New Scotland Street Chapter 59: Temptation

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Pat felt a curious excitement as she and James set off on their walk. It was not a conventional walk, as they were doing the first part of the journey – some four miles – by bicycle.

Thereafter, James explained, there would be a track that led directly to Single Malt House and its outbuildings, one of which, a former byre, contained the microlight seaplane that the Duke of Johannesburg was building with his Gaelic-speaking driver.

“We can leave the bikes at a sheep farm down there,” said James, pointing to the gentle fold of hills before them. “That’s where the track starts.”

She loved the way that Edinburgh so quickly, and so considerately, yielded to the countryside; how, within minutes, one might move from the urban to the rural and, if looking in the right direction, imagine that one was already in the deep Borders or even, on the higher ground, in the Highlands. Edinburgh lay to the north, and behind them; to the south were the Lammermuir Hills, feminine folds of attenuated blue; to the east, the land ran down towards the sea, a hazy smudge in the evening air. Pat saw in the distance the indistinct shape of the Bass Rock, a sheer, mysterious protuberance rising from the North Sea – a pointer to what? To Norway? To Denmark? Then, like an answer from the land, there was the steeply conical shape of Berwick Law, an unlikely hill that the weather had somehow forgotten to soften and corrode.

They mounted the bikes. Pat wobbled for a few moments, and James, solicitous, asked, “Are you all right?” She had not answered before he said, “Of course you are.”

“I can’t remember when I last rode a bike,” said Pat. “Before I went to university, I think.”

She immediately regretted that mention of university, because he had yet to embark on his university career, and it underlined the difference between their ages. Five years? Something like that. Was that too much? And then she thought: but I’m being ridiculous. He’s just a friend, a young friend; nothing more than that. And he seemed so much more mature than the average eighteen-year-old, or whatever he was. That sometimes happened – there were people who were years older in outlook than one might expect from their chronological age. Mozart, for one …

“Do you like music?” she asked.

Riding beside her, he glanced at her briefly, as if surprised by the question. “Of course. Who doesn’t?”

“Some people, I imagine.”

“Tone-deaf people?” he asked.

“No. They sometimes love music. It’s just that they can’t recognise the intervals between the notes.” She had had a friend at school who was like that. She listened to music a great deal, but could never hum any of the tunes she loved so much, having no sense of pitch.

He said, “When I was younger I used to think it would be great to be a rock musician. I fantasised like mad. I imagined myself playing at the Playhouse to a whole load of screaming girls.”

Pat laughed. “Is that what boys fantasise about? Screaming girls?”

“I don’t know. Maybe they do. Remember, I was about fifteen at the time.” He paused. “What about you? What do girls fantasise about?”

“Oh, dreamy things. Having dinner with some guy who gives you a bunch of roses and then takes you for a ride in an open-top sports car along that road that goes around Arthur’s Seat. And you stop and look down at the city and the lights and he says ‘I really like your hair, you know’ …”

James smiled. “Or he says, ‘Where have you been all my life?’”

“Yes, that would do. Mind you, I don’t think anybody says that any more – or if they ever said it at all. Nobody’s said it to me.”

James looked straight ahead. “Where have you been all my life?” he muttered.

She concentrated on keeping her bicycle on a straight path. But she thought: did he say that to me, or was he just going over the expression in his mind, and happened to vocalise it? She felt her heart beginning to race, and she said to herself: no. And then no again. This was temptation; there was no other word for it. It was like being confronted with a box of chocolates and wanting, dying to take one. But no, you did not, you could not.

The track on which they were riding narrowed, and James had to go ahead of her as there was insufficient room for them to ride abreast of one another. He called out to her, over his shoulder, “Am I going too fast for you?”

“No. You could go faster, if you like.”

She felt the wind in her hair. And the sun – she felt that too – the evening sun that would still be there almost until ten at night, as this was high summer and the longest day would be with them within a week or so. That sun now painted everything with gold: the hills; the gorse bushes in the fields on either side of the track; the thin line of cloud in the otherwise empty sky.

“Can you smell the gorse?” she shouted. “Can you smell it?”

“Yes,” he shouted back. “It makes me think of …”

“Of coconut.”

“Yes, that’s it. Of coconut.”

All too soon they had reached the farm where they would leave the bikes.

“I know these people,” said James. “The farmer here is a friend of my uncle’s.”

“Of the Duke?”

“Yes. My uncle lets out some fields to him for his cattle. He has Aberdeen Angus. My uncle needs the money, as he’s not really very well off. He’s got a bit of money, I suppose, but he’s not rolling in it.”

“That doesn’t matter,” said Pat. “You don’t need much money to be happy.”

“You know that he’s not a real duke? You know that?”

Pat nodded. “I’ve heard that. Somebody said it was the government’s fault. They broke a promise.”

“I think he has more fun being a bogus duke,” said James. “He has a terrific time. If he were a real duke he’d have to worry about all sorts of things.”

With the bicycles propped up against the wall of a sheep fank, they set off down the narrow footpath that James said would lead to Single Malt House. Pat did not want the walk to end. She wanted to be here, with this young man, on this blissful summer evening; she wanted their conversation, so easy, so relaxed, to continue. She wanted night to come upon them and for them to watch the sky darken together, and they would see the lights come up in the towns below them – and in the old mining villages, in Musselburgh, Prestonpans, and out at sea, where the ships cut through the Forth like tiny ploughs.