Scotland Street Volume 15, Chapter 49: A martini is planned

While Angus was receiving the extraordinary news of the appointment of Sister Maria-Fiore dei Fiori di Montagna to the Turner Prize panel of judges, Domenica Macdonald was back at their flat in Scotland Street mixing a martini for her student neighbour, Torquil. They had met on the stair earlier that day and she had invited him to come in for a drink that evening. He had readily accepted.

44 Scotland Street

“I wouldn’t want to distract you from your studies,” she said. ‘But I thought that …”

He cut her short. “I never do any work after six,” he said. “And neither do any of my flatmates. In fact, some of them never do any work before six either.”

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“I’m sure you exaggerate,” said Domenica, smiling.

“Of course I do,” replied Torquil. “But some of them are … well, I think they don’t over-exert themselves. Take Rose, for instance. She gets up really late, you know, even when she has a lecture at ten. She says, ‘I can learn the stuff out of a book. I don’t need to be told.’ And so she doesn’t go into the university until well after eleven. She’s writing a novel by the way – or claims to be doing that. She’s fairly secretive about it, but if you press her, she’ll tell you a bit about it. It’s science fiction, I suppose – about a woman who finds that her new car has a time-travel feature. She thinks it’s the air-conditioning switch, but it isn’t. It’s a time travel device that will take you back to minutes before some important historical event is about to occur. She gets transported back – in the car – to Dallas on a November day in 1963. That was the date that President Kennedy was assassinated. This woman find herself parked outside the Texas Book Depository and she sees a man going inside carrying an object that looks as it might be a rifle.”

Domenica smiled indulgently. “How far has she got?”

“Page three,” Torquil replied, and laughed. “Anyway, what time shall I come up?”

“Six-thirty,” said Domenica. “Angus will be at a gallery lecture and usually doesn’t come back from those until eight, or so. He and I shall be having a late dinner, which means there’s plenty of time for a cocktail. Do you like a martini?”

Torquil nodded. “Do I like a martini? I certainly do. I had a mystical experience once after drinking a martini. I’ve never forgotten it.”

“You can tell me about it later. Gin or vodka?”

“Oh, gin,” said Torquil.

“I have a bottle of McQueen Gin,” said Domenica. “They make it up near Callander. I don’t suppose you remember Dr Finlay’s Casebook. That was set in Callander. With Janet and the miserable Dr Snoddie, and Dr Cameron being every bit what a country doctor is supposed to be. It was an old Scotland that, well, seems to be slipping away.”

Torquil was listening. He said, “I think I know what you mean.”

She looked at him. “Do you?”

“Yes.”

She returned to the subject of martinis. “With an olive perhaps?”

“Good idea.”

The plan was laid and at various points in the day Domenica thought with pleasurable anticipation of what lay ahead. Every so often, she reflected, one met somebody to whom one felt one had just so much to say. It was a curious phenomenon, and occurred quite unexpectedly. People talked about being on the same wavelength, and perhaps that was all it was – being attuned to the interests and concerns of another. She and Angus talked, of course, but much of their conversation was what she would describe as comfortable, covering well-worn tracks, involving references that both understood perfectly, involving no surprises. They were fortunate in that: some couples, she knew, lapsed after a time into near-silence, as if they had said to one another anything they possibly could say. When all the words were used up in a marriage, what was left?

Domenica remembered a previous discovery of a conversational soul mate. It had occurred before her first marriage, when she had been involved in a research project with a young anthropologist from Cambridge, a man a year or two older than she was, but seemingly so much more worldly and sophisticated. He had been a junior fellow of one of the colleges and had a set of rooms overlooking a quad. He had the ease and self-confidence of the expensively-educated and the privileged, but none of the negative qualities that sometimes went with that background. He was modest and unassuming, and it was only by accident that she discovered that his family lived in an Elizabethan manor with a dovecot and tennis court. He referred to the tennis court as a lawn tennis court because he played real tennis, a different game altogether with its strange score calls and its half-roofed court. She remembered now how she had looked forward to the time they spent together and the ease with which their conversation ranged over every conceivable subject.

That was different, of course. She had been single then, and she could afford to immerse herself in the company of a brilliant and entertaining young man. They were near coevals; she and Torquil were not, and this friendship, if that is what it was, had predetermined boundaries. It would be unwise to become too close to this young man because … She asked herself why, and she came up with the answer immediately. It was because they inhabited different worlds, and she understood that; he might not. She had to remember the inescapable realities of age: he was twenty – she was not.

And there was scope for misunderstandings. How would she feel if Angus started meeting a much younger woman for coffee, or – and here she brought herself up sharply – martinis? Platonic friendships existed between men and women, but even the most trusting of spouses or partners might feel a twinge of jealousy in such circumstances.

She thought about cancelling the invitation. She could find some credible excuse that would not involve any embarrassment for her nor offence to Torquil. She could truthfully claim a deadline or, less honestly, a forgotten prior engagement. And then she would simply not reissue the invitation and could avoiding any situation in which a substitute invitation might be expected or extended. But although she considered these possibilities, she did nothing to bring them about, with the result that when six-thirty arrived she found herself looking anxiously at her watch, her breathing shallow, an odd feeling in the pit of her stomach, like somersaulting butterflies – if such a thing does not strain to breaking point the tendons of analogy.

© 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