COLUMN: March 1, 2012

“LET me take that ring,” I pleaded with the small child in my care. “It will fall off and you will lose it.”

The small child refused, and, as I don’t want to be perceived as the sort of person who wrests a ring from the finger of a small child, or attempts to wrest a ring from the finger of a small child and fails, the small child prevailed.

We sat, along with our dining companions in a restaurant. And when I say “restaurant” that is what I mean. For once, it was the sort of dining establishment in which somebody else brings the food to my table, and the drinks do not have lids on. And there are no balloons.

I ordered my seafood pasta in a flawless Italian accent, no doubt impressing the eastern European waiter. “This is a man,” he would have thought, in Cyrillic script, “who is not going to be gulled by a massive pepper grinder and cut-glass sugar bowl filled with Parmesan-style dust. I must raise my waiting game. Heh, that’s an actual English phrase, isn’t it?”

I left the table for a moment – you don’t need to know why – and when I returned was informed that the small child’s ring had unaccountably slipped from her finger and was now in an indeterminate location.

A number of emotions fought for supremacy in my head, including, I am ashamed to say, vindication. My mouth must have been a blur, constantly shifting between a smile and a frown, like one of those lenticular photos. But I settled on a “more in sorrow than in anger” disappointed look.

It was explained to me that I would have to look for it, and the starting place was under the table. So I dropped to my knees, and awkwardly crawled underneath. The first thing I noticed was that the lighting was not especially adequate for the purpose of finding a small child’s ring. And I had left my torch at home.

So I whipped out my phone and found a website with a white background. Then I used the white light from the screen to aid my search. It occurred to me that an app which was just a film of somebody shining a torch out of the screen would be a money-spinner and I was just about to say that we were going to be rich when I heard the words: “And the linguine marinara?”

I had previously presented the waiter with the very picture of a cosmopolitan man in his early forties. Now I was presenting him with my buttocks. I wondered how long he had been there.

There was a brief silence. “Yes, that’s mine,” I said, apparently speaking through my backside, and not for the first time. I had to make a decision: climb out from under the table and sit down, affecting that this was normal behaviour, or just stay there until he left? I am not much of an actor. I decided to stay. For one long minute.

When I was sure he had left, I crawled out, phone in hand.

“What have you been doing on your phone?” a companion asked. “I can neither explain nor excuse my behaviour,” I replied. “I can’t find the ring.”

In many ways, I wish I had not done it again after ordering after-dinner drinks. There was a sort of awful inevitability to it, but I did want to find the ring. “Pot of tea?” asked the waiter. “Yes, that’s here again,” said my bottom.

I didn’t find the ring, but I was reminded of it while watching the progress of the Cameron NHS reforms this week.

I believe the Conservatives do not particularly want to destroy the NHS, if only for electoral reasons, just as the small child in my care did not want to lose her ring.

And I am the Lib-Dems, entirely aware of the consequences of allowing the Conservatives to privatise the NHS, but unwilling to cause a fuss and take the ring off them.

And it is the Lib-Dems who will be scrabbling about on the floor, with their bottom in the air, all dignity long gone, looking for a ring which will be forever lost.

I’m not sure what the waiter represents. All analogies break down in the end.

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