A Memoir From Soho

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Status: In Progress  |  Genre: Romance  |  House: Booksie Classic
A Memoir from Soho tells the tale of a young Chef at the beginning of his career and adolescent life. Set in the early nineteen sixties crossing paths with the world of Stephen Ward.

Submitted: September 11, 2019

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Submitted: September 11, 2019

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A MEMOIR FROM SOHO

 

“Though I never really had you….

… to me you will always be the one that got away.”

 

Rabat’s Suzuki

 

From earliest memories of childhood, I was always helping my mother in the kitchen.

The kitchen was the heartbeat of the family home, where family and friends would sit around the large oak table and enjoy meal times. My mother’s Aga oven was her pride and joy.

By the time I was fifteen, I had set my heart on becoming a chef. During the summer I found worked at the local hotel. I was inspired by the camaraderie, the different ingredients and the amazing food.

 

I had just turned seventeen when I was offered an apprenticeship at the renowned Restaurant L’Escargo. My uncle Harry was on good terms with the maître d'hôtel and arranged for me to have an interview which was successful.

 

The Restaurant L’Escargot was once the private residence of the Duke of Portland. Built in the mid seventeenth century, this magnificent Georgian town house was transformed into one of the finest eateries in the world.

 

I was instructed to arrive at 48 Greek Street, Soho London at ten o’clock on Thursday 9th February 1961. The train arrived at Victoria train station in good time and before I knew it, I was on the number nineteen bus heading towards Shaftesbury Avenue.

 

Dirty, smelly, noisy Soho was an incredible  mixture of restaurants, cafes, markets, and clubs. The multicultural blend of people surging round the streets was mesmerising. 

As I was taking in my new surroundings, I tripped and fell on a feisty and now angry young woman. 

 

“Fucking Hell, watch where you’re going” she yelled.

 

Her name was Brenda. She had long, raven black hair, inviting blue eyes, pink lipstick and was showing off her full figure in a revealing crop top.

 

I offered to help carry her heavy luggage as a way of an apology. 

 

“Oh, and bye the way, My name is Michael, Michael Forester”. I said somewhat shyly.

 

“And you can call me Brenda” She replayed flirtatiously. “Now hurry the fuck up”.

 

She led me to a nearby club entrance with a large red sign over the front door and directed me down the basement stairs. There was a frighteningly large Greek looking doorman at the entrance, who nodded and let us pass.

 

“Look after my cases, I'll be back soon”

 

Brenda appeared several minutes later and instructed me to carry her cases up four flights of stairs to a small room at the top. 

We chatted briefly and I suggested we could catch up some time for a coffee as we were both new to Soho. She smiled but didn’t answer.

 

There was something about Brenda that I liked straight away. As I left, My mind was buzzing with thoughts of us crossing paths again.

 

Arriving at my destination, I was greeted by John Paul, the maître d'hôtel of the restaurant. 

 

He was a medium built man with short cut thick black hair, bushy eyebrows and a square chin that gave him a rugged look. He would turn out to be a good friend. I guess my uncle had instructed him to keep an eye on me.

 

‘Bienvenue mon ami’ 

 

The next thing I knew, I was kicking off my shoes and changing in to checks, chef jacket and kitchen clogs. I was briskly escorted to the kitchen and introduced to Anton Bocuse. 

 

Anton was in charge of the vegetable section. He was a short stocky feller, who looked only a few years older than myself.

 

Each day would start at 7pm. Anton and I would wait for the fresh vegetables to be unloaded from the nearby covert garden market, then we would carry the boxes down three flights of stairs and across the outside basement into the main storage area.

 

By 8pm I was peeling potatoes; Pommes frit and Pommes chateau being the order of the day. This was followed by beans, aubergines, courgettes and asparagus. The ‘mise en place’ list never seemed to come to an end.

 

The maitre chef de cuisine was ruthless when it came to discipline and standards. The kitchen fell silent when he appeared. Head down, on with the job. "Yes chef, no chef." No one ever questioned his decisions.

 

His name was Jean-Claude. He was a heavily built with a grey curling moustache and spectacled beady-eyes that didn’t miss a thing. He would check each dish for quality and if it wasn’t right you would soon know about it.

