Alexander McCall Smith’s latest serialised novel has begun in The Scotsman. We are publishing the first 15 chapters today, with the following chapters appearing daily from Monday.
Chapter 1: The Plight of Cats in South Australia
Domenica Macdonald, anthropologist, resident of Scotland Street, and wife of Angus Lordie, portrait painter and long-standing member of the Scottish Arts Club, sat in the kitchen of her flat in Scotland Street. She was immersed in a magazine she had bought on impulse at the local newsagent’s, and so did not hear Angus when he asked her about her plans for the day.
“I said,” repeated Angus, “are you going to be doing anything very much today?”
“I’m sorry,” said Domenica, looking up from her magazine. “I didn’t hear you. I’m reading something here that I can hardly believe.”
“Ah!” said Angus. “Oscar Wilde.”
“What about him?”
Angus tried to remember exactly what Oscar Wilde had said – he had pronounced on so many things – but found that he could not recall the precise words. “He said something about his diary being sensational reading. Or somebody else’s diary. I don’t really remember …”
“It doesn’t matter too much if you can’t remember exactly what he said,” Domenica reassured him. “Wilde will undoubtedly have more to say. Uniquely, perhaps, among those who are no longer with us, he continues to make witty remarks from beyond the grave – people impute them to him, you see. The volume of his quotations grows daily. This article, though, is about cats in South Australia.”
Angus was puzzled. “What about them?”
Domenica shook her head. “They’re to be confined.”
“In what sense?”
She looked down at the article. “Apparently cats in South Australia have been eating too many birds and small mammals. They’re very destructive, cats.”
Angus glanced down at his dog Cyril, who was sleeping under the kitchen table, one eye firmly closed, but with the other slightly open, allowing him to watch his master. Angus was sure that Cyril knew when the conversation concerned him, or in more general terms, had something to do with canine issues; the flicker of an eyelid, almost imperceptible, was enough to reveal that Cyril was listening, waiting to see whether the situation developed in such a way as to be of interest to him. Cyril’s vocabulary, like that of all dogs, was limited to a few familiar nouns – walk, bones, sit, and so on – and one or two adjectives – good and bad being the most important ones. Beyond that, Cyril’s intellectual life was no more than Pavlovian. So when anybody mentioned the Turner Prize, an institution that for Angus stood for everything that was wrong in the contemporary art world, Cyril would dutifully raise a leg. This was not a gesture of contempt, of course, but was a trained response, instilled in Cyril through the use of rewards. Angus found it amusing enough – as did most of his friends – but Domenica had expressed the view that it was childish. Many of the things that men do are childish in the eyes of women, but this was egregiously so.
“Really, Angus,” she had said when she first saw Cyril performing his new trick. “That’s a bit adolescent, surely.”
Angus was unrepentant. “I have little time for the Turner Prize,” he said. “I have no taste for its pretentiousness. I dislike the way it is awarded to people who cannot paint, draw, nor sculpt.” His eyes widened; he became slightly red; his breathing shallow – all fairly typical reactions provoked by the Turner Prize in those of sound artistic judgment. “You are not an artist if you merely make a video about paint drying or pile a few objets trouvés in a heap. You just aren’t.”
Domenica shrugged. “Calm down,” she said. “Installations make us look at the world in a different way. They must have some artistic merit. They challenge us. Isn’t that what the Turner Prize is all abou- …?”
She stopped herself, but it was almost too late. “Don’t say Turner Prize,” blurted out Angus. “Not when Cyril …”
But he, too, had spoken without thought of the consequences. “Cyril,” he shouted, just as the dog, impervious to the fact that they were indoors at the time, prepared to pass judgment on installation art. “No, Cyril! Sit!”
It was the right – and timeous – counter-command. Cyril, confused, forgot about the Turner Prize and lowered his hindquarters, waiting for further instructions.
Now, with Cyril somnolent below the table, the discussion of feline destructiveness continued. “Yes,” Angus mused. “Murderous creatures. Birds, in particular. The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds gets hot under the collar about cats.”
Domenica pointed to the article. “This,” she said, “tells us what Australian cats get up to – and it makes sobering reading. Nearly four hundred million birds are killed by cats in Australia every year. A lot of those cats are feral, of course, but pet cats, it says, get through over forty million a year. Some of those are threatened species too.” She looked up at Angus. “Four hundred million, Angus. Four hundred million.”
Angus sighed. “It’s what cats do, I suppose. Nature’s red in tooth and claw, isn’t it?”
Domenica referred to the article again. ‘They take their wildlife seriously in Australia, of course. And so …” She looked down at the page. “People have to keep their cats under control in cities. You can’t let them wander around.”
Angus frowned. “But you can’t keep a cat under control. They’re not like dogs. They don’t accept our authority.”
“According to this,” Domenica went on, “in South Australia you have to keep the cat in the house or in a cage in the garden. You don’t have any option.”
Angus looked out of the window. Freedom: everywhere, it seemed to him, the boundaries of freedom were being encroached upon. Passports, regulations, prohibitions, requirements pinched at the lives of us all, and now this. No cats stalking about in the garden; no cats lying on walls in the sun, watching us; no cats leading their parallel lives in the gardens of other cats, or other people; cat doors, the symbol of cats’ liberty, a thing of the past, a reminder of what used to be.
“That poem,” he muttered.
“That Christopher Smart poem. He wrote it when he was in the asylum. I learned chunks of it as a boy. There was a teacher who believed in poetry. We loved him. He was gentle; he didn’t disapprove. And then he died.”
Domenica listened. Yes, she thought. Great teachers are like that – they believe in something – poetry, physics, it can be anything, really – and they are loved, but often do not know it. Then they die, and are loved all the more.
“He – Christopher Smart, that is – listed all the merits of cats. He said: For his motions on the face of the earth are more than any other quadrupeds. For he can swim for life. For he can creep.”
“No longer,” said Domenica.
Below the table, Cyril cocked an ear. He was unaware of the subject of discussion, of course, but he hated cats. He resented theirfreedom and their arrogance. Their humiliation would be heaven for him – justly deserved, and none too soon in its coming.
Chapter 2: Angus thinks about freedom
“I can see the point, of course,” said Angus. “We have to protect species, and cats are certainly a threat to birds. But …”
Domenica nodded. “You can’t have unfettered freedom. We certainly can’t, and nor should cats have it. There has to be a compromise.”
Angus looked thoughtful. “You say we can’t have that freedom. It’s interesting to think about what the reach of we is: we as individuals, or we as bigger groups – nations and so on? They’re separate issues, aren’t they?”
“Yes, I suppose …”
Angus cut Domenica short. “You see,” he continued, “people talk a lot about freedom at the individual level – liberal individualism has secured that particular conversation. But what about freedom at a higher level: the freedom of nations? Have we given up on that, do you think?”
“You mean sovereignty?”
Angus nodded. “Yes, I suppose I do. Isn’t it the same thing? The right of self-determination?”
“It still exists,” said Domenica. “There was some discussion of it in the paper the other day. It was about Woodrow Wilson and the rights of nations to determine their future. The Americans have always disliked other people’s empires. Their own, of course, was a different matter …”
“Yes, but to be fair to then, it was different from the old European empires. And they do take freedom seriously, the Americans. They really do. They fight over it in the courts all the time. They still seem to believe in freedom. I’m not sure if we do.”
“No,” said Angus. “There are plenty of people only too ready to stop other people from saying things with which they disagree. It’s grossly illiberal, of course – intolerance, in fact – not that they’d see it as such.”
“The intolerant never do. How few of them look in the mirror and confess their intolerance? Or their pride?”
Domenica smiled. “Looking in the mirror is a useful exercise. Looking straight into it and describing yourself. Who likes to do that?”
“Narcissists?” suggested Angus.
“Perhaps. But their descriptions are rarely honest. In fact, they’re compliments rather than descriptions. There’s a difference.”
Angus remembered something. “Bruce Anderson – you’ve met him in the Cumberland Bar.”
“The building surveyor? The one with the hair?”
Angus nodded. “Yes, him. His hair’s cut en brosse and he puts gel on it. It smells of cloves. Which makes me think of dentists. Cloves trigger Proustian memories for me – when I was a boy, my dentist must have used oil of cloves.”
“What about Bruce?” asked Domenica.
“I saw him in the gents’ at the bar,” Angus said. “He was standing in front of the mirror, staring at his reflection, grinning with satisfaction.”
“Well, he is good-looking, after all. If you look like him, what you see in the mirror won’t be exactly displeasing.”
Angus wrinkled his nose with distaste. “Good looks are something that should be accepted with proper diffidence. It’s rather like having money, or an enviable talent. Like being able to play the piano rather well, or having a low golf handicap. You don’t parade it. You close the piano lid modestly when somebody comes into the room, and you say, Just practising, or, I never seem to get that particular piece right. That’s what you say. You don’t boast, I’m a bit of a Paderewski. Or, mutatis mutandis, Tiger Woods.”
Domenica laughed. “I hate to say it, Angus, but you sound distinctly old-fashioned. Expectations have changed. If you have it these days, you flaunt it. You blow your own trumpet. You bask in your good fortune, and you don’t care if it makes others feel inadequate.”
Angus sighed. “So it seems. But I still believe we should be modest.”
Domenica agreed. “Oh yes. You and I should be modest – and I hope we are. But I suspect we’re in a minority. Have you seen anybody’s CV these days – their resumé? People trumpet their achievements to the rafters – and beyond. They tell you themselves how marvellous they are: how good they are at doing this that and the next thing. How popular they are. How effective.”
“Do people believe them?” asked Angus.
Domenica doubted it. “I suspect they disregard it. That’s the trouble with formulae of any sort. People get to know that it’s no more than going through hoops – uttering the necessary shibboleths.”
“Noise,” said Angus.
“Yes, noise. It’s rather like these mission statements that clutter up the announcements and advertisements of public bodies. They signal their virtue. They tell us how they’re there to serve us and how they are even-handed in everything they do. Of course they should be even-handed; of course they should behave correctly, but the problem of this constant signalling of virtue is that it weakens the message when the message really needs to be put across. People just don’t hear it any more because it’s always there. The message loses its power. People don’t see it because it has become so omnipresent, so ritualistic.”
