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Postcards from Scotland

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Edinburgh

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Back after 10-odd years, and Edinburgh hasn’t aged a day. She’s still the charming, youthful, cultured, witty young woman with a flair for the arts and an affliction for harris tweed. She’s quite the coquette, too, and knows exactly what she’s doing to her admirers. You can see it when you look up at Edinburgh Castle from Princes Street (which is really Princess Street, but don’t tell the boys) and notice how she’s lined up the mediaeval houses just so – haphazardly at first glance, but following a hidden aesthetic order intended to enrapture.

If you ever visit, you must stay at The Balmoral – not that there’s any other hotel in town but some people might try to persuade you otherwise. For dinner, go to the dogs (I’m not being rude), which feels deliciously clandestine: like a moonlighting kitchen fronted by a funeral parlour for canines. (Not as morbid as it sounds, honest.) Here, wash down a bowl of hearty rabbit stew with half a bottle of Garnacha and know what it feels like to be warmed to the marrow.

Inverness

The short version: you needn’t ever visit Inverness.

The long version: Inverness is dodgy. (I might just as well say it, since it’s you.) For one thing, it’s a town possessed by seagulls. (Here, it might be helpful to remember that birds are descended from dinosaurs.) They strut down the deserted streets like masters of the universe – huge beasts, feathers like serrated blades, beaks like daggers – the victors of some apocalyptic Hitchcockian war, laying claim to all discarded food and public statues.

The humans of Inverness, shrunken and sallow, slither around corners like silent shadows, muttering in unintelligible tongues, casting sidelong glances. They look out wistfully at the world from behind the glass windows of empty bars, no doubt dreaming about returning to their meagre dwellings, hanging the noose around their own necks and kicking the bucket from underneath their own feet, and doing away with Inverness once and for all, observed only by the impassive yellow eyes of a seagull, perched imperiously on a lamppost right outside the dirty window.

Urquhart Castle on Loch Ness

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“Technically, it’s just a lake. But add a monster, and it’s marketable!”

I’m certain Urquhart is a character from a P. G. Wodehouse novel, but I can’t for the life of me remember which one or which one. The castle, meanwhile, is just comical. A joke of a ruin perched atop a breathtaking view (on a nice day, anyway), as if it were erected specifically for the tourists to dish out 9 quid apop for a chance to take selfies with a mediaeval backdrop. Somehow, none of it makes sense, not here in Scotland: the view, the castle, the (hi)story. Castles are meant to be menacing and impenetrable bastions, bathed in a past of violence and bloodshed. Urquhart, meanwhile, is more like a Swiss chateau (albeit a cheaper, plainer version of it, because what Scot would splurge on such silly things as turrets.)

But the views are lovely, especially on a nice day, and the photos do turn out fine.

Skye

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“Skye”, in Scottish Gaelic, means “the land where lambs are born”. An old Scottish legend claims that lambs, innocent angelic beings, fall from heaven straight onto Skye, where they spend a few months before being marched to the mainland at 6 to 10 months to be slaughtered.

I’m spinning a yarn here. (Pardon the pun. But it is true that lambs are slaughtered for meat between 6 and 10 months. Did you know that? Yummy!) But it’s a perfect made-up legend, because Skye, in spring, is a heaven of frolicking four-legged angels, skipping across paddocks and being all cute and shy and adorable. There are also some impressive waterfalls on this volcanic island.

Fort William & Glen Coe

Like the bulbous nose of an old man, Beinn Nibheis looms over Fort William, a proud little town dwarfed by the giant squatting in its backyard only in size, but not in spirit. It still feels like a garrison town, where people come to mostly because they want to move on – North-West to the isles or South-East to adjoining Glen Coe.

Glen Coe is not as impressive on a dazzling sunny day, but beautiful nevertheless. The undulating hills and valleys a testament to the greatest master – Mother Nature – standing on display, commanding admiration with a cold nonchalance given by the knowledge that they will still be here after we and our cars have long been devoured by worms and moss.

Onich & Loch Lomond

Hands down, my favourite. This was where I tasted summer for the first time this year. But not the sweltering, palm-tree lined, white sandy beach summer of the tropics, smelling of sunscreen and tasting of sugary fruit. This was the refreshing, rubber sandals on pebbled shores, dappled shade of leafy trees, saline lochs brimming with cockles and clams and crabs and langoustines summer of the north, where the water is freezing and the air tastes like grilled scallops.

Stay nowhere but Camus House, where you will feel like an old family friend visiting for the weekend (and then want to stay forever once you lay your eyes on the view in the breakfast room), and dine nowhere but the Lochleven Seafood Café, but do yourself the favour and disregard any vegetarian inclinations. (Bafflingly, they do have vegetarian options on the menu, for which I will never forgive myself.)

