It’s a balmy evening in Florida. Six of us meet by chance outside a well-known restaurant. We have arrived from the States, Europe and the Far East for a conference and we know the next few days will be hectic. We decide to spend our last free evening together – a twenty-first century version of Ecclesiastes: ‘eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we work our socks off’.

The restuarant is crowded, but Hannah, our waitress, finds us a table right away. She is older than the norm and heavier than one would expect of someone used to running between tables all night. But she has a great smile; a smile that never falters all evening, despite provocation. We quickly get menus and she reels off the specials. The noise level is high and not all of us can hear her words. However, we are more interested in ordering our first drinks. Hannah suggests a pitcher – both the Sangria and the Mojitos are recommended. We plump for a pitcher of Sangria, a glass of Mojitos and a coke. Then we wait – and wait – and wait. Other table around us are served – Hannah has disappeared.

Finally she arrives, bearing a tray aloft. Pitcher of ice, six glasses and a variety of bottles – she begins to mix. One or two of us, more familiar with Sangria than others, look confused. Why is she opening a bottle of champagne; where is the Spanish wine? Finally, someone says – what are you making. Flashing us her smile, she says patiently ‘I’m making the pitcher of Mojitos you ordered.’ We remind her of our order. ‘Oh, OK’ she says and picks up the tray to take it away. Suddenly, the thought of sitting here even longer without food or drink is intolerable. ‘Leave it, carry on – we’ll have the Mojitos.’ She shrugs, carries on mixing and then trys to serve all six of us from the pitcher. Our teetotal companion reminds her she has ordered a coke and she’s still waiting. She will have to wait for a while yet before it arrives.

Hannah pours our drinks, picks up the tray, including the pitcher – and leaves. ‘Hey, that pitcher’s not empty’ someone says. A few minutes later, she returns, carrying the pitcher and tops up the glasses. We will never know whether this is normal procedure, whether she forgot to put the pitcher on the table – or whether she heard our plaintive comments as the pitcher disappeared.

Finally we get to order our food. A mixed bunch, with a variety of levels of hunger and jet lag, some order starters, most didn’t. One of our number orders the Tapas special, to be delivered at the same time as our main courses. Once more we wait – and wait – and wait. Other diners finish their meals, pay and leave. We begin to check our watches.

Next time we see Hannah, she is bearing another tray, with the makings of the house salad. Maybe the kitchen is very small; maybe mixing ingredients at the table is meant to involve the diners in the experience – but in reality, there are far too many tables for this to be done in comfort – and by this time, we just want the food on our plates in front of us. Once the salad is mixed, she plates it out in three portions – the correct number, but tries to give it to the wrong people. Having sorted that out, she offers another pitcher of drinks – an offer we rather foolishly jump at. Too late we remember this woman can only do one thing at a time – and if she is mixing drinks, she’s not serving food.

The next pitcher of drinks is finally mixed and served. Hannah makes another plate of salad and tries to serve it to one of us – even though the dirty plate in front of her is a dead give-away that she’s already eaten her salad. The coke finally arrives.

Eventually, Hannah appears once more with the Tapas special, artistically arranged on what looks like a Victorian cake stand. It is accompanied by six plates. We point out this is the main course for one person. She smiles, hands out the six plates and leaves. A suspicion grows – she thinks this is a second course for everyone. ‘Help yourselves’ our companion says ‘there’s far too much for one person here.’ We hang back, too polite to take him at his word. However, we gradually realise she’s not coming back until it’s all gone – and as our hunger grows, we start, one by one, to pick up our forks. Finally, when there is nothing left, Hannah appears at the table once more. ‘Another pitcher, guys?’ Her smile is unwavering. ‘Maybe later’ someone replies. ‘For now, can we just have our main courses?’ She shrugs as if to say – you only had to ask. ‘Sure, no problem – they’re on their way.’

At last, after nearly two hours, we all have a huge plate of food in front of us. By this time, we’ve eaten all the bread, nibbled at the Tapas and finished two pitchers of drinks. To say the edge has gone off our appetites is putting it mildly. No-one finishes all their food; Hannah continues to smile as she clears away the debris.

Too drained by this time to order (and wait for) dessert or coffee, we call for the bill. We question briefly whether we will add a tip; we can’t really say we’ve had good service. But then, we realise we don’t know why she’s so bad. Does she have problems that keep pulling her mind away from the job? Is she ill and on medication? Has she been working all day, on her feet without a break. We tip more generously than necessary and leave before we have time to change our minds. Hannah’s smile follows us into the night.
By Elizabeth Ducie

Elizabeth Ducie was a successful international manufacturing consultant, when she decided to give it all up and start telling lies for a living instead.

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