I’m on the edge of my seat as I await the arrival of my cream tea in the ironically named sunroom at the Argyll Hotel. I have the room to my self, journal at hand, soundlessly, charcoal clouds scud over the marble blue bay where the waves grow increasingly wild, heavy rain clouds stacking up over Ben Mor on Mull. Heaven.
The tall waiter with the lovely Irish lilt to his voice gently sets down the homemade scone, bits of orange peel buried within the substantial pastry, a ramekin of black currant jam, dark like velvety royal robes, a matching ramekin of fluffy clotted cream, fragrant black tea steaming in the pot, all served in white crockery, on a white linen tablecloth with a white linen serviette, white on white on white, heavy silver cutlery, soft metallic accent. I sigh, delay gratification and congratulate myself for taking the time for the luxury of a cream tea on a rainy Scottish island afternoon.
I open the body of the scone, like a clam, revealing its tender center. As I lovingly, tenderly smooth jam and clotted cream over the bumpy surface of the scone, I hear clompy footsteps approach, loud discourse regarding which of the four remaining identical tables, with four identical views would be the best choice.
Serenity lost, not to be regained, like a slippery fish wiggling from the gannet’s pewter beak. The couple looks hardy, red-faced from the sharp wind, hair pointing to all compass points, when they pull off their staticy wool hats. They finally settle on the table next to me because it has “the best view” in a long narrow room that has a wall of ocean facing windows. The waiter comes to take their order.
“Is it too late for lunch?” asked the young man in that harsh American accent that grates on Scottish ears. No Gaelic lyricism there.
The waiter points to a prominent sign that announces in bright chalky colors times and types of service. Lunch ends at two. Cream tea service begins at three. It is three-thirty.
“Can’t you make an exception? Throw together some sandwiches?”
“Sorry, sir. I’m afraid that’s not possible. The chef is preparing starters and the evening meal,” says the waiter in his politely soft accent. He’s not fooling me. I hear a “fuck you” between those curly r’s. All said with a smile.
“I’d like to speak to the manager,” says the young man, his chin cocked at a stubborn angle.
“Very well, sir.” says the waiter through clenched teeth as he heads off to find Rob, the hospitable, yet very proper co-owner of the hotel.
“What I can do for you, sir?” asks Rob as he bends his tall, thin frame to shake hands with the young man.
“This waiter tells me, I’m sure erroneously, that it’s not possible to get us a couple of sandwiches instead of a cream tea, whatever that is.”
“Declan, is quite correct,” answers Rob without apology. “As I’m sure he mentioned, Chef is busy with preparations for this evening’s meal. We are chock-a-block in the hotel and he is quite busy. Is there anything else I can help you with?”
“Can we make a reservation for tonight’s meal for six o’clock?”
“I’m sorry, sir. Meal service starts at six-thirty. I think we have a couple of tables left at that sitting.”
“That just won’t do. I don’t see why you can’t accommodate us on this one little thing. It’s only thirty minutes. Is it because we’re not staying in your establishment?”
“Not at all, sir. We have many non-resident diners and welcome everyone. But if we make an exception for one person, we would have to make exceptions for everyone and that simply wouldn’t be fair to our staff, “ says Rob delivering one of the most elegant smack downs I’ve heard in quite some time.
“I suppose a cream tea for two will have to do,” says the young man, making a face as if poison was being substituted for what he felt he was entitled to.
“We do appreciate your business, sir,” says Rob as he nods in a courtly fashion. “I leave you in Declan’s most capable hands.”
“Yes, sir. What type of tea would you like?”
“What are my choices?” I knew that was coming even though they’re listed on the laminated tea list perched in a wooden holder in front of the young man. The waiter silently points to it with his middle finger.
The young man orders for himself and his companion without consulting her. Her hunched back is toward me. I can’t see her face. She has been quiet through all of these awkward exchanges. Her head bent. Not looking up. I suspect this is a scenario she has seen played out on numerous occasions.
I close my eyes and shake off the negativity and tuck back in to my tea. Savoring the tanginess of the orange zest that compliments the smoothness of the tea. The wind has picked up even more and a herring gull makes three attempts at landing on a rock outcropping near the shore as the gusts buffet it about, his webbed feet expertly gripping the slippery volcanic rock.
“Why aren’t you enjoying your cream tea that I went to so much trouble to get you?” the young man asks her, noticing that she’s picking at the pastry and letting her tea go cold in its bone white cup. She mumbles something that I can’t hear and apparently, neither can her friend/husband/ lover.
“What? Stop mumbling. How many times do I have to tell you that, Annie? Speak up. I know you’re not stupid. I know you know how to put a sentence together.”
“How would you know that? Have you ever let me finish a sentence? Or allowed me to express an opinion without telling me I’m wrong, not that you disagree, but I am simply wrong.”
“That’s an exaggeration,” he snaps back.
“You’ve just made my point for me, Jeremy,” said Annie, dropping her serviette like it’s a mic as she noisily scrapes her chair backward across the tile, grabs her red coat, and stomps out, her heavy hiking boots making a statement of their own. When she comes out of the hotel entrance she has a huge backpack strapped over her shoulders.
I’m beyond caring if Jeremy catches me watching. I sit back, cross my arms and stare at him like I’m watching a chess player ponder his next move, thinking to myself, you’ve already been checked, mate.
He blinks a couple of times and rises as if in slow motion. Throws some crumpled notes on the table and rushes out of the hotel. He starts waving his arms and yelling. I see a flash of red as Annie leaps across the water lapping around the steel ramp of the ferry. The ramp begins to rise as soon as Annie is safely on board.
Jeremy’s arms hang limply at his side. Defeated. Left alone, perhaps for the first time, most certainly not the last.
Rebekah Spivey for the Poplar Grove Muse