Scotland Street Volume 16, Chapter 7: Borthy arrives

Poor Borthy, thought Bruce, as he heard his old friend come up the final stairs to his landing. Poor Borthy, with his wistful look and his perpetual air of injured longing – as if he knew that he was missing out on so much.

44 Scotland Street
44 Scotland Street

There had been a time when Bruce had been bemused by that – Borthy was a loser, poor fellow, and the world was full of people like him . . . wall-to-wall losers as Bruce had once put it – and laughed at the pithiness of his observation – but he would no longer find that sort of thing amusing, because this was the new Bruce, who inexplicably felt quite different about people like Borthy Borthwick . . . Except that in reality the change was not so inexplicable: that extraordinary event in Dundas Street – that ultimate electrifying moment, as it had been described – had been the beginning of a new chapter in Bruce’s life, a chapter of which the full implications were only now beginning to become apparent.

Bruce opened the door to a grinning Borthy Borthwick. It was a very particular sort of grin – almost apologetic – and it brought back so much, from such a long time ago: Borthy standing on the sidelines at the tennis club, waiting for an invitation to play mixed doubles – an invitation that rarely came his way, and then only to play with the novices; Borthy at some birthday dance at the Hydro, wearing a kilt and Prince Charlie jacket when everybody else was in jeans; Borthy, as a boy of eight, being rescued in the swimming pool during the boys’ under-ten one hundred metres breaststroke when he had swallowed water and somehow lost his way while traversing the pool.

“Yo, Bruce!” said Borthy.

Bruce smiled. Nobody said yo anymore, but Borthy was the sort of person who would start saying yo well after everyone else and continue to say it for years after everyone had stopped saying it. This, however, was the new Bruce, and so rather than reply, sarcastically, Yo yourself, he said, in a voice devoid of any irony, “Yo, there, Borthy.”

Borthy began a high five. Bruce swallowed. Borthy obviously did not know that you never did high fives in the Edinburgh New Town; you just did not. What, after all, was the point of conserving such a large area of Georgian architecture if people were going to walk around saying yo in it and giving each other high fives? But, once again, not wishing to embarrass Borthy he responded with the appropriate gesture.

“Good to see you, Borthy,” he said. “Come in.”

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“Thanks,” said Borthy, gazing at Bruce in admiration. “How are you doing, Bruce?”

Bruce nodded. “I’m alive,” he said.

Borthy nodded. “Aren’t we all?”

They went into Bruce’s living room.

“Cool,” said Borthy, looking about him. “This is really cool, Bruce.”

Bruce tried not to wince. Poor Borthy; he always got the words wrong. He tried so hard, but somehow . . . “Yah,” said Bruce. “It’s done me fine.” Done . . . He had thought that his flat was ideal, and he had been proud of it, but life was different now. He no longer needed all this – this surround-sound stereo system, this minimalist post-IKEA furniture from the Danish Living shop in Bruntsfield, this large Bellany watercolour of a seagull sitting on a sailor’s shoulder that he had bought in an auction at Lyon & Turnbull; this plaster head of Athene he had brought back from Lefkas a few years previously when he had gone on an Ionian Sailing Adventure cruise with those girls he had met in the Cumberland Bar. None of that meant much to him now, even if it was capable of impressing – as it clearly did – somebody like Borthy Borthwick.

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“I’ll show you where everything is,” he said. “You’ll need to know, if you’re going to be living here. Kitchen things. Detergent. Bin liners and so on.”

Borthy looked apologetic. “I wasn’t planning to use your stuff, Bruce. I’ll be buying my own.”

Bruce shook his head. “You’re going to be my guest, Borthy. You can use anything you find in this place – food, bed linen, drink – anything. What’s mine is yours. Even my clothes – if they fit.”

Borthy swallowed. He was at a loss for words. “Jeez,” he said, his voice cracking with emotion.

“That’s what friends are for,” Bruce said.

Borthy looked puzzled. “You didn’t tell me where you were going. You said up north somewhere . . .”

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“Yes,” said Bruce. “Up north. I’m going to a monastery up there.”

Borthy struggled with this. “Work?”

Bruce looked away. Borthy was so slow on the uptake, he thought; why would anybody go to a monastery for work? But then he reminded himself: it was wrong to to be impatient with people like Borthy, who had only managed to get a degree in media studies, or something like that, from some third-rate university in England somewhere – a place that Bruce had never even heard of, although he thought that there was an airport there. Perhaps the airport and the university were one and the same place. Was there a Heathrow University? Hah! thought Bruce. BA (Heathrow). Hah!

But then he stopped himself. That was unkind – and that was not the way he thought now. Not after Dundas Street. The new me, he thought, doesn’t mock people who have degrees in media studies, even if most of them are real thickos. He stopped himself again: he should not use that word, which was so unkind. Thickos are my brothers, he thought. That sounded more like it.

Borthy waited.

“Actually,” said Bruce. “I’m going to spend some time there.”

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“How long?” asked Borthy.

Bruce shrugged. “A year? Five years? The rest of my life?”

Borthy laughed. “Oh, good one, Bruce. You? In a monastery? Yeah, I believe you.”

Bruce fixed him with a stare. “I’m deadly serious, Borthy.”

“But, you . . .What about . . .”

Bruce held Borthy’s puzzled gaze. “What about what?”

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Borthy looked embarrassed. “What about . . . you know?”

Bruce bit his lip. Is that what I’ve become? He asked himself. Is that what people think of me? Bruce Anderson, the Lothario? Is that what I am in the eyes of others? He felt shame, and it burned about him: it was a new sensation for Bruce, and it was surprisingly painful.

“That’s all in the past,” he said quietly.

Borthy said nothing for a while. Was this new Bruce Anderson the real Bruce Anderson? he asked himself.

“You mean you . . . ?”

Bruce raised a finger in a gesture of silence. “All over, Borthy. Past tense. Finito. Light seen.”

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Borthy let out a long low whistle. Then he muttered, “Jeez,” softly, before adding, “What happened?”

He wondered whether Bruce had taken something. Perhaps he was having medical treatment and all this was a side effect. How else might one explain it? How else?

© 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