Scotland Street Volume 16, Chapter 44: Very uxorious

The Shoals of Herring came to an end, and there was applause throughout the bar. The instrumentalists in the band, a local folk group of three bearded musicians, laid down their fiddle, accordion, and small pipes, while the singer wiped at his brow and took a swig of the dark beer he had been nursing. They were regulars in the bar, which had a reputation for its folk evenings, and they were amongst an audience of friends. Now, with a break in the music, a hubbub of chatter rose to the ceiling as people surged to the bar to refresh their glasses.

44 Scotland Street
44 Scotland Street

“This is busy for lunchtime,” observed Angus.

“It’s Saturday, of course,” Roger pointed out. “There was a sign outside saying that there was lunchtime music on a Saturday.”

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Angus looked around him. Sister Maria-Fiore dei Fiori di Montagna had moved away from them; she had recognised a young woman at one of the tables and had drawn up a chair to engage her and her companions in conversation.

“Sister Maria-Fiore,” observed Roger, “seems to know everybody – everywhere. Look at that.”

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Angus suggested that he should buy the two of them a drink and that they might leave any watching of Fat Bob to Sister Maria-Fiore. He was increasingly uncomfortable about following Bob, which seemed to him to be an increasingly pointless exercise. They had already confirmed beyond any doubt that Bob was seeing another woman, and that they were spending at least part of their Saturday together. That, surely, was all Sister Maria-Fiore needed to know if she was intending to raise the matter with Big Lou or – and this was a possibility, he supposed – if she were thinking of tackling Fat Bob over it. Either way, Angus wanted no further part in the affair. He would give Big Lou whatever support he could, but he did not think it was in any way appropriate for him to act as an unofficial enquiry agent. Sister Maria-Fiore obviously delighted in poking her nose into the business of others, and he suspected that she was, in that respect, largely incorrigible. He would not try to dissuade her from unwanted interventions: sooner or later, people like that simply moved on to pastures new. She might even return to Italy, having conquered at least the foothills of Scottish society, if not its highest peaks. Presumably there was plenty for her to do in Italy with its elaborate and at times arcane social and political reaches.

Angus returned with a glass of low-alcohol beer for both of them, and they toasted one another and, in her absence, Sister Maria-Fiore dei Fiori di Montagna.

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“What were we talking about before we were interrupted?” Angus asked.

“National sagas,” said Roger.

“Ah yes,” said Angus. “I was burdening you with my quest for a great theme.”

“I’m sure it will come,” said Roger. “But in the meantime . . .”

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A man sitting on a bench seat next to their table leaned across and introduced himself. “You here for the singing?” he asked.

Angus nodded. He could hardly explain that they were there in the course of a tawdry exercise in shadowing an errant Highland games strongman.

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“We get a lot of people coming down to listen to these boys,” he said, nodding in the direction of the band. “They’re local, you see, but they’re building up a great reputation. They were singing up in Ullapool last week and next week they’ll be over in Antrim for some sort of festival. They’re well on their way now.”

Angus said that he particularly liked The Shoals of Herring.

“Aye, me too,” said the man, who now introduced himself as Will. “Anything to do with the sea.”

“You were at sea?” asked Roger.

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Will nodded. “Ben Line,” he said. “And then I spent fifteen years down in New Zealand. The Cook Islands. A couple of years in Singapore. I was on the engineering side.”

“You’ve seen it all,” said Angus. “I’ve been nowhere, really. Italy, I suppose, and one or two other places, but I’ve hardly seen the world.”

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Will grinned. “I’m not sure how much you’ve missed,” he said. “People are people wherever you go. The scenery changes a bit, of course, but there are the same old problems wherever you go.”

Angus said, “I know what you mean. I used to be an idealist – I’m not sure if I still am.” He paused. “Although I hope I’m not becoming cynical.”

“You can be a realist without being cynical,” Will said. “But look, the boys are going to play again.”

The bearded musicians picked up their instruments again. There was a quick consultation between them, and then a nod of the head from their leader. “Mist-Covered Mountains,” he announced to the audience.

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Will smiled. “That tune gets to me right here,” he said, placing his hand over his heart. “That tune . . .” He shook his head. “I love this country, you know. I’ve been all over the world, as I was telling you, but it’s always Scotland that . . .”

He did not finish – nor did he need to, as Angus knew what he meant.

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The band began to play. Will turned to Angus, “You know anybody here?” he asked.

Angus was about to say no, when he stopped himself. “Just one or two,” he said. “Fat Bob over there, for instance.”

Will’s gaze crossed the room. “Oh yes, I’ve known him for a long time. And his missus over there.”

Angus caught his breath. “Her?”

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“Aye,” said Will. “That’s Bob’s wife, Betty. They married about six years ago.”

Angus felt his heart thudding within him. The outrage; the outrage. “A good marriage?” he asked.

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“Well, he’s still with her,” said Will. “I suppose that says something.”

Roger had been listening to the music and had not heard this conversation. Now Angus leaned over and, still in a state of shock, whispered to him, “Fat Bob is very uxorious. More so than average, if you get what I mean.”

Of course Roger did. He gasped. Angus closed his eyes. This was far messier than he had imagined – so much so that even Mist-Covered Mountains failed to distract him from the blanket of gloom – and distaste – that descended on him: a melody of longing can so easily become a lament: only a few notes, here and there, can make the difference. Will’s casual disclosure had changed everything: this was no longer a private matter between Big Lou and her husband – if you could still call him that, which, legally, Angus thought, you probably could not.© 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