Scotland Street Volume 15, Chapter 5: Being Aeneas

At the wheel of their custard-coloured car, Domenica drove herself and Angus through the West End of Edinburgh, through bustling Tollcross, and on towards the polite braes of Morningside. Angus had a driving licence, but he did not particularly like driving and was pleased that Domenica should actually relish it – even to the point of her donning completely unnecessary driving gloves. He had held his licence since the age of nineteen, and it was valid, he assumed, in spite of a misprint. He was described as Aeneas Lordie instead of Angus Lordie, and although he had intended to correct this bureaucratic mistake, he had given up after a single unsuccessful attempt.

44 Scotland Street
44 Scotland Street
44 Scotland Street

Angus had written to the driving licence authorities, pointing out that he was Angus rather than Aeneas, and asking for a new licence to be issued under the correct name. He had received a reply two weeks later, which began, “Dear Aeneas Lordie, I have received your recent letter, which is receiving attention. We shall contact you when the matter to which you refer has been resolved.” And with that the official had signed off. At the top of the letter, printed in large type above the address, was the mission statement of the government department in question: Working for You and for the Community.

No further letter was received, and Angus had decided to leave the matter at that. He knew that in Scotland you could call yourself whatever you liked, provided you did not do so in an attempt to commit fraud. There were no necessary formalities – and all you had to do was to start using your new name. A lawyer friend had confirmed this when Angus had asked him, but had pointed out that you could make a formal declaration, authenticated by a notary, in which you asserted the new name. In Angus’s case, though, he had never been Aeneas, and so it seemed that no declaration should be necessary. The lawyer considered this, and suggested a declaration with the simple wording: I, Angus Lordie, do hereby state and affirm that I am Angus Lordie.

“That should do the trick,” he said.

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Angus had smiled. “I, Franz Kafka, do hereby state and affirm that I am Franz Kafka.

The lawyer looked at him blankly. “I don’t see what Franz Kafka has to do with this,” he said.

Angus had not pursued the matter. He rather liked this alter ego, this shadowy Aeneas Lordie, who led a parallel life in a government computer somewhere. He liked the classical associations of the name, and imagined the complications that Odysseus may have faced in his own documentation when required to linger on Calypso’s island for years because his boating licence described him as Aeneas, instead of Odysseus.

Now, sitting in the front passenger seat of the car, he crested the brow of Church Hill and descended into Morningside. He liked Morningside, which was not only a geographical area but was a state of being, a state of looking at the world. That could happen to neighbourhoods – their name could become associated with a particular set of attitudes and might stand thereafter for a world view rather than a bounded collection of streets.

“Morningside,” he remarked to Domenica.

She smiled. “We should not mock, Angus. It’s unseemly for us to come over from the New Town and condescend to Morningside.”

“I was not mocking,” said Angus. “I was simply muttering the word … as one might say om, for example, in incantation. Om induces a state of peaceful acceptance.”

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“Om,” intoned Domenica, as she drew up at the lights at the Morningside Clock, and then, in much the same register, “Morningside.”

Angus looked out of the window. Not far from where they were was the street on which Ramsey Dunbarton had lived. He had been a partner in a firm of lawyers, a man of a certain dryness, with an interest in amateur dramatics and singing, whose great moment of glory had come when he played the part of the Duke of Plaza-Toro in the never-to-be-forgotten Church Hill Theatre production of The Gondoliers. Poor Ramsey, thought Angus, as they waited for the lights to change; poor Ramsey …

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Domenica distracted him. “Are they having anybody else tonight?” she asked.

Angus shook his head. “Not as far as I know. Matthew said that they like having just one couple. I think it will be just us.”

Domenica was pleased with that. “We’ll have the chance to catch up. I haven’t seen Elspeth for ages. Of course, the triplets must take up most of her time.”

“It can’t be easy,” said Angus. “Sometimes Matthew looks exhausted when he comes into Big Lou’s for morning coffee. He said to me the other day he’d been up since four in the morning, coping with the boys. By the time he got into work he was already finished.”

“They have an au pair, don’t they?”

“Yes, so I believe. A young man – James. They share him with Big Lou. He works half the day in the coffee bar and the rest of the time he’s the au pair out at Nine Mile Burn.”

“It’s rather exciting – going out to a dinner party,” said Domenica. “Remember how we used to go out to dinner parties almost every weekend? Remember?”

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Angus did remember. “And then suddenly people stopped having them.”

“Or stopped inviting us.”

That was an unsettling possibility. “Do you really think …?” he began.

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“No, I don’t,” said Domenica. “I suspect that the formal dinner party just became too much for most people.”

“People became too busy?”

“Yes,” said Domenica. “Everybody is busier than they were, say, ten years ago. Our lives have expanded to embrace the increased possibilities of our times. There is more information, to start with. We simply get more messages – all the time. We have more to think about. And we can move about more easily too. Places are cheaper and more accessible.”

Angus thought this was probably true. Of course, he went nowhere, but he imagined he could go to all sorts of places if he chose to do so. He could go to Iceland, for instance, which he had never visited, but which he would like to see. There was a line of poetry about Iceland that stuck in his mind …where the ports have names for the sea. It was a haunting line – a typographical mistake that had been left as it was. The poet – WH Auden – had written where the poets have names for the sea, but had liked the typographical error, which gave the line greater poetic impact, and had kept it. It was rather like being called Aeneas by the driving licence authorities, and keeping the mistake for its poetic possibilities. It was the same thing, really, Angus decided.

© 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.