Why is it that when someone arrives late, they are always jollier than the person waiting for them?
Whilst staying in Exeter the other evening, we went to an Italian restaurant for a meal. It was a popular venue, and we took the last remaining table, at around 7.45pm. Around us, diners were making their orders, tucking in, knocking back the wine, asking for the bill, and all were chatting away to their respective companions. There was a busy atmosphere in the place, it was attractive and bright, the service attentive and good-humoured and the food very good. However, I slowly became aware of a rather unsettling fact.
Nobody laughed. None of the women looked happy. None of the men showed any expression. Everyone talked and had issues in mind which they were discussing, often gravely, with their partners. The more I looked, the more no-one appeared to be enjoying themselves. Despite having made efforts to look presentable, attractive even, eyes were tired, make-up faded, faces drawn. Fashions proclaimed 'contemporary middle-age', but looks told of a life of woe.
It was only later, after nine o'clock, when the restaurant had cleared somewhat and late diners were arriving, that things changed. Couples sat down already engaged in animated, upbeat conversations. They were busy with the detail of engaging with their companions and the atmosphere in the restaurant became brisker, lighter and flowing. People smiled, eyes glinted, conversation became punctuated by laughter and sent on tangents by inconsequential pleasantries. Sparkle had been injected into the evening and people actually wanted to enjoy each other's company. They attracted attention, and were attractive as a result.
So why the change?
None of the early diners appeared to have over-faced themselves with food, or had consumed so much red wine that a stupor was setting in. Conversely, none of the late arrivals gave an impression of having spent the past few hours knocking back aperatifs to get merry beforehand. The reason for the difference was not gastronomic. Nor was it particularly age-related: young and old made up both groups.
It crossed my mind that time could have played a part. The blanket statement "it's gone 7.00 p.m., so it's time we have to eat" could have applied to the early diners: "Listen, it's nine o'clock - why don't we meet in / go to that restaurant...?" to the late ones. Working back from that presumption, perhaps I was right. The early diners focussed on having to eat, the later ones wanted to. More than that, the early diners ate together because they had to eat, whereas the later ones wanted to be together and sharing a table in a restaurant was a great way to do so.
Absent from the restaurant on our arrival was all sense of aspiration, of direction, of enthusiasm. Even friends who had met to catch up, as were the two ladies at the table adjoining ours, showed little cheer during their discussions. The muted talk was about problems, about issues, about mundanities. Whatever the subject was, conversations were lack-lustre because the enthusiasm to talk about it in any other way was missing.
Yet if identical subjects were discussed later on, it would be with optimism, brio and confidence. That these late arrivers were 'late' - coming in from elsewhere, with less time before they'd have to move on - would suggest more urgency to their demeanour, and with urgency comes direction and objectivity. Unlike earlier, inertia was no longer on the menu; vitality, less restraint and emotion were order of the day.
So, when the early diners moved on, would it be to a more positive and uplifting place? I don't think so. One or two may yet have their damascene moments but most will be destined to repeat the same cheerless regime until such a time as they become an empty seat at a restaurant table - and the subject of someone else's next morose conversation.
Perhaps it is because a lack of animation has become so commonplace that this social melancholia is failing to be recognised. Torpor appears acceptable as long as it is well behaved and remains innocuous. Sharing any thought that you are thinking of changing is unacceptable, because change means being different and being different is not acceptable either.
Perhaps all the early diners were talking about the problems of having to conform so much. The late arrivals probably didn't have time.
We had a lovely meal - although next time, I think we might eat a little later.