44 Scotland Street: Friendship, camouflage, love

VOLUME 10, episode 65: But while Angus and his two friends sat in the Cumberland Bar and talked of the past, of the talent of the Irish for parties, and of other matters that are an antidote to the pressing concerns of the day, Domenica Macdonald, anthropologist and observer of the ways of Edinburgh and the world, author of that seminal paper “On the home life of contemporary pirates in a Malaccan coastal community”, was drinking China tea in Scotland Street with her old friend, Dilly Emslie, and discussing conceptual art and the return of Irene Pollock from her ill-starred trip to the Persian Gulf.

Illustration by Iain McIntosh
Illustration by Iain McIntosh

“Angus, as you may know,” said Domenica, “has little time for it. He gets very steamed up when he reads assessments of Duchamp as one of the greatest figures of twentieth century art. He says by the same token Mr Shanks of Barrhead should be considered Scotland’s Leonardo. Duchamp’s Fountain, of course.”

“Hah!” said Dilly.

“But on the subject of artists,” Domenica continued, “I’ve been reading the most extraordinary book on a most unlikely theme.”

‘”The best sort of book,” said Dilly, “is the one we do not expect. There’s a wonderful sense of discovery when we come across something we wouldn’t otherwise have read.”

“Well,” continued Domenica, “I picked up a book on camouflage. You know that camouflage artists are called camoufleurs? A lovely word. So poetic – romantic indeed. To my dearest camoufleur …”

“Not very masculine, of course,” observed Dilly. “One would imagine a camoufleur to be an aesthete. Rather Burlington Magazine, rather Bloomsbury.”

Domenica nodded. “Perhaps. But these camoufleurs were terribly important in the Second World War, apparently. In fact, the book suggests that they won the battle of El Alamein. So the aesthetes, rather than Montgomery, deserve the credit. They created a whole bogus army, you see – made of hessian and stuffed dummies and the like. The opposition – as we used to call the Germans – were completely taken in. They thought the attack would come from the south rather than the north.”

“People often make that mistake,” said Dilly. “The south is the sort of place from which attacks might well be expected to come, I would have thought.”

“Hah!” said Domenica, and laughed. “Dorothy Parker.”

“More Barbara Pym,” said Dilly.

“Barbara Pym is in a direct line of apostolic succession with Jane Austen,” said Domenica. “But back to camouflage. Apparently these artists all joined up and darted about the Western Desert hoodwinking the other side … rather like the Greeks, I suppose. They made a big thing of hoodwinking the Germans, until recently, of course. The Germans suddenly turned round and told the poor Greeks that the game was up. Oh dear.”

Domenica poured more tea. “I can just imagine the mythical parallel. There are all the Greek gods on Parnassus, or wherever they liked to cavort – cavorting away and having a great time on borrowed funds from those northern gods – Thor, Odin and so on – who of course inhabit northern forests and mountains. Anyway, the Greek gods have a great time and then Thor and Freya and so on get all sniffy and tell them that they have to cut the whole thing out and move down the mountain and get a job, or whatever. A terrible row ensues, with thunderbolts being hurled.” She paused. “Myths are so relevant, so timeless, don’t you think?”

“Anyway, back to camouflage. I told Angus about this book and how the artists had done wonders and he said that one of his lecturers at the Art College had been involved in it as a young man. And then he came up with a rather amusing story – just invented on the spot, as often happens with Angus. He said that he imagined some unit on active service being told that they were to get a camouflage officer to supervise the camouflaging of their equipment. And they wait and they wait and the camouflage officer never turns up. They get in touch with HQ and say, “Where’s this camouflage officer you promised to send us?” and HQ sends a signal back saying, “Sent him a long time ago.” To which they reply, ‘No, you didn’t.’ And they’re all very puzzled, when suddenly this major pops up and says, “I’ve been here all along. Didn’t you see me?”

They both laughed.

Then Domenica said, “Speaking of popping up, do you now that Irene Pollock is back?”

“Oh no,” said Dilly. “Somehow we all hoped she would … would find herself elsewhere.”

“Well, she came back,” said Domenica. “I saw her on the stairway with that younger son of hers, little Ulysses. He was red in the face from screaming. He seemed less than delighted to have her back.”

