Oh god, I hope they don’t see me! I’d seen two men, not even acquaintances – I’d only ever spoken to them once before in The Beefeater Bar in Cascais,
push their way through the glass doors and look around the crowded room for a table, spot me and thread their way towards my table. Reluctantly I closed my book and assumed a welcoming expression (just my luck, I thought).
They were an ill-assorted couple. The elder man, who did most of the talking, was a thick-set Irishman, a Dubliner, with a rich accent and a fluent confident delivery. He was accompanied by a young pasty-faced apprentice, sweating in a hopelessly unsuitable suit – thick, dark, cheap and English. His slack defeated posture seemed to be saying to his boss, look I know that I’m not really cut out for this job and I already regret leaving Stoke Newington.
They started dithering their way through the menu, laboriously trying to decipher the unfamiliar terminology of Portuguese cuisine (oh for God’s sake, I thought, get a grip; it’s only a cheap little taska):
– You’ll notice that the Portuguese for turkey is peru …
I remarked, just to keep the conversation going while they continued to worry what this word meant or what that dish was in English,
… whereas in French turkey is dindon – des Indes; I wonder what it’s called in Turkey? As a matter of fact I suppose the animal is indigenous to the American continent …
– I guess you Brits have got yourselves into a bit of trouble down there in the South Atlantic.
(It was the time of the Falklands crisis; he spoke with the Irish relish for the discomfort of its larger neighbour).
– Yes it’s a bit of a mess, isn’t it? Talk about gunboat diplomacy, it’s positively 19th century; of course it’s all about Mrs. Thatcher winning the next election; there’s nothing like a war with a weaker enemy to bring out the worst in the voting public … as Dr. Samuel Johnson put it Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel etc. etc.
– Listen to this fellow, Mike, he’s making some interesting points, he instructed his side-kick (as though this was a continuation of some kind of training-course).
– Anyway, I said to change the subject, what brings you down here?
– Well, Tom, we represent a Dublin-based International Express Delivery Company; we’re looking to expand our markets in southern Europe …
At this point my attention drifted away as a tidal wave of business-speak washed over us. I felt sympathy for Mike, as he wretchedly poked around in his rabbit stew searching for the edible bits.
After the meal, as they got up to leave, the older man tapped the cover of my book The History of the World significantly, what do you think of this by the way? I’m quite enjoying it actually, I replied, why, have you read it?
– No, but I’ve seen the movie.
(This enigmatic answer still plagues me now almost thirty years later; what on earth could he have meant, I wonder).