New 44 Scotland Street Chapter 61: Brochan lom, tana lom

They made their way along the narrow, unlit corridor leading to the stairs at the back of Single Malt House. As the light of their torch fell upon walls lined with faded wallpaper and dusty picture frames, Matthew’s practised eye could not resist appraising the pictures within the frames – after all, he was, first and foremost, an art dealer, and only secondly a reluctant housebreaker. Even in these tense circumstances he found himself glancing at the pictures, trying to make out what was what in the dim and moving torchlight.

44 Scotland Street
44 Scotland Street

He reached out to touch James’s arm. “Look,” he whispered. “Look at this painting.”

James shone the beam of the torch onto a small oil painting in an elaborate gilt frame. “We need to get on,” he said. “We can’t stand here and …”

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Matthew cut him short. “Have you seen this one before?” he asked.

James bent forward to peer at the painting. He seemed uncertain. “Maybe. Maybe not.” And then, after a short pause, “Yes, I think so. I think my uncle showed it to me. I can’t remember what he said about it.”

Matthew took the torch from him and held it closer to the painting. There was something about the painting that made him feel uneasy. Was this a clue, in a sense, to the mystery that hung over the life of the man who lived in this house?

Matthew glanced at the picture next to the one he had just examined. It was a McIan print of a Highlander bedecked in tartan, standing beside an illicit still. Printed below was the title, Beyond the Reach of the Excise Man. That was more the sort of thing one would expect to see in a farmhouse of this sort, he thought – particularly one called Single Malt House.

They reached the backstairs and began to make their way up to the bedroom floor. The music became louder now, as it was emanating from a room on this floor. Kenneth McKellar had finished his paean to his Scots bluebell and had moved on to a rendition of Brochan Lom, a familiar nonsense song about thin porridge. Matthew smiled to hear it – he had learned the song as a child ­­– but then he remembered where they were, and why, and his smile quickly faded.

Now, at the top of the stairs, James pointed at a door on the other side of the landing. “That’s his room,” he whispered.

Matthew moved past James. Reaching out, he put a hand on the door-handle and twisted it slowly. As he did so, the memory came back to him of something he had just read. Elspeth had given him a copy of Somerset Maugham’s The Painted Veil, and he remembered Maugham’s chilling description of the woman watching the twisting of the handle of her locked bedroom door while she lay inside with her lover. It was something capable of generating a very particular dread: seeing the handle of a door turning while not knowing who is on the other side, and now here he was performing that very action. How did I let myself in for this? he asked himself. I should have said no. This is the second time I have come into this house uninvited. The second time …

“It’s locked,” said Matthew, his voice just above a whisper. Even so, he wondered whether whoever was inside would hear him, or whether, further away, Pàdruig, whom he supposed to be listening to Kenneth McKellar, might hear their whispers above the jaunty Scottish music.

James tried the door-handle himself, more forcefully than had Matthew, who winced at the noise that this more energetic turning made. Again, the door did not move.

“I’m going to break it down,” said James, hardly bothering to lower his voice.

Matthew made a cancelling gesture.

“No,” he hissed. “We can’t …”

But his objection was ignored and, taking a few steps back, James hurled himself at the locked door, his shoulder meeting the central panel with a heavy thud.

The door withstood the onslaught. James stopped back again, again ignoring Matthew’s protests, and charged. This time the collision produced results, and with a sharp, cracking sound the lock gave way and the door swung open. For a moment it seemed as if James might lose his footing and fall into the room, but he recovered his balance and was still standing when the door swung back in rebound and hit him painfully on his right arm. Involuntarily, he let out a yelp of pain.

Matthew expected Kenneth McKellar to come to an abrupt stop, but no, the mellifluous crooning continued, moderately seamlessly into Mairi’s Wedding to the accompaniment of an accordion quartet. Now James was flashing the torch into the room, to reveal a large four-poster bed in which the Duke of Johannesburg, wearing a pair of striped flannel pyjamas, was sitting bolt upright, wide-eyed with shock at the sudden intrusion. Matthew’s eyes fell on the Duke, took in his entirely understandable astonishment, but then moved to the lock of the door they had just broken down. There was no key on the inside. And at that moment, Matthew knew that breaking in, risky though it had been, was the right thing to have done. The Duke had been locked into his room. He had not locked himself in; he had been detained by somebody else. And that person, of course, was Pàdruig.

Things now moved very quickly. James ran forward to his uncle’s side. “Are you all right?” he asked. “Are you hurt, Uncle?”

The Duke looked puzzled. “Hurt?” he asked.

James took his uncle’s hand and began to haul him out of bed. “Quick,” he said. “Get your dressing gown on.”

The Duke tried to resist, but his nephew was insistent, bundling him off the side of the bed and into the dressing gown that Matthew had taken off the back of a nearby chair.

“And your slippers,” said James. “Quickly.”

“Why …” the Duke began to ask, but Matthew was already pushing him across the room.

“Later,” said James. “We can talk later.”

A light was switched on outside the room. There, fully dressed, stood Pàdruig, his eyes narrowed, holding a golf club – a driver – in his right hand.

The Duke looked at one driver, and then at the other. “Go away, MacCrimmon, or whatever your name is,” he shouted. “You can go back to Stornoway tomorrow.”

Pàdruig glared at his employer. “But …” he lamented.

Matthew shook a finger. “You heard him,” he said, and then added. “You’re a …” Matthew was not a vindictive man; he was moderate in his views and his language. And the vocabulary of the moderate may often fail to rise to an occasion of real challenge. And so he said, simply, “You’re a really …” Silence fell over the other three as they waited his condemnation. And then it came: “Bad influence. You’re a really bad influence.”

There might have been laughter, but instead there was a sharp intake of breath from Pàdruig.

“Influence?” the driver growled. “Who are you calling an influence? Influence yourself!”

The Duke tried to defuse the situation. “No, that’s a bit steep, Matthew. He’s an enthusiast – that’s all.”

The Duke looked almost apologetic as he continued, “And we must remember, Pàdruig comes from Stornoway and may look at things differently.”

Matthew stared at the Duke. The realisation came to him suddenly, but with great clarity. Stockholm Syndrome, he thought.