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12 July 2016

I’ve learned the hard way: there’s no margin of error on the school run

I was hungry. I didn’t have to pick up my son for over an hour. What could possibly go wrong?

By Mark Watson

I had an hour and a half between a meeting in Soho and an appointment to pick up my son from school in north London. There was no margin for error, because if you are even a minute late for the pick-up you incur the silent judgement of the teacher and the I-thought-you-loved-me silence of the child. (When it comes to dropping off at school, discipline is even tighter: you have to fill out a form giving a reason for lateness. In the past, I’ve written INCOMPETENCE and UNCONTROLLABLE CHILD.)

Still, surely, I was capable of eating lunch at a restaurant. I can even remember it entering my head: “I can’t see this going wrong, no way.”

The Italian place was busy; service was a bit slow from the outset; then the waiter brought the wrong thing and I was forced to send it back. By the time I’d finished eating, things were tighter than I’d have liked. Even so, the odds still looked good – until I came to pay the bill.

My card was rejected. Maybe it was a problem with the machine, the waiter said politely. We tried again: the same result. I went round the corner to a bank machine, leaving my bag as collateral, and waited for the reassuring grind as money was spat out. But no. YOUR REQUEST CANNOT BE CARRIED OUT.

Now, suddenly, things were serious. I had no other card, and only – found after a prolonged search of my pockets – £11.50 in cash, £7 short of what I’d “spent”. Could I claim that the service had been so bad I was leaving a minus tip?

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Shamefacedly I trudged back and explained to the waiter that I had no way of paying the bill and that I had to be somewhere else very soon. I’ve never looked, or felt, more like a scammer. The waiter pointed out that he couldn’t just turn a blind eye; he’d be in trouble when it showed up on the records. We were at an impasse.

The clock was ticking; my child’s disappointed expression swam through my brain. Was I going to have to face the impossible: trying to borrow £7 from a complete stranger?

The waiter called the manager and I explained the sorry situation. The manager weighed it up. “OK,” he said, “I’m going to have to trust you. Next time you’re around here, come in and give us the rest.” I thanked him effusively. I wouldn’t let him down. I was grateful for the trust he’d shown. I was so hyped up that I nearly called a press conference.

And did I go back to settle up at the first opportunity? No, because this was several weeks ago, and it has only just occurred to me this morning – in a terrible flash of realisation – that I forgot almost the moment I was home. They’ll have long since concluded that I was a chancer after all, and that they shouldn’t trust the next person who claims to be in a desperate situation.

But now that I’ve written this, I’m going straight back to Soho to pay what will be an extremely awkward visit. And next time I’m late on the school run, I’m going to write “STILL TROUBLED BY GUILT AT NEGLECTED RESTAURANT PAYMENT” on the little form. 

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This article appears in the 06 Jul 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit bunglers