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Twatt's Tearoom

The Scottish Arts Council is proud to present this short story by Duncan McLean - read more about him and the inspiration behind this story.

Twatt’s looked closed as we turned in off the Lochside road, and started down the rough track.
   There’s no lights on, said Mr MacAndrew.
   No cars outside, said Mrs MacAndrew.
   Just wait, I said.  There never are lights.  Never cars either.
   So how do the staff get here, out in the middle of forgottenhood? said Mr MacAndrew.
   They walk, said Catherine.
He didn’t seem to believe her, and craned his neck to peer out at the roadside weeds and the long grey grass of the fields.
   What’re you looking for, dad? said Catherine.  A tube station?  A helicopter landing pad?  A bus stop?  I laughed.
   The track opened out into a wide gravel courtyard with buildings on three sides.  The staff all live on site, I said.
   In situ, said Mr MacAndrew.  In tenebris.  In aeternum.  He sniffed.  In extremis.
   I pulled the car over to the right hand side and parked.  In we go, I said.
   We got out.  The nose of the car was right under the ten foot high wooden sign in the shape of a puffin.  As the MacAndrews got their coats on, Mr Mac read out the words from the painted board that hung on a chain from the puffin’s beak:
   Welcome to (capitals) Twatt’s Tearooms.  We’re delighted (stroke) sorry to tell you that we’re open (stroke) closed.
   There used to be wee metal fish that slid back and forth to tell you the state of play, said Catherine, But they kept disappearing, didn’t they Davie?
   Aye, they were too realistic, I said.  The bonxies kept swooping down and stealing them.  So it’s just a case of local knowledge now.
   Catherine’s folks finished zipping up their coats, and we walked across the carpark. I still can’t believe it, said Mr MacAndrew, kicking at the one of the bare patches in the gravel.  And look, there’s grass in the gutters and tiles off the roof.  Dear oh dear, David!
   I held out my hands.  It’s not what’s on the outside that matters.  It’s what they cook up inside.
   From off to the back of the building came a squawk and a flurry of wings: swans or some other lochbirds kicking up a stushie.
   Looks can be deceptive, said Catherine, But cooks can’t.  Let’s go in.
   She lead the way through the big outer door with its peeling grey paint, across the tiny lobby, and on through the even bigger inner door, its green baize cover making it look like a billiard table upended and set on hinges.
   The door whooshed its rubber-fringed edges as it swung slowly shut behind us, and we stood looking down the vast dark interior of the tearoom.  A dozen or so tables were lined up along each wall, another dozen down the middle, each with six bentwood chairs.  Each table was set with a white tablecloth, folded linen napkins, and silvery cutlery – three or four ranks of it to the sides of each plate.  An array of glass and silver condiment pots filled out the centre of each table, as well as a tall candlestick, a small flower arrangement, and three glasses of varying sizes and shapes for each setting.
   I told you, said Mr MacAndrew in a loud whisper that ricocheted around the panelled walls.  It’s dead as a dodo.
   It’s always like this, said Catherine. We’ve just to sit down and they’ll be through in no time.
   Do you think they can squeeze us in? said her dad, and snorted, nodding down empty room.
   Anywhere except the central aisle, I said.  They’re not for customers.  They’re reserved for the family of the owners.
   What, all of them? said Mr MacAndrew  There must be twelve, thirteen tables!  They can’t all be for the family!
   The Twatts are legion about here, said Catherine.
   They’re a big island family, I said.  There’s a rhyme about it:
       “You can bring in the cats
        To keep down the rats
        But nothing can keep down
        The Twatts of Twatt”
   Mr and Mrs Mac looked at me.
   Local history, I said.  These are the Twatts of Twatt, see.  There’s the Flabister Twatts too, but they’re not to be confused.  A different family entirely.  When the Twatts of Flabister had a tearoom of course folk got confused then if they didn’t ken.  But it was easy to spot the difference; the Flabister Twatts had a telly in their tearoom, and that was just anathema for the Twatt Twatts.
   But there’s a TV up there, on that shelf in the corner, said Mrs MacAndrew, and pointed.
   Oh aye, I said.  But it’s never switched on.  That was just bought for the coronation.
   The coronation? she said.  Which coronation?
   The queen, I said.
   But that was fifty years ago.
   Exactly.  And it’s never been on since.
   Let’s sit down, said Catherine.  I’m famished.
   We walked down the room, the sound of our footsteps and the rustling of the MacAndrews cagoules rebounding between the polished floor and the arched ceiling.  We stopped half way to the end, and I pulled out a couple of seats for the MacAndrews. 
   Mr MacAndrew sniffed loudly as he settled himself down.  What’s that smell? He said.  Not very appetising…
   I don’t smell anything, said Catherine.
   It’s your coat, Ian, said Mrs Mac.
   My coat?
   Aye, it’s that waterproofing stuff you sprayed on it before we left home.  Rather pungent!
   You’ll be like the royals, said Catherine, Thinking the whole world smells like fresh paint – cause folk run around doing the place up wherever they go.  Except with you, you’ll think the whole of Orkney smells of aerosol water repellent – cause you're walking around in a cloud of the stuff!
   Better than being covered with freezing rain, he said, and hung his coat on the back of the chair at the next table.  Mrs Mac looked like she was about to tick him off, but didn’t.  After a bit more scraping of chairs and shuffling about, silence fell.  In the quiet, I could hear a creaking from somewhere in the depths of the room behind me.  I turned round.  The door to the kitchens was stirring slightly, but no one had come through.  There was no light in the small circle of meshed glass at eye height.  The door must just’ve been swinging in the peuch of the air wafted down the room by the closing of the billiard-table-door a couple minutes before.  I had a sudden vision of the wave tank on Dr Corsie’s surgery desk, the one where blue syrupy liquid sloshed back and forth in a slow motion wave.  The one he’d have you stare at to save spending money on anaesthetics as he did something painful but quick, like howking out an ingrown toenail.
