New 44 Scotland Street Chapter 39: Skinny latte, no vanilla

He saw Katie the moment she came through the gallery’s front door. He waved, but she did not see him, and was busy, anyway, taking off the light mackintosh she had been wearing; rain had been threatened, but not materialised. Once she had done that, she made her way purposefully past the gallery shop towards the café.

Thursday, 1st October 2020, 7:30 am

Stuart was now standing to attract her attention, gesturing to the table he had secured.

“Have you been waiting for ages?” she asked. She leaned forward and planted a kiss on his cheek; he blushed.

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I must get used to this, he thought. There’s nothing wrong – now – in being kissed by another woman. And then he thought: when did Irene last kiss me? Or I her?

He shook his head in answer to her question. “A few minutes. I was a bit early, but not all that much.”

She took the seat opposite his, and as she did so, she reached across the table to lay her hand upon his. “I was at Valvona & Crolla. I think I told you.”

“Yes, you did. You were going to buy Parmesan cheese.”

She pointed to the bag she had been carrying. “I get it there because it’s much nicer than the stuff you get in supermarkets. I think that the supermarket cheese is younger. Parmesan cheese should be aged in those great big wheels. For years, I think.”

Stuart had seen segments of wheels, but never the full three-hundred-and-sixty degrees, or at least not in the flesh, or in the curd, as one might say. Did one buy cheese in degrees? Five degrees of Parmesan, please …

She looked at him and smiled. “One of these days I’ll make you some Parmesan ice cream. Have you ever tasted it?”

“Parmesan ice cream?” It seemed unlikely to him.

Katie kissed her fingers in a gesture of gourmand satisfaction. “Savoury ice creams are all the rage, you know. And it’s not hard to make.”

“It just seems a bit unlikely.”

Katie smiled. “There’s more to life than vanilla, Stuart.”

He looked at her. Her remark had taken him by surprise. Vanilla had a code meaning; Stuart was worldy enough to know that, but surely Katie would not mean in that sense. Perhaps vanilla could be generalised to embrace conventionality in cuisine. Fried chicken, spaghetti bolognese, pizza margarita – all of these were vanilla, in the sense that they were completely standard fare of the sort to be found on the menus of countless restaurants, whereas Parmesan ice cream was redolent of a much more exotic culinary life.

He laughed nervously. “Oh, I know that.”

She was staring at him. He met her gaze, and then looked away. “May I tell you something?” she said. “I’m realising that you and I hardly know one another. I don’t know what you like, for example. Just for example.”

He caught his breath. Once again, he was not sure how to interpret this remark. Was she talking about ice cream, and by extension his more general likes and dislikes when it came to food, or was this some other sense of like.

“I’m not sure what you mean,” he said. “What I like … what I like about what?”

She shrugged. “Nothing in particular. Or, rather, everything, I suppose. What music you like. What food. What you like to drink. I know that you like beer – you had that when we were in the Wally Dug. I know that at least. And I know you like brown leather deck shoes because …” Her glanced down at his feet.

He was relieved. He did not want the conversation to drift into intimate areas, and of course that was not what she had meant at all.

“Music?” he said. Music was safe. “I like music. I like music – I like it a lot.”

“I could tell that,” she said. “You like poetry, and therefore you like music. Post hoc, propter hoc.”

He loved that. How many young women in their twenties could use Latin like that? Very few, he thought. It was just not what one expected … but hic abundant leones, he thought. Why should such a person not use Latin expressions? Were Latin expressions just for dry-as-dust male classicists, for whom nobody these days had any time? Such people were history – historia, even, and nobody needed to bother about them any longer, not according to the contemporary Zeitgeist.

“I know that you like poetry,” she continued, “or you told me you do …”

“I do. I do like poetry.”

“That’s great. It’s just that I’ve found that when I mention that I’m doing a PhD in Scottish poetry, people say ‘Oh, I love poetry’ and you ask them to tell you who their favourite poet is, and then they look blank. Or after a while they say Burns, or William Wordsworth. You’d be surprised at how many people can’t name any poets – other than Burns or Wordsworth.”

Stuart smiled. “Fergusson,” he said. “Henryson. Frost. Heaney. Longley. MacDiarmid. MacCaig. Kathleen Jamie. Liz Lochhead.” He beamed at her. “Of course, Wordsworth is a bit … a bit vanilla, wouldn’t you say?”

Katie laughed. “Definitely. Although there are poets who are far more vanilla poets than Wordsworth.” She paused. “I wonder why nobody’s ever published An Anthology of Vanilla Poetry.”

“Who would be in it?” asked Stuart.

Katie held up her hands in alarm. “It would be an invidious business editing that. A minefield.”

Stuart pressed her. “But there must be the usual suspects.”

Katie looked thoughtful. “It might be easier to identify the vanilla poems themselves,” she said. “Ode to a Nightingale, Fern Hill, If, Adelstrop, My Love is Like a Red, Red Rose …”

“So you would include Burns?”

“Burns as a poet isn’t vanilla,” Katie said. “He doesn’t belong there at all – as a poet – but what counts, you see, is what is made of the poem. So a very heartfelt, moving poem – one of great depth – can be made to be vanilla in the mouths of its proponents.”

Stuart nodded. “I’ve always loved Red, Red Rose.”

“Of course you have. It’s a beautiful, profound poem. A great poem. And it speaks to everyone.”

“So please take it out.”

She laughed. “You’re probably right. Okay, it’s out.”

“And there’s another one in your list,” said Stuart. “Adelstrop doesn’t belong there. It’s not vanilla poetry.”

“It isn’t, I agree. And yet, if the test of vanilla is whether it’s going to offend anybody, then Adelstrop won’t offend. Who’s going to take exception to a poem about stopping at a village station and hearing the steam hiss and birds sing? Nobody I know.”

Stuart pointed towards the service counter. “There’s no queue. Shall I get you a cup of coffee?”

“Please,” she said. “Skinny latte.” And then she added, “No vanilla.”

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