Scotland Street Volume 15, Chapter 21: Aunts and spies

Torquil said to Domenica, “Arabica?”

44 Scotland Street

Domenica shrugged. “Possibly. I must confess, I never look at the provenance. Life is complicated enough without having to find out what sort of coffee one’s drinking.”

Torquil sniffed at the cup of freshly-percolated coffee that Domenica had passed him. “I’d say so,” he said. “There’s a hint of caramel there.”

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Domenica shrugged again. “Coffee is coffee, as far as I’m concerned. As long as it isn’t instant coffee, which isn’t really coffee at all. I don’t think I would be able to tell the difference between the various types.”

Torquil took a sip, as a wine connoisseur might interrogate a Médoc. “You probably think it a bit showy of me,” he said. “But I’m interested in the various types of coffee and what they taste like. It’s not coffee snobbery.”

“Of course not,” said Domenica. “People should not have to apologize for knowing a lot about something.” She paused. “And yet there is a certain anti-intellectualism in some quarters that makes fun of expert knowledge – that regards it as pretentious.”

“I wasn’t accusing you of that,” Torquil reassured her. He took another sip of his coffee before continuing, “I love this stuff, but it makes me feel so guilty.”

Domenica looked at him. “Because you feel you should be doing something else – rather than sitting around drinking coffee?”

“Maybe,” said Torquil.

“Or guilt over the origins of what you have?”

She waited.

“Each cup of coffee,” Torquil said, “takes 140 litres of water to make. That’s 140 litres of the world’s finite supplies of fresh water.”

Domenica looked up at the ceiling. “A water-print?” she said. “Is that what we should call it?”

“I like that. A water-print. A liquid footprint. Everything will have one. We get through a lot of water.”

“Don’t we just?” agreed Domenica. “So, should I cancel the coffee?”

Da mihi castitatem et continentiam, sed noli modo,” said Torquil, smiling. “Oh Lord make me chaste, but not just yet, as St Augustine said.”

Domenica remembered that Torquil was a student of classics. She topped up his cup. “In that case, here you are.” She racked her brains. She wanted to keep up with this clever young man. “Carpe calicem … if that’s correct.”

Torquil laughed. “Seize the chalice? Why not?”

“I’m not sure if my Blue Spode should be described as a chalice,” said Domenica. “But faute de mieux.”

“Precisely,” said Torquil, and smiled, revealing the dimples she had observed when first she met him. Their placing was perfect, she thought.

Torquil was looking at her too. “You remind me of somebody,” he said.

Domenica looked away. She had not intended to flirt nor to provoke flirtation on his part: her interest in this young man was not of that nature. And she was too well aware of the absurd to engage in such a fantasy, even if she had been inclined to do so. She had Angus, and was content with him, and he, she believed, with her. There was no call for any dalliance outside that – no call at all. And she was not, to the slightest extent – even in thought – a … what did they call such women? A cougar. She was not that. And yet, subject to all those qualifications, it was flattering to be noticed by a young man, and she felt, slightly, and, she hoped, imperceptibly, a blush on her cheeks.

“Yes,” said Torquil, taking a further sip of his coffee, and looking at her again, as if trying to dredge an answer from memory. “You remind me of …” And then it came to him. “Of my aunt,” he concluded.

Domenica came down to earth – so quickly that she felt the bump might even have been detectable through the floorboards.

“Oh,” she said, adding, lamely, “I see. Your aunt. How …” How what? She decided: “How evocative.”

There was no sign that Torquil had noticed her dismay. “She has the same high cheekbones,” he said. “And the same lines around the side of her mouth.” He indicated on the side of his own mouth where the aunt’s – and Domenica’s – lines were. “Here. There’s one in particular that goes up at an angle of about seventy degrees, like this.”

“Erosion happens,” said Domenica reflectively. And thought: except to the young. For them, the ravages that afflict the skin are theoretical – things that happen to other people – like death itself. Of course, when it came to any discussion of the ageing of the skin it was best to be disarming in one’s frankness – to own, in a courageous way, the ravines and gullies to which the flesh was heir. How was WH Auden’s famously cracked face described? As looking like a wedding cake left out in the rain. And of course Auden himself had referred to his face as having experienced a geological catastrophe. That was the way to refer to oneself. I am falling to bits. If you said that before anybody else said it, then the process of disintegration was far less painful.

Torquil frowned. “I hope I’m not being tactless,” he said. “You don’t mind, do you?”

“Mind?” exclaimed Domenica. She waved an insouciant hand. “Why on earth should I mind? This aunt of yours … tell me about her. No, let me guess. Where does she live? Helensburgh? That’s a very suitable place for an aunt to live. Helensburgh and Rhu are stuffed full of aunts. I know somebody who has three aunts in Rhu. Can you believe that? Or North Berwick? Once again, aunts haunt North Berwick, I’m led to believe.”

“She lived in Broughty Ferry,” Torquil began. “Lived. I’m afraid she’s no longer with us. She’s dead.”

“Oh, I’m sorry.” So, she had invoked memories not only of an aunt, but an aunt who had expired. Oh well …

Torquil was philosophical. “Old age. She was pretty ancient, and nobody was all that surprised when she died.”

Domenica sighed. “It doesn’t do to surprise people. If one is going to die, then ideally one should try to give some indication in advance – like a character in an opera who sings I am dying for a number of bars before expiring. Poor Mimi in La Bohème is a case in point.”

“I was very fond of her,” Torquil reminisced. “She worked for British intelligence. She knew Anthony Blunt. You know about him?”

“Of course I do. The art historian spy. The authority on Poussin. The Soviet agent who was a cousin of the Queen Mother.”

“She told me a lot about him,” said Torquil. “They got on rather well, although she knew him well after he had retired from espionage. He was at the Courtauld Institute then. She understood why he did what he did, she said, even if it was the wrong thing to do. At the time, he believed that that was what was morally required of him. He later regretted it bitterly.”

“I can see that,” said Domenica. “I don’t think that he saw Stalin for what he was. Quite a few people made that mistake.”

“She told me that Blunt went to the cinema after he had been outed as a spy,” Torquil went on. “It was in Notting Hill. People recognised him and slow-clapped him out of the auditorium.”

Domenica winced. People loved to shame and humiliate others. It was universal. The fact that you are so bad makes me feel a whole lot better about myself …

© 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.