It was on occasions like this, though, that James’s prowess in the kitchen came to the fore. Elspeth had given him free rein on the choice of courses for their dinner party, although she had reminded him that Angus was keen on seafood and Domenica was known to have a soft spot for garlic. James had chosen scallops for their first course, followed by a saddle of lamb into which he had inserted liberal quantities of sliced garlic and sprigs of rosemary. A selection of cheeses from Valvona & Crolla would follow, each one vouched for by Mary Contini, who could give a full provenance for the cows, the milk, and the manufacture.
As he stirred the scallops, James reflected on the day’s events. He had been busy, as he had spent the morning working in Big Lou’s coffee bar before assuming responsibility for the boys for several hours after lunch. Fortunately, the weather had been good enough to allow most of the afternoon to be spent out of doors, and the boys had passed their time making a fort underneath the rhododendron bushes, destroying it, and then moving on to an energetic hour of hide-and-seek. That had not been without its incidents, including an alarming ten minutes or so when Rognvald had hidden himself away so successfully that he could not be found at all. Eventually he was located in a dustbin, and was given a strong warning by James on the dangers of such hiding places.
James was happy, and was conscious of his happiness. He had the impression that many of those with whom he had been at school at James Gillespie’s were discontented for one reason or another. They were anxious about the future or felt that their present was not quite what they would like it to be. Some of them believed that others were having far more fun than they were; some thought that nobody would ever love them; others railed at the world for being unjust or indifferent to the suffering that they could see so clearly all around them. These were all normal feelings for nineteen-year-olds – even if James himself experienced none of these reservations about the world. It never occurred to him that he would be judged unworthy of anything, including the devotion of a suitable girl, or even, seriatim, of more than one suitable girl. Nor did he ever doubt that he would be able to pursue whatever career he decided upon, and that doors would open to him when he wanted them to.
This self-confidence could easily have been the result of a sense of entitlement, but in his case it was not. James felt as he did about the world because the world felt as it did about him. The world liked James because of his youth, and the optimism that went with it. That was how the world responded – there was no justice in that, no question of desert: that was just the way things were.
Now everybody was in the dining room and James joined them, bearing a large tray. He served the first course with a flourish.
“Hand-dived,” he said. “All the way from Mull.”
Angus sniffed appreciatively at his plate. “Wonderful,” he said. “The fact that they’re hand-dived is so important, isn’t it James?”
James nodded. “And they’ve been nowhere near any fresh water.”
“Very wise,” said Angus.
“If you wash a scallop, it absorbs water like blotting paper,” James explained. “A quarter of the weight of the scallops you buy at the fishmonger’s or in the supermarket is just water. Never wash scallops.”
“And the sauce?” asked Domenica.
“Cream and brandy,” James replied. “With a bit of basil.”
“Oh my!” exclaimed Domenica.
“I heard about them from somebody at the boxing gym.”
Angus raised an eyebrow. “You box?”
“James belongs to a boxing club,” Matthew explained.
“Michty!” said Angus.
“I’m not sure how I feel about boxing,” said Domenica.
Elspeth nodded. “I know what you mean,” she said. “It’s definitely a contact sport …”
“And yet,” said Angus, “boxing clubs can be a force for good. I happened to read about a book on the sociology of boxing. I came across it by chance and found it fascinating.”
“Why?” asked Matthew.
“It provides a way out of hopelessness for some young men,” said Angus. “It channels their energy. It provides structure.”
Elspeth looked doubtful.
“No, I’m serious,” Angus continued. “One of the chapters in that book was about a boxing club in West Belfast. It was called The Holy Family Boxing Club.”
Domenica laughed. “Surely not?”
“No, that was its name,” Angus said. “And during the Troubles in Northern Ireland, it was one of the few places where young Catholics and Protestants could meet.”
“And punch one another,” said Matthew.
Elspeth turned to Matthew. “Don’t be so cynical,” she said. “It did a lot for reconciliation.”
Matthew shrugged. He sliced into a scallop and put it into his mouth.
“Divine,” he said.
“The Holy Family Boxing Club,” muttered Elspeth. “How very strange.”
“And yet, in the event, how ecumenical,” said Domenica. “And what did the rest of us do to make that situation better?”
© 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.