“You don’t have to be quite so impatient,” Angus said to Cyril. “Festina lente, remember …”
Cyril looked up briefly, but then leaned forward with renewed enthusiasm. He was aware that Angus had addressed him, but there were none of the words that he recognised, his vocabulary being a poor bag of words such as wall and biscuits and sit; and, of course, he had no Latin to speak of. The limited range of canine understanding, though, does not stop people from talking at considerable length to their dogs – a fact which had always amused Angus, even if he himself did exactly that with Cyril. The day before he had overheard a woman in the gardens berating her West Highland terrier at length for his over-exuberant behaviour.
“You really need to bark less, Douglas,” she admonished. “There’s no point in barking at chimera, is there? Don’t you understand that?”
Angus, who was walking past her at the time, almost stopped to answer that question for her. “He doesn’t, I’m afraid,” he might have said. “Or perhaps try him in Gaelic.”
And yet dog owners persisted in these long one-sided conversations as if the dog really did grasp what they were saying, some even enunciating their words particularly carefully in order to give the animal every chance to get what was being said.
But here was doing it himself, as he unselfconsciously remarked to Cyril, “It’s a very nice evening, don’t you think, Cyril?”
Cyril looked up at him again, and then continued to pull on his leash. His world was one of smells, delectable and tantalising, rather than sounds, and he was picking up intriguing hints of what lay ahead. There was something dead somewhere – a rat probably – and a discarded, half-eaten ham sandwich further up-wind. And seagulls – an acrid, annoying scent he did not like at all. And car fumes. And squirrels somewhere or other – an infuriating scent because they always got away. And what was that? Cat? That was an outrage, pure and simple, a challenge that could not be ignored. He would get that cat one day. He would teach it to be superior. He would teach it about arrogance. There was no place for cats in the new Scotland, thought Cyril …
They reached the gate to the gardens and here Angus extracted the key from his pocket. A key to Drummond Place Gardens was highly sought-after in the area, as the gardens were private ones, and access to them was a constantly contested matter. Those with a Drummond Place address had a clear right to a key, as long as they paid their share of the upkeep charge, but the occupants of flats just a few doors away, in Dundonald Street or Scotland Street, were ineligible. That had been long settled, after lengthy internecine struggles, but what about those who lived in one of the surrounding streets, but who had a window overlooking Drummond Place? Dante, contemplating the terraces of Purgatory, might have addressed just such a question of boundaries, but even he – or Solomon, perhaps – might not have reached a decision that was acceptable to all, and there were many who were disappointed at not being able to avail themselves of the gardens.
Angus had a key by the application of the overlooking window rule, and the same applied to Bertie’s parents. So Angus and Cyril frequently came across Bertie in the gardens, just as he met other local residents, such as the Italian socialite nun, Sister Maria-Fiore dei Fiori di Montagna, and her friend and flatmate, Antonia Collie. The two women had garden access on the strength of their occupation of a flat on the north side of Drummond Place, and in fine weather they were often to be seen sharing a picnic served from a large wicker hamper and laughing at some recherché witticism from Antonia or aphorism from Sister Maria-Fiore dei Fiori di Montagna’s seemingly limitless store of such observations.
Once inside the gate, with Cyril’s extending leash played out to its maximum length, allowing him to investigate the undergrowth, Angus made his way slowly round the perimeter pathway. He soon met Nicola, who was standing underneath a tree, gazing up at a couple of wood pigeons that had alighted on a branch above her.
“Such lovely birds,” she remarked. “Altogether more engaging than those troublesome feral pigeons.”
Angus nodded. “I see that you have young Bertie’s friend with you.”
Nicola smiled. “Ranald Braveheart Macpherson? Yes, he is a funny wee boy, isn’t he? He and Bertie are the greatest of friends. Do you remember how important those childhood friendships were? They meant the world, didn’t they?”
Angus did remember. “And we never find them again, do we?”
Nicola thought about that. Angus was probably right; we never recovered the things of childhood – we were never readmitted to that lost Eden.
From behind some bushes came the sound of children’s voices raised in what sounded like a dispute.
“That’s Olive,” said Nicola. “Olive and Pansy. Bertie doesn’t quite see eye to eye with those two.”
“Olive and Pansy?”
“Olive is Pansy’s great friend,” said Nicola. “Pansy’s family has just moved into Drummond Place. Olive lives on the South Side but comes over to see Pansy. Bertie was dismayed when he realized they had descended on his turf, so to speak.”
Angus felt sorry for Bertie. He had had his mother to contend with, and now this. He looked at Nicola, trying to gauge whether he could speak directly about Irene. She was Nicola’s daughter-in-law, of course, and he would have to be careful, but he had heard that there was no love lost between the two of them.
“How is Irene?” he asked. “Any news from Aberdeen?”
“She’s busy with her PhD,” Nicola said. “And long may that continue. A PhD should not be rushed – particularly that one.”
Angus smiled. “Scotland Street isn’t the same without her,” he said.
“It’s vastly improved,” muttered Nicola, and then, looking contrite, added, “Not that we should be uncharitable.”
“Of course not,” said Angus.
“She’s impossible,” said Nicola.
Angus said nothing.
“Although I’m sure she has her good points,” Nicola added.
“Of course.” Angus was relieved at this sign of charity. Irene was difficult, but, like the rest of us, she was probably just doing her best.
But then she said, “Not that I ever noticed them.”
Angus looked at Nicola. There was something worrying her, and he wanted to ask her what it was. But how to put it? “Are you troubled?” Could one say that to somebody one did not know very well – in Drummond Place Gardens, out of the blue?
© 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.