44 Scotland Street: The whole point of our world

The forty-first installment of Alexander Mccall Smith’s daily novel

Volume 9

Episode 41

The whole point of our world

Picture: SubmittedPicture: Submitted
Picture: Submitted

Pat had spent precisely three hours – to the minute – wondering whether Michael would call. They had exchanged numbers in the Elephant House, Michael writing hers on his wrist with a ball-point pen she had lent him for the purpose. It gave her a curious thrill – very curious, some might say – to see this breath-takingly good-looking young man put the numbers on his tanned skin; it was such an intimate thing, she reflected, to have one’s mobile number inscribed on somebody else. It was as if he had taken her photograph and pressed it to his chest; but then she thought: no, it isn’t; he has only written it there because he did not have a piece of paper and he did not want to write in his copy of David Esterley’s wood carving book.

He had said that he would call her in a couple of hours to suggest when they might meet again. “You might like to come and look at this table I’m working on,” he said. “It has some very detailed inlays. I’m rather proudly of them, actually.”

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She had accepted immediately. “I’d love to see your table.” She wanted to add, immediately, “When?” but did not.

He had eventually finished his coffee and left, as he had to see somebody about a commission, and she had sat by herself for several minutes, savouring the moment.

This is it, she thought. This is definitely it.

But what exactly was it? Love? Had she fallen in love with this boy whom she had just met? Could you fall in love within … what was it? Twenty minutes? That was the length of time they had spent together over their cup of coffee, and surely it was impossible in so short a time to get any real sense of what another was like. And yet how else could one describe the feeling that had come upon her – that feeling of sudden and intoxicating elation; that feeling of lightness in the stomach, in the head – everywhere, in fact; that feeling of wanting nothing more than to see the other person again, immediately and most urgently?

She closed her eyes, hoping that this might in some way restore her to the way she had felt before she entered the Elephant House. But it did not. When she opened them a few seconds later, she felt exactly as she had felt before. Her world was different now – quite different. An hour or so ago it had been a world in which Michael had not existed in any sense – not even as a possibility, because she had never known that there were wood-workers who made beautiful tables in Candlemaker Row and read books about wood carving and who looked like that, and who wrote your number on their wrists in ball-point ink, and who smiled in a way that seemed to light up the whole room, and who … She stopped. As a teenager she had been obliged at school to learn, by heart, several of Shakepeare’s sonnets, and had realised, even then, how acutely he had captured the feeling of simple cherishing that lay at the heart of love. Sonnet 18 said everything about that; it expressed that conviction of the ultimate ineffable value of the one whom you loved. There was nothing more to be said, really, because what it spoke about could only be articulated to an extent; thus far, and no further – thereafter one came up against something mysterious, something immanent that could not be explained. We loved another because we loved him or her. We just did.

And it did not matter who or what it was that we loved. Auden said that when he was a boy he loved a pumping engine and thought it every bit as beautiful as the “you” whom he later addresses. We loved people because they were beautiful or witty or smiled in a way that made us smile; we loved them because they spoke or walked in a certain way or because they had a dimple in exactly the right place; we loved them because they loved us or, sadly, because they did not love us; we loved them because they had a way of looking at things, or because there was a certain light in their eyes that reminded us of the sunlight you saw caught in a rock pool on a Hebridean island; or because they wore a kilt or black jeans or a Shetland sweater or could recite Burns or play the guitar or knew how to make bread or were kind to us and tolerated us and our ways and our stubborn refusal to stop loving them. There were so many reasons for loving somebody else; so many; and it made no sense to sit about and think about whether it was a good idea or not because love was like a bolt of lightning that came from a great cumulonimbus cloud that was far too great for us to blow it away; and it struck and we just had to accept it and get on with the business of trying to exist while all the time there was this great wave of longing within us like a swell in the sea, one of those great rolling waves that comes in off the Atlantic and hits Ardnamurchan Head and that cannot be fought against, because fighting love like that was hopeless and you should just go under and let it wash over you and hope that when you come out from under the wave you would still be breathing and that you would not have drowned, as people could – they could drown in love, just drown.

She walked out of the Elephant House and made her way slowly down Chambers Street. She was going nowhere in particular, as she had no wish for a destination. She would go down to the Cowgate and walk along its narrow pavements and on to Holyrood and then … She stopped. What she really wanted was for Michael to phone her, and until such time she would not be distracted by anything that she saw about her. It was as if the whole world were suspended in anticipation of that call; a ridiculous notion, of course, but it was just possible, just, that the world did indeed turn on love, that Professor Higgs’s Boson was, in fact, love by another name: the guiding force, the centre of gravity, the whole point of our world.



