When I was writing last week’s blog on my fantasy magazine, I remembered the incident of the Swiss serviettes.

In the house of Frau Beck, residing in Zurich but a German housekeeper par excellence – according to her own lights anyway– they had a kind of napkin envelope, embroidered with their initials, which had been created by the previous hapless au pair who rejoiced in the name of Umgraut.   I was given what was presumably Umgraut’s trial run, misshapen and poorly executed and with Umgraut’s own initial on it.   Mrs Beck instructed me to unpick Umgraut’s initital and replace it with my own (presumably in my own time in my basement dungeon, pressed against the barred windows and squinting for light.)     I felt angry that Mrs Beck had refused to provide sufficient of a scrap of material for Umgraut to make a respectable napkin holder for herself once her skills had developed.   Besides from the very outset when I first set eyes on Frau Beck at the airport I had no intention of remaining under her despotic rule for a whole year.   I should have turned on my heel there and then and returned home!   Anyway, the very idea that I would sit down and sew my initial into this miserable article was quite ridiculous.    So I just ignored it and never used it.

I took nothing to do with their napkin holders and when the boys would  leave their napkins lying around, I left them where they lay.   In my view, if  they wanted to use napkin holders, everyone should put  their own napkin away, as indeed the parents both did, dutiful and tidy citizens that they were.      It took Mrs Beck quite some time to realise that her hints and instructions did not necessarily result in the actions she desired, and she would get so frustrated about these ‘misunderstandings’ (I understood perfectly well)  that she  would eventually boil over with irritation and then take ill-advised action in her wrath.    I, then as now, was never particularly troubled by other people’s anger – (I had enough to do dealing with my own.)

So one day, stuffing the napkins into their holders with unnecessary violence herself, she queried the custom in Britain with the snide suggestion that the section of society I came from probably didn’t know what a serviette  was.   Oh, I said casually and somewhat misleadingly, when you’re finished with the napkin you just scrumple it up and put it down on the table.     Then I picked up the sorry specimen of napkin holder allocated to me and examined it.      But this home-made thing is quite charming, is it not?  I asked her.   In a homespun farmyard sort of way?   If you’re having to make one napkin last a whole week?

Thereafter, Mrs Beck produced inoffensive bone napkin rings and I don’t know what happened to poor Umgraut’s handiwork, which was perfectly fine of course and quite charming for family use if you like that sort of thing and if  Mrs Beck hadn’t been such a terrible snob.  She had to buy a set of napkins of different coloured trims since she could no longer identify whose was whose by the napkin holder.  I noticed however than when we had visitors she no longer produced the days old napkins, but provided fresh for everyone as though that were their ordinary custom.    (I was tempted to produce Umgraut’s envelopes, but didn’t know where they were.)    Her poor husband remarked in mild surprise at the new coloured napkins and was taken aback and mystified when his wife shouted at him.   (I think she said that he had never taken an interest in the articles before and he shouldn’t do so now.)     He looked at me thoughtfully, but I endeavoured to keep my face blank.

I never made any further comment on napkins, napkin rings or table manners.

I still find it very difficult to understand why Mrs Beck didn’t like me…