Scotland Street Volume 16, Chapter 19: Kitchen confidential

“All right,” said Matthew. “I’ll tell you what Iain said at Big Lou’s wedding. But don’t, whatever you do, tell anybody – promise?”

44 Scotland Street
44 Scotland Street

Elspeth felt vaguely annoyed at being sworn to secrecy like this by her own husband. Of course she understood the confidentiality of the matrimonial kitchen, which was almost as sacrosanct, she felt, as the confidentiality of the matrimonial bedroom. Yet it was implicit, she felt, that what was said to one spouse might quite properly be divulged to the other by the spouse to whom the information was vouchsafed. That was how it worked – and everybody understood that. Of course, if one partner in a marriage was bound by professional secrecy, then confidential information conveyed under such a seal could not be shared with a spouse. Doctors should never tell their spouses or partners what they learn in the course of their professional life – and nor should lawyers or accountants. And although most, if not all, doctors respected that, unfortunately some lawyers and accountants did not; but that was another matter altogether.

Now she said to Matthew, in a slightly reproachful tone, “You know that I’m discreet.”

He was apologetic. “Of course. Sorry. It’s just that . . .” He sighed. “I wish he hadn’t said it.”

She struggled to conceal her irritation. “Said what, Matthew?”

Matthew lowered his voice.

“There’s nobody here,” Elspeth whispered.

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Matthew looked sheepish. “Of course.”

“Well?”

“He said that it was going to end in tears.”

“The marriage?”

Matthew nodded. “He said that we were all due for a big surprise when the truth came out about Bob. He gave me a knowing look and then, I’m afraid, he refused to say anything more. I asked him what he meant, but he just looked enigmatic and shook his head.”

Elspeth frowned. She found it difficult to decide whether to discount this – people said all sorts of things at weddings, particularly after a few glasses of sparkling wine, and much of what was said could be written off as idle gossip or as shots fired, sometimes indiscriminately, in some ancient family squabble. Funeral teas were much the same: in one recent case in Glasgow, the Police Scotland riot squad had been called in – all forty members of it – to break up a disagreement at a wake between rival sides of a family. A water cannon had been brought over from Edinburgh and had helped to restore order, although it was a close-run thing. The armoured hearse kept for such obsequies had undoubtedly saved the day, with its puncture-proof tyres and its bullet-proof windscreen.

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“It’s most inconsiderate of him,” Elspeth said. “You shouldn’t tantalise people like that. Either you tell them everything, or you say nothing.”

Matthew agreed.

“I think I’m going to ask her to tell me. She’ll know.”

Matthew was alarmed. “Her? That cousin of yours – the dental hygienist?”

“Shelley McElhose. Yes. Her. I could suggest we meet for lunch. I could ask her. She’ll tell me.”

Matthew became agitated. “No,” he said, his voice rising. “You mustn’t do that. You mustn’t, Elspeth.”

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“Why not? If she doesn’t want to tell me, she won’t. I’m not going to twist her arm, or anything like that.”

He shook his head. “No, definitely not. It’s none of our business. If there’s some bit of sordid scandal about Bob, I don’t want to know it. Why should I? Or you for that matter? Other than out of vulgar curiosity.”

Elspeth drew in her breath. “But what if it’s something Big Lou should know? What then? We’ve known her for ages – years, really – and we know what a good person she is. What if this information that Iain has is something she truly needs to know? Wouldn’t you tell her?”

Matthew did not disagree – at least immediately. But after a few minutes of silence, he came up with his response. “I don’t think that it always helps to tell people everything. Let’s say that Bob has some murky secret in his past. Let’s say he treated somebody badly – that could be it, you know. Let’s say that it is. But what if he’s a different person now? People change, you know. Why drag up the past?”

“Oh, I know that people change,” said Elspeth. “Sometimes they do. But sometimes they don’t. It all depends, doesn’t it?”

Matthew shook his head. “I just don’t want to get involved. We could wreck everything. We can’t assume that it would be the right thing to pass on whatever this thing is. We just don’t know enough about any of this. Iain may have something against Bob for all we know. A grudge, perhaps. You know how vindictive people can be. Surely you see that?”

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But Matthew was adamant. “Just don’t,” he said. “Keep out of it.” And with that, he changed the subject, and started to talk about Edward McCosh, an artist who had a painting coming up at the next Lyon & Turnbull auction. “He paints in the style of the Dutch Masters of the seventeenth century. He does stunning studies of ornamental birds in a landscape. They’re wonderful. When you look at them, you think you’re looking at something by Melchior d’Hondecoeter or someone like that. But he’s a contemporary – and he lives just outside Edinburgh. A master among us – waiting to be more widely discovered.”

Elspeth knew his work. “They’re very peaceful,” she said. “That’s the moral message behind them.” She paused. “I think serious painting always has a moral message – even if it’s a celebration of the everyday things of life.”

“Oh, I agree,” said Matthew.

Elspeth made a remark about the Peaceable Kingdom theme. “The lion shall lie down with the lamb – in some paintings.”

“It can,” said Matthew. “And it does.”

Elspeth was thinking. She disagreed with Matthew about not trying to find out what Iain meant by his remark at the wedding reception. She had made up her mind: she would telephone Shelley and suggest that they meet for lunch. She would put her cards on the table. She would ask what it was that Iain knew, and tell Shelley that the two of them – she and Shelley – had a duty to warn Big Lou if she was in any way threatened. She would remind Shelley that women needed to stand by one another and that the masculine desire not to get involved – which was the position that Matthew, quite unreasonably, was adopting was simply no longer acceptable. “Things have moved on,” she would say, and it would be a rash person these days who would argue that they had not.

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© 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