Scotland Street Volume 16, Chapter 55: The talented Mr Borthwick

Bruce travelled back to Edinburgh three days later, catching a bus from Elgin that swept him swiftly down the Forth Crossing and then on into Edinburgh. His farewell to Brother Gregory was an emotional one, as Bruce found it difficult to contain the gratitude he felt for the vision of peace and purpose that he had glimpsed during his few short days at the abbey.

44 Scotland Street
44 Scotland Street

“It doesn’t take long, does it, to see where we’ve been going wrong with our lives,” said Brother Gregory. “Sometimes it comes very quickly indeed, as it has in your case. It’s like a tropical dawn – the sun comes up very quickly.” He paused. “Not that I have ever been in the tropics, although Brother Barnabas told me about that. He said dawn and dusk are very quick in those latitudes. They fall like curtains.”

Bruce struggled for words. “I don’t know what to say,” he began. “I think . . .”

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Brother Gregory rested his hand on Bruce’s forearm. “We don’t always need to say anything, you know. Far too much of our time is spent saying things we really don’t need to say.”

Bruce nodded. “Then I won’t say anything.”

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Brother Gregory smiled. “Although I think I know what you might say – were you to say anything. And for that, all I would say – were I to say anything – which I won’t necessarily do – is thank you.”

And now Bruce’s bus rolled into St Andrew’s Square Bus Station, where the hissing doors opened to allow the passengers to alight. Having given away his possessions at Pluscarden in that initial spurt of generosity, Bruce had only a small linen tote-bag with him. He remembered, as he walked down Broughton Street, that he no longer had a computer. He had not felt the need for it at Pluscarden – now he would have to see whether he could survive in Edinburgh without being online. I can, he thought. I must. Do I really need email? Do I really need to spend my time scrolling through social media posts about nothing? The answer he gave to both of these – a clear no – made him feel lighter. It was as if a burden had been removed from his shoulders – the burden of worrying about what other people were thinking.

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He reached the shared outer door of his flat. He had no key, and he realised that he had left that in the suitcase that he had given away at Pluscarden. That did not matter. If you did not need emails and social media, then you didn’t necessarily need a key.

He pressed the bell – the bell that bore his name – and after a few moments a woman’s voice responded.

“It’s me,” said Bruce.

There was a brief silence. Then the woman said, “Who’s me?”

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“Bruce. Bruce Anderson. I live here.”


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“Yes. That’s my flat.”

There was a further silence, and then the buzzer that released the door sounded. “Just come right up,” said the disembodied female voice.

The door of the flat was open by the time Bruce reached the landing. Standing there was a young woman wearing dark jeans and a white linen top. She was nervously fingering a necklace of wooden beads.

“Hi, Bruce,” she said. “Borthy said he wasn’t expecting you. He wondered if you could come back maybe tomorrow morning . . .”

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Bruce frowned. “But this is my place,” he said.

“So, you’re Borthy’s flatmate: he said something about you, come to think of it.”

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Bruce took a step forward. She did not seek to impede him. “Borthy?” he called out.

“He’s in the kitchen,” the young woman said.

Bruce strode down the corridor that led to the kitchen. He went in and stopped short.

“Bruce!” exclaimed Borthy. “Great to see you. I didn’t know . . .”

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Bruce took in his old friend’s appearance. He recognised the jeans; he recognised the shirt – a green linen one he had bought a couple of years ago. He recognised the wristwatch.

“I see you’ve made yourself at home,” said Bruce.

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Borthy hesitated. Then he said, “You asked me to, you know.”

Bruce turned away, and went into the living room next door.

“Where’s my turntable, Borthy? You know the one – the special hi-fi.” It had cost three thousand pounds. It had a very well-balanced arm.

“Ah,” said Borthy. “Well, actually . . .”

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“You’ve nicked it?” asked Bruce.

“Nicked? Of course not. I’d never nick your gear, Bruce – you know that.”

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“Then where is it?”

“I lent it to a guy who likes these things.”

“Which guy?”

“Oh, a guy called Vince. He lives down in Trinity. You don’t know him. He’s got a lot of vinyl.”

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The young woman now came into the living room. “You met Clare?” asked Borthy.

Bruce nodded.

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“Borthy tells me you guys had been sharing since he bought the flat,” Clare said.

Bruce glanced at Borthy, who looked away. Clare stared at Bruce, briefly, and then at Borthy.

“Yes,” said Bruce. “Quite some time.”

Borthy looked back at Bruce.

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Bruce said, “And you guys? How did you meet?”

“Online,” said Borthy. “Like everybody does these days.”

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Bruce nodded. Then, to Borthy, he said, “I thought I might come back here and stay – if that’s all right with you, Borthy.”

Borthy’s relief was obvious. “Oh, that would be fine, Bruce. Just fine. Clare’s got her own place, you see, down near Canonmills.”

“Nice,” said Bruce.

“Very,” said Clare.

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Clare went back into the kitchen. Bruce turned to Borthy. “I don’t mind your staying on for a while,” he said quietly. “If you need to.”

“Jeez, Bruce,” said Borthy. “You’re a real pal.”

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Bruce gestured towards the kitchen. “You’re lucky, Borthy. She’s quite a looker, isn’t she?”

Borthy seemed to inflate with pride. “Worth waiting for,” he said. “I never had much luck with girls, you know, Bruce. Not until now.”

Bruce smiled. “The right setting can help, can’t it?”

He turned away, to stare out of the window, down onto the street below. It was better to forgive – much better. One of the books he had read at Pluscarden had said something about that. And it was right. He forgave Borthy, and he was pleased that Borthy had found a girlfriend – at long last. He felt better – so much so that he laughed, quietly, and to himself. It was very funny. He had been struck by lightning; he had drifted off to a monastery of all places; he had met a man in the garden and had discussed garlic; he had listened to a man from Trinidad talk about how we needed to engage with the world. All of this had happened to him. He had dreamed none of it. It was real.© 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