Scotland Street Volume 15, Chapter 20: Torquil at the door

Domenica Macdonald was seated at her desk when the doorbell rang. She was struggling with the composition of a letter that she did not wish to write, because she knew the power of words – even just one or two – to end a world. She had always been in awe of the ability of a document – perhaps no more than a few lines of print on paper – to bring down a whole edifice of human arrangements, even to turn upside down the lives of million. The protocol to the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact had been such a document – a few lines on a piece of paper, once revealed, many decades later, precipitated Estonia’s departure from the Soviet Union and the events that eventually brought down the entire empire. And, in a more domestic setting, the uttering of a few words could do the same – could change the whole landscape of a life. I love another, for instance: three words that could bring an ocean of tears in their wake. Or a monosyllabic no might do the same thing: the sound of no was tiny, but its echoes could be huge.

44 Scotland Street

Domenica sighed. Did she have an alternative but to do what was asked of her? She thought not. If she failed to respond to the request for an opinion, she herself could be accused of indifference to presuppositions and values that lay at the heart of anthropology. It would be easier to decline the request that had been made of her – there were numerous excuses to which she could resort: being overcommitted, being out of touch, being on holiday or sabbatical. Eyebrows might be raised, but eyebrows held no terrors for her. Yet she could not do that; she could not dissemble or lie outright. Not to do something was impossible – she would have to act.

She sighed again, and reached for her pen. And at that moment, as if scripted by a dramatist careless of implausibility, the doorbell rang. Domenica’s next sigh was one of relief. Angus was out, and she would have to answer the door. The letter could be put off in good conscience.

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She opened the door and saw before her on the landing her neighbour, Torquil. Torquil was one of a group of students who had moved into the ground-floor flat a few months earlier. There were five of them: three young men – Torquil, Dave and Alistair; and two young women, Phoebe and Rose – all of an age, all barely twenty, Domenica thought. Domenica had met Torquil on several occasions before this – he seemed to be the spokesman and was the only one who bothered to sweep their shared stair according to the rota agreed by all the flats. He was a student of classics, he had told her, while Alistair was a mathematician. Or was it Dave who was studying mathematics? No, Dave had been described by Torquil as being “too thick to study anything but environmental science” – an extraordinary assessment. Domenica did not think that environmental science was an easy or intellectually unchallenging option. Surely that was media studies – or so people said, perhaps unfairly. And if Dave was at university in Edinburgh, then he would have had to have satisfied high entry standards, otherwise he would have gone elsewhere – and enrolled in a course on media studies.

Dave had come to the party that she and Angus had thrown, and although on that occasion she had not had the chance to speak to him at length, their conversation had been enjoyable. She had found him good company, in fact, with a wry sense of humour of the sort she appreciated. Torquil had mentioned that one of the young women, Rose, had been keen on Dave and that they had been, as he put it, an item. It was not an expression she liked, as it had her think of shopping trollies, and she imagined Dave sitting in a shopping trolley being pushed by a triumphant Rose. Alongside him would be other household necessities obtained from the supermarket: washing-up liquid, kitchen towel, detergent, and so on, all gathered from shelves so labelled, until one came across the shelf that said Men, with some, perhaps, being advertised as On Offer.

She could understand what Rose saw in him. Like Torquil, Dave was good-looking in a way favoured by the compilers of men’s clothing catalogues or advertisements for expensive watches. No thin or ungainly men are ever featured in such publicity – only those with decisive jaws, who gaze, into the middle or far-distance, from the teak deck of a yacht or from the driver’s seat of a desirable sports car. Such men not only have impeccable taste in clothing, which they wear with insouciant elegance, but they also display a penchant for Swiss watches that tell the time only incidentally to the information they provide on such matters as barometric pressure and its concomitant, height above sea-level. Domenica had never needed to know her altitude, and although she had once toyed with the idea of buying Angus a watch with elaborate functions, she had decided not to, as Angus, too, was indifferent to altitude, and indeed to the hour. As far as she could make out, he relied on the sun to tell him what time it was, and seemed unconcerned by the margin of error that such a method of time-keeping involved.

“As long as I know what day it is,” he once said, “and as long as I know roughly what the month is, then do I really need to burden myself with more information?”

Now, as she stood in her doorway, she saw that Torquil was holding a parcel – what Angus called a Marian parcel (“brown paper packages tied up with string”).

“They left this with us yesterday,” he said. “You were out and it didn’t fit through your letter box.”

“Very little fits through there,” said Domenica. “I think people used to get very thin letters in Georgian times.”

“And no junk mail,” said Torquil, grinning.

“Junk mail is a recent curse,” said Domenica, reaching out for the parcel he was offering her.

“It feels like books,” said Torquil, and then immediately qualified what he had just said. “Not that I actually felt it – not deliberately, if you see what I mean.”

Domenica laughed. “I don’t mind. I think one is entitled to feel a neighbour’s parcels if they are left with one. That is entirely understandable human curiosity.”

“But you’re not entitled to hold their envelopes up to the light?” asked Torquil, in a tone of mock disappointment.

“Only in extremis,” answered Domenica. “For a very good reason, that is.”

She smiled at Torquil. She liked this young man – so much so that she would offer him coffee. There were people to whom one offered coffee, and people to whom one did not offer coffee. She felt in the mood for conversation. So she said, “Can I tempt you with a cup of coffee?”

And he replied, “Yes, you can tempt me.” Adding, “With coffee.”

They were getting on extremely well. And why not? she asked herself. Many twenty-year-olds were rather dull company because they knew so little about anything. Torquil, she decided, was different.

© 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.