The crane arrived on a Tuesday morning at 7.00 a.m. sharp, exactly one hour late. Normally I would be in my fourth hour of fitful slumber at that hour of the morning, contemplating the stupidity of drinking two or three cups of strong coffee just before retiring; however, in a moment of madness several months earlier, I had telephoned an air conditioning company to enquire about a special offer I had seen advertised in the local newspaper. It seemed that for the equivalent cost of several large established houses in a good suburb, I could purchase one of their superb machines in order to provide my clients with a controlled atmosphere in which to relax.
Much like apples in cold storage.
For a small surcharge, the company offered to immediately install this 'Winter Special for Summer Comfort'. An offer I found too good to refuse.
I must have been drunk or recently returned from a revivalist meeting with a feeling of goodwill to all salesmen, because I signed the wretched contract I was presented with and so began the eternal wait for the appointed day of delivery, which was almost ‘immediately’, but still in plenty of time for summer.
Hah! Of course the appointed day of delivery had long gone by the time I received the phone call to say the unit would be arriving the next day, and if at all convenient, would I please be in attendance on the premises to have all in readiness for the installers at, say, 6 a.m.?
The liar inside my head said he would be most happy to oblige and asked the young girl in her second day of work experience if she would pass on my fondest regards to the salesman who had been studiously avoiding me for several weeks now. With any luck, if the delivery actually did happen, it would be just in time for the third heatwave of a summer that had come a tad early this year.
Two interminable hours elapsed.
At exactly 9.00 a.m., a spotty young apprentice holding a caution flag was stationed in the middle of the road attempting to control the morning traffic. The morning traffic didn't wish to be controlled and was making that fact evident to the apprentice by repetitive blasts of car horns. It was far too early in the morning for this sort of noise and order was restored by the crane driver, a red headed man of prodigious proportions sporting very colourful pictures of skulls and snakes on the exposed parts of his body. He was also wearing a nose ring once used by a large Hereford bull. He approached the driver of the leading vehicle and politely asked for his understanding for several minutes whilst the air conditioner was winched over the roof to the other side of the building.
The driver complied. He was scared of cattle.
There were two pieces of equipment; one was the motor, the other was the heat exchanger. The motor was installed outside on a flat part of the roof above the toilets, but the heat exchanger took up residence on the ceiling in the attic, directly above the main dining room and was connected to outlets in all rooms by long tubes of very special, very expensive and very flimsy tinfoil, which I was assured would last forever or thereabouts. Approximately.
I was assured of this by the same salesman who had guaranteed the delivery date.
The only thing I was really sure of, was that it couldn't fall through the ceiling and kill anyone dining below, because although the plank ceiling was made of old and recycled timber, it was supported by massive oversize beams, and a truck could be safely parked up there.
And of course, it had previously supported a very heavy Trevor machine.
Unloading was accomplished in a few minutes, just as the bull had promised, and he rode off in the crane to rejoin his herd. Three electricians and one spotty apprentice then set about attaching blue wires to green wires and red wires to brown wires until there weren't too many loose wires left.
I, meanwhile, sat on the terrace thinking of all the holidays I could have taken with the thousands of dollars I had spent on this latest piece of hi-tech. My last significant item of expenditure had been a state of the art security system which was so good, it let every neighbour within a radius of ten kilometres know whenever a large moth or ant entered the building after hours. Not only were the neighbours enlightened, but the automatic dial-out feature also alerted both the police and myself of this significant event so that we could drive at breakneck speed to the premises and swat the intruder with a rolled up newspaper.
The restaurant hadn't been open very long, but it possessed the three most important things in business. Location, location, location.
Thousands of cars passed my premises every week on the way to goodness knows where. It didn't really matter where they were going, just as long as their curiosity was aroused and an enquiry was made at a later date.
Sure enough, the phone started to ring more regularly and local business houses began to make enquiries for their Christmas parties. I sent them a standard response, detailing the size of the restaurant, the number of rooms, maximum seating, cost per head, some usual menu items and standard starting and finishing times. I always included a sample dinner menu which was stamped 'For style only. Subject to daily change', in red ink across the diagonal.
Those businesses wishing to make a group booking would then appoint a competent organizer who would decide on a set menu with two or three choices of main course. The next day, the company accountant would telephone and say that the same menu could be purchased much cheaper elsewhere. On top of that, his boss had eleven children in good private schools and also needed a new headsail for his yacht. It was the poor accountant's job to (a) cut my price in half, and, seeing as how my business was only new, (b) tell me I should be grateful for their patronage.