 

Lunch started at 12pm sharp. As service neared, grills and ovens were lit and you could feel the heat and the tension rising. 

Chef Claude would appear at the pass to orchestrate service. 

 

Food service would start with the sound of a bell ringing followed by Chef Claude calling the first of many orders.

 

‘Sur commande duex terrines, une sole, deux côtelettes d'agneau...’

 

Food service was nothing less than amazing. Dozens of chefs cutting, slicing, chopping, shouting orders. The kitchen was ferociously hot and fiery; it looked like chaos but somehow was organised. Completed dishes appeared from nowhere; I thought the cooks were conjurors. We also had a beer allowance that went down well with all the brigade. 

 

By 3am the restaurant was closed for the afternoon. This was an opportunity to take a break for an hour or two before dinner service. By 11am the kitchen had been scrubbed clean and it was time to sleep.

 

My accommodation was a box room housed in the lower basement of the restaurant. There were several other staff bedrooms and a shared recreation room which staff would meet up to play card games or talk shop. 

 

It was against this backdrop that I soon felt part of the restaurant’s extended family.

 

On my first day off, I decided to explore my new surroundings. As I passed the jazz club of Ronnie Scott’s in Frith Street, I couldn’t help noticing a suave dapperly dressed black man in an alleyway leading off the side of the entrance. 

 

He was in the process of rolling a large joint of Marijuana. Having seen me looking over, he lit the spliff, inhaled the fumes and promptly offered me a puff.

 

“Would you like some ‘Charge’ man?”

 

“Pardon me?” I replied nervously.

 

Do you want to try some ‘Charge’? 

You knows it man: POT, SHIT, WEED.

 

“It will make you feel good man” he said in a calm Caribbean ascent.

 

Trying to act cool, I accepted without hesitation. I took the spliff between my fingers and inhaled.

 

“Not like that man, take it down, deep down man”

 

I felt dizzy, sweaty and relaxed whilst at the same time euphoric and excited. 

 

Tajo Goldberg was a kitchen porter in the now famous Ronnie Scots Jazz club. 

 

We instantly became friends and on my days off I would often take a bus trip to his digs in Westbourne Grove in Bayswater.

 

Tajo lived in a spacious one room ‘bedsit’ which was furnished with colourful scattered cushions and a single mattress which everyone would sit on whilst smoking Marijuana. The sound of Afro Jazz would continuously be played through two large wall speakers. It was always busy with people popping in and out, mostly from his home country. Sadly, racism was very prevalent.

 

I had been working in Soho for about two week when I bumped into Brenda again. 

And I literally mean bumped. We both collided as we simultaneously came round the corner pavement of Broadwick and Wardour street. Managing to stop her from falling over, we both regained our posture. I gave her a hug and we chatted for a few minutes before she briskly walked on. This chance meeting prompted me to call on her.

 

Managing to bypass the Greek heavy at the main entrance, I energetically ran up the stairway to her room and nervously knocked on the door. As Brenda answered she looked horrified to see me.

 

“What the bloody hell are you doing here?”

 

“I thought I’d pop round for a cup of tea” I replied nervously.

 

“Well, you can bugger off, before I call for help” She exclaimed angrily.

 

I had just turned to leave when she called back, “Okay, just a cup of tea mind”

 

We spent the afternoon chatting away like we had known each other all our lives. We shared a couple of joints of Marijuana and fell asleep on the bed, curled up in eachother’s arms. The warmth and smell of her body was intoxicating.  

 

I awoke to the sound of Johnny Tillotson’s hit record ‘Poetry in motion’.

 

Brenda wasn’t anywhere to be seen. She had decided to take a bath. As steam poured out of the bathroom, I caught sight of her naked reflection in the mirror. I had never been so aroused.

 

The next thing I knew, Brenda was ushering me to leave, insisting she had to go to work. She said I could call on her tomorrow evening.

 

Back in my room, I wrote a letter expressing how I felt about her. It read something like this.

 

Dear Brenda

This is going to sound crazy, but from the moment I first set eyes on you I haven't been able to stop thinking about you. I believe I’m in love with you. Would you consider going out with me?

