Picture the scene: the other day, Marlborough, Wiltshire, UK.
A popular independent English country small town high street cafe, one which is playing by and to the rules of COVID safety in early September 2020. The sun is out, the air still, the temperature conducive to sitting outside and the spaced tables are at capacity.
It is, for want of a better term, a perfect morning for cafe-ing.
A couple of things are surely different though.
If you squint, you can almost ignore the fact that the chipper team are all disguised by face masks. Conversely, you can choose to notice the braided burgundy VIP rope across the doorway giving an air of order, nay exclusivity: we have been permitted, chosen to enter. We are the privileged.
That’s when it all unravels of course…
(Not the rope. That is deluxe kit; suitably sturdy, with handsome chrome clasps attaching it with reassuring certainty to the door frame.)
The crack hospitality team plan, arrange, communicate, disinfect, nudge (socially distantly, obvs), suggest and guide. This is a well run gig. No, it’s not that. It’s more that you simply can’t get clientele like in the good old days. People start breaking ranks: joining friends on tables, sitting in different-to-allocated seats, cordially swapping tables with others to accommodate swelling and shrinking parties. Of course, the staff respond in the only way they can: by quietly letting everyone get on with it.
Intervention level = zero.
In the midst of this sub-chaotic-micro-non-bedlam the (cooler than a igloo housed cucumber) gaffer merely rolls her eyes aloud and calmly, resignedly observes proceedings with the merest hint of a sigh: “I can’t work under these conditions…”
Worse, there is a queue outside. There is demand for “new” tables. This, dear reader, is a recipe for drama! Our party arrives in dribs and drabs, letting themselves in through the VIP cordon. Quelle horreur: In full view of the queue. (Side detail: Ignoring the sign clearly stating “Please wait to be seated.”) Rebellion! This leads to the most British of moments. From my seat – nerves jangling, tension palpable, pulse quickening – I can see angry emotion in the eyes of masked upper-middle-class-quasi-patient-would-be-coffee-drinkers. Indeed, is there anything more affronting to the English than a breakdown in queue etiquette?
(I imagine that when said folks got home later that day, they would have shared with their family (plus assembled staff of nannies, gardeners and sundry) an epic tale of this egregious wrongdoing with the solemn Anglicism of all-but-ultimate outrage: “Do you know what Quentin? I nearly said something.”)
Of course nobody said something. The team dealt with our party in their usual light touch, fab service, great food, splendid coffee, good humoured way. We paid. We left. No one hurt.
I feared the above scene might have turned to a crimson lake of spilled blood but for a miraculously available table. Timely doesn’t cover it. We will never know how close we came to violence that day. I for one salute the brave staff serving coffee while running the gauntlet of permanent queue trashing, violence triggering threat. It truly is a jungle in Marlborough.
I even went back again today and then again the following day.