Exclusive:Scotland Street Volume 17, Chapter 2: Circe, Jason etc

After an initial foray back to Edinburgh, on which she had stayed with Antonia and Sister Maria-Fiore dei Fiori di Montagna, Irene had returned to Aberdeen, and to her PhD research. There was not much to do at the university there: she and Hugo Fairbairn had found that their new status as former lovers suited them rather better than had their previous, somewhat fraught relationship. Apologies were made on both side for intemperate remarks about castration anxiety, and Dr Fairbairn was kind enough to suggest that Irene’s thesis, as far as it had got, showed every sign of being publishable, and that he himself would recommend it to an academic publisher on whose editorial board he served. A new series was being proposed – ‘Fresh Directions in Psychoanalytical Theory’ – and Irene’s work appeared to fit that rather well.

It was agreed that Irene could continue to work on her thesis even if she was from now on to divide her time between Aberdeen and Edinburgh

This proposal struck Irene as being entirely satisfactory. She was looking forward to being back in Edinburgh – at least for part of the time – although she had not been unhappy in Aberdeen. “I don’t regret anything,” she remarked one day. “Do you, Hugo?”

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“Nothing,” he said. “Je ne regrette rien. Regrets are the traps into which the old self lures us. We must be wary of that – every bit as much as Jason was obliged to beware of the Sirens.”

“Indeed,” said Irene. She was not sure about this reference to Sirens. Was he suggesting, even subtly, that she, Irene, was some sort of Siren? Or even a Medusa-like figure? That would have been deeply insulting, and she quickly discounted the possibility. However, it was certainly true that our language is littered with unintended references to our real feelings, and that we give ourselves away in overtly innocent allusions. Perhaps he felt that she was a distraction, and that her influence had somehow to be resisted. For a moment she imagined Dr Fairbairn tied to the mast while the Argo navigated a narrow passage, if not off the coast of Capri, as suggested by Virgil and Ovid, then perhaps in the Sound of Mull; while she, seated on a rock near Lochaline or Tobermory, lured him shoreward with her singing, possibly of the ‘Mingulay Boat Song’ or the ‘Eriskay Love Lilt’.

Dr Fairbairn had taken to peppering his remarks with classical references, and was currently working on deep structure in the story of Circe. This gave his observations an added depth, and indeed authority, but it was difficult for Irene, who had only recently acquired any familiarity with Greek mythology. She had been particularly pained, not to say embarrassed, to discover that Ulysses, after whom she had almost inadvertently named her younger son, was, in fact, such a vindictive, unreconstructed man. He had behaved appallingly to his female retainers when he arrived back on Ithaca, and she could not understand why Penelope had not finished her weaving and gone off with one of the young men who frequented her palace. Now, in response to this unexpected reference to Jason, she asked, “What was he looking for, do you think? Was it really just a golden fleece hanging on a tree?”

Dr Fairbairn sighed. “More or less certainly not. Most of us who embark on a search are unaware of the thing for which we are really looking. That is hidden from us – in most cases.”

“Very true,” said Irene. “I sometimes feel that I have almost found what I am looking for, and then I see that it isn’t there after all. Do you find that too?”

“Almost invariably,” said Dr Fairbairn. “And I feel that Scotland, too, is engaged on just such a search. We are, as a nation, looking for something. We feel that we have lost something that we need to recover.”

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“Our sense of ourselves?” asked Irene. “Our sense of who we are?”

“Possibly. We are all Argonauts, you see – in our individual ways. Perhaps we imagine that we are looking for our sense of ourselves while at the same time we are really looking for something else.”

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The discussion had gone no further. Irene would have liked to continue to explore the question of what people in Scotland were looking for, but Dr Fairbairn had had another appointment and had taken a glance at his watch. Their love affair, she thought, had been a great and noble one: they had been two souls that had briefly glimpsed a sense of completeness in which alienated and separated moieties had achieved a completeness, a healing that the world did not readily give. That had been something special, something important, and she was grateful for it. But that sense of discovery had worn thin, and she felt now that it was time to move on . . . she almost said this to herself, but stopped just in time. That was not an expression that should be used, she thought, by somebody like herself: that was the language of pop psychology, the cheap, ersatz terminology that lay people used to give voice to their psychic dramas. You could never really move on, Irene pointed out to friends who had talked of moving on: we are what we are, which is an accumulation of experiences and attitudes, and we can never rid ourselves of our past. Nobody can abandon the baggage on which her name is written, she pointed out. It is our baggage, and it accompanies us no matter how hard we try to . . . to move on. There! she had thought it, and it had been a necessary thought: there were no other words for the process. We moved on, whether we liked the term or not: one may as well accept the demotic. We moved on, we reached out, we did all the things for which such clichéd expressions had been coined. Our language limited us, no matter what our aspirations to nuance and subtlety might be: perhaps the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis was correct after all: the extent of our inner lives depended on having the words to describe it.

Now, though, was not the time to reflect on the extent to which language constrained us: Irene had started to take an interest in cold-water therapy, and it was time for her to make her way to the beach, where she expected to find her Aberdonian friend, Jan Finnan, a fellow devotee of the benefits of swimming in the North Sea in every season. That required a certain hardiness, and a commitment to the curative properties of cold water. Aberdeen was a perfect place for a cold-water therapist to practise, and she and Jan had an appointment that very afternoon to accompany their therapist into the sea at the two-mile-long beach not far from the city centre. It would not do to be late for cold-water therapy, lest one find the instructor frozen to death by the time one arrives. That is particularly likely in Aberdeen, which is a cold city, at least in its externals, although at heart it is full of humour and love, similar in spirit to Naples and Sorrento. (There are some differences between Scottish cities and their Italian counterparts, of course: Irn-Bru is unknown in Italy, and head-butting as a means of settling disputes – or, indeed, creating them – is rare to non-existent in those Mediterranean latitudes. Apart from that, the similarities are striking. In Scozia si trova un cuore Italiano, they said – or at least some of them did.)

© Alexander McCall Smith, 2023. The Stellar Debut of Galactica MacFee will be published by Polygon in November, price £17.99. The author welcomes comments from readers and can be contacted on [email protected]

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