The system I was designing kept refusing to work as it was supposed to. Every day brought new problems, and I seemed to be going slowly backwards. Then the taxman started writing letters, and a key supplier let me down, and someone scratched my car. I needed a break. I had to get away, to travel to some exotic far-off foreign land, to a place where the food was good and nobody spoke English. But I could only spare a few days, so my wife and I went to Wales.
* * *
"There's no bedside light," reported my wife. I went into the bedroom to see for myself. She was right, of course, and a quick search revealed that there was no power point in the room either. Oh, well. It was a holiday cottage, after all, and we would only be there a couple of days. We've learned to expect the odd minor inconvenience in a place like this.
"We can read in the living room before we go to bed," I offered.
"It's not the same, though. I like to read in bed until I feel sleepy."
I already knew that. I sighed. "Okay, first thing in the morning we'll sort it out. Meantime, I'm hungry. Let's go and find a restaurant."
A few minutes'walk brought us to a likely place, and we decided to give it a try. It was about half-full, quiet, pleasantly decorated and with a splendid view across the estuary. We scanned the menu and then sat back as the young waiter recited the day's specials.
"We've got chilli? Or haddock and chips? Or lamb hotpot?"
"Oh, the hotpot, definitely, for me, and could you please bring the wine list."
"No problem!" he beamed and scurried off to find it. Looking around, I saw at least one table with a wine bottle on it, though most people seemed content with beer or soft drinks. He re-appeared beside me and presented the list with a flourish. I began to read it, and he said, hovering too close, "You like a drop of wine, then, do you?"
My eyelid started to twitch. My wife noticed and said hastily "I'll have the hotpot, too. Is it made with Welsh lamb?"
Good. A nice claret, maybe? Or something with a bit more body?
"Oh, yes, m'dear. D'you prefer red or white wine?" he asked, still hovering. The light glinted on the single gold ear-ring he wore.
"Give me a minute, would you?" I said patiently. "Perhaps you could order the food, whilst we decide on the wine."
"Oh, no problem!" and away he went.
The wine list ran to three or four pages and included bottles I hadn't expected to find in a little place miles from anywhere. The prices weren't outrageous, either. In the end we chose a New Zealand claret I'd wanted to try for some time. It arrived, opened - at the bar, no doubt - and turned out to be as good as I'd hoped. We sipped happily and eavesdropped on other peoples' conversation, always an entertaining pastime in restaurants. The family at the next table had spent the day in Swansea and hadn't thought much of it. The young waiter, clearing their plates, suggested they might try Carmarthen. "It's got a Precinct, now!" he promised, as though life could hold no higher joy.
The hotpot was truly delicious, with perhaps just a touch too much mint. The wine was delicious. We were on holiday!
The next morning was gloomy and showery. We set off for Carmarthen, to see what it offered (besides the Precinct). There was a pub, where we sheltered from a particularly heavy shower and drank good beer and ate enormous sandwiches. There were several charity shops, where despite a diligent search we found absolutely nothing we wanted. There was a Tesco's. Eventually we found a hardware superstore - B&Q, or DoItAll, or one of those - and wandered in to see if we could solve the Bedside Light Problem.
I was in a minimalist mood. My plan was to buy a lightbulb, some two-core cable, a plug, and some Blu-Tack. Screw the plug to the cable, solder the bulb to the other end, and use the Blu-Tack to stick the bulb to the bedside table whilst simultaneously insulating the bare contacts. Bob's your uncle.
My wife frowned. "You haven't got a soldering iron with you," she pointed out.
Damn. I always forget to pack something. "And we'll need a switch. And don't forget it'll have to be plugged into a socket in another room, so we'll need several metres of cable. And I don't like the idea of using Blu-Tack. Suppose it falls off in the night, and the bulb explodes? There'd be broken glass all over the floor, and no light to see where it was!"
She was right, of course, as she usually was. This needed further thought.
"Okay then, Plan B!" I announced grandly.
"We'll buy a socket - with a switch - and attach it to an empty wine bottle. With insulating tape. That'll do the trick."
My wife wasn't convinced. "The socket might not fit the bottle. And insulating tape isn't very secure either, is it? Anyway, the bottle might fall over."
