Scotland Street Volume 17, Chapter 6: We Must Love One Another
Domenica nodded. Cyril was Angus’s responsibility and although she had become fond of the dog, she had never developed her husband’s ability to read Cyril’s moods and respond to his needs. There were dog people, she thought, and there were cat people – and she was, she suspected, more comfortable in the latter group than in the former. Cats, she felt, were more subtle than dogs. It was true that their alliance with humanity was shakier than the contract that dogs long ago entered into with man, but cats still appreciated our company – even if mostly on their own terms. Certainly, cats were less demanding, not requiring the constant affirmation by which dogs seemed to set such store. People were always telling dogs that they were good: “good dog” was the most common compliment paid to dogs, while nobody ever said “good cat”. Indeed, uttering “good cat” would result in a cold stare from whatever cat to whom the remark was addressed. Good cat? Moi?
“Anyway,” Angus continued, “I took Cyril and we headed up the street towards Drummond Place. It was a lovely evening. It was just getting dark, but there was still a very faint glow in the sky over in the west. And the air was still – there was no movement at all in the branches of the trees. Nothing.
“The streets were deserted. We reached the top of Scotland Street before we saw anybody, and you know who that was? Sister Maria-Fiore dei Fiori di Montagna, no less. Scurrying along from the direction of Northumberland Street.”
Domenica raised an eyebrow. “Coming back from the pub?”
Angus laughed. “She likes to drop into the Wally Dug. She holds court there – I’ve seen it. Sister Maria-Fiore dei Fiori di Montagna perches on a bar stool and various acolytes gather round. She delivers opinions on a wide range of subjects – always to nods of agreement. She has an air of sagacity about her, you see.”
“And, of course, there are her aphorisms,” Domenica said. “She has an observation for every occasion. People love it. Antonia Collie, I believe, is working on a collection of her aperçus. Creative Scotland has already approved a publication grant.”
Angus shook his head in wonderment. “Remarkable.”
“Yes,” agreed Domenica. “Antonia was telling me about it. She says that she envisages something along the lines of Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet. She thinks that Sister Maria-Fiore dei Fiori di Montagna may end up being in the same league.”
Angus shook his head again. “But how many copies of The Prophet have been sold? Countless millions?”
“I happen to know a little bit about that,” said Domenica. “I became interested after Antonia made her claim – which I thought highly unlikely, by the way. I read that the original American edition had a print run of two thousand copies, but went on to sell nine million. Frankly, I would have expected even more, given that there was a time when every college student had one in his or her bedroom. Do you remember when you first read it?”
Angus thought for a moment. “Well, yes, I do, as it happens. I was at the art college. I went into James Thin’s to get a book about post-impressionism and I came out with a copy of The Prophet. I’d picked it up by chance – I’d never heard of it before then – and I started to read one of the poems and I thought it the most moving thing I’d ever read. I was at that age, you see – the age when one is ready for a dose of Lebanese mysticism. It’s the same stage in life at which one reads Jack Kerouac. I thought On the Road was so liberating.”
Domenica smiled. “Jack Kerouac is more for young men than for young women, I think. I tried to read Kerouac, but found he did nothing for me.”
Angus looked thoughtful. “Do you think there’s a distinction between men’s books and women’s books?”
“Of course there is,” said Domenica. “It may not be fashionable in androgynous times to make that distinction, but it’s there. Do more men than women read Patrick O’Brian, for example? I suspect they do. Naval history is, I think, more of a masculine interest than a feminine one.”
“And what would be a quintessentially feminine book?” asked Angus.
“Something non-naval,” said Domenica. “Perhaps romantic fiction. That must be read by many more women than men. I’ve never looked at any figures, but they must be there. There’s a whole genre of fiction that’s churned out for that market. And it’s becoming increasingly steamy.”
“Are women themselves becoming steamier?” said Angus, adding, quickly, “Just asking, of course.”
Domenica said that she thought they were. They now openly enjoyed erotic fiction, whereas previously any interest on their part in such books would have been concealed, or perhaps suppressed by men who felt threatened by it.
Angus sighed. “We live in an age of exhibitionism,” he said. “And exhibitionism goes hand in hand with the weakening of the concept of the private. That inevitably leads, some argue, to a coarsening of sensibilities.”
Domenica did not disagree, but before she could say anything to that effect, Angus continued, “Have you noticed how discourtesy and aggression are infecting our public life? What happened to gentleness? What happened to agape, to non-erotic love?”
Domenica stared out of the window. “Do you think Scotland has changed?” she asked suddenly. “Do you think we’ve become more dismissive of one another?”
Angus did not answer immediately. He had set out to tell her about his experience last night in Drummond Place, but they had ended up talking about these broader issues. Now another memory came to him – of Hamish Henderson, who reminded us not to disfigure ourselves with hatred. How right he was, that tall, benign figure, with his tweedy hat, who sang ‘Freedom Come-All-Ye’ in Sandy Bell’s, and who could so easily bring forth tears for the values of a vanishing Scotland. He thought: who is there today to speak out for love? Who is there today to say that we must love one another – that we simply have to?
© 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]