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Donkin's World: Invisible Man

Richard Donkin tells of the lonely challenge of breakfast time in a conference hotel.

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I hate breakfast time in conference hotels abroad. Whenever I walk in to the breakfast room it seems to be packed with people chatting away amiably and they are all strangers to me, even the people I know, it seems, who are in their own huddles with not a spare chair.

This happened to me in Estoril in Portugal at the World Yacht Racing Forum. There was one spare table but I didn't want to sit alone. Instead I wandered up and down trying to choose something to eat and drink. At home this is easy - there's a kettle, a packet of cereal and maybe a carton of juice, but the choice at the hotel is impossible. I sidle up to the coffee machine, place a cup under the nozzle and press a button half-heartedly. The machine rewards my lack of conviction with its own ambivalence so I walk away.

There must be dozens of different kinds of bread and buns and cakes and croissants and jams and cereals I don't recognise. There are about five different juices but I'd like orange juice and the orange juice jug is empty.

I spot an empty table but before I reach it a woman has seated herself there. There are many pretty, vivacious women at the conference and she isn't one of them. I don't know her but I join her anyway and try to make conversation.

It turns out she's not at my conference but at a neighbouring conference on sailing hardware. Her speciality is paints and coatings. If there is one thing worse than watching paint dry, it is hearing someone describing paint. She apologises for the dullness of her trade and I, trying to be the gentleman, assure her that paint is fascinating.

She must have decided that if there is one thing more boring than describing paint it is someone who nods with apparent interest. She leaves the table in search of a bun. As she returns I decide it's time to try the coffee machine again but a waiter appears and offers to pour me a cup. Waiters - they're never there when you want them but they almost leap out to block your escape when you're trying to avoid them.

So we sit there a little longer, me and the paint lady, mostly in silence, having exhausted the subject of paint and coatings (which I can only conclude is another word for paint). Finally she can stand it no longer and flees to the sanctuary of her conference where paint people mix.

By the end of breakfast my fragile social resolve is in tatters as I retreat in to a natural semi-autistic state that finds comfort in staring at the floor. In this state I know that all social gestures are futile.

In Philip Pullman's book, His Dark Materials, there is a character, a boy, who can stand in a room and appear invisible to people. They simply don't notice him. I can identify with that boy.

It makes no difference when I make an effort. I might look up and smile at someone known to me and heading my way, but they pass by with not a flicker of recognition. This happens to me all the time.

I think if I was wearing a toga, produced a knife and stabbed one of these people in the chest, he would groan and say: "Et tu....sorry do I know you?"


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