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Normally, a seventh birthday party is something to be eagerly looked forward to – especially when one is six. And Bertie Pollock, in his last week of being six, would normally be looking forward to his seventh birthday party very much indeed. Unfortunately, his mother Irene, insists on a guest list of gender-equality, and that means that Olive will be invited too. For Bertie, this stirs memories of Olive’s own seventh birthday party, when he discovered to his horror that not only was he the only boy invited, but that he was expected to play a game Olive had devised called Jane Austen. …. in which he was expected to play the role of Mr Darcy...


Psychiatrist’s daughter Pat Macgregor is beginning to worry about her father. There hasn’t been a woman in his life since her mother left him to move in with a woman she met on a botanical course in Dundee. So why is he, all of a sudden, having his hair cut by a woman called Angie at a unisex salon in Bruntsfield? Who is he trying to impress?


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Convinced her father is having a mid-life crisis (well, how else do you explain a man who has always only ever worn black socks now wearing striped ones?) Pat sets about trying to find out more. And when her father, having escorted her to the bus-stop and said goodbye, heads off in another direction, she decides to follow him …


Meanwhile, for anthropologist Domenica Macdonald, married life is taking some adjusting to. This isn’t the fault of her new husband, Angus Lordie – or at least not knowingly his fault. All the same, some questions have to be asked – for example, why does he mutter about the Declaration of Arbroath in his sleep? And why, when sleepwalking, does he appear to be looking for it in the kitchen drawers? Time, suggests Domenica, to make a n appointment with a sleep expert at the Royal Edinburgh. There’s a man she knows there who might be able to help. A psychiatrist called Dr Macgregor ...


Depressed at the thought that he might require the attentions of a psychiatrist, Angus heads off to the Cumberland Bar for a ruminative pint. Once there, his dog Cyril is served his customary dish of Guinness. Soon they are joined by Matthew, also out for a ruminative pint after finishing work for the day before returning to face the noise and nappies of his toddler triplets. He clearly isn’t thinking straight, and pours half a pint of lager into Cyril’s dish. Canine drunkenness beckons.


The sight of Cyril apparently dancing an Irish jig doesn’t impress one of the customers at the bar – an animal welfare officer. Despite assurances from both Angus and Matthew that no dog in Edinburgh is better cared for, the man asks for Angus’s name and address. He is, he says, going to file a report with a view to taking Cyril into care....


After discussing the merits or otherwise of reincarnation, and in particular how it applies to residents of Edinburgh’s New Town, Big Lou admits to Matthew that her romance with Alex, the pig farmer from Mains of Mochle, has run its course. Worse, her biological clock is ticking particularly loudly these days.


Perhaps it was entirely predictable that Matthew’s casual suggestion that Big Lou could have one of their triplets wouldn’t have gone down well with his wife Elspeth. To a mere man, of course, it seemed to make perfect sense: Big Lou would be an excellent mother, and Elspeth had her hands so full looking after three toddlers that she wanted another au pair in order to give their ultra-capable Danish au pair Anna a break...


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The omens aren’t good for Bertie’s seventh birthday party – not just because Olive and her girl friends have invited themselves to it but so have some of Tofu’s more thuggish friends too. As for presents, although he has set his heart on a bicycle and a Swiss Army pen-knife, the chances of his mother Irene buying either are remote. Indeed, as she prepares a talk for her bookclub on hidden meanings children’s literature – a talk that will savage Tintin for its amount of head trauma and Captian Haddock’s anger issues and attack AA Milne for the infantilisation of Winnie the Pooh – she reveals to her husband Stuart that what she really wants for Bertie is that he should be able to face up to the world as a woman does, to see everything through though female eyes.


Convent life in Italy seems to have done surprisingly little to minimise Antonia Collie’s presumptuousness. Or at least that’s what it seems to Domenica and Angus when they read Antonia’s letter not only inviting herself to stay in her flat for three weeks but also to bring one of the nuns from the convent with her. One thing that could be said in reply to such a letter is that Antonia doesn’t have a flat in Scotland Street any more, having sold it to Domenica – but that would be inhospitable.


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Oddly, for such an uber-narcissist, Bruce Anderston had never been to the Waxing Studio in Stockbridge before. And though it was always hard to improve on perfection, perhaps his eyebrows DID need a bit of attention. In the studio, his waxologist, Arlene, doesn’t seem to be too impressed by the famous Bruce physique and all-round good looks. Worse, she actually finds some features - nasal hair and warts – that could do with a bit of attention. Not that she seems particularly attentive, being preoccupied by telling Bruce about her divorce and the legal ramifications of a recent waxing accident. So preoccupied, in fact, that she doesn’t see that another waxing accident is about to happen …


Love – or what looks like love - can arrive at any moment and in any place. For Pat Macgregor it happened as she was sitting in the Elephant House cafe on George IV Bridge in Edinburgh, having a coffee to cheer herself up, so downhearted was she by the prospect of leaving university in a month or two. The man who sat at the table next to her introduced himself as Michael. He said he’d seen her before there a couple of times. She’d never noticed him, though, which suddenly seemed very strange, because the more she looked at his face, the more she realised it had the kind of harmonious proportions the Renaissance artists she was studying always looked for in their subjects. What more do we need to know about Michael? That he is handsome, works as a wood carver – and is 23. Exactly Pat’s age.