Having worked in restaurants all my life I knew that this was standard procedure, and so I made the standard response. The accountant was extremely happy with the offer of a free dinner for two at a later date and after a small adjustment to the tariff, the final menu and specific seating arrangements were entered in the appointment book. And a copy was sent to the organizer.
What could possibly go wrong?
The first employees of Harbottle Smyth Pty. Ltd., arrived for their Christmas function. It was late December and humid. The temperature outside was forty degrees Celsius, however inside the restaurant, it was a cool twenty-one. And it would stay that way too thanks to my brand new million dollar reverse cycle airconditioner and my attentive staff who rushed to the front door to close it whenever an idiotic guest left it wide open. Even the kitchen, normally a sauna, was maintained at a constant twenty-one, enabling Amanda, my voluptuous young kitchenhand to remain fully clothed, (much to the chagrin of Andrew, my youthful head-waiter and chief of staff).
There were eight earlybirds. Guests had been expected at seven thirty as arranged, but this (loud) party, led by Mr Giovanni AlfaRometti, had been fortunate enough to possess extremely fast cars and thus arrive a full three quarters of an hour before the organizer and the rest of the party were expected.
I received them warmly. I had to. They just stood in the doorway and marvelled at the cool temperature inside whilst the outside air rushed in past the motionless guests in an attempt to cool itself. I was par-boiled by the time I had dragged them all inside and handed them over to Andrew.
At twenty one years of age, Andrew was completing his fifth degree at university. He had been working for me since he first started his tertiary studies at age nine, and was considered by most to be fairly bright. Unfortunately he had a bad habit of using his initiative. I recently learned that this can be cured by a term of employment in any government department and so I shall write to him accordingly, advising of this fact. I hope he finds it most helpful.
Mr AlfaRometti and his entourage were given their complimentary glass of champagne and shown through into the main dining room.
As discussed, arranged and contracted with the organizer, (who was not yet present), the restaurant had been set for tables of six. Nine tables of six. Fifty four persons in total. Confirmed numbers.
A knock at the door signalled the arrival of more early comers and they were, as luck would have it, a considerable number of Mr now extremely Ebullienti's closest friends. Andrew dragged them inside and shut the door. He poured the bubbles, gave them a glass each, then ushered them through to the main dining room to join their jovial amigo. He then returned to the kitchen to assist staff with their preparations.
Everything totally under control.
No sooner had he commenced helping, another knock was heard. What a lot of earlybirds, we thought.
On this occasion neither Andrew nor myself were fast enough to beat Mr now extremely Ebullienti to the door. He welcomed the remainder of his closest friends and asked if they would like champagne. The reply "Does a one legged duck swim in circles?" indicated the affirmative, whereupon Giovanni requested several bottles from the bar.
I was partway through my explanation that there was just one glass per person when the literate Giovanni pulled a photocopy of the agreed function menu from his inside jacket pocket. He stabbed with his finger at the bottom line which read, and I quote, 'Complimentary champagne on arrival'. My literate buddy made it quite clear to me that the word 'glass' made no appearance in the text and therefore he and his colleagues had arrived early in order to be well and truly complemented by the time the food or the other guests arrived, whichever was the earlier.
Everything was now not totally under control.
There is always one more imbecile than you counted on, and dear Giovanni proved the rule. However, before he could work himself into a lather, a couple of extra bottles of shampoo were supplied and we returned to the kitchen, allowing our new 'Maître de' to ply his skills with his friends in the dining room.
Several minutes later, Andrew showed his initiative and went to check on the revellers, only to find that it was not only him who had been showing initiative. Giovanni, it seemed, possessed that same quality by the bucketful, and seeing that some silly fool had set lots of little tables of six instead of big ones, he had enlisted the strongest of his workmates to assist in rearranging the tables so that his own group could all sit together and enjoy each other's company at close quarters.
A bit like sheep in a pen.
They had done well, and those of his group used to eating with a knife and fork had even managed to arrange some of the cutlery. The lace tablecloths had presented some difficulty, but with the assistance of some of the more female looking guests, the leftover tablecloths had been folded and carefully placed in piles with the superfluous cutlery on some of the other tables.
We sensed control slipping away.