“Yes,” said Angus. “It’s interesting how …”
But he did not finish; Domenica had more to say. “I have a Russian friend,” she said. “I met her at a conference. She teaches anthropology at St Petersburg University. She told me that in Soviet days people got so accustomed to strident propaganda – you know, those great red posters and so on – that they simply did not see it. They filtered it out – they didn’t see it. And when she told me this, we were sitting with somebody from Los Angeles, and she said, ‘It’s odd that you should say that because we’re the same with adverts. We don’t see the billboards all over the place. We don’t hear the inane jingles on the radio. It’s there, of course, but we become blind to it.’”
Angus tapped a finger on the table. “How did we get onto this?” he asked.
“Sovereignty,” said Domenica. “We were talking about freedom and sovereignty.”
“And you said …”
Angus remembered. “I said that we no longer seemed to be all that concerned about nations – or states, perhaps – having the right to control their future. I wondered if we were losing that altogether.”
“Or just being realistic?” asked Domenica. “We’re all interdependent now, aren’t we? John Donne redivivus?”
“Yes, but …” He was not sure how to go on. He felt uncomfortable about giving up freedom, and yet so many people seemed to be enthusiastic about doing just that. Perhaps the idea that a country could control its own destiny was just no longer possible, not in the world in which we now lived. Brussels. London. Berlin. Washington. Places where there’s real power. Not us, not us. Not small people like us. He thought of Hamish Henderson and his lovely lament, Freedom, come all ye. One might try to sing that, he thought, but what if the choir has gone away – or no longer cares?
Chapter 3: Aberdeen
“But speaking of freedom,” said Domenica. “What about downstairs?”
Downstairs was the flat below, the home of the Pollock family – of Bertie Pollock, now, at last, seven; of his young brother, Ulysses, one-ish; and their father, Stuart Pollock, formerly a statistician in the Scottish Government. It was also the home of Irene Pollock, of course, enthusiast for the works of Melanie Klein, former Director of the Carl-Gustav Jung Drop-In Centre in the Edinburgh New Town, and now a registered PhD student in the University of Aberdeen. This fact made Scotland Street her home only for brief periods – weekends, for the most part – while for the remaining five days of the week she lived in a small shared flat in the university area of Aberdeen.
Irene had taken the unusual step of leaving her family behind in Edinburgh while she went back to university. For many, this was as outrageous as it was inexplicable.
“That woman,” Domenica had observed, “has responsibilities. She has a small child – not much more than a baby – and poor little Bertie. She has a husband too – poor man. And yet she gaily waltzes off to Aberdeen to undertake some half-baked PhD. Can you credit it?”
There were two reasons why it had been easy for Irene to take herself off to Aberdeen. The most important of these was that Stuart’s mother, Nicola, having been deserted by her Portuguese husband, was now back in Scotland and had been prepared to move out of her rented flat in Northumberland Street in order to look after the boys. Nicola had little time for Irene – in fact, she had no time for her at all – and felt nothing but relief that Irene had largely left Scotland Street. She loved her grandchildren, and was only too pleased to step into the maternal shoes vacated by Irene. She had time on her hands, and filling it with the demands of two small boys was, in her view, an inestimable privilege.
The other factor that made Irene’s departure relatively easy was the encouragement that she had received to pursue her studies in Aberdeen. In Stuart’s view, the marriage, which he had never had the courage to end, was effectively over. It suited him that Irene should have a new goal to pursue, and that she should choose to do that in a city other than Edinburgh. There was something between her and Dr Fairbairn – Stuart was sure of that – and he did not resent it in the least. In fact, he was relieved that Irene should become the emotional responsibility of somebody else. So he came up with no objections when the move was first mooted. His difficulty then was to try not to appear too enthusiastic. Irene had a habit of doing the opposite of what she thought Stuart wanted, and he was concerned that if she sensed keenness on his part, then she might change her mind and stay after all.
Bertie was too young to show such tact. “That’s a wonderful idea, Mummy!” he enthused. “I’ve always thought you should do a PhD.”
“Have you now, Bertie?” Irene responded. “Well, I must say that’s very supportive of you.”
Bertie nodded solemnly. “And I’m sure it’s a good idea to do it in Aberdeen,” Bertie went on. “Aberdeen’s a jolly good place to do a PhD, Mummy.”
“Do you think so, Bertie?” said Irene.
“Yes, I do.” He paused. “And you can go and live up there, can’t you? It would be best to go up there and spend all your time on it. You could come back every other year, maybe … for a visit. Or you could phone us if you didn’t want to do the train journey. A phone call would be fine.”
“Bless you, Bertie,” said Irene. “I’ll come back every weekend. Mummy wouldn’t want to leave her boys too long.”
“But we’ll be fine, Mummy,” protested Bertie. “We have to learn to stand on our own two feet.”
Irene laughed. “But Bertie, Ulysses can’t even stand properly yet. He’ll need Mummy to look after him.”
Bertie bit his lip. He knew how Ulysses felt about his mother. It had been obvious right from the very beginning of his small brother’s life, when Ulysses had spontaneously and copiously thrown up whenever his mother approached him. Bertie had diagnosed this as fundamental antipathy, and although loyal to his mother in the face of all her scheming, had attributed this to her ill-fated attempt to start Ulysses on music lessons at the age of eight weeks.
“I gather that a six-year-old recently auditioned for the Conservatoire in Glasgow,” Irene had remarked to Stuart.
“Ridiculous,” had been his response, which had brought forth a severe rebuke from Irene.
“That, Stuart,” she lectured, “is exactly the sort of attitude that destroys potential. What if Leopold and Anna Maria Mozart had not given their son music lessons when he was very young? What if Leopold Mozart had said ‘Ridiculous’?”
“You don’t want to hot-house children excessively,” Stuart had protested. But his heart was not in the argument, as he knew that he would lose – just as he had lost every argument with Irene, on every subject, throughout their marriage.
Bertie realised that in so far as Irene would return at weekends, he would probably still have to endure his yoga and saxophone lessons, both of which took place on Saturday. His psychotherapy appointments, however, were another matter, as these were usually scheduled for Thursday afternoons when, according to Irene’s new timetable, she would be safely up in Aberdeen and therefore unable to take him to his psychotherapist in Queen Street.
He had hardly dared hope – and his pessimism was justified: before she started her new life, Irene had extracted an undertaking from Stuart that Bertie would continue in therapy.
“I can’t emphasise it enough,” she said to Stuart. “Continuity in these matters is of the essence – the very essence. If Bertie is to grow up neurosis-free, then he must continue in therapy. He needs it, Stuart, he needs it …”
“Like a hole in the head,” muttered Stuart, sotto voce, but not quite sotto enough.
Irene’s glance told him she had heard. “I’ll be watching you, Stuart,” she said. “Aberdeen is not all that far away, you know.”
Would that it were further, thought Stuart.
Chapter 4: Ranald Braveheart Macpherson’s Book Club
Irene’s departure for Aberdeen had been easy for her, but difficult for Stuart. On the day on which she was due to drive up to Aberdeen in the family’s old Volvo estate car, its back seats flattened to allow room for her luggage, he suggested that Bertie and Ulysses be sent to Nicola’s flat.
“I don’t want them to see you going,” he said to Irene. “It’s not going to be easy for them.”
He almost choked on the words as the reality of what was happening struck home. This woman was about to leave her two small children. She may be intending to return at weekends, but the brute fact of the matter was that she was leaving home. Any parting might be a wrench, even one in which a fundamental pathology lay at the heart of a relationship; a parting was still the end of something, and he did not want his sons to see their mother drive away. That could not happen – it simply could not be allowed to happen.
Irene looked at him. “We’ve discussed this,” she said. “You assured me that the boys would have emotional continuity.”
“I know, I know, I know. You don’t have to tell me that.”
She sighed. “So why now? Why talk about their experiencing trauma just when I’m about to go?”
He returned her stare. Irene had always had a good complexion, with skin that seemed much younger than her years. How old was she? He suddenly realised he was not sure. She was two years younger than he was, and so she was thirty-eight. And he saw that around the edge of her eyes there were tiny crow’s feet developing. It was such a human thing to happen to a face; she was all mind, all theory, all domination of the world, and yet here was ordinary humanity touching her, ordinary being-in-the-world staking its claim.
“I don’t want them to see you go,” he insisted.
“It’s only for five days,” she said. “I’ll be back at the weekend.”
He shook his head. “No, you won’t.”
She raised her voice. “I beg your pardon?”
“I said: you won’t be back. I don’t want you.”
She moved towards him. He felt his heart beating faster.
“What did you say, Stuart?” she hissed. “Have you taken leave of your senses?”
He gasped. He had never been able to stand up to her. He could not. It was impossible.
He looked down at his feet, at his suede shoes that were showing their age now, and had become shabby. His shoes. His shoes. He suddenly felt ashamed of them. “All right,” he said. “Come back.”
She seemed relieved. “Yes, I will. Just as we agreed. Remember our agreement, Stuart?”
He nodded. “Yes, I remember.” He paused. “But at least let me take them round to my mother’s. At least let me do that.”
She hesitated. “If it means that much to you. I don’t think it’s necessary, but if you really want it.”
“All right. I’ll say goodbye here and then you can take them round to her.”
He hated the way she referred to his mother as her or she. “She has a name,” he muttered.
“Yes, that’s her name.” He paused. “And she’s the one who’s going to be stepping into the breach.”
Irene sighed. “You’re being very petty, Stuart.”
He felt raw. There was a persistent, numb wound somewhere within him. He had always felt that way when he witnessed human conflict or bad behaviour. He felt dirtied by it, and the feeling of dirtiness soon became a feeling of regret at the way the world was, at the thought that people could treat one another badly.
Bertie and Ulysses were in the sitting room. Bertie was reading and Ulysses was in his bouncer – a strange construction in which he could sit, supported by straps that were in due course attached to heavy-duty rubber bands.
Bertie looked up as Stuart entered the room. “Has Mummy gone yet?” he asked.
Stuart tried to sound cheerful. “Not quite yet, Bertie.”
“Has she forgotten to go?” asked Bertie. There was a note of disappointment in his voice.
“No,” answered Stuart. “She hasn’t forgotten. But you could say goodbye now and I’ll take you around to Granny’s.”
Bertie closed his book. He was reading Walter Scott. “Rob Roy was very fierce,” he said.
Stuart grasped at the straw. “I’m glad you’re enjoying it, Bertie.”
“I am,” said Bertie. “Ranald Braveheart Macpherson and I have started a book club, you know.”
“Oh yes?” said Stuart brightly, bending down to release Ulysses from his bouncer.
“We’re going to read Rob Roy and then Kidnapped, which I’ve already read but Ranald says I should read again. That’s by Mr Stevenson, Daddy. Did you know he built lighthouses?”