   What’s this? said Mrs MacAndrew.  On the centre of the large white plate in front of each of us was a square of thin yellow paper about the size of a beermat.  Is this the menu? she said.
   Aye, I said.  Kind of.
   The print’s small enough, she said.  What’s it say?  Is no one coming to help us?
   They’ll be through in a minute, I said.  Patience.
   The Menu, said Mr MacAndrew.  Talis qualis.  He picked up his square of paper by one corner and glared at it over the top of his glasses.  Soup of the day.  Cream of Textured Vegetable Protein.
   Cream of what? said Mrs MacAndrew.
You heard me correctly, said Mr Mac, and continued reading.  Main course.  Liver and Onion Pizza, or, (brackets) vegetarian option: Textured Vegetable Protein Pizza.  New line: All main courses served with a salad of cottage cheese and beetroot.
   Oh my goodness, said Mrs Mac.
   Dessert, read Mr Mac.  Selection of Homemade Ice Cream: Strawberry, crossed out; Chocolate, crossed out; Vanilla, crossed out; Rum and Ray, not crossed out.
   Rum and rai? Said Mrs Mac.  Do they mean Rum and Raisin?
   It says Rum and R-A-Y, said Mr Mac.  The fish, I presume.
   Mrs Mac pulled a paper hankie out of her sleeve and pressed it to her lips.
   You’ve missed one, dad, said Catherine.  Look at the bottom: Cheese.  A selection of cheddar spreads, served with TUC crackers.
   Tuc, said Mr MacAndrew.
   Ian! cried Mrs Mac.
   It’s the name of the biscuits, Janet!  Bloody Tuc crackers!  I haven’t seen them since 1983!  And I haven’t missed them!
   Just wait, I said.  Hold on, Mr MacAndrew…
   Sorry David, he said, frowning at me over his specs now.  I know you recommended this place, but really!
   We’re not food snobs, said Mrs Mac.
   By no manner of means.  But we live in Edinburgh: culinary as well as political capital of Scotland.  You can’t expect us to eat fish flavoured ice cream!
   Sure, I said, I understand.  But if you’d just wait a minute…
Why are we waiting? said Mr MacAndrew, pushing back his chair.  Why isn’t someone waiting on us?  Like a waiter?  He stood up.
   Please dad, said Catherine.  Just hold on.  It was like this when I first came here, and…
   You’d never get this in New Leith, said Mr MacAndrew, slumping back down.  Mind you, there’s competition there.  Not like here in the middle of forgottenhood.  You can’t just nip next door here.
   Well you can, I said, But you’d be standing in the loch if you did.
   That’s actually quite an attractive option, said Mr MacAndrew.
   Suddenly, Catherine held up a hand to shush us.  We all froze.  From somewhere down in the shadows at the kitchen end came the faint sound of footsteps shuffling towards us across the parquet.  Trying not to make it too obvious, I tipped my chin towards my left shoulder to see who was coming.  A stooped figure came skavling out of the gloom: black suit, white shirt, black bow tie, white hair.  Slowly, slowly he came down the room towards us, first of all along the far aisle, then, edging a quarter step at a time between two of the family tables, he crossed into our aisle, and on, on, on towards us.  I turned to face the front again, and caught Mr MacAndrew’s eye.  He raised his eyebrows, then blew out a jet of air between flared nostrils.
   Ha! he cried, loudly.  The footsteps stopped.  Good to see there’s someone here!  I was beginning to wonder!
   Dad! hissed Catherine.  Wheesht!
   There was a second’s silence, then the sound of a throat being cleared.  Then, Order pad, said the old man.  The shuffling footsteps started up again – but this time heading away from us.
   Mr Mac rolled his eyes and made a doh! sound, immediately cut off as Catherine kicked him under the table.
   What’s happening? said Mrs Mac.
   I think he’s forgotten his order thingy, said Catherine.  At least I hope he has.  It could be that dad’s been so rude that he’s gone never to return.
   I was rude?  He’s the one who’s kept us waiting for half an hour!  And now he’s done a disappearing act!
   Away behind us the kitchen door swung open and shut.  I looked around.  It was like the old man had never been there.
   When he comes back, Ian, said Mrs Mac, Leave the talking to me.
   If he comes back, muttered Mr Mac.
   But as he spoke the kitchen door creaked, and the old man’s footsteps came skliffing towards us again.  Mrs Mac sat up very straight in her seat, fixed a broad smile on her face, and lifted her chin.  After a couple of minutes, as the waiter was edging inch by inch between the family tables, she called out to him:
   Good afternoon!  So sorry about before.
   He stopped.
   We’d really like something to eat, and…oh…
   Three tables away, the waiter had turned his back on us again.  He muttered something.
   I beg your pardon? said Mrs Mac.
   He cleared his throat.  Pencil, he said, then set off kitchenwards once more.
   Mr MacAndrew’s hands were clenching into fists on the tabletop.  I’ve never been so insulted, he growled.
   Aye you have, said Catherine.  Mind when I was fifteen, I told you to…
   No no, he said.  What I meant was by someone non-family.  I’ve never been so insulted by someone I wasn’t related to.
   Wait a sec, I said.
   I turned in my chair.  Mr Twatt! I called out.  Away down in the gloom, he paused.  Then he started walking again.  Mr Twatt, I said.  It’s David Stanger.  From Culooquoy.  This time he stopped, and I could see the pale shape of his face in the shadows as he turned back towards us.
   Culooquoy?
   Aye.
   Sorry boy, I didn’t see you there.
   Never worry, I said.  Mr Twatt, these are my wife’s folks.  Up from Edinburgh.