It was whilst we were surveying this mayhem that the rest of the group and the organizer arrived. They were thirsty and hungry, requiring champagne (which we had aplenty) and requiring a seat each. Unfortunately Mr Algebrati wasn't as numerate as he was literate and had neglected to notice that every time he joined two tables together, the two end places were lost. When this process was repeated five times to accommodate a whole herd of bovines at one long table, ten places were lost. Quite simple mathematics really. Unfortunately Mr Algebrati wasn't quite that simple and noticed no problems whatsoever. On the other hand, the organizer and the newly arrived did notice otherwise. Able to find chairs but no table to match, they began to complain in a loud voice about the lack of organization.
Mr Agitati et al looked on and agreed, offering to call for more champagne and fresh glasses to smooth the situation for the organizer. Andrew, bless his little heart, referred the organizer to Mr Antagonisti who had rearranged the dining room and suggested they discuss the matter of seating arrangements together.
All staff then retired immediately to the haven of the kitchen until the sounds of scraping furniture died away completely and we felt it safe to return. A few people still sat on laps, but at least everyone now had a seat of a sort at each table.
They say bad luck comes in threes.
We were up to number six.
Chez Alain was a non-smoking restaurant, a fact usually apparent to even the most feeble minded patron. It was signified by a plethora of signage stuck on every vertical surface, a wholesome smell, and a total absence of ashtrays on tabletops.
Unhindered by this information, Mr Affluenti reached into the infamous inside pocket of his (smoking) jacket and extracted a fine Havana which was lit with a flourish. His personal assistant, Mr Elephanti, (who was equipped with a more ordinary, but no less offensive article), let out a piercing whistle to attract Andrew's attention. It certainly attracted Andrew's attention. And mine. And everyone else's not in possession of a perforated eardrum.
The collective question from the animal kingdom was 'Where can we put our cigarette butts?'
Before Andrew could use his initiative and tell sir the exact location where sir could put the items, I intervened, advising sir of sir's infraction and suggested both he and Mr Alfresco promenade on the terrace whilst indulging.
The front door was left wide open on the way out.
Everything nearly out of control.
Andrew took out his notepad and began to take food orders from our carefree little group. The menu, as discussed and agreed with the organizer, had been developed on the KISS principle (keep it simple, stupid), and so it contained three choices - beef, chicken and fish, all cooked to perfection à la mode, and featured Marie Dubois' special sauces.
Mr Affluenti finished his expensive cigar and returned to the fold, (leaving the front door wide open on the way in). He was a hungry little boy and was looking forward to his din-dins.
I really should have offered him a job on the spot, because not only could he pour and serve drinks, he was also extremely attentive to the comfort of my other guests. Noticing that the inside room temperature was beginning to climb, he turned the air conditioner thermostat to two degrees above freezing, thus obviating the necessity to keep closing the front door. What initiative.
Andrew now approached Mr Affronti for his order.
'Will sir be having the beef, the chicken or the fish?
'Lasagne' was his reply.
Although all semblance of control had now disappeared, Andrew was not just a pretty face. In fact he was not a pretty face at all, but he did have initiative. With complete equanimity, he enquired as to whether any of the other assembled primates wished to have a serve of special 'Christmas Lasagne'. Two or three raised hairy arms to signify assent. Andrew solemnly wrote down the order and delivered it to the kitchen.
He looked quite smug.
On this occasion he had been unusually brilliant.
Several months previously, we had held a staff bonding session on the premises and Andrew had contributed two large lasagnes baked by his little sister Fiona which she had made at her home-economics lesson at school. She had made others before and that is why the family suggested Andrew take them away. After consuming half of one, we all felt very bonded indeed and the remaining gem had been consigned to the freezer. Thereafter it had been used as a temporary doorstop whenever the need arose. So, before you could say "Defrost in a microwave," Andrew had prepared a meal fit for a thing. Or more particularly, four things in the dining room.
He was so cool under pressure.
The kitchen was now in full swing with mains. I had hoped that this function would be memorable and that other custom would flow from word of mouth advertising, but it now seemed unlikely. The best I could hope for now was to finish the evening in time to go to midnight mass and seek absolution for the thoughts I had been having for the last hour which involved Mr Alcoholi on all fours and a long pointed stick. Certainly worth at least a hundred Hail Marys. And I’m not Catholic.
