Scotland Street Volume 15, Chapter 42: Bruce reflects, and conducts

For Bruce it was an entirely unfamiliar feeling: shame. As he made his way out of the Elephant House on George IV Bridge, past a group of giggling Japanese teenagers, leaving Sister Maria-Fiore dei Fiori di Montagna at the table that they had, until a few moments ago, shared – the table at which she had revealed to him her dreams of a double-upper flat in the Grange – Bruce barely had time to glance appreciatively at his profile in the reflective front window of the café. Had he allowed himself to dwell on that image, he might have experienced that shock that greets us all when we engage fully and frankly with our face in the mirror, and are confronted, if we are prepared to open our eyes, by our faults laid bare for all to see.

44 Scotland Street

But he did not, such was his eagerness to get away from this place, the site of his[ perfidy. I sat there, he thought, and listened to the voice of my intended victim. And then he added to this dire soliloquy, And I said nothing.

He walked on. It was early afternoon, and the Old Town was bathed in the charitable light of summer. Obscure corners, moody when in mist, sinister in night-time darkness, were now friendly under the warm benison of the sun. If there were secrets and sorrows in these winding streets, these sharp descents and mysterious closes, then these seemed a long way off. Bright flags fluttered briskly; from a side street somewhere drifted the accusing notes of a pipe tune – Edinburgh en fête, welcoming the world’s visitors, inviting them to the party.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

Bruce was in no mood for any of that. As he walked down the Mound, a Glasgow-bound train, emerging from its tunnel, gave a blast of its two-tone whistle, a familiar enough sound in the Princes Street Gardens, but to Bruce, in his mood of regret and self-recrimination, a note of sharp reproach, like the trumpet that summons the guilty to judgement. He thought now of how easy it had been to fall in with Ed’s plan. How quickly had he agreed to be part of it, without any weighing of pros and cons. Why had he done it? Was it because he was concerned that Ed would think him too cowardly to join in? Was it because he always wanted to be one of the boys, whatever the boys were getting up to? When was he happiest? The question came to him out of the blue, and he answered it without hesitation. Bruce liked the fellow feeling of the rugby team. And more than that, he was happiest when in the communal bath at the rugby club, after a game, in the warm soapy water with the rest of the team. The thought almost stopped him in his tracks. It could not be true; it simply could not be true. And yet he had thought it.

He put it out of his mind. He had to. There were times when one thought the opposite of what one really felt. That was very common, and this was an example of exactly that. It was true that he had acted impetuously by agreeing to Ed’s plan, but there was no point in engaging in self-analysis to work out why he had done that. And it was not too late to pull out. He would phone Ed and tell him that he wanted no further part of the scheme. He would be careful not to be too judgemental – he would not criticise Ed for what he was planning to do – he would simply stand back from it himself. But then he would have to decide what to do about Sister Maria-Fiore dei Fiori di Montagna and Antonia Collie. Should he warn them? If he did, he might end up exposing Ed and Gregor, who might then be prosecuted for fraud. He would have to give evidence and denounce them in court. Did he really want that? Anderson the clype: the playground insult, no more than a threat at this stage, made him shiver.

He crossed Princes Street and began to walk up Hanover Street. His mobile phone rang and he took it out of his pocket to glance at the caller’s number. He recognised it as Ed’s, and for a few moments he hesitated. It would have been easy enough to answer and to inform Ed of his decision. “I’m out,” was all he would need to say. And then Ed would … Well, he was unsure what Ed would do, but there were not many options open to him. This was not like leaving the Freemasons. No callers would drop in to remind one of solemn oaths. All he had to do was to say to Ed that he was no longer involved.

For a moment he allowed himself to fantasise. Ed might say that he knew too much. That’s what criminals said when members of their gangs threatened to leave. And if they even thought that, then they might – even if reluctantly – order that he be … what was the term they used? That he be terminated? That was ridiculous. This was not a gangster operation; this was a perfectly ordinary middle-class fiddle – an attempt to drive up the price of a house. There were probably plenty of countries in the world where that sort of thing was perfectly permissible. It was just bad luck that Scotland was so holier-than-thou, thought Bruce.

The thought cheered him, and with his improving mood, he began to abandon the resolve to withdraw from the scheme. He should get a grip of himself, he decided. He should stop these unhelpful, self-recriminatory thoughts; he should stop being such a wimp. It was bad luck that Sister Maria-Fiore was involved, but it was probably mostly Antonia Collie’s money, and that woman was clearly more than comfortably-off. She could easily afford an extra fifty thousand or so for the privilege of securing that double-upper in the Grange. In a year or two it would be worth what she paid, anyway, if house prices continued to climb as they were currently doing.

He reached the top of Dundas Street. Now the Queen Street Gardens were on either side of him as he made his way down the hill. He looked up at the sky, which had suddenly become dark and threatening. A great cloud had moved in briskly from the south-west and was towering above, an ominous anvil of cumulo-nimbus. Bruce gazed up at the swirling cloud mass, and was marvelling at its size when the bolt of lightning descended with a gigantic crack. It struck him with a crash, flash, and shower of sparks, making of him a brief and glorious firework. Then it flung him into the air, twenty feet or more above the pavement and the road, giving him a last vision of grey sky and trees and, tilting wildly, the distant shores of Fife.

© 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.