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A Time of Love and Tartan, page 1


A Time of Love and Tartan

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A Time of Love and Tartan





  An Invitation to the Elephant House

  On George IV Bridge

  Bruce Irritates Pat, But Only to an Extent

  Those Things for Which We’re Grateful

  Glencoe Again

  Unsettling Thoughts

  Grateful for You


  Cavafy’s Poem

  O Tempora! O Mores!

  Tolerance and Intolerance

  The View from Dunfermline

  No Boys’ Club Here

  Silk Sheets

  You Are the Sun

  As Much Said as Was Unsaid

  At Big Lou’s

  Watsonian Ejected

  An Absurd Situation

  Homo Ludens

  Waiting for Godot

  At the Carl Gustav Jung Drop-in Centre

  Stuart Reflects

  Second Chances

  Homeric Thoughts

  Irene Overheard

  At the VinCaffè

  We Stole It

  Who Was Homer?

  The Evening Sun, Warm and Buttery

  A Conversation under the Night Sky

  Scouting for Boys, etc.

  In Drummond Place Gardens

  A Significant Spurtle

  Mission Statement

  She Wanted a Man So Desperately

  A Visit from Bruce

  An Invitation to an Encounter

  Send Him Hame, Send Him Hame

  At the Italian Chapel

  Irene Prepares Stuart

  Male Networking

  A Road to Freedom

  Stuart Has Lunch

  The Slush Pile

  Distressed Oatmeal

  Dental Flossing

  You Ran Away

  Shafts of Light

  Cyril Thinks

  Catching Up

  A Perfect Boy

  James Sets to Work

  The End of Bruce

  The Pygmies Arrive

  Stuart Plans His Future

  Off to Aberdeen

  How the Truth Emerges

  The Existential Happiness of 13−0.

  For What Is Not, and Cannot Be

  Copyright © 2017 by Alexander McCall Smith

  Illustrations copyright © 2017 by Iain McIntosh

  All rights reserved. Published in hardcover in Great Britain by Polygon, an imprint of Birlinn Ltd., Edinburgh, in 2017.

  This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.

  This book is excerpted from a series that originally appeared in The Scotsman newspaper.

  eBook ISBN: 978-0-525-43656-0

  Author illustration © Iain McIntosh

  This is for Caroline Hahn and Richard Neville Towle for all that they do for the welfare of animals and for music

  An Invitation to the Elephant House

  When Pat Macgregor received an invitation from Bruce Anderson to meet him for coffee at the Elephant House on George IV Bridge, her first reaction was to delete it. That is one of the great advantages of electronic communications – one can simply delete them. And one can do the same to people – in their electronic incarnation, of course; at the press of a button, or the equivalent, one can send them off into some vast soup of disassembled digital data, reducing them to floating ones and zeroes, consigned to a Dantean world of echoes, a shadowy underworld of fading impulses.

  And that, thought Pat, was the fate that Bruce so richly deserved. A few years earlier he had played with her affections, as he had toyed with those of so many other young women, believing that to pay attention to this rather shy young student of art history was to confer on her a benison for which, if she knew anything about the world, she should be profoundly grateful. The expression God’s gift to women came into all this – somewhere. It was usually uttered sarcastically, as in He thinks he’s God’s gift to women, but in Bruce’s case this was exactly what he did think of himself. In his view he was one of those people who existed to give pleasure to others – not through anything he actually did – although that, of course, entered into it – but simply by being.

  Auden said that the blessed had no reason to care from what angle they were regarded, having nothing to hide. This was true of Bruce: whether you looked at him from the front, the back, or from either side, the inescapable conclusion was that he was egregiously good-looking. As he pointed out to Catriona, a young woman with whom he once visited Florence, “There’s a statue of my double in this city, you know.”

  She had looked puzzled. “Your double, Bruce? Here in Florence?”

  Bruce smirked. “Yes, right here. Would you like to see it?”

  She nodded. This was some sort of game, she suspected; but then Bruce was so playful. That was one of the things that attracted her to him – his playfulness. That and, of course, the way he made a girl feel special; now that was a very considerable talent. And then there was his hair gel, that strange, clove-scented potion that tickled her nose when she smelled it, and added, in such a curious way, an erotic charge to the most mundane of situations.

  Bruce and Catriona had already visited the Uffizi and had stood for some minutes before Botticelli’s Birth of Venus before Bruce said, “That’s Venus, you know. That’s her standing in the shell.”

  Catriona nodded. “She’s very beautiful, isn’t she?”

  Bruce thought about this for a few moments before he replied. “Her neck’s a bit long, but, yes, she’s beautiful all right.” Then, after a short pause, he had observed, “Beauty’s an interesting thing, isn’t it? You either have it, or you don’t. And that’s all there is to it.”

  Catriona looked at Bruce. He returned her gaze with all the confidence of one who knew that he stood on the right side of the divide he had just described.

  That was in the Uffizi; now they found themselves in the Galleria dell’Accademia, looking up at Michelangelo’s great masterpiece, the towering statue of David.

  “There,” said Bruce. “Feast your eyes on that.”