Andrew poked his little blonde head through the door and interrupted my train of thought by asking for a bucket. I directed him to the laundry and continued with my work at a frenetic pace. Five minutes later, he popped his cute little head around the door again, with the same request. I stopped what I was doing and thought.
I thought 'Don't ask why'.
I offered him a large saucepan and returned to my work a somewhat troubled chef. A few minutes later he reappeared just long enough to hoist the two largest saucepans from the uppermost shelf and exited just as quickly. On his fourth visit, I could contain myself no longer, and asked “Why, Andrew?”
I didn't really want him to reply, but he replied anyway.
He told me that there was a leak, but it was all under control now and I could return to my cooking and not worry about it.
I am not prone to involuntary flatulation, but something inside me was trying to escape. I was hoping it was nothing more than a small scream for help, but the growing unease in my stomach told me that Andrew had been using his initiative again and more than one large scream might be in order. I downed tools and followed my chief of staff to the dining room.
Tables had been deftly moved from the centre of the room and had been repositioned wherever they could fit around the perimeter. Some of those patrons in receipt of their main course ate in a bemused state from their laps, others ate in a more regular restaurant fashion from relocated tables.
A large woollen blanket that Andrew had fetched from his car lay spread out in the centre of the room. It had managed to soak up a great deal of the water that lay in pools upon the slate floor. The bucket and four large saucepans were strategically arranged on the blanket to collect most of the water which poured down in small rivulets from small cracks in the wooden plank ceiling at one end of the room, however the water was progressing at a steady pace through similar cracks and knotholes towards the ceiling fan in the centre of the dining room.
Mr extremely Effervescenti and associates were once again seated at one long table, laughing their heads off, using their empty champagne glasses for ashtrays.
As I stood transfixed, the river pouring down from above reached the middle of the room, and began to flood through the hole that had been bored through the ceiling planks in order to install the fan. Unfortunately, the large fan located immediately below the hole was in operation. It had been turned on at the beginning of the evening to assist with air circulation. And, as I watched, the slowly rotating blades now began to assist with water distribution as well as air circulation. A bit like a like a horizontal water wheel, and within a very short space of time, every client was being given a cooling shower. Continuously. Whether they wanted one or not.
Customer comfort is absolutely paramount at Chez Alain.
The best was yet to come. A lady patron who had obviously been to university and majored in electrical engineering made the connection between electricity, water and human bodies and began to scream hysterically that we were all going to die of electrocution if we touched each other. Fortunately her screaming broke my trance and I strode to the centre of the room and placed a chair under the fan. I then mounted the chair and firmly grasped one of the rattan blades.
The little fan motor promptly expired and water streamed down onto my head.
This was no doubt the time to show my leadership skills to Andrew. He looked up to me, (but only because I was still standing on the chair). So I dismounted. Without a word, I walked outside, beckoning him to follow. There was no need to beckon twice, no one in control of all his faculties would have wanted to stay a moment longer than absolutely necessary in that catastrophic room.
Out of earshot to all but Andrew, I issued my instructions. Firstly, distribute more than enough champagne to get everyone completely legless. Secondly, laugh loudly. Thirdly, send out for a box of cigars and distribute them generously.
He was brilliant. He laughed so much, even I thought it was funny. Mr Effluenti joined in until he fell off his chair and onto his friends at repose on the floor. Others began a game of 'Toss the spoons into the bucket of water', and one skillful lady managed to score multiple points with one of my fine china saucers. I even complimented her on her dexterity.
The bubbly did its job. We managed to avert a riot and just after midnight, we poured the lot of them into taxis, promising to look after their cars in the car park until the following day.
Nothing mattered anymore.
We turned up the music, drank champagne and feasted on the leftovers. Amanda lit up a cigar and we laughed until the tears came.
There was no semblance of control at all.
The next day, a trip to the attic found the cause of the problem. A drip tray was situated directly under the heat exchanger and collected all the water taken from the humid atmosphere in the restaurant. A small diameter pipe took the water outside the building from the drip tray. During installation, a small piece of insulation material had managed to block the drainage pipe. The tray filled with water, then overflowed. The rest is history.
A letter arrived from Harbottle Smyth Pty. Ltd. a few days later. I had been expecting it and had been in constant contact with both my insurers and my lawyer. However, the contents of the epistle took me by surprise. Harbottle's staff had all agreed that it was the most memorable evening they had ever had and would like to rebook for the following year.
Everything once again totally under control.