“Gregor has done it fantastically well,” he said to Bruce. “Sometimes it can be hard to convert these places and you end up with an outside staircase climbing up the side of the house.”
“Not at all attractive,” said Gregor. “Ugly, even. To be avoided, if poss.”
“And it was poss here,” Ed continued. “Gregor got the builder to knock a hole in a side wall and make a new entrance hall on the ground floor, just to the side of the main staircase. Then he separated the staircase from the ground-floor flat by building an internal wall, and there you have it – two flats. Brilliant.”
“Not rocket science,” said Gregor, modestly.
“Still, pretty smart work,” Ed insisted. “Give credit where credit is due. You’ve got a great eye, Greg, for this sort of stuff.”
Gregor smiled. “That’s what I do. I love doing this stuff. It floats my boat.”
Bruce glanced at him. People had said that he had a good eye too, but he did not think he should mention it. Clearly Gregor thought that his eye was better. “Are you an architect, Gregor?” he asked.
He asked this question while Ed was fumbling with the front door key. Gregor turned round and fixed Bruce with a glassy stare.
“What do you mean?”
“I was just wondering whether you were an architect. That’s all.”
Gregor gave a toss of the head. “Architects!” he said. His tone was dismissive.
Ed managed to get the key into the door. “Architects aren’t always what they crack themselves up to be. They get things wrong.”
Gregor addressed Bruce. “I told you: I do interior decoration.”
Bruce laughed uneasily. “I wasn’t accusing you of architecture.”
Gregor stared at him. “What’s that meant to mean? Have you got a problem with interior decoration, Bruce?”
Bruce shrugged. “No. Of course not. It’s just that architects know about load-bearing walls and things like that. You have to be a bit careful if you start knocking holes.” He paused. “Just saying.”
Ed raised a hand. “Gregor knows what he’s doing, don’t you, Gregor?” And then he answered his own question. “He does, you see. And he has this builder out at Penicuik who knows about that stuff, doesn’t he, Gregor? Bill knows all about load-bearing walls.” And then he added, “He’s an Orangeman.”
Gregor was reassuring. “Of course he does. He deals with load-bearing walls every day. That’s what he does.”
“And he would have got the building warrant,” said Bruce. “He’d know about that, of course.”
Gregor said nothing.
“This is the hall,” Ed announced. “You see, Bruce? The hall. Look what Gregor’s done to the floor. See it? You like it?”
Bruce looked down at the floor. “Encaustic tiles.”
“Yes,” said Gregor. “I designed the pattern myself. You get these designs in a lot of houses on this side of town. The Victorians loved these floors. They thought of them as mosaics – which in a sense they are.”
“Seriously brilliant,” said Ed. “Now let me show you the staircase.”
They climbed the stairs, which had already been carpeted. Gregor pointed out the brass stair rods. “Those are not repro. Those are the real thing – Victorian stair rods.”
“Dead gen,” said Ed. “We had them in our house in Crieff. They’d been there since the house was built. Way back. 1875.”
“I remember your place,” said Bruce. “I remember going there after school every Friday. Remember? You had those tartan carpets. All the way through the house.”
Gregor made a face.
“You’ve got unresolved issues with tartan carpets, Gregor?” Ed challenged.
Gregor shook his head. “If that’s what you like, they’re fine. Chacun à son goût.”
“But you personally?” Ed pressed. “You think that people who have tartan carpets …”
Gregor looked away. “I wasn’t saying anything about the sort of people who have tartan carpets. You’re too sensitive, Eddie. Not that people who have tartan carpets are known for their sensitivity …”
Ed spun round. “What exactly are you saying?”
Gregor sighed. “It’s nothing personal. It’s just that I don’t do tartan carpets. Some people do. I don’t. I don’t do flying ducks on the wall or …”
Suddenly Ed reached out and grabbed the lapels of Gregor’s jacket. Bruce, who was in the way of this attack, pushed the two of them apart. “No need to fight, boys,” he said. “We’ve got a house to look at.”
“I’m sorry,” said Gregor. “I didn’t mean to offend you, Ed.”
Ed glowered briefly, and then assumed a business-like manner. “We should go upstairs,” he said, and began to lead the way up the broad, now-enclosed staircase with its Victorian stair-rods and its mahogany balustrade. At the top of the staircase was a spacious hall giving access to the rooms on that level – a drawing room, a dining room, a kitchen, a bathroom, and two rooms of unspecified usage.
“You could live perfectly comfortably on this floor alone,” said Ed. “But there are three further bedrooms up that small stair over there. Three, Bruce. And another bathroom. If you have kids, you could put them there and close the door. Or guests, if you like. There’s serious room in this flat.”
Gregor took them into the drawing room. “The pièce de résistance,” he said. “Typical Victorian high ceilings. Lots of room to breathe. And the light. That’s what I like about a double-upper – you get this gorgeous light. Really gorgeous.” He paused. “This is south- facing, of course. So you get the southern light. It’s great if you’re facing north and you’re an artist. Different light. Slightly blue, like a nineteenth-century Danish painting. This light makes me think of … of Tuscany. The warm south. Sun-tanned bodies completely at ease with themselves. Vine leaves rattling like dice. Warm evenings.”
Bruce looked about him. He noted the elaborate cornice, undisturbed by any nineteen-sixties or -seventies experience. “Nice,” he said.
“More than nice,” said Gregor. “That’s the original marble – at least the mantelpiece is. The hearth has a Thomas Bogie metal surround. All intact.”
He pointed to a small brass fixture beside the fireplace. “See that?” he said. “That’s a speaking tube. It connected to the kitchen down below – just like the system you found on ships. They spoke into a tube that ended up in the engine room.”
Bruce smiled. He crossed the floor to pick up the small mouthpiece. “Hello,” he said. “Bridge here. Anybody down below?”
From somewhere in the depths of the house, faint from distance, came the reply. “It’s me.”
Bruce turned and stared speechlessly at Ed and Gregor.
© 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.