14. From Arbroath with Love
If Bruce was largely made up of braggadocio and narcissism, the character of Big Lou, proprietrix of the Morning After Coffee Bar in Dundas Street, was composed of very different stuff. Big Lou had been brought up in Arbroath, a town noted for those typically Scottish virtues of caution, hard work and modesty. She had the additional advantage of having been raised on a farm – not a large or a prosperous one, but one that consisted of a few hundred tenanted acres, an appendage to an estate which had never been very well managed and which, as a result, had had little money available for investment in the fabric of the place. The fences, some of which were made of rusted barbed wire dating back to the First World War, were patched up as best as Big Lou’s father, Muckle Geordie, could manage; and the byres, rickety and oddly angled, looked as if a good puff of wind off the North Sea, or even a flaff from the hinterland of Angus, would be all that was required to bring them tumbling down.
In a more justly ordered world, Big Lou’s native intelligence would have been nurtured and would have flowered; as it was, instead of bettering herself she was obliged to spend years looking after an elderly uncle. Then, when her chance of freedom came, she went north rather than south; and, north, in the shape of Aberdeen, brought only more drudgery, with a menial job in the Granite Nursing Home. When she eventually escaped from that, it was to Edinburgh, and to freedom at last, financed by the legacy left her by an inmate of the Granite. Now she had her own flat in Canonmills and her own coffee bar, the latter occupying the basement premises previously used as a bookshop. This had been frequented, for a time, by the late Christopher Murray Grieve, better known as the poet Hugh MacDiarmid, who had once fallen down the dangerous steps that led down to the basement. For Edinburgh was like that – every set of steps, every close, every corner had its memories, spoke with the voices of those who had been there once, a long time ago, but who were in a way still there.
As well as acquiring the shop, Big Lou took possession of all the stock that went with it, and over the years she had worked her way through many of the books that she had bought. Topography and philosophy had kept her busy for two years, and history for one. Now it was literary theory and psychology, leavened with fiction (Scott and Stevenson) and poetry (she had just read the complete oeuvre of Sydney Goodsir Smith and Norman MacCaig).
The judgment and control that Big Lou evinced in her reading was not mirrored in her romantic life. Like many good women, she attracted men whose weaknesses were the converse of her strengths. She had wasted years in her relationship with a chef who could not resist the attractions of much younger women. He had broken her heart again and again until enlightenment came and she saw him for what he was; and that was best expressed by those simple words: no good. His place had been taken by Robbie, a plasterer who specialised in the restoration of ceilings, and it was Robbie whom she was still seeing, in spite of Matthew’s conviction – eventually articulated in an unguarded moment – that Robbie was half-mad.
“He’s obsessed, Lou,” Matthew had said. “I’m sorry to have to say it, but he really is. Who would be a Jacobite these days? Do you think any rational person would? And look at the people he runs around with – that bampot, Michael what’s-his-name and that callow youth who hangs on his every word. And that woman with the shouty voice, the one who says she can trace her ancestry back to Julius Caesar or whatever. These people are bonkers, Lou.”
“Robbie’s interested in history, Matthew,” Lou had replied. “The Stuarts are important for some people. There are plenty of people who find them interesting.”
“Yes,” conceded Matthew. “But there’s a difference between finding something interesting and believing in it. He actually believes in the Stuarts. How can he do that? Prince Charlie was an absolute disaster from every point of view. And as for his ancestors…”
Big Lou had changed the subject. At one level she knew that Matthew was right; Robbie was odd, but he was kind to her and he did not run off with other women. That, she felt, was all she was entitled to ask, and she was realistic too: there were not enough men to go round, not in Arbroath and certainly not in Edinburgh, and she knew that she was in no position to be picky.
Now, opening up the coffee bar for the morning, she polished the stainless steel bar before the first customers arrived. These tended to be office workers, often employees at the Royal Bank of Scotland offices down the road. They would not linger long, but sit engrossed in the newspapers before glancing at their watches and rushing out again. Then there would be a quiet spell before her mid-morning regulars arrived, Matthew and Angus Lordie among them. Of course with Matthew away on honeymoon, she was not expecting him, which meant that Angus Lordie would sit closer to the bar and address all his comments to her.
She could tell his mood immediately when he came in, and this would tell her how his work was going. A difficult painting, or one that was not turning out as expected, would give Angus a morose expression and make him stir his coffee rather more aggressively than necessary. His expression today, though, was thoughtful rather than morose, which suggested to Lou that he had something on his mind other than an unco-operative canvas.
“I’ve been thinking about your situation, Lou,” Angus began.
“My situation? Here?”
“Not so much just here,” said Angus, waving a hand around to encompass the general area. “Everywhere. Your whole life.”
“There’s nothing wrong with my life,” said Big Lou.
“But there is, Lou,” said Angus. “You need a companion. That chap of yours, Robbie, is all very well, but…” He looked at her cautiously, sensing that he was on dangerous ground. “What I thought, actually, is that you need a dog. A puppy. You need one, Lou. Maybe even a couple of puppies.”
“I’d love one,” said Lou. “Even two. I really would.”
Angus beamed. “Well, isn’t that a coincidence! As it happens…”
“But I can’t,” interjected Lou. “I’m mildly allergic to dogs, Angus. Even your bringing Cyril in here makes me slightly wheezy. So I couldn’t have one in the flat. It’s impossible.”