At the Tillicoultrie Inn
by Margaret Rumford
Table of Contents|
parts: 1, 2, 3
Dorrie sat cross-legged on the dock in Ullapool, a sleepy fishing village on the northwest coast of Scotland, where mauve and purple heather tapestried the surrounding hills. It was now four o’clock, and still no one had turned up to meet her. Dejected, she stared at the mist creeping across the loch.
Looking around for what seemed like the hundredth time, she saw a tall young man in a paint-stained Arran sweater, yellow waterproof pants and a matching sou’wester hat striding towards her. She thought he resembled an actor primed to play a fisherman.
“Are you Dorrie Ogden?” he said, stopping in front of her.
He was so gorgeous that for once in her life Dorrie was speechless. She managed to flash her best smile.
“The name’s Euan McIver,” he said, extending a hand. “Connor asked me to ferry across you to the inn.”
Wishing her dark hair didn’t hang in damp rattails, she unfolded legs and stood, her ankle boots a startling scarlet.
“You look vaguely familiar,” he said, studying her round face and hazel eyes.
Dorrie knew it wasn’t because of a resemblance to her beautiful sister Kate. No one made that mistake. She sighed and gathered her belongings.
When they were halfway across the loch, from the stern of his battered boat, its motor belching fumes, Euan slowed down and pointed ahead. “The Tillicoultrie Inn,” he shouted. “It’s where the loch channels into the sea. You’re in another country over there.”
Dorrie, realizing that jeans and a slicker were no defense against the penetrating Scottish chill, hugged her duffle bag for warmth and peered through the now persistent drizzle. The inn lay high above the shoreline, a three-storied granite house anchored among lofty pines. Wisps of smoke wafted from two of its five chimneys, which were spaced along the slate roof like funnels on a ship. Off to the side, she glimpsed a stone barn partially hidden by large rhododendrons.
“What do you mean, ‘another country’?” she said.
Euan revved the engine and bellowed, “It’s isolated, there’s noo road in.”
God, he was attractive, Dorrie thought. The way he said ‘noo’ was so adorable.
Feeling defensive for her sister, she added, “The Michelin Guide gives the inn two stars, so the food must be fabulous.”
“It ought to be, for the money they charge.” Euan swiped the drizzle from the end of his nose with his fingerless woollen mitten, ruining his movie-star image. “People fly up from London for meals cooked by Astrid the Dane, and a lot of high-falutin’ stuff she gives them. Then there’s Connor’s selection of overpriced premium Scotch. Folks have more money than sense, if you ask me. Still, everyone thinks the world of your sister.” Then he added, “You don’t look much like her.”
“Sorry about that!” Dorrie was fed up being compared to Kate.
Tall and ethereal with cascading auburn curls, Kate resembled a Pre-Raphaelite painting. It drove Dorrie nuts, being only five-foot two and a little on the chunky side with boobs a 36D. Everything Kate tackled turned out well: modeling, sailing, playing the damned cello, marrying up. That was, until recently. After her husband, Connor, made a killing when he sold his start-up software company, they had blown it all purchasing the run-down Tillicoultrie Inn, plus a luxury sixty-foot catamaran to charter out. According to the girls’ father, the inn was a black hole.
“Kate and Connor may be drowning in debt after restoring the place for all I know,” he had told Dorrie.
A week earlier, on the morning of her twenty-third birthday, Dorrie had arrived late for work at a television studio on London’s South Bank. She was the assistant to the assistant producer of the popular live show, Kiwi Kook.
Studying herself in the make-up room mirrors, she decided she looked awful, hungover, in fact, after celebrating with friends the previous night. To boost her confidence, she jelled her hair into spikes, added mascara and hoisted the plunging neckline of her sparkly tee-shirt higher. One must look one’s best around TV cameras, even if not actually appearing on screen.
Having completed two courses in French cuisine at evening classes, she hoped this job would broaden her horizons; she was determined to one day star in her own cooking show; Delectable Dining would be its name.
