Scotland Street Volume 16, Chapter 49: Lion-tamers, change, truth

That morning, as Bruce stood in the vegetable garden at Pluscarden talking to Jimmy about garlic and growth and French philosophers, in the house at Nine Mile Burn Matthew was struggling to dress Tobermory, Rognvald and Fergus. It was an almost impossible task, as no sooner did he get one garment onto one of the boys and turn to clothe the next, than the first one would wander off, half-clad, to do something else, and would have to be hauled back for the donning of further clothes. And even when shirts and shorts had been located and put on, there would be the question of shoes, which were never in the right place, or were unevenly matched, with the result that three left shoes would be found with one right shoe, or vice versa. On the average day, preparing the triplets for any outing took at least twenty minutes, which was quite long enough for even the most patient of parents to lose his or her temper and end up shouting at a recalcitrant small boy.

44 Scotland Street
44 Scotland Street

Fortunately, James was due to come on duty, and when he did, the whole business became much more efficient. Now he took over, and succeeded in getting the boys to co-operate without so much as raising his voice. Matthew watched in complete admiration.

“I don’t know how on earth you do it,” he complimented James. “I imagine that lion-taming would be easier than getting these three to stand still for two minutes.”

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James laughed. “I went to a circus in France once,” he said. “I was just thirteen. They had two lions. You could have wild animals in French circuses until very recently. Now they’re illegal.”

“And a good thing too,” said Matthew. “I don’t like the idea of forcing animals to perform for people. It’s humiliating. Cruel.”

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“I agree,” said James. “But at thirteen or whatever I didn’t think that. I just remember being thrilled by the sight of the lions. I remember the lion-tamer quite vividly. He had a superb French moustache – you know the sort – twirled up at the end. And one eye.”

“And a whip?”

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“Yes. A whip. Top hat. The works.”

“And the lions?”

“They were very moth-eaten. They roared when he cracked his whip at them, but they seemed really bored with proceedings. And I noticed a really odd thing: one of the lions also only had one eye. I didn’t spot it at first, but then he jumped off a stool that he was being made to sit on and ran round the edge of the bars around the ring. I had a good view of him and I saw that on one side there was just an empty socket.”

“What a poignant image,” said Matthew. “This lion-tamer . . .”

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James interrupted him. “He looked so sad. I noticed it and I felt so sorry for him. I remember thinking – even though, as I say, I was only thirteen – that he looked totally discouraged. At that age you think that most adults are happy with what they do, but I remember thinking this man is unhappy.”

“Perhaps he knew that it was all coming to an end,” said Matthew. “Perhaps he knew that the writing was on the wall for lion-tamers and that his career was almost over. What do you do if you’ve trained as a lion-tamer and then, suddenly, thanks to–—”

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“It was President Macron,” said James “He was the one who brought about the ban.”

“All right, so you think, Thanks to President Macron, it’s all coming to an end. You might be expected to feel sad.”

Matthew thought about this. “Conditions change. There must be lots of people who find their jobs disappear because there’s a change in the law – or in technology. The people who made vinyl records must have thought that way when CDs first came in. They must have said to themselves, We never saw this coming.”

“Of course, they’re back, aren’t they? Vinyl has returned.”

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“To an extent,” said Matthew. “But what about coal miners? They saw their livelihood come to an end when they closed the pits.”

“I suppose so,” said James. “And I read somewhere that some of the miners spent their redundancy money on buying video rental shops. And then . . .”

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Matthew sighed. “That was very bad luck. Whole communities disappeared. Families that had been doing the same thing for generations saw their whole world dismantled. I can understand how bitter they must have felt.” He paused. “But does it make sense to encourage people to do things that we no longer need?”

James shook his head. “Probably not. And yet . . .”

“Would you send fishermen out to sea after fish that are no longer there?”

“No,” said James. “But that doesn’t mean I wouldn’t feel for the fishermen.”

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“And so you should,” said Matthew.

Now, he watched James taking the rumbustious triplets in hand while he went into the kitchen to prepare a breakfast tray for Elspeth. She had slept in, and he had not disturbed her though it was almost eleven. He had promised her breakfast in bed, as she was still feeling some discomfort from her injured rib, even though the worst of the pain seemed to be over.

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He took the tray in and balanced it on her bedside table. “Here we are,” he said. “Two boiled eggs. Toast. Marmite, of course. And a bowl of that disgusting sweetened muesli you like so much.”

She looked at him fondly. “You spoil me,” she said.

And he noticed that as she said this a strange look crossed her face. He hesitated for a moment before he said, “You look unhappy.”

She stared at the tray. She was avoiding looking at him.

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Then she said, “I’m unhappy about not having told you the truth.”

He stood quite still. Outside, somewhere in the distance, somebody was cutting wood with a chainsaw. Trees were always falling down, he thought – incongruously; branches came down; whole trees came down. And then his neighbour, a man who liked to fly microlight aircraft at East Fortune airfield, would go out with his chainsaw and salvage the timber as firewood. And there he was at it, right now, as Elspeth confessed that she had kept from Matthew the truth of what she had been doing immediately before her accident on Colinton Road.

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He simply said, “I knew. I knew all along that you weren’t telling me something.”

She gave a start; a stab of pain from her fractured rib made her cry out.

He said, “Darling, darling. Don’t. Don’t make it worse. Your rib. Don’t.”© 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