New 44 Scotland Street Chapter 28: Our inner Neanderthal

After Angus had left for his studio, taking Cyril with him, Domenica decided to have another cup of coffee and a further slice of toast.

Wednesday, 16th September 2020, 7:30 am

Her main breakfast was over: two boiled eggs, a single slice of toast, thinly spread with Dundee marmalade, and a modest slice of Loch Fyne smoked salmon. Toast was an important element in her breakfast, but was strictly controlled on carbohydrate grounds. The world was full of carbohydrates, paraded before weak humanity in the guise of things that most of us found so hard to resist: Danish pastries, marzipan, Dundee cakes, croissants, pain au chocolat, all the various varieties of pasta, potato crisps dusted with sea salt and cracked black pepper, chocolate unapologetic for its mere 30% of cocoa solids – the list went on and on, and the weaker brethren – in which category most of us are numbered – fell for the enticement as eagerly as a lazy trout takes the fly. There were no carbohydrates in boiled eggs, nor in salmon, but toast, and the marmalade that accompanied it, was a different matter. Yet every now and then – and Saturday, surely, was a now-and-then day – she would allow herself a second slice, washed down by a cup of milky coffee. And if that could be accompanied by a leisurely read or a glance at The Scotsman crossword, then she felt content. It was not exactly nirvana, but, in an imperfect world, it was happiness of a rather profound sort. And it was, she thought, what so many women wanted: to get their man out of the way for the day and to have the house to themselves.

The slice of bread entrusted to the 
toaster, she pressed the button on her automatic coffee machine and heard the satisfactory grinding of the beans preceding the disgorging of the coffee. 
Then, sitting back, she picked up Evolutionary Anthropology and returned to the article she had been reading. The entire issue of the journal had been devoted to Neanderthal matters, and for a few moments Domenica considered what was on offer. There was the piece by her friend from Berlin, Neanderthal art: a new hypothesis. Neanderthal art? Domenica was surprised. She thought there had only been only a handful of Neanderthal cave paintings discovered, which was hardly a school of art, let alone a retrospective Renaissance. Then there was an article on animal bone sites around Neanderthal settlements – that could wait, perhaps. But then her eye fell on an article entitled Neanderthal and Homo Sapiens Liminal Spaces: Interbreeding and its Consequences for the Genome of Modern Man.

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That looked interesting, and, once her toast was made and duly spread with Dundee marmalade – not quite as thinly as it should have been, but one had to have some pleasures in life – she began to read article. Neanderthals and Homo sapiens encountered one another somewhere between Europe and Asia sixty thousand years ago. Neanderthals appeared not to have survived the encounter and it had always been assumed that they had fallen victim to the superior technology and brain power of Homo sapiens. But it was not as simple as that, it seemed.

Domenica took a sip of coffee, and then a bite of her toast. Neanderthal man would have loved Dundee marmalade, she thought. And then she smiled at the ridiculousness of that thought. The Neanderthals never got anywhere near inventing Dundee marmalade.

She read on: interbreeding between Homo sapiens and Neanderthals means that modern humans have a certain amount of Neanderthal DNA in their genome. She paused, and read the relevant paragraph again. Could that be true? Could she really be two per cent Neanderthal, as this article was suggesting? But then it became more interesting: the amount of Neanderthal DNA in the genome of various individuals varied quite considerably, and there were a fair number of people who had more than that small percentage.

She thought for a moment. Was she likely to know anybody who fell into that category, who had a larger quantity of Neanderthal DNA than was the norm? Anybody in Edinburgh – or Glasgow, perhaps?

It was at this point that the doorbell rang and thoughts of Neanderthals, of sloping foreheads and distant caves, faded away. Domenica put down her coffee cup, wiped a trace of marmalade from her chin, and walked across to the front door.

Torquil, the young man from the ground floor flat, the new neighbour she had met a few days previously, stood in the doorway, finger poised to press the bell a second time.

“I thought you might be out,” he said. “I saw your husband and his dog and …”

Domenica gestured for him to come in, but he shook his head.

“I’ve actually come to borrow something,” he said.

Domenica smiled. “That’s what neighbours are for.”

He returned her smile with his own, and she noticed he had a dimple on his left cheek, perfectly placed in relation to the corner of his mouth. That, she knew, was rare: dimples usually came in twos, one on each cheek, with the exception of the chin dimple, which cleaved the chin with a single indentation in just the right way to be suggestive of firmness of purpose. That dimple, commoner in men than women, had launched a hundred film and modelling careers, and here … She shifted her gaze. Yes, Torquil had a slight chin dimple as well as a single dimple on his left cheek.

She stopped herself. Auden had written in “In Praise of Limestone” that the blessed will not care what angle they are regarded from, having nothing to hide, which she had always thought was true, but any gaze could still be disconcerting. And so she waited expectantly to find out what he needed to borrow, trying hard not to look at the young man’s chin, as difficult as affecting indifference to achonodroplasia or a port-wine stain. Oddly, she found herself thinking about the implications of good looks of the sort with which Torquil had been favoured. How would one view the world if one contemplated it through the eyes of one who had his looks? Positively – because the world was kind to the good-looking? How many perfect monsters were perfect monsters because, through physical misfortune, they had repelled those they encountered? How many of the sweet and gentle were sweet and gentle because they got the attention we all crave, and were given it liberally from their first days as appealing infants?

He broke the silence, still smiling. “I need to borrow a bucket and mop. It’s our turn to wash the stair.”

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