A time of love and tarta.., p.7
A Time of Love and Tartan,
“Well, they may not actually say it,” said Pat. “But there are degrees of willingness to come clean. Some are more prepared to say that sort of thing than others.”
“But they won’t say it directly,” said Matthew. “They won’t say it outright. Because people won’t vote for people who say it’s going to be tough. They just won’t. They vote for whoever says they’re going to get free sandwiches for life. You tell people that and, boy, do they like you!”
That morning, he knew that Pat would probably arrive while he was out at Big Lou’s for coffee, but he nonetheless hung the conditional notice – the honest notice as he called it – on the door and crossed the road to Big Lou’s. Pat had a key to the gallery and could let herself in.
“This place smells of bacon,” said Matthew, sniffing at the air as he entered.
Lou, who was polishing the Gaggia, turned around. “It may have something to do with the fact that I sell bacon rolls, Matthew.”
Matthew laughed. “I’m not saying it’s a bad smell, Lou. In fact, it’s one of the best smells there is, as far as I’m concerned. The smell of the forbidden.”
“Bacon rolls? Who’s forbidding you from eating bacon rolls?”
“Elspeth,” said Matthew. “She says they’re bad for you.”
“Och, away with all that,” said Lou. “What’s wrong with bacon? I know plenty of people who ate bacon every day of their lives. My Uncle Willy, for example. He had three large rashers every morning. Two fried eggs and three rashers of bacon. After his porridge, of course.”
“What happened to him?” asked Matthew.
Lou looked surprised. “What happened to him? Uncle Willy? He’s dead.”
Matthew smiled. “Well, there you are. He’s dead.”
“But not from bacon rolls,” said Lou quickly. “The tractor ran over him.”
Matthew made an effort to look solemn. “I’m sorry. That had nothing to do with bacon, obviously.” There were all sorts of hazards in living on those north-east farms. Not only tractors, but the cold, for example. People probably froze to death up there. Certainly they did in Aberdeen.
“I’m not saying that you shouldn’t listen to these people telling you what to eat,” said Lou. “All I’m saying is that you shouldn’t worry too much. Look at eggs. We were told not to eat eggs, and now they’re saying we should. Well, I carried on eating eggs all the way through. Now they’re all right again. Eggs are good. Vitamin D or something.”
“In the yolk,” said Matthew. “Eggs have vitamin D in their yolks. And we don’t have enough vitamin D in us in Scotland, Lou. We’re all vitamin D deficient, apparently. Just between October and March, I think. There’s not enough sun for us to make the vitamin D we need.” He paused. “I’ve got an idea for you, Lou. I’ve got an idea how you could help improve Scotland’s health.”
“I’m not taking bacon rolls off the menu.”
“Oh no, it’s nothing to do with that.”
“Because there’d be an awfie lot of people who’d feel pretty sair if I did that,” continued Lou.
“You can carry on serving bacon,” said Matthew. “But how about putting a touch of vitamin D in your coffee? It wouldn’t have to be much, apparently. We each need only ten micrograms a person a day. Put it in the coffee you serve, then we’d get it that way. Simple.”
Big Lou looked at him. “Are you serious?”
Matthew nodded. “It would help. It could be your contribution.”
Big Lou looked thoughtful. “I don’t like the thought of all those folk being vitamin D deficient.”
“Well, you can do something about it, Lou.”
Lou served Matthew his coffee. He looked down at it. Trust, he thought. We take so much on trust. People give us things to eat and drink, and we trust them. We have no idea what may be in the things before us, but we proceed on the basis of trust.
“Is there anything in my coffee, Lou?” he asked.
Big Lou smiled at him. “Bromide,” she said.
When Matthew returned to the gallery after twenty minutes at Big Lou’s, he found Pat reading at her desk.
He glanced at the book. “Anything interesting?” he asked.
“It’s just something I picked up. There was a book sale at Holy Corner. They had all sorts of stuff.”
Matthew tried to look over Pat’s shoulder, but she turned the book over, unhelpfully exposing the back cover.
“All sorts of stuff,” he echoed. “I love those sales. I go to that one in George Street. They get thousands and thousands of books each year, all sold in a good cause. Lots of the books are quite new – I bought Guy Peploe’s book on Samuel Peploe there last year.”
“Yes,” said Pat. “My father gave me a copy of that.”
Matthew decided to be direct. “So, what’s this book you’re reading?” He hesitated, as one had to be careful with Pat. “You seem a bit defensive, if I may say so. You aren’t reading that Fifty Shades are you?”
Pat gave him a withering look. “Do you think I’d read something like that?”
Matthew shrugged. “A lot of people seem to have read it. Nobody I know, of course, but . . . ”
Pat looked at him scornfully.
“I was only joking,” said Matthew, smiling. “Chacun à son gout,” he said. He was open-minded, but he blushed at the memory of something that had happened to him.