“Nice of you to bloody turn up, Dorrie!” yelled the producer from the gloom behind a camera. “She’s ’ere, Rhod.”
Rhod Lightening, an ex-New Zealand All Black rugby quarterback and the motor-mouthed chef, starred in the popular live TV show, Kiwi Kook. On camera, he sported gold chains and a white singlet to showcase his tattooed biceps. Performing in a zinc-lined kitchen with a lot of “G’dday,” and “Good on y’a, mate,” he slapped slabs of crocodile, ostrich, kangaroo and buffalo about and dribbled passion fruit, whitebait and green mussels over everything, whether appropriate or not.
Chef Rhod liked to “wet me whistle” during the commercials, and it was Dorrie’s responsibility to race onto the set with an iced lager during the commercial breaks. That morning, bearing an oversized bottle, she dashed to Rhod in what she mistakenly thought was a break. When she realized the cameras were still rolling, she spun around and skidded on a pool of melted lard and crashed into Rhod as he held aloft a bloody buffalo steak.
Showering lager, the bottle whammed him on the side of his head. The steak flew through the air. Dorrie lunged at the bottle. Rhod lunged at Dorrie. In a geyser of blood and booze, she fell face down across the zinc counter. The cameraman zoomed in and caught her laughing hysterically, exposing a fulsome breast. It lay on the counter like a plump ostrich steak ready for the barbie.
She was fired on the spot.
That evening, as her parents raised their glasses to wish her a happy birthday, her sister Kate called from Scotland.
“Could someone please come and help out at the inn? Connor and I have to captain the yacht and feed six Americans with more money than Saudi sheiks.” She sounded fraught, which was unusual for her. “That leaves Astrid, our cook, short-handed. We’ve guests arriving from London Saturday. And a critic from the Michelin Guide may arrive Saturday. We’re desperate to keep our two stars.”
The family decided that Dorrie should be dispatched to the Tillicoultrie Inn. After all, she was unemployed and the only member of the family with experience in the food business. Right?
Her father clinched it. “Dorrie, you made a complete fool of yourself on television. The whole bloody country saw you. My advice: vanish for a while.”
“Thanks a lot, Dad,” Dorrie said, on the verge of tears.
But being Dorrie it didn’t take her too long to embrace the idea of becoming an angel of mercy, winging her way on Midland Air to rescue Kate and the inn from disaster.
“You are late! Kate and Connor, they left.” Astrid the Dane strode across the shingle towards Dorrie as Young Lochinvar beached the boat. “Thank God you are here,” she said.
Astrid, a woman in her fifties, of medium height, without a spare ounce of flesh on her body and a face weathered by Scottish squalls, was handsome. A cord of leather held back her shoulder-length gray-blond hair. In muddy corduroys, scuffed work boots and a suede bushranger’s hat, she made a striking impression, especially accompanied by two goats groomed to perfection, their silken hair frisked by the breeze blowing off the loch.
Dorrie, determined to impress Euan and save her knock-off Gucci boots from salt water, leapt from the bow of the boat onto the beach. She lost her balance and staggered forward, landing on her knees among the pebbles.
“Welcome!” Astrid held out a hand and jerked Dorrie to her feet. Without preamble, she added, “Kate says you have culinary experience.”
Obviously she had not been watching the food channel.
“Cheers, Dorrie!” Euan spun the boat around, creating a minor tidal wave. “Give us a call if you need any crocodile,” he yelled, waving his hat to revealing a shock of terracotta corkscrew curls
So he had seen the show. Dorrie fired a baleful look at him.
“See you tomorrow, my dear,” Astrid called after him.
Did that mean he would be back? Dorrie had hoped never to see him again. He could totally blow her cover. One had to protect one’s reputation.
