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A bothersome pebble unsuspectingly breezed its way inside my shoe.

This wasn’t the first time; my first proper Scottish audax took me an extra thirty minutes to finish, as I had to unhook my pebble-pricked foot off the pedal from time to time. The stone now was smaller than the one yesterday, but was getting more annoying that I wasted no time unbuckling my cleats and yanked it off, sock included. Was it always this loose?

I inspected the embossed inscription beneath it.

One size larger.

Resolved to buy thicker socks, I simply sighed, putting the cleated footwear back on, and parked my road bike beside the blue dropbar. It wasn’t exactly a parking space, but seeing how one of the patrons hooked their high-end Shand around the cafe’s alfresco terrace railings—and none of the baristas turning an eye—surely it wouldn’t hurt anybody if I chained mine.

The glass exterior gave me visual access on what was going on inside, and I couldn’t expect anything less on a Sunday night, especially at Ridge Roasteries.

Everybody around Inverness knew RR, or at least that was from an outsider’s perspective. My Raigmore colleagues welcomed me with coffee and biscuits from RR, quipping how it was my rite-of-passage in becoming an honorary Inverness local. The café had four branches—this one was the closest to my apartment—and were fond of giving their patrons limited-time gimmicks, such as releasing special blends during the first month of the season. They captured their market well, I thought, since I didn’t see the need to glance at the large poster to know what I wanted. 

Everybody knew something was brewing today, since everybody was here.

The place was packed with customers, that even a few teenage girls vacating the café did nothing to make it look less crowded. The counter was the busiest place, with only three baristas accommodating a long line of excited customers. Judging by their willingness to wait, as well as their apparent reluctance to leave, I knew there was no way this place would have a vacant seat in the next hour.

I had to go home early, anyway; my legs were still sore even after tonight’s decompression ride, and I was aching for my bed after a long day at the A&E. So as long as I could secure their season-special drink, that would be more than enough.

“Hi!” Yelled the three busy-bees as soon as the door flung open. More than their startling greeting, the nutty aroma of fresh espresso was a fragrance bomb to my nostrils. It was oddly comforting and energizing, all at the same time.

They yelled the same word in unison when the customer behind me came in, but were focused at their work, regardless. Three hired hands and two working cash registers were enough to drain the line in less than two minutes, and the only reason a line could stack itself with more patrons was a lack of either one of them.

The working trio seemed to know how to handle such a misadventure. While one of them assumed the role of a cashier, the other hopped from one customer to another, jotting orders down with pen and paper before handing it over. Seeing how things were beginning to take action, I paid no heed to the sound of my cleats and paced to the end of the waiting line—which was beginning to look more like a curve—and hoped they didn’t run out.

By the time I was standing right in front of the cake chiller, the note-taking staff had already reoccupied his barista duties, pressing blender buttons while the other man—the bigger one—swirled perfect swirls of caramel and whipped cream on top of each ice blended drink before calling their names out. They were all quick, all loud, yet graceful in every way.

I could only name a few places where pace and peace coexisted, and a cafe was certainly on the list. I could taste it in every handcrafted cup of coffee. And where the hospital was nothing short of chaotic, people at the cafe just seemed so light-hearted, even in its crowdedness, and even when the staff were under constant pressure—like how finely-ground beans made the best brew when mixed with even just a small amount of boiling water.

Espresso was the only way to go.

I resumed my foot-tapping maneuver as I checked the menu once more, wondering what I’d have tonight, just in case they ran out of the Special. An Americano would be nice, or a Macchiato, but whether I’d like it hot or iced, it was still up in the air. There were still two customers before me, with the one near the cash register pointing an unsure finger on the posted menu. I practically would have had some time to decide, had these two been complete strangers, but they weren’t. The barista pulled the receipt clean out of the machine, handed it over to them, and gestured towards the pick-up counter before lumbering towards the La Marzocco.

Thinking she’d come back to take my order, I dug a hand down my shorts’ pocket, gripping my purse.

But it stayed frozen, seeing not her, but Mr. Swirly make his way to the cash register, blue eyes on me. The nickname suited him. His hair was a big mop of copper swirls, anyways. “Hi, ma’am,” he smiled at me. “Wha’ can I get ye?”

“I’d like to have a Sea Salt Latte, please?” I said, and knew his reply before he could even speak a word. The pause, the hint of surprise in his eyes before his lips turned into a frown, they were all too loud.

