New Scotland Street Chapter 42: Questions about bags

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“Well, well!” said Angus, as Domenica returned to the flat. “What have we here? Those boots …”

Domenica had not expected to find Angus in. He had told her that he would be spending the entire afternoon in his studio, and when he did that he never returned before six, which was the time that Cyril was given his late afternoon walk in Drummond Place Gardens. A further reason why he would not have come home early was the fact that he had his current subject in for a sitting that afternoon, and that usually meant that he would be late.

“Like them?” asked Domenica.

Angus whistled. “Very fetching indeed.”

“I know they’re a bit of an indulgence,” said Domenica. “But …”

He brushed her apologia aside. “Nonsense. If there were ever anybody who deserved boots like that, it’s you.”

Domenica smiled, and blew him a kiss; dear Angus, whose sense of when a compliment was needed was so pitch-perfect. Bless you, she thought; that I should find you at this stage in life, when there are so few people left to find – and hardly any of them men; bless you, for I have found myself in you.

But then she remembered what she was carrying. He had not noticed the large bag of clothing yet, and she did not want him to see it. “Would you mind putting the kettle on?” she asked. That would get him safely out of the hall and into the kitchen, giving her time to conceal her other purchases. But she was too late; Angus now spotted the bag and pointed at it quizzically.

“What’s in the bag?” he asked.

It was the question that Antonia and Sister Maria-Fiore dei Fiori di Montagna had put so pointedly, but whereas they had no right to do so, Angus was perfectly entitled to ask the same thing. Were Angus to come into the flat with a bulging bag, she would naturally feel keen to find out what it contained. That, in a sense, was what marriage was all about: marry somebody and you lost the right to carry large bags about in private. You gained many other things, but you certainly lost that.

She played for time. “Bag?”

He pointed to the bag, with its impossible-to-miss Stewart Christie lettering emblazoned, gold on green. “That one.”

And then he answered his own question, giving her time to recover. “Oh, of course,” he said. “That’s where you bought the boots.”

She grasped the straw. “Yes. I bought them at Stewart Christie.” Then, as quickly as she could, she added, “Be an angel, Angus, and make tea. I’m parched.”

“Yes,” he said. “I’ll do that.”

With that, he disappeared into the kitchen, giving Domenica the opportunity to go into their bedroom. There she took the new clothes out of their bag and stuffed them into her wardrobe. She knew that they would not be found there, as Angus never looked in there. “I respect cupboards,” he had once said to her. “It’s something to do with being at boarding school.”

Angus had been a boarder at a boys’ school in Perthshire, a place tucked away in a glen, where he had, for the most part been happy enough, but where privacy had been in short supply. “The only private place we had was our cupboard,” he said. “Everything else was shared. Shared basins, baths, everything. Shared meals, shared studies, shared sports kit. Sometimes you found yourself wearing somebody else’s socks because the labels had come off or names had been mixed up. You grew used to it. But your cupboard was always private.”

Domenica, who had never had that experience, found it hard to imagine what it would be like.

“You don’t mind too much,” said Angus. “And I suppose it makes you more tolerant of others. It’s difficult to be selfish if you’ve been brought up like that.”

“You have a different sense of self,” Domenica remarked. “The boundaries of the self are socially dictated. If you’ve been brought up cheek by jowl with a lot of others, then you’re less likely to see yourself as separate from them. Radical individualism does not go well with the communal life.”

“If you say so,” said Angus.

“I do,” she said. “Not that I want to be didactic, but I think we’re losing sight of that. I’ve been reading a book about the Gorbals. Colin MacFarlane. About what it was like.”

The Gorbals was a slum area of Glasgow, erased in the fit of construction that remade Glasgow from the nineteen-sixties onwards. But before the cranes with their wrecking balls moved in, it had been a living, breathing hive of life. People shared their cludgies; they took their weekly baths in communal municipal bathhouses; there was little insulation from the ordinary sounds of life – the coughing, the yelling, the domestic battles, the moments of intimacy: there would be too many people sharing too few rooms for any of that to be private. And yet people knew one another, and loved one another, and nobody was anonymous. Later, filed vertically in tower blocks, living in the air, away from ordinary human landmarks, people sickened and grew sad, but had to live that disjointed life for decades, until the grossness of the original mistake could be admitted and these great towers of unhappiness began to be brought down, blown up in seconds, collapsing in clouds of dust. Squalor and deprivation had been exchanged for unhappiness and anomie – a complicated and double-edged bargain.

What people wanted was community, thought Domenica, and you did not have to be a social anthropologist, as she was, to work that out. They wanted to live somewhere definite, built on a human scale and with decency; they wanted to be relieved of want and uncertainty, in so far as was possible; they wanted to belong, to have an identity – to know who they were and where they were from. And throughout Scottish history there had been those who would take that away from them, or deny its possibility. There had been community, a long time ago, but land grabs and clearances had shattered that; then planners had disrupted people again, moving them to new towns; and now globalisation was doing its work to destroy our remaining sense of the local. She sighed. There were no answers, it seemed; or no easy ones, at any rate. Those who came up with easy answers, the panaceas to all our problems, were naïve or mendacious.

With the new clothes hidden, she returned to the kitchen, where Angus was making tea.

“I saw Big Lou,” said Domenica. “And there’s bad news, I’m afraid.”

Angus looked up sharply. Bad news meant cancer.

“Oh my God,” he said.

“No, not a health thing,” Domenica said quickly. “But she’s sold the business.”

Angus drew in his breath, aghast at what Domenica had said. Big Lou was a constant in everybody’s life. They loved her and everything she stood for. This simply could not be.