” Be there early” said my friend, a most important member of the very important committee. “the room will be packed to the rafters but meet me at 5pm and I’ll find you a seat.”
The lecture was to be given by a Saudi Prince–a former ambassador to the UK from the desert kingdom. Prince Turki al Faisal was to discuss the politics of the Middle East and a large crowd were expected, not least to hear his views on America’s President-elect.
I duly turned up both well turned out and on time.
The meeting room, at a distinguished address in London’s Pall Mall, was set up to seat about 100 people. There was no-one there but me. I lounged on a sofa near the back wall, and texted the committee member to be sure I was in the right place. It was warm and cosy so I slumped a bit, and tried to fight off sleep. Where was the woman with the clipboard about whom I had been warned? “She’ll say you’re not on the list, but just tell her you’re with me”. It seemed there had been a slippage in event security and a certain laxity in list management. I was yawning and wondering whether it would be okay to take off my boots and put my feet up on the sofa when a white-clad whirlwind blew into the room and grabbed me by the hand. “Hello, hello” he said ” You must be…” and then he tailed off. I was obviously no-one at all. ” I don’t know where everyone is” I said to the Prince, snapping into event manager mode ” Can I get you anything while you wait?”. The Prince didn’t think that would be necessary. He busied himself at the front of the room. I kept my boots on, and my feet on the floor. It seemed wise to sit up straight.
Slowly, the place began to fill–phewf–no need to entertain the potentate single-handed, or try to muster some learned-sounding questions. Minutes before the meeting began, my friend (a gentleman of a certain age) arrived, giggling and looking sheepishly pleased with himself.
” We were locked in the committee room” he said “The Prince was calling to say he was here and we couldn’t get out. In the end the chairman–he’s a former British ambassador — climbed out the window and people began to follow him. I think they were panicking really–can’t keep His Royal Highness waiting. I held [the meeting organiser’s] clipboard. The Countess bundled out the window next–she’s very game. Then I stepped on to the window sill and followed them across the roof.”
I stared at him in disbelief, for he is big and tall and has enormous feet. It is fair to say that he is not really designed for cat burglary.
“That’s the Countess” he said, nodding at a woman across the aisle “she wouldn’t let go of her handbag”. I could see why not–an Older Person’s Freedom Pass is a valuable thing, even if you are landed gentry. ” We climbed in another window and went back for those left behind” said my friend, suddenly sounding very Special Forces. “There were half a dozen people there with a chisel”.
After the lecture (where the Prince declined to discuss the President elect “He doesn’t say the same thing two days running. We can’t know what he will do…”) we adjourned to an anteroom for drinks. I kept a nervous eye on the exit, as did my friend. “Ah, there’s our stranded colleague” he said, as a gentleman, very old and stooped, trembled into the room on his cane. “How long before they got you out of there?”
“About half an hour” said the father of the committee, unflustered. “But I made it just at the start of the talk. You did well to get out that window…”
“Yes” said gerontology’s James Bond ” narrowly avoided a foot through the asphalt. Could have arrived here through the ceiling.”
Arabists all, the members of the distinguished committee embody all that we know about expats. Undimmed by age and creaking joints, they remain adventurous, flexible, determined and courteous. The kind of people you need when a door won’t open.