Scotland Street Volume 16, Chapter 52: Angus makes a list

As it turned out, the list that Angus made was a short one: containing only one item – that of a proposed visit to Sister Maria-Fiore dei Fiori di Montagna in the Drummond Place flat she shared with Antonia Collie and now, on a temporary basis, with Irene. Angus was not looking forward to this visit – hence the need for its inclusion on a list – and yet he felt that he could not leave things where they were. As it was, he and Roger had extracted themselves from The Flenser in Leith, leaving Sister Maria-Fiore there in deep conversation with a small group of the bar’s habitués. These locals had been delighted to welcome the unlikely visitor to their company, and had formed a tight and attentive ring about her, listening to her account of a trip she had made a few years earlier to Palermo and the ancient sites of Sicily. She would make her own way home, she said to Angus.

44 Scotland Street
44 Scotland Street

And he believed that she had done that safely enough, as he had seen her the following day walking through Drummond Place when he was exercising Cyril in the gardens. She had waved cheerily, but had not stopped to converse, and he had consequently remained in the dark as to whether she had managed to elicit any further information about Fat Bob and his woman friend.

Not that there was much more to find out, Angus imagined. The whole story had a tawdry familiarity: a selfish man had persuaded a good woman to marry him but had been unwilling to divest himself of an existing lover – or, in his case – and this made all the moral difference – an existing wife. It was just so sad that this had happened to Big Lou, who so deserved to find the happiness that came with a stable relationship. But life was unfair; it was monstrously unfair, and although we might rail against such things, we would never be able to change them. The ancient Greeks, Angus thought, understood that well enough. They never expected the gods to behave in anything but a petulant way, handing out undeserved punishment with little thought as to true desert. People should pay more attention to classical antiquity, Angus felt; they should try to understand that there are still echoes of that ancient order in our modern world; after all, the Greek ideal, or one understanding of it, was there in Edinburgh, in the very buildings. Where else was there an unfinished Parthenon on a hill, a monument to unfinished projects everywhere – a tribute to people who started something and then ran out of money, or ideas, or energy?

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He sighed. He would have to go to see Sister Maria-Fiore dei Fiori di Montagna and discuss with her what they should do with the information they had obtained. Any approach to Big Lou would need to be made with tact, a quality with which he was not sure Sister Mari-Fiore was over-endowed. He could well imagine her bursting in with a vivid description of Fat Bob’s blatant consorting in public with another woman. He could picture her saying to Big Lou that she should immediately expel him from their flat. He could even imagine the nun confronting Fat Bob himself and giving her a piece of her mind, unfiltered by considerations of what might be done to salvage the relationship.

He discussed the matter with Domenica, who agreed that he should seek out Sister Maria-Fiore before deciding what to say to Big Lou.

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“I agree with you about that woman,” she said. “She has her good points, but I’m sorry to have to say this: she is such an . . . an interferer.”

“Yes,” said Angus. “Do you know there’s an old Scots expression for somebody who interferes with another’s business? It’s a Scots law term – a vitious intromitter. My uncle was a solicitor in Aberfeldy and he told me about it. A vitious intromitter is somebody who deals with the goods in a deceased estate without authority. Isn’t that a lovely expression? So useful when dealing with people like Sister Maria-Fiore dei Fiori di Montagna.”

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“Perhaps she’s changed,” said Domenica. “I mean, people might be vitious intromitters and then suddenly they realise the error of their ways.”

Angus looked doubtful. “And I’m not sure if people change all that much.”

Domenica frowned. “Do you really think that?”

Angus nodded.

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“What about Irene?” asked Domenica. “I heard from Nicola that Irene has changed considerably. And that young surveyor, Bruce . . . You know, the one with the face.”

Angus smiled at the expression. Domenica had a few endearing verbal quirks, one of which was to describe any good-looking person as “the one with the face”. “Bruce Anderson? Yes, but he was struck by lightning.”

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“And Irene?”

Angus shrugged. “Are you sure she’s changed?”

Domenica hesitated. “No, I’m not sure, I suppose. But I think there’s a certain amount of evidence in that direction.”

“But the jury’s still out?”

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“Possibly.”

Angus left the flat. When he emerged on Scotland Street, he looked up the hill towards Drummond Place at the end of the street. We are so lucky, he thought. We live on a cobbled street in a city so beautiful it breaks the heart. And there are trees in the distance and all about us are buildings that look as if they are part of an opera set. We are so lucky.

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He looked up. A window had been opened on the top floor of the neighbouring tenement. A head poked out and suddenly a tenor voice could be heard. It was an aria from Pagliacci, or was it Cavalleria Rusticana? Did it matter? Angus drew in his breath.

He walked up the street and, at the top, turned into Drummond Place. Antonia’s flat was only a few doors away. Now he stood before her front door. A small brass plate by the bell announced Collie. A further plate, placed slightly underneath, bore the name Fiori di Montagna. Did Sister Maria-Fiore consider that to be her surname? Nuns tended not to use family names, but the postman had to have something to go on.

She rang the bell, and waited. After a couple of minutes, the door was opened and Antonia stood before him. She looked slightly peevish.

“Oh,” she said. “It’s only you.” And then, with a glance over his shoulder, added, “How disappointing.”

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Angus could not help but show his surprise. “You’re so kind,” he said.

“Oh, I’m sorry,” said Antonia. “I was hoping for a delivery. I didn’t mean to sound unwelcoming.”

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Angus inquired whether Sister Maria-Fiore was in.

“She is,” said Antonia. “And I think she’ll be pleased to see you. She has something that she wants to tell you.” She paused. “Not that the dear botanical one ever tells me anything.”

Angus tried to look sympathetic. It was a mystery to him how Antonia put up with Sister Maria-Fiore dei Fiori di Montagna. He wouldn’t. Not for ten minutes. But then, he thought, people looked for different things in life, and perhaps Antonia had, at some deep level, a need for constant exposure to aphorism.© 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