‘Forgive my strangeness,’ he said

In the end I didn’t get the fellow’s name, but I’ll call him Mr Pinch. We both happened to be on our own; quite early, before the buffet hordes invade Tobago’s (the spread is open from 12.30pm). Even the Honourable Patricia de Lille was turned away twice, then a waiter recognised her and suddenly space was found.

The reason for the crowds is that even though Cape Town is a coastal city, there is nowhere to eat beside the sea. From Mouille Point to Seapoint and Camps Bay there is always a busy, wide road between yourself and the ocean. The Radisson Hotel, on Granger Bay, is a spectacular exception; right on the seaboard with sweeping views facing Robben Island. That is, until the Dubai crowd get to add a few skyscraper hotels to the view.

After an exceptionally long Cape winter, it was finally a hot summery day; the sea was as smooth as glass, and, without a breath of wind, the yachts were under motor. Catching my eye, Mr Pinch invited me to join him as all the other tables on the water’s edge had reserved signs.

Probably in his 60s, he still had a full head of hair, now turned platinum. He wore chic docksiders and white shorts from which protruded evenly tanned legs. Well maintained in all respects, everything about him exuded the comforts of wealth. He reminded me of that snooty banking advert a few years back, “Who are these people?”

He quickly emphasised that he wasn’t inviting me for lunch, but merely to sit with him. Then he asked me a rather weird question.

“Forgive my strangeness,” he said (I think he was Austrian), “but can you pay cash, not card?”

“I think I have enough cash on me,” I replied, somewhat baffled.

He grinned enthusiastically and summoned the waiter.

The buffet costs R195 a person (available on Sunday during the year, then daily from November 1). The exact content of this smorgasbord changes, but the general format has a bean soup, various salads, including a pasta salad, and a range of seafood: peppered mackerel, rollmops, smoked salmon for starters. On this occasion we were in luck; there were oysters too. I plated a dozen of these for myself.

The hot mains in the chafing dishes are less successful. On several occasions I’ve encountered hardboiled chicken breasts and stringy meat floating about in opaque gravy.

As I peered into a deep stainless steel dish with filleted line fish (which is usually the best bet here), I asked Mr Pinch if he had seen much of the Peninsula.

“Don’t go out anymore,” was the reply. He nervously looked around to see if any hotel staffer was within earshot. In a hushed voice he told me how his debit card had been confiscated a week ago by an ATM. His credit card too was refused in several Waterfront shops. Embarrassingly, he’d had to leave the goods behind. Now he was too scared to try again.

Much later, when we were finishing off the meal with a sampling of cheeses and green fig preserve, unable to ­contain my puzzlement, I asked: “But surely you called your bank to sort it out?”

His face contorted in terror. “I … I … Iceland!” he gasped and gave a shudder. “Gone. It’s all gone.”

He’d discovered Iceland while searching the internet for the highest interest rate in the First World. Then the Icelandic krona tumbled from 60 to the dollar in January to 122 in October, his balance shrunk to half until finally in one last electronic blink, what was left vanished to settle other sour investment debts he’d leveraged with failing stocks.

When the bill came, Pinch gave me a conspiratorial glance and charged the meal to his room. He sheepishly added a cigar to the account. With the tip, sparkling water and the superlative bottle of steely dry Springfield Sauvignon Blanc we had drunk, my share of the bill was R340. I handed it to him in cash. He fingered the notes excitedly. “The real thing,” he panted.

I suddenly had this weird fantasy of bankrupt millionaires in hotels in Singapore, Cape Town, Buenos Aires, stranded in little enclaves all over the globe, extending their stays and unable to check out, notching everything up on their hotel bills, their last line of credit before the hotels too collapse.

Making money is easy. Keeping it? Now there’s the hard bit.

Tobago’s, Radisson Hotel, Granger Bay, Cape Town. Open Monday to Sunday for lunch and dinner. Tel: 021 441 3000

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