I took a deep martyred breath. I bet Edison's wife hadn't constantly objected to his ideas. Come to think, though, if she had done, we wouldn't have been worrying about light bulbs because they wouldn't have been invented.
Still, they had been, and what should we do?
"What should we do?" I asked meekly.
"We could buy a bedside light and extend its cable," she suggested.
"But we don't need any more bedside lights for the house!"
"But we could put it in the living room."
Hmm. "Okay, let's do that."
So we browsed amongst the lamps and found one that we liked, and found some cable that would do. At the checkout the pimply youth didn't stop chatting to his friend until he'd rung up the total, then said indifferently "That'll be thirty four pounds eighty two pee."
"No it won't," I said, sighing. I picked up the printout he'd dropped on the counter. "Let's try and get it right!"
He looked startled and picked up the printout. "Oh, no, sorry, the sack of fertiliser wasn't yours, was it."
We agreed that no, it wasn't, and yes, he was sorry. Sir.
We drove back to the cottage. I spliced in the new cable. We had a bedside light.
We hadn't intended to go back to the same restaurant - we usually like to try a different place every night when we're on holiday - but we'd enjoyed the hotpot and the wine, and the view, and it was within walking distance, and there was a fine rain starting, and besides, we were tired and hungry. Well, I was.
"How you doing tonight, m'dear?" said the young waiter when he saw my wife. "All right, are you? Good. Just you sit anywhere you like, now."
This time we had to ask not only for the wine list but also for wine glasses. Never mind, the roast beef was really tender and a modestly priced claret went well with it. Cheesecake, and coffee, and a quiet stroll home for a good read in bed.
As we walked into the restaurant on the third night the waiters greeted us like old friends. Perhaps they were just pleased to see us, or perhaps the large tip I'd left the night before had something to do with it. The Welsh weather this week had been sullen and changeable. Heavy cloud threatened more rain tonight, so we'd opted again for the restaurant just a few minutes' stroll away. The food had been good, and the view across the estuary from the big windows in the dining room really was spectacular.
We sat, and the younger waiter approached us eagerly, carrying menus and the wine list.
"You see, I remembered you like a drink of wine!" he said, smiling confidently. "Sir," he added. I looked at him properly. He was about seventeen, clean white shirt, embroidered waistcoat, one ear-ring. I'd asked the manager last night to have a quiet word with the lad and tell him to stop patronising the customers. 'How you doing tonight m'dear?' didn't really fit the image the place was trying to project. The manager had leaned forward confidentially and said, "Ah, well, see, you should meet his dad. He's a rich man, his dad, owns prop-erties all over. Between ourselves, he's a bit of a ..., well, the boy doesn't need to work, see. Sort of a hob-by for him, this!"
So we smiled back politely and asked him to tell us about the specials.
"Tonight we have Chicken Chasseur, that's chicken, cooked with ..."
"We know what it is, thanks," I interrupted, still smiling to show I meant no offence. "What else?"
"Well, there's Chilli Con Carne."
Chilli again. The chef must have made a mountain of it. Should we eat our share? No, not tonight. Tomorrow we head for home.
"Plus we have Beef Bourgnon." He beamed at us. We looked at each other. Boeuf Bourgignon sounded good on a cold evening. We nodded.
"Two Beef Bourgnon then?"
"Yes, please, and we'll have a bottle of the Montana Cabernet Sauvignon."
"No problem!" He always said No problem when he meant Yes sir, and it was beginning to irritate me. He scribbled on his pad, beamed again and hurried away.
We looked around the room. The articulate family with the two young daughters was at the next table, and a young couple with a baby were talking to the other waiter. The place was about half-full again.
We looked out across the bay. The storm that had kept us awake last night had blown some of the yachts a long way from where they'd been anchored, but nothing seemed badly damaged.
We talked about our day. Walking round a disused tin-plating works in unrelenting drizzle may not be everyone's idea of a good time, but we'd enjoyed it immensely. We speculated on why South Wales had been the centre of the tinplate industry in the nineteenth century. Maybe it was to do with ironstone always being found near coal? But tin comes from Cornwall, doesn't it?
