Scotland Street Volume 15, Chapter 38: In the Elephant House

Bruce was not in a good mood as he made his way back to his flat on foot. He drew a couple of admiring glances while crossing the Meadows, one from an earnest-looking young woman on a bicycle, who swerved, but made a quick recovery, and another, more wistful perhaps, from a matron walking a rheumatic Schnauzer. Bruce ignored these shy tributes – there was nothing unusual in them, but he was not in the mood to enjoy the attention. On George IV Bridge, as he walked past the Elephant House, the café where he occasionally met a friend who lived nearby, he noticed his reflection in the window and stopped, through ancient habit, for a brief moment of self-admiration. What he saw reassured him and put Katie’s rebuff in its proper place: the problem was hers, not his. Her antipathy, he decided, spoke not to any defect on his part, but to … well, it could only have been frustration on hers.

44 Scotland Street

Poor girl: she was to be understood and forgiven rather than disliked, and that was what he would do. He would forgive her, which made him the moral victor in that brief and rather distasteful encounter – and the psychological victor, too: Bruce had always found that forgiving somebody who slighted him resulted in the most delicious feeling of superiority. Poor girl, he thought; how sad.

On impulse, he decided to go into the café for a cup of coffee and a piece of cake. His light breakfast, of a boiled egg and smoked salmon, had left him hungry, and although it was too early for lunch, Bruce felt that a mid-morning snack was justified. He rather liked the Elephant House, which was a bustling place popular with students and literary tourists. Occasionally there would be queues but he saw that there was none now, and within a few minutes, with a steaming cup of coffee in one hand and a plate in the other, he made his way to a table near one of the large, rear windows.

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There was a newspaper on a nearby table, and Bruce paged through this while he waited for his coffee to cool. He began to read a report on a potential volcanic eruption in Iceland, and was barely half way through this when he became aware that somebody was approaching his table.

“So this is another of your haunts,” said a familiar voice.

He looked up. It was Sister Maria-Fiore dei Fiori di Montagna, whom Bruce knew from an occasional meeting in Big Lou’s coffee bar or in the natural food store in Broughton Street. He had seen the nun shopping for lentils and dried beans there on more than one occasion, and they had exchanged snippets of conversation.

Bruce set aside the newspaper. “Sometimes,” he said. “I haven’t been here for ages, though.”

“The places we go to infrequently are more frequently in our minds than those to which we go more regularly,” said Sister Maria-Fiore. “The tracks of the heart are not always well-trodden.”

The nun sat down. Bruce felt a momentary irritation that she did not ask his permission: one did not sit down at another’s table in a café without at least some enquiry as to whether one’s presence might be welcomed. He almost said Please sit down in a pointed tone, but stopped himself. It was ill-mannered to be rude to nuns.

“I have been in the library,” said Sister Maria-Fiore dei Fiori di Montagna. “I needed to do some reading for a trustees’ meeting tomorrow at the National Gallery.”

In the course of her meteoric rise in the higher reaches of Edinburgh society, the nun had been appointed to the Board of Trustees of the National Gallery, where she had quickly made her mark as a conscientious board member, always ready to deliver an aphorism that might clarify the debate. She also had proved to be a useful mediator, somehow managing to bridge the gap between differing opinions in such a way that neither side felt either humiliated or triumphant. “A decision that we both think is our own idea is always best,” she observed. “Two snails do not argue about whose shell is the more attractive.” The relevance of this latter observation may not be immediately apparent, but it brought nods of agreement from all sides of what had been, until then, a divided table.

Recently there had been intense discussion by the board of a plan to lower the paintings on the gallery’s walls in order to make them more readily accessible to people from cities where the average height was on the low side. Sister Maria-Fiore dei Fiori di Montagna found the discussion fascinating. Rarely had she witnessed, outside Italy, a discussion as heated as the one that followed a committee recommendation that the paintings be lowered by four inches. Not only had a raw nerve been touched by this proposal – an entire nervous system had gone into spasm.

The plan had been condemned as tactless at best, and outrageous at worst. “You know who will think it’s aimed at them?” said one opponent. “They’ll think this a typical bit of Edinburgh arrogance. This is the most offensive plan anyone could imagine.”

That view met with some support, but a few voices were raised against it. “Nobody said anything about the Weeg … I mean, the Glaswegians,” said one member. “This is emphatically not aimed at them.”

This brought silence, followed by a few embarrassed groans. “You can’t say that sort of thing,” said a voice from the end of the table.

“Even if it’s true?” asked the maker of the original comment.

“But it isn’t true.”

“Why can’t one take account of the evidence of one’s own eyes? Why is that unacceptable?”

There was sigh. “Because it doesn’t help to draw attention to stature issues. It shows a lack of respect. And anyway, where’s the hard evidence?”

“There’s plenty of evidence. Urban Scotland has big problems. Life expectancy figures tell the story. Poor diet, smoking, damp housing, chronic unemployment, drug abuse: these are all pieces of the whole tragic picture.”

“And whose fault is all that? Who deindustrialised Glasgow, may I ask? Answer me that.”

And so the debate continued until Sister Maria-Fiore dei Fiori di Montagna caught the chairman’s eye. “May I suggest a compromise?” she said. “If there are indeed dear brothers and sisters who might find themselves craning their necks to see the paintings, then why don’t we have a supply of elevator shoes at the entrance that people can put on for the purpose of their visit? The shoes can then be returned at the end of the visit.”

There was complete silence in the room. Sister Maria-Fiore smiled benignly as she looked around the table at her fellow trustees. Then she said, “The idea occurred to me when I thought of Poussin’s painting of blind Orion searching for the rising sun with Cedalion, the servant, perched on his shoulders, showing him the way.”

There was a further silence.

“Dear Poussin,” she mused.

© 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.