Scotland Street Volume 16, Chapter 10: At the Mansfield Traquair Centre

The ceremony over, with Big Lou and Fat Bob now being husband and wife in the eyes of the law of Scotland, and of all the known world, the privileged guests, not a few of whom had found themselves moist-eyed in in the church, made their way to the Mansfield Traquair Centre.

44 Scotland Street
44 Scotland Street

Here the caterers, old friends of Big Lou’s, had set out four long trestle tables laden with food for the newly-married couple and their eighty-one guests. A small ceilidh band, consisting of two fiddlers, an accordionist, a pianist and a drummer, had already tuned up and was playing by the time the guests entered the building. The Lewis Bridal Song had been followed by The Auld Hoose and The Laird of Drumblair. That was just the beginning, though: long reels lay ahead as the afternoon progressed and the tireless band gamely encouraged the guests to their feet and onto the dance floor.

Matthew and Elspeth found themselves seated at the same table as Domenica and Angus. Matthew was in his kilt, as were his three small boys, Tobermory, Rognvald, and Fergus, all in their father’s tartan, a dark green weave shot through with red. Each of the boys wore a miniature sporran of badger hair that Matthew had had made for them by a sporran-maker in Fife. The face of each boy quickly reflected the contents of the plates on the table before them, with chocolate, jam and powdered sugar soon leaving their trace on the juvenile features. Elspeth sighed: she had been unable to keep the triplets clean, and had now given up. Boys were dirty – they just were – and perhaps it was best to accept that as being their natural state, ordained into that estate by biology and destined to remain there until, in teenage years, they discovered the self-consciousness that might make them attend to their appearance.

They knew everyone at their table, as Big Lou had been careful to ensure that friends found themselves seated together. So Elspeth was seated next to Domenica, while Angus was beside Matthew, and the Italian socialite nun and Turner Prize judge, Sister Maria-Fiore dei Fiori di Montagna, with her close friend, Antonia Collie, were on the opposite side of the table facing Domenica. The triplets had been given a seat each, but had so far been keener to sit under the table where, unobserved by adults, they moved amongst the feet, untying shoelaces here, leaving traces of jam on socks and trousers there.

Matthew leaned across the table to engage Sister Maria-Fiore dei Fiori di Montagna in conversation.

“You must drop into the gallery one of these days,” he said. “I’ve seen you walking past once or twice. I waved to you, but you were deep in thought and didn’t notice me.”

Sister Maria-Fiore dei Fiori di Montagna considered this. She smiled sweetly as she replied, “We do not always find what we are looking for. Mirabile dictu, that is frequently the way things are. Our eyes are fixed on one thing, and we fail to notice another. How many times has that happened?”

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It was a rhetorical question, typical of the rhetorical questions and aphorisms for which Sister Maria-Fiore dei Fiori di Montagna was so well known. But Antonia took it as a question that called for an answer, and replied, “Twice, in my experience.”

They looked at her.

“Last week,” she continued, “I was walking along Dublin Street, climbing the hill, you’ll understand.”

“We must climb such hills as they are before us,” interjected Sister Maria-Fiore dei Fiori di Montagna.

Antonia Collie looked impatient. “Yes, yes,” she said. “Nobody said you shouldn’t climb hills.” She paused, and before Sister Maria-Fiore dei Fiori di Montagna could resume, she continued, “I was walking along Dublin Street, as I was saying, and I almost tripped up over a hole that had appeared in the pavement. There was nothing to mark it – no barrier – nothing.”

“Hills,” said Sister Maria-Fiore dei Fiori di Montagna, “are often lower than we think they are going to be. A high hill may be a low hill once one starts the ascent.”

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“You’d think the council would make sure that holes had barriers around them,” said Antonia. “If you dig something up, you should warn people.”

“Why were they digging?” asked Domenica.

“Gas,” said Antonia. “Somebody smells gas and they have to dig things up. They might be considered negligent if they don’t. But the point is that I almost fell into the hole.”

Matthew sought to continue his conversation with Sister Maria-Fiore dei Fiori di Montagna. “I hear that you’ve been looking at some of the nominees for this year’s Turner Prize. How are things going?”

Sister Maria-Fiore dei Fiori di Montagna looked furtively about her. “I shouldn’t really be talking about it, you know.”

“Of course not,” said Matthew. “But anything you say to me . . . well, I understand about confidentiality.”

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“It would go no further?” asked the nun.

Matthew reassured her. “Not a soul,” he said. “I shan’t say a thing.”

Sister Maria-Fiore dei Fiori di Montagna leaned forward. She lowered her voice. “The most frightful rubbish,” she said. “Rubbish on an ocean-going scale.”

Matthew nodded encouragement. “I can just imagine,” he said.

“Not a single one who can paint. Not one,” said Sister Maria-Fiore dei Fiori di Montagna.”

“So what are you going to do?”

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“I have a plan,” said Sister Maria-Fiore dei Fiori di Montagna. “I’m going to create an artist from scratch. I’m going to invent him, and then make sure he’s added to the list of nominees. He will, of course, be completely made-up, but his work will be cutting-edge rubbish – and therefore a very strong possibility for the Turner Prize.”

Matthew smiled. “Like Ern Malley?”

Sister Maria-Fiore dei Fiori di Montagna looked at him blankly. “Ern Malley?”

“One of the greatest artistic frauds of the last century,” Matthew said. “Ern Malley was an Australian poet who didn’t exist. It sounds as if your Turner Prize nominee will be very much the same thing.”

Sister Maria-Fiore dei Fiori di Montagna was intrigued. “Tell me about this Malley person.”

“It’s a highly amusing story,” Matthew began. “It starts in Melbourne in the nineteen-forties.”

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Matthew was aware that Angus was listening too and he raised his voice so that Angus could hear.

“Ern Malley came into existence because of intellectual pretension,” he began. “Without intellectual pretension, the story would be nothing.”

“Just like many examples of conceptual art?” said Angus.

Matthew nodded. “Yes, exactly. But let’s imagine: Melbourne, back in 1943. Melbourne is far away from the literary centres of the English-speaking world, but there are people there who want to establish an Australian literary identity. Angry Penguins is a literary magazine that receives a letter from a woman about poems written by her brother, Ern.”

They waited.

“And?” asked Angus.

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“Well,” said Matthew. “Let me tell you what happened.”

© Alexander McCall Smith, 2022. Love in a Time of Bertie (Scotland Street Volume 15) is in bookshops now. The Enigma of Garlic will be published in November by Polygon, price £17.99