Scotland Street Volume 16, Chapter 16: ‘The lightning is all about me’

At nine-thirty that morning Bruce came into Big Lou’s coffee bar. This was a surprise for Lou, who had not seen him since he was struck by lightning.

44 Scotland Street
44 Scotland Street

She knew that this had happened, of course, as the incident had been widely reported and Bruce had been given a full page in the Daily Record as well as one in The Scotsman. There had been other articles too, including one in the Oban Times, in which Bruce, in addition to being asked about his unfortunate experience, had also been invited to give a playlist of ten favourite tunes and propose a guest list for an ideal dinner party. Sean Connery, he had written; Billy Connolly; Tom Hanks; Nicola Sturgeon; Ruth Davidson; the Pope; Hillary Clinton . . . But now here was, looking very similar to the way he had looked prior to the lightning strike, even if there was something slightly different about his hair.

Big Lou had never really approved of Bruce. She was modest, and Bruce was anything but that. Big Lou rarely bothered to look in mirrors – Bruce could seldom resist them. Big Lou occasionally used a moisturiser, and even then tended to prefer a thin layer of petroleum jelly (the moisturiser used by her grandmother, and her grandmother’s mother before her). Bruce, by contrast, used moisturiser every morning and evening, preferring an expensive brand developed in a laboratory in Geneva for which he paid roughly forty times the price of petroleum jelly.

Big Lou greeted Bruce warmly. Those who have been struck by lightning are in some way taken out of the common herd in which the rest of us mingle. It is as if they have been touched by divine fire and should be addressed with all the respect that should be accorded those whom the gods have singled out in any way.

“Bruce,” exclaimed Big Lou. “This is a very pleasant surprise, so it is. And you look so well . . .”

Bruce inclined his head. “No complaints, Lou,” he said.

Lou waited for Bruce to say something about his experience, but he did not. And so she said, “A bacon roll?”

Bruce said that this was just what he needed. “I’m meeting somebody,” he said. “I suggested that we meet here.”

“Well, there are plenty of tables free.”

Bruce looked about him. “A doctor,” he said.

Big Lou wiped her stainless-steel counter top with a white cloth. “Oh, yes?”

“He’s doing research on lightning victims,” Bruce went on. “He wants to find out about my experiences for a book he’s working on. I want to help him.”

“Of course you do,” said Big Lou.

“And others too,” Bruce continued. “I want to help other people, Lou. I really do.”

There was something about the way that he spoke that made Big Lou hesitate. Was this the same Bruce she had known – the pre-lightning strike Bruce, who has been such a complete narcissist? Who had had a succession of girlfriends – foolish girls who threw themselves at him but never lasted for every long. One should never throw oneself at a man, Big Lou thought – and she had seen that happen quite literally, at a dance in Arbroath a long time ago, when a woman known in the area for her desperation to find a man – any man – had thrown herself at one of the local farmers who happened to be single and in need of a wife. She had knocked him over, fracturing his arm in the process. No, you should never throw yourself at a man.

“I’ve addressed issues in my life,” Bruce said. “I’ve come to realise that I was wasting my time. I’ve been far too self-obsessed, Lou.”

Big Lou drew in her breath. “Well, Bruce, this is . . .” She trailed off, uncertain how to articulate the doubts and questions she had.

“I know you will find it surprising,” Bruce said. “And I wouldn’t be surprised if you were sceptical, Lou. But I mean it, you know.”

Lou hastened to assure him that she did not disbelieve him. “Folk can change,” she said. “I’ve seen it happen before.”

“Well, there you are. And these people who changed – I assume they weren’t even struck by lightning.”

Big Lou grinned. “No, they weren’t.” She thought for a moment. “One of them got religion. He––”

Bruce interrupted her. “I’m going up to Pluscarden,” he said.

Big Lou gasped. “To the Abbey? You’re going to become a monk? You?”

Bruce kept his voice even. “We are all looking for something, Lou.”

“Oh, I know,” said Big Lou. “But you . . .”

“Are you suggesting I don’t know what I’m looking for? Is that what you think?”

She shook her head. This was becoming a very difficult conversation, but fortunately, at that precise moment, a tall man in a lightweight linen jacket entered the café and looked about him. His eye fell on Bruce.

“Mr Anderson,” he said. “Bruce Anderson?”

“The very same,” said Bruce.

“I am Dr Livingstone,” said the man.

“If you sit down,” Big Lou said to Bruce, “I’ll bring your coffee to the table. And your bacon roll.” She paused, and now addressed the newcomer. “What will you have, doctor?”

Dr Livingstone turned to her. “An Americano,” he said.

They went to the table where Dr Livingstone fixed Bruce with a piercing stare. “I want you to talk to me as a researcher. You are not my patient, you know,” he said. “Forget that I am a psychiatrist.”

“I had already forgotten it,” said Bruce.

“Good,” said Dr Livingstone. “Now we can start: have you ever dreamed of being struck by lightning? Ever?”

“It’s nothing to do with my dreams,” said Bruce quickly. “That lightning was a sign. The lightning was all about me.”

Dr Livingstone smiled. “How interesting,” he said. And then he added, “Do tell me more, Mr Anderson.”

“Bruce,” said Bruce.

“Of course,” said Dr Livingstone.

He threw a discreet sideways glance in Bruce’s direction. The lightning was all about me? English was a stressed language only to a limited extent. But sometimes stress was crucial. “The lightning was all about me” was solipsistic; whereas “the lightning was all about me” was descriptive of being surrounded by lightning – as one is, no doubt, at the moment of being struck. You could never be sure about words, especially when words were used to describe the ineffably shocking. He remembered, curiously, unexpectedly, that sentence from Catch-22 about how Kid Sampson, felled by a propellor, had rained all over. Impersonal verbs should not be personal – except sometimes, it seemed. He shuddered as he struggled to put the image out of his mind. To be struck by lightning, it seemed, although troubling, could be a better fate than some, not that one would wish quite so many volts on another – except sometimes, perhaps.

© 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