An unsatisfactory meal in County Antrim
Relishing the luxuries of business executive travel
Stob I say, "I could try ringing again."
R, my boss, wipes the raindrops off his specs to look at me impatiently, and starts jabbing at his mobile phone. I sit down on our pile of laptops and computer gear.
The Warm Welcome Hotel and Guest House, Ballylolly (seven bedrooms, three diamonds, three stars, and a lucky clover) is located in that part of Northern Ireland where the rival factions have finally overcome their differences and the miserable burden of history, and triumphantly united in the brotherhood of Christianity.
From its position at the corner of Maimdawkins Street and Devilution Drive, the hotel's Victorian edifice frowns angrily through the perpetual drizzle, as though hoping to scare away those who would challenge its sovereignty of nearby street-parking. As a further defence, a complicated (and presumably illegal) sprawl of traffic cones, pieces of wood, string and homemade notices guards a stretch of nearby road from non-guest tyre tread.
Early this morning R and I flew across from England, bringing the blessings of GE Fanuc PLC automation to all humankind. Now we are retiring after our long day's software installation to this, our hotel, which has been chosen, booked, and is to be paid for by our customer.
Except that we are locked out. A notice, the most prominent of about eight fixed around the front door and porch, suggests ringing the lower left doorbell and pushing open the door when a buzzing sound is heard.
The first part of this advice, which is needless to say accompanied by a loud no ringing from within, we easily accomplished 12 minutes ago, again nine minutes ago, and a third time, after the traditional "You can't have pushed it properly"/"Well you bloody well try it then" exchange, just six minutes ago.
The second part, the buzzing and the pushing open of the door, is still eluding us, and we are rapidly becoming fractious and damp.
Suddenly the door opens and we see a man, the proprietor, mid-forties with a florid complexion, standing in the corridor. There is something of Ardal O'Hanlon's portrayal of Father Dougal about him.
The proprietor says, "What are you standing there for? Why did you not ring? You should have rung and I would have come at once. If you had rung, I would have been with you in a jiffy. Still, you would have only been stood there a minute, even though you didn't ring. You could not have been stood there more than a minute because I just had to go upstairs for a minute to attend to something, and then I came downstairs and saw you there."
He says, "Come in, come in. Are you the people from [our customer's company]. Are yes, I thought you would be, because they rang and told me to expect you, and I can see that you aren't with Blimey O'Reilly's All Ireland Fun Tour. They always like to park up the minibus behind the cones, and I can see as it isn't parked up behind the cones. But you're not Swedish, are you? I can tell that you are not Swedish. We get a lot of Swedes through here."
He says, "Could you just pop down your details on these forms for me? There you are, I just need you to fill in these little fellows for the old computer, yes I'm afraid we are all computerised here, it is all go these days. Are you in that line yourselves, then? I thought so. Jim's son, over in Belfast, he's in that line of business too. He doesn't like it."
R begins to say, "I don't know that...."
But the proprietor says, "That's all right; it is in my nature to be friendly. You are a quiet pair, you two, aren't you? All done? That's grand. So here are your keys, here is your key for number 5 and here is your key Miss Stobe for lucky number 7, aren't you the lucky one? And you are to understand that I will ask you never to take these keys out of this building, which is why I have made these fobs myself out of aluminium and stamped the room numbers on them – see? – so that you won't be forgetting and putting them in your pocket, because they won't go into your pocket."
He says, "And when you want to go out, just put your keys through this slot in the desk here – see? – like so and they drop down. See? Like so. And they drop down. And that way your keys will be safe and sound and ready for you when you get back."
He says, "And when you get back and want to come back in through the front door, you'll find it locked because we always keep it locked, day and night, and we never give out the front door key to guests. So any time that you want to come in then you are just to ring the bell, and I will be with you in a twinkle."
He says, "And when you go out, I'll ask you to take the corner of your registration form with you, folded up like so, and then you can show it to whoever is at the desk, which may or may not be me, and then they will give you your key. Because if it isn't me, it could be the girl, and of course the girl won't know you from Adam."
He says, "You are both very quiet there."
R begins to say, "We're tired. We got up at four to catch the pl...'
But the proprietor says, "Ah well, just like me, I was up at six o'clock this morning myself. And never to my bed before eleven last night. It's all go here, all the time. Don't go into the catering business if you like your beauty sleep, that's my advice to you. You have to be prepared to be up at all hours, in the catering business."
He says, "And that reminds me, what time will you be wanting your breakfast tomorrow morning?"
R begins to say, "W..."
