Last week I was dispatched by my corporate Lords and Masters to the northern city of Sheffield to work on our contract for the City Council. So on Monday, a colleague with whom I'd be working picks me up and we head north.
"I see you have a Tom-Tom," is my staggeringly imaginative opening conversational gambit.
"Yeah," he sighs, "but she's a bit *special*." I can actually hear the asterisks.
It turns out that this particular SatNav has taken a vow of silence and no amount of rebooting, begging, pleading or tears will cajole the tiniest syllable from her.
"But you can still see the route though, right?" Always looking on the bright side, me.
"Yeah," he concedes, "but then there's the narcolepsy". Apparently, the Tom-Tom occasionally falls asleep mid-journey and wakes up like a binge-drinker after a particularly heavy session with absolutely no idea where she is or where she's meant to be going. At these times, she will improvise and start directing the hapless driver to the last destination she can remember – usually the journey before last or some such. .
"I wish someone would steal her," he sighs. I have visions of hapless thieves trying to use the Tom-Tom to find an optimum getaway route only to end up in the river or the police station or somewhere.
Luckily, my colleague knows the route to Sheffield anyway, so Tom-Tom is left to sleep it off undisturbed.
Fast-Forward past tedious work stuff...
The hotel is bright, clean and new, having been built in only 2005. My room with its adjacent bathroom is larger than I expected which is good so, having dumped my bags on the bed, all that remains to do in order to settle in is perform the Survey of the Freebies.
I expect nearly everyone performs a version of this little ritual. Tea and coffee – check. Sugar and milk - check. Biscuits or Kit-Kats or whatever – Not Found. Not Found? What kind of cheapskate establishment was this? No biccies? Outrageous! Oh, wait, there's a tiny undernourished-looking flapjack thing peeping shyly out from amongst the coffee sachets. I hate flapjacks. There was no Sewing Kit, Shower Cap or Shoe Shine Mitt either, so this hotel was not getting 5 stars from me!
I decide to test out how thoroughly the room is serviced in real James Bond stylee, by moving one of the coffee cups off the little tray. If I come back tomorrow night and find it's been put back, I'll know they're doing the room properly.
The night passes comfortably and quietly enough.
The thing about hotels is the breakfast buffet. Here is where the unwary guest can become lost and confused amid a bewildering array of breakfast choices. I've often seen folks wandering dazedly around, pathetically clutching a plate or bowl, at a loss as to how best to tackle the food mountain. Scale the North Face of the muesli? Traverse the toast stacks? Rappel quickly up the side of the scrambled egg? The choices are endless.
Anyway, this hotel has an odd twist: you have to make your own toast! I've been informed by better-travelled folk that this is common practice these days. I'm not so sure I like this, am I meant to feel empowered by being able to scorch bread by myself? I don't think so! I don't think I should have to pay £100 quid a night and make my own toast. They'll be telling us to do the beds ourselves next.
Anyway, I approach the bread-scorching device with some apprehension. Not having seen anyone else use it, I am unsure how to operate it and don't want to make a fool of myself at best, or inflict bodily injury anyone at worst. A passing waitress gives me an in-depth tutorial.
"You put the bread on there." She gestures at a kind of flat metal platform that's sticking out of the contraption and walks off.
I carefully lay two slices of toast-to-be on the platform as instructed. A set of little rollers then bears them magically away to the innards of the machine (not unlike the way a coffin is borne away at a crematorium, and with similar results, when you think about it). A short time later the toast is shot out of the bottom of the machine, all golden and brown. I seize the slices and hurry back to the table which I have cunningly marked as mine by laying the folded napkin diagonally (No, it's not more 007 nonsense: I'm just crap at remembering where my table is in these places and, being partially-sighted to boot, need clues to help me get back there).
Ah-ha, lovely toast, I think to myself - and then run smack-dab into Sting's Global Environmental Toast Policy as articulated in his song An Englishman in New York. The marvellous toaster only does toast on one side! Now what? Should I just butter it and eat it anyway, pretending that was what I wanted all along or should I go back, tail between my legs, and submit the bread to another round of scorching? Being lazy, I opt for the former but vow to contravene the GETP the very next day.
I've arranged to meet my colleague in the lobby for the short walk to the office (he knows the way and I'm on a par with his autistic, amnesiac SatNav when it comes to remembering the way on my own). I wait for him in one of the fabulously uncomfortable settees that are dotted around the lobby, just opposite the lifts. It occurs to me, watching the doors opening and closing with people coming and going, that if you did not know what lifts actually did, you'd think they were some kind of magic cabinet. The doors open and, say, an elderly woman gets in and the doors close again. A while later, the doors open and the box is empty, or maybe two blokes walk out or something. Freaky!
At least the people here are friendly. In fact, they are veritable Dobby the House Elves compared to the staff at a London hotel I once stayed at. There, I reckon the waiters and porters were recruited almost exclusively from the ranks of embittered Goblins, not good enough with figures to get a plum job at Gringotts, but good enough at them to be able to curl a sneering upper lip if the tips weren't to their liking.
Fast-Forward past tedious work stuff...
Ah-ha! The coffee cup is just where I left it! Not good. The bed is beautifully made though, with the covers taut enough to bounce a penny off and have it embed itself in the ceiling. The bathroom is also absolutely spotless. Odd, how they do so well in some ways and not in others.
Next morning – my last - and my plans to contravene the GETP are scuppered: there is a hotel House Elf guarding the toast machine, offering ever-so-nicely to make the toast for me and even bringing it to my table afterwards. But it's still only done on one side.
Curse you Sting!