My plan, after Bognor, was to take a bus along the coast to Brighton, and I was quietly excited about this. I had never experienced this stretch of coastline and had great hopes for it. I had printed out a timetable and carefully selected the 12.19 as the best bus for my purposes, but as I ambled to the bus stop now, thinking I had minutes to spare, I watched in mild dismay as my bus departed just ahead of a cloud of black smoke. It took me a minute to work out that my watch was not right, that the battery was evidently dying. With a half-hour to kill till the next bus, I went into a jeweller’s shop, where a cheerless man looked at the watch and told me that a replacement battery would be £30.
‘But I barely paid that for the watch,’ I sputtered.
‘That may explain why it’s not working,’ he said and handed it back with a look of majestic indifference.
I waited to see if he had anything more to say, if there existed within him the faintest flicker of interest in helping me to get the right time on my wrist and possibly in the process keep his business going. It appeared not.
‘Well, I’ll leave it for now,’ I said. ‘I can see you are very busy.’ If he had any appreciation for my instinct for mirth, he failed
to show it. He gave a shrug and that was the end of our relationship.
I was hungry, but now had only twenty minutes before the next bus, so I went into a McDonald’s for the sake of haste. I should have known better. I have a little personal history with McDonald’s, you see. Once a few years ago after a big family day out we stopped at a McDonald’s in response to cries from a back-seatful of grandchildren pleading for an unhealthy meal, and I was put in charge of placing the order. I carefully interviewed everyone in the party – about ten of us, from two cars – collated the order on to the back of an old envelope and approached the counter.
‘OK,’ I said decisively to the youthful attendant when my turn came, ‘I would like five Big Macs, four quarter-pound cheese- burgers, two chocolate milkshakes—’
At this point someone stepped up to tell me that one of the children wanted chicken nuggets instead of a Big Mac.
‘Sorry,’ I said and then resumed. ‘Make that four Big Macs, four quarter-pound cheeseburgers, two chocolate milkshakes—’
At this point, some small person tugging on my sleeve informed me that he wanted a strawberry milkshake, not a chocolate one. ‘Right,’ I said, returning to the young attendant, ‘make that four Big Macs, four quarter-pound cheeseburgers, one chocolate milkshake, one strawberry milkshake, three chicken nuggets . . .’
And so it went on as I worked my way through and from time to time adjusted the group’s long and complicated order.
When the food came, the young man produced about eleven trays with thirty or forty bags of food on them.
‘What’s this?’ I said.
‘Your order,’ he replied and read my order back to me off the till: ‘Thirty-four Big Macs, twenty quarter-pound cheeseburgers, twelve chocolate shakes . . .’ It turned out that instead of adjusting my order each time I restarted, he had just added to it.
‘I didn’t ask for twenty quarter-pound cheeseburgers, I asked for four quarter-pound cheeseburgers five times.’
‘Same thing,’ he said.
‘It’s not the same thing at all. You can’t be this stupid.’
Two of the people waiting behind me in the queue sided with the young attendant.
‘You did ask for all that stuff,’ one of them said.
The duty manager came over and looked at the till. ‘It says twenty quarter-pound cheeseburgers here,’ he said as if it were a gun with my fingerprints on it.
‘I know what it says there, but that isn’t what I asked for.’
One of my grown children came over to find out what was going on. I explained to him what had happened and he weighed the matter judiciously and decided that, taken all in all, it was my fault.
‘I can’t believe you are all this stupid,’ I said to an audience that consisted now of about sixteen people, some of them newly arrived but already taking against me. Eventually my wife came over and led me away by the elbow, the way I used to watch her lead jabbering psychiatric patients off to a quiet room. She sorted the mess out amicably with the manager and attendant, brought two trays of food to the table in about thirty seconds, and informed me that I was never again to venture into a McDonald’s whether alone or under supervision.
And now here I was in McDonald’s again for the first time since my earlier fracas. I vowed to behave myself, but McDonald’s is just too much for me. I ordered a chicken sandwich and a Diet Coke.
‘Do you want fries with that?’ the young man serving me asked. I hesitated for a moment, and in a pained but patient tone said:
‘No. That’s why I didn’t ask for fries, you see.’
‘We’re just told to ask like,’ he said.
‘When I want fries, generally I say something like, “I would like some fries, too, please.” That’s the system I use.’
‘We’re just told to ask like,’ he repeated.
‘Do you need to know the other things I don’t want? It is quite a long list. In fact, it is everything you serve except for the two things I asked for.’
‘We’re just told to ask like,’ he repeated yet again, but in a darker voice, and deposited my two items on a tray and urged me, without the least hint of sincerity, to have a nice day. I realized that I probably wasn’t quite ready for McDonald’s yet.