   Boy boy.  He came towards us again, a little quicker this time, only slowing when he got to within a dozen feet of the table.  The last few paces took him a good half-minute, as he scrutinised Mr and Mrs MacAndrew.  Eventually he lifted his gaze off them, and came to a halt at the end of the table.  He smiled down at Catherine – though not very far down, as his stoop meant that he was only about six inches taller than her, even with her sitting down.
   Well lass, he said, So this is your folks up from south.  Well well.  We’d better serve you then.
   Mr Mac pursed his lips, and sighed sarcastically, then picked up the peedie yellow menu again.  Very good, he said, I’d like…
   Wait, I said.  I looked the waiter in the eye.  Mr Twatt.  We’d like to see the Sunday menu, please.
   He sniffed.  We’re not open on Sundays, he said.
   I ken.  That’s why I have to ask for it today.
   Friday, said Mrs Mac.
   Shhh, said Catherine.
   Well Culooquoy, I don’t ken if I can help you.  For if you ken enough to ask for the Sunday menu, you should ken there’s no Sunday menu to see.
   Catherine looked up and gave him a sweet smile.  Well could we…hear the Sunday menu please, Mr Twatt.  Please?
   He looked all around the tearoom, seeming to take in every table and every chair, as if there might be a horde of customers hiding somewhere, about to leap out, demand his attention, and save him from having to serve us.  Eventually his gaze returned to Catherine, and then snapped across the table to Mr and Mrs Mac.
   These are close relations of yours, you say, lass?
   My mum and dad.
   That’s close.
   Mrs Mac nodded.  We’ve never been to the Orkneys before…
   That’s well seen, said Mr Twatt.
   You’ll maybe mind on, Mr Twatt, the wedding was in Edinburgh because of Catherine’s granny being too old to…
   Say no more, he said, and pulled himself upright.  The Sunday Menu.  Friday 1st February 2002.  Ladies and gentlemen.  For soup I can offer you: Consommé de Champignons au Madère, Aromatisé aux Feuilles de Coriandre.  Those are air-dried Blackcraig mushrooms, he said.  We believe they’re the best to be had.  To follow, I propose: Bonbonnière de Couteaux au Beurre Blanc, Pointillé de Poivrons Rouges.  My grandson was out at Broadsands for those spoots first thing this morning.  Not the best of conditions, I can tell you.  However.  Main course: Tournedos aux Echalotes Confites, sa Galette de Pommes de Terre, et Carottes Glacées au Miel.  Our own beef, of course.
   Of course, said Catherine.
   And to finish, perhaps Marquise au Chocolat, Sauce Crème Anglaise Orangée.
   Mr and Mrs Mac sat in silence, staring with open mouths at the old man.  I reached sideways under the table, and touched Catherine’s hand.
   Mr Twatt, said Catherine.  What about the liver and onion pizza?  I quite fancied that…
   He laughed.  Never speak, lass.  You’ll not hear that on a Sunday menu!
   Mrs MacAndrew tilted her head on one side.  It all sounds…
   …very French, said Mr MacAndrew.
   Mr Twatt jerked back.  Not a bit of it, he said.  Pure Orcadian produce from top to bottom.  He held up a finger.  Except for the chocolate.  Cocoa beans don’t thrive at this latitude.
   I was going to say it all sounds superb, said Mrs Mac.  We’d be delighted to try it all, I’m sure.
   Mr Twatt nodded slowly.  And to drink?
   Mr Mac opened his mouth to speak, but Catherine got in first: What would you recommend?
   Hmm…  Perhaps a bottle of Tattinger Comtes de Champagne Blanc de Blanc as an aperitif, which you can carry on into the consommé.   With the shellfish, I suggest something fruity and sharp, perhaps Coulée de Serrant?  And…
   What year’s that champagne? said Mr MacAndrew.
   I believe it’s 1952, said Mr Twatt.
   Really?
   Can we leave it all up to you, Mr Twatt, I said.  I know you’ll choose well.
   As you wish Culooquoy, he said.  Please sit back, relax, and I’ll be back momentarily.  He bowed slightly, and when he straightened up again a match was burning in his hand.  He leaned over and lit the candle in the centre of the table.  He shook the match to extinguish it, spun round, and strode back towards the kitchen, a spring in every step.
   Catherine had a huge grin on her face.  We told you it was worth waiting for, she said.  It’s a special place.
   Well it sounds good, said Mr Mac.  I’ll believe it when I taste it.
   You will, I said.
   Away at the far end, Mr Twatt pushed through the kitchen door.  Immediately there came muffled shouts, bangs of cupboard doors, and clatters of pans hitting stovetops.  A second later, another door, opposite the kitchen, was opened, and two old women in long black dresses came out.  They glided across the back of the room to a small raised podium in the far corner, and stepped up.  One of them sat down at baby grand piano, and the other bent to pick up a fiddle.  They glanced at each other, the fiddle player raised the tip of her bow…and they plunged in to a beautiful lilting melody.
   Mozart, said Mr Mac, after a second.
   No, I said, It’s Lonely Scapa Flow.  I shrugged.  Maybe Mozart did the arrangement.
   I don’t get this place, said Mrs Mac.
   It’s a labour of love, said Catherine.
   It’s a family tradition, I said.
   How can they prepare such food for an empty restaurant? said Mrs Mac.
   It’s not empty on Sundays, I said.  You have to book weeks ahead to get in on a Sunday.
   She frowned.  I thought he said it wasn’t open on Sundays?
   It’s not, I said.  That’s why you have to book.  Cause it’s not officially open.
   What about the other six days? said Mr Mac.  Why don’t they serve the decent stuff then?  If you hadn’t known to ask for this Sunday menu, we’d have been eating TVP on toast!
   As he spoke, Mr Twatt reappeared alongside us, sliding a basket of warm bread onto the table with one hand, and cradling a dusty champagne bottle in the other.
   We don’t believe that would be justified, sir, he said.  After all, who’s free to spend several hours eating on a working day?  Not many folk on this island.  No, I’m afraid the only folk who have that kind of time on their hands during the week are…tourists.
   So they get pizza and chips? said Mr Mac.
   Mr Twatt winced.  Please, he said, Not the c-word.