Glasgow

Glasgow is like its accent: edgy, alert, and grunge. Its inhabitants are obviously unused to clement weather: on a warm sunny day, they walk around wearing dark stockings and leather jackets, as if unsure how to deal with the sunshine or caught in the wrong city altogether. But they have rainbows in their hair and patterns on their greenish pale limbs that look strangely out of place exposed to the elements.

Glasgow is Edinburgh’s plainer sister, sullen and pinch-faced, reading Solzhenitsyn in a corner or else planning the demise of the world in a seedy teahouse. But she’s by no means dull – there’s a rich inner world underneath the hard shell, of only you dig a little deeper and peek under the surface.

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The Missing Zucchini Balls

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a short play

A balmy summer eveing in Brussels. A quaint and hip Greek taverna and deli shop in a quiet backstreet. Woman and Man are finishing their Greek tapas dinner.

Woman [sighing contentedly]: This was unexpectedly lovely!
Man [finishing his glass of wine]: It was! I’m thinking about getting a bottle of this wine. Joonas will like it.
Woman: You should! [looking around the shelves stacked with Greek goods] I’m wondering about getting the orzo pasta we had in the “risotto”. [takes a nibble from the unfinished pan of seafood risotto in the middle of the table]
Man [placing his hand on Woman’s knee under the table]: Shall we?
Woman: Sure.

Enter Waiter.

Man [beckoning to Waiter]: Waiter! May I have the check?
First Waiter [caught by surprise, then offended]: The check?
Man: Yes, please.
First Waiter [suspicious]: Okay.

Exit First Waiter. Enter First Waiter with check, placing it on the table in front of Man. Man inspects the check curiously, then whispers something to Woman, who shakes her head in disbelief. First Waiter does not notice their interaction.

Man [handing the check to Waiter]: I will pay by card, and please take the zucchini balls off the check.
First Waiter [shocked]: Take them off?!
Man: Yes. We ordered them, but we didn’t get them.
First Waiter [shocked]: you didn’t get them?!
Man [kindly]: No, and it’s okay.
First Waiter [offended]: But why?!
Man: Well… you didn’t bring them!
First Waiter [appalled, looking at the check, then at Man]: We didn’t bring them?!
Man  [amused]: Nope.
First Waiter [suspiciously]: But did we bring you the seafood risotto?
Man [not looking at the gigantic pan of seafood risotto on the table]: Yes.
First Waiter [at a loss]: Ah… we are so sorry.
Man: It’s okay.
First Waiter: Sadly, the kitchen is closed. Because you really should have tried the zucchini balls.
Man: It doesn’t matter.
First Waiter: Maybe next time.
Man: Yes, maybe.
First Waiter [having a brainwave]: But the menu could change!
Woman: Then you’ll have to make zucchini balls just for us!
First Waiter [relieved]: Yes. We will keep the zucchini balls.
Woman: Good!
First Waiter: But the recipe might change! You know?
Woman: I’m sure the new recipe will be just as good.
First Waiter [disappointed, sighing]: Yes, we will keep the recipe, too.

Exit First Wiater. Enter Second Waiter with the check and a card machine, followed by First Waiter.

Second Waiter [taking Man’s card]: You wanted to take the zucchini balls off the check?
Man [downing his espresso]: Yes.
Second Waiter: And the espresso, yes?
Man [putting his cup of espresso on the table]: No.
Second Waiter: Ah… okay.

Exit Second Waiter, followed by First Waiter.

Woman [to man]: Didn’t you want to get the wine, as well?
Man [shakes his head vigorously]: Never mind. Did you want the pasta?
Woman [chuckling]: No. Let’s just get out of here!
Man [smiling]: I would, but I they took my card.

Enter Second Waiter with the check and the card machine, followed by First Waiter. Second Waiter punches some numbers into the card machine, inserts Man’s card and hands the machine to Man. First Waiter is eagerly peering over his shoulder the entire time. Man punches his PIN into the machine. A receipt rolls out of the machine, Second Waiter tears it off and hands it back to Man with his card.

Second Waiter: Thank you, sir and madam.
First Waiter: Thank you!
Man [rising from the table]: Thank you!
Woman [rising from the table]: Thank you, goodbye!
Second Waiter: Goodbye. Have a lovely evening.
First Waiter [mumbling as Woman and Man exit]: Goodbye! Sorry about the risotto…

Exit Woman and Man. 

The End

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JR122

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“But madam, don’t you want any meal?”

I looked up at him, my eyes brimming with tears.

* * *

The tears of a wronged child.

