And it was no better for Stuart as he stood at the door of Katie’s flat in Howe Street. He looked down at his shoes – his brown suede shoes that Irene had been so disparaging about.
In his view, there was nothing wrong with them, and they certainly did not deserve her scornful description of Portuguese spiv footwear. The shoes were Portuguese – as it happened – but the way that Irene put it suggested that they were suitable for wearing by Portuguese spivs, as if Portuguese spivs were worse than any other spivs. That was the trouble with Irene, Stuart thought: she went on about unacceptable attitudes in others, and yet her own views were every bit as arrogant as those of the people she disparaged.
Now, looking down on his shoes, he thought that they were perhaps a little bit too pointed at the toes. Was that why Irene had thought them spivish? Would it have been better, he wondered, to wear his ordinary Oxford-cap black work shoes? The problem with those was that they seemed so dull, and he would not have wanted to be the only person at Katie’s dinner party wearing them.
He took a deep breath and rang the bell. He could hear voices inside – laughter too – and when the door was not answered immediately he decided to ring the bell again, just in case it had not sounded. But it had, and the door was opened by a man wearing a blue sweater. He was younger than Stuart – about thirty, Stuart thought – and had a welcoming smile.
“You’re Stuart, I assume.” He held out a hand, and Stuart shook it. “I’m George.”
George. Stuart registered the name. This was him. This was the man who had replaced him.
Stuart looked down at George’s shoes. He did not do this deliberately, but his eyes seemed inexorably drawn in that direction. George was wearing trainers, the expensive leather sort, and Stuart immediately thought: my suede shoes are wrong. But George was now gesturing for him to come in so that he could close the door, and Stuart obeyed.
“I’ve heard a lot about you,” said George.
Stuart nodded. “Oh yes.” It was an embarrassing thing to say – in any circumstances. People did not want to hear that others had been talking about them. George, obviously, was a bit gauche in these matters. Surely Katie would see that. And then Stuart asked himself what Katie could possibly have told George about him. She hardly knew anything about him because they had spent very little time together and he did not recall talking much about himself. For the most part, they had talked about poetry and literature in general. So how could George know much about him?
Stuart now saw that George was looking at his shoes.
“Great shoes,” said George.
Stuart felt the back of his neck becoming warm. This was not going to go well.
“Italian?” asked George. “Your shoes, I mean.”
George raised an eyebrow. “Portuguese shoes?”
“I had a pair of Portuguese shoes once,” said George. “They didn’t last long. The heels fell off.”
Stuart said nothing.
“I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised,” George continued. “I didn’t pay much for them.”
Stuart decided to ignore this. He felt George’s eyes upon him; he was being assessed, and it made him feel uncomfortable.
Then George said, “Katie said you were at Heriot’s.” This was a reference to the school Stuart had attended.
“I was,” said Stuart, thinking: such an obvious, echt-Edinburgh remark – so typical. What did it matter where you went to school? What possible relevance did it have to anything? But, out of politeness, Stuart said, “And you?”
Stuart looked away. Fettes was considerably above Heriot’s in the social pecking order. He made an effort to smile, and said, “Poor you.”
George laughed. “It wasn’t too bad, actually.”
“Not if you like cold showers.”
George stopped laughing. “That all ended ages ago.” He paused. “My father’s time.”
Stuart pretended not to register the point of this remark, which was: my father went there too. That, again, was typically Edinburgh, establishing … What was it establishing? Prior rights? Longer roots? Snobbery, thought Stuart. And how odd that somebody of George’s age should play that particular game. This was out of the Ark. And he realised at that precise moment that he disliked George not for what he had done – taken his place in Katie’s affections – but for what he was.
“Anyway,” said George. “We shouldn’t stay out here. Katie’s in the kitchen. She’ll be out in a sec.”
They made their way into the drawing room – the room from which, a few days previously, Stuart had looked out over St Vincent Street. As they entered, though, the doorbell sounded.
“The other guests,” said George. “I’ll let them in.”
Stuart was relieved that there were to be other people present. The evening promised to be difficult enough as it was – with others, George would be diluted.
He waited while George went off to open the door. He noticed that there was a small pile of books by the side of one of the chairs. He bent down to inspect this. On the top was an edition of Shakespeare’s Sonnets, complete with commentary. He picked this up and opened it at random. He read the first two line of one of the sonnets, and then another couple of lines. These words, he thought, come from a long way away …
He turned round. Katie had come into the room through a different door, on the far side.
Stuart replaced the book. “I shouldn’t be snooping.”
She smiled. “It’s not snooping to look at somebody else’s books. If books are private, they should be kept in a cupboard.”
She gestured towards the book. “That has a fantastic commentary. Don Paterson. He’s a poet himself. Professor of Poetry at St Andrews. He’s written a commentary to each of them. He really brings them to life.”
Stuart sighed. “I know so little.”
“What? About what?”
“About poetry. You know … well, you know so much. I don’t. I haven’t even read The Sonnets. Not properly. One or two, I suppose – a few lines.”
“You could take that book,” she said, picking up the book and giving it to him.
“Yes, why not? Take that book and go through them. It’s really one long poem, all about love. A love affair, or two, although it’s difficult to disentangle. The one love affair shadows the other, if you see what I mean.”
“I’m not sure I do.”
“Read it, then. Read the commentary.”
He suddenly noticed that she was looking at his shoes. Awkwardly, he shifted his feet and tried to draw her attention away.
“Was Shakespeare writing about himself?” he asked.
The question seemed to interest her, and her gaze left his shoes.
“Of course he was. All writers write about themselves – all the time.” She smiled. “Or their mothers. Although that sounds a bit Freudian, which it is, I suppose.”
Her eyes went back to his shoes.
“They’re Portuguese,” Stuart blurted out. “My shoes … They’re Portuguese.” And then he added, “I shouldn’t have worn them. Sorry.”
He sounded so miserable. And he was.