After the dessert, Mr MacAndrew had asked if he could meet the chef.  I’d like to shake his hand, he’d said.  No, I’d like to kiss his hand!  That food was perfection!
    It’s not a him, said Mr Twatt.  It’s a her.  It’s my mother.
    Your…mother? Said Mrs Mac.  Goodness!  But surely she’s, well, sure she’s a very mature lady?
    She washed the dishes on the day the place opened, said Mr Twatt.  It was her mother doing the cooking then.  A kind of officers’ mess it was, for the seaplane base in the loch there, during the war.
    Which war was this? said Mr Mac.
    The world war, said Mr Twatt.
    Ah.  Which one?
    Mr Twatt looked at him.  The one before last, he said.  Then he’d bowed a little bow, and waved his hand down the far end of the hall.  Mr MacAndrew had got up and walked down the long aisle towards the dark end, with Mr Twatt marching after him.
    Now he’d been away for nearly half an hour.  Mr Twatt had brought the three of us coffee, and a stiff white envelope with the bill in it.  We’d drunk the coffee, nibbled on little bits of fudge shaped like puffins, and Mrs Mac was insisting on taking care of the bill.  She frowned as she peered at the beautifully handwritten list of reckonings.  There must be some mistake, she said.  Is this just mine?
    Catherine took the bill off her and had a look.  No, that’ll be right, she said.  It’s for all of us; it’s a good deal. 
    So let’s just leave a tenner, I said, And they can keep the change.
    I wonder where your father’s got to? said Mrs Mac.
    Don’t fret mother, said Catherine.
    Just wait, I said.  I’m sure they’ll bring him through in a minute.