I was nine years old, sitting at a tiny desk in Year Four Ochre. I was just goofing around with Alex Bunton, a sweet nappy-haired boy, at whom I had directed a pair of scissors, opening the blades in what was – to my young and imaginative mind – the perfect recreation of a crocodile.

Out of nowhere, like a tornado on a bright summer’s day, the portly figure of Mrs. Thompson materialised by my side, her voice raised in a teacher’s controlled rage.

“Don’t let me ever see you playing with scissors again, Jay!”

It was like an ice-cold shower on a body still warm from the bed. Like a dagger slicing through an innocently throbbing heart. I had never, ever been reprimanded in class before. Not in my life. I was a model student, diligent and enthusiastic, loving school and adored by teachers, of whom no one ever so much as raised an eyebrow at me. (Well, except for my piano teacher, who screamed her head off at my incompetence at all our private lessons, but she was Russian and emotional and she wasn’t a class teacher so she didn’t count, anyway.)

Not only was I shocked and humiliated. Worse, I felt betrayed.

Because I knew very well that one shouldn’t play with scissors. And I certainly wasn’t playing with scissors! Those things were nowhere near sweet Alex’s face, and in any case, I knew exactly what I was doing and was in full control of the situation.

My tiny nine-year-old chest constricted with pain and an angry heat swept over me. My eyes began to sting, and I realised that I was on the verge of very real – and very embarrassing – tears. Taking the only dignified escape route I could think of, I began pulling off my jumper over my head, hiding my face in it for as long as it took to compose myself, pretending to fumble with it. I emerged much calmed, though rather flushed from the effort and the lack of air inside the jumper, to the somewhat puzzled-looking face of Mrs. Thompson.

(Dear Mrs. Thompson, if you’re reading this, please know that you did the rightest thing. You were concerned about a situation in your class that could have escalated and you needed to prevent similar occurrences in the future. I stand by your actions, 100%. I was a tad sensitive as a child – goodness knows I still am – and you were a fine teacher of whom I have very fond memories. Also, you were the first Gwyneth I ever knew, which for me was a bit like knowing Rapunzel. This was probably because I confused Gwyneth with Guinevere, but I digress.)

* * *

Fast-forward some twenty-five years, and I was overcome with the same feeling. A terrible injustice, a woeful wrong had been done to an innocent soul.

I had logged in at the airline’s website, found my booking, and altered my meal preferences well before my scheduled flight. Being the only person in the world to love aeroplane food, and in-flight meals being a rare a they are nowadays (we’re talking plebe class here), I took great pleasure in choosing among the variety of vegetarian options, and was immensely looking forward to devouring it up in the clouds.

And then, when the food trolley finally pulled up and I still hadn’t been brought my special tray, and when I was told, upon being given given a choice between beef, chicken, and fish and asking whether there was a vegetarian option, that there wasn’t, and handed a half-empty tray with just the compact salad and miniature dessert and a cold bun accompanied by butter and melty cheese, something just broke in me. I loved these trays, delighting in their practicality and efficiency – encompassing all the components of a meal, the main dish piping hot in its aluminium package – and now I was deprived of that joy!

I sipped on my apple juice, jealously eyeing the man next to me, who was wolfing down his beef on rice with satisfied slurping noises, when another flight attendant noticed my empty-ish tray (no doubt alerted by my aura of intense dejection).

Trying to sound cheerfully nonchalant, I shrugged my shoulders and answered his question.

“You don’t have anything that’s vegetarian,” I said, my voice just a half a tone too shrill.

He processed the answer. “I see. You requested a vegetarian meal, yes.” He seemed to know. He nodded, lifted a finger, and exited stage left.

I stared out of the window, sulking. The increased trouble was that I was actually really hungry. Since breakfast, I had been surviving on one (1) pain au chocolat and bottles of water, not having had any time to purchase so much as a bag of crisps during my layover. Resigning to my fate, I picked up the miniature salad and began nibbling at it halfheartedly. It was the crushed hopes that were most crushing.

“Excuse me. Madam, excuse me.”

An outstretched hand, a small porcelain plate bearing cooked rice, steamed vegetables, and fried cheese balls, procured from behind the magic curtain of Business Class. A kind smile. I almost cried for real this time. (Kindness in the face of obstacles always does that to me.)

Mortified by the knowledge that my emotional state over such a trifling matter must have been apparent, I accepted the plate and smiled in spite of my shame. It wasn’t perfect, and I was still hungry, but I was mollified.

That night, I made sure to write the politest, kindest complaint email. Because come on.

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The Stirring Is Key

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Add a tsp of paprika, and stir in. The stirring is key. It is soothing. It is mindless, not mindful. Sod mindful. My mind is full enough. It is a minefield. Tonight I want to stir some stuff and stare at my hands or into nothing.

Self-Love Stew, by Jack Monroe