Scotland Street Volume 16, Chapter 51: Vitamin D: a national issue

Angus made lists for himself only on those occasions when there were things to be done that he did not want to do. Those tasks to which he looked forward never required to be listed, and were always tackled promptly; they were never shelved. That, he decided, required no complicated psychological explanation: by and large, unless we were exceptional – and he readily admitted that he was not – we did what we wanted to do, and we looked for, and frequently found, reasons why we should not do what we did not want to do. Or we simply forgot to do those things, which pointed to another truth of psychology: human memory is quite capable of operating on a selective basis, enabling us to forget that which we want to forget and to remember, often with striking clarity, that which we want to remember.

44 Scotland Street
44 Scotland Street

That is what Angus thought of the matter, although, being a modest man and having a strong distaste for the doctrinaire, he was prepared to accept that he might be wrong and that things might be the exact opposite of the way he imagined them to be. It was possible then, he admitted, that he was wrong even about contemporary conceptual art, and that, far from being a celebration of banality, awards in that field were a recognition of real, even if very successfully hidden, talent in painting or sculpture. Perhaps those who were considered for such attention really could paint, but had simply not got round to it, or had forgotten to do so, and had simply engaged in the rearrangement of objects out of absent-mindedness. That was possible, Angus admitted, although he thought it unlikely.

But that morning, as he lingered over a cup of coffee in the flat at 44 Scotland Street, with Cyril at his feet, half-asleep in the shaft of warm sunlight that bathed this particular section of floor, Angus was making a list on the back of a small scrap of paper – a receipt that Domenica had obtained from the local pharmacy when she had purchased – he noticed – a supply of vitamin D tablets and a shower cap. Angus was indifferent to shower caps – men so frequently are, although Angus had a friend, a resolutely new man, who wore a shower cap, he had told him, out of a sense of solidarity. Patriarchy, he had explained, would be undermined if more men wore shower caps and Angus thought that was probably true. He himself did not like patriarchal attitudes, the defeat of which he had always welcomed – if anybody ran their household and made the decisions, it was Domenica, and Angus was grateful that she did this, as she did it so much better than he would.

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His thoughts turned to vitamin D. Domenica had said something about it the other day, and he was trying to remember what it was. It was something she had read about in the newspaper, although he could not recall exactly what she had said. Was it that everybody in Scotland had a vitamin D deficiency? That rang a vague bell, and he himself had heard somebody talking about that over lunch one day in the Scottish Arts Club. Or had they said that everybody in the Scottish Arts Club was deficient in vitamin D, rather than everybody in Scotland? There was a difference, of course. It had something to do with exposure to sunlight, he seemed to remember. And there you could see that Scotland had a problem.

Some people, it had to be said, got all their vitamin D, or rather more than their fair share. Because of the fact that the Earth was tilted in a particular way, people in the south of Italy enjoyed rather more sunlight than those in the central belt of Scotland and, a fortiori, those who lived north of Inverness. Of course, you only had to look at southern Italians to see that they were not vitamin D deficient. There was something about them – a sort of glow – that was suggestive of adequate vitamin D: and the same went for their music, too, which had that infectious, vitamin D gaiety to it. Listen to a Neapolitan song and you knew that you were in strong vitamin D territory; whereas, a lament on the pipes, Lochaber No More, for example, left you in no doubt at all on the inadequacy of vitamin D levels in the Western Highlands.

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He thought about lunch at the Scottish Arts Club, and remembered that he had seen something on the table that he assumed was a salt cellar but that did not appear to produce salt when shaken over the roast potatoes accompanying his lamb chop. Angus had examined the fine white powder this shaker produced, and had tasted it on the tip of his tongue. He had been puzzled because it did not taste salty, and he had drawn the attention of his lunch companions to the issue. They had been only slightly interested, one of them suggesting that the shaker contained salt-free salt, the latest thing to be proposed as an aid to a healthy diet. That was possible, Angus agreed, although another member had raised the possibility that it could be fluoride, which was important for strong teeth. But would the catering committee of the Scottish Arts Club have taken upon itself to dose the members with fluoride without first asking their permission? There were issues there, Angus thought.

Now it occurred to him that the white powder could well have been vitamin D, which the committee, quite rightly, might want to make available to the members on an optional basis. Nobody was suggesting that anybody should be obliged to take vitamin D supplements; putting the vitamin in a shaker on the table was, of course, only an invitation and involved no personal liberty issues.

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He looked at the receipt on which he was about to write his list. What had Domenica done with the vitamin D she had purchased from the pharmacy? Was she proposing to use it all herself, to a sort of vitamin D advantage or edge, or was it for him too? Had she put it in the bowl of porridge he had enjoyed for his breakfast?

She was there in the kitchen with him, and he asked her.

She looked at him blankly. “Vitamin D?” And then she remembered. “Oh yes, I bought a vitamin D supplement. I think we should take it. I was reading the other day that everybody in Scotland should be taking a vitamin D supplement.”

“Don’t feel too much pressure to conform,” said Angus, and then laughed. “No, I think it’s a good idea – if, indeed, we need it.”

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“We do,” said Domenica. “And we shall start this morning.”

“After my coffee,” said Angus.© 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