44 Scotland Street: Bertie’s sporran

ANGUS Lordie led the way into the kitchen of his flat in Scotland Street.

Illustration by Iain Macintosh
Illustration by Iain Macintosh

He was only just getting used to the fact that what he had always seen as Domenica’s flat was now his as well, and that by the same token she had become the owner of half of his own flat and studio in Drummond Place. The change, though, had not been a difficult one, as the Scotland Street flat was ample enough for both of them to spread out; this was the result of Domenica’s acquisition of the next-door flat and the removal of the wall dividing the two.

That flat had been the property of Antonia Collie, author of an unpublished work on the lives of the Scottish saints and now a lay member of a community of nuns in Italy. Antonia had recently been in Scotland but had gone back to Italy, leaving behind her friend, the enigmatic nun, Sister Maria-Fiore dei Fiori di Montagna. Sister Maria-Fiore, whose liking for an aphorism appeared to have a hypnotic effect on many of those who met her, had been something of a social success in Scotland, having been invited to all the major parties, gallery openings, and Holyrood receptions that enlivened the social life of the capital. After Antonia’s return to Italy, the nun had remained in Scotland, and was last heard of staying on a Perthshire estate where she was successfully holding court. Not everyone was well-disposed to the nun, of course, and various people had expressed views that were distinctly less than charitable. “A cliché in black and white,” one Perthshire hostess had remarked, referring to the black and white habit Sister Maria-Fiore dei Fiori di Montagna wore. “Rasputina,” said another, adding, “Oh, for another Prince Youssoupoff!”

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There was enough room to entertain in the drawing room, but Domenica and Angus habitually received visitors in the kitchen, a homely room dominated by a large cooking range and a line of copper-bottomed saucepans hanging against one wall. It was here that Angus read the morning paper while Domenica answered correspondence or perused the various anthropological journals to which she subscribed.

Angus invited Nicola and Bertie to take a seat around the large pine table while he went into the room where he stored his clothes in the large Edwardian wardrobe Domenica had bought for him at a Lyon and Turnbull auction. After a minute or two he returned with an old cardboard box out of which he extracted a small sporran. Dusting the sporran with the cuff of his shirt-sleeve, Angus handed it over to Bertie with a flourish.

“There, young man,” he said. “A very smart boy’s sporran, circa 1965, previously the property of one 
Angus Lordie, RSA (rejected), DA (Edinburgh School of Art, with distinction), now in the possession of Master Bertie Pollock. How about that?”

Bertie took the sporran as one might take a revered religious object. “Is it for me?” he asked, his voice so small and overawed as to be almost inaudible.

“It is,” said Angus. “And if you look at the plate at the top, Bertie – that silver bit – you’ll see that it has the most beautiful Celtic designs. I think they might be by George Bain himself – he was the greatest of our modern Celtic artists. He did those lovely swirling illustrations you see here and there. Look at that.”

He reached over to touch the design etched into the silver, tracing one of the whorls with the tip of his finger.

“I remember one of George Bain’s designs that really moved me,” he said. “It was a picture of a figure of modern Scotland, represented by a boy, being comforted by the encompassing arms of a seated woman. It was so touching.”

Nicola swallowed. She had been looking at Bertie’s face; at the joy of his expression. “I can imagine,” she said quietly.

“Your own design there is a bit different, Bertie,” Angus continued. ‘But it is beautiful nonetheless.”

While Bertie prepared to put the strap and chain of the sporran round his waist, Angus turned to Nicola. “I mentioned a martini,” he said. “Shall I?”

“Most kind of you,” said Nicola.

He went to fetch the drinks, fetching at the same time a glass of Irn-Bru for Bertie.

“Irn-Bru is just what you need,” said Angus, handing Bertie the drink. “Slainte, Bertie!”

Bertie raised his glass to the Gaelic toast. “Thank you so much, Mr Lordie,” she said.

“Not at all, Bertie,” replied Angus. “I’m delighted that my sporran will see the light of day again.” To Nicola, he said, “Do I detect a certain, how shall I put it? A certain lightning of the mood upstairs since …”

Nicola glanced at Bertie, but he was not paying attention, being absorbed in the investigation of his new sporran. “Yes,” she said quietly. “The mood music is very different.”

Angus nodded. “Frankly I’m surprised that a certain young person hasn’t absented himself before this – such is the provocation he’s received from a now enGulfed party.”

‘You mean …” Again Nicola checked to see that Bertie was not listening. “You mean … run away?”

“Exactly,” said Angus. “I had a friend who ran away, you know. He ran away from the boarding school we were sent to. He was at odds with the whole ethos at the time – the insistence on sports, the Philistinism, the cold showers, the whole lot. He was sixteen. He went to Glasgow and was apprehended there within hours by a policeman who recognised him from his circulated description.”

“And he was sent back to the same school?”

“No,” said Angus. “His father consulted a firm of educational consultants that he saw advertised in The Times. They recommended that he be sent to school abroad. His father was quite well off and so he was able to comply with their advice. He wanted his son to learn French, and so he thought their recommendation was spot on. He was sent to a school in France.”

“How interesting,” said Nicola.

“Unfortunately the educational agency was very badly informed. They were very slack, in fact. They had not done their research properly and the school he was sent to was actually a finishing school for girls!”

“Oh, my,” exclaimed Nicola “What a mistake!”

“The school, it transpired, was having a bit of a tough time filling its places, and so they wanted him to stay – in order to get the fees. And he was perfectly happy to comply. He had a whale of a time. The girls were all studying cookery and deportment, but he was allowed to go into the village, drink coffee, and smoke Gauloises. They – the girls – were very pleased to have a boy about the place, and when he wrote home to his father he simply referred to what the other chaps were doing – the other chaps being, in fact, all girls. It was no more than a white lie, I feel.”

“He told me it was the best year in his life,” concluded Angus. “He remembers it with such pleasure, he really does.”

© 2015 Alexander McCall Smith

• Alexander McCall Smith welcomes comments from readers. Write to him c/o The Editor, The Scotsman, Level 7, Orchard Brae House, 30 Queensferry Road, Edinburgh, EH4 2HS or via e-mail at [email protected]