“His people did,” said Stuart. “I’m not sure whether he built any himself.”
“They made one out on the Bell Rock, Daddy,” Bertie continued. “It was right out at sea and they had to wait for the tide to drop before they could build it. Every day the bits they had just built were covered by the sea until the next low tide. It was jolly hard, Daddy.”
“I bet it was, Bertie. And what a good idea to have a book club. Just like Mu …” He stopped himself. He did not want to mention her. It was ridiculous, he knew, but he did not want to mention her – not just yet.
Bertie did not notice the caesura. “The only problem is that Ranald can’t really read yet. He can, if he goes very slowly, but it takes a long time for him to get through a whole page.”
“That could be a problem in a book club,” said Stuart. “What do you do about it, Bertie?”
“I’m the one who reads the books,” replied Bertie. “Then we talk about them. Ranald tells me what he thinks after I’ve told him what the book is about.”
Stuart looked away. I want to cry, he thought. I want to cry, but must not, must not; not in front of Bertie.
“We’ll go and see Mummy quickly and then I’ll take you to Granny’s.” He got the words out somehow.
And now, in the kitchen, Irene took Bertie in her arms, planting a kiss on his forehead. “You’re going to be a good boy, Bertie, aren’t you?”
“And then Mummy will come back to see you very soon. On Saturday. How many sleeps away is that? How many sleeps until Saturday?”
Stuart turned away. He felt his stomach heave; sobbing did that to him; it racked him.
Chapter 5: Scotch Pies
Stuart’s mother, Nicola, had been married to a Portuguese wine grower, Abril Tamares de Lumiares. It had not been an unhappy marriage, but it had not been strong enough to survive the efforts of their housekeeper, Maria, to displace Nicola in favour of herself. To achieve the objective of prising Abril away from his wife, the housekeeper had invoked the assistance of the local priest. This priest had never been happy with the presence of a Protestant Scotswoman in a house long noted for its piety and general support for the Church. In their view, Nicola was a historical aberration – a weed planted in a Catholic vineyard that could justifiably be resisted. The marriage itself could in time be annulled; the priest had spoken to the bishop, who took the view that marriage to a Protestant was indicative of such mental reservation – and possibly even mental instability – as to negate the consent necessary for the marital bond. There would be little difficulty, he thought, in having the whole thing set aside, leaving Abril to marry the housekeeper, who happened to be the priest’s cousin. That, of course, was an irrelevant detail, but it did have a bearing on a promise that the housekeeper had made to send her cousin on a pilgrimage to the Basilica della Santa Casa in Loreto once she found herself in charge of Abril’s finances.
The campaign proved to be remarkably easy. Although they lived in reasonable harmony, Abril and Nicola had drifted apart in their interests and Maria’s repeated whisperings had convinced him that God wanted him to marry her. In addition, she was considerably younger than Nicola and Abril, who had begun to experience that mid-life anxiety that derails so many otherwise uxorious men, found himself increasingly drawn to the housekeeper. With God added to the equation, it was an unequal battle, and while Nicola was visiting Scotland, she received a letter from Abril in which he revealed that he had decided to leave her for the housekeeper.
It was a dent to her amour propre, as any desertion must be, but it proved unexpectedly transient. Nicola found that she was happy to be back in Scotland, where the climate suited her better. And it was her place, after all: she had been brought up in the Borders and once again seeing that gentle, rolling countryside, with its well-kept farms, she was reminded that the landscape in which we spend our childhood remains the backdrop against which our inmost lives are led.
Abril Tamares de Lumiares had been generous in his provision for her, and although she was prepared to roll up her sleeves and get a job, Nicola would have enough to live on without finding employment. In addition to the divorce settlement, she had modest resources of her own, inherited from a childless aunt in St Andrews. The major part of this legacy had been invested in shares in the Clydesdale Bank, a bank that had not been enticed by any of the heady temptations that spelled ruin for other financial institutions. That investment had held its value, as had the other major asset in the aunt’s estate that now passed to Nicola – a small pie factory in Glasgow. This factory, formerly trading under the name Pies for Protestants Ltd but now called Inclusive Pies, employed no more than three people. It did not make a large profit, but it had never encumbered itself with debt.
Inclusive Pies made mutton pies of a sort that is consumed only in Scotland and known as the Scotch Pie. These pies are made in a hot-water pastry mould, with space between the rim of the pie and the pastry lid, below which the meat is to be found. This space can be filled with a variety of unhealthy fillings, baked beans or mashed potato often being thought suitable. In the case of the pies sold by Nicola’s pie company, this space was taken up with extra grease, skimmed off the large vats in which the mutton filling was cooked. When the pie was heated, this grease would liquefy, giving off a smell of the nutmeg that had been added to it.
Extra grease has always been popular in Scotland, and the pies found a ready market. But an additional stroke of marketing genius had made them perennially popular: this was their name, which was The Pure Dead Brilliant Scotch Pie (Nae Messing). People liked that. They did not like their food to be messed about with, and any product that assured them that this had not happened was bound to succeed.
When Stuart revealed to Bertie that his grandmother owned a pie factory in Glasgow his eyes opened wide with awe. “Real pies, daddy?” he asked.
“Yes,” answered Stuart. “Mutton pies. They’re called Scotch Pies, Bertie. You should ask Granny to get hold of one for you. I’m sure they’d send one over from Glasgow.”
In Bertie’s mind, the fact that the pies came from Glasgow was an additional attraction. He had long wanted to live in Glasgow, where he imagined he would be free. There was no psychotherapy in Glasgow; there was no yoga to speak of; and now there were mutton pies. This promised land, only forty miles away by train, was a world to which Bertie had always felt drawn. Now here he was with a real Glasgow connection – and to a pie factory at that.
On the day Irene left for Aberdeen, Nicola returned to Scotland Street with Bertie and Ulysses and a bag she had extracted from the fridge of her rented flat in Northumberland Street. She kept the contents of this bag secret, in spite of several polite but pointed questions from Bertie, until now, around the kitchen table in Scotland Street, she revealed four Pure Dead Brilliant Scotch Pies (Nae Messing).
“I thought we might all have one for our tea,” said Nicola, unwrapping one of the pies from its greaseproof paper.
“Even Ulysses?” asked Bertie. “Mummy usually just feeds him on carrots.”
Nicola and Stuart exchanged glances.
“Even Ulysses,” said Nicola. “Babies love Scotch Pies over in Glasgow. That’s what they feed them over there.”
“Do they give them Irn Bru in their baby bottles?” asked Bertie.
Nicola smiled. “Possibly, Bertie. They do a lot of things differently in Glasgow. It’s a city of great character.”
The pies were put into the oven and heated. The smell of mutton and nutmeg filled the room. Stuart sat down. He closed his eyes. He felt happy.
Chapter 6: Boyle’s law and business growth
Big Lou had been unsettled by an article in the business section of The Scotsman newspaper. “Any business that is not going forwards,” the writer of this article warned, “is going backwards. That’s a law of business physics. If you don’t go forwards, you go backwards.”
These two sentences had made her stop and frown. It was a proposition that she had heard time and time again: a business had to expand if it was to succeed; you could never stand still; you had to grow. It was essentially the same advice, however it was dressed up: here it was being presented as an immutable law, of the order of the laws of gravity, or of Boyle’s law …
Boyle’s law … in the same way in which Proust’s madeleine cake took him back to those mornings on which he went to say good-day to his Aunt Léonie in her Combray bedroom, the thought of Boyle’s law triggered memories in Big Lou’s mind of her classroom at Arbroath Academy. That was where she had learned physics, taught to her by Mr Donaldson, who seemed so attached to Boyle’s law, while outside the sun was on the grass and the sky was filled with light, and that Gordon Thompson, who had smiled at her at assembly – he had definitely smiled, and she was absolutely certain that the smile had been directed at her – that Gordon Thompson she now spotted walking between classroom blocks and he was carrying a pile of books for somebody, presumably one of the teachers … That Gordon Thompson, whose uncle had a fishing boat in Stonehaven and who had once said to her that he liked tall girls and Big Lou must be the tallest girl he knew. And there, on the board, chalked up by Mr Donaldson, who always seemed so sad about something or other – perhaps it was physics itself, the sheer inevitability of it, that made him feel that way – there on the board was Boyle’s law reduced to a few letters: P1V1=P2V2. Propositions like that were so firm and, in a curious way, ultimately so reassuring: the world may be in a state of crisis, established orders might be crumbling; the country might be divided against itself, but P1V1still equalled P2V2. That would never change.
The image of Mr Donaldson faded, as did that of Gordon Thompson, whom she had not seen since, eight years earlier, she had driven past him in Arbroath High Street and he had looked at her and then quickly looked away, as if embarrassed by something. She had wondered about that and decided that it must have been shame; she had noticed the same thing with a number of her old school-friends who had stayed in the area. If you had gone elsewhere, and then come back, they seemed apologetic about their continued presence, as if by staying in the place they had grown up they had somehow failed. People who went off to Edinburgh or London were adventurous – they showed ambition, they were prepared to swim in a larger pond. People who stayed in Arbroath were stick-in-the-muds, people who could not face the competition they would encounter in one of the cities. That was the feeling, anyway – that was the way some people thought about it. Of course, it was not true: it was harder, Big Lou, thought to find a job in a small place; there were plenty of jobs in Edinburgh or Glasgow, and you could always find something if you made a minimal effort. It was not so easy in the country; you had to be prepared to do anything and you had to be ready to hold several part-time jobs at the same time. In the city you could reinvent yourself; in the country you had to get along with who you already were, because everybody knew just who that was.
Big Lou had got away from Arbroath. She had given up the life she led on the family farm, Snell Mains, and gone up to Aberdeen to work in the Granite Nursing Home. A legacy from one of her charges there had allowed her to go to Edinburgh and buy the former bookshop that became her coffee bar. She had bought the shop’s entire stock of second-hand books too, and had been reading her way through those since their acquisition. She wondered what Gordon Thompson would have made of that. He was a keen reader, she recalled, and was always getting into trouble with the school library for borrowing more books than he could read, and then taking too long to return them. She wondered whether he was still a keen reader and, if they were to meet again, whether they would find that they shared tastes in literature. They had read Lewis Grassic Gibbon at school because it was a novel of their place, their surroundings, and now she remembered what Gordon Thompson had said about it when they discussed it in the classroom. He had said, “I feel sorry for those people”. She had been unsure what he meant. Was it because of the war, or the hardship of their lives, or because they were trapped in their small corner of rural Scotland where nothing would ever change? Would anybody ever feel sorry for her – stuck in her coffee bar day after day, seeing the same people, talking to them about the same things and getting the same views expressed back to her?
