The incident had been picked up by the Press. The Scotsman had reported it under the headline Man Struck in Capital Strike, while The Sun wrote Bolt Batters Bruce. Always interested in near-escapes of any sort, there were several journalists and photographers waiting to greet Bruce on his return to his flat in Abercromby Place. He replied courteously to their questions, and posed without demur for the photographs in which he was pictured looking up at the sky, as if awaiting further intervention from that quarter. His hair still seemed to be holding an electrical charge and was sticking up from his scalp in an irrepressible fashion, and this was of some interest to the photographers, who took close-up pictures of the phenomenon.
One of those to read the news reports of Bruce’s misfortune was Sister Maria-Fiore dei Fiori di Montagna. She saw the item in Antonia Collie’s copy of The Scotsman and immediately drew her friend’s attention to it.
“Toni, there’s the most remarkable thing here,” she said. “You know that young man who lives in Abercromby Place – the one with the hair …”
“And the curious hair gel? Brian, or Bruce or …”
“Bruce Anderson. Yes.”
Antonia nodded. “I call him Apollo.”
Sister Maria-Fiore said that she thought this very appropriate. Then she continued, “He was struck by lightning yesterday. In Dundas Street, of all places.”
“Oh, my goodness,” said Antonia. “One doesn’t expect people one actually knows to be struck by lightning.”
“No, one does not. Fortunately, to no ill effect, according to the paper.”
“He must have been well grounded,” remarked Antonia, and then added, “Not that I mean to make light of it. I would wish lightning on nobody.”
“Wish lightning on another,” said Sister Maria-Fiore, “and you wish it upon yourself.”
As Antonia thought about this, Sister Maria-Fiore continued, “I must have been speaking to him no more than a few minutes before it happened. For in the midst of life, we are in death; of whom may we speak for succour?”
“Indeed,” said Antonia.
Sister Maria-Fiore put down the newspaper. “I shall go and see him,” she said. “I shall take him some honey, I think. It has curative properties for those who are in a state of shock. We always gave it to our Stendhal Syndrome people when they came to recover with us.”
“I’m sure he would appreciate it,” said Antonia.
It was not only honey that Sister Maria-Fiore took to Bruce’s flat, but also a salami, a bunch of grapes, and a copy of a small booklet entitled The Pensées of Sister Alphonsine of Tours. Bruce welcomed her warmly and was clearly touched by the gifts.
“I love honey,” he said. “I always have. And salami too. You’re very kind, Sister Maria-Fiore dei Fiori di …” His voice trailed off.
“Dei Fiori di Montagna,” Sister Maria-Fiore prompted. “But I have always been content to be simple Sister Maria-Fiore. A name is only as good as the heart of the one who bears it.”
“Of course,” said Bruce. He gestured towards Sister Alphonsine’s book. “There will be many fine thoughts in this book, I imagine.”
“That is indeed true,” said Sister Maria-Fiore. “Dear Sister Alphonsine spent years in Indochina. She was much loved there and makes frequent reference in the book to her many friends in that part of the world. She died in Algeria about ten years ago. She wrote a book called My Dear Pieds-Noir, which did not meet with the success it deserved. But you will find a great deal of value in these Pensées.”
Bruce invited Sister Maria-Fiore to sit down on the sofa next to him. “I have had a terrible experience,” he said. “It happened a few minutes after you and I had our conversation in the Elephant House.”
“I know,” said Sister Maria-Fiore. “I read about it in the papers. What a ghastly accident.”
Bruce hesitated. “Except it was not an accident.”
“But it was lightning, wasn’t it?”
Bruce stared out of the window, seemingly deep in thought. “Not all accidents are accidents,” he said. “Some are sent. They are sent because of something that we have done.”
“Surely not,” protested Sister Maria-Fiore. “God does not intervene so directly in our affairs. He sets the stage. He gives us our freedom, and then it is up to us.”
Bruce shook his head. “I used to think like that,” he said. “I used to reject anything that seemed vaguely superstitious. Not now.” He looked at Sister Maria-Fiore, who knew immediately that he was troubled.
“That lightning strike was a judgement,” said Bruce. “I was part of a plan to drive up the price of that double-upper you and Antonia are interested in. I feel so ashamed, but I was part of that.”
“Were interested in,” Sister Maria-Fiore corrected, in a matter-of-fact way. “Now no longer.”
Bruce frowned. “You’ve decided against it?”
“It decided against us,” said Sister Maria-Fiore. “The building was declared unsafe yesterday. We heard from the solicitors.”
Bruce wanted to say something, but found that he could not speak.
“Yes,” continued Sister Maria-Fiore. “It’s an awful shame, but apparently a load-bearing wall collapsed. Nobody was hurt, but there was substantial damage.”
“Oh heavens,” whispered Bruce, struggling to take this in.
“Yes. But we must remember this: God destroys a building here, and builds another there. In this way the equilibrium of the world is maintained.”
Bruce rose to his feet. “A great burden of guilt has been lifted from my shoulders,” he said.
“Then give thanks for that,” said Sister Maria-Fiore.
“May I ask you one thing?” said Bruce. “Will you forgive me if I confess that I lied to you? Not a direct lie – more a withholding of the truth.”
“Of course I shall,” said Sister Maria-Fiore. “Forgiveness is the greatest of the virtues – greater even than love. Forgiveness enables us to get on with the future unembittered.”
There was more. “If something is true,” the nun continued, “then it does not matter how you express it – its truth will shine out, even in the darkest of darkness.”
“You put it so well,” said Bruce. He paused. It was not easy for him to utter the words he was about to say. “I feel so ashamed of myself.”
She looked at him. “You are troubled in your soul, Bruce. I can tell, you know.” She looked at him with compassion. “And those who are most troubled in their soul are often those who deny they have a soul. Did you know that, Bruce?”
He lowered his gaze. She was right. He had been so proud; he had never spoken like this to another. He felt himself beginning to cry. Him! Bruce Anderson! Crying! Was that the effect of lightning? Was that what it did?
She reached out to embrace him. Her arms were so thin, as are the arms of pity, wherever, whenever.
© 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