Short story by Duncan McLean

About the Author

Duncan McLean; Photo: Olivier Lebihan

Duncan McLean writes:

'I was born in Aberdeenshire in 1964. I started writing stand-up comedy and street theatre with the Merry Mac Fun Co, then moved on to fiction, travel writing and plays. I live in Orkney, working for a local jewellery-making firm.

I've published the following books: Bucket of Tongues (short stories, 1992); Blackden (novel, 1994); Bunker Man (Novel, 1995); Lone Star Swing (music/travel, 1997); Ahead of its Time (anthology, 1997); Plays One (plays, 1999). There's also quite a lot of uncollected stuff: stories, essays, short plays.

I've been asked to write a few words about these books, or about my writing in general. I find it very hard to do so. This is partly because it all seems like it was written a long time ago, and I can't remember much detail about what I was trying to do - let alone why.

More importantly, I don't think it's possible for me to place myself outside my own writing and comment on the inspirations behind it, the influences on it, its successes or failures. When I'm writing something I'm entirely inside it, inside those words, that construction; even after I've finished something, I don't think I 'escape' to some objective viewpoint, able to look back and comment with detachment. In fact, I don't think I can look back and say anything at all; even fifteen years after writing the earliest of these stories, I still feel that they have to stand or fall on their own. There's no more I can do for them'.

The inspiration behind the story

Duncan says "Orkney has a fine tradition of country tea rooms. Probably the finest still in operation is Wylie's Tea Rooms, attached to Harray Stores. Open every day during the summer, it provides a hearty selection of main courses such as mixed grills, mince and tatties, and fried herring. But its real claim to fame is its selection of fancies, either served by themselves to soak up a pot or two of tea, or as a follow up to one of those main courses. (The latter combination is only to be recommended to customers with a hard day's ploughing or fencing behind them). The fancies come served on a multi-tiered cake stand, and usually include at least bere and floury bannocks, scones and jam, oatcakes, fruit dumpling, angel cakes, battenburg, and fattie cutties.

Woodwick Stores in Evie provided another classic tea room until a few years ago; it's currently dormant. Temporary tea rooms tend to spring up in tents, barns or school halls for the annual parish agricultural shows, and other important events. Their menus are shorter, but feature all the classics.

There are, of course, urban eating places, such as the Pomona Cafe in Kirkwall, popularly known as Peedie Charlie's, after the last owner but two. In my opinion Charlie's serves the best patties in Orkney: dollops of mashed tatties, shot through with either flecks of mince or grated cheddar, the whole thing deep-fried to the colour of nicotine-stained fingers. Some folk favour chips with their patties, but many - even in these tuber-crazed islands - would consider that overkill.

Even Peedie Charlie's, though, can't really compete with the great country tea rooms for an outstanding high tea/light lunch experience. There's something about the cavernous space, the dark corners, the reverential quiet of entire families simultaneously munching sublime bere bannocks and rhubarb jam, that sets the tea room experience apart as something unique, and very special. I recommend them highly.

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