New 44 Scotland Street Chapter 37: Homo Neanderthalis

Angus called out “Cyril, Cyril! Get out of there! Immediately!” He was addressing the dog’s hindquarters, though, and the metronome of Cyril’s tail, set at an excited prestissimo, continued to wag at an impossible rate.

Tuesday, 29th September 2020, 7:30 am

“I don’t think he can hear you,” said James. “With his head down that hole …”

Angus agreed. “Like many dogs, he suffers from selective deafness anyway. If he’s doing something he’s enjoying, he pretends not to hear. Some men are like that with their wives, I believe.” He was aware that one should not make such observations, but he made it anyway, because he thought it was true. In fact, he knew an elderly member of the Scottish Arts Club who had a setting on his hearing aid that could cut out the frequency of his wife’s voice. That vision of marriage, though, was very old-fashioned and stereotyped: the persistently nagging wife was a stereotype who no longer existed, just as the irresponsible, domestically inadequate husband had become an outdated caricature. And yet, just as one abolished an outdated persona, one met, in real life, its perfect embodiment …

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If Angus’s train of thought was heading off in that direction, it was abruptly brought to a halt by a bark from Cyril, muffled by the surrounding earth into which he was burrowing.

“He’s after something,” said Angus. “This might be a fox’s den.”

He decided to act. If Cyril had driven to earth a fox or some other creature, then he should be stopped. It was hard enough for wild animals to survive in cities, even in small areas of wilderness like this one, and if they were harried by people’s dogs, then life could become impossible. Edinburgh, like most cities, had its population of urban foxes, and Angus rather enjoyed encountering them. From time to time, if he woke up early enough on a summer morning, he saw a local fox trotting down Scotland Street, stopping from time to time to sniff at some prospect, an abandoned chicken bone here, a luckless mouse there. He found himself wondering where that fox had its home – how it found sufficient privacy amongst all the urban clutter, a bolthole where it could bring up its cubs. Perhaps this was that place, and now here was Cyril rudely breaching the peace, terrifying the cubs in their chambers.

He bent down and grabbed Cyril’s tail, tugging on the protesting appendage. Cyril gave a yelp, and started to reverse out of the hole in the ground. As his head emerged, Angus seized his collar, pulling him free of the fankle of exposed roots and clumps of earth that he had been so eagerly investigating.

James peered into the hole. “It doesn’t go very far,” he said. “But I think there’s a very small rockfall. It’s created a sort of cave.”

Angus pushed Cyril away and instructed him to sit. Looking rather disconsolate, Cyril obeyed.

“If you put him back on his leash,” said James, “I’ll hold him while you have a better look.”

With Cyril back under control, Angus went down on his hands and knees and looked into the small cave. It was not a fox’s den, nor, it seemed, the home of any other creature; if it was, then its occupant was nowhere to be seen. What was visible, though, was a largish round object that had been buried and was now half-exposed as a result of Cyril’s burrowing.

“He’s certainly found something,” said Angus.

James looked over his shoulder. “That thing in the middle?”

Angus reached forward. The earth smelled rich and dry, and was warm to the touch. This was the earth, he thought, to which we all return … And this, he thought, is how home feels to a fox, or to a mole perhaps: roots, soil, rock. He touched the object, and it moved slightly. He tugged at it, and his fingers went into some sort of cavity. Instinctively, he let go, because there could be anything inside whatever it was he was tugging: spiders, perhaps, and Angus, like most people, had a healthy measure of arachnophobia. But then he conquered his distaste, and pulled again at what seemed to him now to be a large clump of earth attached to a rock or perhaps a bolus of roots.

Suddenly the object became detached from the earth around it and came away in Angus’s grasp. Now he could scoop it out, and bring it to the mouth of the opening. He stood up and surveyed the exposed object.

James bent down to get a better look. He turned to Angus, who was rubbing the earth off his hands. “That,” said James, “looks like a skull.”

Angus reached forward and very gingerly lifted up the earth-covered object. It was certainly skull-shaped, but then it was also the shape of a small football, or a round vase, or any number of other things. He turned to James and smiled. “We are not in a Scandinavian noir,” he said. “So one doesn’t discover skulls in New Town gardens.”

James laughed. “Well, it looks a bit like one to me.”

Angus put the object down, and dusted off his hands once more. “If it were a skull,” he said. “What would we do?”

“Contact the police,” said James. “They’d come over and erect some of that tape that they use to protect crime scenes. Then they’d go away.”

“But I don’t think it’s a skull,” said Angus. “It could be anything under all that mess.”

“It could,” said James. “Why not take it back to Scotland Street? Play the amateur archaeologist. Dust everything off and see what you end up with. A Roman religious figure statue, perhaps? Didn’t they find a rather marvellous Roman lion not far away? Something like that?”

Angus always carried a plastic bag with him when he took Cyril for walks, in case he needed to clean up after him. This now proved just large enough for the discovery, and it was duly placed in it. Then, deciding that the walk had taken long enough, he began to head home, saying goodbye to James at the foot of India Street and promising to let him know what emerged once he had the chance to examine Cyril’s find more closely.

That examination took place on the kitchen table in the flat, where the object was placed in the middle of a large baking tray and then, under Domenica’s guidance, scraped clean of surrounding mud, earth, and vegetable matter.

Slowly it emerged, and slowly their excitement mounted. Then, when they had finished, Domenica turned to Angus. Her expression was one of wide-eyed astonishment.

“Perfectly Neanderthal,” she said, her voice lowered for the momentous announcement. “Homo Neanderthalis, Angus.” She reached out to Angus, her voice dropping to a whisper. “Look at the forehead.”

Angus smiled. “No need to whisper, Domenica.”

“But this is dynamite, Angus. Tell me again: where did you find this?”

“I didn’t,” said Angus. “Cyril did.”

Cyril, at their feet, looked up. His gold tooth flashed. He vaguely sensed that he had done something exceptional, but he had, of course, no idea what it was.

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