New 44 Scotland Street Chapter 70: What was always there

A power cut may dampen spirits, but the restoration of power soon dispels the gloom. Gratitude is the prevailing emotion when the lights flicker back into life, and that was what happened at Angus and Domenica’s party. Conversations took up where they had left off and the noise level rose steadily as the exchanges between the guests became more animated. It was past the time at which dinner should have been served, but it seemed to Domenica that people were enjoying themselves so much that it would be a pity to interrupt proceedings with food.

44 Scotland Street
44 Scotland Street

Edinburgh New Town flats are solidly built, and the stone that envelops them is an effective deadener of sound. But twenty or so people engaged in voluble discourse may test even those levels of insulation, and it was this that explained the ringing of the door-bell that now attracted Domenica’s attention. Answering the door, she found Torquil, her new student neighbour, standing outside, looking slightly embarrassed.

“Look,” he said, “this is a bit awkward. We’re trying to study downstairs and we wondered whether you might just turn the volume down a little bit – just a little bit.”

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Domenica was completely taken aback. Never in the history of Edinburgh had a group of students ever complained about noise generated by non-student neighbours: it was simply unheard of. Complaints the other way – directed against noisy student households – were two a penny, but for students to complain seemed almost inconceivable.

“I’m so sorry,” Domenica stuttered. “I should have told you we were going to have a party. It’s most remiss of me.” She paused. “In fact, I had intended to invite you and your flatmates to join us, but I completely forgot to do so.”

Torquil smiled. “Well, in that case . . .”

Domenica was quick to continue. “You wouldn’t care to come up?” she asked.

Torquil’s reply came quickly. “Yes, why not? There’s plenty of time to study tomorrow. Or the day afterwards.”

“I’m so pleased,” said Domenica.

“There are only two of us,” said Torquil. “The others are away. So it’ll only be me and Dave.”

Domenica returned to the party, leaving the door open for Torquil and Dave to join them. When they arrived several minutes later, she introduced them to Matthew and Elspeth, who were sitting at the kitchen table, engaged in conversation with James Holloway.

“I’m sorry to have interrupted your studying,” Domenica said to Dave.

Dave looked puzzled. “Studying?” he shrugged.

“We were talking about happiness,” said Elspeth. “I asked James if he could remember when he was happiest.”

“In India,” said James, “I was touring with friends. We rented Indian bikes – 650 Royal Enfield Bullets – and went up into the hills. I remember going into a village and the children ran out and threw flowers in front of us. There was a wedding going on – you know those marvellous Indian village weddings – and there were flowers everywhere. And people were dancing in the street and invited us to join them. We stopped, got off the bikes and danced with the wedding guests in all their finery. Those lovely reds. Oranges. We were complete strangers but they invited us to dance.”

Dave said, “I’m really happy now. Right now. Living here – downstairs – with my friends.”

“I am too,” said Torquil.

“We get on very well,” said Dave, and smiled at Torquil, who smiled back.

“And the others?” asked Domenica. “Rose, Phoebe, Alistair?” Rose, in particular, she thought: how did Rose feel? Torquil had said she wanted Dave back, but had said that this was not going to happen.

“Rose is happy,” said Dave quickly, glancing again at Torquil.

Domenica saw her chance. “I suppose she’s happy sharing with Phoebe.”

“Phoebe’s really weird,” said Torquil. And then he asked, “What about you, Domenica? When was the happiest period of your life?”

Domenica hesitated, but she knew exactly when that was. “When I was doing my early fieldwork,” she said. “I was in my mid-twenties. Papua New Guinea. It was so exciting. I had very little responsibility in life – just to get up in the morning and do my fieldwork. And the mornings were so beautiful. I remember birdsong. I remember the air being filled with birdsong.”

Somebody was tapping a glass with a spoon. It was Matthew. Voices died down for his announcement.

“Angus has a poem for us,” he said. “As he does every year.”

He looked at Angus expectantly. Angus stood up.

“Do you really . . .?” he began.

“You must,” called out James.

Angus took a deep breath. He closed his eyes. He had written the lines down, but he did not need to consult the piece of paper he had extracted from his pocket. “This is about looking for things that are there all the time,” he said. “We do that, you know.” And then he continued,

“Dear friends, of all the irritations of this life,

Looking for things misplaced is perhaps

The most common, the most wasteful

Of time that might be better spent elsewhere,

Doing other things that we would like to do;

I have lost my keys and then recovered them

Three times in one day, have searched

Long and hard for the handkerchief

That was always in my pocket,

Have wasted hours trying to remember

Where I read this or that, a memorable line

Of poetry that isn’t where I thought it was.

The hidden things we do not see

Because they are plainly unconcealed,

Not hidden at all, but as obvious

As a really simple crossword clue,

These things we need to learn

Are always there, ready to be seen

If only our eyes were open;

Friendship, love, brotherhood:

The things we want for Scotland

So very much it hurts; these things

Are there, and always have been;

We have not misplaced them,

But not looked hard enough,

Have not looked hard enough.”

He sat down. Nobody spoke. Elspeth looked at Matthew, who reached out to touch her arm gently. Sister Maria-Fiore dei Fiori di Montagna looked at Antonia, who nodded in agreement with what Angus had said – if she understood him correctly. Dave looked at Torquil, who returned his gaze with a smile. Nicola gave Stuart a look of sympathy: the look of a mother who knows that her son has suffered. He bit his lip. He might have cried, but would not. He would eventually find whatever it was that he was looking for. Love, he supposed – like everybody else.