Etiquette incident in a tea shop

I have to remove the tray from our small table in a tea shop in Piccadilly so that we can get onto the table all our food and drink. I take the tray, turn round, and see a woman clearing another table.

“Will you take this?”

“Well, I could. Give it to me.”

I give her the tray but am mildly irritated by her initial reluctance. Doesn’t she work here?

Ten minutes later as I return from the loo I realise that she doesn’t work here. She’s sitting at a table with a friend. I should have realised she didn’t work here: she’s wearing a yellow tee shirt, dark shorts, and red tights, hardly the uniform of a waitress.

I sit back down with my back to her. What should I do? I feel guilty and a bit silly. How could I make such a mistake?

“Now you see the importance of etiquette,” says Lin laughing. She’d heard the woman say that she didn’t work here. I missed that. “If you had time you could write to David Tang at the FT. He’d know exactly what to do.”

“I have to apologise.”

“What are you going to say? Your problem is that you potentially demean her ot at least her dress by having thought she worked her. So you can’t say “I thought you worked here.’ Try out on me what you are going to say.”

“OK Here goes. I must apologise for asking you to put away my tray. I though you worked here. Please forgive me; I am, I’m afraid, an old fool.”

“I like the old fool bit, but can’t you drop the bit about working here.”

I’m tempted just to forget the whole thing. The woman  probably has. But I feel I must apologise, so as we get up to leave I go over to her.

“I’m sorry that I made a mistake and asked you to put away my tray. You can see from looking at me that I’m something of an old fool.”

She blushes. “Oh I thought that you might have thought that I was creating a sculpture on the table of trays and crockery and wanted to contribute.” A charming answer, fast on her feet.

Did I do the right thing to apologise? Would it have been better to have left it? Did I apologise well enough?

I’ll write to David Tang at the FT, ready for the next time I make such a mistake.

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