It's best to leave quietly if you've stolen an umbrella, two bottles of water and an ashtray
Friday evening: another embarrassing incident in a high-class restaurant. I was halfway up the flashy flight of stairs on my way out when the receptionist caught up with me and unceremoniously demanded that I return the rather superior striped umbrella which I'd collected from the cloakroom counter. I'd realised that it wasn't my umbrella but there was something about the way in which she'd pushed my Tesco carrier bag towards me that almost demanded a childish act of retaliation.
"I don't think that's your umbrella, sir." Even as I turned I knew it would be wiser to own up and slip quietly out into the Mayfair traffic, but I could only see her intervention as the latest in a long line of humiliations I'd already suffered at the hands of the management.
"I'm sorry," I said archly, as though gearing myself up to remedy the table manners of Lucrezia Borgia, "I thought it must be a complimentary umbrella. With the price you charge for half-a-dozen oysters you could easily afford to give every diner a free Burberry and still come out on top."
It wasn't bad for an off-the-cuff retort. But I hadn't counted on her reserves of ammunition. "It would also be helpful, sir, if you returned the two bottles of mineral water you appear to have taken from the men's room."
Instead of putting up my hands and accepting there was nothing to do but make as dignified a retreat as possible in the general direction of Serbia, I was overcome by an absurd sense of power. She'd not said anything about the ashtray, or le cendrier as I'd insisted on calling it in the restaurant, to the amusement of the rest of the table, who appeared to share my loudly expressed view that the mincing waiter was about as French as a bag of pork scratchings.
Taking full advantage of the extra height provided by two steps of the staircase, I puffed out my chest and began to crow. "I don't honestly think you know who I am," I heard myself say. "I have a weekly column in a mass-circulation magazine and I will be writing about your standards of service."
I had to ask three times before I finally received the Tabasco for my oysters and then had virtually to wrestle the bottle of sancerre out of the waiter's hand so that we might have it when we wanted it, rather than waiting for him to transport it from an ice-bucket on the far side of the room whenever he had a minute left over from schmoozing up to that ridiculously over-praised presenter from Countdown, Richard Thingy.
It wasn't good enough. For a second I imagined that she might spring up the two steps separating us, sink her teeth into my neck and carry me off to the kitchen where I'd be duly eviscerated by a mob of vengeful waiters. But instead she chose the rapier. "I think, sir, that it's time for you to say goodnight."
I could think of only one way to counter her self- satisfaction. "As far as I'm concerned," I announced, "it's not goodnight but goodbye." But even as I swung round on my heels, I realised that the weight of the unopened new Fukuyama in my Tesco bag was acting like a discus and hurling me in an undignified motion towards the framed Michelin certificate on the wall.
She left me sitting there and returned to her desk, pausing on the way only to pick up the monogrammed ashtray which had tumbled from the carrier bag during my vertiginous fiasco.
"I liked that bit about the mass-circulation magazine," said Geoff, when all four of us finally tumbled into a taxi. "Which one did you have in mind?"
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