Random memories – me being a threat to US security –

Top US security guards are surprisingly large. I mean surprisingly large. It was like being hemmed in by two suspicious Hummers – but I am getting ahead of myself.

A long, long time ago in a country far, far away, I worked for an elite catering company, co-ordinating events. One of our most prestigious regulars was the US Embassy and the owner of the company was very chuffed when we were booked for a particularly high-profile cocktail party at the Embassy. It would be huge – 600 guests – and security was even tighter than usual. Dinner would also be required in an upstairs room for a small party of VIVIPs. We were to submit ID numbers for all 25 participating staff for security checks and a few of us – the owner, the chef, two serving staff, me – would need top level clearance.

Two weeks before the event the owner was whisked into hospital for major brain surgery. There was no way he’d be back in the saddle in time, but after an emergency meeting the Embassy decided they would go ahead anyway rather than start the whole security thing again with another caterer.

A frisson of excitement ran through the entire company when we realized President Bill Clinton was visiting SA at the same time. So that was why the security was so much stricter! The Embassy cagily confirmed the President’s party would be the dinner guests and our Austrian chef Albert threw himself into an orgy of preparation. I even booked my daughter, then 14, as one of the general waitresses looking after the cocktail party – come on, the President of the USA? She’d worked functions before, would never have forgiven me if I hadn’t included her, and at least I knew she wasn’t a security risk.

It was a roaring success. With the main rush over Albert and I retreated for a brief celebratory smoke break. He wanted to shake hands, but I’d been caught that way before – the man was a handshake sadist with a grip like a mangle – so we settled for high-fives, then noticed a security guard pointing us out to a worried-looking man. Uh-oh. He came over to say the President was also to meet a group of 60 prominent American businesspeople, but the caterers had let them down. The President, he said, would take it as a personal favour if we could help out.

We said promptly that we’d be delighted, when was it?  The worried man looked even more worried. The party, he said, was starting now –

For security reasons no-one is allowed to leave any event before the Presidential party does, so you may imagine the looks the tiny task team got as we were escorted out by by security guards. My daughter looked particularly dumbfounded and said afterwards she assumed we’d been caught doing something horrendous and she’d never see me again.

We raced back to the kitchen and while Albert and Thandi started performing miracles assembling canapés and finger snacks from anything they could find in a kitchen all but stripped for the big event, Bheka the driver and I put together the most basic bar in the world from stock left over from previous functions – half a bottle of gin here, a third of whisky there, anything measuring more than four fingers went into the crates. I’d take my own car so I could stop to buy ice and bags of crisps and peanuts en route, and we had a fair assortment of wines, beers and mixers. Last to be packed into the van went the glasses, still steaming from the glass washer.  From the time of the request at the Embassy to the van’s arrival in Market Street was an hour and fourteen minutes – probably record-breaking for us, a very long wait indeed for 60 hungry, thirsty and extremely disgruntled guests.  I arrived first, in the car, and opted to wait outside until the van arrived rather than walk into that angry room carrying only three big bags of ice and some crisps ….

Our welcome was, you can imagine, ferocious.  Finger sandwiches and hastily-garnished crackers were grabbed by the fistful by the starving guests, still-warm egg halves were wolfed down. Olives, cocktail sausages, ham cornets, crisps with dips, even the crudité went as fast as we could put trays out. Thandi got mobbed every time she started out to circulate with a tray of snacks and settled for rushing them out to scattered tables, hotly pursued, then running back to get the next, looking scared. With only two bottle-openers we simply couldn’t open bottles fast enough, but I knew I had more openers in the car – I always carried a Boy Scout backup kit – so left mine with Albert and slipped out to get another. I didn’t bother to dig for it, just grabbed the whole bag. As I rushed back in two huge security guards stopped me and wanted to go through the bag. They agreed to let the bottle openers be handed through to Thandi, who was hopping from foot to foot just inside the door, but wanted to know exactly why I was trying to smuggle in carving and boning knives? Before I could explain, the Presidential cavalcade arrived and I was pushed up against the outside wall by those human Hummers while the party went through. Only when they left again, twenty minutes later – and I could see by the way Bill Clinton was massaging his fingers that he’d shaken hands with Albert and the others – was I released.

The owner said afterwards, quite rightly, we should have refused rather than risk a sub-standard performance, but I’m pretty sure if he’d been there he wouldn’t have refused the US President a personal favour.

I’m not as sure that the President personally rubber-stamped the letters of thanks sent to Albert and me, but I’m still pretty proud of mine.

Home again

In my last blog I was dreading driving a total 800 + miles to spend a few days down South with a ‘crazy dug’ (sic) (Scots say dug) and you know what? She was great. Oh, she groaned a lot, and shifted around a lot, and it was four hours (no, seriously, FOUR HOURS) before she sat down for the first time – but no barking, yelping, or trying to attack passing cars through the windscreen, side windows, and back window.

