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There are two restaurants in this article. By chance, I was in the Southsider pub yesterday when I met a young acquaintance of mine who is called Roman. We had got talking about the places where we work and each of them is a restaurant and it struck me afterwards that each one clarifies some trend that is lurking within Edinburgh’s economy that might otherwise go unnoticed. To see what these restaurants are saying, let us take them one after the other.

The first is admittedly not so much a restaurant as a cafeteria. Some people will maintain that if a restaurant is a moon then a cafeteria is the thinnest crescent. I would reply that a cafeteria is rather a restaurant that the customer knows their way around a bit better. I have been working shifts in this cafeteria, at one of Edinburgh’s hospitals, for several years now but recently I have grown displeased with the regime there.

The work is usually so mindless that if you had met me on the bus home from this cafeteria, I would not have been able to tell you more than two or three things that had happened during my shift. Seldom does anybody say anything remarkable there and disruptions to the cafeteria’s routine are generally minor and inconsequential. It is one of those jobs where human consciousness becomes a redundant feature, rather like the eyes on a deep-sea fish that has adapted to live in total darkness.

Yet lately the cafeteria had grown irritating and suddenly I was conscious of it all the time, as if it was a smarting flesh wound. I realised that I had liked this job much better when I had been scarcely aware of it.  

So I went into the cabin office and I spoke with Scott, who manages the cafeteria.

“Everybody just wants to forget about COVID-19,” I complained. “And we are determined to keep reminding them about it constantly. We need to roll back some of these regulations. Why do we still have a one-way system, for example?”

We had put up flimsy partitions to transform the cafeteria into a single long circuit. Inside this circuit, the customers were expected to only ever go forwards. If they saw a banana or a muffin as they were passing and they didn’t grab it, they were not allowed to go back for it. Anyone going the wrong way around the one-way system would be reprimanded. Any member of staff who did not issue a reprimand to somebody going the wrong way around the one-way system would be reprimanded themselves.

“And why are there still so few tables?” I continued angrily.

There were only a handful of tables to dine at and they all had hauntingly wide “socially distanced” gaps between them. At the end of the circuit there is a kind of roundabout where the customers are encouraged to walk around and around in circles holding their trays, until a table becomes free. This is actually modelled on the system that they have at airports when a bunch of planes are in a queue to land.

I was not finished yet. “And why are we so anxious to impose face coverings? Can’t we just overlook it if someone has forgotten their mask? In addition, why can’t we get rid of that nurse’s voice on the tannoy that intones ‘Please Respect Social Distancing” every ten seconds? Or at least can we make it sound less strict and cross, or even just file a little of the severity off its edges?

“COVID is over,” I declared in conclusion. “Or even if it isn’t, everybody just wants to forget about it. We are beginning to resemble those Japanese troops who were left behind fighting in the jungle during the 1950s, unaware that the Second World War had finished years beforehand.”

Scott had sat patiently whilst I laboured through my complaint and when I was done he looked up and shook his head. “I’m sorry Biggy but all of these rules come from Head Office. You know, there is nothing that I can do, it is out of my hands. Besides, our regular customers adhere to the social distancing without any real bother. They are used to the rules and they always get disconcerted whenever there is any change.”

So that was that. Yet around a week later, Scott beckoned me into his office and, aghast, he showed me an email that had just arrived from Head Office. In it, the chief administrator for Health and Safety across NHS Lothian explained that he had been recently prescribed medication to treat feelings of low self-esteem. In an error by his GP, he had been instructed to take over twenty times the correct dosage. It was shortly following this mistake that he had drawn up the social-distancing stipulations for our cafeteria. He now freely acknowledged that they were utterly nonsensical and he beseeched that he not be held in any way responsible for them.

We still didn’t change the regulations. After all, none of us had time to take down the partitions and there was nowhere to store them and the customers were quite happy to abide by the rules. I also felt easier and more relaxed now that I was aware that these regulations essentially meant nothing.

After I had told Roman about this cafeteria, he told me in turn about his own restaurant. This was a vegan eatery in Bruntsfield, where Roman had secured a position as a mixologist. It was a highly fashionable establishment. Most of the waiters had agreed to be paid in some cryptocurrency that Roman had never heard of (they each received a single “percolated” coin every four months) and they had a carvery where all of the artificial roasts looked unbearably pallid and drenched in sweat and they paid some special agent who sounded like James Bond to fly around the world intriguing and buying the supremest vegetables for them. I am sure that you can picture what type of a place it was.

