New 44 Scotland Street Chapter 29: Absolut (sic)

‘But of course,” said Domenica. “I’ll get them for you.”

Thursday, 17th September 2020, 7:30 am

She left him on the landing and made her way to the cupboard where she and Angus kept their ancient mop and battered tin bucket. Torquil’s request was, she thought, a promising sign. In Scotland, the rules on tenement living were deeply embedded and jealously policed: every householder, by immemorial custom, had to play his or her part in cleaning the common stair, a shared flight of stone steps linking landing to landing. That task was allocated on the basis of a weekly rota, with a small printed notice being hung on each doorway in succession: It is your turn to clean the common stair. There were no exceptions, although neighbours might deputise for the frail or incapacitated or, by mutual agreement, engage a cleaner to do the work for them. Students, of course, were known to be a problem and not infrequently had to be reminded of their duty. Domenica was well aware of that, and had half-expected that the new occupants of the downstairs flat would need to be spoken to about their obligations; now Torquil had shown that concern to be pessimistic, and she was pleased.

She handed the equipment over to him with an apology for the state it was in. “It’s seen better days,” she said. “But the bucket doesn’t leak, and the mop just about does the job. I’ve been meaning to get a new one, but …”

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“Life gets in the way,” said Torquil, with a smile. “I know. I’ve been meaning to buy one for ourselves ever since we moved in, but haven’t. I will, though.”

Domenica laughed. “When you’ve finished,” she began, only to be interrupted by his saying, “Of course, I’ll return it straight away.”

“No, I wasn’t going to say that. I know you will. I was going to invite you in for a cup of coffee.”

The invitation seemed to be welcomed. “I’d love that,” he said.

“I have a coffee machine that makes proper coffee,” Domenica said. “I can do all the usual things. Cappuccino, latte, Americano …”

Torquil laughed. “Any old how,” he said. He hesitated, and an anxious frown came over his brow. “You didn’t hear noise yesterday, did you?”

Domenica shook her head. There would be parties, she imagined: five young people in a New Town flat usually meant parties were in the offing. But she sought to reassure him. “Noise doesn’t travel very much in this building,” she said. “We very rarely hear anything from our neighbours. Even from young Bertie – you’ve met him, I take it?”

“That little boy?” asked Torquil. “The one who sometimes sits on the stairs?”

“That’s him,” said Domenica.

“I saw him yesterday,” said Torquil. “He was sitting outside his flat door, all by himself, his nose buried in a book. I asked him what it was. You won’t believe the answer.”

“Oh, I’ll certainly believe it,” said Domenica. “Bertie’s reading tastes are rather advanced – although he himself is not at all – how might one put it? – trying. Some highly intelligent children can be a bit exhausting, you know. Bertie’s not. He’s lovely.”

“It was a book about Kierkegaard,” said Torquil. “I couldn’t believe it at first, but I asked him to show me, and sure enough. There it was: A Life of Søren Kierkegaard. And he’s only …” He looked to Domenica for guidance.

“Seven. He’s seven.” She sighed. “I remember his birthday. He’s always wanted a Swiss Army pen-knife, and that mother of his gave him a gender-neutral play figure …”

Torquil raised an eyebrow. “A doll?”

“Yes, but a gender-neutral one. You couldn’t really tell what sex it was supposed to be.”

“I suppose dolls can be fluid,” mused Torquil. “I mean, when they leave the factory they might be a bit uncertain.” He laughed. “In the sense of it being left up to their owner to decide for them.”

“You’re suggesting that dolls should be able to self-identify? So to speak?”

Torquil smiled. “I don’t see why not.”

Domenica thought for a moment. “But what if you bought a doll that you believed was a girl doll, but then you discovered, when you opened the box, that it was a boy doll. Would you be able to go back to the shop and ask for an exchange?”

Torquil thought about this. “I don’t think so,” he said at last. “I think people need to move with the times.”

“Oh, we all must do that,” said Domenica. “And rightly so. Move with the times or you’re history, as they say.”

Torquil nodded. “My parents are history,” he said. “I think their lives are actually in black-and-white – like an old movie.” The grin returned. “Mind you, I rather like them for it. They belong to a generation that …”

“That was less afraid to say what it felt?” prompted Domenica.

Torquil hesitated.

“But also tolerated all sorts of cruelty and discrimination,” Domenica went on.

“Absolut,” said Torquil, and added, “Sorry. That’s a bit of an affection on my part. Absolut is absolutely in Swedish. I’ve watched too many Swedish films. In Scandinavian noir people say absolut all the time.”

Domenica stared at him. This was wonderful. They were going to get on very well indeed, she thought: here was a young man whose personal film was in Swedish! “So Bertie was reading about Kierkegaard? What did he have to say about it?”

“Oh, he told me that Mr Kierkegaard was Danish. He called him Mr Kierkegaard. He was terribly polite. He said that he wrote hundreds of books and liked to go for walks about Copenhagen.”

“Dear Bertie!”

“I could hardly believe it. Seven! Then he said something about trying to read the book to his friend, who couldn’t read yet, but not getting very far with it.”

“That’ll be a little boy by the name of Ranald Braveheart Macpherson,” explained Domenica. “He lives over on the other side of town, but the two of them are to be seen running around Drummond Place Gardenw.”

“It’s his mother, you see,” Domenica continued. “She’s – how shall I put it? – ambitious for him. Which is fair enough – to an extent. Mothers need to be ambitious for their children otherwise … well, nobody would ever learn the piano. Mothers have to be pushy. But there are limits and that woman is way beyond them.”

“Absolut,” said Torquil.

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