On the way back she sat down for the first time only two hours into the journey and by the time we bypassed Glasgow she had started taking two-to-three-minute catnaps, so she’s really becoming quite the traveller.  Dear me, though, she is very glad to be home, as you can see in the photo.

wedding dress 020


The catnaps were wonderful because she stopped panting and this dog can pant louder and for longer than any dog in the history of travel. Not just hah hah hah hah, either. She manages to add bulldog sounds to it.  Sort of gnhHAH gnhHAH-HAH gnnnggnnnnhhahHAHgnn.  She particularly liked to sit next to the Satnav and pant at it, steaming up the screen, until The Voice icily asked her to desist.  Oh yes. I distinctly heard it.

Turn around, it told her firmly, when possible. So she did.



Dog days – lazy hazy crazy days of summer travelling with a dog

I’m insane. Potty. A couple of sandwiches short of a picnic. Missing on at least one cylinder. Nuts. A bampot.

I am about to tackle a 400 mile drive with a dog that hates cars. Not my car, she quite likes driving to local parks for walks. She’s good as gold when I leave her in it to do shopping, or pay for petrol. What she really resents is cars coming up alongside, or behind, or in front.  And trucks? She really hates trucks. Not keen on buses. Iffy about motorbikes.

She’s a bulldog, and she weighs twenty kilograms, and if I clip her in to her safety belt harness she hurls herself from side to side and barks, howls, barks, whimpers, barks, whuffles and, don’t know if I mentioned, barks.  If I release the harness – or, more accurately, when she releases herself – she jumps from back seat to passenger seat to back to front to back to front.  Wherever possible she digs her claws into my thigh in passing for good purchase – that’s twenty kilograms behind stubby claws. When we first met we drove from Cornwall to Scotland. She started the trip in a dog carrier but managed to break out after two hours. I kept thinking she would get bored, settle down, sleep – she didn’t. She was absolutely exhausted by the time we got here (fifteen hours, because of all the stops for my head to stop ringing, and to get her back in her harness), and sounding a bit hoarse, but still barking. And jumping.

She has three barks. There’s a yappy bark, which would suit a Jack Russell better than a bulldog, pretty piercing. Drills straight through the head. There’s a bulldog bark, steady, firm, which she can keep up for hours on end. And there’s the Rottweiler snarling bark, which she saves for cars or pedestrians that come into her ‘space’ (anything within ten feet) which startles even me.  Every time.

Oh, I know exactly what you’re thinking. Because she hates kennels, that’s why. She is a rescue dog and there are Real Issues there. She hates dogs, all dogs, and when she was handed into the rescue centre she turned her face to the wall, wouldn’t eat, wouldn’t drink, and apart from occasionally hurling herself passionately against the wire at the sight of another dog, settled into prolonged hunger strike. She was finally coaxed to take a treat by a volunteer, but had to be hand-fed for weeks. Most of her fur fell out with the stress. So if this trip is the disaster I’m fearing, she can expect to starve her way through a kennel stay in future, and with summer coming up, going bald isn’t too much of a problem.

Yes I could pay someone to stay in the house and look after her and the cat, but she’s a bit odd with people. Unpredictable. Hates casual visitors and has to be locked outside for nearly all. Houseguests – she was graciously welcoming to my daughter, who came to stay for a few days, for the first five hours. Then she attacked her, snarling bark and teeth, and bit her so hard through her trainer it left a bruise. Next morning, back to gracious. One reason I’m taking her is to introduce her to the rest of the family, specifically the ones assuming I’m exaggerating or handling her wrong. There’s a really, really good dog whisperer in Scotland, I had to wait weeks for an appointment and he laughed when he saw her and said we’d soon sort out my little dog. She threw a tantrum, flung herself around, then bided her time and bit him.  It’s practically impossible to bite a dog handler who deals with problem dogs all the time, they’re just too quick, but he did stop underestimating her after that.  He did her a power of good, too, but we never covered car manners, which I am now realising is a real oversight.

I asked the vet for dog valium, but they don’t like to give it to bulldogs as there are recorded fatalities due to their very odd breathing arrangements. He gave me an odd look when I said I was prepared to take the chance, and still wouldn’t give me any.

So what I’m really hoping is that when I get back I’ll write another blog saying she was fantastic and we had a wonderful time.  She will be travelling in a thundershirt, with the windows blacked out, her bed sprayed with calming spray, having taken her herbal calming tablet. If you should happen to be on the motorways between Scotland and Berkshire and notice a small white car with steamed up windows and a bulldog with redrimmed bulging eyes, give us a wave. You’ll know it’s us – you’ll hear the snarling rage as you pass.