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ESL Story: Putting your foot in it

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'Sorry this is taking such a time. Only this jug's got a most ridiculous spout on it.' I was pouring out the lemonade for our guests, the Perkins, (I guess you can tell from that they weren't heavy drinkers) the other lunch time when my wife shot me one of those deadly accurate glances which roughly translated into the vernacular means: 'Shut up you fool'. Our guests indulged in a duet of nervous giggles and our rather expensive steaks were munched in that frightening silence when each and every swallow rings out loud and clear. It wasn't until later over the washing up that I had the error of my ways pointed out to me.

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My wife informed me that the notorious jug belonged to a water set given to us by the Perkins as a wedding present a few years back. Well, I did try best over tea to put matters right. I made out that our silly old teapot had a lousy spout, too. But this only made matters ten times worse. Mrs Perkins chipped in to say she remembered being with my mother-in-law when she bought it for us. But then I never really mean any harm. I simply can't help putting my foot in it. It's something you're born with and there's no known insurance policy against it.

I've even been known to comment on the remarkable flavour of the coffee given to me by my hostess only seconds before she has pointedly asked me whether I'd like another cup of TEA. I've frequently gone up to what I thought was a well known back, slapped it heartily and assured the face on the other side that it was good to see each other again and been frozen in my tracks on realising that it's the face of a total stranger. Why I've even been heard to laugh like a drain when some revered personage is telling a joke, BEFORE the actual punch line has been reached. But the highlight of my brick-dropping career took place some years ago when at rather short notice I was asked to be the best man at a friend's wedding.

Of course the successful best man is invariably a bit of a wag – the sort of person who must be relied on positively to drip with witty remarks. And perhaps I should explain that my friend's first choice was laid up in hospital and there had been a lot of flu around that winter and so I was what you might call the last resort. In the little time I had to prepare myself for the occasion I read up all the books on wedding etiquette and studied in particular those bits headed: What to avoid at all costs. I was really determined not to put a foot wrong. I swotted up a few innocuous jokes and tried them out on some colleagues in the staff canteen. Optimistically I put down their lack of enthusiasm to the absence of nuptial gaiety and even more to the presence of the watery cabbage we were eating. But in due course the great day arrived and I found myself standing with the happy couple, George and Mary in front of the priest. Everything went perfectly in the church although in the rush from there to the hotel I had little time for introductions and only just managed a few words with Mary, whom I was meeting for the first time. I didn't really enjoy the wedding breakfast since I knew at the end of it I would have to be upstanding and make my hilariously witty speech. Strangely enough the jokes went down fairly well and I began to feel quite at ease. As the wine slowly started to warm up my feet, I launched into my eulogy of Mary, which was obviously much appreciated. It was at this stage that I began my habitual downhill path towards social blunder. You see, I thought I'd be original and praise up the bride's mother sitting to the right of Mary. After all it seemed only gallant. Mellowed to a fine pitch I let rip all the superlatives I could muster. To be perfectly honest I did discern a certain restlessness among the guests, which should have alerted me to impending disaster but I fumbled on. I noticed George scribbling on a piece of paper and fondly imagined that he was taking notes on some of my purple passages. As the icy stare of the guests grew even colder, I thought they should all be taught a lesson and I continued with my eulogy of the radiant mother of the bride. It was then that I caught sight of George's scrap of paper wending its way in my direction. Suddenly I felt it pressed into my hand. Reading it through wine befuddled eyes I stood there waiting for that proverbial hole in the ground to swallow me up. The note read: Sit down. Mary's mother in hospital. That's Mary's sister!

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Next:ESL Story: The language of surprise

Author: Alan Townend

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