traders/bankers with a capital W who assaulted me on the way back to the coach at Royal Ascot were quite possibly part of a small group of people in The City who shafted this country causing the crash in 2008 and years and years of cuts which have followed. It’s because of those guys who will never be punished for assaulting me and possibly other women, it’s because of those guys that we have austerity, cuts in social care, parents donating books and toilet paper to their childrens’ schools.
Between them and the very important person who has led a life fully removed from normality and now passes laws on stoning people to death who happen to be born gay, I actually despair. There we were pussy footing around the wives and hangers on who pussy footed around the sultan. Nobody dare ‘come out’ in his country yet he comes out to all the world as a torturer and murderer as if it were the most natural thing in the world.
Us, horrible lot of hospitality students from Birmingham served at Royal Ascot in 1991, what an honour indeed.