But the proprietor says, "That's good that you don't mind. Sometimes people do mind when I tell them. And I can do it earlier, if you need it earlier. I am 110% able to do it earlier if you need it, but normally here we only serve breakfast from eight o'clock. Yes, eight o'clock in the morning, the breakfast room is through the lounge to your right, only it will be unlocked. You'll see your table with your names upon it, and that is how you will know where to sit. And of course you are having dinner with us. What time are you wanting dinner?"
R begins to say, "..."
But the proprietor says, "Dinner is served from six to seven-thirty, but it would be better if you had it by seven, for I have things to be doing later on. Dinner is served through the lounge to your right, and I will be there to unlock the doors and show you where to sit. Now I will show you to your rooms."
We are sitting in the dining room, picking at our main course, the third of a total of five threatened. The main door, unlocked to admit us, is now relocked ('I think I'll just turn this key. You wouldn't want to be disturbed now.') We are talking furtively: we have discovered that the proprietor tends to appear with the suddeness of an A/V in the first public demo of tested code.
I have ordered the steak and chips, and have been brought a huge piece of indeterminate brown meat, covered in two millimetres of congealed brown fluid. A patch of soggy broccoli has been boil-tortured to the point of cellular collapse. There are no chips.
R has ordered the other option, the roast chicken and ham with chips. This is also served in a generous portion, the processed ham cut or extruded into that uniform texture that makes it so convenient to sandwich makers. He has no chips.
I say, "The clock radio in my room only works if you spit on your fingers and press the end of the wire aerial to the metal bedstead. It receives Radio Foyle."
R says, "The clock radio in my room doesn't work at all, not even hiss. Something large is loose inside. When I picked it up, it rattled like a charity tin with a counterfeit £2 coin in it."
I say, "The kettle in my room, which is permanently wired into the wall, takes 17 minutes to boil 150ml of water. It would have been longer, but I warmed it up first on my laptop."
R says, "The hair dryer in my room, which is also permanently wired to the wall, is attached by a short flex that runs through a hole in back of the drawer where it is kept. This flex is so short that, if you want to dry your hair, you must put your head in the mouth of the drawer."
This competition, which I seem to be losing, is aborted by the entry of the proprietor carrying the missing chips in a large bowl.
He says, "I'm sorry about that, I clean forgot to plug in the fryer. There you go. Will you not have a few more? There you go. I'll leave the bowl on the table for you, in case you change your mind. It's time we got you used to the old Irish generosity. The miracle feeding of the five thousand, that's what I always say."
The chips are cut to the approximate size, shape and colour of Stabilo Boss orange highlighter pens and have a slight smell of sour grease. Heated with the fat (the better to absorb more of it), the potato substance has attained a burn-the-skin-off-the-roof-of-your-mouth temperature, yet – here is the real miracle – remains entirely raw.
"Surely," – as I stare at the huge mound of inedible food on my plate, I discover that my voice, unlike R's radio, works – "surely the point of the feeding of the five thousand was that a large crowd of people were satisfied with a small amount of food?"
The proprietor says, "You got me there. We do love our food here, I admit it. I'm a gourmet myself. That's why I insist on having five courses. We just have to share the enjoyment. And I betcha you will be surprised by my puddings."
A slight, involuntary noise from R's throat I take to be assent to this prediction.
We quit the meal, one whole course short of the official finishing line and abandoning about two pints of semi-melted vanilla ice cream, pre-laced with gluey strawberry sauce (out of a tube) and served in tall glasses too narrow to admit our dessert spoons, and go in search of a pub.
Returning 35 minutes later, we are (of course) back where we started: trapped outside in the porch. Except now it is nine o'clock at night and the drizzle has turned into proper rain.
The minibus driver for Blimey O'Reilly's All Ireland Fun Tour, an amiable Kiwi lady, has also made the mistake of leaving the building. Shared adversity is an excellent single parent for rapid friendship. We make room for her in the porch partially out of the wet, and give her a turn at ringing the non-ringing bell, and are soon chatting.
She says, "It's a week's tour. We start in Dublin, then we come here, then we go on to Belfast, and then we come back here again."
She pauses, a look of puzzlement appearing on her brow.
She says, "Actually, I don't know why we do that."
Then she says, "He really is something of a Fawlty, isn't he?"
From behind the locked door, a familiar voice can be heard approaching. It is saying: "I'll ask them if it was the meat. I tell you, I'm sure it was the meat."
R says, "It's all right for you, Verity. You can just write it all up."
And I say: "Aren't I the lucky one?" ®