Scotland Street Volume 17, Chapter 7: The Man in the Rhododendrons

“Did she have anything to say?” asked Domenica. “Sister Maria-Fiore dei Fiori di Montagna?”
44 Scotland Street44 Scotland Street
44 Scotland Street

“Yes,” Angus replied, “Well, she did, actually. There was a little bit of small talk to begin with – nothing consequential – something about Antonia having had a bad cold and dosing herself with vitamin C – and then she drew me aside – she gripped my elbow – and said that she had just seen something suspicious.”

Domenica waited. If you see something suspicious, she thought, tell somebody . . . In an age of mutual distrust, that was the message the authorities seemed keen to promote.

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“She said that she had been overtaken as she was walking down Nelson Street,” Angus continued, “by a man who seemed in a hurry.”

“Everyone is in a hurry these days,” observed Domenica. “Nothing unusual there.”

“That’s true. We do rush around a bit. But this man, Sister Maria-Fiore dei Fiori di Montagna said, looked furtive.”

Domenica thought about this. How does one look furtive? she wondered. By looking over one’s shoulder to see who’s watching? By anxious sideways glances?

“She said that he had slipped into the Drummond Place Gardens and disappeared.”

Domenica raised an eyebrow. “Do you think she’d been drinking? It all sounds a bit fanciful. After all, people do nip into the gardens for an evening walk – neighbours, I mean – ordinary people.” She paused. “And some neighbours, I suppose, might look furtive because that’s just the way they are. Appearances can be deceptive.”

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Angus nodded. “I wasn’t sure what she expected me to do. I told her, though, that I was taking Cyril into the gardens for a walk, and that I’d keep an eye open for anything untoward.”

“For any suspicious characters,” Domenica prompted, with a smile.


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Domenica shook her head. “She has a vivid imagination, that woman. She makes things sound like a Five Find-Outers story.”

Angus smiled. “Oh, I was a great fan of those stories when I was a boy. Enid Blyton. I preferred them to the Famous Five. I so admired the gang – Larry, Pip, Daisy . . .”

“Not to mention Fatty and Bets.”

“Yes,” said Angus. “Is Fatty still in the books, I wonder? Or have they been all been bowdlerised?”

“I suspect there are those who would like to ban them outright. The censors are still with us. The Mrs Grundys and so on. Or perhaps they would just be satisfied with a sensitivity warning – the sort of warning that goes with Shakespeare and Jane Austen nowadays.”

“Possibly,” said Angus. “But the point is this: I don’t think we should dismiss our Italian friend’s warning too lightly.”

“You mean you actually found this furtive character? You found him lurking in the bushes?”

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Angus nodded. “Strange to relate, I did. There was somebody lurking in the bushes, as I was soon to discover.”

Domenica began to laugh, but then she saw that Angus was serious, and she stopped herself. “Tell me what happened,” she said.

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“I went into the gardens,” Angus continued. “Cyril always wants to walk widdershins round the gardens, but I prefer deasil. So there was a brief tugging match once I had closed the gate behind me, and of course I got my way, because Cyril ultimately accepts his subservient position in the pack. He tries it on, of course, as all dogs do, but ultimately he accepts my authority and he doesn’t argue the point.”

“So, we started our walk. Cyril was picking up evidence of squirrels, I think, and was keen to go and sniff at the tree trunks they had scampered up. But I made it clear to him that the point of this walk was exercise, and I think he got the message.

“We had gone halfway round the outer path when it happened. You know those rhododendron bushes near the Dublin Street corner? The vegetation there is quite thick and provides perfectly adequate cover for anybody trying to conceal himself. And it was from those rhododendrons that he stepped out – or partly stepped out.”

“Who?” interjected Domenica. “This furtive character of Sister Maria-Fiore dei Fiori di Montagna’s?”

Angus confirmed this with an inclination of his head. “Yes. I assume it was him. Anyway, Cyril started to growl. I can always tell when he growls for good reason. He really means it – and he meant it then. And a moment or two later, a figure half-stepped out of the rhododendron bush. Not entirely out – but half. He remained to all intents and purposes hidden by the vegetation.”

Domenica smiled. “One doesn’t exactly expect people to emerge from rhododendrons – at least not in Edinburgh. There may be places, of course, where . . .” That was a joke, and Angus took it as such.

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“Our rhododendrons are, as a general rule, uninhabited,” he said.

“Although this one was not . . .”

“Exactly. I was frozen to the spot. And even Cyril had a fright. He had sensed something, of course – he had uttered that growl – but he was not prepared for this actual appearance. Anyway, he bristled, and growled a bit more sotto voce, or sotto abbaio in his case. Then he stopped, and the man in the rhododendrons spoke to me.”

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Domenica leaned forward in her eagerness to hear what came next. “And what did he say?”

Angus waited. He was enjoying the drama of his account, and now he lowered his voice accordingly. “He said: ‘Good evening, Mr Linklater.’”

Domenica’s eyes widened. “He thought you were Magnus?” Magnus Linklater, a well-known editor and journalist, had once lived nearby.

Angus nodded. “I started to deny that I was Magnus, but I don’t think he heard me. He went on to say: ‘I’ve got some very important material for you. I can’t give it to you right now, but I’ll get it to you next week.’”

Domenica sat back. “This is extraordinary, Angus. Deep Throat all over again.”

“That’s what I thought. It took me right back to Watergate. Deep Throat met Woodward and Bernstein in the car park, remember? In the shadows.”

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Domenica remembered it well. “They never really saw his face. He stuck to the shadows. And he told them all about the cover-up in the White House.”


Domenica shook her head. “Did you try again to let him know that you weren’t Magnus?”

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“I did,” said Angus. “But he wasn’t really listening to me. He was the one who wanted to do the talking. He finished by saying, ‘Be here next week – same time.’ And then he disappeared. He just seemed to vanish – I think he went back into the rhododendrons and then out by another gate.”

Domenica did not know what to say. Was this man about to pass on information about the government? She looked at Angus, who seemed to have nothing further to say. From the floor, Cyril looked up at them. He found silences difficult to interpret – as most dogs do.

© 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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