50. Portrait of the Artist as a Surprised Man
Angus knew that after leaving Big Lou’s coffee bar he should return to his studio, to work. His easel awaited him there, a half-finished subject staring out at him disconsolately from the canvas. He knew in which direction duty was pointing, but chose to ignore it; it had been a most unsettling morning and so, looking at his watch and realising that it was now shortly after twelve, he decided that it was lunchtime and that work could wait until the afternoon, or very possibly the evening. Some days were like that, he thought; they had “liable to be cancelled at short notice” written all over them, and this was one. Better then, to walk up the road, cross at the junction of Dundas Street and Heriot Row, and slip into Glass and Thompson for lunch.
He looked down at Cyril. “Not the most productive of mornings, Cyril,” he said. “But then every day is like that for you. Apart from the day that you produced six puppies, that is. That’s the cost of having an affair, Cyril, old chap: minor pleasure and major consequences.”
Cyril looked up at his master. He tried to make sense of what Angus said, but it was mostly meaningless sound to him. Some words were recognisable, and bore meaning: walk, bad, dinner, bone, fetch – but that was about all. If a universe is formed by language, then this was a small one indeed; a small circle of understanding described in a morass of confusion and puzzlement. The key, Cyril knew, was to ascertain the mood of these unintelligible sounds. If Angus sounded cross then he, Cyril, should look contrite. And that, he thought, was how he should look now.
But Angus did not dwell on reproductive irresponsibility, and the moment passed. They had now come up to the traffic lights at the Open Eye Gallery, and this was the signal for Angus to invoke one of Cyril’s more unusual tricks. Knowing that Cyril might need to lift his leg at some point before lunch, he stopped aside the railings that ran along the gallery and gave the instruction for this to happen. “Turner Prize,” Angus commanded, and immediately Cyril moved to a suitable position against a railing and lifted his leg.
“You have such sound judgment, my boy,” Angus observed as he waited for the dog to finish. Then, both nature and artistic opinion satisfied, they crossed to the welcoming doorway of Glass and Thompson, where Cyril took up his position under Angus’s table while his master ordered lunch.
Glass and Thompson was relatively quiet; the lunchtime rush would not begin for another forty minutes or so, and there were only a few customers at the various tables, the last of the morning coffee crowd. Angus found a newspaper abandoned on a neighbouring seat and opened it at the bridge column, running his eye down the account of tricks made and lost. He was a weak player, but he loved the language of ruffs and ducking, broken honours and deception manoeuvres. Then he looked up, aware that there was a shadow obscuring the glass front door of the caf'e just behind him; or so it seemed. In reality the shadow was an eclipse of the light caused by the massive form of an extremely overweight man, half-carrying, half-dragging a large wrapped item behind him.
Angus stared at the man, astonished by his vast bulk, and by the dingy beige jersey he was wearing under an outsize black donkey jacket. He had seen him somewhere before; but where was it? and then he remembered. This was the man who had come into Big Lou’s caf'e months ago, maybe even last year, and who had dealt with that unpleasant boyfriend of hers, the one who had virtually cleaned out her bank account – and would have got away with it, had it not been for this man whose name was… was… Lard O’Connor. That was it. Lard O’Connor! And here he was in Glass and Thompson, of all places; not their usual sort of customer.
Angus rose to his feet, while Cyril cowered under the vast bulk of the new arrival. “Mr. O’Connor?”
Lard swung round in surprise. “Aye, that’s mysel. And you’re…”
“Angus Lordie, sir. We met in Big Lou’s last year, I think.”
Lard scratched his head. “Big Lou? Oh, aye, that nice wumman. So youse were there were youse? So you were. I canna remember everything these days. But mebbe…”
Angus gestured to the other chair at his table. “Will you join me?”
Lard leaned his parcel against the wall and lowered himself into the chair. “Do they do pie and chips?” he asked. “I could dae wi’ a wee pie and chips, so I could.”
Angus smiled. “Well, it’s quiche, actually, this being Edinburgh. And I fear they don’t do chips.”
“Quiche? Ach well, make it a double for me. Double quiche. And lots of tomato sauce.”
Angus rose to his feet and passed the order to one of the young men behind the counter, who glanced at Lard and raised an eyebrow.
“I came over frae Glasgow,” said Lard, when Angus returned to the table. “I wanted to see my wee pal Matthew at his picture shop. But there’s a closed sign and it says he’s away for another week. All the way frae Glasgow fur nuthin. Jings. What a waste of time.”
Angus glanced at the parcel – it was painting-size. So Lard had acquired a painting, and how would he have done that? Fallen off something, no doubt.
“You have a painting to show him?”
“Aye. It’s a picture of a man. A bonny picture. Old. Fifty years at least.”
Angus glanced at the parcel again. “Perhaps you’d like to leave it with me,” he said. “Matthew is on his honeymoon – in Australia. I can keep it for him until he comes back.”
Lard seemed to weigh this proposal for a while before he nodded his assent. “It would be easier, right enough. I dinnae fancy carting that back tae Glasgow.”
“May I ask what the painting is?” asked Angus.
“Take a look if you like,” said Lard. “Up at the top there. Take the paper aff.”
Angus reached over and peeled the paper away at the top of the parcel. The frame, he noted immediately, was of good quality, gilt, with a patina of age. He looked up at Lard. “Nice,” he said. “Very nice.”
He pushed the paper further down, and as he did so he caught his breath, loudly, so loudly that Cyril looked up. Raeburn. It was unmistakeable. Sir Henry Raeburn, the greatest of the Scottish portrait painters of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, heir to the genius of Allan Ramsay, the man who captured the spirit of Edinburgh in subtle reds and blacks, in shadows and folds of cloth, and in cautious, astute eyes.
But when he looked further down, and saw the face, he could hardly contain himself. It was believed that Raeburn had painted Robert Burns, but the portrait had been lost. This was it. This was the Bard, caught on a visit to the capital; the comet of his genius passing quickly over the Edinburgh firmament, but slowly enough for Raeburn to preserve for posterity. And here was the result, in the parcel of a Glasgow heavy, in every sense of the word.
Lard studied Angus’s expression. “Will you look after it, then? Just for a week?”
Angus looked up from the painting. “I’d look after it till all the seas gang dry,” he said. “And the rocks melt wi’ the sun.”
“Does that mean yes?” asked Lard.
Angus nodded. “Yes, it does.”
“You’ve got an awfie odd way of expressing yoursels here in Edinburgh,” said Lard. “You sez wan thing and mean anither.”