The espresso cups are drained, pudding bowls scraped clean and one or two friends have begun to tap at Blackberries under the table. Somebody asks for the bill. Eighteen months ago, one alpha professional might have slid their credit card into the waiter's hand in a display of largesse. "No, I'll get it," he or she would murmur to the group, in one gesture signalling how very well the boom (though nobody called it that) was treating him/her. Hell, even I did it sometimes. But more often, I've taken part in an egalitarian system of divvying up the bill equally.
It's a drag for the waiter, who has to then thrust half-a-dozen cards into his machine, but for diners – and I'm talking about a group of friends here, rather than a business dinner, which is simpler – it is fair and easy.
This summer I've noticed a change at the table, a nervous shifting of buttocks on seats and jaws stiffening when the paper print-out is unfurled on its little dish. I'm not the only one who has spotted this development and, true to the stereotype of Brits who silently seethe over bad manners rather than speak up, it has been cooking up three courses of awkwardness in restaurants across town.
The cause of the New Tightness is complicated. People are monitoring their so-called discretionary spending carefully. The assumption that if, on this occasion, I pick up the bill, next time you will, seems unreliable now. There's less of an inclination on the part of teetotallers to subsidise their boozy companions.
One non-drinker of my acquaintance insists on paying an equal share at group meals, taking the view that he's not merely paying for food, but for company. But his generosity is now exceptional. Another, formerly easygoing friend now insists on paying only for the items she ate, particularly when her companions ordered oysters to start and a dessert to her single course.
In theory, there's nothing wrong with that – but a request to pay less always makes for a testy atmosphere. I'm finding to my cost that the only answer is for the greediest at the table (me) to offer to pay more than my dieting, teetotal or "financially careful" friends – and if they take up my offer, well, I just have to swallow it.
Expats suffer memory loss
An old friend who's been living in Sydney for several years confessed over lunch (she drank, I didn't, we split it) that she and her husband are considering a return to London. They miss their families, naturally, but she also admitted to a yearning for this city's old buildings and rich history. Australia is wonderful but shallow, she said.
Every expat I've met is like this: consumed by the indecision of whether to return home. I detailed for her, as a gentle reminder, normal weather conditions here, regular working hours, the effects of the credit crisis (from which Australia has largely escaped), the dearth of nearby beaches and average price of a lovely, 100-year-old two-bedroom flat with no garden or sea view. By the end of the meal, Sydney was a far sunnier prospect. UK Border Agency, my services are for hire if you want them.Reuse content