Jennifer O’Connell: Rodents, romance and how I met my husband
A mouse legged it across the diningroom floor. The rest is history
He was standing alone at the end of the bar, beckoning to the barman that he needed a discreet word. I wasn’t trying to earwig, but it was a wet night and there wasn’t much else by way of action.
“Bit of an embarrassing one,” he said in an urgent whisper, and whatever hope I had of minding my own business dissipated like the moisture on a damp anorak in an overheated lounge.
“I’m after leaving me trousers in yer man’s van.”
The barman picked up a tea towel and started drying a glass, meticulous as a priest preparing the goblet for communion. The man hoicked his entire body up on to the bar so he could lean in closer.
“I left the majority of me money there too,” he said.
“Did you now?” said the barman.
“I did,” said the luckless, trouserless, apparently penniless, man.
“I’ve only €8 here. So I was thinking you might shout me this round just until . . .”
“Right you are,” said the barman, disappointingly feeling no need to enquire further. Not a day has gone by since without me worrying about why he left his trousers behind, what he wore home and whether he ever got them back.
It reminded me of the best job I ever had, in a bar in Paris, more than two decades ago. I binged nightly on the customers’ stories, many of them about things they had lost: their wallet, job, hope, love, temper, memory, self-respect – sometimes all in the one night.
I don’t recall anyone ever claiming to have lost his trousers, but I did come across a pair once in the men’s toilet, after closing time.
'It’s Paris,' people would shrug. 'At least they’re not cockroaches'
Standing on the other side of the bar conferred upon you instant status as friend, confessor, relationship counsellor, debt collector, legal advisor, fool, prospective love interest, mediator and rapt audience – until the time came when you were the tyrant, haranguing them to drink up and throwing them out.
I was quite good at all of that; I was less good at the things I was actually paid to do, which included – but weren’t limited to – serving pints at speed; charging people for them; carrying eight plates at one time; carrying even one plate at a time; and cleaning up the service lift.
“If you want to stay friends with me,” the sternish restaurant manager said, presumptuously, the first day we met, “you’ll have to do a better job on the service lift.”
If the best thing about it was the yarns, the worst was the mice. When the customers left, they emerged en masse and skated gleefully along the kitchen floor and countertops, gorging on dried bread and leftovers. They took over the service lift I was now refusing to clean on principle.
Nobody except me seemed that bothered by them.
“It’s Paris,” people would shrug. “At least they’re not cockroaches.”
We had cockroaches too.
“It could be worse,” they’d say. “At least they’re not rats.”
You’re never more than a baguette’s distance from a rat in Paris, so we probably had those as well.
Pest control measures amounted to the chef throwing a meat cleaver across the room at the rodent invaders. It didn’t deter them but it kept the waitress from bothering him with orders, while he busied himself with pulling best-before labels off week-old meat.
“I’m sorry, we’re closed,” I’d tell people, when my colleagues were out of earshot, rather than risk being decapitated or contracting hantavirus in the kitchen.
“No, you’re not,” they’d say. “I can see people having dinner right there behind you.”
“We’re closed now,” I’d repeat. “It’s the mice.” That usually did it. I like to think there are dozens of people alive all over Paris today as a direct result of my laziness.
One evening a mouse broke cover in the middle of service and legged it across the dining room floor. It stopped halfway when it realised its mistake and tried to double back, only to find itself surrounded by too many pairs of expensive Parisian heels.
“Excuse me. I’ll just be a minute,” the sternish manager, who had been taking an order, said to his customers, French ladies of a certain age.
He walked briskly across the room and gave the stunned mouse a sharp kick in the backside. It skidded across the floor and came to a stop under a nearby table. Then he went to the bar, helped himself to a pint glass and a beermat, returned to the bewildered mouse, scooped it into the glass, and put the beer mat on top.
“I’ll be with you in a moment,” he said to the ladies. And then he jogged downstairs and deposited it safely into the street, came back and finished taking their order.
I was remembering all this, sitting alone in the bar and listening to the man with no trousers talk his way into a fresh credit line, when I looked up and there he was. The presumptuous restaurant manager. “Do we have time for another quick one before the cinema?” he was asking.
Reader, of course I married him. What else was I going to do?