Scotland Street Volume 15, Chapter 28: Bruce prepares

Mr Murthwaite, who had once almost played rugby for Scotland, and would have done so had a slight knee injury not interfered with his summer training, had been Bruce Anderson’s physical education teacher at Morrison’s Academy. He liked Bruce, although he occasionally berated him for failing to maximise his potential. “You could perform far better, Anderson,” he said, “if you spent less time preening yourself in front of the mirror and more time in the gym.” This reproach, publicly delivered, caused giggles amongst those girls present and smirks of Schadenfreude amongst the boys. It was entirely deserved criticism, though, and Bruce took it in the spirit in which it was offered. But it nonetheless failed to spur him to the efforts that might have led to greater sporting distinction, even if he still maintained not only his membership of a gym but also, as a non-playing winger, of a small and not very successful rugby club, The North Edinburgh Stalwarts.

44 Scotland Street

On that Monday morning, Bruce set his Apple Watch to wake him an hour earlier than normal, as he wanted to fit in a visit to the gym before his planned on-site meeting with his new business partners, Ed Macdonald and his friend, Gregor. The Apple Watch, obedient to its electronic vows, awoke him at exactly the right time, invoking, via a Bluetooth link, an mp3 file of the Red Army Choir singing the Russian folk song, Kalinka. This had been recorded on that remarkable occasion when the famous military singers had met, and sung with, the Mormon Tabernacle Choir at a choir festival in Seville. The resultant musical energy was significant, and the volume and enthusiasm of Kalinka was such that it would have been impossible for even the drowsiest sleeper to remain in bed once the choir reached the first full-blooded chorus.

Little more than an hour later, Bruce returned to his flat in Abercrombie Place, having successfully completed the four demanding circuits that his personal trainer had prescribed for him. Now he was ready for his shower, which usually took at least fifteen minutes, and which involved the application of a special garlic-and-rosemary pre-shower toner, followed by shower treatment, shower gel, and an olive-oil based post-shower skin conditioner. Drying with a high-GSM ring-spun cotton defoliant bath towel was next and then a careful self-examination before the full-length mirror Bruce had installed in what he called the post-shower room, a large, walk-in cupboard directly off the bathroom.

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Bruce liked what he saw. A combination of diet and exercise meant that he carried not an ounce of spare flesh, unlike so many of his fellow members of the rugby club who had allowed muscle once exercised in the scrum to turn to flab. These were people, Bruce thought, who had no inner Mr Murthwaite to reproach them over their various shortcomings – their failure to walk to work rather than take a bus, their refusal to eschew fattening carbohydrates, their disinclination to use the stairs at the office rather than the lift. These people ended up with the bodies they deserved, Bruce told himself, with some satisfaction. I, by contrast, end up like this … And here he tensed his muscles, delighting in the rippling effect that he had come to realise so entranced women. Women, he said to himself, simply couldn’t ripple in the way in which men could – if they looked after themselves.

The toilette performed at Versailles in its heyday was but as nothing compared to that witnessed each morning in Abercrombie Place. The last stage of this elaborate process was the application of hair gel (clove-scented, by tradition), the smoothing down of the hair (it always sprung up, en brosse, whatever Bruce did), and then, with the regret that must be felt whenever any masterpiece is concealed from public view, the selection of clothes and the act of dressing.

That morning, Bruce wore a pair of charcoal chinos, red-striped bamboo socks, polo brown calf suede Crockett and Jones loafers, a sky-blue shirt from a Jermyn Street mail order catalogue, and a mustard-coloured casual linen jacket that he had first seen in the window display of Stewart Christie in Queen Street and that he had known, with utter certainty and at first sighting, was destined to be his.

Fully dressed, he took a final appreciative glance at himself in the mirror, while his coffee percolator gurgled promisingly in the kitchen. He found it hard to imagine any way in which the image that he presented to the world might be improved upon. Nothing was overstated, and yet everything spoke of his assuredness, of his confidence that he might be regarded from whatever angle and the admiration would always be the same.

Breakfast was a brief affair – a boiled egg, a small portion of smoked Argyll salmon, and a large cup of black coffee. Then Bruce set off for the Grange, where, at the address given him in Ed’s earlier email, he joined Ed Macdonald and Gregor in front of a large South Edinburgh villa. The house, set back from the road, was partly concealed from view by a yew hedge and two well-established copper beech trees.

Ed, who was busy with his mobile phone, greeted Bruce perfunctorily; Gregor was more attentive. “Like your chinos,” he said.

Bruce acknowledged the compliment with a smile.

“And your jacket,” Gregor added. “Mustard suits you.”

Bruce inclined his head. He was not quite sure what to make of Gregor. “Some people can’t wear it,” he said, and glanced briefly at Ed.

Gregor grinned. “Ed can’t wear anything,” he said. “Poor guy. He looks sad in everything. Even beige.” He laughed. “Those shoes? Is that the colour they call snuff? Or is it tobacco?”

“Polo brown,” Bruce said.

Gregor gave a sigh that might have been envy or simple admiration. “Cool,” he said.

Ed finished his telephone call. He turned to Bruce. “Like what you see?”

Bruce gazed at the house. “Private,” he said.

Ed looked pleased. “Privacy easily adds an extra hundred grand to the price – sometimes more.”

“A rare commodity these days,” said Gregor.

Gesturing for the other two to follow him, Ed led them up the paved path to the front door. “Greg divided it,” he explained to Bruce.

“Yup,” said Gregor. “Me.”

“There’s a double-upper and a ground-floor flat,” Ed continued. “We’re going to hold on to the ground floor flat until the market moves up a bit. Aren’t we, Greg?”

“Yup,” said Gregor. “A rising market. Helped on its way a bit. Cool.”

“Oldies love ground-floor flats,” Ed went on. “No stairs, you see. Oldies hate stairs. But the double-upper will go in a week – and at a pretty hefty price.” He winked at Bruce. “All the ducks, so to speak, are lined up.”

Bruce was gazing up at the front of the house. His surveyor’s eye caught a small section where the mortar had flaked out of the join between blocks of stone.

“Pointing needed,” he said. “There. Over there, too. And there.”

Ed followed his gaze. “Yes. We have that on our list for this week. There’s still a bit to do here and there, cosmetic stuff, that’s all. But let’s not waste time. Let’s go in and take a look round.”

© 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.