Swaddled in thick coats and blankets, the birthday party were shivering around a table strewn with dead bottles, half-empty glasses and plates scarred with the frozen remains of their lunch. By the time the cake arrived, two of the candles had already given up the fight and the others looked as if they were sputtering out their last.
“30 again,” the birthday girl said, and everybody laughed – and all of us on the other tables sang Happy Birthday and clapped while the French restaurant staff looked on in silent disdain.
Her daughter, who will not see 30 again either, was keen to move on because she had booked a three-hour slot outside a pub around the corner for the next stage of the celebrations. But the others were in no hurry and the birthday girl was feeling philosophical.
“Say what you like about the lockdown . . .” she said. I interrupted her to say that if she was going to say anything complimentary about the lockdown or tell us about lessons learned, I wanted to take back my Happy Birthday.
“The French eat outside all the time, and the Spanish. And now we’re doing it. Why didn’t we do it before?” she said.
I could think of at least 20 reasons, starting with my icy extremities. But they were not enough keep us away from windy terraces and wobbly tables set up in parking spaces – literally in the gutter – when outdoor hospitality reopened in England this week.
Table for two
The restaurant the birthday party chose has some of the rudest waiters in London, one of whom told me that a table of two on Tuesday asked him to be even ruder. “If you’re not horrible to us, we won’t feel we’ve really been to a French restaurant,” they told him.
Some of the streets in Soho are closed to traffic from 5pm every evening to allow for more tables, and a busy evening there on Monday provoked the usual outrage about young people enjoying themselves. Elsewhere in London, most restaurants will remain closed until May 17th, when indoor hospitality reopens.
Even then, it is not clear how many tables they will be allowed to serve because the government has yet to publish its social distancing review, which will decide how far we must remain apart indoors. This review is linked to another on vaccine passports, which could allow those who are vaccinated or have had coronavirus to enter bars and clubs where no social distancing is allowed.
A friend half my age surprised me the other day by saying she thought nobody should be able to use vaccine passports to go to clubs to travel abroad until everyone in the country had been offered a vaccination. I asked her what skin it was off her nose.
Decadent old bunch
“It’s a lot of skin off my nose. My whole nose is gone,” she said. “There’s a contract. We stayed at home so you wouldn’t die. Now you can stay at home until we can all go out.”
It was hard to argue with, although I had to tell her it had not occurred to me before and when I asked my older friends later, none of them had spared a thought for intergenerational fairness either. Shocked by our lack of imagination and empathy, I told my friends what a selfish, decadent old bunch they were.
As our lunch outside the French restaurant wound up late in the afternoon, an old gentleman with a copy of the Times under his arm asked if he could sit down and have a drink while he did the crossword. When the waiter went inside to find out, I asked him why he was doing the crossword so late.
“I save it up,” he said. “I find if I go for a long walk around 11 that takes me up to lunchtime and the rest of the day is not so long if I still have the crossword.”
I was thinking it would be hard to begrudge him any advantage a vaccine passport would bring and that for all the lockdown’s alleged value in reminding us what really matters, it has brought nothing welcome to most people, young and old.
The waiter came out and said sorry, none of the empty tables around us was available.