Was that what life entailed: not doing very much, and doing it every day, in the same place, following the same procedures and rules until you were told you were no longer needed? Big Lou sighed, and turned her attention back to the issue of business expansion. According to conventional wisdom, the fact that her coffee shop was not going forwards meant that it was condemned to go backwards. And if things went backwards, they would undoubtedly contract, and possibly collapse altogether.
Big Lou sighed again. She did not think that bald proposition about the need for expansion applied to her own business. She would ask Matthew about that, though, because he had a good understanding of business and knew how to read a balance sheet. Matthew was due to come in later that day and she could ask him then. He would be bound to know, as he read the business pages more assiduously than she did. He would tell her, and would settle this dispute about expansion. She hoped that he would say, “Lou – there’s no need for a small business like yours to expand.” But she feared he might shake his head and repeat the verdict of so many accountants and finance managers. He might well say, “Lou, you simply have to accept that the world has changed and that there’s less room for small coffee bars like yours.”
If she said that – and it was a possibility – Big Lou would stand up for herself. She had learned to look after herself, a long time ago, in the playground. She could do it again.
Chapter 7: Schadenfreude
As Matthew crossed Dundas Street to Big Lou’s café, his thoughts were taken up with Pat, whom he had left in charge of the gallery while he took his customary, mid-morning coffee break. Pat was still working for him part-time – an arrangement that suited both of them well. From Matthew’s point of view, it was useful to have somebody who knew what she was doing but who, at the same time, was flexible in her working hours. From Pat’s perspective, the job was ideal because she was now enrolled for a master’s degree at the university, and while that required she attend a certain number of seminars each week, it still left her time to earn some money. Working in a gallery, with a sympathetic employer like Matthew, was infinitely preferable to taking the sort of job that so many other students were obliged to make do with – working as a barista in a coffee bar, or, less glamorously, stacking shelves in a supermarket, both of which forms of employment tended to be paid at the minimum wage, or barely above it. Matthew paid more generously – in fact, he paid far too much, even in Pat’s opinion, although that was not a matter she planned to take up with him.
On that particular morning, Matthew had been troubled by Pat’s rather lacklustre greeting when she had arrived for work. Normally she smiled; normally she enquired after the latest doings of the boys, the triplets, Rognvald, Tobermory, and Fergus, whose exploits she had always followed with lively interest. But nothing was said about them that morning, and Pat simply nodded mutely when Matthew announced that he was going over the road to Big Lou’s.
He looked at her askance. “Is everything all right?”
She stared back at him, answering flatly, “Yes. Fine. Everything’s fine.”
It isn’t, thought Matthew, as he crossed Dundas Street. He had seen this before, and it had always been to do with boyfriends. She needs somebody, he said to himself. She’s fed up with being by herself. She needs a proper, decent boyfriend this time. Somebody who would be permanent, or at least semi-permanent. He paused. The opposite of Bruce. That was the answer. And she also needed to have a sense of where she was going, which at the moment seemed to be nowhere. You’re going nowhere, he thought. That’s what he should say to her: You’re going nowhere. But that, of course, was not the sort of thing people liked to say to other people. As a general rule, those who were going nowhere did not appreciate being informed of the fact; and those who saw others going nowhere usually felt uncomfortable about pointing out another’s lack of direction.
Big Lou greeted him warmly as he entered the café. She was fond of Matthew, for all his faults, which were, in her view – the view from Arbroath, essentially – typical of the faults of Edinburgh people in general: a certain satisfaction with the way things were in Edinburgh; a tendency to believe that things in Glasgow were, at best, all right (if that was the sort of thing one liked); an attachment to a number of holy places (Murrayfield and Myreside rugby stadiums, Charlotte Square, et cetera); and a quaint theology that dictated that those who lived in places like London only did so because their karma, negatively influenced by failures in past lives, so dictated. Big Lou did not believe that it was a misfortune to be English, but she knew that many in Edinburgh flirted with that view, even if they were hesitant to express it in public. Matthew, she knew, was not like that, even if others were.
“So, Matthew,” she said as she ground the beans for his coffee. “What’s going on?”
“Not much, Lou,” he replied. And then he immediately qualified his response. “Actually, I’m a bit worried about Pat.”
Big Lou damped down the grounds with the small, plug-shaped instrument that Matthew called her “coffee-packing-thingy”. “Oh, yes?” she said. “What’s wrong with her?”
“I think she doesn’t know where she’s going.”
Big Lou raised an eyebrow. “Who does?”
“She barely said a word to me today,” Matthew continued. “She normally asks after the boys. Nothing.”
Big Lou shrugged. “People have their off-days, Matthew.”
“I know that,” he said. “But I think her situation is a bit grim. I was round at her flat last week – dropping in copy for a catalogue she’s been working on. And I met her flatmates. They’re seriously depressing, Lou.”
“And I also think she doesn’t like being by herself. I think she’d like to have a boyfriend.”
Big Lou sighed. “Who wouldn’t?”
“And I feel that she still has a bit of a thing for Bruce.”
Big Lou shook her head. “Bad mistake,” she said.
Matthew agreed. “Sometimes people just don’t learn. We repeat our mistakes, don’t we?”
Matthew’s coffee was now ready and Big Lou passed him the steaming latte. “One consolation of being over forty,” she said, “is that you have the pleasure of seeing people under forty fail to grasp things that you know they’ll grasp when they’re over forty.” And then she added, “If you see what I mean.”
Matthew took a sip of his coffee. “Schadenfreude,” he said. “Which means …”
Big Lou cut him short. “Oh, I ken all aboot your actual Schadenfreude, Matthew. Don’t think I don’t know about that.”
Matthew was apologetic. “Sorry, Lou. I didn’t mean to be …”
“Condescending,” supplied Big Lou. “No, but as it happens I’ve read all about Schadenfreude.” She paused. “Pleasure in the discomfort of others. It’s strange, isn’t it?”
“Something to do with envy?” asked Matthew.
“Aye, envy’s a gey powerful emotion, Matthew. Lots of folk want what others have.”
Matthew sighed. “I know all about that, Lou. I suppose I’m pretty lucky …”
Big Lou nodded. “Aye, you are. And do you find that other people envy you? Do you notice it?”
Matthew did. He had much to be grateful for, and he was very much aware that those who have much to be grateful for must be tactful in their enjoyment of their good fortune. He had Elspeth and the triplets; he had his gallery, with his desk and the chair that gave such good lumbar support; he had … Oh, one could spend a long time enumerating the things he had, and yet there was poor Pat, who had such an appealing manner and was so well-informed on twentieth-century Scottish art, and she had nobody to go home to in the evening apart other than those dreadful flatmates.
“Big Lou,” he said, “we must do something for Pat. We have to find somebody for her. A boyfriend.”
Big Lou looked dubious. “Tricky,” she said. “Match-making, Matthew, almost always ends in disaster.”
“Nonsense,” said Matthew. “Not true.”
Chapter 8: He loved him more than ice-cream
Back at Nine Mile Burn that evening, as the late July sun painted the distant Moorfoot Hills with a mellow gold, Matthew drove slowly down the drive, thinking of his earlier conversation with Big Lou. He had not given much thought to her warning once he returned to the gallery; he had been too busy hanging a new exhibition to think about much else. But now, as the house came into view beyond the cluster of ill-behaved rhododendrons, he remembered her words. You think you’re helping people, she had said. And in reality, you’re making everything worse. I’ve seen it time and time again, Matthew. Dinna interfere; just dinna interfere.
As he parked the car in front of the house, he saw the three boys, toddlers now, but steady enough on their feet and eager to get into every nook and cranny, every out-of-bounds kitchen cupboard; keen, with all the delighted enthusiasm of that age to press buttons on devices, flick the switches of lights, and generally poke, prod and dismantle the world about them. There they were, their noses pressed to the window of the porch, with James, the au pair, standing grinning behind them. They loved James – they loved him as much as they loved their building bricks and their old-fashioned Noah’s Ark; they loved him as much as they loved the Toffee Fudgie-Wudgie ice cream that Matthew occasionally picked up for them from Luca’s ice-cream parlour at Holy Corner in Morningside – that fact Matthew had learned directly from Rognvald, who had remarked one day, à propos of nothing, “Please don’t make James die, Daddy. I love him more than ice-cream.”
Matthew had been rendered momentarily speechless. The discovery of language by children brought forth the most extraordinary remarks, and one should not be surprised by anything. But this …
“I’m not going to make anybody die, Rognvald,” he said. “James isn’t going to die, my darling.”
“Good,” said Rognvald.
Matthew wondered what had occasioned this strange concern on Rognvald’s part. Had Elspeth talked to the boys about death? Now he remembered: they had recently lost a budgie, and the boys had found the bird, small, blue, and lifeless on the floor of its cage. Elspeth had come across them shaking the bird, trying to prise open its beak with a fork, and she had been obliged to explain to them that the budgie could not be brought back to life.
“He’s gone to heaven,” she said, aware, even as she spoke, that this explanation created as many questions as it purported to answer.
And that proved to be the case. Where was heaven? Did people go there too? Were there toilets up there? These theological complexities, she realised, could not be answered, and she had brought the discussion to an end by giving a piece of toffee to each boy. This stuck their jaws together, and silenced them – a simple expedient, even if not one advocated in most contemporary child-rearing manuals. Later, when she told Matthew about it, he had said that he did not want to bring the boys up to believe in things that were not there. “Ghosts, heaven, all those things,” he said. “Why fill kids’ minds with non-existent clutter? They only find out the truth later on.”
“And Santa?” asked Elspeth. “And the tooth fairy?”
Matthew hesitated. How dedicated a rationalist did one have to be to deny the existence of Santa Claus? One of his own clearest early memories was of the moment when he had been told of the non-existence of Santa. The truth had been conveyed to him by his father, as they stood outside in the garden of the family house at Fairmilehead. Matthew had been looking up at the night sky, which was clear, and studded by fields of distant stars.
“Which way is the North Pole?” he had asked his father. “I want to see if we can see Santa.”
His father, bending down, had whispered in his ear, “You don’t believe in all that, do you, Matthew? Now that you’re a big boy, you don’t have to pretend.”
But he had not been pretending. He had believed in Santa in the same way in which he believed in Waverley Station or the Flying Scotsman, or any of the other things he could touch and see.