“There is much to do, Dorrie,” Astrid said. “Come, I’ll show you the kitchen.” She led the way around the side of the inn. “We grow most of our produce.” She waved her hand at an extensive vegetable garden protected by a wire meshing. “We pride ourselves on serving fresh Scottish fare. Meat and fish are ferried across the loch, and I make trips to Inverness to stock up when necessary.”
A herd of goats with long spaniel ears nibbled their way through grass and thistles in the fenced paddock alongside the barn.
“They are Nubians and excellent milkers. Their milk provides the artisan cheese we serve,” Astrid told Dorrie with obvious pride.
The goats blocked the path and Dorrie, fearful they would butt her, dodged left and right until the animals skittered apart. But they followed, nibbling at her boots. Astrid turned in time to see Dorrie swipe the larger goat’s head with her duffle bag.
“Bendt! Elug! Stop!” Her voice sang up a scale. “Do not mind them. They believe they’re people. You are wicked!”
Dorrie assumed she meant the goats.
Steep granite steps led from the outside down into the kitchen. Dorrie would have stumbled if she hadn’t grabbed the iron handrail attached to the rough-hewn walls on either side. Once inside the kitchen, located in a semi-basement, she was surprised to find it quite small. The plaster walls were painted white and the floor slabs of granite. A deep blue, wood-burning Aga cooker dominated an alcove that had once been a fireplace. Its warmth took the chill off the room.
Dozens of glass containers filled with supplies lined the walls. The scent from bunches of rosemary, thyme, sage and tarragon suspended from a ceiling rack permeated the air. On white-tiled window sills, pots of basil and orange and yellow begonias crowded together. Two long ceramic sinks, set in a wooden stand, stood in front of the window. To Dorrie’s relief, she glimpsed commercial stainless steel dishwashers and refrigerators through the scullery door.
“This is where I create.” Astrid ran her hand over the scrubbed surface of the central table. “You will help.”
“Not a problem.” Dorrie, eager to show off her culinary skills, added, “My London experience will be an asset.”
Astrid frowned. “Nothing English here,” she said.
From outside, noses pressed against the window, Bendt and Elug watched their every move with rapacious eyes. After that, whenever Dorrie went near them, they butted her until she was black and blue. She learned later that they were locked in the barn at night and released only after Astrid had cooed and fussed over them.
“Ever serve curried goat?” Dorrie teased after Eluf had crashed his horns into her side. She decided Astrid’s devotion to them was over the top.
Astrid, pounding a venison steak, pressed her lips together.
After a prolonged silence, she said, “Saturday, a food critic from one of the national papers may arrive. Last year, the famous critic from the Michelin Guide, Melrose Jones, awarded the inn two stars. He is a gentleman, cultured, knowledgeable. He was most complimentary about my food.” Astrid smoothed her palms over her breasts and smiled, presumably at the memory. “A tip-top review from him means you have made it. You know of him, of course.”
“Of course,” said Dorrie, who had never heard of the man. “We’ll knock his socks off!” She raised her hand to high-five Astrid, who ignored her.
“They do not send the same person twice,” Astrid said wistfully.
The rest of the day was spent baking, basting, beating, blanching, blending, chopping, mixing, sautéing, slicing, sieving, splicing, stirring, roasting. By evening Dorrie was wiped out.
After the second day, she felt more at home in the kitchen. Astrid was a bossy-boots, but she knew a lot about food and its preparation. Dorrie found that Astrid was not interested in livening up the menu, so forget emu steaks.
“No!” Astrid exclaimed. “Not good!”
When the menu was finaized, she read it to Dorrie, making it obvious her input was superfluous. Some of the things Dorrie had never heard of. Who in their right mind would order Mull Truckle, Sage Soubise, Brinigill Quail Eggs, whatever they were?
It had already been decided to close the inn to overnight guests with Kate and Connor away. Dinner would be served to only twenty guests on Saturday and lunch for thirty on Sunday.
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Copyright © 2018 by Margaret Rumford