New Scotland Street Chapter 46: An upsetting discovery

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That Monday morning, Angus decided not to read the newspaper. It was an unusual decision for him, in as much as it was at variance with well-established personal custom.

Like many men who married later than average, Angus had become set in his ways, preferring to lead his life each day in much the same way as he had led it the day before. In that respect, he had always felt some sympathy for members of monastic orders, whose every day was marked by the established and immutable liturgical hours. This routine should not be confined to monastic establishments, he told himself, but could be applied, mutatis mutandis, to those living in the non-monastic world. In this way one might progress from lauds (morning shower), to prime (breakfast), on to terce (morning coffee) and so on until the day was concluded with vespers (martini time) and compline (bedtime, and descent into the first of the sleep cycles). And those cycles, mused Angus, were the body’s own equivalent to liturgical hours, though fewer in nature, more fretful, and less reliable.

Perusing the newspaper had become something of a ritual for Angus, carried out with punctiliousness and respect for order: the front page first, then the letters column, then the deaths, and back to the news. This ritual was deeply embedded in the day, so that not reading the paper in the morning gave rise to a very strange feeling, akin to that which might follow an act of deliberate defiance, of wantonness. So might one feel if one decided not to clean one’s teeth, or not to shave, or to wear the same shirt for the second day running.

But there was more to it than that. Like so many, Angus felt that he had a duty to keep abreast of what was happening in the world. This meant that he was obliged to follow developments in current affairs, most of which were associated with political dysfunction of one sort or another. The world presented there was one of constant disagreement and conflict. Humanity, it seemed, was at odds with itself wherever one looked. Locked in perpetual enmity, the armed camps of the world exchanged threats and warnings; at more local level, politicians berated and condemned one another, refusing to acknowledge, it seemed, that there were different ways of seeing the public good. In this political universe, those who disagreed with you were grossly misguided, and, if not, then positively malevolent. Nobody said anything complimentary to anyone, energy being conserved for vituperation. And around the public generals in these battles, flocked hordes of social media private soldiers – each, it seemed, intent on insulting and crowing in equal measure, flashing signals of virtue in every direction, and sniping, like all snipers, from the hiding places of anonymity.

Angus had little taste for the moral disaster that the public realm had become, and had come to the realisation that there was no essential merit in knowing what was going on in this fraught and distasteful arena. If he did not follow the parliamentary debates in the Scottish Parliament, did it make the slightest difference to anything? It did not, he decided. If he declined to read what the President of France had been up to, would this be noticed in Paris? Or anyway else? He thought not.

And so, in search of inner peace, he had instituted a new custom: on one day each week he would neither read a newspaper nor listen to the news on the radio, nor watch it on television. Isolated from the world of events, he would give his attention to the world itself; he would inhabit his moment and his place, rather than the fevered world reflected in the news. And with that detachment he was delighted to discover a sense of peace and resolution that in the normal course of events eluded him and eluded, too, he suspected, many of those who were enmeshed in the world of current events.

He had discussed it with Domenica, who had initially been doubtful. “The ostrich response,” she had said. “Or something like it.”

“You think I’m burying my head in the sand? Am I an ostrich?”

She was apologetic: few human-to-bird comparisons were flattering: chickens, vultures, crows – these were all birds most people did not want to be. So she backtracked: “Not entirely. But isn’t it a bit like that – just a tiny bit?”

Angus defended himself. “I’m not saying I’ll ignore things all the time,” he said. “It’s like one of those five-two diets, where you have two fasting days a week, and then for the other five you eat what you want.” He paused. “It’s a sort of detox. One day a week without all the anxiety. Without all the intractable problems. Is that a selfish demand? Is that being irresponsible?”

Domenica looked thoughtful. “Put that way,” she said, “what can one say but no, it’s not.”

“Well, there you are,” said Angus. “And I feel better for it, you know. I find I have the room – the mental room – to think about things that I normally don’t think about very much. About how I should lead my life, for example.”

Domenica smiled. “The biggest of all questions: how am I to lead my life? That’s big.”

“Yes, it is.”

She wondered what options Angus had alighted upon. If he was deliberating on that question, then she had not seen many signs of his life changing very much as a result. Angus, she thought, did not like to do anything different from what he had always done, and in that respect she felt that his life led him, rather than being led by him. It was as if there was a pattern somewhere – a plan – that said: there will be a portrait painter called Angus Lordie, who will live in Scotland Street, in Edinburgh, and who will take his dog for a walk first thing in the morning, have a morning cup of coffee in Big Lou’s, and then paint in his studio until it was time to lay aside his brushes and take his dog for another walk. Where was the room for moral improvement, or intellectual innovation, in such a life?

Yet Angus was making some changes in the shape of his daily life, and here he was, at a time when, under the old regime he might have been reading the newspaper, taking Cyril for a walk in the Drummond Place Gardens and not thinking about the world and its problems when, rounding a bend in the path, he and Cyril came across the body of a dead cat.

The cat was newly dead. Its eyes were open, staring up at the sky – the last thing it must have seen, Angus thought, in its tiny furry slice of this life. It was just a cat, and there were far more important things going on in the world, but for the cat this was the supreme tragedy – the loss of the only thing that it had, that it possessed, and that had any value for it.