Love Michael x

 

The following evening, I returned to Brenda’s room. I knocked on her door. There was no reply. I continued to knock and then for good measure I turned the door handle to see if it would open. It was locked. I slid the letter under her door.

 

The next day, I returned to her room with naive expectations. Again, there was no reply. 

A love letter is useless if it isn’t read by the recipient. I had to find her. I continued to return to her room whenever I had a chance, all to no avail. She had disappeared. 

 

As a last resort, I ask the Greek heavy if he had seen her. His reply wasn’t what I was hoping to hear.

 

“She’s fucked off, And if you know what’s good for you, You’ll do the same”.

 

Time flew by between Brenda’s disappearance and the day I am about to recollect in August. Brenda’s whereabouts often played on my mind whenever I had a moment to reflect. I was anxious to find her. I couldn’t understand how someone could disappear literally overnight. 

 

During this time, I vividly remember one occasion when visiting my parents and sharing my concerns with my father. My dad just grinned, put his arm round my shoulder and tried to console me.

 

“You have nothing to worry about, People come and go all the time, especially in London. She’ll turn up again. Mark my word.”

 

I spent most of my free time in Westbourne Grove with Tojo getting stoned whilst listening to Jazz. 

 

I had also invested in buying the recently translated ‘Guide to modern cookery’ which I read when ever I had a spare moment.

(Chef Escoffier is credited with modernising classical French cuisine.) This book was amazing at the time and a big inspiration to the way I thought about food.

 

By now, My cookery skills had improved enough for Anton to trust me to serve the vegetable dishes without supervision. 

 

Throughout August the weather had been very warm and the evening was only just beginning to cool down. It was Tajo’s birthday and we were celebrating it at the popular Flamingo jazz club.

 

Tajo and I were standing outside the side entrance smoking a spliff when we were joined by an old friend of his called Lucky. His real name was Aloysius Gordon. Lucky seemed to know everyone. He had a reputation as a hustler and fixer. He worked part time as a Jazz singer, singing rhythm and blues at the Stork club in Swallow Street. 

 

Tajo had known Aloysius most of his life. They had both been brought up in the same village just outside Kingston in Jamaica. Aloysius was several years older than Tajo and had been the leader of their gang.

 

Incidentally, Aloysius ‘Lucky’ Gordon would become famous for all the wrong reasons. Whilst I digress, I will give you a brief account of what took place.

 

Aloysius was dating a young woman called Christine Keeler. They had first met when she was trying to buy some marijuana. He was immediately besotted by her.

Christine, who was barely sixteen years old had landed a role at the fashionable Murray’s cabaret.

 

The story goes that “Pops” Murray the owner of the club had made his mind up on hiring  her the moment he saw her. That was enough. She was stunning, leggy and red-headed and exhibited a touch of class.

 

Within a short space of time, Aloysius and Christine became lovers. However, their relationship was fractious often culminating into violent encounters. Christine tried to end their relationship but Aloysius wouldn’t except her wishes. She felt very threatened by his obsessive paranoid behaviour and violent temper, so she hooked up with an ex-boyfriend of hers called Johnny Edgecombe. This resulted in a confrontation between the two men, in which Johnny slashed Aloysius face with a knife.

 

This in turn, set in motion a chain of events that would rock the establishment and bring down the Government.

 

As I was saying, we were standing at the side entrance of the club when Aloysius drew our attention to a young woman who looked an epitome of elegance.

 

“Wow man” he exclaimed.

 

As I caught sight of the woman in question, I realised it was Brenda. I almost didn’t recognise her as she had her hair in a bun, wore a revealing expensive looking dress and had a stunning diamond crusted necklace round her neck line. Accompanying her was a middle aged man, who was tall and impeccable dressed.

 

“Hello Brenda love, how are you?” I asked full of good spirits. 

 

She walked past me as if she didn’t know me.

I wasn’t perturbed by her actions and followed her towards the cocktail bar on the other side of dance floor. The room was packed with people jiving to the sound of the Jazz band playing ‘Twist and shout’. It was noisy, smokey and the lights were dim.

 

As I approach the bar, two well-built heavies wearing dark suits arrived on the scene. 

