The Infamous Bar Bill

I went to Stockholm a few years back to do some sales training for a client. Their offices proved to be under the eaves of a large hotel - an attic roof space furnished in the ultra-modern wooden beams, stainless steel and glass style, but perforce a lot longer than it was wide. As I walked into the long open-plan central corridor, a burly and hairy Scandinavian roared from a good distance: "PHIL PAYNE - I HAVEN'T SEEN YOU FOR YEARS - NOT SINCE THAT BAR BILL!"

It was the summer of 1978. I'd started working in Germany but hadn't moved my wife over - we were supposed to move to Hannover but I hadn't had much time for house-hunting. I'd fallen in with a German engineer about my age and ability - the late Horst Wilhelm - and we were working twelve hours a day on a serious hardware/microcode problem in the Frankfurt HQ laboratory, where they were also training the first tranche of engineers for Europe.

We finished for the day. Horst was from Hamburg, I had no fixed abode in Germany, and we were both staying in the Arabella in Frankfurt/Niederrad - otherwise known as the Horrorbella. So closely aligned with the commercial estate it was on that there was no food or drink on Friday nights or Saturdays - it was dead.

We decided to shower and head into Sachsenhausen. Frankfurt is well organised. The red light district is near the station - north of the Main - and the bars and restaurants are in Sachsenhausen - south of the river. We got to the hotel but were waylaid by the barman, a large and pleasant Spaniard who'd got to know us pretty well. We wound up having more beers than we'd intended - three or four - and then the "course" arrived from the engineer's school making a massive din. So we finally broke off, went to shower, and caught a 27 tram outside the door to Sachsenhausen. In Germany you drink on a tab and pay the tab when you leave, but our attempts to do so were waved away by the multitude.

We had a good few more beers in Sachsenhausen, and a Rollbratenbrötchen - a slice of perfect pink Filet of Beef in a large crusty roll with chopped white cabbage on one side and crushed fresh garlic on the other, as sold by the famous Flickschüster - sadly now gone. We got back to the hotel in the early hours to find, to our amazement, all the course still in the bar. So we sat down and carried on where we'd left off.

Sooner or later it had to happen - one of the Vikings decided he'd had enough and staggered to his feet, fumbling for his money. He, too, was contemptuously waved away. And the process was repeated. And repeated. Until Horst and I were sitting there, warily eyeing the large stack of blue chits with our friendly barman's brown eyes poking over the top.

We were contemplating the imminent destruction of both of our credit lines when the cavalry arrived in the form of the German and UK Field Engineering Managers. Wolfgang [Haar] was at the time manager to both of us - Chris Bull was visiting from the UK. Wolfgang was a friendly hands-off manager with a spectacular dueling scar - a peaceful sort of man who liked to go home to his family. He'd been out entertaining Chris for the evening and was somewhat browned off. He didn't like speaking English much anyway, but now we were all forced to. When Wolfgang could make an occasional comment in German, it was always pretty pointed. Early in the conversation he grumbled about Chris going on about his new gold credit card - in the 1970s a rarity and only available to us on the new salaries we had.

We chatted for a while, then Horst and I decided to retire and asked for the bill. Wolfgang, generous to a fault, waved us down and said he'd pay. We both warned him off - "this is a biggie, Wolfgang". But he wouldn't have it. We impressed on him again the likely scale of the thing - it slowed him but still he shrugged. All this conversation was in German, of course, and Chris finally asked what we were all on about. We told him. "That's no problem," he said, "I can put it on my new gold card." Horst and I froze, not daring to twitch, and looked at Wolfgang. He had a evil twinkle in his eye, looked at me and said in German: "Really big?"

I said "It would bring tears to the eyes of a granite statue". Wolfgang turned to Chris and said: "That's really good of you."

I never knew the exact sum. I know we left Chris talking to the barman, whose English was actually better than his German but who could do exactly what Andrew Sachs' Manuel did in Fawlty Towers years later and not even understand "Hello" when he felt like it. You have to imagine 20-odd bored Scandinavians locked in an expensive hotel bar for eight hours. Something close to £600. At 2011 prices, probably around £2,500.

[Horst lived in Hamburg City-Nord, a mostly commercial area, in a tower block that also had the Blue Angel night club in the basement. One night he left the club mid-evening without saying a word to anyone and jumped off the top. Not long after, the software service manager in Holland - Johann Theunissen - blew his brains out with a shotgun in his office. His German counterpart - Leo Nowak - was found in a hotel bathtub not far from his apartment with his wrists slit. When people tell me they have stressful jobs, I usually think of those three.]

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