Fiction: Skating by Alexander McCall Smith

Illustration: Iain McIntosh
Illustration: Iain McIntosh
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A SEASONAL story of reconciliation by Alexander McCall Smith

It’s far better this year,” he said. “Far better …”

She looked up from the magazine she was paging through. “What’s far better?”

He had one of the cards in his hand, and now he held it up to show her. “This,” he said.

She glanced at the card. “I can’t remember what we used last year. Odd, isn’t it? I must have signed at least sixty of them – maybe more – and I can’t remember what it looked like.”

“That’s how instantly forgettable it was,” he said. “It had a child on it. One of Raphael’s angels, I seem to recall. We bought it at the National Gallery. I regretted it almost immediately. Angels on cards are only one step up from robins.”

She smiled. “Oh, I don’t know. There’s something intense about those Renaissance angels. Robins, charming though they may be, are hardly intense …” She paused. “Will you do the neighbours? I’ve got the list somewhere or other. Then you could walk round and deliver them.”

“Saving a stamp.”

“Exactly. I’m not from Aberdeen for nothing.”

He nodded. He did that every year, but this time, he told himself, it would be different: one of the neighbours hated him.

“Everybody?” he asked.

She knew what he was talking about, and hesitated for a while before answering. But the answer was clear enough, she felt. “I think so,” she said, adding, “You can post that one, if you want. Special circumstances.”

He thought about this. There was an obvious objection. “He’ll know, of course. If I post it – when we’ve always delivered it – he’ll think I can’t bring myself to go up to his front door. That’s what he’ll think.”

He looked at the card. “Henry Raeburn,” he read aloud. “The Reverend Robert Walker Skating on Duddingston Loch.”

“It’s a whole lot better than last year’s,” she said. “A whole lot.”

He sat at the desk in their shared study. The piles of cards were neatly stacked beside him, their envelopes at the ready.

He was responsible for ten altogether, and now he was on the last of these, the difficult one. He opened the card. The printed message inside said, With Best Wishes for Christmas and the New Year; that was about as bland as one could get without resorting to Compliments of the Season. At least, he thought, we have yet to be infected by the American formula of Happy Holidays. But somebody will be planning that, he imagined; some zealot who objects to the exclusive connotations of Christmas.

He picked up his pen and wrote their names, the recipients first: Andrew and Julie. Then he wrote their own names below the terse, printed message: Paul and Anne. How utterly suburban, he thought; how conventional. So-and-so (M) and so-and-so (F). How many Paul and Annes were there? Countless. All like us, he thought. All of them.

Should he write something else? Sorry about your disappointment? Or, perhaps, Better luck next time. If there was going to be a next time, which it looked as if there would be, even though they had said there would not. But then, did he want them to have better luck next time, if a next time came? No, he would just write their names: from Paul and Anne. That was quite enough.

He finished the cards and tucked each of them into their envelope, writing the names of the recipients on the front. Then be put the envelopes in order, according to the geography of the neighbourhood. Andrew and Julie came at the end. They were only two doors away, but if he started on the other side of the road, worked his way down, and then did the next road along before he came back, then they would be last. And he wanted that, he thought. He was not looking forward to delivering that particular card and he intended to keep it for last. He had always done that – he had always put off unpleasant duties until they were unavoidable.

He called out to her as he left the house, “I’m setting off now. I’ll be back in half an hour, probably.”

She was in the kitchen, and shouted back to him, “You’ve done theirs?”

“Yes, I’ve done theirs. I’m going to go there last.”

She emerged from the kitchen, wiping her hands on a tea-towel. “You probably won’t even see him,” she said. “Just slip it through the letter box.”

“I know. I know.”

“And he started it,” she said. “Remember that. He started it: you didn’t.”

“It’s not that simple.”

“Isn’t it?” she said. “I think it is.”

“Well, you’re wrong. It’s never that simple.”

He set out to deliver the cards on a late Saturday afternoon, when the December sky was drenched in cold winter sunshine. It was a day to walk in the Pentlands, with rime on the trees and little crenulations of frost on the ground. He liked to do that, he thought, and then he remembered … so did Andrew. They had been for a walk together last year – after a snowfall – and as they made their way up the hillside above the reservoir Andrew had turned to him and said, “You see that?”

“What?”

Andrew moved his arm in a sweeping movement. “All that. The land. These hills. Everything. Scotland.”

“Well, yes …”

“We want it back.”

They had been resting; they had traversed a steep part of the hill, their boots sinking into the covering of snow, requiring an effort. He had been puzzled. “What do you mean?”

Andrew smiled. “I mean we want to reclaim things.”

“Things?”

“Control over our own destiny. Ownership.”

He wondered whether Andrew meant land reform. They had talked about that once before, and the other man had made it clear that he thought that the break up of large land holdings was long overdue. “Ownership of the land?”

“Well, yes, but it’s a whole lot more than that. Ownership of everything.”

Paul frowned. “Really? I thought that clause four or whatever it was … I thought that nobody really argued for that any more.”

Andrew shook his head. “No, not that. I’m not talking about nationalization. I’m talking about political self-determination. Deciding our own future.”

