60. Huddles, Guddles, Toil and Muddles
While Matthew and Elspeth were returning to Raffles Hotel, back in Scotland Street, Domenica Macdonald, anthropologist and observer of humanity in all its forms, was hanging up a dish towel in her kitchen. Matthew and Elspeth had dined in the Tanglin Club, while Domenica had enjoyed more simple fare at her kitchen table: a couple of slices of smoked salmon given to her by Angus Lordie (rationed: Angus never gave her more than two slices of salmon) and a bowl of Tuscan Bean soup from Valvona & Crolla. She savoured every fragment of the smoked salmon, which was made in a small village outside Campbeltown by Archie Graham, according to a recipe of his own devising. Angus claimed that it was the finest smoked salmon in Scotland – a view with which Domenica readily agreed; she had tried to obtain Archie’s address from Angus, but he had deliberately, if tactfully, declined to give it. Thus did Lucia protect the recipe for Lobster `a la Riseholme in Benson’s novels, Domenica thought, and look what happened to Lucia: her hoarding of the recipe had driven Mapp into rifling through the recipe books in her enemy’s kitchen. She might perhaps mention that to Angus next time she asked; not, she suspected, that it would make any difference.
With her plates washed up and stored in the cupboard and her dish towel hung up on its hook, Domenica took her blue Spode teacup off its shelf and set it on the table. She would have a cup of tea, she decided, and then take a position on what to do that afternoon. She could possibly… She stopped, realising that she actually had nothing to do. There was no housework to be done in the flat; there were no letters to be answered; there were no proofs of an academic paper to be corrected – there was, in short, nothing.
The realisation that time hung heavily on her hands was an unsettling one for Domenica. She had always been an active person, and the only time that she could recall having too little to do was during the years of her marriage when, as Mrs. Varghese, she had lived in Kerala in a household dominated by her husband’s difficult mother. She had wanted to busy herself there with projects, but had been prevented from doing so by the strong expectation that a woman in her position did no work. And so she had endured hour after hour of enforced idleness, putting up with the constant chatter of her garrulous and petulant mother-in-law, until in a terrible flash – an accident in her husband’s small electricity factory – she had been propelled into widowhood.
After that, Domenica had not known boredom. The province of an anthropologist is mankind, and mankind offered itself in all its manifold peculiarities. There had been more field-work, including an interesting and productive period amongst the Nabuasa of Timor, which had led to the publication of the book on which her career had been based. But who now had read, or even had heard of, Ritual Exchanges as Indices of Power in a Nabuasa Sub-Clan? Nobody, thought Domenica. I might as well have written those words on water.
This melancholy contemplation of the transience of academic distinction could have plunged Domenica into something akin to despair. But it was not in her nature to mope, and her realisation that she had nothing to do simply had the effect of galvanising her into action. My friends, she thought, are those whose advice I should take, even if they are not with me at this precise moment. And what would they say? She thought of James Holloway, who was most certainly not one to sit and do nothing. James would say to her: “Get yourself a motorbike.” Indeed, he had once tried to convert her to biking and had taken her as a passenger on an outing to Falkland, where they had watched real tennis being played in a court in the gardens of the palace. Such a strange game, thought Domenica, with its curious cries and requirement that one should hit the ball off the roof. James had appeared to know the rules and had tried to explain them, but Domenica had a mental block about the rules of sports, and had not taken them in. It was every bit as complicated, she felt, as American football, which did not seem like a game at all, but an orchestrated fight. But that, of course, is what so many men want to do, or at least see done. They want to see conflict and competition, which was what sport was all about.
No, James could keep his motorbikes as far as Domenica was concerned. And what would Dilly Emslie advise her? Dilly, of course, had no truck with motorbikes, but would probably advise her to take on another piece of research. That was good advice, but Domenica did not relish the thought of going off into the field again. The Malacca Straits had been enjoyable, in their way, but somehow she did not see herself summoning up the energy to set up a long trip of that sort. What would be required, then, would be something much more local – anthropology did not have to be performed among distant others; it could be pursued in the anthropologist’s back yard. Her friend, Tony Cohen, had gone to Shetland, which was not all that far away, and had written Whalsay: Symbol, Segment and Boundary in a Shetland Island Community. There were plenty of things worth studying in mainland Scotland or in its surrounding islands; enough to keep an anthropologist engaged for years. Something local, then, was the solution.
Cheered by the thought that she might find a project that could be embarked upon from home, Domenica rose to her feet and crossed the room to the cupboard in which she kept her notebooks. One of these she called her Projects Book and it contained the jottings of various ideas that she had had over the years. Some of these jottings dealt with Scottish themes, and it was possible that she might find something to follow up in that.
But that was not what she found. Rather, on opening the cupboard and reaching within for the pile of notebooks, her hand alighted on something smooth and cold to the touch; cold enough to chill the heart, with guilt, with sudden regret. A blue Spode teacup. The original one.
Domenica had sought to catch a thief. In so doing, she had become one.