New 44 Scotland Street Chapter 50: Cheese scones

When Angus Lordie returned to Scotland Street after his sitting with Glenbucket, he found Domenica in her study, talking on the telephone.

Friday, 16th October 2020, 7:00 am
44 Scotland Street
44 Scotland Street

She beckoned to him, and he sat down in the chair on the other side of her desk, waiting for her to finish her call. There was always something slightly discomfiting, he thought, about listening to one side of a telephone conversation; one may affect indifference, but one is inevitably drawn into speculation as to what the voice at the other end – the voice one cannot hear – is saying.

“No,” she said to the person at the other end of the line, “I have not phoned about any of the registered sites for which the authorities have responsibility. This is something quite different.”

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The voice said something that Angus could not make out. Then Domenica said, “Yes, of course.”

A further unintelligible, crackling sound was all that Angus heard in response to that.

“Neanderthal,” said Domenica.

This was greeted with silence. Then, after a few moments, “In a cave. Near the Water of Leith. My husband’s dog.”

Angus smiled. It would be gratifying if Cyril were to get the credit for the discovery; how many dogs have made significant palaeontological finds?

“No,” said Domenica, in reply to a further enquiry at the other end. “We haven’t.” She sighed. “The reason why we are approaching you, is that we want to do everything by the book.”

Angus made out a clearing of the throat at the other end of the line. Domenica looked at him, as if in a silent plea for sympathy.

There were a few more brief exchanges before the call came to an end.

“Well, really,” exclaimed Domenica. “They were perfectly polite, but it was clear they didn’t believe me.”

“Who?” asked Angus. “Who didn’t believe you?”

“The Royal Museum of Scotland,” said Domenica, rising to her feet. She moved to the window and looked out over the street. A brief shower of rain, unexpected, a passing thought from an innocent sky, had left the setts glistening. The figure of a young man came around the corner at the top of the street and glanced up at her window. Instinctively, she drew back. It was Torquil, the student from downstairs. He transferred his gaze to the window of his own flat and she saw him open his mouth to shout something. Then he cupped his hand to his ear in an effort to make out what was being said. “That young man from downstairs is shouting out something to one of his flatmates,” said Domenica.

Angus joined her at the window. He glanced at what was happening down below, and then turned back to face Domenica. “What did the museum say?” he asked.

“They wanted to know where we found the skull,” she said. “They asked me whether I was sure it was a skull.”

Angus shrugged. “You told them because it looked like a skull, I take it.”

“More or less,” said Domenica. “But they said that they very much doubted that it was Neanderthal.”

“How do they know?” asked Angus.

“They don’t,” replied Domenica. “That’s the point. So they’re coming to take a look.”

“Here? To the flat?”

“Yes. This afternoon. At three-fifteen. They said that was the only slot they had.”

Angus laughed. “What did Jean Brodie say of the school principal who had summoned her at such a time? She thought to intimidate me by the use of quarter hours?”

“Something to that effect,” Domenica said. “But I shall not be intimidated. We’ve done nothing wrong. They seemed to imply that we were … well, grave robbers, I suppose.”

Angus raised an eyebrow. “Burke and Hare,” he said.

“Exactly. Anyway, somebody from the Department of Neanderthal Affairs of the Chambers Street museum will be here this afternoon to take a look at the skull.”

Angus clapped his hands in delight. “The Department of Neanderthal Affairs!” he cried. “What a splendid conceit. Are they serious?”

Domenica shook her head. “They are, but I’m not. I think it was really the Department of Brochs and Early Pictish sites – that sort of thing. But I’m just assuming that the people who do all of that are also in charge of Neanderthal finds, of which there have been none in Scotland – thus far.”

He smiled. “I take it that Neanderthal affairs are a devolved matter? I assume that Westminster has no jurisdiction over Scottish Neanderthals.”

“I imagine so,” said Domenica. “London is slow to let go of powers, but they’re probably quite happy to give us Neanderthals.”

“Shall I make some cheese scones?” asked Angus. His cheese scones, which he baked with a good dose of cayenne pepper, were popular, and he often prepared a batch if there was to be an important visitor. And what more important occasion could there be, he asked himself, than the visit of an official palaeontologist – if that was who was coming that afternoon at the very precise – not to say intimidating – time of three-fifteen?

“Cheese scones would be ideal,” said Domenica. “After all, this is a fairly important occasion.”

Angus nodded. “Of course it is.” He paused. “But I must confess: I fear a resounding rebuff.”

Domenica did not share his anxiety. “We’re not trying to mislead anybody, Angus,” she said. “We’re not making any ridiculous claims. It’s not as if we’re coming up with anything like …” She searched her memory for examples of historical hoaxes – they were common enough, but the only one that came to her was the case of Piltdown Man.

“Piltdown Man?” Angus prompted.

“Precisely.”

Angus smiled. “People were more gullible then, I suppose. What did they do again?”

“It was a fraudster,” said Domenica. “He wanted to establish the so-called Missing Link between apes and Homo sapiens. So he got hold of an orang-utan jaw and combined it with a bit of modern skull. People fell for it for years.”

Angus shook his head. “Presumably wishful thinking played a part?”

“Of course. People believe what they want to believe – in so many respects. Look at our human beliefs about a lot of things – from economics to cosmology. You find something that appeals to you – some notion – and then you construct a supporting rationale for it. Astrology, for instance. People actually believe in that – they really do. But you don’t even have to resort to such fanciful territory to find examples of human wishful thinking.”

Angus was quiet. “I should hate to be lumped in with those Piltdown people,” he said.

Domenica sought to reassure him. “All that we’ve said is that we’ve found a skull that looks Neanderthal. That’s all. And when this museum person comes, that’s the first thing I’ll tell him.” She paused. “I suggest you make your scones now.”

Angus went to the cupboard. He took out the cayenne pepper.