Despite the cynicism and world-weariness which hangs over this blog like a sea mist, I am in fact a romantic and chipper chap. And unlike sitcom husbands and the men in advertland, I actually remember things like birthdays, anniversaries and other occasions, and try to treat m’laydee whenever I can.
So please remember this when I tell you about our night out on Saturday, though do bear in mind the title of this post, and my little warning right here and now that this story probably isn’t going to go the way you expect; the night certainly took a turn I hadn’t anticipated, I have to say.
Anyway, the tale. Both Mrs Soanes and I are, for a number of reasons, admirers of Oscar Wilde, and so I booked us to stay at the Cadogan Hotel. Oscar Wilde used to stay in this hotel, and indeed it was in room 118 that he was arrested, as rendered into poetry by Sir John Betjeman. The picture accompanying this post is of the door of Room 118 in the Cadogan, a snap taken by Mrs Soanes (embiggen it to see Oscar’s almost-hidden face). After booking into the hotel, we would make our way to Kettners Restaurant, where Wilde and his chums used to dine. Well, that was the plan, anyway.
We checked into the (very swish) hotel as planned, and changed clothes before hailing a cab and heading off into London’s glittering West End. As the night drew in and the neon of the city shone all around, I suddenly realised that there was a dead patch in my vision, a sure sign that I was getting a migraine headache. I hoped it wasn’t the case, but it was all too clear that I was on the road to partial blindness, nausea and all the fun that a migraine has to offer, and so I said as much to Mrs Soanes, who’s as tolerant of my infirmities as she is of my personality defects, and we had the cab driver turn around and take us back to the hotel.
Once a migraine strikes, the best thing for me to do is to lie in the dark until the shimmering-metallic-vision-distortion passes, and thankfully it did so relatively quickly, leaving me feeling a bit bruised but still game for dinner (in fact, as usual after a migraine, I was ravenous once the worst had passed). My lovely spouse was, of course, still owed a dinner, so we went to Langtry’s restaurant – next door to the Cadogan, and named after Lillie Langtry, who used to live at that address (and a friend of Oscar Wilde, to boot).
They were kind enough to fit us in with mere minutes’ notice, and after we’d sat down and ordered some drinks, another couple was led to the table next to ours.
“Can I sit in this chair?” said the woman to her companion.
“No,” he said brusquely. “I want to sit there.”
And so she sat in the other chair, and looked unhappy about it for a few minutes before saying as much. This, though, was not the bad dinner date of which I wish to speak (after, granted, much build-up). This couple asked to be moved, and they were taken to another table. In a way, their rather odd interaction turned out to be the warm-up act for a couple who took their seats at the table, and as time went on, appeared to be the exact opposite of what a date should be.
I’m not going to describe them physically, save to say that he was a fair chunk of years older than his date, which rather uncharitably led me to wonder if there was… let’s call it ‘a transactional element’ to them spending time together. I don’t know if they hadn’t met before, barely knew each other from work or similar, or perhaps had never communicated except via IM or e-mail, but frankly they really didn’t seem to be suited to spending any time together, let alone a Valentine’s Day dinner.
As this post (and so many others) makes tediously obvious, finding words is not really a challenge for me, and the same can honestly be said for my lovely wife, whose articulacy and readiness with a quip or bon mot is never in doubt. I appreciate that not everyone necessarily feels able to just talk and talk (and, yes, talk) the same way as us, but the behaviour at the table next to ours seemed to stem less from a sense of awkwardness and unfamiliarity, and more from … well, frankly, borderline contempt. The highlights of the evening’s hostilities included:
– He started to twiddle the stem of his wine glass between thumb and index finger, making the base of the glass rotate on the table.
She (sharply): What are you doing?
He (stopping): Nothing.
– She sat back with her arms crossed, staring through the table. He resorted to reading the label on the bottle of mineral water.
– She asked if, instead of the dessert wine which was served as part of the set menu, she could have a glass of champagne. The waiter said yes, and went to get the champagne.
“That’s not part of the set menu,” said her date.
“But I don’t like the dessert wine,” she replied.
“I’ll have to pay extra!” he said, and then sat – I kid you not – with his head in his hands for a couple of minutes.
– An awkward discussion as to whether the set menu price would include the optional 12.5% service charge. Swiftly followed by a brief chat about which credit cards the restaurant accepted. He hoped that they accepted American Express, but was worried that they might not.
– The waiter asked if she’d prefer red or white wine.
“White – I don’t drink red wine!” she replied, with more assertiveness than strictly necessary.
This was, in all honesty, one of a number of examples of both of them making the waiter and manager feel as if the food or service was substandard (it wasn’t).
– Silences. Yawning crevasses of silence, during which time they stared at the walls, curtains, crockery and cutlery.
As we left, I made a point of thanking the waiter for being so accommodating (not only had they taken us in at short notice, they’d provided tasty veggie options for me), slightly louder than necessary, because whilst there’s definitely such a thing as bad service, it’s also possible to be a difficult customer, and these two were certainly doing this – to my mind, they were redirecting their hostility and awkwardness towards the staff, and without any justification. The saying goes ‘if the person you’re with is nice to you, but rude to the staff, chances are they’re not a nice person’, and that applied to this couple, I fear.
For the record, my delightful companion and I chatted quite cheerfully during the course of our meal, and the food was very good – I wouldn’t want you to think that we also sat in silence, watching and listening to our neighbours’ every move; we didn’t, but it was faintly off-putting to be so close to what looked like a very bad night out. ‘There but for the grace…’ and all that.
We left before they received their bill, so I don’t know how much fun that involved – I have a horrible suspicion there may have been some objections about items which they’d been charged for and a possible hooh-hah about the method of payment – but as we went, I realised how insanely lucky I am; not just to be married to a remarkable woman, but also, on a simple level, to generally not find myself in social situations where I genuinely feel I have nothing to say.
I’ve never classed myself as some kind of smooth-talkin’ Casanova, but the one simple rule I’ve always clung to when conversation appeared to be on the brink of dying is this: ask open questions. What did you do today? What do you do for a living? Do you like it? Do you get on with your family? How long have you lived in [wherever]? Do you like it? Why [not]? Did you like school? Have you travelled much? And so on.
It’s not that people – as the cynics aver – are always hyperkeen to talk about themselves, but it’s a subject they know about, and in their answers you not only tend to find more possible questions and conversation topics, but also possible points of connection between you. And if it’s a date, and at the end of it either or both of you decide that it’s the end of it, well, at least you had a chat.
Unlike the couple I observed on Saturday night – granted, for all I know, they might have gone to a hotel room and made sweet love until dawn. Which is fine, but they’re probably better off sticking to the sweet lovin’ instead of dining at restaurants. One should, after all, always play to one’s strengths.
In conclusion, surely conversation should be a two-way thing: to paraphrase the immortal words of the sadly-all-too-mortal Mr Wilde, “the only thing worse than not being talked to is not being listened to”.