44 Scotland Street: The switching on of magnets

Illustration: Iain McIntosh
Illustration: Iain McIntosh
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There was still time, of course. Bruce was primed, but could be disarmed, or whatever it was that one did to a missile one no longer wished to launch.

As she returned to the living room, Pat saw that Anichka was deep in conversation with Elspeth, while Bruce and Matthew were standing by the window, with Bruce holding forth volubly to his cornered friend. Matthew caught Pat’s eye with one of those looks that plead for social rescue. She would go to his aid, but for the moment she was relieved to see that the situation was clearly controllable. All she would have to do was discreetly to alter the seating plan and then have a quiet word with Bruce, telling him that the whole plan was off.

She crossed the room to join Matthew and Bruce. Bruce was talking about Dublin.

“Great place,” he said. “I went over when we last played Ireland. We lost, but it wasn’t our fault.”

Pat smiled. “Whose was it, then?”

Bruce looked at her with condescension. “Do you know anything about rugby, Pat?”

“I’ve seen it played.”

Bruce laughed. “Oh, in that case you’ll know what I mean when I say that the Irish distracted the ref. That’s what they always do – they distract the ref so that he doesn’t see what’s going on.”

“But you do?”

“Too true. If they hadn’t distracted the ref, we would have scored another couple of tries.”

Pat raised an eyebrow. “Oh well.”

“But Dublin is a great place to go for a weekend, no matter what happens,” Bruce continued. “We went to this pub called the Palace Bar. Near Trinity. Fantastic craic.”

“Interesting word,” said Matthew.

“Craic?” said Bruce. “Yes – if you need to ask what it means, that means you’re not having it.”

Pat caught Matthew’s eye again. She lowered her voice. “The plan is off,” she said.

“What?” asked Bruce.

Pat leaned forward. “Don’t do it,” she whispered.

Matthew frowned. “What’s changed?” he asked.

Pat looked over her shoulder. “Everything,” she said. She looked intently at Bruce. “I just don’t want you to exercise your charm. It’s off.”

Bruce rolled his eyes. “You sure?”

“Yes, I’m very sure. I think I’m wrong about …” She lowered her voice still further even though there was no ­danger of her being overheard: Elspeth and Anichka were at the opposite end of the room, having now been joined by Dr MacGregor. They seemed immersed in their own conversation and would not be able to pick up what Pat was ­saying. She completed her sentence. “I’m wrong about her.”

Bruce made a gesture of resignation. “Oh well,” he said. “Her loss.”

Matthew gave him a withering look, but it went unnoticed.

“I’ll change the seating arrangements,” said Pat.

Bruce held up a hand. “No, don’t do that. Let me sit next to her – as per plan. I give you my word I won’t switch on the magnets.”

“Why do you want to sit next to her?”

“Interest,” said Bruce.

“You promise you won’t try it on?”

Bruce gave her a broad smile. ‘Do I look like the sort of man who would try it on? Is that what you think of me?”

Pat ignored his question. “I think we should start the meal,” she said loudly, to the entire room. And then to ­Matthew, “Will you help me bring stuff through?”

Matthew agreed, and when they were both in the kitchen, Pat said to him, “How can you tolerate it, Matthew? How can you put up with him?”

“He’s largely harmless,” said Matthew. “He’s just being Bruce.”

Pat shook her head. “How can you say that? It reminds me of what a prominent politician said of one of his colleagues who had just done something completely inappropriate. He said, “Fred’s just being Fred.” I thought: what a thing to say!”

A few minutes later, seated at the table, with their main course on their plates before them, Pat was able to relax for the first time that evening. She felt immense relief that she had been able to call off her plan – she had been very much weighed down by the subterfuge she had embarked upon, and that weight was now gone. Of course it meant that she still had to contend with Anichka, but if the Czech woman made him happy, and if she was only the way she was because of several hundred years of European history, then Pat could tolerate her.

The meal began. Pat was seated next to her father, who seemed anxious to move to uncontroversial topics. That suited her too, and when he raised the topic of a gallery exhibition he had ­recently been to, she responded enthusiastically.

“Cowie,” he said. “James Cowie. He was a wonderful draftsman.”

Pat agreed. “And that portrait of the four friends in the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art – I love that picture. I’ve sometimes thought I could write a book about it.”

“Could one write a whole book about one picture?” asked Dr MacGregor.

“Oh yes. I’ve got a book about ­Hopper’s Night Hawks – you know that painting of the people at the bar of the diner? And then there’s a book all about Poussin’s picture of the man killed by the snake. That’s all it’s about – that one picture.”

Dr MacGregor shook his head. “Poussin leaves me cold, I’m afraid. I find him bloodless. I know that plenty of people …”

He did not finish, and Pat who had been looking towards the other end of the table, now turned to look at her ­father. He, in turn, was looking across the table to where Anichka was sitting next to Bruce. The two of them were talking, and Pat noticed that Anichka was leaning sideways in her chair, ­gazing at Bruce. And then, as Bruce emphasised some point, her hand touched his forearm and remained there. There was no mistaking it; any witness of the scene who failed to diagnose fascination might well be accused of being chronically unobservant.

Pat felt dismay overwhelm her. Bruce had promised to refrain from flirting, but his resolution was irrelevant now. Flirting was in full sway, and there was no doubt about who was flirting with whom: Anichka had seized the ­initiative.

Pat saw that her father had noticed this. She glanced away, and then looked at him again. He had lowered his eyes. He saw, she thought.

She was about to say something to him, to make light of what was so clearly happening, but he spoke before she did.

“You know, darling, I’m not feeling terribly well. Would you mind if I just slipped out and went home? Would you mind terribly?” “

But Daddy …”

He had already risen to his feet. He did not say anything to anybody else; indeed Anichka, busy with Bruce, did not even see him go.

© 2015 Alexander McCall Smith

• Alexander McCall Smith welcomes comments from readers. Write to him c/o The Editor, The Scotsman, Level 7, Orchard Brae House, 30 Queensferry Road, Edinburgh, EH4 2HS or via e-mail at scotlandstreet@scotsman.com.