  The contemplation of Michelangelo’s David is not easy for everybody, but Catriona looked.

  “Lookalike?” whispered Bruce.

  She stared at the line of David’s nose and brow: it was undoubtedly Bruce. Her eye followed the sweep of his arms and the musculature of his torso. And she had to admit it: Bruce could have been Michelangelo’s young model.

  “I don’t tell everybody about this,” confided Bruce. “But I remember when I first saw a photograph of David, I thought: ‘Jeez, that’s me.’ I was about sixteen at the time. In Crieff. I was at Morrison’s, you know, and one of the girls in the class stuck a picture of David up in a corridor and wrote underneath it Bruce Anderson. It was so immature, but somehow . . . ”

  Pat, of course, had soon detected Bruce’s narcissism. But in her state of infatuation – for that, she acknowledged, was what it was – she had persuaded herself that his self-obsession was a harmless quirk, a hangover from adolescence, a passing phase. After all, there were plenty of young females who were just as fascinated by their appearance, spending hours in front of the mirror. It was more unusual amongst males, perhaps, but what was sauce for the goose should surely be sauce for the gander. If women were to indulge themselves in the contemplation of their own beauty, then why should men not do the same?

  For a few months, she had circled Bruce, caught in his gravitational field as a moon might be in that of a planet, until at last she managed to extricate herself. When that happened, her father’s relief
at her escape had been palpable. “Men like that are very dangerous,” he said to her. “The only thing to do is to tear yourself away. Believe me – I’ve seen it in so many of my patients.”

  Pat’s father, Dr. Macgregor, a self-deprecating and scholarly man, was a psychiatrist, and was particularly close to his daughter. He and Pat’s mother had divorced after she had gone off to restore a walled garden in Perthshire and had never returned. He had done nothing to deserve the desertion, but had been generous in his response. “Your mother has found herself elsewhere,” he explained to Pat. “Il faut cultiver notre jardin, as Candide (I think) pointed out. The important thing is her self-fulfilment – that’s all that counts.”

  But there was something else that counted for him, and that was Pat’s own happiness. He doted on his daughter and when he realised that she had taken up with Bruce, he had been tipped into depression. At the end of Pat’s affair with Bruce – an end that he, at least, had realised was inevitable – he had tried to explain to her that however low she might feel after the break-up, it was as nothing when compared with the risk she would take in staying with him.

  And that was why, when she received this invitation to meet Bruce in the Elephant House, Pat said nothing about it to her father. And it was also why she almost deleted it from her e-mail in-box without a reply. Almost, but not quite: she moved the cursor to hover over the delete symbol, hesitated, and then moved it to Reply.

  “See you there,” she wrote. She added no emoticon – for what emoticon is there to express anticipation of the sort she was feeling?

  On George IV Bridge

  Pat arrived at the Elephant House before Bruce. She had not planned it that way: he had suggested ten-thirty in the morning, and she had lingered slightly in Forrest Road so as to be at the café at a quarter to eleven. This was a stratagem to show him that she was not at his beck and call, and that even if she had agreed to meet him, she was not that eager to do so. It failed, however, as Bruce did not get there until shortly after eleven.

  When she found that he was yet to arrive, she briefly toyed with the idea of leaving. To do so would at least be to heed the advice – even if rather tardily – of her friend, Janice, with whom she had discussed Bruce’s invitation.

  Janice’s views were very clear. “Don’t,” she counselled. “Just don’t.”

  “I’m only going to meet him for coffee . . . ”

  Pat was not allowed to finish. “Coffee? You know what coffee leads to?” Her friend uttered the word coffee as one might utter cocaine, as if a whole hinterland of warning, of decline, of Hogarthian dissipation lay behind the word.

  “You see,” Janice continued, “you should never – never – take up with an ex. Everybody knows that. Everybody. Everybody.” Janice had a way of repeating words, or verbally italicising them, that added a certain melodramatic force to what she said.

  “Do they?”

  “Of course they do. The reason why an ex tries to get in touch is always – always – to get something from you. Never – never – to give. So the only thing to say to an ex is: you’re history! You’re the distant past!”

  Pat had wondered whether there might not be cases where an ex merely wanted to meet as . . . dare she say it? . . . a friend.

  No. Janice was adamant on that. “As a friend? Pat, get real. Men don’t do friendship.”

  “Oh, come on. There are plenty of men who do friendship.”

  Janice shook her head. “But not exes. Exes do dependence. They do recrimination. They do insincere attempts to get you back temporarily because they need a partner for a ball or something like that. Or to ask for money. That’s what exes do, Pat, and if you go to meet this guy, this Bruce, at the Elephant House then you’re toast. You’re on a plate. Bruschetta.”

  Pat had wavered, and had almost taken Janice’s advice, but had eventually decided to meet Bruce in spite of it. The whole point of seeking advice, at least for some, is to get somebody to confirm what you have already decided to do, and Pat had decided that she would meet Bruce. It would just be for coffee, and it would be a single meeting. If he asked her out, she would come up with some reason for saying no. She could even use that time-honoured pretext of having to wash her hair. That was an excuse that was still occasionally used as a signal to a man that he had no chance, and was, in a way, the ultimate put-down. Even Bruce, she felt, would understand that. And yet . . . and yet . . . did she really want to wash her hair?