His father had continued, “You still get presents, you know, even if you don’t believe any more.”
That had calmed his fears, but it had still been an overwhelming, sad moment for him. Now, remembering that disappointment, he realised that Santa was the one myth that we might try to preserve when all others had been debunked or expired. It was a small sprig of hope in a relentless world, a tiny island in the shrinking domain of childhood innocence. Talking animals, AA Milne, counting rhymes, nursery stories were all being taken over by the mass-produced, de-cultured electronica of modern childhood.
Now he saw the boys wave, their faces full of excitement and smiles. To be welcomed back by dogs and children, thought Matthew – what a privilege that was; and suddenly, unexpectedly, he felt a cold hand of dread about his heart. These things, this love and warmth, were so vulnerable, given to us on the most temporary of terms. And yet we took them for granted, against all the evidence of every actuary there ever was; we assumed that it would last forever. What was that poem? It was something of Auden’s, he remembered, a poem he had heard recited in a film about weddings and a funeral, when the poet had said: I thought that love would last forever: I was wrong.
James brought the boys out to greet him. They clutched at their father, hugging his legs; they bombarded him with questions and urgent news, delivered breathlessly. He thought: I was wrong. I was wrong.
Elspeth appeared. She kissed him. She said: “Come into the kitchen and talk to me while I make the boys’ tea.”
Matthew came from a home where they said dinner rather than tea. But now, in the warmth of this family welcome, he realised that it really should have been tea all along.
Chapter 9: Bacon without nitrites
With the triplets safely in bed, Matthew, Elspeth and James sat down at the kitchen table. They ate there most evenings, other than when there were guests, when Matthew would lay the table in the dining room, setting out the place mats with their views of the Grassmarket, the Castle, and Heriot’s, the silver candlesticks – Edinburgh hall-marked – that had been a wedding present from his late uncle, and the heavy Stuart Crystal glasses of which Elspeth’s parents had divested themselves on downsizing. Around the kitchen table, the setting was much more contemporary: Danish cutlery, so advanced conceptually as to make it difficult to distinguish knife from fork; plates from a design approved by the Museum of Modern Art in New York; and cranberry-coloured glasses that Elspeth had first seen in House and Garden and which sat very well with the shade of red she had chosen for their recently-installed Aga range. This, after all, was haute-bourgeois Edinburgh, although admittedly a few miles out of kilter.
James had been with them for two months now. He had joined the household at a time of real crisis. Claire, the Australian au pair who had preceded him, had been a success with the triplets, but had ultimately proved to be unreliable. She had taken up with Bruce, who had, much to Matthew’s surprise, met his match in her. Claire was an extreme-sports enthusiast, and had insisted Bruce accompany her on an ill-fated para-mountain-biking trip to Skye. Para-mountain-biking is one of the more dangerous of the extreme sports, involving, as it does, cycling over the edge of a cliff or down a steep hillside on a bicycle attached to a large kite-like wing. The theory is that the cyclist, along with the mountain bike, sails upwards, in the way of a glider caught in ascending thermals. The sensation is said to be like no other: the earth shrinks beneath one, the wind, unconstrained by any surrounding structure, envelops the rider with its touch, and by continuing to turn the pedals one feels as if one is actually riding across the sky.
It is not, of course, a sport for everyone, and Bruce, for all his courage, did not take to it. His initial flight was less than successful, and the one that followed even less so. On that second launch into the wind blowing in off the Minch, Bruce reached a height of several hundred feet before his supporting wing suddenly dipped and pushed him swiftly downwards. He managed to land, but did so with such force that he fell from the mountain bike, caught his left hand in the spokes of the front wheel, and suffered minor lacerations to his brow. Claire was concerned, but only momentarily so; she had come under the spell of the instructor, and joined him in laughing good-naturedly at Bruce’s ignominious landing. After that, she and Bruce parted company and she went off with the instructor to a folk music festival on South Uist. This left Matthew and Elspeth in urgent need of replacement domestic support. And into that vacuum stepped an unlikely candidate – James, the nineteen-year-old godson of Matthew’s friend, the Duke of Johannesburg, who had sold them the house at Nine Mile Burn. James had left James Gillespie’s School in Edinburgh, where he had been the winner of the German Language Cup, the Senior Art Prize, and the Lord Provost’s Award for General Attitude. Matthew had been hesitant about taking on a male au pair; Elspeth less so. “Don’t be so old-fashioned,” she said to him. “These days it makes no difference. Boys, girls – it’s all the same.”
Matthew had struggled with this claim. Were boys and girls all the same? He knew that the days in which there were male roles and female roles were well and truly over, at least with regard to employment and public office, but he had a lingering feeling that the personal psychologies of men and women had not yet coalesced into a truly androgynous composite. It struck him that there were still differences of outlook, and that even if men had become gentler and more sympathetic, and woman, by the same token, had become harder and less feeling, there were still members of both sexes who held onto the old categories of male and female interests. There were still plenty of men, Matthew felt, who did not much care about their appearance and who therefore did not use facial moisturiser; these men were never more content than watching football or drinking beer, or indeed doing both of these at the same time, and in an unmoisturised state. These men still existed, and until they were finally rooted out and reconstructed, they could not be entirely ignored.
Matthew was not sure that a young man would have the patience to cope with the triplets. And would he feel comfortable in doing the things that an au pair in charge of small children had to do? The boys were still imperfectly toilet-trained and that was not necessarily something that everybody could cope with. And would he be able to cuddle them and comfort them when they scraped their knees – as they were always doing – or acquired the bruises that were the inevitable concomitant of running around the furniture at low level?
Elspeth thought he could be capable of doing all of this, and she proved to be right. James soon revealed himself to be more than capable of looking after the boys, as well as being an enthusiastic house-cleaner. He cycled to the supermarket in Penicuik, where he did the shopping unbidden, but with economy and insight into the household’s needs. He fixed the dishwasher when its complicated filter system clogged and regurgitated; and he was, they discovered to their delight, a talented and inventive cook.
So when they sat down to dinner that evening, the Danish cutlery and the MOMA-approved plates at the ready, it was to a meal concocted by James.
“I got hold of some scallops,” he said. “And I’ve made some bacon to go with them.”
“Made bacon?” asked Matthew.
It was Elspeth who answered. “James cures his own bacon,” she said, “Don’t you, James?”
James smiled sweetly. “I do. I cure in a mixture of salt and spices. Which means there are no nitrites in it.”
“You don’t want nitrites,” said Elspeth.
“No, you don’t,” said James, rising from the table to check up on a pan on the Aga. “And it’s really quite easy. You get hold of a pork loin and you rub the salt into it. Really rub it in. And you mix the spices with the salt – oregano, rosemary even – that sort of thing. Then you put it in a plastic bag and put it in the fridge for three days.”
“He dries it out in the fridge,” said Elspeth. “Then it’s ready,”
Matthew gazed at James, who had returned the table. James smiled back at him, the dimples in his cheek appearing as his smile broadened. He is very attractive, thought Matthew – adding, very quickly, to women, that is. And then he thought: Pat? No. Ridiculous thought. Inappropriate. But then …
Chapter 10: An inadvisable home construction project
The scallops and the nitrite-free bacon had been perfectly prepared.
“How do you do it, James?” said Matthew as he finished off the last morsel on his plate.
James looked down modestly. “It’s not all that complicated,” he replied. “The trick with scallops is not to wash them, of course. That stops them absorbing water. And then never over-cook. That’s rule number one when dealing with any sea-food.”
Elspeth agreed with this. “Some people wreck lobster,” she said. “They boil it until it becomes all rubbery. It’s awful.”
Matthew nodded. He did not like rubbery lobster; in fact, he had become wary of eating lobster ever since, on a trip to France, he had seen live lobsters being tossed into a pot of boiling water with Gallic insouciance. He was sure he had heard their screams – high pitched, whistling sounds – as they met their agonizing deaths. People said that this was impossible; that lobsters had no voice at all, were mute, as oysters or mussels undoubtedly were; but even if that was true, he wondered how anybody could toss a living creature into boiling water. And yet, and yet … here was this bacon on his plate, and that had once been a pig, an intelligent, emotionally receptive animal that had perhaps experienced all the joy of nosing about in a muddy field and feeling the sun on its back.
He wondered about scallops. He felt no particular compunction in eating them as he very much doubted whether they had any of the attributes that made for moral status. A pig might have thoughts, might experience emotion; a scallop would hardly think, or even be conscious in the sense in which we thought of consciousness. Their watery existence, resting on the sand of some distant seabed, did not involve any real sense of a past, a present, and a future. Nor, he imagined, were scallops aware of the fact that they were scallops; unlike pigs, which were conscious of being pigs… Or were they? Did pigs know they were pigs, or did they think that everything around them was just part of an undifferentiated reality that revolved around, and created, an all-enveloping state of piggishness?
He became aware that Elspeth had said something about sauce, but he did not hear it. Nor did he pay much attention to the reply James gave. He said something about using a small amount of chilli, but then Elspeth asked, “Where did you learn to cook, James? Was it at home?”
They had met James’ parents. His father was an accountant and his mother a primary school teacher. They had struck Matthew as being a fairly typical middle-aged couple; the father, Hugh, looked as if he was the type of man who might be able to cook. It was the Duke of Johannesburg, though, who had inspired James to cook.
“My godfather,” the young man said. “My Uncle Joburg, as I call him.” He paused. “You know he’s not a real duke? Well, not entirely, because his father never really got the dukedom that the government of the time had promised him. He felt cheated.”
“As well he might,” said Matthew. “Governments can’t just promise to do things and then decide not do them.”
“But that’s exactly what many of them do,” Elspeth pointed out. “They say something when they’re out of power and then, once they’re in, they do the exact opposite.”
Matthew laughed. “I’m remembering the Lib Dems,” he said. “They made a promise before they went into coalition with the Tories and then they had to confess that being in power was very different and they couldn’t do what they said they’d do.”
“But at least they had the honesty to say it,” Elspeth cut in.
“True,” said Matthew. And then, turning to James, “So your godfather inspired you?”
“Yes. I’ve always been close to my Uncle Joburg – ever since I was a little boy. He taught me how to play the pipes. And then one day he said, ‘It’s about time you learned how to make a clootie dumpling.’ And that was that. I found that I really loved cooking.”
“You’re lucky to have a godfather like that,” said Elspeth. “He’s such fun.”
“Yes,” said James. “You know, I’ve never seen him looking unhappy. He’s always cheerful. Except twice, that is. I remember just two occasions when he was pretty low.”
