On Valentine’s day – then and now

When I was working at the Sunday Times in Johannesburg on Valentine ’s Day, my  office looked like a florist shop.

‘No one has the right to have so many admirers!’ adjudicated a reporter spitefully.

It’s a very South African thing to define someone by what they have, what they wear, what they drive and where they live.

I tried to heed the caveat of my yogi raj Mani Finger: Take your work seriously, but not yourself. If you take your possessions seriously what will happen if you lose them.

What will happen if you lose them?

I thought about that when I took the roof off the car and drove home with Talking Heads blaring, the song-snatching wind blowing through my hair. At times like this it was easy to believe that I had hit three gold stars on the fruit machine of life. Did I deserve my good fortune? What gods were smiling on me – and more worryingly – would they always do so?

My first husband, Gordon Schachat, bought me a Lancia Spyder. It was postbox red convertible and I called it Valentine, since that was the day on which I got it.

When I was instructed to leave South Africa, an acquaintance introduced me to someone called Manual Ramos. (Here come the jokes about ‘His parents called him Manual because they couldn’t spell Automatic.’)

Manual claimed that he would fly the car to the UK for a mere R1500 (this was in 1990) courtesy of TAP.

“Eesa no problem. Lissabon. Lonnadon.” said Ramos impatiently.

For some reason the stipulated R1500 was inflated to R4,500.

“Eesa deposit. You will get eet back,” said Ramos irritably. He made the fovant gesture beloved of London taxi-drivers: it’s a gesture that purports to mean ‘Thank you’ but actually means “F*** off out of my way.”

My hairdresser Debbie followed me to a hangar at Jan Smuts Airport (as it was then called).

“Oy!’ she said. “I wonder if you’ll see that little car again.”

Weeks passed. Ramos failed to fax or phone me at any of the London numbers I had given him. Rumours festered. The car was spotted (they said) in Sandton City. In Italy. At the Oyster Box in Umhlanga Rocks.

Ramos’ phone, somewhat disconcertingly, was ringing disconnected.

I called the Acquaintance.

She, somewhat disconcertingly started clicking her tongue impatiently as the pips alerted her to the fact that I was calling from overseas.

“Again with the car story……” she sighed heavily.

Two months later, the car was located in the Port of Dover. It had been strapped to the deck of ship, vandalized and the kilim rugs and other precious things Ramos had told me were ‘quite fine’ to stash in the boot, had disappeared.

Ramos, naturally, had disappeared too, leaving not so much as a spot of grease.

A friend kindly found a British actor who collected Italian sports cars and I reluctantly sold Valentine to him.

I wrote a pathetic note to the actor:

Please take care of my Valentine. If she should ever need a home I hope my circumstances may have changed and I can take care of her again.

This Valentine’s Day I will be muling at the restaurant.

Creating the masterpiece.

Creating the masterpiece.

Call time will be around 2 pm. After the usual sidework (Hoovering, cleaning the loos etc) we will transform the restaurant into a ‘Winter Snow Palace.’

This involves a ton of faux-snow. Three inches of “snow” will be spread over the floor, along the tops of the window sills and even on the tables side tables where the champagne flutes wait in sparkling serried ranks.

The whole effect is quite breath-taking.

I will open bottles and bottles of Bollinger/Veuve/Gossett and Moët et Chandon. There may even be the odd Krug…

What are the chances that a diner will leave the waitress a thimble?


One of the most challenging lessons I am learning is that I am now a downstairs person.

Downstairs people live to serve upstairs people. The Americans who come to the restaurant believe that they are upstairs people.

Occasionally there will be a marvellous surprise; someone on whom I have waited actually noticed me.

This week a couple who usually ask for me to serve them, gifted me with a beautifully-wrapped bag. In the cerise and lime green tissue paper and bound with ribbon that matched the label perfectly was a bottle of Perrier-Jouët champagne and beribboned boxes containing gift certificates for The Chocolate Box and Savour.

Champagne, chocolate and cheese! My three main food groups.

The note was even more precious.

“…. A few little treats so that you can pamper yourself…you are so gracious when we see you, we wanted to do something special for you… ” J and N.


This morning I got a card from Seamus, an Irishman I have known for a decade and a half.

“One man loved the pilgrim soul in you,” he wrote.

“As usual a candle burns for you in front of the Shrine of St Valentine in Whitefriar Street, Carmelite Church in Dublin.”

These are the things that I will think on tomorrow night, when I trudge through the faux-snow living to serve, serving to live.

I will endeavor to Lee Strasberg myself and give the performance of this part of my life. I will act like an angel in a striped bistro apron.

As it says in Hebrews 1:14

Are not all angels ministering spirits sent to serve those who will inherit salvation?

Happy Valentine’s Day!