Earning A Crust in Cornwall


I was standing on a cliff-top in Bude, dressed in nothing but a silver skirt and flip-flops, only a set of bongo-drums between myself and indecency.  The previous night, I’d murdered a man in a jealous frenzy while travelling on a steam-train across Bodmin Moor.

As an ice-cream van careered across the cliff, chimes playing ‘Greensleeves’, and I joined six other half-naked women chasing it, I wondered: “What if I had a proper job?”

The stampede for work began in early spring.  The season was a jigsaw of jobs.  If enough work was lined up by mid-March then you could relax. You’d work a sixteen-hour day, seven day week for months, but you’d survive the winter on slim pickings. All-year-round jobs were gold dust.

About that murder.  I was in a troupe performing Christie-esque plays on the heritage railway by night. As folk enjoyed pasty and cider and the train steamed across the moor, we would go from carriage to carriage enacting the drama which led to me, “The Black Widow” (black of hair, dress and soul), shooting my unfaithful husband; he’d be found dead, with a blood-stained waistcoat. Diners would note clues, and there was a prize for correctly guessing who had done the deed.

Alas, out of several who wanted that man dead, nobody ever guessed I was the killer: probably because I’m five-foot-nothing and he was six-foot-four. Had I pulled the trigger, the bullet’s trajectory would have been up his nostril, not through his heart.

The same company was involved in the Bude cliff-top cavorting: we were extras in a BBC production, Nighty Night. By the time cameras rolled, our part was toned down. We were originally scripted as “writhing naked lesbians” but our spokeswoman, a Yorkshire woman still forthright despite partial undress, told the director: “If anyone comes near us with a strap-on, I’ll break her bloody jaw.”  He pleaded – literally on his knees carrying a case of wine – but we remained firm. At least, in our resolve.

Most days began with cycling along the Camel Trail to a hotel where every bedroom had to be cleaned while guests ate breakfast. I always found the guests intriguing – who would have thought the middle-aged couple with the lugubrious Birmingham accent who were so particular about toast, left their bed full of feathers and sequins each morning?

By lunchtime I was cooking in a holiday camp, alongside Jamie*, an old Etonian roughing it, and Mary*, a Padstow lady of eighty who’d sing to us as she prepared salad: ‘You an’ me, baby, aint nuthin’ but mammals, so let’s do it like they do on the Discovery Channel’.

The waitress, Kini*, a pretty Polish girl paid £2.50 per hour, cheerfully admitted one day that difficult customers were given ‘spit dressing’.

Manager Stan* was a diver who supplied the restaurant’s shellfish.  He spoke as if he’d swallowed a megaphone and communicated with employees from great distances.  His bellow of “Mary, come over ‘ere and dress my crabs!” was legendary.

He seemed to regret hiring Jamie: “You’re too posh!” he’d boom, stomping in to order a vast plate of Butterfly Chicken.

Jamie lost his ‘posh’ credentials after missing a society wedding due to having his eyebrows shaved and an enormous moustache drawn on him with permanent marker, while sleeping off a binge.

One summer was spent working mainly for the National Trust, and I had the pleasure of being in a 17th century gatehouse admiring a beautiful vista of oak trees.

Amy,* a journalist from New York, who’d been sent to cover a story in Cornwall and stayed, arrived daily with a bottle of wine and a novel, and on sunny days consumed both in the rose garden. On rainy days she’d bring cookies and coffee to the gatehouse, and we’d put the world to rights.

At that time the French government paid for delinquent teens to enjoy ‘cultural’ trips which generally involved loss or damage for hosts. They were accompanied by terrorised teachers who’d escape when the coach wheels stopped turning, thereafter only relocatable by plumes of cigarette smoke. Urgent radio warnings were sent from reception, ‘French kids!’ and we would form a line as Amy murmured ‘Once more into the breach, dear friends….”

My weekends that season were spent selling paintings from a cellar near a pub. Everything was there ‘on sale or return’. During the week, it was watched over by Derek* who also exhibited there, and was a Buddhist – a man so chilled he was almost comatose.

Nobody sold much, so I was thrilled when a Kenyan couple spent a long time admiring the paintings, then chose four of mine, and paid me £1600 in traveller’s cheques.

First thing Monday morning, I cashed them – I’d never held so much money at one time before.

First thing Tuesday morning, the police were on my doorstep – the cheques were forgeries.

After extensive questioning, I was declared an innocent idiot and allowed to keep the money. And somewhere in Kenya, four large Cornish seascapes presumably adorn the walls of Mr Big’s house.

We worked long, insecure hours while others played, and I doubt anything has changed, so take a good look at those who serve you, this holiday season. They all have a story. Tip well, and make their day. And be nice – or Kini might spit in your soup.

*all names have been changed except mine.

Mandy Baldwin is a freelance writer/Kindle author, born near Heathrow airport.  She has lived in Buckinghamshire, Cornwall and France, returning to England in 2013.  She has variously made a living – enough to support three children, solo – by working as a film-extra, selling fish and chips, running an art-group, tutoring home-schooled children, giving piano-lessons and selling her own paintings. 


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