“We ran out half an hour ago, I’m sorry.” and he truly was. I felt bad knowing that the hopeful patrons after me were going to receive this response, and somehow a part of me wanted to tell him nobody deserved to be rejected a drink that only came out once a month, but I decided not to. I expected for the worst to happen, anyway. “But dinna fash, ma’am” he said, sounding hopeful. “There’ll be more stocks tomorrow, but fer tonight, mebbe ye’d want to have something else?”

It was between a Macchiato and an Americano, though my benumbed brain still had not expected I’ll be marching out of this café without a Sea Salt Latte. Perhaps a blended coffee-based drink? His swirls of whipped cream looked enticing, and I thought I'd like to give that a try. But what drink should I get?

Now that I had to choose something else, I couldn’t quite decide, especially with the Scottish barista blocking the menu board with his towering figure.

“I want a…” I was careful not to bump on the next customer as I tilted to the left. “Fuck.”

“What?”

“I mean. I’m sorry. I—” I shrugged with my shoulders. “I don’t know. Do you have some suggestions?”

Big Swirly Red was nice, and was nothing like his frightening size. He nodded at me, and with one of the most overwhelmingly affable expressions I’ve ever seen, he said, “Aye, I’ve a few ye might possibly like. Would ye have something hot or iced?”

“Iced.”

“Ah. Na’ mebbe ye’d like ta’ try havin’ an Americano, but added wi’ a wee pump of white mocha sauce. Breve, no water.”

“Sorry, no water?” While it felt ridiculous to be recommended a drink without its most basic liquid component, my barista was nodding at me with an I-know-it-sounds-absurd-but-please-believe-me look on his face. Glancing briefly, I noticed he had a scar on his cheek, and a protruding beauty mark on the other, but all in all, his face was as reassuring as it was handsome, it made me want to trust him, even if he had just told me that a drink without water was worth my money.

“Nae water simply means yer drink is purely made of espresso an’ milk—the breve. The white mocha sauce is there tae add sweetness. Makes yer drink stronger and purer, ken, since it isna’ diluted wi’ water.”

“Wow. I’ve never heard of that, until today.” I said, frankly, and was glad to learn they served something stronger than the basic Americano.

“It’s no in the menu after all, but it’s something we recommend our customers when they want tae spice things up a bit.” He replied, and raised his brows inquisitively, as though asking me if I'd take it or not.

I nodded, of course. 

“Perfect.” Tapping a quick point finger on the POS machine, he added, “What size are ye having?”

The options were as many as there were baristas, and if they were size references, he was what I wanted.

“Venti, please.”

Mr. Swirly nodded. “Ye’re having one venti Iced Americano, Breve, No Water, wi’ Mocha Sauce. That would be 1.95, ma’am. What would be the name fer the cup?”

“Claire,” I said, fishing out my purse from a pocket. He didn’t wait for me to hand over the payment, as there were a few blended beverages sitting on the working table, waiting to be swirled with whipped cream. It bought me some time to pull out the exact amount, and perhaps a few extra seconds more to notice just how massive his arms were.

Apart from the beautiful contours and ridges on his bicep, something else caught my eye. Curiosity reaching its peak, I tapped my coin to call his attention.

“Sir,” I spoke after the coin proved ineffective; he was too busy swirling out another perfect tower of whipped cream. “Are you a cyclist?”

That caught his attention. “Aye. How’d ye ken?” He asked, seemingly curious. I thought he easily knew how I found out.

“It’s, well… It’s just that I saw that sharp line across your arm,” and it looked like it still hurt; the tanned spot still had a bit of red in it, a testament that he’d been out in the sun not long ago, and for a long while. “And there was a short weekend audax yesterday.”

He seemed genuinely surprised, and I thought for a split second just how young he seemed. How old was he? Clearly, younger. By one year, or two.

“Och. Ye saw my arm. Aye, I was there,” he smiled, shifting glances between me and his task in securing the drink’s lid. Walking back to the counter, he asked, “Are ye a cyclist too, ma’am?”

I could’ve easily answered ‘yes’, but my mind—my hands, specifically—had other plans. Enough with the talking and show him something else. Something we had in common.

“Oh,” he said breathlessly, but whether it was at the sight of my burnt skin, or at a customer's sheer audacity to pull the fabric of her shorts up for him to have a nice look at a lady's thigh, that was unknown. A portion of my upper thigh was indeed lined by yesterday's sun, mainly born out of negligence, since I forgot buying sunblock at the drugstore.

