New Scotland Street Chapter 72: A subtle love affair

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And then it was time for Angus and Domenica to hold the party that they had spoken about for weeks, if not months, but only now got around to organising.

“Our party,” said Angus one morning over breakfast. “I was thinking …”

Domenica interrupted him. “You’re right,” she said. “We must hold it.”

“People have come to expect it,” said Angus.

“They have,” agreed Domenica. “And we should not disappoint them.”

Preparations would be required. The guests would want something to eat, but their expectations would not go beyond cheese and olives and slices of quiche; and plates of smoked oysters and hard-boiled quail eggs with celery salt in which to dip them; and slices of Melton Mowbray pie and Italian salami from Valvona & Crolla; and cheese straws and figs soaked in syrup. And to drink they would want Brunello di Montalcino and Haut-Medoc and something from the Barossa Valley; and coffee, of course, and the things that went with coffee, such as petits fours and macaroons from La Barantine bakery and slices of panforte di Siena, again from Valvona & Crolla, and small biscotti to immerse in glasses of Sambuca.

That was all there for them when they arrived, and Angus ushered them in from the hall, into the kitchen, where the food was laid out, or into the living room, where there was more room to sit down.

“You’re looking smart,” said Big Lou, as she greeted Angus. “New outfit?”

Angus looked confused. “Not really,” he said. “Much the same as usual.”

Big Lou raised an eyebrow, but said nothing. She had spotted Elspeth in the kitchen and wanted to have a word with her about their plans for the coffee bar. She joined her there, but before anything was said about coffee bar affairs, she whispered in Elspeth’s ear, “Your man …”

Elspeth waited. “Yes.”

“Your man is the kindest, best, most wonderful man there is. You know that?”

Elspeth hesitated. Then she said. “I know that, Lou. There might have been times in the past when I forgot it, but not now. I know that very well.” She paused. “And thank you for telling me.”

Other guests were congregating in the living room. James Holloway, nursing a plate of smoked oysters, was telling Domenica’s friend, Dilly Emslie, about his plan to ride his motorbike through the remote New Guinea Highlands – a plan that Dilly agreed would be extremely interesting, although possibly fatal. “Domenica was telling me about head- hunters,” she said. “So many anthropologists have rued the day they embarked on fieldwork in New Guinea …” But James was having none of this caution. “One needs a challenge,” he said. “We all do.”

Dilly inclined her head towards Angus, who was now standing talking to Matthew on the other side of the room. “Angus is looking smart, isn’t he?” she said.

“New clothes by the look of it,” said James. “First time in years.”

The conversation shifted to the Duke of Johannesburg. “He should be out of hospital next week,” said James.

Pat arrived, followed by the Duke’s nephew. “That’s his nephew,” said James. “He helps Elspeth with those triplets of hers. Apparently, he’s a great cook.”

“So kind of Pat to take him under her wing,” said Dilly.

“Exactly,” said James.

Bertie was helping to pass round the plates of food. Now he was on hand to offer quail eggs to James and Dilly.

“I hear you have a dog now,” said James. “You must be pleased, Bertie?”

Bertie nodded. “He’s a shared dog, Mr Holloway. I share him with my friend, Ranald Braveheart Macpherson.”

“Ah yes,” said James “Ranald’s been a good friend to you, hasn’t he Bertie?”

Bertie nodded. “He’s my best friend, I think.”

Dilly and James exchanged glances. Neither had much time for Irene, and for years had both felt sympathetic towards Bertie. Now, as Bertie moved on, Dilly said, “That woman! Thanks heavens for his grandmother. Is that her over there?”

It was. Nicola had arrived, along with Stuart, and with Stuart was Katie.

“Look at that,” whispered James. “At long, long last.”

“I hope she makes him happy,” said Dilly. “He deserves it.”

“She will,” said James. “Look at the body language. Just look.”

A few minutes later, when a momentary silence fell on the party, James took a spoon and struck the side of his glass. “Everybody knows what I’m going to suggest,” he said.

“We do,” said Matthew.

“It’s an old tradition,” said James. “It’s an old tradition that Angus says something about … about where we are.”

Everybody looked at Angus. “Oh,” he said. “Do you really want me to?”

There were murmurs of assent, and then expectant silence.

Angus stepped into the middle of the room. He closed his eyes. Then he began to speak. “I’ve written something about the fragile beauty of Edinburgh, of our city,” he said. “And it is fragile, you know. And it could so easily be wrecked by insensitivity and greed.”

There was silence. Everyone present knew he was right.

“So,” he said, “here it is.” And then he added, “And afterwards, there is a short poem about love in general.”

“Two poems?” said James. “Never before …”

“Why not?” said Angus. “Life has been a bit – how shall we put it? – trying of recent. Two poems might help.”

“This city,” he began, “woos you gently,

As a tactful lover does,

One who says, yes, I am listening,

But do not overwhelm me

With excessive praise;

Do not expect me to respond

To ebullient adjectives;

Over-statement will get you nowhere

In a subtle love affair.

Rather, this city promises

Gentle heartbreak: you will not find

In this city’s repertoire

The grand architectural gesture,

Echoing squares, statements

Of imperial ambition;

But you will find harmony here,

You will find the quiet

Resolved beauty of streets

That go somewhere with modesty,

Not in too great a rush

To get to their destination;

You will find skies that transform

Themselves hourly, if not by the minute,

As if changing, deliberately,

The circumstances of an assignation.

This city is a reserved lover,

No advocate of concupiscence,

The greys of its time-darkened stone

Are attenuated by reticence;

It has a quiet and fragile beauty:

There are other places

That can shout; this city whispers.

And its words are sometimes missed

By those not paying attention:

Edinburgh says: look, I am here,

I am yours; for your love,

And your individual cherishing.

Only that, my dear, only that;

Please do not use me otherwise.”

There was silence. Then Angus began his second poem.

No words are necessary for love,

Nor words are enough;

Love that works its way unseen

Into the fabric of all we do,

Asks for no grounding

Beyond a disposition of the heart,

Which is the natural abode of love;

For the heart is capable

Of accommodating a hundred times

Its volume of those things

That are connected with love,

And that mark, as milestones do,

Our progress through life;

For love is a thing

Of many occasions,

From the infant’s first embrace

Of mother, to the unselfish love

Of the philosopher for truth –

These things are called love,

These things are written within us,

As natural as breathing,

And as important – always there.

They listened carefully, and gravely. In their hearts they knew that Angus was right, and in their hearts they felt the presence of the city, and of its people, and of so many things they wished to speak about now, or later on, with those whom they loved.

The end

(for the time being)