They waited. James’ smile had gone, to be replaced by a grave expression. “One time was when the Lord Lyon was after him, for claiming to be a duke when he wasn’t. They really hounded him, you know. And then the other was when he heard that his cousin in America had died. She lived in a place called Columbus.”
“Where’s that?” asked Elspeth.
Matthew knew. “It’s in Ohio, isn’t it?”
“Yes,” said James. “This cousin of his was called Barb. She owned a small country club just outside Columbus. Uncle Joburg said that it was quite a place – people went there to play tennis and sit about on the veranda. He said it was a really nice club.”
“And then?” asked Matthew. He feared that the story would not end well; any tale that began in such a setting was bound to go wrong after a time.
“And then,” James continued, “she was visiting her country club one weekend – it was a Saturday, I think – and she was watching a game of tennis when apparently she went up in flames – just like that. She caught fire.”
Mathew caught his breath. Spontaneous combustion! He had read about this phenomenon, which he, at least, thought was a justified inference from such evidence there was. Others, he knew, were more sceptical, insisting that there always had to be an external source of heat before the human body could catch fire. But there were these apparently otherwise inexplicable cases in which people suddenly shot up in flames, sometimes with little more than their shoes remaining.
“She burned to a cinder,” James continued. “They had a fire extinguisher in the country club kitchens, but they couldn’t get the pin out of the trigger. You know how they have those pins – just like hand grenades.”
“It had become all corroded,” James said. “Kitchens can develop rather salty air. Things can corrode.”
“How awful,” said Elspeth. “For both of them.”
“Yes,” said James. “Uncle Joburg was really upset. He was very fond of his cousin. I met her too, when she came over once. She had flaming red hair.”
Matthew frowned. Was that a portent, he wondered – or even a causal factor?
“How is he?” he asked. “The Duke? Have you seen him recently?”
James put down his Danish fork, or knife.
“I’m a bit worried, Matthew,” he said. “You know that Gaelic-speaking driver of his? Padraig?”
“He’s persuaded my uncle to finance him in a ridiculous project he has. And to help him – actually help him physically.”
“Doing what?” asked Elspeth.
They listened, increasingly appalled, as James told them of the kit that Padraig had bought for the building of a small, two-seater seaplane. “They’re working on it in the byre at Single Malt House,” James said. “And they’re both having flying lessons out at East Fortune Airport. Once they’ve built it, they both want to fly it from some sea loch over in Argyll.”
“Oh my God,” exclaimed Elspeth.
“Yes,” agreed James. “OMG.”
Chapter 11: Merry hart with small possessioun …
That Saturday, when Angus Lordie took Cyril out for his morning walk in Drummond Place Gardens, he came across Bertie siting on the stairs, directly outside the Pollocks’ front door. That door was slightly ajar, and Angus could hear a radio playing music inside the flat, along with the sound of voices. Then a child began to cry.
“That’s Ulysses, Mr Lordie,” Bertie ventured. “My little brother.”
“Of course,” said Angus. “I’ve met Ulysses, Bertie. And a fine little chap he is, too.”
Bertie looked doubtful. “He cries a lot, Mr Lordie. When Mummy was here he cried all the time. Now that she’s in Aberdeen, he doesn’t cry quite so much.”
Angus said nothing, but thought: post hoc, propter hoc. He looked down on the small boy and smiled. He noticed that Bertie was wearing a freshly-ironed shirt, and trousers with a well-pressed crease. The formality of his outfit was finished off by a small, clip-on tartan bow-tie.
“Special occasion today, Bertie?” he asked.
Bertie took a few moments to answer. He stared down at the stone step on which he was sitting; he looked disconsolate. Eventually he said, “There’s a party, Mr Lordie.”
“Ah,” said Angus. “And am I to assume that you don’t want to go? Am I right?”
Bertie nodded mutely. Cyril, a good judge of human mood, nudged gently at his side – canine body language for I understand. Dogs understood misery.
“Whose party is it?” asked Angus. “Somebody at school?”
Bertie nodded again. “It’s a girl called Olive,” he said. “She’s very bossy. When I went to her last birthday party, it was full of girls, Mr Lordie. Hundreds of them. I was the only boy.”
“Oh, that’s bad luck, Bertie.”
“Yes. They played Jane Austen all the time – that’s all that they wanted to do. And I had to be Mr Darcy for the whole afternoon.”
Angus suppressed a smile. “That can’t be easy, Bertie.” And added, “Even for Mr Darcy himself, I imagine.” He paused. “Do you have to go, Bertie? You could always send your apologies.”
Bertie sighed. “My granny says I have to go. She said I had accepted the invitation, and we must always keep our promises.”
“Did you accept?” asked Angus.
Bertie sighed again. “Only because Olive made me,” he replied. “She said that if I didn’t accept she’d tell everybody never to talk to me again.”
Angus frowned. “That’s very bad, Bertie. But I can see why you felt you had to say yes.”
“So now I have to go. At least Ranald will be there this time.”
Angus remembered Ranald Braveheart Macpherson, whom he had met, with Bertie, after that remarkable rugby match when Scotland trounced New Zealand at Murrayfield. “Well, that’s something. Maybe Olive’s party won’t be so bad after all.”
Bertie looked unconvinced. Once again, Cyril nudged at him with his sympathetic, wet, dog’s nose.
“Cyril doesn’t want you to be sad, Bertie,” said Angus. “He wants you to cheer up.”
“I’ll try, Mr Lordie,” said Bertie. “But I wish I could … I wish I could go and live in Glasgow, Mr Lordie. That’s what I’d really like.”
Angus lowered himself onto the stair beside Bertie. “Listen,” he said, “the world often isn’t quite as we’d like it to be, Bertie. But it’s a mistake, you know, to think that things will be better somewhere else. It’s an old mistake.” He paused. Things were better, he thought, for this little boy now that his mother had decamped to Aberdeen, but obviously not everything was perfect just yet.
“Have you heard of the town mouse and the country mouse, Bertie?”
Bertie shook his head.
“Well, it’s a famous old Scottish poem by Robert Henryson. He got the story from Aesop. They both lived quite a long time ago.”
Bertie was listening.
“And the story’s quite simple really,” Angus continued. “There was a mouse who lived in the country, you see, and she thought it would be a good idea to come into town and stay with her sister. She was told of all the fine food – the luxuries – that her sister had in the town. And the food was pretty good. But there was a cat, Bertie, and he gave the country mouse a real fright. He was called Gib, if I remember correctly.”
“Did Gib eat her?”
“No, he threw her about a bit, but the country mouse managed to get away – just. But it made her think. And do you know what she thought?”
“She thought that it was a mistake to leave her simple life in the country. She thought it was a mistake to think that somebody else’s life is better than your own.”
Angus waited. Cyril looked at Bertie, who continued to stare at the stone beneath his feet.
“I don’t remember many of the lines,” Angus said. “But I do remember these. Henryson – he was the poet, Bertie – said: Thairfor, best thing in eird, I say for me/ Is merry hart with small possessioun. That’s in old Scots, Bertie, but I rather think you’ll understand it. Have a merry heart even if you don’t have much else.”
He watched the small boy struggle. And as he did so, he felt that urge we all feel when we see the young in their unhappiness. We want to reassure them, This will not last – it really won’t. It will get better. It will. But we don’t say that, and even if we did, the young would not listen, for the simple reason that they have not lived long enough to know what we, for our part, have learned.
Angus rose to his feet. “There’s another poem about a mouse, Bertie.”
He did not have time to tell him. “To a mouse,” said Bertie. “Mr Burns wrote it, Mr Lordie. He disturbed a mouse when he was ploughing a field. He felt very sorry for it.”
“He did, indeed, Bertie,” said Angus.
Bertie stood up. “I have to go,” he said.
“Feeling better?” asked Angus.
Bertie was silent, but his nod gave the answer.
“And some time soon I must tell you about a plan I’ve hatched.”
Bertie looked up enquiringly.
“I’m going to build a shed,” said Angus. “I’m going to build a shed in Drummond Place Gardens.”
Bertie drew in his breath. A shed! He looked up at Angus, who knew immediately what the look meant.
“Of course, you can,” said Angus. “Of course, you can use my shed.”
Olive’s party, and all the dread it entailed, receded. A shed would change everything. But then Bertie thought: what possible use could an adult have for a shed? Was Mr Lordie planning something?
Chapter 12: Olive’s party
Olive received her guests at the front door. This was not so much out of courtesy, but was done to ensure that all presents were scrutinised before being stored in such a way as to prevent their repossession by the donor. This precaution was necessary, Olive felt, after an incident at Lakshmi’s party, where one of the guests had taken back her present after a spat with the host. One could not be too careful when it came to presents, Olive thought.
“So, Bertie,” said Olive, eyeing her guest with a certain triumph, “it’s just as well you decided to come.”
“But I told you I was coming, Olive,” said Bertie. “I told you last week.”
Olive pouted. “Oh, I knew you said you’d come, Bertie. I knew that. But if you believe everything everybody says – especially boys – then you’re in for a big disappointment, aren’t you?”
This last remark was addressed as much to Olive’s lieutenant, Pansy, as it was to Bertie. Pansy was standing immediately behind Olive, ready to give as much support, physical as well as verbal, as was required.
Pansy was in full agreement. “That’s right,” she said. “All boys are well-known liars.”
Bertie bit his tongue. There was no point in arguing with Olive, he felt – especially on her home territory.
He tried to pass through the hall and into the corridor beyond, but Olive prevented him.
“So, what have you brought me, Bertie? I hope you’ve got a present.”
Bertie had, and he now passed over the neatly-wrapped present that his grandmother, Nicola, had prepared for him. Olive took it suspiciously.
“I hope you like it,” said Bertie. “Happy birthday, Olive.”
Olive did not acknowledge this; she was busy tearing off the wrapping paper, which she handed to Pansy. The present was now revealed. It was a large plastic swan, its middle section padded in pink satin.
“What’s this?” said Olive.
“It’s a pin cushion,” said Bertie. “You put pins into it. It’s a way of storing them.”
Olive stared at him. “I haven’t got any pins,” she said coldly.
“You might get some,” said Bertie. He wishes that his grandmother had bought something more conventional. He knew that she cordially detested Olive, but he felt there was no point in provoking her unnecessarily.
Olive tossed the pin-cushion aside. Her attention had now returned to Bertie.
“So, why are you wearing that stupid bow-tie, Bertie?” she asked.
