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23 years is a long time to wait for the punchline

I had a few things to report from last week – but I’ve forgotten them all. Nothing happened last week. Nothing except for the incredibly satisfying telling of a story from 23 years ago. Now, I’ve told this story many times before, but never to the other people involved, and turns out, that makes all the difference. So, settle yourselves.

Picture it: London, December 1997. I am extremely lonely and extremely miserable. Armin (my boyfriend of nearly a year, at this point) is in Zurich; he used to spend three months living with his dad every winter (SA summer), waiting tables and saving his pennies to get him through the rest of the year at university, so that’s what he was doing. I was doing the standard white South African new graduate thing of heading north on a working holiday visa to see the world and maybe save some £££, but it turned out not to suit me at all. So there I am, utterly heartsick, and I get it into my head that I could actually fly over to see him for Christmas and that would be SO MUCH BETTER.

So he asks his dad if that’s ok, and J says sure, but R (stepmom) says definitely not on Christmas Eve. Weihnachten is for family, not for girlfriends they’ve never met, but a day later would be fine. That’s completely fine by me, but the thing is I can’t actually get there on Christmas Day, only on the 24th, because public transport shuts down entirely on the 25th. So a taxi to the airport would cost me more than the flight, which is not an option. But it’s okay! Armin ropes in a friend. She’s perfectly happy to lend me her bed for the night (she herself going off for her own family Christmas elsewhere), then I can just go to his family the next day. Awesome.

I phone Armin on the evening of the 23rd (but he’s at work) and leave a message with R, whose English is at this time fairly poor, saying that I’m looking forward to meeting her the next day and confirming my flight details. A calls me back a few hours later to clear up this “misunderstanding”, haha, because of course the fact that I’m arriving the next day is a secret! It’s too awkward! If his dad knew I had to come that day then he’d feel obliged to have me over, but R would be very unhappy and it’s all just a total embarrassment, and obviously Armin assumed I understood that, so why would he have to tell me not to give the game away!

Oh.

Hm. Meanwhile I’ve called my mom in Cape Town to let her know that I will be in Zurich for the weekend and in case she wants to call me for Christmas, here’s the number. So, there’s a chance she’ll ring when I’m not yet there, which – again – would be total embarrassment. But it’s now far too late for me to call her and clear that up. Can A call her in the morning to let her know? Ok great.

Bright and early, very very early, on the 24th I hop on the very first tube and make my way to Heathrow, where I manage to only just miss my flight, by dint of not being pushy enough in the queue. Lesson learned. Anyway it’s fine, they rebook me on the next flight three hours later. But… how can I tell Armin what time to meet me?

I phone my mother! Who has not yet heard from him, is bemused and entertained, and happy to pass on the message. I wait a few hours at the airport, incidentally having a memorable conversation with a friendly stranger, I get to ZH, fall into A’s arms and all is very well indeed.

Since we have the whole afternoon to ourselves, he takes me round town. Bahnhofstrasse, down to the lake, quick tourist highlights. “But remember,” he says, “you have NOT BEEN HERE, when we’re talking with my dad you have come STRAIGHT FROM THE AIRPORT!”

So… the evening passes very pleasantly alone in this friend’s flat and the next day too goes very well. Delighted to meet the family, everyone very welcoming. Lovely lunch. Then his dad is telling me all about how great Switzerland is and maybe the next day we’ll take a little outing to see the city, do I know the famous Bahnhofstrasse?

Well, obviously I had to answer “Yes, I saw it yesterday!” just to see the look on A’s face. And when he’s properly choking, I finish with “…in a magazine!”

I’ve been telling this story for 23 years. I find it enormously satisfying, how all the pieces fit together – the intercontinental phone calls and all – and the fact that I just happened to get the chance to tease A like that at the end. But A was always a bit nervous of telling the story to J and R themselves, because maybe it would still be embarrassing! However, after a lovely dinner on Sunday night, I felt the time had come. And I told this story, with great relish.

J and R smiled and laughed and took it all in quite happily. And then, said J, he had a little “Ergänzung”.

They’d seen us on Bahnhofstrasse.

They saw Armin with this strange girl, very snuggly and intimate indeed, a day before his actual girlfriend was due to arrive, and definitely not where he had said he would be at that moment. They had chosen not to greet us, and not to ask any questions, because, well, clearly it’s his private business. And hey, the strange girl turned out to be his actual girlfriend, so at least that was okay…

But that question about the Bahnhofstrasse? That was very. Deliberate. Indeed.

I love this story so much more now.

2 thoughts on “23 years is a long time to wait for the punchline

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