The guests were full of wickedness and sparkle, our hostess had a keen eye and a heavy pour and the air was alive with slander about some of the highest figures in the land.
Everyone except me was in their mid-80s and full of vigour after more than a year in hibernation and we said hello with gentle hugs, careful kisses and strong handshakes.
London is still subject to some social distancing restrictions but in most of the ways that count, life is going back to the old ways and we are sliding easily into familiar habits.
Bars and restaurants are serving indoors again and the extra space between tables feels like a blessing, as does not having to crowd around the bar shouting an order.
Sitting at the counter of my friend Wafae’s Italian restaurant around the corner the other day, I tried not to look and pretended not to listen while she terrorised her latest recruit.
“You’ll love me and then you’ll hate me for a long time but after that you’ll love me again. You’ll wake up in the night thinking about me,” she was saying.
A ‘we are hiring’ hangs in the window of a pub seeking bar and kitchen staff in London on June 4th. Photograph: Rob Pinney/Getty
It was hard to tell beneath her face mask but the young recruit didn’t seem too distressed and a few minutes later I heard her giggling while her boss performed an operatic display of despair over yet another mistake in placing a knife or a glass on a table.
“She’s good for me because she needs the job and I need her,” Wafae told me.
Like most restaurants in London, hers is desperate for staff as the end of lockdown revealed how many of the young Europeans who feed and flatter the capital’s bourgeoisie had left for good. Many who went home to sit out the pandemic have stayed away because the post-Brexit immigration system is so unwelcoming and unpredictable.
EU citizens who have applied for settled status in Britain but spent more than six out of 12 months abroad had to be back by December 31st last year to keep their place. Stories of EU citizens arriving at British airports being held in detention centres are a further disincentive, along with a general sense of not being treasured guests in the country.
Restaurant staff who are trained and reliable can shop around for pay and conditions and the going rate for waiting staff of £15 an hour has shot up to £20. For small restaurants like Wafae’s, tight margins mean the only option is to increase prices along with wages and that’s what many have been doing.
Fortunately, entertaining at home is still a novelty and everyone seems to be bending the rules to fit in one or two around the table above the permitted six. Not everyone has the flawless instinct of my octogenarian hostess and at a friend’s house the other day every glass ran dry while he ploughed on with an endless monologue.
“It’s funny how warm an empty glass gets in your hand,” is what Brendan Behan used to say at moments like this.
Our host was telling us about his self-improving achievements during lockdown, in words that fell on fallow ground among those of us who have given our lives to self-disimprovement. Most lockdown achievements didn’t amount to much more than losing a few kilos or learning to bake bread but two women at the table next to me at a Polish restaurant in Kensington had a better story to tell.
“We wrote a book together,” one of them said.
“Good for you. What’s it about?” I said.
“Tarot and business,” she said.
One of them had worked in human resources and she now had a sideline in showing companies how they could use tarot cards to choose the best candidate for a job. I was asking myself if it was any less rational a method as competency-based interviews when she took a small tin out of her bag.
“Pick a card and ask a question,” she said.
“Not a yes or no question, we’re not fortune tellers,” the other one said.
The card I picked was the King of Swords and my question was what should I do next?
“What do you think?” one of them said.
“I think bold and strong, ambitious,” I said.
“Good, good. What else?” they said.
After a few more of these questions and some uninspired answers from me about strength and purpose – the card showed a king holding a sword – I voiced a protest.
“If you don’t mind me saying so, I seem to be doing all the work here,” I said as they nodded and smiled.
When I asked if they actually charged businesses to look at cards and come up with their own ideas, the smiles disappeared and one of them narrowed her eyes and gave me a long look.
“We call it intuitive self-reliance,” she said.