New 44 Scotland Street Chapter 68: You've been a good friend

Leaning against the counter in Big Lou’s coffee bar, Matthew said to James, “And I’ll have a slice of that stuff over there, whatever it is.” And then added, “Actually, James, I’ll have two slices – if you think Stuart would like one.” He nodded in the direction of Stuart, who was waiting for him at one of the tables.

44 Scotland Street
44 Scotland Street

“Cinnamon spiced bacon monkey bread,” said James. “Stuart likes that. He had it the other day.”

From behind the bar, Big Lou caught Matthew’s eye. “One of James’s creations,” she said. “It’s going down very well with the more progressive customers.”

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Matthew laughed. “You flatter me, Lou. Progressive. Very nice.”

Big Lou had not intended it as a compliment. “Progressive actually means conformist, Matthew. A follower of intellectual fashion.”

James served Matthew with the monkey bread and returned to his task of preparing more bacon rolls. At the table, Matthew said to Stuart, “That young man is changing everything. Look at the people in here today. Twice as many as usual.”

Stuart gazed about him. “And a slightly different crowd, as well. A bit trendier, if I may say so. Apart from us, of course.”

Matthew grinned. “I don’t mind if people consider me fuddy-duddy.”

Stuart assured him that he would not think of Matthew in those terms. “Having been married to Irene for some time, I’ve had enough of being on the cutting edge.” He paused. “Not that I want anything to actually go backwards – I don’t want that. But I don’t see the merit in challenging everything.”

“Would you describe your views as conservative, Matthew?” asked Stuart. “In a general sense, that is?”

“Not particularly,” replied Matthew. “I believe in reforming things that need to be reformed. I believe in social goods. I believe that the most stable and probably the most reasonable position on anything is probably to be found in the centre. I believe in compromise and sharing and making sure that everybody has a chance. I believe that we should listen to one another and accept that those with whom we may disagree have their own view of the good and should be respected. I believe in not insulting those from whom we differ.”

Stuart listened in silence. When Matthew finished, he nodded slowly. “That doesn’t sound like conservatism to me. It sounds more like moderation, perhaps, which is not the same thing, and which is, I suspect, what the vast majority of people want.” He paused. “And yet that’s not what the world is like at the moment, is it? There’s all this chest-beating. On all sides. Bluster. Dislike. Scorn. Blaming others for everything. Posturing.”

“Yes, yes,” said Matthew, ruefully. “I sometimes wonder why we can’t be nice to one another – naïve though that sounds.” Nice, he thought, was a tired little word, even prissy; but everybody knew what it meant.

“It’s not naïve to be courteous and respectful of others,” said Stuart. “It’s . . . it’s the opposite of naïve, in fact, which is . . . What is the opposite of naïvety, Matthew?”

“Wisdom?” suggested Matthew. “Understanding? Perspicacity?”

Matthew studied Stuart as he spoke. There was an elephant in the room.

“And you?” he asked directly. “How are you doing, Stuart? After . . .” He trailed off. “After Katie?”

He mentioned her name tentatively, almost apologetically. Sometimes it was better for people not to be spoken off, or at least not named: one never knew what the jettisoned felt about those who cast them off.

“You know she’s seeing Bruce?”

Matthew winced. “I’d heard that. Big Lou told me.” He hesitated before continuing. “I must confess I was surprised. I mean, Bruce, of all people . . .”

“Women like him,” said Stuart flatly. “They like him a lot. He exercises some sort of power over then. They fall for him. I’ve seen it so often.”

Matthew sighed. “It’s because of his looks, I imagine. He’s very good-looking, isn’t he?”

Stuart agreed. But he found it hard to bring himself to say it: many men did not comment appreciatively on the looks of other men because that was an area of taboo: you didn’t say it. But Matthew had always thought it odd that men had to say things like “Women consider him good-looking”, the implication being that the female gaze could reach that conclusion, but the heterosexual male gaze should not. Men should be more honest, he thought. We could see male beauty every bit as well as women could.

Now Stuart said, “Sex, Matthew.”

Matthew said nothing.

“He’s better at such things than I am.”

Matthew took a bit of his cinnamon-spiced bacon monkey-bread. “Oh, I don’t know about that . . .” He realised, though, that he did know about it, and Stuart was undoubtedly right. So he said, “That’s not everything, you know.”

“Of course, it isn’t. I know that. But . . .”

“But,” said Matthew, “if that’s the way she looks at it, you’re better off without her. Because one thing’s certain, Stuart – the physical side of things is not enough to keep a relationship going in the long term. There’s far more to it than that.”

Stuart fished in his pocket. “She wrote to me,” he said. “She wrote and told me how sorry she was. She said she could not help herself.”

Matthew was dismissive. “She could, of course. She didn’t have to . . .”

“She sent me a poem.”

Matthew expressed surprise.

“Would you like to hear it?” asked Stuart. “It’s very short.”

He unfolded the piece of paper and began to read aloud:

You may not believe I loved you once, my dear:

I did.

You may not think I had hoped to be better than I was:

I had.

You may not have thought I’d be unworthy of you:

I was.

Matthew was silent. Then he said, “What a strange little poem.”

“Yes,” said Stuart. “I don’t know how to take it. I don’t know whether it’s meant to be an apology or a justification. Or a shaft of self-reproach.”

Matthew decided to change the subject. “And how’s Bertie?” he asked.

Stuart’s mood lifted visibly. “He’s having a whale of a time in Glasgow. He’s over there with his friend, Ranald Braveheart Macpherson. They’ve had almost three weeks now and they’ll be back next week.”

“You’ll be looking forward to seeing him.”

“I certainly am,” said Stuart. And he thought: all right, I haven’t got a girlfriend after all and I suspect that it’s going to be hard to get one. But at least I’ve got the children, and my job, and friends, and the flat in Scotland Street.

He looked at Matthew with warmth. “You’ve been a good friend to me, Matthew.”

“And you to me, Stuart. You’ve been a good friend too.”

They finished their cinnamon-spiced bacon monkey-bread and drank their coffee. Neither spoke; neither felt the need.