The long dark days of winter were rapidly disappearing, lambs could be seen across the Kyles, gambling on the hills of Bute. Curls of bracken were unfolding and all the wonderful scents of Spring were filling the air. Our little Hotel was waking up to the sounds of telephones ringing as people began to consider where to spend their Spring Break. Yachtsmen wanting to get their boats in order, visitors needing to get into the country to exercise winter-stiff limbs, and a selection of elderly citizens from Glasgow thinking about a short holiday before the spring cleaning started.
A Ladies Club for retired Teachers made a booking consisting of eight ladies and two husbands for the end of March. We had enjoyed the company of these ladies before. They were very elderly, still believing in the mores of a previous generation. For instance:- They always came down to breakfast wearing hats. (If away from home one wore a hat until sun set. Then you could remove it) It was considered the right thing, when away from home, to wear your coat at all times during day-light. Their habits were important to them, such as ’only marmalade for breakfast, never jam’ and ’tea in a china pot, not metal’. Hot chocolate was invariably desired, complete with short-bread, before bed-time. One busy day I had not made the short-bread myself, but bought a reputable brand in the village. None of them ate it. Lesson learnt! I was not referred to as Mrs Aitken - but as Mistress Aitken. We used the same title for them, no matter if they were Miss or Mrs. They were very tweedy; thick tweeds at that. Even on a sunny day they did not find it seemly to discard any article of clothing what-so-ever. I instructed my young Staff to be careful with their speech. “O.K.” and “Hi!” were not on the agenda. “We must never let standards slip.” was a phrase they used a lot. It seems Kleenex, television, central heating and ladies in trousers had all led to standards slipping, along with Bird’s Custard, lollipops, and Biros.
The day of their arrival was soon upon us and I had already made a fish-pie, which they always liked, and a large sustaining lamb casserole which was bubbling away comfortably. Flowers were in the bed-rooms and fruit in the hall. Everything seemed to be in order - when, with little warning I became very unwell. There had been a nasty virus in the village, and I had suddenly come down with it. There was a certain amount my young staff could do - but cooking wasn’t on that list. I really felt that I could not go into the kitchen to do anything - however small - with a tummy bug.
In the bar, cheerfully scoffing her pre-prandial gin and tonic was a very dear and lovable friend, Jane Watson. Jane was large, ebulliently cheerful and always wanting to be helpful. She heard I was not very well and came charging into the bedroom, g -and- t in hand and proclaimed that she would fill in for me. Not to worry. She’d cope. Easy-peasy. Vegetables? Of-course! Pudding? She’d think of something! “Don’t worry dear - I’ll manage.”
I must have felt ill because I never even felt a slight twitch.
Later that night when Jane came in to say Good-night and tell me that everything had gone swimmingly, and she’d enjoyed it all so much, with only a slight slurring of speech, I was still feeling groggy enough not to read too much into it. There were only twelve people in the dining-room, and the girls were very good at looking after old ladies, and I had the fish-pie and casserole organised, and I had said a few prayers before dropping in to a deep, deep sleep. What was I worrying about?
Jane said “Good-night dear, sleep tight . I’ll come again tomorrow - that was such fun!” and
Jane wove her way cheerfully out before my daughter staggered in to tell me all about it. Dear, lovely Jane did tend to tipple a bit more energetically than perhaps she should have done, but her enthusiasm had the girls in the kitchen being as useful as they knew how. They absolutely loved her. The first problem came about when the soup was about run out.
“Never mind dears” crooned Jane. “That’s easy to fix.” A quick visit to the Bar, (a g-and- t when she got there), and a quick return to the kitchen, followed by most of the bottle ending up in what was left of the soup The soup seemed popular that night. The casserole had spent rather too long in the oven consequently the gravy had dried up . “Never mind dears” chirruped the extremely cheerful Jane and in went the remains of the bottle of Sherry.
I gather the voices in the dining-room were getting merrier by the minute. Jane, thinking about pudding, had found half a sponge cake in a tin, and decided on a trifle. With cream, not custard, as she couldn’t make custard. There was plenty of fruit around - and - you’ve guessed it - all that was n eeded was sherry for the sponge. Off went Jane to collect it, coming back into the kitchen cheerier than ever. It seems the trifle was a huge success. Then it seemed Jane had gone into the dining-room to ask if everyone had enjoyed their dinner. Ooh - yes - they had! “Would they like a little Irish Coffee?” “What’s that?” “Ooh! You’ll love it!” and I gather they all did!
What I didn’t say at the start of this little story is that the elderly ladies were completely teetotal and had never had a drop of alcohol in their lives. Here my daughter broke down completely. Three of the ladies decided to give their little waitress a lesson on Highland Dancing - in the hall. Soon everyone had joined in. They gave the cocoa and shortbread a ,miss that night.
Next morning I got up and went down-stairs, just a little worried, but having had their customary porridge for breakfast I found that they were all standing, as normal, in the hall, hats, coats, gloves and scarves, picking up their packed lunches and thermos flasks for “a good, brisk walk” I waved them off, not quite believing there wasn’t a sore head or two. By four o’clock they came trooping back as usual. One of them stepped forward. “Oh Mistress Aitken. We think you ought to know. We’ve had a lovely day, but we believe that the Mortadella sausage was perhaps not as fresh as it might have been, as some of us were not feeling too well.”