November 17, 2008


One of my oldest friends, Chloe, had long ago suggested a girls’ night out so P’s absence this weekend provided the perfect opportunity. Chloe, who lives in Malaga, proposed going to a bistro in the heart of Marbella’s casco antiguo or old town.

To get to it, you have to make your way through a hotchpotch of meandering marble-tiled lanes and alleys, miniature orange trees and overflowing wheelie bins lining the high walls on either side. Eventually, after trekking for seemingly ages especially on a cold Saturday evening, you arrive at a small central plaza where, facing a tapas bar and set back within its own enclosed garden, the nondescript hideaway is located.

Though tiny, this Belgian-run bistro is extremely popular particularly with fellow Belgians and other ex-pats in no small measure due to its consistently high-quality yet reasonably-priced typically bistro cuisine. Typical, too, is the well-trodden terracotta stone floor and polished wood tables a tad too close together. What distinguishes the interior from other bistros, though, is the quirkiness of its décor. While the ceiling is decorated with odd mauve-coloured swirls and curlicues which snake down the sides of some of the walls, the main wall is covered, top to bottom, with a patchwork of large satin cushions in a palette of vibrant rainbow hues.

Chloe and I had just started our main course when guests took their seats at the adjacent table. And that’s when I came face to face - just like all those contestants across the boardroom table before me - with Sir Alan Sugar.

It wasn’t though Siralan, though, who drew my attention and had me mesmerised for the rest of the evening. That feat was achieved by one of his companions. In addition to two blond ladies d’un certain age, who I assumed to be spouses, there was the most odd-looking person imaginable. Dressed in a powder blue ski jacket with matching scarf double-wrapped around his neck, the ends trailing down his back, he sported on his dome-shaped forehead a matching powder blue baseball cap on top of which was propped a pair of outsize sunglasses. And though the restaurant was very warm - everyone routinely removes scarves and jackets on entry - he steadfastly retained his full regalia - sunglasses included - throughout the evening.

Toad of Toad Hall instantly came to mind as I recalled those childhood images of Toad in his open-top motor car tootling along the banks of his riverside home, scarf flying in the breeze, beetle eyes enclosed by huge goggles. I had to avert my gaze for the rest of the meal to keep myself in check. After all, the last thing I wanted to hear directed at me from Siralan’s table were two words - to some the most dreaded sounds in the English language.

So, from then on, I continued chatting to Chloe as if I wasn’t aware of Toad sitting diagonally across from me. I did notice, though, that Siralan, like another Eastender I’ve also had the pleasure of sitting next to - Sir Michael Caine years ago at The Canteen restaurant which he then owned - is as lively and voluble in private as in public. In other words, what you see is what you get. Unlike a few other celebrities who sometimes are a tad different from what you expect. Michael Winner, for instance, who though opinionated and assertive in a public forum, is quite the opposite in a restaurant setting. On all the occasions I’ve seen him - whether at The Ivy, The Wolseley or Caprice - he was supremely unobtrusive, the epitome of discretion.

Eventually we left the restaurant, half expecting Max Clifford, another Marbellan homeowner, to burst in too. Siralan and Max: now that would be an interesting pairing.

As we walked back through the lanes and alleys to the central market underground carpark, I couldn’t help wondering how Siralan would be getting home. We’re so used to seeing him enter and alight from that gleaming black Rolls, the one with undoubtedly the UK’s most recognisable registration plate, that it seemed somehow difficult to visualise AMS Mark 2 parked in my dingy underground carpark or, equally, on one of Marbella’s narrow, windy streets jammed 24/7 with double/triple-parked dented delivery vans. Dressed as he was though in leather bomber jacket and jeans, he’d probably be just as happy in one of its ubiquitous, nondescript white taxi cabs.

As I was parking the car on our return - Chloe was spending the night in the apartment - I could see her approach our block when Sra. Noriega unexpectedly emerged from the shadows of her ground floor apartment, Lola at her heels. But how would this ‘vicious, snarling attack hound’ deal with the sudden arrival of a stranger?

Lola swiftly approached the stranger, sniffed the air quizzically for a few seconds and then, some half-hearted barks later, rolled over on her side.

And those two words that had hung in the air all evening suddenly boomed deafeningly in my ears.

Lola, you’re fired!

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