The hotel was an upmarket affair at an isolated and picturesque spot by the sea. Mrs Wall had assumed control following the sudden and untimely death of her husband a couple of years earlier. Characteristically for Scottish hotels, it had long since deteriorated into a state of shabbiness. On taking over, Mrs Wall had resolved to correct matters in a most unScottish way. That is, she had set about having the hotel restored to a standard more in accord with its prices.
Mrs Wall had rejected the option of reducing the prices to a level more in line with the standard of the hotel since while doing so might increase the number of guests, many of them would inevitably be of a lesser calibre. Those of a higher calibre were bad enough without going down that route.
Mrs Wall did not take the view that her guests, or customers, were always right. Some were too troublesome or even venal to be awarded such an honour. Why, one of them had complained, had the tiles in his en suite bathroom been light blue when the price he had paid had led him, as it would any reasonable person, to believe that they would be white and therefore more classy?
The matter had badly distressed his wife and had ruined their anniversary weekend away. Surely a refund would be in order. In such cases, Mrs Wall's responses were invariable and blunt: Goodbye, and don't come back. If there had been a Tripadvisor in those days, it is doubtful if it would have had any impact on Mrs Wall.
Sometimes, too, a guest had to be sacrificed for the sake of other guests. Such an event occurred one day at the weekly lunchtime buffet. The centrepiece of the buffet table was an impressively large, long-dead crayfish. A guest, a well-spoken barrack-room lawyer type, loudly insisted that he be permitted to eat the crayfish on the grounds that it was displayed alongside other food and therefore must be fit for human consumption. The waiter explained to him that the crayfish was merely a hollow decoration and that it had been painted with polyurethane varnish.
Having painted himself into a corner in front of his lady friend, who was clearly more embarrassed than impressed, the man lacked the style to back off. Instead, he insisted even more loudly, until, eventually, Mrs Wall was called in. She told him that he could eat the crayfish if he liked. It would kill him, she advised, but his suicide was not a matter for her, alluring though she found the prospect. Then she pivoted on her kitten heels and sailed from the room accompanied by a round of applause from the other guests.
Louise and I were amongst the dozen or so students Mrs Wall had taken on for the summer season. Hitherto unknown to each other, we soon became friends. Louise was a presentable mathematics student from a prestigious university and had been snapped up as a receptionist and bookkeeper. I had been taken on as a 'general factotum', which turned out to mean a person in dungarees who tries to be invisible to guests and who does whatever they are told, including, on one occasion, digging up the terrace and trying to repair a burst sewer.
Mrs Wall was in her mid-40s, a tall and elegantly poised presence, always impeccably attired and groomed, her hairdo a sculptural tour de force. For the most part, she was a considerate employer, patient with her unskilled student staff and solicitous in respect of their well-being. We liked and respected Mrs Wall – for the most part. Surviving the remaining parts of her, however, required some empathetic appreciation of her circumstances.
Running a private hotel is hard going at the best of times, not least due to guests like the barrack-room lawyer. Add the recent death of a husband and the disruption of a revamp and it gets harder. Add to that trying to manage and train a troupe of callow and often brainless students and it gets harder still. In such circumstances, it was perhaps not too surprising that Mrs Wall was inclined on occasion to shoot from the hip in explosive eruptions of irascibility. It was during such an outburst that she sacked Louise and me.
Down by the tiny one-boat harbour, below the small outcrop on which the hotel stood, there was a diesel pump owned by the hotel. One of my jobs was to serve up the diesel to any boats that required it, boats that ranged from motor vessels to sailing yachts and even to the occasional small inshore fishing boat. Typically, demand was sporadic. But when boating events were taking place, demand increased such that the pump sometimes had to be manned throughout the night. At those times, I would stay up all night, and so would Louise at the reception desk, for she handled the chitties and logs that recorded the transactions.
On one of those nights, halfway through fuelling a queue of boats, the diesel ran out. The boatmen were not pleased, and having spent most of the evening in the hotel's public bar, nor were they shy about showing it. Alarmed, Louise woke Mrs Wall.
In the reception office, in silk pyjamas and embroidered dressing gown, hairdo twisted into a lopsided bedhead, Mrs Wall berated us. It was simply not possible to run out of diesel, she insisted angrily. It had to be a scam, an inside job at that, a conspiracy even. The only explanation, she said, machine-gunning us with her eyes, was that I had been selling diesel on the fly and that Louise had been faking the paperwork in order to conceal it. We protested mightily, but to no avail. She sacked us on the spot and told us to get out.
A couple of hours later, as dawn was breaking, there was a diffident knock on the door of the room Louise and I were not supposed to share. It was Mrs Wall, her normal attire and grooming now fully reinstated, her trade-mark cardigan over her shoulders, its arms dangling empty. She had, she told us nervously, spent the night going through the paperwork and had discovered that the diesel had run out because she had forgotten to adjust her regular order with the supplier in preparation for the boating event. She apologised profusely, and gave us a fiver each – not bad considering our pay was only £7 a week.
Hairy though such circumstances could be, Mrs Wall's typically unqualified contrition often had the effect of making us respect her more. Louise and I exchanged glances as she left the room: how did she know which door to knock on, we wondered.