New 44 Scotland Street Chapter 46: An art student’s digs
For long decades Mrs Symanski took students, and other lodgers, into the house she had inherited from an aunt, who, like her, was a widow; in the aunt’s case, of a Leith general practitioner.
The aunt had gone off to live in Troon with her sister, and had made the house over to her niece to give her a livelihood. It was an act of great generosity, motivated not only by family affection, but by an awareness of what the country owed to the unsung heroes of the Polish air force, who lost their own country, but helped to save that of so many others.
“Take lodgers,” the aunt had said. “You have five rooms to let out. Put two students in each. That makes ten altogether. You could live quite comfortably on the income from that.”
Mrs Symanski had followed this advice. Although she had a preference for students, she also took in the occasional junior civil servant or struggling office worker. Sometimes men from the bonded warehouses of Leith came to stay for a few months when they were turned out of their homes by their wives; occasionally nurses from the Eastern General took a room while they were waiting for something better. There were rules that were strictly enforced: nobody was to come in later at night than eleven-thirty, at which time Mrs Symanski locked the front door against all comers; nobody was to consume alcohol in their bedrooms or in the bathroom; and guests of the opposite sex were to be entertained only in the front parlour, where a small television, permanently switched on, made conversation difficult; and finally, there was to be no shouting nor swearing in any circumstances. A young man from Ayrshire, who had littered his conversation with profanity, had lasted one week before he was asked to go elsewhere, as Edinburgh, Mrs Symanski explained, was not a place in which such language was welcome. They were, in fact, in Leith, but the point still stood.
She was an astute businesswoman and did not hesitate to make maximum use of the space she had. A box-room at the back of the house was converted to a single bedroom, even though it had no window and was large enough only for the shortest of available beds. In Angus’s time, that was occupied by the shortest of the house’s tenants, a young man from Dundee, who was barely five feet tall, a junior clerk in the offices of the city council, whose main interest in life was yodelling. Mrs Symanski had been at school with this young man’s mother, and had made an exception to her rules to allow him to yodel in the house, but only in his room, and with the door closed. That did not prevent the yodelling to be heard elsewhere, and there were complaints, but they were never acted upon.
Behind the house there was a small garden. Somehow or other, Mrs Symanski had contrived to have a caravan placed in this garden, possibly by having it lifted by a crane from the lane behind the house and then deposited immediately outside the kitchen. Angus, and others, had asked her how the caravan got there, but she had never provided an answer, simply tapping the side of her nose and saying, “There are ways of doing anything if you know the right people.” This caravan, which had permanently flat tyres and a film of green algae growing up its side from where the rainwater dripped off the roof, had been procured to house an extra tenant. He was called Richard, and he worked as a draughtsman in a civil engineering firm. “I’m saving to go to Canada,” he said to Angus. “That’s why I endure the humiliation of living in Mrs S’s caravan. She charges me half of what you inside people pay. When I get the money, that’s me off to Toronto. Goodbye caravan.”
Breakfast was provided by Mrs Symanski, as was an evening meal. These were served in the largest room in the house, which had been the doctor’s drawing room, and into which a four-leaf dining-room table had been moved. This managed to seat everybody, with a chair at one end being reserved for Mrs Symanski, although she rarely sat on it. She was busy in the kitchen, where, assisted by a maid, she prepared the food. Breakfast was an indeterminate cereal, cardboardy in consistency and taste, thin slices of toast, and fried egg, bacon and sausage. The evening meal was soup, followed by a fish or meat course served with mashed potatoes and a green vegetable, often cabbage, but sometimes spinach or tinned peas. For a surcharge added to your monthly rent, you could entitle yourself to a slice of cake at the end of the meal.
Baths were fifty pence, payable in advance, and booked with Mrs Symanski. “Hot water is very expensive,” she said. “I would like to make baths free, but that is not the world we live in.”
Mrs Symanski quickly took a shine to Angus.
“That boy has manners,” she said to a friend. “He’s a gentleman, you see. He’s trying to be an artist, but at heart he’s a gentleman.”
He showed her his work, including his life-drawings. She raised an eyebrow at the nudes. “You wouldn’t see that sort of thing in Dunfermline,” she said.
She asked him whether he might paint a picture of her late husband. “I can show you photographs,” she said. “I can show you photographs of Anton in his air-force uniform.”
Angus was happy to oblige. He chose a large canvas and painted his subject standing at the edge of an airfield, with two Spitfires in the sky behind him, performing an aerial ballet. It was a good likeness, as even then Angus’s ability as a portrait painter was showing itself. Mrs Symanski looked at it and then leaned forward and kissed the portrait, kissed the lips of the husband she had lost all those years ago, and wept.
“I think of him every day,” she said, wiping her eyes with her handkerchief. “Every day, I think of what my Anton might say to me, if he were still with me.”
“Of course you do,” said Angus. “Of course you do.”
“And now you have painted him so well. It will bring him back to me even more powerfully.”
“I’m glad,” said Angus.
“These days nobody knows what it was like,” she continued. “They don’t know what it was like for those brave boys – your age, Angus. They stared death in the face every single day, and they knew that they had not to care, or to pretend not to care, because if you started to think about it you would be unable to get on with what you had to do.”
“I can imagine,” said Angus.
She kissed him, in gratitude, as she had kissed the painting. After that, for the entire year that he spent in that house, Angus was allowed a free bath every day, much to the annoyance of the other lodgers, whose egalitarian sentiments were somehow offended by this sign of favour. That reaction provided a lesson for Angus that subsequent experience proved time and time again: that most people were, at heart, envious of what others had, no matter how hard they tried to control their envy. That explained so much: from widespread willingness that more tax should be paid by everyone with an income greater than one’s own, to the satisfaction felt when those we know lose their money through misfortune. We love Nemesis when her radar picks up those in the public eye; we are, understandably, less enamoured of her when she turns to those such as ourselves, the innocent, the deserving.