Angus Lordie hadn’t been looking forward to his appointment in the out-patients department of the Royal Edinburgh Hospital, where he was to be assessed by Dr Macgregor for somnambulism. Worrying over a cup of coffee at a Bruntsfield cafe, he is cheered up by – of all people – Ian Rankin (whom he does not know), who smiles at him and gives him the thumb’s up sign. Not that he mentions any of this to Dr Macgregor...


Meanwhile, in Scotland Street, it’s the morning of Bertie’s seventh birthday, and just as soon as he gets out of bed, he runs into his mother’s bedroom to ask, eagerly but politely, whether he has any birthday presents. He does too: from baby brother Ulysses, a Junior UN Peacekeeping Kit (“A fine gift for those who want to avoid militaristic play”). And from Irene and Stuart, a gender-neutral doll called Jo.....


It’s all very well never knowingly telling a lie, but there are some moments when even someone as innately honest as Bertie Pollock must feel tempted. One of those moments at school that morning, when Mr Cowie the teacher asks him about the presents he has received for his seventh birthday. A lesser boy would have refused to admit that he had received a doll. And a lesser boy wouldn’t have to face the mockery of Tofu and Larch …..

But everything goes badly for Bertie on his birthday. For one thing, his father is prepared to stand up to his mother and insist that Bertie’s Italian lesson should be cancelled and that the two of them should go for a walk down the Water of Leith – where Bertie is told he can dump the doll that Irene bought for him.


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One thing about a talking to a seven-year-old boy as widely read as Bertie: you never know what topic is going to come up next. As Stuart and Bertie walk down to the Water of Leith, they cover a whole variety of topics: the possibility of spontaneous combustion, the business acumen of Lard O’Connor, and the merits of Sir David Wilkie’s painting The Letter of Introduction among them. But will any of that register with Stuart quite as much as Bertie’s innocent observation that Irene and his last psychotherapist – the one who looks so much like his younger brother Ulysses - used to go to the Floatarium together?


After Bertie throws the unisex doll that had been his seventh birthday present from Irene into the Water of Leith, Cyril bravely retrieves it and Stuart solves the problem of what to do with it by taking it to a charity shop. Much more significant, though, is the meeting Big Lou has with an Edinburgh council social worker. Yes, she is told, you would make an ideal foster parent. And two children are available right now for fostering – a brother and sister aged ten and eight …


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Looking after children, as Big Lou is soon about to discover, is a hugely demanding job. For Matthew, it’s one that is made easier by being able to afford not only one but two au pairs to look after their triplets. Already, the Danish au pair Anna has proved her worth to both Matthew and Elspeth. Now she is joined by a 19-year-old compariot, Birgitte, who is both biddable, cheerful, and tidy. Sometimes, however, Birgitte doesn’t make enough allowances for the differences in taste between Scotland and Denmark. Never having had Marmite, for example, she tastes a spooonful and wrongly concludes that it has gone off. Ditto with a half-eaten haggis in the fridge. Ditto with Matthew’s supply of Patum Peperium. Proof, if ever was needed, that good intentions don’t always work out ….


Perusing the property pages in The Scotsman, Elspeth comes across an advert for a seven-bedroom 18th century farmhouse in the Pentlands. There’d no indication of price – it just says “guess” - but it certainly looks appealing. The trouble is, no sooner has Matthew fixed up an appointment to visit it then the Danish au pairs seem to have everything planned out. There will have to be a stable, says Birgitte, so she can teach the triplets to ride. There will have to be more than one pony, because they get so lonely. Suddenly Matthew realises that she is planning to stay with them for many years, and he can’t work out whether or not that will be a good idea.


The Pentlands farmhouse Matthew and Elspeth are inspecting with a view to buying turns out to be owned by the Duke of Johannesburg, a charismatic figure with an exuberant moustache who has appeared previously in other volumes of 44 Scotland Street. This is, however, the first time we have been told that his Dukedom is not, in fact, real, but a title the Duke only uses out of piety to the memory of his grandfather, who was promised a dukedom in return for a large political donation. With the Duke, then, all is not always as it seems – although this is probably all lost on Birgitte …

© 2013 Alexander McCall Smith

• Alexander McCall Smith welcomes comments from readers. Write to him c/o The Editor, The Scotsman, 108 Holyrood Road, Edinburgh. EH8 8AS, or via e-mail at [email protected]