The cocktails were made on a platform and within a sort of theatre. Roman soon saw that whilst he and the mixologist who he was paired with were both busily performing away, absorbed in their cocktail soliloquys, none of the diners around them showed even the most fleeting curiosity in what they were doing.

As soon as Roman arrived on shift, the cocktail orders were coming in and he had to put his head down and work with an incredible swiftness. He was always partnered with another mixologist who he thought was named Mike. He never had the time to say a word to Mike and Mike pretended to be oblivious to his own presence. It was as if at some point that was now lost in time they had both, purely through their body language, struck some bargain never to talk to one another. Their manager periodically brought limes and tiny bottles of soda to replenish the cocktail counter.

Yet one day Roman saw that a ladybird (truanting from the Meadows no doubt) was roosting on the shoulder of Mike’s jacket. “Hey man, there’s a ladybird on you,” he called.

Mike brushed it off.

Over several weeks, these were the only words that would pass between the two of them.

Soon the cocktails were very familiar and their manufacture had grown repetitive. As Roman made the cocktails, he began to grow aware of the interactions on the tables around him. He had noticed that the waiters were often impatient and that sometimes they exploded with rage at the customers. One encounter particularly shocked him.

A meal was over and a waiter had stamped up to the table with a whisky sour (this, poured by Mike) for the husband and a cappuccino for the wife. The waiter had put these drinks down and he was turning to go when he discovered that the wife had laid a plump, velvety paw upon his sleeve and fastened herself to him.

“Can I have some more sweeteners, please?”

The waiter stared at her. “There are two on the saucer. Look!”

“I want more, please.”

You’re sweet enough as it is, darling. The eternal quip chimed automatically in Roman’s mind.

“I can’t be fucking bothered with this,” the waiter snapped. He then picked up the cappuccino, brusquely blew the foam on the very top of it over the wife’s hairdo, and put the cup back down on the table with a clang. With a final, angry flourish of his arms, he stamped off.

The wife sat trembling and looking around in amazement. She did nothing to remove the streak of foam on her head. The husband sat motionless for a few seconds and he then slowly raised his hand and held it in the air, like a schoolboy who is seeking permission to go to the toilet.

A manager appeared.

“Your waiter has assaulted my wife,” the husband reported. He said this genially, as if he was remarking on something that he had seen by chance on television. “He blew coffee in her hair.”

The manager apologised and he handed the wife a napkin. It was only then that she started to dab at her head.

“I am so sorry, sir,” the manager continued. “I will speak to the waiter, of course.”

“You will speak to him?” the husband inquired interestedly.

“It is so difficult to hire reliable staff these days,” the manager explained. “With Brexit.”

Everyone at the table immediately looked solemn. Speak of the Devil.

“You mean, your waiters are basically allowed to do things like this?” the wife spluttered. Her hair was virtually back to normal now, albeit with a single strand still damply askew.  

The manager shrugged. “Alas madam, I can only appeal to their better nature. But I shall fetch you a new cappuccino, complimentary naturally. I shall see to it in person.”

When he returned, he set down the fresh drink, he smiled at the lady and he was about to make his departure when the paw fell again.

“Can I have some more sweeteners please?”

The manager blinked.

“I take several sweeteners. Two isn’t enough.”

Roman saw the manager’s hand curling.

“And this is made from the artichoke milk I ordered, isn’t it? Because it smells distinctly like cabbage milk, which always brings me out in this mottled rash….”

This time, almost all of the foam was blown across her hair. The cup dropped back down onto the table with an even more piercing clang.

The husband slowly raised his hand and an even more important, an even more dignified and stoical member of the restaurant’s hierarchy, presented himself. By now Roman was thinking of Russian dolls being unnested and of previous layers being discarded. This senior manager explained that junior managers were very difficult to hire currently, with Brexit being Brexit, and that there was nothing else to do but tolerate their antics. At the mention of Brexit, everyone at the table immediately looked solemn.

But an order had arrived for a very tricky cocktail and so Roman’s attention was now elsewhere.