Of squeaky wheels and squeakless tables

The two young men at the front door looked somewhat startled. "Before you come in," I said, "I am going to tell you a story."

You could almost see them thinking, "We'd better humor him."

"Years ago," I said, "down on the south coast of England, I bought myself a van. Navy blue. Brand new. The salesman had been charming, persuasive, emphasizing (as he and his fellow salesmen are wont to do) what a superior machine I was about to purchase, how well sprung it was, how capacious, and how sturdily utilitarian, without, at the same time, compromising on comfort and celerity and overall performance."

You could see them, poised on the steps up to the door, wondering when all this was going to end so they could get inside the house and do the job they had come to do.

"I wholeheartedly concurred," I persisted, "with everything the salesman told me. I had fallen in love with that navy blue van. I would have bought it whether he spieled his spiel or not.

"Once the paperwork was completed, I drove it away, a happy man, waving to the friendly salesman, at peace with the universe and master of all roadways."

Here, like the Ancient Mariner, I thought I should, perhaps, fix my two listeners with "my glittering eye" just in case they decided not to hear me out and turned tail, scampering back to their car to leave and never return. So I fixed 'em, eye-wise. And like Coleridge's wedding guest, they "stood still." What else could they do?

I continued. "So I drove off, cock-a-hoop, and then I noticed something. My lovely new van had a squeak. Well, you know how it is; that squeak immediately started to squeak more, and the more it squeaked the more I heard it squeak, until all the frustrations of the world seemed to be contained within that squeak, squeak, SQUEAK! and nothing else existed but squeak.

"So," I went on, "I pulled up near a phone booth and called the salesman. I told him that the van had a squeak.

"After only a tiny pause at the other end of the line, that salesman - in a voice entirely changed from his presale suavity and bonhomie - said curtly: 'Well, what do you expect? Basically it's nothing but a metal box on wheels.'

"And that," I said to the gentlemen at the front door, "is your story for today. You may now come in and have a look at the table."

The table in question is spanking new. It has a round glass top and a central columnar support in brushed stainless. It is sleek and beautiful. It took a good six weeks' wait before it arrived in Scotland from Italy, where it had been designed and crafted into the superb example of contemporary design it is.

It was now 15 minutes since our proud new Italian table had been delivered by the intermediary Scottish company from which we had bought it. The two young men who had delivered it - and who were now returning to take another look at it - had carried it in, and down the stairs to the kitchen. Then they had scrupulously screwed its two parts together. We had all gazed at its immaculate finish and ingenious simplicity and sighed with contentment at the wondrous nature of things.

Three minutes after they left, we spotted the marks. Two of them, on the frosted underside of the circular glass top. One was a curved streak. The other was a tiny round fault no larger than the head of a three-inch nail. Energetic rubbing and polishing, spraying and wetting and drying and rubbing and polishing ensued. But the marks stayed put.

In such circumstances, I find, one is faced with a choice. Either one must accept with a degree of resignation that things are often not quite so completely flawless when new as one might expect (the squeaky box-on-wheels scenario). Or one must put on one's Victor Meldrew hat and phone the supplier to complain.

For those unfamiliar with Mr. Meldrew, I should explain that this character is from a TV comedy series in Britain. He made protest and complaining into an art form and has become a household name.

Those near and dear to me sometimes invoke this name in an attempt to silence me when I ride around on some hobbyhorse or other. For example, at a lumber yard a few days ago, I was looking for oval nails three quarters of an inch in length. I needed them to join two pieces of wood I had at the ready back home. I knew nails an inch long would be too long. I knew that half-inch ovals would be too short. Three quarters would be perfect. But it seems that the oval nail manufacturers of this world (may their toenails increase) do not make nails of that length.

As I was going on verbally about this, the (very tolerant) man behind the counter (and we have met before) was smiling inwardly at my performance and the lady I was with felt she should explain to him that my name was ... Victor Meldrew. He grinned outwardly at that. As we finished our purchase of other items the place does sell, the man said: "We'll have some of our nails cut down for you so we'll be ready for your next visit."

So, vis-à-vis the new table, I donned my Victor M. hat (this time at Her Majesty's insistence) and phoned. I was actually apologetic, as if it were almost my fault that the goods were not up to scratch. But the lady was charming. She phoned the two delivery men. They turned their vehicle around and returned.

To our great relief, these two professionals did not say, "Well, what do you expect? It's basically a piece of glass."

What they said was, "Ah" and "Oh" and "Yes." And they said, "Yes. We see the marks you mean." And they then spent half an hour rubbing and polishing and wetting and drying and polishing the upper surface and underside surface of our beautiful new table top.

And this time, when they left, we all expansively agreed that the table was now without question the most magnificent - and most utterly fault-free - table known to man. In a word, it was squeakless.

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