“Oh… Wow.” A slow, fervid blush crept up the collar of his polo shirt. It clearly wasn't sunburn. I was too late to realize that my indifference at the matter might have affected him differently, but fuck it. “That bad, was it?”

“Yeah,” I said, rather blankly. My hand was getting fidgety that I had to flick it, as if brushing an invisible speck off my shorts. “The sun was a bit of an arse during the audax.”

“Aye, weel. When was it never an arse?”

“At least it’s none much of an arse as the rain.” We both laughed in shared understanding, and talked a few highlights from yesterday’s big ride as I waited for my receipt. Swirly told me he rode with his team, which made the route-navigating obstacle worthless. Contrary to that, I rode alone, and felt chuffed as a puffin when he commended me for it.

“I ride my bike to work,” he told me sometime later, nodding towards the cafe’s glass door. “That’s mine o’er there, d’ye see? Parked beside the one wi’ the lilac Trinx frame.”

“You…own the blue one.” I said, impressed. It was a customized Bahookie Rohloff—I knew, because I dreamed of owning one. With its sweet handling and its promisingly durable steel frame, that dropbar was a real-mile tourer for the Scottish terrain. It was a ride built in and for Scotland, after all.

But for someone to invest in such a versatile bike, one had to be dead serious about long-distance adventuring, and from the looks of it, he was.

“Aye,” he smiled proudly, snatched the receipt off the machine, and handed it over to me. “Weel, ye can count on me tae greet ye when we’d meet on the road, ma’am.”

Coming back to the awareness of my surroundings, I heard the impatient tapping of a foot next to me. I wasted no time and paced to the pickup counter, watching the redhead tower above his co-workers as he made for the machine. The next customer was accommodated by the other male barista who, just like Big Red Swirl, apologized for the unavailability of their seasonal beverage.

Business went on as usual, though I hoped I could pull him out of the busy counter and ask him a few more questions about cycling around Scotland. Surely a man with tan lines as harsh as his could recommend a few good routes; he seemed to know a lot about the game, and probably have raced in numerous gran fondos across British soil.

“Wun Iced Americano fer Claire, ready fer pick-up,” he hollered in a thick Scottish accent as he pushed out a paperbag, and as soon as he found me, smiled. “It’s properly sealed an’ secured wi’ a tray. Enjoy yer drink, ma’am.”

My lips pulled back with a smile of thanks, and then he turned away, pacing back to the cash register to attend to another customer. The line was still long, the night was still young, and the counter was on the hop.

Perhaps, in another day, I sighed, resigned, as I gently pushed the heavy glass door with one arm, while holding up the bag from its paper sling.

And besides, I still haven’t ordered a Sea Salt Latte.


It was much quieter outside, and the crisp evening air nipped at my nose that I had to hold the paperbag away, lest I had to sneeze. False alarm. As soon as the itchiness ceased poking in my nostrils, I pulled the safety chain away and looped it tightly around my bike frame, leaving blue Bahookie dropbar on its own.

It didn’t take much time to notice that he’d altered a few parts to make his luxury hardtail suited for both long roads and rocky trails. While he maintained most of the bike’s gear set, the fork was different, more rigid than the standard. His tires were gravel 29-ers, in contrast to my slick road ones.

I loved my Trinx. I was very proud of it, and of us—of the many miles we’ve been in just a year. But to see a beautiful hybrid bicycle chained on a rail, I knew I had to touch it, but chose not to. For what reason, I still didn’t know—or I might’ve, but couldn’t put it to words.

Some things were just nice to look at from a distance, for now.

Ready to go, I lifted my leg to the opposite side of the bike’s frame, and made one last check on my order before leaving. The drink was, as he said, lodged securely in a paper tray, along with the folded receipt. Apart from his blue bike, I couldn’t see any hint of the barista from where I stood.

Returning to the task at hand, I pulled the contents halfway out from the bag, and the first thing I saw was my name beaded with cold droplets.

And a ‘Ride Safe’, scrawled on top of it.

Ride Safe, Claire.

The receipt was absorbing the beading water from the cup, so I gently dropped the cup back in and fished for the paper. There was no need to check whether or not I was fairly charged, but my fingers began unfolding the paper, hoping to find my barista’s name.

And I did.

"Well, you better have a Sea Salt Latte on my next visit, Jamie." Smiling and satisfied, I clicked one shoe onto my bicycle pedal, spinned my wheels, and drove my way home.