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Friday, September 30, 2005

Expense Account

A twinge of nostalgia last night as I wined and dined a business colleague on my employer's expense account.

The last time I ordered from a menu with gay abandon, ignoring the right-hand column with all those vulgar numbers and £ signs was in September 1980.

A BBC producer on to whose current affairs programme I needed to place the author Günther Grass.

She had in fact agreed from the day three months previously when the publisher's catalogue had announced publication of a new book, but she was a dead ringer for Kate Bush, paid a pittance for her good work so rarely ate out, and I - like all London's publicists - craved her company.

That ended 10 straight years of non-stop eating out in the best restaurants.

Remembering how a table-cloth doodle by Picasso was once framed by the restaurateur as being worth more on the market than his whole business, I twice tried to alert le patron of Quo Vadis not to discard his dirty linen - once with John Piper who'd done a charming sketch from memory of a church steeple we both admired in Bourton-on-Water, and the other an absolutely hideous and hilarious caricature by Francis Bacon of an art critic we both regarded as utterly bogus. In fact, Francis later threw up on the carpet, thus placing the eaterie's rug work also beyond purchase.

On neither occasion did the ignorant victual purveyor spot the chance of riches and I hadn't the sense to leave a fat tip for the waiter to turn a blind eye as I neatly folded and retained the table linen.

Those vinous days are a blur, of course, but one occasion sticks in mind.

My managing director signed off on my monthly expenses, which he usually did with a flourish and no question. One day he stopped and looked more closely at a particular receipt.

"I shall sign this of course, but just for your information, this dinner with R**** (a prominent literary editor) ... I happen to know on what day this working meal took place. I know it was a Sunday because it was my birthday. I trust she was good looking and that the night concluded to your mutual satisfaction."

I asked to see the receipt and solemnly dialled the direct line of the literatus in question, handing the phone to my boss, who had the grace to look slightly non-plussed.

I only heard one end of the chat but it sounded to have gone something like this:

"Ah yes, Rodney, I have my eminent publicist far-from-gris here with me and I questioned his dining you one Sunday."

"Yes, indeed. And it was luncheon that he generously offered to spare me the tedium of preparing a home-made repast and the consequent washing up. He had the kindness to give up his Sunday to bring over the Tom Sharpe proofs and talk me through your seasonal list. I was due to go into hospital next day and had expressed my anxiety over keeping au fait  with the new books to come in my absence. Is there some problem?"

"Not at all. I was just exercising my usual eagle-eyed monitoring of expenses."

"Well really! Do you have speaker phone there? Please apply it.

Christopher, my dear boy, if B- is accusing you of stealing from petty cash, and if you intend to take the correct step of resigning - as you should - I shall make it my duty by close of day to have placed you elsewhere with a more appreciative employer. I have the ear of every managing director, and I know of some gaps where you would perform stirlingly, and to considerably more rewarding remuneration."

My boss: "Ah yes, thank you, Rodney. [End of speakerphone] That will not be necessary. Just a little jocular jousting at this end."

Boss: "Somewhat dramatic on your part, but point proven. You realise that I can no longer question a single expense from this day on? Which vexes me no end."

Shrug.

"As punishment, might you be free to bring your banjolele to Miriam's 8th birthday party this Sunday? I am passing on a Royal Command and I would be indebted if you could make the time. I can assure you of a very decent meal, a passable bottle or two of Bourgogne and a 1924 port that I have been looking forward to sampling."

"Tell Miriam I shall be there and expecting a solo on 'Puff the Magic Dragon' "


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