  She found a table at the back of the café, near the window. From there, looking out over Candlemaker Row, she saw the roofs of the Grassmarket and, against the skyline, the Castle. The café itself was busy; it attracted a young crowd, a mixture of locals, students and others, with a chattering presence of foreign teenagers. Pat was at an age where she was unaccustomed to feeling older than those around her, but here she did. She was now twenty-five, the point at which eighteen- and nineteen-year-olds suddenly start to look straight through one. Invisibility to the young, of course, is a quality that grows slowly: by thirty, one is beginning to get fainter; by forty, one is starting to disappear; and by fifty the metaphorical hill has been crossed and one is simply no longer there.

  This manifested itself in the conversation that was taking place at a neighbouring table between a boy and a girl of eighteen or nineteen. They seemed oblivious to Pat’s presence only a few feet away and well within earshot, and were discussing the slovenly habits of the boy’s absent flat-mate.

  “His room stinks,” he said.

  “He stinks,” she agreed.

  “I can’t stand it when people stink. You know, we owe it to other people not to stink. It’s a sort of . . . ”

  “Civic duty?”

  “Yup. Don’t stink. You’d think people would get it, wouldn’t you? After all, which part of don’t stink doesn’t he understand?”

  Pat stared out of the window, trying to insulate herself from this unwelcome exchange. Why had Bruce contacted her? Did he want to ignite old fires? She would not allow that. She simply would not. She knew that he was not good for her and anyway, she was no longer interested in the sort of short-term relationship that Bruce went in for. But what if he had changed? What if he had matured and was now prepared for longer-term commitment? What then? Could she see herself with him again, giving him a second chance? People did change; they grew up, they stopped being selfish, they thought more of other people’s feelings. Sometimes in the case of males this change happened quite late – at twenty-eight, and even beyond; or so she had read. In fact, she had seen something in a magazine recently that suggested that some men did not mature – fully mature – until they were well into their thirties. Bruce could be one of those, perhaps. He was now twenty-eight or thereabouts, or was he even thirty?

  Her train of thought was again disturbed by the conversation at the neighbouring table.

  “You know what? He hardly ever changes his socks. No, I’m not making this up, but I think he wears them for four or five days and then he leaves them lying on the floor. He has these ghastly trainers – you should see them, you’d want to throw up, I swear you would.”

  “He’s disgusting. How can you bear to live with him? Why don’t the rest of you throw him out?”

  “He owns the flat.”

  “Oh. Well, I suppose that makes it different.”

  “Yes, it does.”

  Pat smiled. The world was a difficult place. One had to hold one’s nose; metaphorically, of course, but sometimes otherwise too.

  Bruce Irritates Pat, But Only to an Extent


  She looked up to see Bruce standing at the end of the table, smiling at her. Her irritation at being addressed by the childish soubriquet was intense, but did not last for more than a few seconds. One had to forgive Bruce – it was impossible to be angry with somebody like him, with his clove-scented hair gel, his narcissism, his incorrigibility, his breezy self-confidence, his propensity to infantilise the names of others . . .

  He bent
forward and kissed her on the cheek. There was a strong scent of cloves.

  “I know I’m late,” he said, as he sat down opposite her at the table. “But I knew you’d wait.”

  Pat frowned. How did Bruce know that she would wait? Was she the sort of person who could be expected to wait because she had nothing better to do – or, because even if she would not normally wait, she would always wait for Bruce? To paraphrase Charles de Gaulle, who said – to those who urged him to take action against the inflammatory rhetoric of Jean-Paul Sartre – that one did not imprison Voltaire; one does not stand up Bruce, no matter how late he may be.

  But she simply could not let him imagine that she had nothing better to do than sit in the Elephant House and wait for him.

  “I was about to go,” she said. She wanted to sound firm, but the words came out almost apologetically.

  “Where?” he asked casually. “Are you working today?”

  Pat helped Matthew in his gallery in Dundas Street, but only on three days a week.

  “No.” Again it was not the answer she had intended, but Pat was truthful and whatever the stakes for her self-esteem, she could not tell a bare-faced lie.

  “Then that’s all right,” said Bruce.

  It is not all right, she thought. It is not. But she said instead, “It’s good to see you.”

  Bruce inclined his head, as if to acknowledge an act of homage. Of course it was good to see him; he had been good to see for as long as he could remember. Even as a small boy, he had attracted admiration for his looks; the cherub had become an angel, had become a youth from a Giotto painting, had become a matinée idol . . .

  “So,” he said. “How’s Patsy?”

  This was a complex offence. Bruce had an irritating habit of referring to people – in their presence – in the third person. That was count one. Then there was the diminution of Pat’s name. That was count two. And finally there was the question of a possible play on the word patsy, as used in the argot of fraud. The patsy was the victim; was that what Bruce was implying? She decided it was not; if Bruce employed word play, it was not that sophisticated.

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