This was not my finest hour.
The customer was jolly when he arrived at the box office.
"Good afternoon, how can I help?"
"Hiya. I just wanted to check if this was OK. Something feels wrong."
He grapples about in his trousers for so long, smiling all the while, that I genuinely start to wonder what he is going to produce. Finally, he brandishes a slip of paper covered in virtually illegible writing. It's from one of those unregulated booths that have sprung up like poisonous toadstools around tourist spots in central London. To the uninformed they look like official ticket sellers but are basically touts. They're shysters charging way over the odds for the worst seats in the house, usually procured by sending innocuous-looking students into theatres and buying from inexperienced box office clerks. Regular theatregoers know to avoid these rip-off dens like the plague. Between the Harrods and Westminster Abbey carrier bags, the Northern accent, and the unforced geniality, I'm guessing this guy is visiting the capital.
I can just about see today's date and the theatre name on the ticketing slip but the row and seat numbers are incomprehensible. Seriously, is that row R, or L? Or is it A? F?! And numbers 12 and 13? 22 and 23? 42 and 43?! Actually I'm hoping it isn't the latter as our theatre isn't that wide. Even more vexingly this useless piece of scrawl doesn't mention if these seats are stalls, dress or upper, plus no price is quoted.
I realise that I have been staring fixedly at it and completely ignoring the customer for a couple of minutes: hardly stellar service.
"I'm so sorry, sir. I'm just having a few problems identifying what you've booked. Were you given seat numbers at all?"
"No, but it says on there doesn't it?"
"Well, you tell me…" I show it back to him and his eyes sort of glaze over.
"Oh bugger" he says. Well, quite. "I should have checked shouldn't I."
"Well, ideally, yes, but look don't worry. I am sure I can get to the bottom of this. There must be a phone number on here somewhere, er, oh dear…um…"
"I wondered if they were dodgy when they told me to come back later. After I'd paid, like."
"Ah, did they? And how much did you pay?"
"Eighty pound. Each."
"That's pretty steep. Oh actually there is a phone number on here. It's a mobile." Not dodgy at all then – I'm being sarcastic – plus printed in such a tiny font that you're clearly not supposed to notice it, let alone ring it. I bring out my trusty magnifying glass which I keep in a drawer for the benefit of one of the older clerks. Myself, I'm increasingly finding it useful when trying to look at names on cards or fine print on offer coupons: getting older is so much fun (sarcasm, again. Sorry).
I ring the number twice: it's engaged both times. This is not looking great. I can get this guy into tonight's show but it would be useful to know what he has actually booked. On the third attempt I get through but at that exact moment there is a cacophony of police sirens outside, so close that they may as well be in the actual foyer. What's worse is that they aren't moving on, so whatever they're dealing with is very nearby. The northern gentleman is now standing at the window with fingers in both ears and an expression of hopeful encouragement on his face.
It's so loud I don't hear the greeting as the phone is answered but I plough on regardless.
"HELLO! CAN YOU HEAR ME? DO YOU DEAL WITH TICKETS?"
"Yeah…and yeah." Charming.
I bellow the name of the theatre down the phone.
"I HAVE A GENTLEMAN HERE WHO BOOKED THROUGH YOU FOR TONIGHT BUT I CAN'T READ THE SEAT NUMBERS. HELLO?"
Said gentleman is now attempting a thumbs-up at me, which is quite an undertaking given that he still has both forefingers jammed into his ears.
"Yeah I'm here. Can you shut that noise up?"
"WHAT?! IT'S A POLICE SIREN"
"Oright," It may be loud here but I can definitely make out a sigh at the other end of the phone "Name?"
"HOLD ON…SIR, CAN I TAKE YOUR NAME PLEASE?"
He says nothing, just carries on grinning at me with his hands glued to the side of his head. I wave, he smiles even more broadly, and the sirens continue.
"CAN I HAVE YOUR NAME PLEASE?"
"My name? It's…" nope, I can't make out what he's saying.
"I'M SORRY I CAN'T HEAR…" I get closer to the window. So does he, repeating his name. Still not getting it.
Then finally, I can almost make out what he's saying. Sounds like ‘Saveloy' … that can't be it, surely.
"Saville" he says again. Bingo.
"SAVILLE!?!" I shriek, beaming with the joy of recognition. "LIKE JIMMY?!" and just at that moment the sirens stop, and the smile disappears from his face.
"It's Simon actually." I want the ground to open. What the Hell was I thinking.
The person on the other end of the phone is giggling: "Oh man, that is well bad. Jimmy Saville?! Oh my days."
"Can you just give me Mr Sav –, this gentleman's seat details please" I snap.
If you can hear smirking down a phone then that is what I am listening to as this cheeky so-and-so delivers the information. As I suspected, these seats were bought over the counter at the day rate by somebody the touts sent in this morning. Simon has been significantly over-charged for them. I hang up.
Usually I would explain the whole situation to the customer but after making him wait and then equating his name with the most evil figure in light entertainment, I just decide to give him much better seats. I run off two comps, front centre stalls.
"There you go, Mr….I mean SIR. I've upgraded your seats. These are a superb view."
He shakes my hand, which is extremely nice of him under the circumstances, grabs his tickets and leaves. I take the tout's slip, screw it up into a ball with as much venom as I can muster, and hurl it into the bin. I am going to have to justify why I pulled those comps, plus I need to tell the clerks to be more vigilant about selling to touts. Still, Mr S will enjoy the show much more from his new seats… and hey, nobody died.