Scotland Street Volume 16, Chapter 50: Waterfalls, Scotland, everything

Elspeth’s confession was over very quickly. She expected it to be followed by silence and reproach, which was Matthew’s normal reaction when he felt wronged, but, in the event, there was neither of these. Instead, he blamed himself: he had not given her time to tell him what had happened; he had no right to tell her not to ask her cousin about what she knew, and he was sorry; he had himself been suspicious of her – with no justification, of course; she was completely blameless – and so on, until Elspeth, having had enough, simply raised a hand and said, “Let’s draw a line right there. There’s no more to be said.” And then, before Matthew could protest that his apology had hardly begun, she went on, “My rib is getting better, but the last thing I need – the very last thing – is a long-drawn-out discussion of who said what or who thought what – or anything like that.”

44 Scotland Street
44 Scotland Street

He did not press the matter. “So . . .” he began.

“So, I should get out of bed. I was told that I needed to get back on my feet.” She gestured towards her breakfast tray. “I can have that later on.”

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He looked concerned. “Are you up to getting out of bed?”

She answered by throwing off the sheet under which she had been sleeping and swung her legs over the side of the mattress. She gave the slightest of winces, and then rose to her feet. “You see,” she said. “I’m ready.”

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“For what?” asked Matthew.

“A picnic,” she said. “The boys are with James?”

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“At the activity centre – until three this afternoon.”

“Then we’re free.”

“Yes,” he said. “We are.”

She looked out of the window. The sky over the Borders was empty, except in the far distance, over Biggar, where a few wispy clouds were being chased away by a warm wind from the west. “Let’s go up to that place on the burn. It’s not a long walk. I’ll manage that.”

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“Are you sure? They told you to take things easy.”

“I’ll be fine.”

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He told her that he would make the picnic; that she shouldn’t feel she had to do anything yet – not until her rib had disappeared. She laughed at the expression and found, to her surprise, that she had laughed without pain. “So it is disappearing,” she said.

He had olives and sun-dried tomatoes and some San Daniele ham that Olivia Contini had sliced for him in Elm Row. He had a tub of couscous mixed with diced artichoke hearts and slices of roasted pepper. He had a crusty Puglian loaf. He had apricots and two flat peaches. “What more does one need for a picnic?” he asked.

She laughed again. “You do realise how New Town-ish that sounds? How Mediterranean diet-ish?”

He shrugged. “I’ve never tried to be something I’m not. I’ve never been particularly ashamed of being a bit . . .”

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It was his turn to laugh. “We are, aren’t we?”

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On impulse, she kissed him.

“What was that for?” he asked.

“For being you,” she said.

They left the house on foot. The burn was not far from the house – twenty minutes’ walk in normal circumstances – but now, with Elspeth making her way carefully, not tempting Providence to remind her of her recent injury, it took almost fifty minutes for them to reach the spot they had in mind. Matthew had packed the picnic in a rucksack, which he carried, leaving his hands free to help Elspeth over the rougher ground.

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Their route took them over a field belonging to their neighbour, the man who liked to fly microlight aircraft at East Fortune, the man with the noisy chainsaw. And there he was in the distance, dealing with a branch that had split from one of his trees. Seeing them, the neighbour waved, and then resumed his work.

“It would be better to leave some of those branches,” Matthew remarked to Elspeth. “They provide a home for things that are good for the soil.”

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“You should tell him that,” she suggested. “Perhaps he doesn’t know.”

Matthew shook his head. “You can’t tell anybody anything. Especially your neighbours.”

They arrived at their place beside the burn – their place, because once they had come here with the boys on a particularly hot day and they had all swum in a pool that the burn made when it encountered an outcrop of rock. There they ate their picnic. Elspeth was hungry, having left her breakfast tray untouched. Then they sat, saying nothing until Matthew suddenly reached into his pocket and took out a piece of paper.

“What’s that?” she asked.

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“It’s something Angus gave me. One of his poems. I asked him to write something that I might say to you. He said he would, and he did. He said they were his words, but they were meant to be me talking to you.”

She was immediately intrigued. “Read it to me, then.”

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He began:

I can't help but love you, you see,

I know I should be doing

Something else – anything would do,

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There is a list somewhere,

Scribbled on an envelope;

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I know I should be doing that,

But, instead, I am spending my time

Loving you, thinking about you.

And about what I might say to you,

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If only you would listen to me,

Which you do, sometimes.

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I know I should be doing something

More constructive, I know that;

I know that time is not infinite,

And passes rather quickly,

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Cannot be put in reverse,

Cannot be made larger

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Than it is; you cannot stretch

An hour into a day, a week

Into a month, much as you

Might have ambitions to do just that;

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Nor can you love more suitable people

Than the ones you find yourself

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Loving; love, you see, is not

A matter of choice, it happens to you

Just as you happened to me.

I know it would be better to forget about you,

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But I cannot, I cannot do things that

A reasonable person would do,

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Because it is not reason nor common sense

That makes me feel this about you,

But love, which is something quite different.

And so, dearest one, irreplaceable other

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In my tiny bit of this universe,

Source of meaning in a world

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Which I, like so many,

Occasionally find opaque

And hard to make sense of,

Does it really matter that I continue

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Obstinately and ill-advisedly

To think about you? It does not,

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Because private meaning

Rarely matters to others;

These flowers are for you, these lines,

These thoughts, as is the morning sun

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And evening light, the clear sky,

The beating of the heart, the silent wishes,

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The shared joke, the moment of feeling,

The winds that blow, the healing rain,

The waterfalls, Scotland, everything.© 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