Scotland Street Volume 16, Chapter 43: Down in Leith

“I am not entirely convinced,” said Roger, “that we are quite as inconspicuous as we might wish to be.”

44 Scotland Street
44 Scotland Street

He passed this remark as the three of them made their way down Leith Walk, Sister Maria-Fiore dei Fiori di Montagna in the vanguard, her habit billowing in the fresh north-easterly breeze coming in from the Firth with, behind her, and walking abreast on the pavement Angus Lordie, renowned portrait painter, in his high-waisted corduroy trousers and moleskin waistcoat, and Roger Collins, historian of medieval Spain, dressed less conspicuously than Angus but still rather more formally than was the norm for that part of the city at that time of day.

“True,” said Angus. “But our floral friend seems convinced and . . .” He glanced at the two figures walking in the same direction almost one block ahead, “the man himself seems unaware of our presence.”

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“He seems only to have eyes for her,” remarked Roger.

Angus agreed. “I would have thought there’s absolutely no doubt but that those two are on close terms.” He shook his head sadly. “Why did Bob get married if he was carrying on with somebody else? What’s the point?”

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“There’s an adage about having your cake and eating it,” said Roger. “Perhaps he falls into that camp.”

Roger sighed. “I feel so sorry for Lou,” he said. “Life hasn’t been kind to her.”

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“No,” said Angus. “And that’s what strikes me about all this. Those who most richly deserve happiness often are the last to find it. Big Lou deserves better than some Highland games strongman with a wandering eye.”

“Is that what he does?” asked Roger.

Angus nodded. “He told me. Tosses the caber. Throws the hammer. And he has a day job too. He has a portfolio career. That’s the expression people use these days – if they do more than one thing. A portfolio career involves lots of different jobs. You have to be a bit of a juggler.”

“What was the term the Japanese used for people who stuck to one employer for their entire lives? Cradle-to-grave stuff?”

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“Salarymen,” Angus said. “A salaryman started with a firm after leaving college or university and never left it. They went into the office at eight or whatever, and came back late – by way of a geisha bar, apparently. They did this until they were sixty-five or so. And they got their salary every month, regular as clockwork. That was the bargain.”

Roger looked thoughtful. “I suppose that everybody’s life is a bit like that – a bargain, I mean. You don’t always get everything you want, but you settle for what you have.”

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“And make the most of it,” added Angus.

They continued on their way. Now they crossed the invisible boundary that separated the City of Edinburgh from its port, the former burgh of Leith. There was no sign to inform them of this transition – or at least not one that they noticed – but there was still a distinct change in atmosphere. Every port, even one whose glories are in the past, has a slight tang in the air, that mixture of salt and seaweed and diesel oil that drifts in from docks into the urban hinterland. Certainly that was so in Leith, where that particular air lingered in the tenement-lined streets, or along the banks of the canal, or around the bonded warehouses of the whisky firms. And here and there, as further reminder of the nature of the place, the faded façade of an old shop, the letters just visible, as in a palimpsest, recalled Leith’s maritime heritage: a chandlery, perhaps, or a rope firm; or tarnished brass signs stubbornly marking the position of the sometime offices of ship brokers, firms rejoicing under Scottish names such as Forbes or Meldrum that long ago matched merchants to mariners, and brought lumbering cargo vessels nosing into the nearby docks.

It was true that Fat Bob and his friend did not appear to have noticed his followers, but this was not so of such other citizens of Leith who were out on the streets at the time. These included various grubby-faced small boys, socks hanging about their ankles, knees grazed, and teeth missing – perfect specimens for a casting agency wishing to populate a street scene circa 1934 – but who had somehow survived encroaching modernity. These boys, four or five in number, started to follow Angus and Roger, calling out various remarks and suggestions.

“Hey mister,” shouted the leader of this small mob, “you lost your way doon here? Morningside’s that way, ken!”

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This remark brought howls of laughter from the others, emboldening its author to follow up with, “Those are fantoosh breeks you’ve got, mister. Dinnae get any grease on them if you visit the chippie, mind.”

Angus grinned. “The keelies o’ the toon,” he muttered. “Stand by.”

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Turning round sharply, he roared at the boys, “Youses got naething better to dae than bother respectable fowk wi’ yer stupid havering and snashes? You – I ken fine who youse wee mince-heids are. I’ll gi’ you a right skelping, so I will . . .”

The boys stood still, shocked by the onslaught. Then, as one, they turned and fled.

“An old-fashioned approach is often most effective,” said Angus. “And I must say it’s encouraging to see that nothing much has changed down here.”

Sister Maria-Fiore dei Fiori di Montagna had not been paying attention to this altercation, but she now stopped and pointed to the street ahead.

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“They’re going into that bar,” she said. “Look, there they go.”

Angus read the sign above the door. The Flenser. “There’s a bit of history,” he said. “Flensers worked on the whaling fleet. Salvesens of Leith. They were down here, of course.”

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“What shall we do?” asked Roger.

“We go in,” said Sister Maria-Fiore dei Fiori di Montagna, adding, “Discreetly, so as not to call attention to ourselves.”

Angus was past pointing out that the sight of a nun entering a maritime bar in Leith might not go unnoticed by the denizens of such an establishment – and therefore by Fat Bob himself – but he refrained from giving voice to his concerns. There was no point, he had decided, in drawing Sister Maria-Fiore’s attention to anything, as she appeared to have made up her mind on all matters, more or less.

So he said, “All right, let’s go in.”

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From within there came the sound of singing.

“Listen,” said Angus. “The Shoals of Herring. Do you know that song, Roger? That’s a favourite of mine. It’s about going off on the herring boats. A young man remembers. He was a cabin boy on a sailing lugger. He learned to swear like the rest of the men. He was so tired he slept on his feet. It was hard.”

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They stood for a moment and listened before they entered the bar from which the song emanated.

© 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