Not too long ago, my girlfriend and I spent a lovely weekend away at a boutique hotel in Devon. We like to have a weekend break every once in a while, otherwise the closest we get to a change of scenery is doing a one-off weekly shop at the local Morrisons instead of our regular jaunt to Tesco. “Ooh, look, they stack their beans on the other side of the aisle, here. Everything’s sort of the same, but different.”
I like staying in boutique hotels. Given that I’m an unsuccessful nobody in my day to day life, it gives me the chance to create the fleeting illusion that I’m successful and important. For instance, when we arrived at the hotel in my girlfriend’s Jaguar XF, I wanted fellow guests to speculate that we’d perhaps fuelled the car with Perrier-Jouet champagne and that I’d probably spent the four hour journey on my iPhone organising a coup in an oil-rich central African state.
The blemish on this illusion was the trouble my girlfriend and I had getting the car boot open, which made it look like we’d stolen the car and didn’t quite have time to acquaint ourselves with its gadgetry. As the hotel’s two managers stood there kindly waiting to help us with our luggage, I couldn’t help but wonder if they were half expecting the boot to pop open only to find themselves staring into the terrified eyes of a bound and gagged company executive. Still, I remained hopeful that we at least looked the part.
Whenever I walk into a hotel reception I always think of the final scene in ‘Big’, when Josh becomes a kid again and finds himself wearing canoe-sized shoes and an over-sized suit. Because in spite of being in my mid-30s, I always fear that the hotel staff will immediately identify me as some kind of charlatan (basically a bumbling, childlike idiot masquerading as a ‘professional’ thirtysomething). So with this insecurity pulsing through my veins, I always tend to view other guests as competition. And I always feel like I’ve got to try just that little bit harder.
[This insecurity doesn’t just rear its head when I stay at hotels. I sometimes feel the same at work. Only the other week I was sat in a meeting with a woman who used so many acronyms, my notepad looked like an optometrists eye test chart. Instead of sitting there nodding like the Churchill Insurance dog’s understudy, I felt like I should’ve been handed a colouring book and a junior-sized portion of chicken nuggets and chips while the grown-ups chatted.]
There was one couple at the hotel – two women who I thought looked like Sandy Toksvig, and who I imaginatively nicknamed ‘The Toksvig Twins’ – who seemed to be our direct competition. They were reading the papers and drinking red wine in the lounge when we arrived, and they exuded – in a perfectly pleasant way – a seriously cultured vibe. Their resemblance to Sandy Toksvig didn’t necessarily mean they were cultured lesbians. They could’ve been sisters, for all I knew. But they seemed to enjoy reading each other interesting snippets from the newspapers about successful women in the public eye, so I suspected that things had probably gotten physical between them at least once or twice during Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour.
Anyway, the Toksvig Twins set the bar high. I knew they’d be a tough act to keep up with. But oh, how I tried.
When my girlfriend and I went down to the lounge to knock back a drink and look sophisticated before dinner that night, the hotel cat jumped onto my lap and immediately fell asleep. In fact, it stuck to my lap like a boiled sweet even when the manager came through to walk us to our table. It was a weird looking thing. Its body looked like someone had draped a chamois leather over some coat hangers and it’s face looked like Voltaire’s death mask. Futhermore, it had a name like a sixty-year-old accountant – like “Mr Wilmington” or something – and it had a faint whiff of Greek drains about it.
Given the cat’s slight odour (and the knowledge that I would shortly be picking at bread rolls with my fingers), I just couldn’t bring myself to touch it. So I tried to tip the cat from my lap, which involved an ungainly thrusting action. Unfortunately, to the casual observer, my cat-tipping technique must have looked like I was trying to hump Mr Wilmington to build up an appetite. It sort of dented the image of casual sophistication that I was going for.
The veneer of sophisticated adulthood crumbled even further when my starter of prawns arrived at dinner. Because as much as I love prawns, I was devastated to learn that I’d have to peel and devein them myself. I have several problems with this:
(1) It’s a little bit too much like work. It’s the equivalent of ordering a steak, but instead of the waitress exchanging your regular knife for a steak knife, she places a captive bolt gun on the table and gestures to the garden, where a restrained cow awaits.
(2) I hate eating food that makes my fingers greasy or sticky. In the unlikely event that I ever found myself being questioned by CIA interrogators in Guantanamo, they wouldn’t need to waterboard me for information. Instead, they could just force me to eat some spare ribs and then tell me that if I wipe my hands on the kitchen towel provided, they’ll shoot a puppy. The need to cleanse my hands would be so great, I’d spill my guts.
(3) It’s just not enjoyable. Even if, when you tugged at the prawn’s intestinal tract, it activated a voice-box like a talking Action Man commander, it still wouldn’t appeal to me. (Well, maybe a little.) But twisting heads off and removing appendages feels ever so slightly Medieval. I just want to eat the prawns, I’m not trying to get them to confess to anything.
Thankfully, I managed to quell the childish tantrum that was building inside of me (although, it was audible enough for my long-suffering girlfriend to hear) and I completed the task – and the meal – with my adult status just about intact. (And if no one saw me bypass the granola and head straight for the Coco Pops Mega Munchers at breakfast the next morning, it will have remained intact.)
Before we checked out of the hotel the next day, I had a big, grown-up conversation with the hotel’s hirsute owner (a cross between Katie Brand and Tom Selleck) about the ins and outs of owning a Lurcher. I can’t really remember what was said, but it was nice to stand there and feel like a grown up for a bit, talking about grown up things.
I wasn’t outed as a charlatan that weekend, but I suspect it won’t be long before I’m rumbled.