I screech to a halt at Lairg because I’ve been starting to think about lunch or at the very least a tea break on my journey from Lochinver to Thurso and this new-build, glass and wood, loch-side café looks, in this corner of Scotland, like it might have Wifi. It doesn’t. The girl behind the counter says the restaurant up the road has. But the food here is better though–-and somehow I don’t think ‘well she would say that wouldn’t she?’ –-no, I take her word and stay. And she’s right. The Victoria sponge comes with one perfect strawberry on the side and a cake fork to slice the sponge off into mouthfuls of such perfection it’s demolished before I’ve even tasted the tea. I’m rewarded for my trust. But there’s more such sustenance to come.
A bookshelf in the corner of the café beckons and, as there’s no Wifi, I take look for something to leaf through with my tea. There are also two tables and a sofa occupied by a gaggle of comfortably blethering teenagers. Must be on a school or a club trip I suppose as I edge past to get at the bookshelf and, as I do, a young voice says, “Hello.” I turn. A young lad with thick and shiny black hair answers my replied “Hello to you,” with a smile and another simple, “Hello.”
“So who are all of you?” I ask.
“Pals,” he says.
“I know,” I say, “but what’s the occasion? Why are you all here, in a group?”
“That’s what we are. A group. Friends.”
“Not an organised thing?” I ask.
“Not particularly,” he says. “Well … it’s her,” pointing to one of the girls at another table. “Birthday. On Tuesday, anyway. So we’re kind of doing a birthday thing for her but we’re also just hanging out.”
I tell him I’m surprised at being greeted so openly by such a group. “You’re so nice to say hello,” I say in an elderly sort of way.
“We’re very nice,” says one of the girls.
“We’re the nicest people in Sutherland,” offers another. Something in what I say suggests I take them for being 15 or 16.
“We’re mainly thirteen year olds,” says one boy. “Twelve and thirteen year olds,” says another and points to the birthday girl who’s going shortly to be the one that leads them into being fourteen, starting on Tuesday. It’s something this group have gathered to help her to do and when it’s each their turn, they’ll accompany one another then too, I suppose. “Oh yes!”
Later, as I pour myself a second cup of tea, I realise they have all, quietly… gone. I didn’t see them leave though I’d expected I would and would have said goodbye. There was a dozen of them but they must have all tiptoed.
These are the moments that explain why this part of the world feels so secure, benign, easy.
The café is filled with the murmurings of friendly conversation. People en route. A grandmother holds a skein of stretchy cheese up with her fork while an eleven year old enjoys the experience of his toastie and coke, winding the lengthening drooping string into his mouth, his grandmother’s hand never getting closer, the cheese never breaking.
I take a picture of my empty cup and plate.
Onward. I scrape my chair and hover by the counter as I wait to pay. A voice behind me orders Victoria Sponge. I smile a full-up smile at the rosy cheeked man and his wife ordering tea as if it was prohibition gin – such decadence.
I’m glad there was no Wifi. Oh! But I find I do have a strong signal on my mobile phone, a novelty after a week of radio silence up at Glencanisp Lodge, Lochinver.
Half an hour down the road I screech to a halt once again, a poem forming half-baked in my brain. This is the effect of spending a week amongst writers on a retreat dedicated to relaxation, good food and time. The girl who served me the cake and invited me not to go to the restaurant for the Wifi (I must write about what wifi means in Scots, but I digress) is occupying my thoughts. I grab my notebook. If I only scribble the first verse, that’ll be better than doing what I usually do which is to let these things form like soap bubbles and we know what happens to soap bubbles when we let them drift away on the wind.
Girl from the north lands
We meet at every turn
Though where I never know
Her hair is red or black or brown,
she wears it loose, or up, or down
or short. Ah no it’s fair and shines in sun.
She brought me tea today and cake
She spoke and smiled
She climbed a stair
She showed me in
Girl from the home lands
Here and where I turn
See in the glass
Where I belong