New 44 Scotland Street Chapter 69: Temptation, its various forms

Ten days later, as autumn began to stamp its authority on the last days of summer, Angus and Domenica held a large dinner party in Scotland Street.

44 Scotland Street
44 Scotland Street

It was, as they described it, the “usual affair” – a gathering of like-minded old friends, and some new ones too, for conversation and an eccentric and unpredictable buffet dinner. The conversation was wide-ranging, and often light-hearted, suffused, for reasons that nobody could quite fathom, with a particular sort of celebratory kindness. Things said in the past were encouraged to be said again, in the knowledge that repeated stories are appreciated all the more for their having been aired before. So it was that Angus’s story of the unsophisticated local politician who, having heard that certain people had made allegations against him, expressed a wish “to meet those alligators” could be repeated, savoured, and thoroughly laughed at, even on its sixth iteration.

The guests were invited for six-thirty, but by five o’clock two of them were already there, helping Domenica with preparations in the kitchen while Angus tidied the two rooms in which everybody would be congregating. This advance party, happy to roll up their sleeves and work, consisted of Domenica’s old friend, Dilly Emslie, her husband, Derek, and Angus’s friend, James Holloway, with whom he and Cyril had found the Neanderthal skull in the gardens below Moray Place.

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Dilly had not heard of the find, and was entertained by Domenica to the full story, or debacle, as she called it.

“It was most unfortunate,” said Domenica. “Poor Dr Colquohoun was very upset. We told him that these things happen, but he seemed to take the whole thing very personally.”

“And you almost recovered it, I gather,” prompted James, as he skilfully jointed a brace of roast guinea fowl.

“Yes,” said Domenica. “Sister Maria-Fiore dei Fiori di Montagna found it, as it happens, on the 23 bus and took it home. But then she threw it in the kitchen bin and by the time Angus heard about it, Antonia Collie had put the contents out and the men had carted it away. It was too late to do anything about it. We could hardly sift through tons of Edinburgh refuse to find a Neanderthal skull.”

“Such a pity,” said Dilly. “Mind you, I’m not sure that we want an Edinburgh Neanderthal. We have the Festival, after all – and the Fringe. I’d be inclined to say that’s enough. There has to be a limit.”

“My thoughts exactly,” said James.

Dilly remembered something. “Somebody in Ann Street found a mammoth tusk a couple of years ago,” she said. “It was excavated from their back garden when they were putting in an ornamental fountain. Everybody was very excited, but the Ann Street Committee decided it would be best not to publicise the discovery. So they took it over to the council refuse place and recycled it.”

“Probably the wisest thing to do,” said James.

They continued to work on the food until the main body of guests arrived. Stuart and Nicola came up from downstairs, and Sister Maria-Fiore dei Fiori di Montagna and Antonia Collie came from around the corner in Drummond Place. Then there were Matthew and Elspeth, the triplets being looked after by Josefine and James. Judith McClure was there, and Roger Collins, too, who was in a mood to celebrate, having just completed the first two chapters of his history of Eurasia – a work of staggering scope.

Angus had invited Glenbucket, whose portrait he had recently completed to the sitter’s complete satisfaction. Glenbucket was overdressed for the occasions – wearing full Highland regalia – but seemed indifferent to this fact and enjoyed the vocal admiration of the other guests.

“How adventurous to wear three different tartans at once,” said James Holloway.

Glenbucket might have detected a certain irony there, but did not. “I’m entitled to all of them,” he said. “One way or another.”

The conversation flowed freely, fuelled by the generosity of the hosts’ cellar. A Portuguese vinho verde was available for those who preferred white wine, while those who favoured red had a choice of a Médoc and a South Australian Cabernet Sauvignon.

“Will Lyons recommended this Medoc in his column,” said Angus, as he poured James a glass, “and he should know.”

“I feel very reassured,” said James.

With the onset of autumn, the evenings were drawing in, and by eight o’clock, shortly before dinner was due to be served, the sky had darkened. Inside the flat, curtains were drawn and lamps switched on, as the hubbub of conversation rose and fell. But then, quite unexpectedly, the light flickered and went out.

“Power cut,” called out one of the guests.

The flat was plunged into complete darkness.

“I’ll find some candles,” called out Angus.

“Oh dear,” said Domenica. “I know it’ll be very atmospheric, but there are still things in the warming oven.”

The darkness, although clearly it would be temporary, brought silence. Conversations that had started, froze halfway; somebody cleared his throat; another bumped against a small table and sent a glass tumbling to the floor. And then there was a sudden shout – a cry of pain.

“What’s happening?” Matthew called out. “Angus, is somebody hurt?”

The light flickered and returned as suddenly as it had disappeared. Angus, halfway to the cupboard where the candles were stored, turned around sharply.

“Is everybody all right?” he asked.

From a corner of the room, Glenbucket called out in response. “Something bit my leg.”

Matthew was standing next to the bekilted figure and bent down to examine the place on Glenbucket’s leg where the bite was said to have occurred. “It’s your ankle,” he said.

Glenbucket, bent over double, massaged the affected limb. He looked more puzzled than uncomfortable. “Yes,” he said. “My ankle. It was a sudden, sharp pain. A nip, I think.”

Angus looked about him. He knew immediately what had happened and he would now find the culprit. He muttered an apology to Glenbucket and left the room. A bedroom door, half open, confirmed his suspicions. Here, underneath the bed, shivering with guilt, lay Cyril, feigning sleep but unable to control his quivering.

Angus, on his knees, stared at the dog for a few moments, and then straightened up.

“I am very disappointed in you, Cyril,” he said; but then smiled. We are all weak, he thought; all of us, and temptation, to which so many of us yield, has so many different – and unlikely – forms.

Cyril crept out, head hung in continued shame. But Angus smiled again, and the smile was understood. Together they returned to the party, where interrupted conversations had now resumed. Glenbucket appeared to have made a full recovery.

“Perhaps I imagined it,” he said. “Perhaps it’s a neurological issue. I occasionally get an odd pain in my calf. Some nerve somewhere, I suppose, waking up.”

“Perhaps,” said Angus.