Saturday 24 October 2009

The real Fawlty Towers

14st 11lb, 7.0 units.

Trying to be Nice and Organized (at least one of which does not come at all naturally to me), I suggested to my 84-year-old aunt that it might be a good idea if she came across from Northumberland on the train for The Boy’s christening tomorrow, rather than driving the 213.7 miles herself. This seemed to make particularly good sense as I had to drive back anyway on Tuesday and would be able to give her a lift.

The first obvious snag was that we couldn’t actually put her up, as we are the proud possessors of a five bedroom house containing only one bed. (Well, three, to be pedantic, but one is only suitable for a cat and the other for a dog, not that he has ever consented to sleep in it).

No problem, she said. I’ll book myself into that nice hotel where I stayed for your wedding in February. Leave that to me, I replied, I’ll sort it out. So I went online and started filling out a form, then decided I might as well make the reservation over the phone as (a) I wasn’t actually booking a room for myself, and (b) I needed to speak to them anyway to organize dinner for five on the first evening of her stay.

I had a perfectly civil conversation with a woman who sounded very young, though probably of above primary school age, and who seemed to have grasped exactly what I was after. I was pleasantly surprised to note that the price she quoted me for three nights’ B&B was some £20 cheaper than the one offered on the hotel’s website, which was one in the eye for Martha Lane Fox’s theory that it costs a fortune not to have the benefit of internet access.

I began to wonder whether things might have gone ever so slightly wrong when I received a phone call on Tuesday evening, asking for a Mr F*** (not the usual F-word denoted by asterisks), who did not exist. I told the caller that they had got the wrong number, then reflected that their own number looked vaguely familiar, and that F*** was, after all, my aunt’s surname, so I rang back. It was the hotel “just ringing to confirm your dinner reservation for five people this evening”.

No, I pointed out, I had made that booking for Saturday.

Thinking ahead for once, I thought it would be wise to check that they had actually made my aunt’s room booking correctly. Yes, Mrs Barbara F*** was definitely booked in for three nights from Saturday. Which admittedly would have been more reassuring if my aunt were actually called Barbara, or even something vaguely like it.

The next elephant trap had nothing to do with the hotel, but was laid by whichever successor body to Cheshire County Council is responsible for repairing the roads. I allowed a full hour for what my sat nav assured me would be a 40-minute drive to Crewe station, and got within about five miles of my destination before I encountered a bleak yellow sign baldly announcing “A51 closed weekends”. This directed me on what I expected to be a short detour but which actually just about doubled the length of my journey and made me a full half hour late. Stupidly, I believed the yellow signs positioned at regular intervals saying “Follow Diversion Not Sat Nav”. Bastards. Being alone in the car, I felt obliged to stop to make an apologetic phone call to my aunt, thereby making myself even later and achieving precisely nothing as she proved to have her mobile phone switched off.

Have you ever driven to Crewe station? Don’t. It’s like taking part in a treasure hunt through one of the world’s most depressing urban landscapes, and you won’t want the prize when you finally get there. It reminded me of East Germany before the Wall fell, which is a bit puzzling given that I have never actually been to East Germany. Or any other part of Germany for that matter. My father tried to go there in 1944 on a boat trip paid for by the Government, and people kept shooting at him. He advised me not to bother.

Anyway, I finally managed to collect my aunt and, on the way back, I ignored the bloody signs and Followed Sat Nav Not Diversion, and it took no time at all. As you would expect.

After Auntie had inspected our house, mainly to satisfy herself that we really did not have any spare beds (luckily she did not look in the garage – only joking) I drove her to her hotel. I was feeling reasonably confident as we approached the reception desk, given that I had both made and confirmed the booking, and Auntie was clutching a typewritten letter of confirmation (which admittedly, on closer examination, managed to misspell every single word in her address, but at least bore the right dates).

We had to hang around for quite a while so that a harassed-looking receptionist of a certain age, who bore more than a passing resemblance to Sybil Fawlty, could laboriously explain to a merry, wine-drinking couple what their options were for obtaining a taxi to their party venue that evening and for returning to the hotel in the early hours. It was like the “Yes No Interlude” on Take Your Pick with Michael Miles (a popular television show from my childhood) except that the obvious words that she was forbidden from using on this occasion were not “Yes” and “No” but “You’ve no chance” and “You’re f***ed.”

Finally she turned to us, read Auntie’s letter, consulted the computer and … no, I’m sorry, we have no booking for you. None at all.

Subsequent prolonged investigation established that a Mrs F*** was indeed booked into the hotel for three nights, but from tomorrow.

On the plus side, they did have a booking for her dinner tonight.

And, perhaps even more importantly, they did have some rooms available, so she would not have to come back to our house and curl up in the dog’s basket. But actually booking her into one appeared to be a bureaucratic challenge that made cancelling a parking ticket look like a piece of piss.

The receptionist attempted to make us feel sorry for her by telling us that she had only got back from holiday in Egypt that morning and it had been one bloody thing after another all day because you cannot get the staff.

We didn’t actually care, but at least one of us was much too polite to say so. Instead we clucked sympathetically, and I somehow restrained myself from swearing as I explained for the third or fourth time that we did not want to book an EXTRA night, but to bring the whole booking forward one day to the arrival and departure dates originally agreed and confirmed by them in writing.

We stood there pretty stoically, all things considered, waiting for a registration form to be printed and presented to us. Eventually the receptionist conceded that it was beyond her and just handed over a key. Thinking of my blog rather than my aunt, I was rather disappointed when her allocated room proved to be clean, warm and comfortable. While always wishing the very best for her, it would have made a much more amusing story if I had been able to report a huge heap of manure in the middle of the floor and a dead farmyard animal in the bath.

Much the same story prevailed in the restaurant. It all started most promisingly. The bar was staffed by an old bloke who made Basil Fawlty look positively jolly, and was constantly muttering under his breath as he worked the beer pumps and optics. The young maitre d’ was clearly run off his feet. He handed me a wine list and I ordered a bottle of red wine which proved to be unobtainable, because he had given me completely the wrong list (though he assured me that this was technically impossible, as they had only ever had the one list. I was so glad I had consulted Mrs H about my choice and therefore had a reliable witness, otherwise I might have thought that it was me who was going round the twist.) The remainder of the bar and waiting staff had an average age of 12.

And yet … here is the surprising thing … dinner was absolutely, faultlessly delicious. All three courses of it.

Don’t you just hate in when you are trying to tell a funny story and some things turn out right?

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