Scotland Street Volume 16, Chapter 20: Lunch with a dental hygienist

Shelley McElhose was a woman of thirty-one, a dental hygienist who had qualified at Glasgow Caledonian University, and who had practised in Inverness and Fort William for several years before taking a job in Edinburgh. She was the eldest of the three children of a Mallaig fishing trawler owner, Robbie McElhose, a man whose prosperity had blossomed when he had inherited a second trawler and the fish quotas attached to it.

44 Scotland Street
44 Scotland Street

He had been unstintingly supportive of his daughters’ education, and had sent all three of them to Kilgraston School in Bridge of Earn, where their academic abilities had been assiduously encouraged. After leaving the school laden with academic honours, Shelley enrolled for a degree in oral health, while her sister, Flora, went on to study law at Dundee. To complete the picture of academic achievement, the youngest of the three, Julie, had completed a master’s degree in Mandarin at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London. She was now employed in a department of an Edinburgh investment firm, where she wrote reports on the Chinese iron and steel sector.

Robbie was particularly pleased with Shelley’s achievements, and had wept with pride when he and his wife attended her graduation in Glasgow.

“And she can do something useful,” he said. “Dental hygiene is the way forward for Scotland, make no mistake. Those boys up in Mallaig . . .” These were his fellow fishermen, known as “the boys” – “some of them have frightful problems with their teeth. They could do with a bit of this dental hygiene from Glasgow Caledonian, I can tell you.”

When Shelley took up with Iain, Robbie’s reaction was lukewarm, at best. “I’m sure he’s a nice enough fellow,” he said, “but I know some of those people who work on the rigs, and I was hoping that you’d do a bit better, if you see my meaning, Shelley.”

She had been careful not to hurt his feelings, but she was not going to pay any attention to this. Parents were like that – they often wanted something slightly better for their children, without realising that the only question a parent of a daughter should ask about her partner was: is he kind? That was enough. Nothing more was needed.

In fact, in Shelley’s case it was a bit more complicated than that. What Robbie felt – but was not expressing – was a doubt that Iain was his daughter’s intellectual equal. And that doubt was perhaps well-founded. Iain was nowhere near as bright as Shelley, as was apparent from the one-sided conversation that was the norm between them. Shelley would make a comment and wait for a reaction from Iain, who would often simply grunt in a non-committal way. It was far from being an equal relationship in matters of the mind.

Shortly after Matthew left to drive into work that morning, Elspeth found herself standing by the telephone, poised to dial Shelley’s number. She found that her hand was shaking as she picked up the receiver. What she was doing was something that Matthew had very specifically asked her not to do. But he had not discussed it with her before he more or less forbade her – and that was the general tenor of the language he used, even if he had not used the word forbid. A husband had no right to do that any longer: you could not tell your spouse what to do. You could ask for something not be done, but you could not say “I forbid you”.

And so, in a spirit of principled resistance, she decided that she would call Shelley and arrange to see her. And Shelley, it transpired, was only too eager to meet for lunch. “I really like to get out in the lunch hour,” she said, “but I often have nowhere to go. I don’t like to sit by myself in some café somewhere. So I’m really pleased that you phoned. We need to catch up. You heard that Auntie Elsie died?”

Elspeth had. “She was a real character,” she said.

“She had awful teeth,” said Shelley.

“Oh well, she made it to eighty-nine.”

They agreed to meet at the Canny Man’s in Morningside, which would not involve too long a drive for Elspeth and where they could have a light lunch before Shelley went back to her dental studio.

After a brief catch-up on news of the extended family, much of it to do with cousins whom Elspeth had never met and indeed, in some cases, never heard of, Elspeth said, “I need to speak to you about something very difficult, Shelley. Woman to woman.”

Shelley gasped. “Oh my God,” she said. “You too?”

Elspeth looked blank.

“I mean, you’re having matrimonial problems,” explained Shelley. “Same as so many people you meet.”

Elspeth laughed nervously. “Oh no, everything’s fine between Matthew and me. It’s just that . . .” She hesitated, and then she told Shelley exactly what Matthew had said to her. Then she waited for the reaction.

Shelley sighed. “Men,” she said.

Elspeth waited. Men was an eloquent comment, but a little bit more detail would be required.

“It’s true,” said Shelley. “Iain first spoke to me about it a few weeks ago. He told me that there’s this man who works on the rigs with him – an electrician, he said – who’s really got it in for Fat Bob. He said this man – the electrician – told him that he knows that Fat Bob had an affair with his wife. Had. Past tense. But he hasn’t forgiven him and he said that he has seen Fat Bob with another woman down in Leith. He said he’s seen them together three or four times – even after Fat Bob became engaged to Big Lou. He says it goes to show what sort of man Fat Bob really is. He’s quite happy to two-time right up to the wedding – and afterwards, apparently.”

Elspeth absorbed this in silence. Then she said, “And he’s sure this is still going on?”

“That’s what he said.”

Elspeth shook her head. “That’s awful. We all thought he was so nice.”

“Yes,” said Shelley. “But we all love Big Lou. It really hurts to hear this sort of thing. But I suppose there’s not much one can do about it.”

“Should we tell her?” asked Elspeth. “Should we warn her?”

Shelley looked up at the ceiling of the café. “I think that if we left it, it’s always possible he might stop seeing this other woman and he and Lou might sort things out. But if we interfere at this stage, then it could bring everything crashing down. At least not doing anything means there’s a chance.”

“A very small one,” said Elspeth.

“But still a chance.”

Elspeth looked doubtful, but decided that Shelley probably had a point. “I suppose so,” she said.

© 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