He had seen the controversial book in a bookshop and had taken a furtive look inside. Unfortunately, a woman had come up to reach for another title from the shelf immediately in front of him and Matthew could not replace the book without her seeing it. What would she think of him if she saw him flicking through the pages of Fifty Shades? It hardly bore thinking about. She would think he was one of those people who went into bookshops and flicked through the pages of the latest salacious offerings until the staff eventually rumbled what was going on and asked them to leave. The shame of it! The public humiliation! He imagined the headline in the Evening News – WATSONIAN EJECTED FROM CITY STORE. They would be sure to mention that he was a Watsonian because they would want to make the most of that. No, that’s absurd, he thought: nobody cares any more what other people read. Prudery and disapproval are things of the past, even in Edinburgh . . .
And then, in a moment of heart-stopping awfulness, he recognised the woman standing beside him at the shelf. It was Mrs. Patterson Cowie, his old English teacher from Watson’s. She it was who had introduced him, as a boy of ten, to Robert Louis Stevenson’s A Child’s Garden of Verses and to Kidnapped. From A Child’s Garden of Verses to books about . . . well, about the sort of things Fifty Shades was about, not that Matthew imagined that anybody actually did any of the things described in such books. Why would they? Perhaps there were people who had nothing better to do.
For a few moments – an eternity in his mind – Matthew remained immobile. It could hardly be worse, he thought – or it could be, perhaps. It could have been the Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland standing next to him. The Moderator would turn to him and say, “I’m so disappointed in you, young man” or, worse still, say nothing but register his disappointment in his look. And Matthew would blush deep red and mumble, “I’m doing research, you see,” or perhaps, “I thought this book was about interior decorating. It’s very misleading, don’t you think, to call a book Fifty Shades of Grey when it’s not about interior decoration at all.” The Moderator would agree. But then he might say, “But what is it about?” That would be problematic.
He decided he had to act. Mrs. Patterson Cowie gave no sign of recognising him; he thought that perhaps she had not actually seen his face. That was a relief; he could now sidle away from her, taking the book with him, and she would be none the wiser.
He took a step backwards. She was still preoccupied with her scrutiny of the shelves and paid no attention to him. He took another step, but found that he could not retreat any further in that particular direc
He edged sideways towards the door. He kept his face turned away from Mrs. Patterson Cowie as he pushed the handle. It gave easily and the door swung open. He did not turn around to see if she had noticed him.
Matthew found himself in a corridor, empty apart from a few tattered pieces of paper on an old noticeboard. At the other end was a second door, towards which he now made his way.
This second door was locked. There was a key-pad beside it that would open it, but one would need a code. He tried the handle several times and even applied his shoulder to the door itself, but all egress was barred. He felt his heart begin to pound: he would have to go back the way he came. He returned to the door through which he had entered the corridor. It had locked automatically – from the other side.
Matthew took a deep breath. Had he missed something? There must have been a lock that had been triggered once he pushed the door open. Perhaps . . . He stopped. There was no point in searching for explanations of his plight. The inescapable fact was that he was trapped in a corridor that was, to all intents and purposes, a cell.
He leaned against the wall. He would have to think very carefully. It seemed to him that this was some sort of emergency exit for staff who, presumably, would have been issued with the code to get out through the second door. He looked about him. The corridor had a dusty and neglected look to it. People probably only used it during fire alarm practices. He could be there for days unless he called for help and somebody heard him. But who would hear him? He had been in a corner of the shop, away from everything else. No, he was trapped – with only one book to read.
He suddenly realised then that the walls of his cell were grey – monotonously so.
An Absurd Situation
The absurdity of Matthew’s situation was not lost on him. To be stuck in a corridor with locked doors at either end was not the sort of thing that happened in reality: such situations were the stuff of urban myths, those hoary, but readily believed tales of headless motorcyclists, vanishing hitchhikers, and axe-wielding little old ladies innocently picked up by motorists in supermarket car parks. These stories, although apocryphal, evinced a feeling of dread in the listener – And did the driver only notice the blood-stained axe after he had seen his passenger’s unusually hairy wrists? – just as anyone listening to this story would feel anxiety about the outcome for Matthew. What did you do? Were you really stuck there for two whole days? Of course, such things did not really happen . . . Except, thought Matthew, this really is happening – and not having heard the outcome of the story, I must decide what to do.
He sat down on the floor, leaning back against the wall, and attempted to clear his mind. First of all, he thought, I have not done anything wrong, and I therefore have nothing with which to reproach myself. I have simply sought to avoid social embarrassment, which is perfectly understandable and, indeed, even laudable. Not only would he have been ashamed had Mrs. Patterson Cowie seen him clasping a copy of Fifty Shades, but she herself could have felt embarrassed. So, at least in one view, he had acted thoughtfully and might even be congratulated for his sensitivity.
But that threw no light on his options. As far as he could make out, these were: (1) to bang on the door immediately, in the hope of attracting the attention of somebody, who would then unlock the door; that person, however, could be Mrs. Patterson Cowie, and that would be extremely awkward; (2) to wait ten minutes, allowing Mrs. Patterson Cowie to move to another part of the shop, then to bang loudly for attention; or (3) to do nothing, hoping that in the fullness of time a member of staff would need to use the corridor and would in this way end his awkward durance.
