We all filed into the somewhat austere Chinese restaurant in the smarter end of town - Paul Simon, Hilary Clinton, their incredibly well-behaved, 7 year-old son, his Nanny and me.
We were seated at a table overlooked by an enormous fish-tank, which had dozens of ornamental gold-fish swing around in it, and as we were handed the menus, I noticed one fish which seemed as though it was on it's last legs.
As all the others swam energetically through the little models of sunken pirate ships and castles, this one was floating on it's side at the surface, occasionally giving a little flap with one fin as if to attract our attention. I pointed it out to my hosts, and they called a waiter over. The waiter looked at it, apologised, then came back with a little net and scooped it out, taking it away through the kitchen area. Hilary suddenly became anxious.
"What do you think they will do with it?" Her voice had an unusually sensitive inflection to it.
I felt like saying, 'What do you think they are going to do with it?' but, in order to inject a little light-hearted humour into the frosty situation, I said "I don't know, but I wouldn't order anything with fish in it, if I were you." Nobody smiled.
We perused the menus in silence, then it was decided that Paul should order for everyone. The reason for this, I think, was that it was a lot cheaper to order items for four, than to allow us to choose for ourselves.
"I think we'll start off with a Pu-Pu Platter," Paul told the waiter, and I sniggered like the over-grown schoolboy I am at heart. Once again, nobody else seemed to find this funny and I was beginning to get an indication of how the rest of the evening was going to pan out. Paul and Hilary were extremely well travelled for Americans, and had spent enough time in England to know that 'Poo-Poo' was an extremely childish term for shit. Paul looked up from his menu and gave me a long, hard stare.
"It's spelt, P. U. P. U. Tom. It is a selection of many things from the menu on one large plate which we all share." I coughed slightly, and pretended to be enlightened. Actually, I didn't have to pretend because - for obvious reasons - this wording never appears on British menus in Chinese restaurants.
We settled down and began to eat in frosty silence. At one point, their young son (we'll call him 'Ray' for the sake of clarity), voiced a dislike for one of the bits of food on his plate, and Hilary went ballistic. She grabbed hold of the poor kid's arm and yanked him out of the chair, dragging him, crying, toward the toilet. Paul and the nanny pretended that they did not see this going on, but I was shocked at Hilary's violence toward her own, young and innocent son. After a while, they both reappeared, and Ray sat down in his little chair, the tears now dry on his red face. Hilary made an announcement.
"Ray has something he wishes to say to you all." Ray looked up and said in a tiny, trembling voice,
"I wish to apologise for my unacceptably bad behaviour just now."
Paul intoned on our behalf, "OK, son. Now get on with your meal quietly." That was it, I would show no mercy to this bunch of bullies from now on. Little Ray had steeled me for an easy victory.
At the end of the meal, the waiter - noticing my empty glass - asked me if I would like another beer. Paul, answering on my behalf, told him that I would not. Then he got down to the prime reason for this jolly little get-together.
"Tom, back in England when we first started talking about you coming over to built the fire-place, I distinctly remember you saying that your price would include the restoration and repairs."
I responded by saying that it could not possibly have for a number of reasons. A - I had not seen it until I arrived in Orlando, B - the 'price' I had given him was extremely low under any circumstances, even for the traveling and building alone, C - there could have been no way I could estimate the time it would take to make basic reparations to it, for the reason given in 'A', and D - I had been in Orlando for 3 weeks, which was barely enough time to build it, let alone repair it. Paul looked like the beaten man I hoped he would, because he could see from the look on my face that I did not care if they refused to pay me the measly couple of grand for what I had already done. I had deliberately given him the impression that I had lots of money and didn't need it.
"Well, as far as I can see, you've got us over a barrel, Tom, and I am not happy about it."
I replied that - although this was not my intention - I did not care. Then I suggested that I come back in about three months time, in order to carry out basic cosmetic repairs on the thing, though I warned him that without re-carving it completely, it would never look like new, which is what they had foolishly hoped for. He asked how they could be sure I would come back, without holding onto the money they already owed me, and I said I liked it here. I liked Epcot, I liked the sun, I liked the Tikki Bar and I liked Bob the barman. I even liked the shitty 'Days Inn' they had meanly booked me into, so I would return in 3 months time, and they would have to trust me. If they didn't pay me the money, I said, then they would never see me again.
So next day, white Ray came around with about $2000 in cash, handed it to me, then pulled out a .38 semi automatic pistol from his back pocket, pointed it at me and asked for it all back. This was redneck humour, and he bellowed with laughter at his own joke.
The next day, I flew home to finish the work I was doing for Earl Spencer.
do you want me to continue with the return trip, or have you had enough? be honest!