Dimly, I remember the time when you could buy a sandwich as the result of a perfectly normal interaction between two human beings facing each other across a counter. You would ask for something, they would give it to you, you would hand over money. But that was before UK sandwich-buying was standardised. I do not know whose idea standardisation was and no doubt it has brought many benefits for the customer. But you need to have your wits about you.
Do not fall into the trap I did when I put my veggie option down on the counter and feebly started trying to ask for tea.
‘Can I have a…’
‘Eat in or take away?’
‘Take away. Can I have a…’
‘Do you want a bag?’
‘Er, yes. Can I have a…’
‘Thanks. Can I have a…’
‘Any teas or coffee with that?’
‘Ah, thank goodness…’
‘No, not muffins! Go back a step! I want a cup of…’
‘That will be four pounds fifty please.’
‘Oh dear, I want a cup of…’
‘Enjoy your day!’
The sandwich operative was now staring into the middle distance waiting for me to put money into her hand.
‘Do you think I could have a…’
She started talking to a fellow worker in Italian. Clearly there was no room in the official sandwich-buying procedure to insert a request for tea ad hoc and as I had failed to insert the demand successfully into the official opening for tea it was now hopeless to protest. But surely there must be some way back? I thought about submitting a written request on one of the suggestion forms entitled ‘We Care What You Think’. But sometimes the simple solutions are best. So I took a deep breath and shouted at the top of my voice: ‘I want a cup of teeeeeeeeeea!’ The shop fell silent. A chill wind whistled and the cheery South American background music gave way to Enio Morricone striking up the opening bar to The Good, The Bad and The Ugly.
Horribly, something like recognition of my existence crossed her glassy face. She paused, murderously, as if to say, ‘So this is the game you are wanting to play!’
‘White tea,’ I said, now relishing being so subversive as to utter one of those racist beverage remarks we are discouraged from making nowadays.
Without turning — of course she was not going to take her eyes off me — she shouted over her shoulder at her colleague, ‘Tea with milk!’
He moved slowly to the machine as if not to make any sudden movements that might jolt one of us into a quick draw.
‘You will have to wait, for your tea with milk.’
‘I fully understand that.’
‘Sugar is on the side.’
‘I can see that.’
We stood in silence eyeing each other menacingly.
When the tea came, she slammed it in front of me. Her colleague wiped his hands on his apron and looked from her to me nervously. I took it and backed slowly away. It’s just as well I don’t take sugar for it would have been folly to linger at the condiments repository.
All in all, I was happy to have survived. People get so confused in sandwich shops these days that they collapse and die from the stress. ‘Regular or grande? Toasted? In a bag? Napkins? Extra napkins? Extra Warfarin? Gas and air?’
The effect on elderly people is horrendous. We’ve all seen one sagging dangerously behind the counter trying to negotiate a barrage of questions about skinny milk as the able-bodied among us think, ‘Someone must put a stop to this!’ But always we turn the other way. They ought to equip café chains with defibrillators to prevent fatalities.
They should also start adult-learning courses in ‘advanced sandwich buying’, on the basis that it is now more difficult than using the internet. My parents will happily tinker with Wikipedia, but ask them to purchase a toastie at one of Leamington Spa’s smarter café chains and they are quite rightly paralysed by fear.
When you have lived through a world war, to be asked whether you want a takeaway sandwich oozing with hot cheese in a bag is to be completely baffled into submission. What can they mean? How else are they proposing that I take the sandwich from the premises? There must be a subtext…
So they stand there frowning and trying to work out the true meaning of why they might want a bag as the baristas cancel their order and move on to the next customer.
‘Where’s my sandwich?’ my mother will say to me as we ponder our backwards movement in the queue. And I have to explain, ‘I’m sorry, mum, you messed up your bag request selection. It happens.’
Melissa Kite is deputy political editor of the Sunday Telegraph.