Scotland Street Volume 15, Chapter 6: Blue remembered hills

They parked beside the house. As Angus got out of the car, the sun had just dipped below the top of East Cairn Hill, casting a lengthening shadow over Carlops and the winding road to Biggar. In the distance, across a landscape of wheat and barley, of secret lochs and hidden glens, the Lammermuir Hills were still bathed in evening gold.

44 Scotland Street

Angus turned to Domenica. “This view always makes me feel sad. I don’t know why, but it does.” He drew in his breath, savouring the freshness of the air. Freshly mown grass was upon it, and the smell of lavender, too, from Elspeth’s kitchen garden. “Well, perhaps not sad – more wistful, perhaps, which is one notch below actual sadness.”

She followed his gaze over to the hills. “What’s the expression? Blue remembered hills? Where does that come from?”

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“It’s Housman,” said Angus. “I happen to know that because I used it as the title of a painting I did once – a long time ago. I painted those very hills we’re looking at, as a matter of fact.” He had been an admirer of William Gillies, who had visited those hills in watercolour time and time again, in all their seasons and moods.

Domenica gazed at the hills. They were blue, just as watercolour hills should be.

What are those blue remembered hills?” Angus recited. “That is the land of lost content,/ I see it shining plain.

She looked at him; the moment of shared feeling had arisen unexpectedly, as such moments sometimes did. It was the beauty of the country before them that had done it. Scotland was a place of attenuated light, of fragility, of a beauty that broke the heart, as MacDiarmid had said it would, with its little white rose, sharp and sweet. And sometimes she felt this Scotland slipping away, which was why Angus should feel sad, she thought, and why she should feel that too.

She reached out and touched his forearm, gently, without words, to show that she understood what he felt. Then she said, “We should go in.”

And as she said that, the front door opened and Elspeth came out to greet them. “Perfect timing,” she said. “Matthew has left drinks on the terrace.” She made a show of looking relieved. “James is cooking. I’m off-duty.”

Domenica smiled. “I’m sure you deserve it.”

Elspeth said, “Sometimes the boys can be a bit …demanding. Triplets tend to go through the same stages together, and all the challenges are multiplied by three. They’re currently going through the biting stage – so Tobermory bit Rognvald, who bit Fergus, who in turn bit Tobermory. They all ended up screaming.”

Domenica’s eyes widened. “Red in tooth and claw …”

“Yes,” said Elspeth. “That’s exactly what little boys are. It’s the way their brains are wired. They are impulsive, violent, endlessly energetic, and prone to bite. That’s just the way they are.”

“And yet …” said Angus. “When you see them, butter wouldn’t melt in their mouths. I could use them as models for putti, if I were ever to paint something like that. Will we see them this evening?”

Elspeth glanced at her watch. It was eight o’clock. “They’ll be dropping off to sleep. Next time, perhaps. Matthew has been upstairs reading to them. He’ll be down soon.”

She led them into the house and then out through French doors onto the terrace. Four chairs ringed a table on which a tray with glasses had been placed. There was a sparkling wine for Angus and Elspeth, and a soft drink for Domenica. As driver, Domenica was to restrict herself to bitter lemon, which she enjoyed anyway; in general, she was not one for alcohol.

Elspeth raised her glass to her guests.

Slàinte mhath,” said Angus.

Domenica touched her glass against Elspeth’s. “God blesim yu,” she said, adding, “That’s cheers in Melanesian pidgin. In Chinese pidgin, it’s chin chin, which is what you might have said in Shanghai in 1925.”

Elspeth smiled. “Lovely! God blesim yu, too. I suppose you used that on your fieldwork.”

Domenica nodded. “All anthropologists went to Papua New Guinea in those days – if they could. It was the real thing – the copper-bottomed experience of fieldwork that enabled you to outstare anybody at an anthropological conference. If you were really lucky, you were able to study a cargo cult. Less fortunate people ended up dealing with initiation ceremonies or rain-making rites. Have you read The Innocent Anthropologist, by any chance?”

Elspeth shook her head.

“It’s by an anthropologist who went as a young man to spend some time with a remote people in Cameroon. It caused a bit of a stir.”

“Oh? And why was that?”

“He was too frank. Anthropologists take themselves immensely seriously. He didn’t.”

Elspeth laughed. “Isn’t that a fault of many academics? Don’t they think that everybody is hanging on their every word?”

Domenica looked thoughtful. “Some of them are like that, I suppose. And I suppose they never realise that people may actually not pay much attention to what they say and just get on with their business. I think I understood that. I was never under any illusions that my conclusions on the societies I studied were of much interest to anybody – other than fellow anthropologists.”

Elspeth looked at her. “But you completed your fieldwork rite de passage?”

“Yes. Papua New Guinea – I wrote a book about it – eventually. Nobody read it, as far as I know. At least, I never met anybody who had done so. Except my cousin in Melrose. She read it, I believe.”

“And you learned pidgin for that?” asked Elspeth.

“Yes. I haven’t used it for rather a long time, of course, but it comes back. Languages don’t disappear altogether; once you know them, they tend to become embedded in the mind, like fossils in rock.”

Matthew arrived from upstairs. The boys had gone to sleep, he said, and he had called in on the kitchen on his way out to the terrace. “James is rustling up something pretty tempting,” he said. “He loves his garlic. Smell it?”

Domenica sniffed at the air. “Delicious,” she said.

“It has to be handled carefully,” said Matthew. “But you won’t be disappointed. He is very creative in the kitchen.”

“Will he eat with us?”

Elspeth shook her head, rather firmly, thought Domenica. “He wants to go into town after he’s served us,” she said. “He’s up to something. I have no idea what it is, but he’s planning something. That boy has a secret – I’m sure of it.”

Angus was curious. “Have you asked him?”

Matthew shook his head. “It’s not our place.”

“Yes, it is,” Elspeth contradicted him.

Matthew sighed. “The point about secrets is that people don’t talk about them.”

“We could try,” said Elspeth.

“What possible secret could a nineteen-year-old have?” asked Angus.

“You’d be surprised,” said Elspeth. But she did not answer his question.

© 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.