“It’s really stupid,” chimed in Pansy.
“And gay,” said Olive.
Bertie felt the back of his neck getting warm. He did not know what Olive meant, but he sensed she was not being complimentary. “It’s not gay, Olive. It’s my tartan. I’ve got a kilt just like it.”
“A kilt!” exclaimed Olive. “I bet you look even more stupid in a kilt, Bertie.”
“Ranald Braveheart Macpherson wears a kilt,” said Pansy. “He looks stupid even without a kilt, but when he puts on a kilt it’s even worse, with those spindly legs of his.”
“Yes,” agreed Olive. “I’d really hate to be Ranald Braveheart Macpherson. It’d be bad enough being you, Bertie, but a hundred times worse being Ranald.”
“I can just imagine it,” said Pansy.
“Anyway,” Olive went on, “you’re very welcome to my party, Bertie. Please go through into the living room and get yourself a helium balloon. And don’t pop it, because there’s only one per person.”
In the living room, Bertie surveyed his fellow guests with sinking heart. There they all were – the people who made up Olive’s circle of friends – Lakshmi, Priscilla, Chloe and Chardonnay. But then he saw Ranald Braveheart Macpherson, standing by himself in a corner, and his despair lifted slightly.
Ranald was relieved to see Bertie. “I’m really glad you’re here, Bertie,” he said. “You know what they’re going to play?”
Bertie’s heart sank. “Jane Austen?”
Ranald shook his head. “No. They’ve got a new game. They’re going to play a game called The Crown. It’s all about the Queen.”
Bertie asked Ranald whether he had played it before.
“No,” Ranald replied. “But Olive and Pansy have told me how it works. Olive’s going to be the Queen and Pansy will be Princess Margaret.”
“And what about us?” asked Bertie.
“I’ve got to be the Duke of Edinburgh,” said Ranald. “I have to walk just behind Olive and say nothing. She warned me not to say anything at all.”
“And what about me?” Bertie asked. “Did Olive tell you who I have to be?”
“You’re going to have to be one of the Queen’s dogs,” said Ranald. He could tell from Bertie’s expression that this news was not well-received, and he tried to reassure his friend. “It won’t be hard, Bertie. All you have to do is go down on your hands and knees and follow Olive wherever she goes.”
“It sounds like a really stupid game, Ranald.”
“I know,” agreed Ranald. “But what can we do, Bertie? We’re outnumbered.”
Bertie could think of nothing that would relieve them of their predicament. He and Ranald made their way to the centre of the room where, on a small side table, several plates of macaroons and chocolates had been placed. Helping themselves to a macaroon, they watched the girls on the other side of the room.
“You know something, Bertie,” said Ranald. “My dad hates Olive’s dad. He says nobody trusts him and he has pinched a lot of people’s money.”
Bertie’s eyes widened.
“Yes,” Ranald continued. “Fortunately, we’ve got a safe, as you know, Bertie. So Olive’s dad couldn’t come and steal our money. I’m really glad about that.”
“So am I, Ranald,” said Bertie.
“Lots of adults hate other adults, you know, Bertie,” Ranald said. “My mummy hates your mummy, you know.”
Bertie said nothing.
“And she says your daddy hasn’t got a backbone.”
Bertie remained silent.
“Is that true, Bertie,” asked Ranald. “Can you be born without a backbone? Because it must make it quite hard to stand up straight, don’t you think?”
“It’s not true, Ranald,” said Bertie. “My dad has got a backbone. It’s connected to his ribs, I think. Maybe your mummy’s thinking of somebody else …”
“Possibly,” said Ranald. He noticed that Olive was about to make an announcement. “I suppose we’d better listen. Olive’s going to say something.”
Olive stepped into the middle of the floor. “I’ve got something really important to say,” she said. “So you’d all better shut up.”
“I hate her,” whispered Ranald. “I hate Olive so much.”
Bertie looked down at the floor. Why did people dislike one another so much? Why was the world like this – so full of feelings that did not really need to be there?
“I heard you, Ranald Braveheart Macpherson,” said Olive. “I heard what you said.”
Chapter 13: Olive spells it out
Olive stood in the middle of the floor and addressed her assembled guests.
“I know you’re all really pleased to be at my birthday party,” she said. “So, I’d like to thank you all for coming and also for the presents.” She paused, acknowledging an encouraging smile from Pansy. “Most of the presents were quite nice – most, but not all.” And here she sought out Bertie, and fixed him with an intense stare.
“But the whole point about a birthday is not to get presents,” said Olive. “It’s to share with your friends. Birthdays are about sharing, you know.”
While this brought murmurs of agreement from the girls, Bertie and Ranald remained impassive.
“I want you all to enjoy yourselves,” said Olive. “We’ve got a really good game to play, but before we do that you should have something to eat.”
“There are plenty of cakes,” said Pansy. “Although Bertie and Ranald have already had one and so they’re going to have to wait until everybody else has had theirs.”
“Yes,” said Olive. “Don’t think Pansy and I won’t see you if you have more than your fair share. We will, won’t we Pansy?”
“Yes,” said Pansy emphatically.
While her guests helped themselves to macaroons, Olive sought out Bertie and Ranald.
“There’s something I meant to ask you, Bertie,” she said. “You know how you and I are engaged? How you’re going to marry me when we’re twenty? You haven’t forgotten that, I hope – because I haven’t, you know.”
Bertie opened his mouth to answer, but was cut short by Olive.
“I know what you’re going to say, Bertie Pollock,” she said. “But it’s no use denying it. I’ve got it in writing.”
“You made that up,” protested Bertie. “I saw you copying my signature, Olive.”
Olive pursed her lips. “How dare you accuse me of forgery, Bertie! And you know what? I’m not going to argue with you. There’s no point in arguing with somebody who hasn’t got a leg to stand on. All I wanted to do was to ask you whether you’d chosen your best man yet. That’s all.”
Bertie gasped. “We’re not going to get married, Olive …”
Olive ignored this. “Because I think you should, Bertie. It may be a long time from now …”
“Thirteen years,” said Ranald helpfully. “Twenty take away seven is thirteen.”
Olive gave Ranald a dismissive glance before continuing, “You have to think of people’s diaries, Bertie. People have a lot to do these days. You need to give them lots of notice. Even somebody like Ranald will have some commitments. It doesn’t matter that he’s got no friends, he’ll still be busy doing something.”
“I’m not going to …”
Olive cut him short. “So, I think you should ask Ranald right now to be your best man, Bertie.”
Ranald looked up brightly. “Oh yes, Bertie. That’s fine. I’ll do it. I’ll be your best man. Thank you very much.”
‘There,” said Olive. “That’s settled that.” She fixed Bertie with a challenging stare, as if to dare him to contradict her. “And there’s one other thing, Bertie. I am not having Tofu at our wedding. Definitely not. So, don’t you go and invite him because there’ll be real trouble if you do.”
“Best not to,” agreed Ranald.
“Yes,” said Olive. “Ranald’s right, Bertie. And, by the way, Bertie, how’s your mother these days? Or should I say ex-mother, now that she’s run away to Aberdeen.”
Bertie looked down at the floor. Olive was unbearable, but he felt powerless to resist her. “She hasn’t run away, Olive,” he muttered.
It was as if Olive did not hear him. “My mummy says that your mother – I mean, your ex-mother – is having an affair, Bertie. I heard her talking to her friend about it. I know how to listen in on their phone, Bertie. You wouldn’t know that sort of thing, but I do.
“Anyway, I listened to my mummy speaking to one of her friends, and she said that your mother had gone off to Aberdeen to be with her lover. With her lover, Bertie. But then she said that your ex-mummy’s boyfriend has chucked her out of the house, Bertie, because he can’t stand her. He’s had enough, Bertie. That’s what she said. And now she’s found somebody else. A man who works on an oil rig.”
Bertie started to protest. “That isn’t true, Olive …”
“Oh, you can deny it all you like, Bertie,” Olive interjected. “But you know something? Denying things doesn’t make them not true.”
And with that, Olive flounced away, leaving Bertie staring at Ranald Braveheart Macpherson in dismay.
“I’m really sorry about your ex-mummy,” said Ranald. “It’s really bad luck having a mother like that.”
Bertie felt a wave of sorrow welling up within him. He wanted his mother back; no, he didn’t want his mother back. He wanted … He was not sure what he wanted. He had always wanted a true friend, and he had thought that Ranald would be that friend, and yet here he was siding with Olive in the matter of his wedding – encouraging her, really, rather than standing by him in his programme of Ghandian civil disobedience to Olive’s tyranny.
“You shouldn’t have agreed to be my best man, Ranald,” he muttered. “You shouldn’t have said yes to Olive.”
Ranald’s eyes widened with dismay. “But I was only trying to help you, Bertie. Don’t you want me to be your best man?” He searched Bertie’s expression for some sign of understanding. This was awful for Ranald; he loved Bertie dearly; Bertie was definitely his best friend. He wanted to be his blood brother, if at all possible. They could prick each other’s fingers with a pin and mingle the blood to make them blood brothers. He had heard that this is what you did with your best friends if you wanted to keep them for life. He would willingly do that with Bertie, but here was his friend, his dear, dear friend accusing him of treason – and with Olive, of all people – Olive, the ultimate enemy.
Ranald Braveheart Macpherson started to cry.
“Oh, Ranald,” said Bertie. “Don’t cry, Ranald.”
And then Bertie started to cry too.
Olive and Pansy were quick to notice this. Olive came skipping across the room and peered into the faces of the two boys.
“Why are you two crying?” she demanded. “You really shouldn’t cry on somebody’s birthday, you know. It’s jolly selfish of you.”
“Typically selfish boys,” echoed Pansy, who had now joined Olive. “Just thinking of themselves. Crying all over the place like that.”
“Really!” exclaimed Olive. “How can one even begin to understand boys?”
“I have no idea,” said Pansy.
Chapter 14: A Stendhal Syndrome survivor
Antonia Collie had now settled in to her new flat in Drummond Place, just around the corner from Scotland Street. Finding it had been a stroke of luck – the flat had belonged to an old friend who had happened to mention to Antonia that she was moving to Melrose. She would prefer, she said, to sell the flat without having to put it on the market, as that would entail her getting it into a fit state for sale and also putting up with all the inconvenience of showing it to prospective purchasers. Sensing an opportunity, Antonia offered her friend the valuation price, and this offer was rapidly accepted. It was at the upper limit of what Antonia could afford, but she thought it was well worth what she had to pay. The flat was on the first floor, and had the high ceilings and elegance of a Georgian drawing room flat. Not only that, but it had a view of the gardens in the centre of the square and, most importantly, the owner had the right to use those gardens. It was summer, and a good one too, and Antonia looked forward to sitting in the gardens, reading, and thinking about her great project on the Scottish saints.
