Had he somehow slipped into that other dimension a century or so ago, when in this very house a kitchen maid on duty in the nether regions of the building might pick up the speaking tube and reply to a request for a tray of tea for the drawing room? Of course not, he thought, as he stared at the tube in his hand and wondered whether he should say something more – just in case he had imagined the whole thing. But he could not have imagined it, he decided, because Ed and Gregor had obviously heard it too and the whole point about auditory hallucinations was that you heard them when nobody else did.
Then Ed laughed. “Give me the tube,” he said.
Bruce handed him the instrument warily. “There’s somebody there,” he said. “I heard …”
“Of course there’s somebody there,” said Ed, giving him a condescending look. “You don’t get voices coming out of nowhere.”
And then, raising his voice, Ed bellowed down the tube, “Is that you, Katie?”
A compressed voice came back up the tube. “No need to shout, Ed. I can hear you perfectly well. Who was that?”
Ed was enjoying Bruce’s surprise. “That was Bruce,” he replied. “He’s my surveyor friend. Remember?”
“Oh yes,” came the reply.
“What are you doing in the kitchen?” asked Ed.
“Checking on something. I’ve just arrived.”
“See you up here, then,” said Ed, putting the speaking tube back in its place. Then, turning to Bruce, he said, “That’s going to be a feature in the sale, you know. How often do you see that in a set of sale particulars? ‘Speaking tube in good condition.’ That’s the business. People like things like that. Original features, see? Lots of places have had them ripped out.”
Greg now expressed a view. “Retro,” he said. “That’s what people are yearning for. They want retro. Eg speaking tubes.” He paused. “Retro is now, Bruce. Right now.”
“Greg’s right,” said Ed. “This city is full of retro people. It’s a real magnet for them. Take the New Town, for instance. There are people down there – people like you, Bruce, no offence – who lead an entirely retro life. They live in Georgian flats. Their furniture is in period, or as close as they can get to period. They’d drive around in carriages if they had somewhere to keep the horses.”
Greg liked that. “Yes. Spot on, Ed. And they pay for retro style. They don’t want modern.”
“Who wants modern?” asked Ed.
Bruce thought of his shower, with its power features. He thought of his Italian coffee machine – gleamingly modern. He thought of the robot vacuum cleaner he had recently bought and of how it sensed where the chair legs were and successfully worked its way around such obstacles. He felt slightly embarrassed by his taste for these modern conveniences. Had he missed the zeitgeist so completely?
But there were more pressing questions. “So, who’s this Katie?” he asked.
“She’s the person who works for the lawyers,” said Ed. “She’s the one who’ll be showing people round this place. She has keys.”
Greg took up the explanation. “They’re the selling agents. They’re acting for me as owner and developer. She’s in their conveyancing department. She’s my friend.” He paused. “She’s in on our … our plan.”
“Greg was at school with her,” Ed remarked. “Like I was at school with you, Bruce. Big pals.”
Greg looked out of the window. “She used to be engaged to a guy called Laurence. It’s over now. He was bad news. He was a lawyer. He used to criticise her all the time.”
Ed confirmed this. “Yes, I heard him. He kept telling her that she was wearing the wrong things. He even laughed at the way she pronounced certain words. She came from somewhere in Fife, didn’t she, Greg?”
“Yes. Kirkcaldy, I think. He came from Barnton. He had airs. He thought himself superior. I couldn’t stand him. I wanted to punch him. You know the feeling, Bruce? There are some people you just want to punch in the gob.”
Bruce nodded. “Like that guy at Morrison’s. Remember him, Ed? The one who clyped on Danny Fairgrieve when he put purple dye in the swimming pool?”
“Yes,” said Ed. “Him. He shouldn’t have clyped. They almost suspended Danny. It was that close.”
“The dye did nobody any harm,” said Bruce.
“It made that girl purple, though,” Ed admitted.
“She deserved it. Catriona Hodge. You know she married a guy who owned a garage in Perth? He had had really bad skin, and you could still tell, you see. I think she felt sorry for him.”
“You forget about teenage skin issues,” Greg mused. “I never suffered from them. I was lucky. But there was this boy in my class who had those issues and he was so embarrassed, poor guy. He avoided eye contact for years. Then you know what? He got some pills that fixed his skin and he went on to do engineering in Glasgow.”
“What sort of engineering?” asked Ed.
“Mechanical. He was a serious petrol-head, and he ended up getting the job he always wanted. He’s a design engineer for one of those Formula One teams down near Oxford. No, seriously, that’s what he does. They’re always fiddling with those cars. They have whole teams of engineers. It’s big money.”
“It’s a stupid pastime,” said Ed. “Those cars go round at two hundred miles an hour. You can’t see who’s where. Then it’s all over.”
“And not one of those drivers,” said Greg, “is in touch with his feminine side.”
Bruce looked at him, but Greg just laughed. “You don’t want to take yourself too seriously, Bruce,” he said, and added, “Ever heard of irony?”
© 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.