“MASKS! GET OUT!”
The words were a violent shock-wave that blasted us two steps backwards, right out the door of the off-license and into the street.
I went into full-on Hugh Grant circa mid-90s mode, trying to repair the damage with a barrage of stuttering apologies.
Off course we shouldn’t have walked into the shop without masks, but sometimes you just forget, don’t you? It’s not arrogance. It’s not a protest. It’s just feeling relaxed and behaving for a crazy second or two as though everything was back to normal. Nothing more than a moment’s lapse. I knew some islanders felt exasperated by visitors going into what we termed ‘holiday head mode’ on Tenerife. This was a label we attached to holidaymakers we spotted doing things they’d have nightmares about if they did them at home – like the British woman sitting in a bar in Puerto de la Cruz in her bra, happily tucking into a cheese toastie as if it were the most normal thing to do. Imagine the stir she’d cause if she tried that down the Swan with Two Necks?
So folk who would, I assume, queue patiently to get into shops at home, stride straight into ones in Rothesay, ignoring queueing locals. But that’s something which happens everywhere. The vehemence of the shop assistant’s reaction seemed excessive.
We put our masks on and re-entered, gushing another round of futile apologies which slumped, defeated, against deaf ears. The woman’s face remained looking as though she had sucked a particularly tart sookie sweetie. I hoped the milk lorry didn’t pass at that moment as its load would have been well and truly curdled. We smiled feebly, no change in her expression, and perused the shelves looking for a couple of bottles of ale and wine.
Engage her in shop talk, I thought.
“Do you have any local craft beer?” I asked. It’s usually a question that sets staff in booze shops off and running.
“NAW,” she barked back.
“Oh, I thought there was a guy producing craft beers here?”
And that was that, end of discussion about locally-produced craft ales. Not even a mention of the neighbouring island’s craft beers. But then, I guess, that might have been inter-island rivalry rather than plain unhelpfulness. Up until that point, the most unhelpful response to a question about locally-produced beer had been in a bar in France – “NON!”. She’d just snatched the crown.
“OUT!” the assistant suddenly barked again, making me jump.
This time her anger wasn’t directed at us. It was at another couple of visitors who’d committed the heinous crime of stepping over the threshold when there were already two people in the shop.
“STAY OUTSIDE. ONLY TWO PEOPLE AT A TIME.”
The perpetrators retreated with the similar sort of expressions Andy and I had when her stern words had assaulted us.
I glanced at Andy guiltily, we were taking up precious booze-buying space. A few minutes earlier I’d waited outside whilst Andy popped into a clothes shop. But the (incredibly helpful) assistant there had waved me in to give my judgement on Andy’s choices, saying “of course it’s alright.” She had been a completely different prospect; the sort of friendly islander I expected of my home town. This one, however, was a horror. We hastily grabbed two bottles of wine and a couple of beers.
“Aargh, the pressure to choose something quickly,” Andy joked, trying to lighten the oppressive atmosphere, as she placed the bottles on the counter.
“Normally we wouldn’t allow two people from the same household in the shop at the same time,” the assistant snapped, giving us the sort of stare that would have Medusa looking down at her feet and shuffling nervously.
At that point I felt my blood well up. Were we supposed to feel privileged at giving our business to her shop? I don’t bloody think so. We should have told her where to stick her wine and beer. But we didn’t. We promptly paid and left; partly because we were in shock at an example of the worst customer service we’ve experienced in a long time. You just don’t talk to folk as though they’re shite, or you shouldn’t. Since Covid reared its head, we’ve been in shops in Spain, Portugal, France, England, and Scotland. This was the first time we’d been treated by an assistant as though we’d dragged in dog dirt on our shoes.
Being exasperated with visitors is no excuse. Rothesay is busier than normal thanks to staycations, but it doesn’t attract anything close to as many tourists as some of the really popular locations we’ve been to in the last 18 months, and nobody but nobody anywhere else (hamlets, villages, towns, or cities) behaved like this woman. She was just rude, that’s all there is to it; someone in the wrong occupation. It happens. But what really infuriated me was that I had to travel to my home island before I experienced being treated in such a manner. It had crossed my mind Andy’s English accent might have been a factor, but the assistant treated the other couple (Scottish) who tried to enter exactly the same. I suspect she was just anti-visitor, as it sounds she’s okay with islanders. Maybe it was a classic case of “this is a local shop, for local people; there’s nothing for you here.”
Was this really the sort of welcome that visitors to Rothesay were experiencing? That thought both saddened and annoyed me, and I realised my fury was fuelled by disappointment as much as anger.
Haste ye back. Not bloody likely where this shop is concerned.
(Note: This was a lone incident, experienced shortly after arriving on Bute. To a person, everyone else exuded typical Scottish hospitality. She was just an unfortunate blip.)