He weighed these three options, eventually deciding upon the first. There was a possibility that his former teacher would be the one to open the door for him, but he had alighted upon a way of obviating any embarrassment that might be caused by the book – he would simply tuck it into the waistband of his trousers. It was marginally too large to fit into his pocket – he had tried that – but it could easily be concealed under the waistband. Then, at an opportune moment, he could slip it back onto its shelf – or indeed onto any shelf; he had read somewhere that the staff of bookshops were accustomed to reshelving salacious books that had been slipped back into an innocent, but incorrect, place on their shelves.
He rose to his feet. With the book tucked out of sight, Matthew returned to the outer door and knocked heavily three times. Then, feeling vaguely foolish about it, he cried out, “Anybody there?”
He stopped and listened. There was complete silence. He knocked again, more loudly this time, and was on the point of shouting out once more when he heard a voice on the other side.
“I’m here,” said the voice.
Matthew hesitated. Then he said, “Would you mind unlocking this door?”
There was silence on the other side. Then, at length, the voice said, “Are you there?”
“Yes,” said Matthew. “I’m here – are you there?”
“I’m here,” came the reply. “What do you want?”
Matthew felt a surge of irritation. “I want you to unlock the door.” He struggled to keep his voice even. He had already asked this person – whoever he was – to unlock the door. How many times would he need to make the request?
“What?” asked the voice. “What do you want me to do?”
“To unlock the door,” said Matthew, his voice now appreciably raised.
“Who are you?” asked the voice.
“That doesn’t matter,” said Matthew. “I just want you to unlock the door.”
“I’m not sure if I should,” said the voice. “I’m just a customer.”
“Oh, for heaven’s sake,” snapped Matthew. “Don’t be so ridiculous.”
“There’s no need to be rude,” said the voice.
“I’m not being rude,” said Matthew, seething now. “You’re the one who’s being rude – not helping somebody who’s trapped is being extremely rude.”
“Who’s trapped?” said the voice.
“Oh, you complete gowk!” expostulated Matthew. “I’m trapped. I’m trapped behind this door and all you have to do is to open it.”
“Don’t you call me a gowk,” the voice retorted. “You’re the gowk.”
“Shut up!” shouted Matthew. “Just open this . . . ” And here Matthew swore. He was not given to swearing, but he could not contain himself. This was just so ridiculous – and so intensely frustrating.
“Don’t you use that language to me,” said the voice. “I’m trying to be helpful. That’s the trouble with this country, it’s become so foul-mouthed. People don’t even realise that they’re swearing.”
“Just open the door,” Matthew pleaded. “I didn’t mean to swear at you – I really didn’t.”
“Are you going to apologise?” asked the voice.
Matthew was now desperate. “Of course, I’ll apologise.”
There was the sound of another voice and a muttered conversation that Matthew could not hear properly. And then there was a clicking sound and the door swung open.
There, standing outside, was a man in his mid-thirties, slightly corpulent, wearing a blue sweater and with an annoyed, disapproving look on his face. This was the voice with whom Matthew had conducted such a fraught conversation. Then, at his side, was the assistant manager of the bookshop – identified as such by the badge on his shirt – and finally, behind the two of them and gazing at Matthew with undisguised interest, Mrs. Patterson Cowie.
“What’s been going on?” asked the assistant manager. “How did you get in there?”
“I took a wrong turning,” said Matthew.
“It says Staff Only,” pointed out the assistant manager.
“He said he was trapped,” said the man in the blue sweater.
“Well, I was,” said Matthew.
“And he used some pretty strong language,” continued the man.
Mrs. Patterson Cowie looked disapproving; Matthew, though, was relieved that she appeared not to recognise him.
“Why did you go in there?” asked the assistant manager. “You weren’t thinking of shop-lifting, were you?”
Matthew drew in his breath sharply.
“That’s what I thought,” said the man in the blue sweater. “That’s exactly what I thought.”
“Oh, don’t be so ridiculous,” said Matthew.
“Then why have you got a book tucked into your waistband?” asked the assistant manager.
Pat stared at Matthew.
“You’ve gone bright red,” she said. “Matthew, you’re blushing.”
Matthew, who had been leaning forward in his attempt to discern the title of Pat’s book, straightened up. “Am I really?” he mumbled.
“Yes, you are. Like a tomato.”
He moved away. Now he faced the window out onto Dundas Street – a favoured stance from which he occasionally attempted to dictate a letter to Pat – an endeavour that never lasted long as Pat kept correcting him as he spoke. Do you really want to say that? or They’re not going to like that, you know. How could one write a letter in the face of such interventions? How would a real businessman react to being corrected in this way by his secretary? But Pat, of course, was not a secretary, and secretaries, anyway, had ceased to exist, as far as he could make out. And not before time, thought Matthew. The whole role had been designed to keep women in a subservient position in the workforce – as handmaidens to those who did more generously rewarded work. Matthew would never subscribe to that: Pat was an assistant or even a colleague, doing much the same work as he did (and only occasionally typing letters).
A Time of Love and Tartan by Alexander McCall Smith / Humor have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes