It shouldn’t have been difficult. All we wanted were two cups of black coffee, two sandwiches and two muffins. That’s all.
But nothing had prepared us for the horror that was about to happen.
It was late on Sunday evening. I am tempted to say that it was a dark and stormy night because it was. The rain was lashing down on the M25 and M11 motorways like one of the apocalyptic end of the world storms.
We spent two and a half hours with the windscreen wipers chasing a flood across the glass. My eyes were getting scratchy from staring at the streaky red glare of brake lights filtered through rivulets.
We pulled off the M11 at Birchanger services. An oasis of consumerism in a desert of soaking wet tarmac.
The long queue at the Starbucks should have given us a clue. That, and the haunted vacant look of the people in the queue. With hindsight, they had the look of the ancient mariner about them – greybeard loons forever trapped in a nightmare life as a result of ill-advised albatross culling.
We should have noticed how grindingly slow the queue was moving. The long line of people who had ordered but were still waiting for their beverages. The slightly panicked rabbit-in-the-headlights look of the desperately young ladies who were “serving” these weary travellers.
“What’s your name?”
I have become bored of hating that question. There was a time when it annoyed me intensely. Now I am resigned to it. If I have to put up with this company’s ridiculous quirk in order to get a cup of coffee, then so be it.
There must be some bright spark in the customer services department who has convinced themselves that customers like being interrogated when they order coffee. Some focus group must have said that we like the sound of our own names. If we have an unusual name we love explaining how to spell it. And we absolutely writhe with orgasmic pleasure when someone yells our name out across a crowded coffee shop.
I’ve got news for you – we don’t. We’ve just got fed up trying to tell you.
But then the problems began. We had ordered … two cups of black coffee, a croque monsieur, a cheese and ham toastie and two muffins.
Let’s skip over the fact that we have to ask for an “Americano” when all we need is a coffee. We’ve got the hang of that particular affectation.
Incidentally, the word “Americano” comes from American soldiers who came across to Europe in the two world wars. They couldn’t understand the foreign coffees of espressos and capucinos, in the French and Italian coffee bars. So they started asking for American coffee, and the name stuck.
Calling it “Americano” instead of “American” is just a bit of salesmanship. There is nothing Italian at any point in the transaction of an American company employing a Polish girl to sell coffee from places like Colombia to customers in England.
The first problem came when just one muffin appeared on the counter. We waited patiently for its twin to arrive. Meanwhile, the girl who had been serving us had switched her attention to the next customer in the line.
We waited. And we waited.
“Can we have our muffin, please?” my wife asked.
“It’s in front of you,” said one of the girls.
“The other muffin.”
“What other muffin?”
“The other muffin we’ve paid for.”
To fill the time, I looked at the bill. And that’s when I noticed that we had been overcharged. We had paid for three Americanos and not the two that we were hopefully going to receive at some unspecified time in the future.
Naturally, the girl who had served us couldn’t give us a refund until she had served the next customer.
“Is this yours?” asked yet another of the girls. She was holding a bread product.
“I don’t know,” I said. “What it is it?”
“Did you order it?” she asked, as if rephrasing a dumb question made it any less of a dumb question.
“We ordered a cheese and ham toastie and a croque monsieur,” I said. “What is that?”
She peered at the sandwich, bringing the mental capacity of a teenage Sherlock Holmes to bear. This was a three pipe puzzle, and no mistake.
“It’s got cheese and ham in it. I think,” she said.
Now, this didn’t help much. Both the cheese and ham toastie and the croque monsieur have cheese and ham in them. I looked around. None of the other haunted souls in the queue for coffee or food wanted to claim it. So we took it, more out of desperation than anything else.
By now we seemed to have half of our order. Two muffins (after a fight), and one sandwich (after an interrogation).
It was around about now that we noticed that everyone was being served their food and drinks in cardboard bags and polywhatnot cups. There were beautiful white cups and plates on display, but none were being used. Ah well. We sighed the sigh of the resigned and the damned.
“Cheese and ham,” was the next call. “Who ordered the cheese and ham?”
Now this was a tricky one. We had ordered two cheese and ham products. We had hopefully already taken possession of one of them. At least we hoped we had. Now we were being offered another. But was this the second half of the order or someone else’s cheese and ham consumable?
“Is that a croque monsieur or a toastie?” I asked.
She peered down into the paper bag. “It’s cheese and ham,” she said.
Fair reader, forgive me. I was losing my patience at this point. So I took it. If someone else in the queue had ordered something involving curdled milk and pig flesh, I am very sorry. We took it.
Finally our coffee arrived. By now, I think the entire serving staff had marked me down as a troublemaker. So our coffees arrived after several other people had been served. We had ordered the simplest coffee variant in the world – just coffee, no milk, no sugar, no vanilla extract. It was neither skinny nor decaffeinated or fiddled about with in any way. It was just coffee.
And still we had to wait for somebody’s frothy chocolatey thing to be made ahead of us. I think the serving girls were trying to make a point.
Of course, they didn’t announce it by name. After all the fuss of taking my name several hours earlier, all I got was “are you the two black coffees?”.
Which you have to admit is not something you are asked every day of your life.
The serving girl with a degree in surly (the fourth we had encountered) then placed our coffees on the very edge of the counter nearest her. I had to reach over the width of the counter to get at them. I could just imagine her smirking about that one. We’ll show him…
Our order complete, we found a seat and some sanity returned. Of course, the coffee was scaldingly hot in the cardboard cups. The melted cheese stuck to the paper bag. But we had survived the nightmare that passes for customer services.
I noticed something odd about the receipt. Against several of the items there was written the words “no thanks”.
And that puzzled me.
Why had the computerised cash register written “no thanks”? Was the serving girl supposed to ask me a question at that point, to which the answer would have been either “yes please” or “no thanks”? Like “do you want milk in your coffee?”
Or was the receipt noting that I hadn’t said “thanks” at some required moment?
But that was a minor puzzle, a soupcon of comic relief amidst the frustration. We sipped our too-hot coffee, tried to avoid burning our fingers on the polywhatnot cup, pulled the melted cheese that had congealed into the paper bags and picked muffin crumbs from paper.
And when we had finished, the collection of paper bags on our table looked like a vagrant’s bed. And, yes, I know all of this is a first world problem and that people are dying from terrorism and ebola and all sorts of other nasty things. But all the same. It was just coffee, sandwich and cake. We didn’t know it was going to be such torture.
Will we go back again?