The wine arrived, opened, along with two wine glasses.
"Now, who's the connoissewer?" smiled the lad. "Who's going to taste it?"
"Just put it down there please," I said. "If there's a problem we'll let you know."
"No problem!" he said automatically.
We sipped the wine. It was really quite good, and I thought it would go well with our beef stew. I was hungry now. If there had been bread on the table, I'd have nibbled it. But if we'd wanted bread on the table - and wineglasses - we should have driven twenty miles to the nearest big town. Or gone to France.
We were happily reminiscing about some of the wonderful meals we'd had in France when the lad returned with a plate in each hand. He put them carefully in front of us, told us to enjoy it, beamed again, and left.
We looked doubtfully at the food, and then at each other. Half the plate was covered in fluffy white rice. Next to that was a small pile of peas. And in the remaining space lay a small mound of grey sauce in which could be seen lumps of meat and the occasional slice of mushroom. Grey sauce? I looked around for the lad, but he'd vanished.
So we shrugged, and tried a mouthful. It was - all right. Boring and grey, but edible.
I poked the grey goo with a fork. I said hesitantly, "Shouldn't Boeuf Bourgignon have ... onions in it?"
My wife nodded. "And beef stock. And bacon. And no cream."
We added salt and ate some more. The rice was perfectly cooked.
"I don't remember eating it with rice before," I said. Then it dawned on us why the food in front of us didn't look or taste remotely like Boeuf Bourgignon.
This time I half rose and stared around for the lad, ready to demand an explanation. There was no waiter in the room, just people enjoying their dinners. I was angry, and baffled. Why had he brought us the wrong meals? Was another couple waiting patiently for these plates? But we'd started eating them now, so he couldn't just apologise and transfer them to another table. Besides, I was hungry, so I sat down again and we ate what was on our plates like good little tourists.
When we'd finished, the other waiter appeared to clear our plates.
"Did you enjoy that?" he asked, grinning broadly.
"Well - it wasn't quite what we'd ordered, was it? We ordered Boeuf Bourgignon, and we got ..."
Nodding gleefully he said, "Beef Stroganoff! Yes, I know! Made a mistake, didn't he?"
"Where is the lad?" I asked tightly.
"Oh, he's just gone to fetch some drinks from the bar."
"Well when he comes back ..." and at that point he hurried past our table with a full glass in each hand. He didn't meet my eyes.
"Just a minute!" I snapped.
He stopped. "Yes sir?" Oh, now I get a Sir.
"Get rid of those drinks and then come back here! You're due for a bollocking!"
"No problem," he murmured, and scurried away. The other waiter, still grinning, hung around to listen.
The lad was back. "Now then sir, what's the problem?"
"The problem," I said, raising my voice, "the problem is that you brought us the wrong bloody dinners! Didn't you? We ordered the Bourgignon and you brought us Stroganoff! Why did you do that?"
"Oh, I'm sure I wrote it down properly."
"But you didn't bring us what we ORDERED! Did you?"
"Reelly sorry sir," unhappy now, eyes downcast, "I'm sure I wrote the Bourgnon, the kitchen must have made a mistake."
"The KITCHEN? What, you're telling me now the CHEF doesn't know the difference? Anyway, I don't care who made the mistake, it's NOT GOOD ENOUGH! IS IT?"
By now the room was silent, as everyone concentrated on their food and pretended not to listen. Drama like this didn't happen every night. It was better than Eastenders.
He was standing motionless. His face looked like a smacked bottom. "Reelly sorry sir."
"I expect better from a restaurant like this. At the very least I expect to get what I've ORDERED!"
"Yes sir reelly reelly sorry." His fingers were twitching.
He looked as though he wanted to cry.
"Well, what are you going to DO about it?"
"Reelly reelly sorry about this sir," he mumbled. "I won't charge for the wine."
I sighed. "Okay. Fair enough. Okay. You're forgiven. What's for pudding?"
He let out his breath and relaxed. The smile appeared again.
"Apple pie, blackcurrant cheesecake ... no problem."
As we walked slowly arm in arm back along the lane to the cottage my wife said absently, "I wonder how they get the rice quite so fluffy."