Split seconds later, violence erupted. The attack was vicious and swift. As Brenda’s companion reached for what looked like a gun from his jacket pocket, his attacker struck him so hard on the nose, his face seemed to split in two. His tonnage crashed to the floor knocking over bar stools like skittles. The two assailants disappeared as quickly as they had arrived.

 

Brenda ran for the back entrance dropping her evening purse bag as she tried to escape. Our eyes came into contact for a split second, confirming my suspicions that she had chosen to ignore me. I grabbed the purse, hiding it under my jacket as she disappeared into the night.

 

On my way back to my room there were Police everywhere. I still had an adrenaline rush and my head was packed with excitement and anticipation. I had only one instinct, to find Brenda again.

 

On returning, Anton and John Paul were in the 

lounge playing billiards. John Paul asked me if I had heard anything about a murder at the Flamingo club. I told him I had not.

 

Once alone in my room, I opened the clasp of the purse hoping to find Brenda’s contact details. Inside the purse was a small bottle of Chanel perfume, a lip stick, a handkerchief and a pair of tweezers. I slid the zipper back to open the inner compartment. 

 

To my surprise, I found over two hundred pounds in cash. A substantial sum of money back then. To put things in prospective, I was earning less than eight pounds a week. There was also a door key and a receipt with safe deposit written on the back of it. There was no address or phone number.

 

As it turned out, Locating Brenda wasn’t an issue as she contacted me, or should I say John Paul. That morning, he came to the kitchen to inform me that he had a message from a young woman. She had requested that I meet her this evening at eleven o clock, outside the Hippodrome theatre. ‘She hadn’t identified herself but insisted you would know who she was’ he went on to say.

 

Food service finished at 10.45 pm and I headed straight for the Hippodrome Theatre.

Brenda seemed to appear from nowhere, having been waiting for my arrival in the concealed side entrance.

She was wearing a glamorous beaded Turquoise dress with high heeled shoes and lipstick to match. Her long raven black hair was flowing as the wind blew between the cavities of the buildings.

She greeted me with a confident peck on the cheek, pointed out I was late and grabbed my wrist as she directed me towards a silver Jaguar waiting at the side road adjacent to the entrance. She instructed me to get in the back seat of the car as she followed me in.

She introduced me to her companion at the steering wheel and pleasantries were exchange, with hints of cynicism and jealousy.

 

“Stephen this is Michael”

 

“Hello Michael, very nice to meet you”

 

“Michael this is my friend Stephen, Dr Stephen Ward”

 

(Dr Stephen Ward was a high society osteopath and artist with a reputation of being a procurer of young women)

 

After the introductions Brenda cut to the chase. 

 

“Michael, Have you got my purse? I really need it back.”

 

As the car prowled Westminster, Brenda explained what had happened. Since meeting Stephen, she had been moving in ‘Mayfair's smartest’ meeting lots of very wealthy men.

The other evening at the Flamingo club, when that tragic incident happened, she was with Frank, Frank Torrio. Frank was an American business man. They had recently met at an exclusive chemin de Fer party, hosted by John Aspinall at the Ritz hotel. Frank was in the process of expanding his business portfolio in London, buying clubs and dancehalls. He was supposed to be meeting an acquaintance to discuss a deal to take over the Flamingo club, when the attack happened. A well known East-end gang had instigated the attack following his refusal of a partnership.

 

She needed to return the key and safe deposit voucher to a contact of the gang before anyone else got hurt. It was no good going to the police as half of them were on the gangster’s payroll. 

As I returned her purse, I asked the question that had played on my mind since her disappearance. 

 

Why did you just disappear without saying anything?”

 

Brenda’s answer wasn’t forthcoming. Embracing me and displaying a guilty look, she went on to say, ‘I’ve been staying with Stephen at his Thames-side summer house just outside Taplow near Windsor. One of Stephen’s friends has arranged for me to do some modelling work in New York, I leave in a few day time.’

 

As the car pulled to a standstill outside the L’Escargot, Brenda returned my letter. It was unopened with a Turquoise lipstick kiss seal in the centre of the envelope. I wondered if our lives would cross paths again.

 

Soon after, I was offered an opportunity to progress my career at the highly acclaimed Grand Hotel in Paris, France.

And that reader is a whole different story.


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