The Wee Mad Road
by Jack and Barbara Maloney

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A Lost Story

Here’s a true story from our days in Coigach. I wish we had included in The Wee Mad Road. Fact is, I just plain forgot the incident until recently when Barb reminded me about...

‘Brown Sauce’

In days long gone, the Summer Isles Hotel was a small hostelry with big pretensions. The proprietor at that time was an Englishman, a bit of a snob who catered to the moneyed trade. He took immense pride in his hotel kitchen‘s Michelin star and Egon Ronay listing, apparently earned by serving exquisitely presented dishes with caloric content inversely proportional to their prices. Robert bent every effort to maintain his hotel’s impeccable reputation for haute cuisine, for his clientele were the class of people who expected no less. Usually.

Bert and Beryl were notable exceptions. Oh, they had the look of money, arriving in a long, sleek Jaguar, he in finely tailored tweeds and she in a fur coat and expensive jewelry. But the moment they opened their mouths, their English working class origins became all too obvious. And beyond accent, their behavior betrayed them. Bert was loud and hearty, a stocky chap with the eager smile of a successful salesman – which he was. Beryl was pretty, but slightly overglossed, overdressed and somewhat brassy. She wore her expensive fur jacket everywhere – which, in the rainy West Highlands, often made her look as if she were wearing a drowned cat.

Yet, for all their plebeian behavior, Bert and Beryl had a certain unpretentious charm. Bert was a lively storyteller, a careful listener and a generous man with a round of drink. Beryl had the womanly gift of making every man she spoke with feel sexy and dangerous. And they did have money. Enough money, in fact, to become regular guests at the Summer Isles Hotel.

Being a regular hath its privileges, one of which is priority seating in the hotel dining room; Robert well knew how to cater to his status-conscious trade. Guests were seated according to the frequency or length of their stays. First-time guests were invariably tabled by the server’s station near the kitchen door. As their stays became longer or more frequent, hotel clients were graduated toward the front of the room. For established regulars, the most coveted prize in the dining room was The Window Table, with its stunning view of Loch Broom, the Summer Isles and the snow-capped Dundonnel mountains.

With their working class ways, Beryl and Bert seemed perfectly happy sitting back by the service area, chatting freely with the local women who worked as servers. And Robert, painfully aware of the social gulf between them and most of his clientele, might have been happy to keep them there. But his was an orderly establishment in which status was earned and tradition must be obeyed. As the parvenu couple kept coming back for extended stays, the hotelier was forced to advance them slowly, inexorably, through the dining room until they ultimately achieved the prestigious Window Table.

Of course, Bert and Beryl were not unaware of Robert’s stuffy class-consciousness, and often they regaled the locals in the Fuaran pub down the road with the follies and foibles of the rich and snobbish at the Summer Isles Hotel. But they also enjoyed their wealth with obvious gusto and damn the consequences. Bert cheerfully slammed his costly Jaguar down muddy Highland tracks where even Land Rovers might hesitate. And through terrain made for wellies and sea-boots, Beryl strode bravely in expensive hand-made Italian shoes, with pointy toes that sank into the peaty ground, and tiny high heels that could skewer a sheep turd without squashing it. And because the Summer Isles was by far the finest hostelry for miles around, they stayed there despite the proprietor’s airs. At least, until the incident of the ‘brown sauce.’

Now, ‘brown sauce’ is to British cuisine what ketchup is to Americans – a mass-produced concoction that overwhelms the flavor of any food to which it is liberally applied. It is found on formica tables and booths in cafés, truck stops and fast-food joints. There is simply no place in haute cuisine for ‘brown sauce.’ So one day when Bert asked the waitress at the Summer Isles for some ‘brown sauce’ with his breakfast, she looked surprised. And when the waitress asked the chef for some ‘brown sauce,’ he looked appalled. And when the chef relayed Bert’s request to the proprietor, Robert was simply horrified.

The waitress was sent back to the couple at the coveted Window Table to apologize that ‘brown sauce’ was not stocked in the Summer Isles kitchen. "Oh, that’s alright, luv," Bert grinned. "I’ll pick up a bottle from the village shop and give it to the kitchen tonight, so I’ll have it for me breakfast tomorrow." And that’s what he did.

The next morning when Bert and Beryl came into the hotel dining room, they found the bottle of ‘brown sauce’ neatly placed with the gleaming salt and pepper mills, between immaculate place settings on a crisp white linen cloth. The bottle’s label was turned discreetly to the wall, on a table at the very back of the dining room, by the kitchen door. As far as it could possibly be from Robert’s precious Window Table.

Later that day, Bert and Beryl got many a laugh at the local pub, cheerfully recounting the rise and fall of their table status – brought down by a bottle of ‘brown sauce.’

Illustrations copyright Barbara Maloney 2007

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