Scotland Street Volume 16, Chapter 8: Changed, changed utterly

“What I’m going to tell you,” Bruce began, “may be difficult to believe, but it’s true, you know. This is absolutely true.” He paused. “But I don’t want too many people to hear about it, if you don’t mind.”

44 Scotland Street
44 Scotland Street

Borthy put a finger to his lips in a gesture of silence. “You can rely on me, Bruce. You know that.”

Bruce did know. At school, Borthy had always had a reputation for discretion, even to the extent of accepting punishment for letting down the geography teacher’s tyres when it was not him but Magnus Stoddart who was responsible. Borthy had known the identity of the true culprit but had declined to incriminate him. That respect for juvenile omertà had not gone unnoticed.

“I know you’re not a clype,” said Bruce. “You never were.”

Borthy acknowledged the compliment. But what was this? Had Bruce done something illegal?

“It’s just I don’t want too many people to know,” said Bruce. “They may know that I was struck by lightning – I don’t care too much if they know that – but I don’t want them to know . . . to know how I feel.”

But for Borthy, the most sensational aspect of this was the lightning. “You?” he gasped. “You were struck by lightning? As in . . . bang?”

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Bruce nodded. “In Dundas Street.”

Borthy shook his head in amazement. “Struck dead?”

Bruce sighed. “Obviously not, Borthy . . .”

Borthy grinned. “Of course. Stupid of me. What I meant was struck as in struck by a serious bolt. From the sky? That sort of thing?”

Bruce described what had happened. “It was all over very quickly. One minute I was walking down Dundas Street and then, suddenly, zap! They found me in the middle of the street, unconscious. I woke up in the ambulance – or at least I think I did. It was all a bit confusing.”

“And painful?” asked Borthy. “Did it hurt?”

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Bruce thought for a moment. “It was odd. I had a headache for a while, and I was bruised all down one side. But that was more from the impact of landing after I had been thrown up in the air. They said they were a bit surprised that I hadn’t broken anything.”

“Jeez, Bruce,” Borthy said. “It’s unbelievable. Not that I’m doubting you – it’s just the most amazing story.”

“Well, I was lucky,” said Bruce. “I could be dead right now. Dead. But I’m not, you see. And all that seems to have happened is that my hair stood up for a while and I had a rather odd burn mark on one leg – a sort of fern pattern on the skin. Apparently, that’s a typical feature of lightning strikes. You get this odd pattern, as if a fern has been tattooed on your skin.”

Borthy shook his head. “I’m really glad you survived, Bruce.”

Bruce looked at Borthy. I have been so unkind to him, he thought. I’ve ignored him. I’ve laughed at him behind his back. I’ve thought, poor Borthy, and said to myself Thank God I’m not him. And here he is saying that he’s glad that I survived. Well, at least I have time now to make up for all of that – and for everything else. Who gets that sort of chance in life?

“The odd thing,” Bruce continued, “is that I felt completely different. It’s hard to describe it exactly, but I saw everything in a different light.”

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Borthy frowned. “You mean, your tastes and so on?”

Bruce thought about this for a short while before he continued, “I suppose I like some of the same things.” He glanced around the room. “That Bellany, for instance. My furniture. Nothing changed when it came to that sort of thing.” He paused. “But it was a bit different when it came to music. I tried to listen to my playlists, and I found I didn’t like them.”

“How odd is that?” said Borthy.

“Yes. You know Creedence? Proud Mary?”

Borthy grinned. “You always liked that.”

“Well, I don’t any more. Nor Bad Moon Rising.”

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“So what do you like?”

Bruce smiled. “Gregorian chant. The theme from Zorba the Greek. And one or two other things – things I wouldn’t have listened to before . . . before Dundas Street.”

Borthy waited for him to elaborate, but he did not. So Borthy pressed him. “Such as?”

Bruce looked down at the floor. “The Sound of Music. You know that song they sing when they’re about to leave Austria? Edelweiss. I’ve been thinking of that tune a lot – hearing it in my mind.”

Borthy was staring at him. “You’ve changed, haven’t you?”

Bruce nodded. “Yes, I have.”

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“And you’re going away because of that? Just because . . . just because your music’s changed?”

For Borthy, this was a new experience; Bruce, the confident one, the social success, the role model, now seemed uncertain and vulnerable.

Bruce had been standing near the door. Now he gestured towards the kitchen. “I was going to make coffee. Would you like a cup?”

Borthy nodded, and the two of them made their way into the kitchen. Borthy looked around appreciatively at the array of appliances. “You’ve got everything here,” he said.

Bruce looked around the kitchen, as with new eyes. “There’s too much stuff,” he said, as he slipped a coffee pod into the machine.

“Can you ever have too much stuff?” asked Borthy.

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Bruce was certain you could. “You get stuff because you think it’ll make you feel better. It doesn’t. It ties you down. And the more stuff you get, the more tied down you are.”

“But you need some stuff,” Borthy argued. “You can’t go through life having no stuff at all.”

The coffee machine was now making a purring sound and began to discharge a thin dribble of dark liquid.

“I love the smell of fresh coffee,” remarked Borthy. “Do you like it, Bruce?”

Bruce said nothing.

“So that’s why you’re going away? To get away from everything – having too much, et cetera, et cetera?”

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Bruce opened the fridge to find milk. He answered the question over his shoulder. “That might be one of the reasons.”

Borthy considered this. “You really mean it?”

“I do, Borthy. I really mean it. This is something that I need to do.”

They drank their coffee in silence. Then, as Bruce took his friend’s empty cup from him to put in the sink, he said, “Offering you the use of this place is my way of saying something.”

Borthy looked slightly embarrassed. He was not sure about the new Bruce.

“It’s a way of apologising,” Bruce continued.

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This puzzled Borthy. “For what? What have you got to apologise for?”

Bruce shook his head. “I don’t know where to start,” he said quietly.

© 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