Scotland Street Volume 16, Chapter 18: Energy fields; low amperages

Matthew and Elspeth had originally not intended to take the boys to Big Lou’s wedding, fearing that they would find it impossible not to interrupt proceedings. Although it would have been James’ day off, he nonetheless offered to baby-sit, and they almost accepted. But then Big Lou had told them that she particularly wanted children present, and they had changed their minds.

44 Scotland Street
44 Scotland Street

They were grateful to James for his offer – and for everything. His handling of the boys was inspired and based on the principle of exhaustion – by far the best philosophy for the upbringing of small children. Each day had its projects, one after the other: he had built them a treehouse recently, and the boys themselves had constructed, under his supervision, a fort of sorts in the rhododendron bushes that were steadily encroaching over the four acres that surrounded the house. They had also made a pond, stocking it with carp, and they had dug a trap for elephants, although they had, to date, caught none. They loved him, of course, recognising, as small children so astutely will, a readiness to enter the anarchic imaginative world in which they spend the first few years of life. James had the gift of fun – something, Matthew observed, that you either had or you did not. It was genetic, he felt: those without that charismatic gene could try as hard as they might to enthuse others but would be destined to fail, no matter how hard they tried. Look at actors, he said: the ones who seem wooden will never be believed – they just won’t. They don’t have it.

“You can learn it at drama college, surely,” said Elspeth.

“No,” said Matthew flatly. “You can’t. Look at the effect James has on the room when he comes in the door. Have you seen it? It’s electric.”

Elspeth knew what he was talking about. “He’s lucky.” She paused. “Do you think it’s his teeth?”

Matthew thought about this. James had perfect, white teeth, which were revealed by a winning smile. Nobody could be indifferent to such teeth, Elspeth said, looking discreetly, but with some wistfulness, at Matthew’s own, distinctly average dentition.

“I don’t think it’s just that,” said Matthew. “He has an energy field. Some people just do.” He paused. “You notice it with public figures – politicians, for instance. Some may talk sense, may seem thoroughly nice people, but just come across rated at one point three amps, at the most. No energy field. Undetectable. It’s not their fault – it’s just one of those things.”

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Elspeth smiled. Every so often Matthew would get on his hobby horse and sound off about various politicians and their high – or low – amperage, and their more egregious failings. He would try to be charitable, but there were still a few people whom he claimed he would never, under any circumstances, let in the house. It was not exactly an enemies list, of the sort that the late President Richard Nixon was alleged to have nurtured, but it was not far from it. Elspeth believed that the list currently had four names on it, two of whom she could imagine deserved their interdiction, while two were, she thought, being treated a bit harshly. She had once pointed out to Matthew that the chances of any of those on the list turning up at their house at Nine Mile Burn were infinitesimal, and he had replied that the list was not meant to be taken literally, but was, rather, a statement of disapproval. And you never knew, he said: sometimes people came into contact with one another in the most unexpected circumstances. He had met somebody whose great-aunt had in the nineteen-thirties bumped into Hitler while walking in a forest. She had been taken aback but had politely said, “Good afternoon, Mr Hitler.” These things happened, and they showed that the idea of encountering the well-known was not entirely fanciful.

But now, on the day after the wedding, as Matthew and Elspeth sat over breakfast in their kitchen, he turned to her and said, “You know that guy who was wearing that plum-coloured jacket – rather like a Watsonian blazer? He was sitting at the next table but one.”

Elspeth had noticed him. “Yes, he was with Shelley McElhose. She’s my dental hygienist. But she’s also a distant cousin of mine, remember. Third cousin, I think – or something like that. You’ve heard me mention her. That’s her partner – Iain, I think he’s called. He’s a welder on the rigs. He does two weeks on, two weeks off. Shelley says she doesn’t mind his being away because it gives her a bit of peace.”

“Well,” said Matthew. “I was talking to him when the band was taking a break. I’d met him before, you know. I can’t remember where. It was somewhere.”

Elspeth waited. “Talking about what?” Men talked about very mundane subjects, she always felt. It must be very dull to be a man, she thought – rather like being a crow or a common gull in an aviary full of colourful and rare South American birds.

Matthew hesitated. If there was a rule that one didn’t talk ill of the dead, then there was another rule that forbade speculation as to the period that a recent marriage might last. And yet that had been the general tenor of the brief conversation that Iain had had with him at the wedding reception – a time and place when one might have thought the exclusionary rule applied with particular rigour.

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“I thought he was being a bit tactless,” he said now. “A bit . . . How shall I put it – a bit unsubtle, perhaps.”

Elspeth smiled. Poor Matthew, she thought. I love him so – enough to have actually married him, and conceived triplets with him – although that was a zygotic issue rather than the result of any deliberate choice – and yet he could be so . . . so Edinburgh. There, she thought: I have thought it. I have recognised what everyone knows about Edinburgh, but is too polite to spell out: the fact that Edinburgh, for all its claims, and for all its charms too, was ultimately rather Edinburgh.

“Tell me, Matthew,” she urged. “Tell me what he said.”

Matthew still felt uncomfortable. “I suppose he’d had a bit too much to drink.”

“What did he say?” she repeated.

“And I suppose he’s a bit rough and ready.”

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Elspeth burst out laughing. “A bit of rough?”

“That’s not what I said,” protested Matthew.

“Then say what he said rather than tell me that you didn’t say what you said I said you said – which I didn’t say, by the way.”

Matthew closed his eyes. English was a strange language. Marriage was strange too.

© 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

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