It’s not easy to get a car into a hotel car park at the best of times. The bending laneways between one floor and the next tend to be so tight that it wouldn’t be difficult to scrape the arse of the car along the wall. So I was glad to be staying at the Royal Marine Hotel in Dún Laoghaire where the car park is reasonably spacious, although I was stressed from the traffic on the M50 and I was late for lunch with the General. By the time I wheeled my case through the car park stuffed with Range Rovers, electric Volvos and BMWs I was completely flustered.
And then I saw the poster of Laurel and Hardy on the wall of the corridor near reception. Like me, they once stayed in the hotel. Their smiling faces cheered me up as I entered the plush foyer. Laurel and Hardy are like monkeys in heaven; intruders in a world of grandeur, bunglers at everything they attempt. So whenever I see their faces I don’t feel entirely alone in the world.
I checked in at reception, scanned the open areas around the foyer, furnished with armchairs, sofas and coffee tables at which people were drinking and enjoying plates from the bar menu.
The General was sitting at the window looking out towards the pier and the sea, reading a copy of the Financial Times. Of course, he never reads the FT in Mullingar but he likes to exude an air of confidence when he’s anywhere near yacht clubs or sailing boats.
I said I would have nothing more than a coffee as my guts were in a sorry state of constipation.
“I’m bloated,” I confessed.
“Nothing worse than trouble with the exhaust pipe,” he agreed, “but there is a remedy. Cabbage!”
A waiter in a black waistcoat and white shirt approached us and asked if we were alright for everything.
“Scones?” the General suggested … And. A. Pot. Of. Tea.”
The waiter returned with our order and the General stubbornly scrutinised the name on his lapel. This time he could not resist the offensive intrusion
He punctuated each word with exaggerated clarity because the name attached to the waiter’s lapel wasn’t anything familiar and the General presumed he might not have a complete command of English.
He was on the brink of asking the waiter where he was from when I stopped him.
“General,” I whispered, “you can’t do that nowadays. It’s an unacceptable intrusion on a person’s privacy. It could even be construed as an act of aggression.”
Not that I’m entirely an expert about what is or is not politically correct in public discourse. Up until recently I always asked people where they were from. Having lived a sheltered life in Cavan and knowing nothing but a universe of bees, blackbirds and waterhens when I was a child, anyone beyond the perimeters of my native county was to me as exotic as the diving swallows on the shores of Lough Oughter. I survived childhood by staying well away from humans, and so lived in a cocoon of dandelions and foxglove which made me all the more curious about the world of strangers when I grew up.
If I met someone on a bus or in a bar who because of their clothing, accent or skin colour, was clearly not from my neck of the woods, I longed to know all about them. And what could I do but inquire?
If I noticed a name that sounded unusual I longed to ask where they were from. Simply because I wanted to share my story with them and I wanted to hear their story.
But such curiosity is a thing of the past. Asking someone where they are from nowadays can be a form of othering and a way of implying that they are, in a sense, foreign.
The waiter returned with our order and the General stubbornly scrutinised the name on his lapel. This time he could not resist the offensive intrusion.
“Where are you from?” he inquired abruptly.
“Do-ha-ree,” came the reply in a shy and almost inaudible voice.
“Is that in the Middle East?” the General wondered.
“No,” the waiter replied. “It’s very close to Ballybofey.” And it turned out that the name on his lapel was in Irish.
I suppose the General is on a learning curve. He is trying to find his way in a new world. And when he had parted I was only delighted to take refuge in my room and spend the evening watching Laurel and Hardy on YouTube, while I opted for a laxative solution and waited for it to have its abrasive effect.