Column: September 7, 2011

STANDING in the queue at the litigation-happy, and, consequently, un-nameable fast-food restaurant, I sighed. I had been there for over five minutes, the queue unmoving, and I rued the fact that my order was slightly complicated, which meant I was ineligible to use the Express Service.

I was being punished, frankly, in a manner disproportionate to my transgression, merely because somebody I was with did not like gherkins.

I stared at the unimaginative, but soon-to-be-fed, specimens in the Express Service queue and sighed. Again.

At this stage, I am aware that several readers will be thinking it was all my own fault. “I have no sympathy with you for taking children to that place. If I had my way,” they would say, “I would have you pecked to death by owls, you child abuser. Incidentally, meat is murder.” And I would say, “Oh, I see, it’s all right for owls, is it?” And they would stare at me.

Anyway, I am aware, painfully in some cases, that alternative dining experiences are available, but sometimes they just aren’t, all right?

In any case, further punishment was to come. Autumn arrived and I was called upon to order. I explained to the nice lady how a “plain cheeseburger” was not necessarily a contradiction in terms, although neither of us were entirely convinced. Uniquely, in my experience, the order for five people was correctly honoured.

And then it was plonked on a tray with roughly the size and structural integrity of a beermat, two drinks precariously balanced one atop the other. Her duties discharged, the nice lady said: “Next!” And I was left to carry the tray through a crowd of people. Given that I have never extracted a bone cleanly in Operation, this was some task.

But I was hungry, and somehow I managed to negotiate through people with backpacks, people who don’t like moving, and people who like moving a lot and whose heads were at the same height as the tray – ie, children – without dropping a single chip.

And then I had that feeling, like the one Indiana Jones had when he’d fought the baddies in Egypt to exhaustion and then the man with the massive sword appeared. But I didn’t have a gun. Because I had reached the stairs. And my party was dining on the first floor.

Now, I have had an ambivalent relationship with stairs. On the one hand, I spent most of my tender years reading books and comics sitting on the stairs. On the other hand, I still have a scar on my forehead from when the three-year-old me had a new-sandals- related mishap at the top of a flight.

So I treat stairs with respect. I always go up the up escalator even when both up and down escalators are out of order. I take them, like most men, two at a time going up, and wonder why nobody ever misses out steps on the way down. Give me an opportunity to trip and I will grasp it with both feet. So, if I am carrying something, I will always go upstairs a step at a time.

But these stairs were not ordinary stairs. This was a spiral staircase. What sort of diseased imagination decides that is appropriate in an establishment which requires its clientele to carry trays about the place?

Because when one is carrying a tray in a fast food restaurant, one cannot see the risers of the steps or the treads, so one has to trust that there are no unexpected variations, or one ends up with a faceful of salty chips and carbonated beverage.

But spiral staircase steps have a different depth of tread depending on where one stands. Carrying a tray up a spiral staircase, down which already-bloody-fed customers are frolicking, is like playing chess on the runway at John Lennon Airport with a gibbon.

By the time I got to my seat, my nerves were shot and my chips were cold. I expect this was what the restaurant intended. Next time, I will conform and use the Express queue. I am Winston Smith on the last page of 1984.

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