Scotland Street Volume 16, Chapter 58: Glasgow is our only hope

They had prepared the canapés for the guests who were coming to Angus and Domenica’s buffet dinner. Now, everyone had arrived, and the flat was a hubbub of conversation. Nobody turned down an invitation to these dinners in Scotland Street, where the conversation could go off in the most unexpected and engaging directions, and where the hosts’ generosity with food and wine was unsurpassed. People looked forward to Angus’s recital of a new poem – a fixed feature of these gatherings, even if the poet himself had to be prompted into recitation. They enjoyed, too, the telling of the same stories by the same guests, as we all do, for none of us, if we are being honest, wants to hear anything new from our friends. Friendship, after all, is founded on recognition and the comfort of familiarity.

44 Scotland Street
44 Scotland Street

The first to arrive had been Sister Maria-Fiore dei Fiore di Montagna and her friend and confidante, Antonia Collie. They always arrived early, in order, Domenica once said, to ensure that they had more than their fair share of canapés and, indeed, of anything else that was going.

“You must have lived well in that convent of yours in Tuscany,” Domenica observed to Sister Maria-Fiore, as the socialite nun piled her plate high with oat cakes, cheese-straws, and small pieces of Parma ham skewered on cocktail sticks.

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“Not really,” said Sister Maria-Fiore. “We cured our own ham, though. Sister Maria-Stellata was a very good shot. She used to stalk wild boars in the woods on the hill above the convent. The man who drove our tractor would go up and pull the carcases down on a sort of wooden sled he made. They were very large, those wild boars. Then Sister Maria-Stellata would cut them up and start curing the hams.” She paused. “There’s much that I miss about the religious life, but I have my work to do here in Scotland, and I must be strong.”

“Your work . . .” Domenica began. She changed her mind, and rather than try to elicit information about what Sister Maria-Fiore dei Fiori di Montagna actually did, she asked after Big Lou. Angus had told her that Sister Maria-Fiore had gone to see Big Lou in her coffee bar and had told her that her fears – and those expressed by others too – were baseless.

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“I saw Big Lou a couple of days ago,” said Sister Maria-Fiore. “I was able to tell her that her concerns over her new husband were entirely without foundation. She thought he was seeing another woman. And we ourselves thought for a while that this other woman was actually his wife. Happily, that proved not to be true – as further enquiries on my part revealed. I spoke to some of her neighbours down there.”

Domenica waited for the explanation to be continued.

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“They told me,” Sister Maria-Fiore went on, “that this woman was his wife, but she was his ex-wife – they divorced, amicably, a couple of years ago. She drank, apparently, although she’s got that under control now. Bob was seeing her, but only out of decency towards one to whom he had once been married. She – the ex-wife – I’m happy to say, has found a new partner, but he’s gone off to work in Nigeria for three months – he’s one of these oil men – and Bob’s ex-wife had gone down with depression. She’s been a bit fragile, and so Bob very decently has been seeing a bit of her to cheer her up – helping her out. He’s a good man, you see.”

“I’m delighted to hear that,” said Domenica. “I do like to hear of people doing generous things. I know that sounds, well, a bit sentimental, because I know that the world is a vale of tears etc, but . . .”

“You shouldn’t be ashamed of thinking that,” said Sister Maria-Fiore. “And you’ve heard, I take it, about Irene. She’s staying with us at the moment, but I imagine she’ll be moving back into Scotland Street.”

Domenica nodded. Irene and Stuart had been invited, but had not yet arrived. “I did hear something to that effect.”

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“He went on a date with her,” Sister Maria-Fiore dei Fiori di Montagna continued. “It was a mistake, but apparently it worked out rather well.”

“I hope so,” said Domenica. “I still have some doubts when it comes to Irene. And I gather that Nicola is also a bit cautious about it. I suppose it’s a question of whether leopards can change their spots. Can they?”

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“We shall see,” said Sister Maria-Fiore dei Fiori di Montagna. “We should, in general, give leopards every opportunity. Besides, I feel we shall see what there is to be seen, even if we do not see what is not.”

“True,” said Domenica, frowning slightly, and then added, “Very true, I suppose.”

More guests arrived. Roger Collins and Judith McClure arrived with a large bunch of flowers for Domenica and a tub of olives for Angus. They quickly became involved in conversation with James Holloway, who showed them a copy of a book he had written about his collection of paintings. Angus’s friend, Colin Mumford, arrived with a picture of a motorbike he was hoping to buy from its owner, who had tired of biking and had bought a three-wheeled Morgan sports car with a wooden frame. Several members of the Scottish Arts Club had been invited too, and all came, including the dentist who all those years ago had given Cyril his gold tooth. Outside, away from the crowd, seated on the stone stair, Bertie talked to his friend, Ranald Braveheart Macpherson.

“We’re lucky to be alive, Ranald,” he said. “Olive and Pansy could have killed us all.”

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“You were really kind to take the blame, Bertie,” said Ranald. “I think that’s why I like you, you know – because you’re really kind.”

“That’s good of you to say that, Ranald,” replied Bertie, and then changed the subject, as he was modest and did not want to talk about himself. He said, “Do you think we could go to Glasgow again one day, Ranald?”

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“I’m sure we can,” said Ranald. “Glasgow is our only hope, Bertie.”

Inside, Angus had risen to recite his poem, having been asked to do so by James, and others.

“This is a short poem,” he said. “But sometimes what you want to say is best said in a few words. Shall I read it?”

“You must,” said James and Roger, almost simultaneously.

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Angus began:

Our life is a short one, or so we’re told:

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Youth, middle-age, and then we’re old,

The world we occupy is so small,

A fragile planet is our all;

But I raise my eyes to survey a sky

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That goes on forever, blue and high,

Beside that immensity, what are we?

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Two people in love, my dear, you and me,

Two people in love, my dear, you and me.

He stopped. Nobody spoke. Angus looked at Domenica. She looked back at him, and smiled.© 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