34. Mirror, Mirror on the Wall…
The irritation Bruce had felt in the shower abated slightly as he dressed for the party at Watson Cooke’s flat in Clarence Street. It was always mollifying to stand in front of a mirror, as he liked to do, and observe oneself dressing; a calming activity, rather like meditation, he thought, but with a bit more point to it. Bruce towelled himself dry, then applied a new body butter for men that he had recently seen recommended in Men’s Health. He had been intrigued by the contents of this preparation, which contained not only vitamins A and E, but sodium hyaluronate and arnica extract; and he had been taken with the smell, which was of lemon and sage, with a hint of sandalwood. This body butter, Bruce had read, would “make dry skin history,” and although he did not think that he yet suffered from dry skin, it was a good policy to nip history in the bud before it had the chance to occur.
Bruce stood before the mirror and rubbed the greasy aromatic substance over his skin. Once he had applied enough, he took a quick final glance at the sheer sculpted perfection of the image in the glass, and then donned the new pair of boxer shorts he had bought through a Country Life catalogue, Gifts for Men. These had salmon fishing scenes printed on them – not for everyone, of course, but Bruce thought they were rather becoming, and indeed on him, reflected in the mirror, he thought them almost perfect. Next, his shirt – an Oxford cut-away collar in blue – his blue Levis and a pair of brown topsiders. Then, after a quick application of the clove-scented hair gel he liked to use, he was ready for anything that Clarence Street could throw at him.
Clarence Street was further down the hill, and although it was clearly one up on St. Stephen Street, it was several rungs below Howe Street, where Julia had her flat. Howe Street had that classical quality that the central New Town enjoyed and which faded into less confident proportions on its fringes. Bruce, as a surveyor, understood this well, as classical dignity was directly translatable into higher prices. Clarence Street was all right, he thought, but it was not Saxe-Coburg Place, which lay a block or two away to the north; perfectly respectable, but hardly stylish. A good place, thought Bruce, to begin; although he himself had begun in Dundonald Street and had now, effortlessly it seemed, climbed to the heights of Howe Street.
Watson Cooke! Bruce muttered the name to himself as he left the flat and began the short walk down to Clarence Street. Well, Mr. Watson Cooke, we shall see. I shall have to remind you that Julia and I are an established couple, engaged (even if the announcement had not yet appeared in The Scotsman), and therefore any invitation to attend a party in Clarence Street, or anywhere else, should be addressed to both of us. It was like inviting the Queen to dinner and forgetting to invite the Duke of Edinburgh, a breach of protocol which no doubt Watson Cooke in his ignorance might make, but which nobody with any style or savoir faire would ever commit. That is what Bruce thought, and as he rounded the corner of Howe Street where, at basement level, the late Madame Doubtfire once had her second-hand clothing emporium – she who claimed to have danced before the Tsar – he muttered to himself: Watson Cookie, Cookie Watson, Watson the Cook, Watty Cook, Kooky Watty (what’s his bag, je me demande), Cocky Watson. He smiled. Poor Watson Cooke, what a minger of a name. Typical.
He decided to follow the slightly longer route to Clarence Street, which involved walking through the bisecting radiant of Circus Place and then along North West Circus Place to the corner of St. Stephen Street. It was a fine evening, and Bruce noticed, with satisfaction, that he attracted one or two admiring looks as he made his way; entirely understandable, he thought; indeed he rather admired the self-control of those who wanted to look and admire, but who allowed themselves only the most surreptitious of glances. He felt generous, and wanted to say to people, “Go on, admire. Just admire. You may not be able to touch, but you can certainly look.” They could feast their eyes on him, whichever sex they were; they could even give him the look; he did not mind in the slightest. He was not selfish. In fact, he felt like something in the National Gallery of Scotland: an artefact of public beauty.
At the entrance to the Bailie, at the corner of St. Stephen Street, Bruce hesitated for a moment. It was now about ten past nine and this meant that he had twenty minutes or so in hand before he should present himself in Clarence Street; he certainly did not want to arrive early and be thought to be too keen. Bruce was, in general, keen not to appear keen.
He went down the steps into the bar. There was a fairly large crowd inside, seated on red leather benches or standing about the circular bar of polished mahogany that dominated the room. It was, Bruce observed, the normal crowd for this part of town at this time in the evening, and as he ran his eye over the customers he recognised one or two people. These were casual acquaintances, though, and Bruce had no particular desire to speak to them. One of them, in particular, he wanted to avoid, as he was always going on about his golf handicap. Each time that Bruce had met him – in no matter what circumstances – he had talked about getting his golf handicap down. Bruce tried to remember what it was. Seven?
He paid for his drink and slipped the change into his pocket. It was then that he saw the man standing beside him looking at him, frankly, appraisingly. Hello! thought Bruce.