It occurred to me as I tore open my third packet of 82-pence frozen oven chips last term that it might be worth my time to earn some honest cash. I didn’t have any option; it was clear that my usual fi nancial lifeboats had taken one too many Topshop-shaped beatings to stay afl oat. My mum was reluctant, my cat unmoved. My bank manager had surveyed me with amusement and loathing in equal measure as I prostrated at his feet. “Madam, you have already received the maximum student loan that we can offer. Pull yourself together.”
I sniffed as I listened to my last few pennies in all the world tinkle impishly from the deep red depths of my overdraft. A thoroughly sensible housemate took pity on me and forwarded my name to a catering company. Within a few weeks we had both found ourselves with catering work at Keble Ball.
Truth be told I was more excited than is polite for a human food repository on the verge of her first shift. I loved all the balls I had gone to in first year: the rivers of booze, the unidentified umami-fl avoured chunks wrapped in bread, the promise of some ill-advised romps in a bush with a mediocre kisser… Somewhere along the way, I had managed to confl ate these heady memories with my expectations of the upcoming shift.
This was, of course, idiotic, but neither did I have a terrible night. It was… fun. I’d certainly say that working a ball beats eight hours in the fluorescent drab of a supermarket any day.
Unreasonably, my new boss did not present me with a wistful silken gown or a cute tiara. Instead I was to make myself content with a voluminous misshapen fleece and an unforgivably titchy apron. I pretended to be disgruntled, but really my uniform had enough novelty value to keep me squeaking with misplaced excitement. As the ball guests fastened their delicate suede heels, I snapped on my surgical gloves with all the creepy relish of Dr Jekyll.
My first disappointment presented itself quickly, though. Thus far my purportedly ‘adult’ life has been intermittently blighted with a great loathing of rice. Reacting to stray grains as a elephant might to an anthrax-ridden mouse, my subconscious cannot be persuaded of the qualitative diff erences between a plate of rice and a nest of maggots.
“OK,” suggested Mr Boss with the frankly rude air of someone who hadn’t researched my culinary whimsies prior to hiring me, “we’ve put you on the Paella stall.” My housemate sniggered wickedly in the background.
I resolved to suck it up and be mature. And perhaps drench my housemate in any hot oils I might have to hand later in the evening.
I had expected to spend my evening hypocritically snorting at drunk and aggressive student louts. (I knew perfectly well how I behaved myself as a ball attendee – poorly.) Having mastered the rather clever art of developing a Cloak of Invisibility sometime after my ninth vodka luge, I was a dab hand at pissing in well-lit corners and ignoring queues for the hog roast.
The ladies and gentlemen of Keble Ball, on the other hand, put me to shame. Life was rosy on the other side of the hotplates. Well-polished lads waited patiently as I burbled hysterically into the fast-depleting veggie option. Kindly girls escorted me through the maze of stages to the loo. Everybody pretended not to notice as I sneezed into a dish and promptly served it to a customer. Even the customer himself betrayed only the slightest glimmer of complete and utter disgust. Nobody slurred incomprehensibly, nobody cut queues and only one person cocked his leg on our stall.
Fair to say, then, that the only real dickwad of the evening was not a fair representative for the rest of the Keble ball-goers. “I jus’ think thad you guysh should know,” rumbled a greasy guy with the imperious air of a Buller boy, “thad you’ve done a GREAT job tonight. You should be PROUD of yourshelves. Really.” His friend, who was equally pissed but less of a moron, had the decency to colour on his behalf, wincing with each fresh flurry of ‘Brahvo’s. It was midnight in a sticky flash, and by the time 1am rolled around we were already joyously packing up our buckets of waste slop. By 2am I had a lamb burger in one hand, two sausages in the other, three beers balanced on my stomach and a scotch pancake clenched between my teeth. And, best of all, fifty quid in my pocket. Not too shabby. Really not too shabby at all.
The greatest advantage of working at a ball is the smug realisation at about this point in the evening that you have clinched yourself free entry. In fact, you are richer, and the cocktail bar is your oyster for the next couple of hours.
As I have never been particularly good at enjoying myself after the sixth hour of pretending to be lithe in six-inch heels, this shortened ball suited my stamina perfectly. I’d wholeheartedly recommend working at an Oxford ball to a friend. Or anybody, in fact, who wants to cure a haemorrhaging wallet this summer.