“And Bertie?” asked Dilly.

“He told me his mother was home. He was very loyal. He said that he was glad, but I can’t imagine that this was the case. Poor little boy. He deserves so much better. The grandmother was here, you know – Stuart’s mother. She was such fun. She brought colour and laughter back into their lives. But now she’s gone back to Portugal, which has bags of colour and laughter and we need it so much in Scotland.”

“Things will get better for them,” said Dilly. “I just feel that. That woman can’t get away with it forever.”

“Not if there’s any justice,” said Domenica.

“Do you think there is? Do you think there is justice?”

“Yes,” said Domenica. “There is. And it asserts itself sooner or later. It’s there, deep in the wiring … of everything. It’s there.”

They were interrupted by the sound of a key in the front door.

“Only me,” shouted Angus. “And a couple of the boys.”

Domenica took it in good stead. While Angus poured a glass of wine for everybody, she and Dilly put on a large pan of tagliatelle and prepared a sauce of parmesan, chopped salami, onions, and pitted black olives.

“It’s very good of you,” said Matthew.

“An impromptu party is always fun,” said Domenica. “Now tell me, Matthew, how are the triplets? And Elspeth?”

“They’re very well,” said Matthew. “They’re up in Comrie this weekend – with Elspeth’s parents. They love the boys. They keep saying that their happiness is multiplied by three.”

“Which it must be,” said Domenica. “Yours too.”

Matthew hesitated. “Yes, I think so.”

Domenica looked at him intently. “It’s important to know when you’re happy,” she said.

“Yes,” he said, more enthusiastically this time. “I know that.”

The pasta did not take long to cook. Then they sat down at the kitchen table – five friends, in friendship.

“You know,” said Matthew, “when we have these little parties in your house, Domenica, Angus has always given us a poem. Do you think you could prevail on him this evening?”

“I think I could,” said Domenica. “We’ve made you tagliatelle. We made you sauce. Now you can at least reciprocate with a poem, Angus.”

He was hesitant, but there were things that he wanted to say. Looking out of the window at that moment, with the late evening sky still light, an attenuated blue, and so high and distant and so empty, he thought about how he loved this place, these friends, this city, this country; and the words came to him, easily, and from a place that he thought was probably his heart, and they said something that he had wanted to say for some time but had refrained from doing so until the moment was right, which it now was. And this is what he said:

When I was a boy, not yesterday of course,

When life, I thought, was a whole lot

More certain than it is today,

I made a list of those I thought

Liked me as much as I liked them –

For at that age we’re loved

By just about everybody

Whom we care to love; how different

It is in later years, when affection

Has no guarantee of reciprocation,

When we may spend so very long

Yearning for one who cannot

Love us back, or cares not to,

Or who lives somewhere else

And has forgotten our address

And the way we looked or spoke.

The remarkable thing about love

Is that it is freely available,

Is as plentiful as oxygen,

Is as joyous as a burn in spate,

And need never run out.

And yet, for all its plenitude,

We ration it so strictly and forget

Its curative properties, its subtle

Ability to make the soul-injured

Whole again, to make the lonely

Somehow assured that their solitude

Will not last forever; its promise

That if we open our heart

It is joy and resolution

That will march in triumphant

Through the gates we create.

When I look at Scotland,

At this country that possesses me,

I wonder what work love

Has still to do; and find the answer

Closer at hand than I thought –

In the images of contempt and disdain,

That are still there, as stubborn

As human imperfections can be;

In the coldness of heart

That sees nothing wrong

In indifference to want, in dislike

Of those who are different,

In the cutting, dismissive

Turn of phrase, in the sneer.

Love is not there, in all those places,

But it will be; love cannot solve

Every human problem, but it makes

A start on a solution; love

Is the only compass-point

We need to learn; we need not

Be clever to know it, nor endowed

With unusual vision, love

Comes free, at least in those forms

Worth having, lasts as long

As anything human may last.

May Scotland, when it looks

Into its heart tomorrow

If not today, see the fingerprints

Of love, its signature, its presence,

Its promise of healing.

The End