Scotland Street Volume 16, Chapter 3: Domenica thinks about time

They sat down to their meal of tomato soup and scrambled eggs on toast. Here, thought Domenica, are two people sitting down to a meal of tomato soup and scrambled eggs . . . She looked across the table at Angus, and he looked back at her

44 Scotland Street
44 Scotland Street

There is a strange quality to the glances that any couple give one another. There is no curiosity in them, because they are not looks that are intended to find anything out: all is known by people who have been together for more than a few months. From whom no secrets are hid . . . The words were familiar to Angus, with his Episcopalian background – words pronounced in the chapel at Glenalmond, all those years ago, ignored by most of those present, because most would be thinking of something else altogether (sex, probably, for that was the film that played in the teenage mind much of the time) but remembered by him. He remembered them because he found that he could remember poetry, and there was enough poetry in that Cranmerian prose to stay with one through life, if one listened. Through thought, word and deed . . . we are heartily sorry . . . the memory of them is grievous unto us . . . whose property is always to have mercy . . .

Now the looks they exchanged had reassurance rather than enquiry at their heart. Are you happy with the way things are? Are you enjoying this – this moment, this right now – or would you rather be doing something else? Are you expecting me to say something significant, when all that I am thinking about at present is tomato soup? And what can anybody say about tomato soup when it comes down to it?

Domenica, though, was thinking about time, because her mind was elsewhere – on an article she had been reading in an anthropological journal. She knew that Angus liked to hear about those – or so he assured her – because he found the topics they raised rather interesting. Of course, he did not have to wade through the data and the endless discussions of methodology; he was interested only in the kernel of what was being discussed – the conclusions that tended to be encapsulated in a short paragraph at the end.

Now she said to Angus, “What are we waiting for, Angus?”

He looked up from his tomato soup. “Scrambled eggs on toast?”

Domenica smiled. “In the immediate sense, I suppose that’s true.”

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“Well, it is what you said we were having,” said Angus, glancing at the top of the stove.

“It is, yes, but my question was broader, really. I meant waiting in the sense of waiting in general, so to speak. Not waiting for something that’s going to happen in the next few minutes, but for what’s going to happen in the more distant future. Next year. The year after that. Five years from now. When we’re all a bit older.”

Angus put down his spoon. It was difficult to eat tomato soup at the same time as one discussed the concept of waiting. Some people might be able to do that, he thought, but not me, nor the late President Ford, poor chap.

“I don’t mean to interrupt your meal,” said Domenica. “Please carry on with your soup.”

Angus picked up his spoon again. “All right, waiting. What about it?”

“It’s a whole field of anthropological enquiry,” Domenica said. “The anthropology of time. How people feel about the future and what the future means for them.”

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Angus wiped at his mouth with his table napkin. He noticed that it left a red stain on the gingham cloth of the napkin. He had read somewhere that napkin rings were a bourgeois invention – that grand houses, or grand tables, perhaps, did not have them because the idea of using a napkin more than once was foreign to people accustomed to fresh table linen every time. Well, he thought, that will have to change, and people like that would have to get used to living life more modestly.

Mind you, there would be limits: one would not expect to go into a restaurant and discover that somebody had used the napkin before you. It would be distinctly off-putting to find the imprints of others’ lips on the linen . . . In the same way as you might be forgiven for feeling uncomfortable on finding lipstick on your glass in a restaurant when you didn’t wear lipstick yourself . . . Or to stay in a hotel and discover a toenail in the bathroom, as had happened to one of his Scottish Arts Club friends when he went down to London and stayed in a cheap hotel near King’s Cross Station. Of course, that was hardly the hotel’s fault: the cleaning staff might have done their very best and still missed the toenail.

Domenica continued with the theme of waiting. “People wait for things,” she said. “If you ask them: are you waiting for something? most people will say yes. They’re waiting for their holiday, or their next promotion, or for the time when they’ll have saved a deposit for a flat. There’s always something.”

She paused. Her soup was getting cold, and she took a few further spoonfuls. She made a face. “This tomato soup’s awful. Sorry, Angus.”

He shook his head. “There’s nothing wrong with it. Nothing.”

“That’s what comes from just opening a can,” said Domenica. “You get what you deserve if you open a can.”

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“What about waiting? What about it?”

She put down her spoon and pushed her plate away from her. “I can’t finish it.”

“Let me.” He took her plate from her and finished the last of the soup. “There. All gone – as they say.”

She looked at him thankfully. “I could make something different.”

“No, let’s go on to the scrambled eggs. You can’t go wrong with scrambled eggs.”

Domenica looked doubtful. “But you can, you know. Most people make their scrambled eggs far too quickly. You have to cook them really slowly if you want them to taste nice and creamy. And you shouldn’t use milk.”

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“In other words,” said Angus, “You have to be prepared to wait.”

Domenica smiled. “Which most people aren’t willing to do. Although waiting is ubiquitous.” She paused. “Look at people out there in the street.”

“In Scotland Street?”

“Yes, and beyond. In virtually any street in Scotland. Everybody is waiting for something. Half the population is waiting for constitutional change. The other half is waiting for those who want constitutional change to give up waiting for it. The result is a strange state of uncertainty. And that pattern, you know, is repeated in all sorts of societies all over the world. People are waiting for something, and when what they’re waiting for doesn’t come, they can become apathetic, discouraged – really unhappy. Depressed, even.”

“Oh.”

“And waiting slows down time. It moves you into a strange zone in which the passage of time is somehow suspended.”

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“Oh.”

“Yes.”

Angus glanced at the pan on the stove. “Will the scrambled eggs be ready?”

“I should have been stirring them,” said Domenica, instead of talking about the anthropology of time and waiting.”

“Grub first, then ethics,” said Angus, and added, “Not that I’m reproaching you.” He smiled. “Grub first, then anthropology, should I say? I’m sure Brecht wouldn’t mind my taking liberties with his words.”

“No coiner of an aperçu minds that sort of thing,” said Domenica.

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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