64. Childhood Memories
They withdrew from the studio. Angus covered the Raeburn with an old blanket, a threadbare square of hodden grey, and called Cyril to heel. Then, with the studio door closed behind them, they made their way into the kitchen.
Domenica resisted the temptation to open a window. It is not generally considered polite, she reminded herself, to go into the house of another and open a window, there being an element of judgment in such an action. Nor, she thought, should one rearrange any of the items in a room, nor even turn on a light. She did not think that Angus would notice any of these things, but she had been strangely moved by what she had witnessed in the studio, and she did not want to compromise the almost mystical moment of insight that had been vouchsafed her.
And what precisely was that? It was difficult to be too specific – the whole point about a moment of insight is that it defies quotidian description – but she had suddenly appreciated the sheer otherness of Angus. Most of us go through life so absorbed in the cocoon of ourselves that we rarely stop to consider the other. Of course we think that we do; indeed we may pride ourselves on our capacity for empathy; we may be considerate and thoughtful in our dealings with others, but how often do we stand before them, so to speak, and experience what it is to be them? She asked herself this, and remembered, vaguely, something she had read somewhere, about the I-Thou encounter. Martin Buber? That sounded right, but now, in the kitchen of Angus Lordie’s flat, the recollection was vague, and the moment, already, was passing.
She looked at Angus, at his paint-bespattered corduroy trousers; at his somewhat battered Harris tweed jacket; at the Paisley handkerchief-cum-cravat that he had tied round his throat; at his shoes, old brown brogues which he obviously tended with care, for they were polished to a high shine. How often have I looked at him in this way? she asked herself. How often have I noticed or, indeed, listened to him? We talk, but do I actually listen, or is our conversation mainly a question of my waiting for him to stop and for it to be my turn to say something? For how many of us is that what conversation means – the setting up of our lines?
She looked at him as he moved over to the sink and filled his ancient kettle with water. She looked at the sink itself, at the tottering pile of pots that surely could not be added to any further without collapse. She looked beyond the sink at the window behind it, in need of a clean on both sides. She looked at the notice-board he had created for himself from a large square of dark cork; at the photographs tacked onto it; the notes to self; the bills paid and unpaid. This was Angus. This was another. This was another life.
While he busied himself with the kettle and the ladling into a jug of several spoonfuls of coffee, Domenica moved over to the notice-board and bent down to examine the photographs. She had never seen them before. The notice-board was nothing new to the room, but she had never seen it before, and she felt ashamed, because Angus was her friend, one of her closest friends, and she had never even bothered to look at his notice-board.
“Do you mind?” she asked. “Do you mind if I take a look at these photographs?”
He half-turned from his position at the sink. “No,” he said. “I don’t mind. Of course you can look at them. I’ll tell you what they are, if you like.”
Domenica peered at the photographs. There were about a dozen of them, and they seemed to be of varying ages. Some, the older ones, had an almost sepia look to them, as if they had been taken from an old family album. Others were more vivid, the colours still there, even if fading slightly.
“I assume that’s you,” she said. “That’s you as a boy.”
Angus, who was fetching cups from a cupboard, glanced over his shoulder. “Yes. That’s me. And a friend of mine. He came from Mull. His dad was a doctor over there. The doctor drove a Lagonda. I remember it. Beautiful car. We were at school together. He was called Johnnie.”
Domenica looked more closely. Two boys, age twelve or so, stood in front of a dry-stane dyke, both wearing kilts and jerseys. She noticed that the shadows on the ground were long; it was afternoon. Behind the dyke she could make out a field, a hillside, rising sharply to a high, empty sky. She closed her eyes, very briefly, and for some reason the words came into her mind, unexpected, unbidden, but from the region of the heart, from that very region: I love this country.
She became aware of Angus behind her. She heard his breathing.
“We had just started at Glenalmond,” he said. “Our first year there, I think. It was quite tough in those days – and they turned us out to roam the hills on a Sunday. In the summer term, at least. Johnnie and I used to go all over the Sma’ Glen. There was a farm called Connachan down towards Monzie where we used to go for tea when we were meant to be up at the top of the hill. The farmer had a couple of daughters our age and they’d tease us. We got on famously.
“And at the back of the farm,” Angus continued, “there was the River Almond. You probably know it. Well, further up, along the road to Auchnafree, the farmer had a wire cable across the river with a basket suspended from it. You could pull yourself across in the basket. He and his shepherds used to use this to get across the river without getting their feet wet. The sheep-dogs too. Dogs like Cyril. The dogs loved it. Dogs love anything like that.
“We used to swim in the river too. It was always freezing, even in summer. And then we’d eat sandwiches on the rocks. Bully beef sandwiches. Remember bully beef? Do you think anybody eats it now?”
He paused. “There are some lines,” he said quietly, “that come to me when I look at that photograph. We twa ha paidled in the burn/From morning sun til dine…”
“But seas between us braid hae roar’d…” Domenica supplied.
“Exactly,” said Angus. “Johnnie…”
He stopped. She waited for him to say something more, but he did not.