New 44 Scotland Street Chapter 63: Widdershins or deasil

Angus was telephoned by Domenica while he was walking Cyril in Drummond Place Garden. It was Cyril’s second walk of the day, the first having taken place, as it always did, at eight-thirty in the morning and having led them up Dublin Street, along Abercromby Place, and then down Dundas Street to Big Lou’s café.

44 Scotland Street
44 Scotland Street

It was, in a sense, a paysage moralisé, as charged with moral meaning as Piero di Cosimo’s The Discovery of Honey by Bacchus: Dublin Street, which rose sharply up towards Queen Street, represented an early challenge: reaching a summit requires effort whatever the nature of the elevation – Angus understood that, and he thought that Cyril grasped it too through the fog of limitation that swirled around the mind of a dog. Cyril knew that certain rewards had to be earned – that dog biscuits, enticing in their musty meatiness, the canine equivalent of Belgian chocolate truffles, were only obtained after you had done something: fetched a stick or a ball, pointlessly thrown, in the way in which humans, for unfathomable reasons, threw sticks and balls for dogs to retrieve; extended a paw for an unhygienic handshake (the namaste gesture was so difficult if you were a quadruped); or otherwise performed in a way that met with favour from your comptroller. (Edinburgh dogs do not have owners – too prosaic a term – they have comptrollers).

Turning right into Abercromby Place, the effort of ascending Dublin Street was rewarded with a pleasant meander, on the level, with more gardens opening up to the south. These gardens had their role in the paysage moralisé in that they revealed a terrain of trees and squirrels, a city as celestial as that glimpsed by Christian beyond Bunyan’s wicket gate. But, like Christian, Cyril was held back from entry at this stage; further temptations had to be overcome once they reached Big Lou’s. There, under the table, with its distinctive sub-tabular smells, Cyril’s self-restraint was frequently tested almost to breaking point as he contemplated the ankles that he might so easily and deliciously nip. He did not bite; lesser dogs did that; dogs brought up in ill-disciplined homes; dogs with comptrollers who did not care what their dogs should do, or who excused it on the grounds that dogs will be dogs; such dogs might bite, rather than nip, and were responsible for much bad feeling in the functioning of the otherwise seamless social contract between dogs and man.

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That was the first walk of the day; the second walk had less variety, and was confined to the path that led round the internal perimeter of Drummond Place Garden. This walk took place widdershins or deasil, depending on the mood in which Angus found himself. There was no underlying reason for choosing between these two directions, although going widdershins – anti-clockwise – meant that the garden would always be kept on their left, the iron railings on the right. Around widdershins movement there hung a vague feeling of ill luck, and Angus knew that some users of the garden preferred to walk deasil because of intuitive preferences to having the open possibility – in this case the garden, rather than the railings ­– on one’s right. Such things can be mere superstitions, or can be based on some ancient memory of being able to deal with threats more easily if they emerged from the right side. For Angus, though, it was a question of mood: a positive mood naturally proposed the deasil alternative, while doubt or a plain lack of oomph predisposed one to the widdershins option. For Cyril, it made no difference: smells were what counted for him; they came at him in delicious, jostling profusion, from every direction, and the angle of shadows was a matter of complete indifference.

On that particular morning they were halfway through a deasil walk when Angus’s mobile phone rang. Cyril’s ears perked up at the disturbance, but he was quickly distracted by a distant scent of squirrel – a cold trail, he knew, but one to which attention would have to be paid.

It was Domenica.

“I know you’ll be back soon,” she began, “but I just had to speak to you. There’s been a bit of drama.”

The expression, a bit of drama, was used by Domenica to describe anything from Chernobyl to running out of Earl Grey tea, and so Angus was not alarmed by this portentous opening.

“Government fallen?” he asked. “Market crashed? Electric toothbrush fused?”

“Very droll,” said Domenica. “No, it’s news from Dr Colquohoun.”

“Ah,” said Angus. “And what’s the verdict from Chambers Street? A genuine Neanderthal skull?”

“No,” said Domenica. “Or, put it this way – that’s still a possibility.”

Angus waited.

“It’s rather unfortunate,” Domenica continued. “You may recall him saying that he was going to catch the 23 bus back up to George IV Bridge.”

“Vaguely,” said Angus.

“Well he did. And he’s just phoned to confess that he left the skull on the bus.”

Angus was silent. This was almost unbelievable. Then, after a few moments, he said, “You mean to say that he left our Neanderthal skull on the 23 bus? That he got off without it?”

“That’s exactly what happened.”

Angus groaned. “And?”

“And he reported it to the lost property office of Lothian Buses. At first, they thought he was joking. They asked him if his father knew he was playing with the phone. But then they realised it was all dead serious. They went off to check up whether any skulls had been handed in – they get all sorts of things. apparently, including, last week a set of false teeth and a first edition of MacDiarmid’s A Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle. But no skull had been handed in. They asked him how to spell Neanderthal and then they suggested listing it as an item of household furniture, possibly an ashtray. He didn’t bother to disabuse them of the notion and let them put it down as ornamental skull (poor condition).

“Perhaps it’ll turn up,” said Angus.

“The museum people very much hope so. I’ve been on to them since the call, and they are very apologetic. They said they had not lost anything for seventeen years, the last object to go missing being Prince Charles Edward Stuart’s toothbrush, which was of dubious authenticity anyway. That was eventually found in the staff washroom, where, judging from the traces of toothpaste on its bristles, it had been well used by a member of the museum’s curatorial staff.”

They concluded the conversation, and Angus agreed to return home immediately in order to discuss this distressing development. As he left the garden, closing the gate behind him, he became aware of a figure approaching him. It was Sister Maria-Fiore dei Fiori di Montagna, and he was not at all sure that he had the energy to talk to the aphorism-coining Italian nun. But she clearly intended to speak to him, and so, with an inward sigh, Angus prepared himself for the encounter.