Bruce had gone into Big Lou’s coffee bar shortly after Fat Bob had left, but before Matthew was due to arrive for the cup of coffee that started his working day at the gallery.
“The usual, Lou,” Bruce said, tossing his newspaper down on the table he habitually occupied.
Normally Lou said, “Right you are, Bruce” and started to prepare the double-strength cappuccino that she knew Bruce enjoyed before preparing the roll that served as his breakfast. On this particular morning, Bruce noticed that she merely nodded.
“You all right, Lou?” Bruce asked.
Big Lou looked up. “Aye, I’m just fine. And yourself?”
“It’s just that … well, you seem a bit preoccupied.”
Big Lou shrugged. “Thinking,” she said.
Bruce grinned. “A dangerous thing to do, you know.”
“You should try it sometime,” said Big Lou.
“Hah!” Bruce paused. “Who was that guy I saw coming out just before I arrived?”
Big Lou busied herself with the coffee machine. “Guy? What guy?”
“That big chap.”
Lou pressed the button that produced the steamed milk. “A customer.”
“I’ve not seen him before,” said Bruce. “And he’s not a type you’d miss.”
Big Lou remained silent. Bruce glanced at her. “Just asking, Lou.”
He took the cup of coffee she slid across the counter and returned to his table. He glanced at his watch. Ed had said nine-fifteen, and it was now five-past. He would have time to flick through the paper before then, and at least make a start on the easy Sudoko. Bruce had only recently started doing Sudokus after reading an article in a magazine that suggested that the brain started its decline at about eighteen years of age and it was downhill all the way from there. Bruce was, in his view, exactly the right age – not yet having experienced any of the significant birthdays about which people became nervous or concerned, although his last birthday, he reflected, was one that some people regarded as significant. But whatever view one took of that, the fact remained that if your brain cells were dying off at a rate of thousands every day – and some people could really ill afford to lose that number – then at least you should do what you could to make sure that those that remained were capable of firing correctly. It was all a question of neural networks, the article explained, and these could be kept in good order by doing things like crosswords and Sudokus.
Simple, thought Bruce, and had turned to the crossword on page two of his newspaper. He had never done crosswords before, but he imagined that the clues would be simple enough if you had his intelligence. He had achieved an A grade in every one of his Higher subjects at school – every single one! And then he had waltzed through his university examinations doing virtually no work because … and here Bruce felt that he simply had to recognise reality without any false modesty – simply because I am exceptionally bright, he thought. That was all there was to it. Some people were dim, and others were so-so, not exactly dim, in so many words, but what Bruce liked to call 2.5 amp types. Like that fellow Steve, who was married to Molly What’s-Her-Face, who was friendly with Elspeth because they had been at school together. Like him. Poor Steve. That stupid Hearts supporter. Molly was all right, if you liked that sort of girl, Bruce thought. She had been interested in him at one point, he remembered, but then most girls were. They couldn’t help themselves. Poor Molly. It would have been so easy to throw her a crumb of attention – perhaps to have asked her out when they were both nineteen, something like that – but one had one’s standards, and there was never enough time to spend with every single girl who showed an interest. Well, Bruce knew what they wanted, these poor girls. That was not their fault – of course it wasn’t. You can’t help biology, thought Bruce, and thought: I am biology.
Yes, I am biology. And then he looked at the crossword, at 1 across, which would probably be the best place to start, he decided, before he progressed to 2 down, and so on. He might time himself. Fifteen minutes? He was already doing the Level One Sudoko in eighteen minutes, and a crossword would not be much more difficult than that. It would probably be easier, in fact. So, here goes, he said to himself. And then, as an afterthought, I am biology. Yes, he liked that. L’état, c’est moi. Who had said that? President de Gaulle? That tall chap with the large conk? That was good as well, but I am biology had a certain ring to it.
1 across: Did a former girlfriend sit for an artist to bring things to light?
Bruce reached for the pen he carried in an inside pocket. What? Old flame? Bring things to light? Lighten? No, this was meant to be six letters. Lighten was seven.
He looked at 2 down. Was the first clever girl in the form. Five letters.
What? This was stupid.
Bruce looked up and saw that Big Lou was looking at him,
“Having difficulty with your Sudoko, Bruce?”
There was something in her tone that irked him. Big Lou had left school with no Highers, he said to himself. Zilch. None. She made great bacon rolls, but that was about it.
“The crossword, actually, Lou.”
Big Lou smiled. “What’s the problem?”
“You won’t get it, Lou. It’s the cryptic one.”
“Probably not. But what’s the clue?”
“Did a former girlfriend sit for an artist to bring things to light?” Then he added. “See?”
Lou began to butter the bacon roll she was preparing for Bruce. “Expose,” she said.
© Alexander McCall Smith, 2021. A Promise of Ankles (Scotland Street 14) is available now. Love in the Time of Bertie (Scotland Street 15) will be published by Polygon in hardback in November 2021.
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