Paul shrugged. “But haven’t we got that already? Don’t we have elections already?”

“We have elections. But where exactly is power located? Not here. Not in Edinburgh. There’s some, of course, but real, ultimate power? It’s in London.”

“I see.”

The conversation did not continue. They had seen a large bird of prey – a buzzard, he thought – and it distracted them. Then it was time to start their climb again and they had done that in silence. He had reflected on what Andrew had said. He had vaguely known that he had views along those lines, but they had not discussed it very much. For his part, Paul had been a member – a largely inactive one – of the Labour Party since his student days. He had not thought very much about the issue Andrew raised. It was there, of course, but it was not one that he gave a great deal of thought to. It was not on the agenda, he thought. It was all rather remote and unlikely.

Then everything had changed. As the referendum drew nearer, Andrew had put a large sign in his window – a Saltire, with the word YES emblazoned on it. Paul had said to him, “I see you’re wearing your heart on your sleeve – or on your window, rather.”

There had been a momentary hesitation from Andrew. Then he said, “Well, at least I’m saying where I stand.” He paused. “How about you?”

“I’m a member of the Labour Party, as it happens.”

“You can be that and still believe in independence.”

“Can you?”

“Yes. If you have the courage.”

He was not sure whether the words had slipped out unplanned, but they hung in the air accusingly. He had struggled to answer them, but did not. He decided to ignore them.

Then Andrew had called round with a leaflet. “Here’s something you might care to read,” he said. His tone was not unfriendly, but there was nonetheless an edge to his manner.

He took the leaflet. “I’ve read this stuff. I know what it says.”

“Then how can you adopt the position you’re adopting? How can you … how can you connive with these people?” Anathema underlay the last two words.

His astonishment showed. “I don’t know what you mean. And frankly, I’m entitled to differ, don’t you think? You’re not the only ones who …”

Andrew had walked away. He wanted to call after him, and almost did, but he decided against it.

He spoke to Anne about it. “He believes in it passionately,” she said. “It means everything to him. He thinks it’s going to solve all our problems. Poverty. Inequality. The lot. One fell swoop. The second coming. Christmas, Easter – all rolled into one.”

“He believes that?”

“Yes. And there are worse things to believe in, I suppose.”

“And the money?”

“The money to do it all? Pah! Money? Pah!”

He looked at her in astonishment. “Is that what you believe too?”

“No, not at all. I’m just trying to look at it from his point of view. If you want something – and I mean want it really badly – then money isn’t the issue. Pride and poverty are perfectly compatible – although don’t tell the voters that.”

“I see.”

“Yes.”

He looked away. He suddenly felt sick at heart. How long would people be at odds with one another? Until either side gave way?

Now he stood before their door. The large YES sign had been left in the window, and he looked up at it now. It would fade, he thought; the sun would in due course drain the intensity from the blue. Light, he thought, can draw the intensity out of passion.

He had just the one envelope left, and he reached forward to push it through the letterbox. Then he stopped himself. Half turning, he pressed the doorbell. The button was loose and at first did not engage, but then he heard the shrill ringing inside. It was not too late. He could slip the card through the letterbox and be away before they answered. He could do that.

But Andrew was quick to answer, * and stood there, looking at him. He was wearing a tee-shirt with a slogan on it – nothing political – something to do with wildlife conservation.

“I’ve brought you your Christmas card. From Anne and me.”

He held out the envelope. He saw Andrew drop his eyes to the offering.

“Oh …” And then Andrew reached out and took it. “That’s good of you. Thank you.”

In his relief, his reply was vague. “Not at all. It’s that time of year, isn’t it? It comes round so quickly.” He thought: last year we were still friends, not enemies. And he went on to think: Who made us into enemies? Who did that?

“Won’t you come in?”

He hesitated for a moment, and then thought: I have to.

“I could make you tea. Julie’s not here. She’s in Glasgow. There’s an aunt of hers who’s just died.”

“I’m sorry.”

“She was very old.”

“Still sad.”

He followed him into the kitchen. As they went down the corridor, Andrew opened the envelope and looked at the card. “The Skating Minister,” he said. “I love that painting. I like all the Raeburns I’ve seen, in fact. All of them.”

They reached the kitchen, where Andrew switched on the kettle. Then he turned round. “I’m sorry, I haven’t got a card for you. I will … I’ll get one.”

“You don’t have to.”

Then Paul spoke. He said, “You know something? I should have said something to you that I haven’t said. I should have told you: I know what you feel. I understand your … your vision of how things might be. But can you do the same for me? Can you think yourself into my shoes for a moment?”

Andrew stared at him. He opened his mouth to speak, but then closed it. He looked down at the floor.

Paul took a step forward. “I don’t know how this happened,” he said. “We can’t hate one another. We can’t do that.”

Andrew looked up. “No, we can’t.” He hesitated. “And I know how you feel too. I know.”

Paul took another step forward and suddenly, and rather clumsily, embraced his neighbour. He held him, against no resistance, and he saw for a moment that the tee-shirt had a stain on the shoulder – a small stain, but the sort of thing you notice when you are right up against it.