Antonia had lived in the area before. She had originally been Domenica’s neighbour in Scotland Street, but that was before that fateful trip to Italy. It was in Florence that she had been struck down in the Uffizi Gallery with a serious case of Stendhal Syndrome, a rare psychiatric condition afflicting those who become overwhelmed by beauty, whether of art or architecture, or both. The syndrome involves an acute state of anxiety, and most cases end up in a psychiatric hospital. A closely connected condition is Jerusalem Syndrome, which affects those who become overwhelmed at the fact that they are in Jerusalem, with all that that signifies spiritually and aesthetically. Again, this may lead to a spell in hospital, although the patient usually recovers quite quickly.
In Antonia’s case, while her initial treatment was in a psychiatric hospital, she was taken in for recuperation by an order of nuns. In the care of these nuns she was gradually able to recover, spending her days in the grounds of their well-appointed convent in the Sienese hills. The life suited her, and she ended up staying far longer than was required by her original misfortune. She liked the nuns, and they liked her, referring to her as “our Scottish sister”. Rather unwisely, she sold the flat in Scotland Street, and it was acquired by Domenica, who had long needed a bit of room. Through the removal of a wall, that goal was achieved, and Domenica and Angus now enjoyed the use of several extra rooms.
Antonia eventually returned to Scotland in the company of one of the nuns, Sister Maria-Fiore dei Fiori di Montagna, an aphorist whose observations on a wide range of subjects had both dazzled and impressed much of Edinburgh. Sister Maria-Fiore also proved to be something of a social success, and was soon seen at parties, surrounded by a growing band of acolytes. It was convenient for both Antonia and Sister Maria-Fiore to share a flat, and so she had now moved into the new flat in Drummond Place, occupying the spare bedroom at the back that Antonia described as her cell.
“Not in the prison sense,” Antonia joked. “I was thinking more of convents …”
“I require little,” Sister Maria-Fiore assured her. “Those who require little, can make do with even less than they have.”
This was typical of the nun’s aphorisms, and, like many of them, prompted analysis at several different levels. Even a simple observation on the weather could, when delivered by Sister Maria-Fiore dei Fiori di Montagna, assume extraordinary significance. “If there is rain today,” she might say, “then rain will surely follow.” That could mean that any rain is likely to be prolonged, with shower following shower, or it could be a comment on the inevitability of the weather. Or it could mean something altogether different. Whatever the real meaning might be, the remark would be greeted with nods of agreement and comments of, “Yes, I suppose that’s right” or “How very true!”
The two women lived together in satisfying amity. Sister Maria-Fiore both paid her way and undertook her share of the domestic chores. Antonia would have been willing to accommodate her for nothing, but the nun insisted on paying the going rent for a room in a New Town flat. She had, she explained, a flow of ready income from a shop that had been given to her by her uncle, who ran extensive protection rackets in Naples, Cosenza and Messina. “My uncle is a sinner,” Sister Maria-Fiore told Antonia. “But we must love sinners, mustn’t we? The love we give to sinners is the same as the love they give to us.”
Antonia was unsure what to make of this. So she nodded, which she had found was the best response to much of what Sister Maria-Fiore said.
“Yes, he is a sinner,” Sister Maria-Fiore continued. “But he is nonetheless a man of great piety. He attends mass every day without fail – without fail.”
Antonia raised an eyebrow. That sounded like hypocrisy to her, but she was not sure whether she could say it.
“Some might call that hypocrisy,” said Sister Maria-Fiore.
“Yes, I can see …”
Sister Maria-Fiore cut her short. “But I would not call it that. Piety can exist in the deepest chambers of the heart. And who can fathom those chambers, Antonia? Not I. Nor you, I suspect.”
“My dear uncle will have to give an account of himself in the next world,” Sister Maria-Fiore continued. “And I am sure that he will be treated with mercy – because of his piety. I expect to meet him on the other side.”
“That will be nice,” said Antonia. “Will you introduce us?”
“Of course, I shall be happy to do that,” said Sister Maria-Fiore.
Rent was negotiated, and Sister Maria-Fiore dei Fiori di Montagna paid it regularly, by a standing order on a Neapolitan branch of the Banco dello Spirito Sancto.
“The Holy Ghost’s bank,” quipped Antonia.
“We never joke about banks in Italy,” Sister Maria-Fiore admonished. “It is considered bad luck.”
And with that she crossed herself and, simultaneously, made a sign against the evil eye.
Chapter 15: Garden governance issues
Shortly after she had moved in, Antonia invited Domenica to visit her in her new flat. That visit took place one Friday morning, when Sister Maria-Fiore dei Fiori di Montagna was at her Pilates course.
“Dear Sister Maria-Fiore dei Fiori di Montagna loves her Pilates,” Antonia said.
“We are very unfit,” said Domenica. “Angus and I barely raise a finger from day to day.”
“But I see him walking about so purposefully,” said Antonia. “One would never know he had nothing to do.”
Domenica bristled. The remark was typical of Antonia, she thought. She has never forgiven me over that Blue Spode teacup issue, she said to herself.
“Angus is actually rather busy,” Domenica pointed out.
“Of course,” said Antonia, in such a tone as to imply that nothing could be further from the truth.
“He has several commissions at present,” said Domenica. “Including one from the Scottish Government.”
Antonia sniffed. “I’m not sure that I agree with spending government funds on art,” she said. “But I imagine there are those who take a different view.”
Domenica gritted her teeth. “It’s so nice to see you, Antonia,” she said. “Are you still writing that book of yours? What’s it about again? Irish saints?”
Antonia corrected her sharply. “Scottish saints, Domenica.”
“Of course. Though the distinction, surely, was slight in those early days. Would you consider Columba to be an Irish saint or a Scottish saint?”
“He was Scottish,” said Antonia firmly.
Antonia had taken Domenica into the drawing room, and Domenica was looking about critically. “It’ll be much nicer once you’ve decorated it,” she said.
“But I already have,” said Antonia.
“Ah. I see. Oh well, what I was thinking of was your stuff – your own furniture. I just can’t believe the bad taste of some people.”
“But this is my stuff,” said Antonia.
“Ah. I see,” said Domenica breezily. “Nice old stuff is always best. It doesn’t matter that it’s cheap. You can get used to anything, they say.”
They progressed to tea, which was served in blue Spode teacups. As she saw them being produced, Domenica caught her breath: obviously Antonia was more than happy to rake over old coals.
“Blue Spode,” said Antonia. “My favourite.”
“Very nice,” muttered Domenica. She would not be drawn on that one. The past was the past and it was hardly helpful to revisit things that had happened some years ago.
“I used to have more cups than I currently do,” said Antonia. “I’m down to two now. I used to have three.”
“I know how you feel,” said Domenica. “My Minton breakfast cups are both chipped – one so badly we can’t really use it. I have my name down for one with those china search people, but nothing has turned up.”
“I’m at a loss to explain how I could lose a teacup,” said Antonia. “But there we are.”
“Yes, indeed. There we are.”
“It’s almost as if somebody stole it,” Antonia continued. “But who would steal a teacup?”
“Who indeed?” said Domenica.
There was an awkward silence. I would, thought Domenica guiltily. She had taken the teacup from Antonia’s kitchen in the belief that it was hers, wrongly held by Antonia. But then she had discovered her original teacup – the one she thought had gone missing – which meant that she must have taken a teacup to which Antonia was actually entitled. She should have restored it to its owner, but she did not. She could not admit that she had removed a teacup in the first place, as it would be tantamount to admitting to house-breaking.
“But let’s not dwell on theft,” said Antonia. “There is so much to talk about.” She looked out of the window. “I do love the gardens,” she said. “I’m so looking forward to being on the committee.”
Domenica drew in her breath. The gardens committee wielded considerable power and it did not bode well that Antonia was insinuating herself onto it.
Antonia was aware that Domenica was now on her guard. She smiled as she delivered the next piece of news. “Yes,” she said, “Both Sister Maria-Fiore and I decided to offer our services. We were co-opted at the last meeting of the committee.”
Domenica remained silent. This was dangerous news, because there had been talk of the committee flexing its muscles in a way that could be very much to the disadvantage of Angus and herself – indeed of any of those on Scotland Street who used the gardens. According to the original charter, the only people entitled to a key were those who lived on Drummond Place itself. In a historical concession, the privilege of key ownership had been given to a few residents of Scotland Street, but only to those who had windows overlooking the gardens. That brought Domenica into the category of those who were entitled to have a key, but it excluded others. And the window concession, as it was called, was vulnerable. It did not appear in the charter, and every so often there had been talk of withdrawing it. She and Angus, then, used the gardens on sufferance – and now that sufferance was controlled, in part at least, by Domenica’s old rival.
“Not very democratic,” sniffed Domenica. “Co-opting people, that is.”
“Oh, I don’t know,” Antonia said. “It’s rather like the House of Lords, isn’t it? One can recruit a broad range of talents.”
“Oh, I wouldn’t compare the gardens committee to the House of Lords,” said Domenica. “And, frankly, with all due respect to Sister Maria-Fiore dei ….”
“Dei Fiori di Montagna.”
“Yes, with all due respect to her, what can she possibly bring to the table? She’s an Italian nun, after all. Do Italian nuns have particular insights into the needs of Scottish gardens?”
Antonia was not prepared to let that rest. “As a matter of fact, she does. She’s very good at botanical names. She knows them all. I am constantly astonished at her knowledge of such things.”
“But we all know the names of the trees in the gardens,” said Domenica. “I could identify every one of them for you if you need assistance in that department. I wouldn’t want you to be in the dark, so to speak, about any of our trees.”
“That’s very kind of you,” said Antonia. “But I am quite cognisant of them, you know.”
Domenica looked out of the window. Outside, the very trees under discussion were caught by a breeze, making their branches sway gently. This was very dangerous territory because of Angus’s ambition to build a shed. He had several allies on the gardens committee who had assured him that they would allow a shed, provided it was open to all. Now it was possible that the balance of power would shift, and she could imagine Antonia delighting in the chance to veto a shed.
The branches of the trees moved once again in the wind. The winds must come from somewhere when they blow … The line of poetry came to her unbidden. It was so beautiful. But who had written it? The winds must come from somewhere when they blow …