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26 February 2015

Rule one of the Breakfast Club: there’s no place more embarrassing to see someone you know

Does a breakfast taken in the first term of the Thatcher administration still count?

By Nicholas Lezard

And so to – well, how shall I describe the place where I am sitting? There are people with delicate sensibilities out there, some of whom write to me, more in sorrow than in anger, when I use a rude word in this column. I am not saying these people are unaware of or squeamish about the facts of life; in fact, I consider them the nation’s backbone, and probably the kind of people who can be relied on to make you a decent cup of tea when they offer you one.

So let us say … let us say I am at a place called the Breakfast Club.

The Breakfast Club is the place you go to when, for example, a lady says she might like to have breakfast with you, but wants assurances over and above your word that you have not, by reason of having had breakfast with another lady at any previous point in your life, contracted anything she might catch, thus marring or putting a dampener on her having breakfast with either you or anyone else in the future. I am referring, of course, to unprotected breakfast.

One’s word in this matter is not enough. There is a character in The Archers – so crooked, as the sublime Nancy Banks-Smith describes him, that he could hide behind a spiral staircase – who has been accused by his ex-wife of fathering her child; he refuses to “play her twisted game” by having a DNA test. His current partner may be deluded enough to believe him but it is only a matter of time before she learns the error of her ways.

So, it is with a squeaky-clean conscience that I turn up to the Breakfast Club. I know where I have had my breakfasts and exactly whom with for many years now. But there is still a stigma attached to such places, the faint echo of sniggers at postwar cartoons from the more risqué magazines. I look about myself. I’ve been having the feeling, very strongly, all day long, that I am going to run into someone I know. I put this down mainly to the fact that I’ve been bustling about London on an errand for myself all afternoon, and that even though there are ten million sinners in the city, you’re more likely to meet one of the few you know on the Tube or some other public place than in the bedroom of your Hovel, eating Frazzles.

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The waiting room is large and partitioned; but at one point a couple of us, sitting in one of the outlying regions, are asked to go back to the area just opposite the admissions and pre-check interview desks, “so we can see how many people are waiting”. Apparently a significant proportion of those who attend the Breakfast Club lose their nerve at some point and do a runner before they are called. Anyway, this move places me in an area in which seven or eight people are waiting in close proximity to each other; if you put a Monopoly board on the table in the middle we could all have a game together without anyone having to stretch.

Interestingly, although there are distinctly separate Male and Female waiting rooms once registration has been done, until then it would seem the NHS likes us all, men and women alike, to get chummy to begin with. All this while answering questions on a form that some might consider to be intrusive – but are, I concede, entirely relevant. Have I ever had anal breakfast? Golly. Have I ever had breakfast with a man? Well, at the university I was at, the only way you were going to have breakfast with a woman student was if you owned half of Devon or were already a woman, so . . . But does a breakfast taken in the first term of the Thatcher administration still count?

I try not to stare but, as Terence put it, Homo sum, humani nihil a me alienum puto; also, it would appear that the women here are more attractive than average. “Hello, lovely,” says the admin clerk to one exceptionally attractive woman, loud enough for all to hear, and proceeds to chat her up. The best place? Opposite me is an aged Muslim man. I can tell he is Muslim because of the headgear, the beard, and the fact that his phone’s ringtone is a chanted verse from the Quran. When he gets up, he walks with a gait strongly suggestive of intense genital chafing.

I also notice, with a certain amount of pleasure, that I am by no means the oldest man there. “You see?” I feel like saying. “There’s life in us old dogs yet. There are still women out there who . . .” and while I’m looking at the back of a new arrival’s head, he turns and sees me and, with a big smile on his face, advances towards me, his hand outstretched in familiar greeting. 

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