88. Illicit Skills
James and Domenica exchanged glances: the confusion which now so clearly covered Angus Lordie had extended to them too, though to a lesser degree. They, at least, knew where to look, which was at Angus; he, however, was staring firmly at the floor, as if it might reveal the solution to what was evidently a situation of considerable personal embarrassment. Domenica felt sympathetic: It is awkward enough, she thought, even in ordinary circumstances to encounter a former lover whom one has mistreated; how much more difficult must it be to do so in circumstances such as these, where the former lover reveals herself as a master criminal.
And there were loyalty issues too, she thought. The decision to report a neighbour to the authorities was one thing; it was quite another to report at the same time, in a single grand denunciation, both a neighbour and a former love. As she looked with some pity on Angus, he blushed red and stuttered, and she speculated further on what had happened between the portrait painter and this somewhat unlikely drug-dealer. For a few heady and ridiculous moments she imagined that this woman might have been his model; that these long limbs, now encased in sexless corduroy, might once have been bared and draped across some stylised couch in Angus’s studio; that from that sultry scene a torrid romance might have developed. It was possible, but her thoughts were interrupted by the model herself, if that is what she had been, who now addressed Angus again, in a perfectly matter-of-fact way, and not as one discovered in flagrante delicto.
“The traffic across the bridge was as bad as ever,” she remarked. “It’s all very well abolishing tolls, but that just encourages people to drive.”
Angus looked up. “It’s the trains,” he said. “If we had a decent rail service, then people would come in by train. But compare what we’ve got with any other European city…”
The woman nodded. Then she turned to Domenica. “You must think me terribly rude,” she said. “I’ve barged in without introducing myself.” She glanced at Angus, as if to censure him for his failure to make the introduction. He noticed, and effected it, introducing Maeve Ross to both Domenica and James. “Maeve,” he said, rather lamely, “is an old friend.”
“Well, that’s one way of putting it,” said Maeve cheerfully. “But yes, Angus and I go back some time. Youthful ardour.” She laughed. “Youthful ardour followed, in each case, by more mature reflection. What would you say to that, Angus?”
Angus laughed nervously. “Well put, Maeve.” He paused. “But I must say that I’m rather surprised to… to find you mixed up in all this.”
Maeve frowned. “In what?” She tapped the cardboard box. “In this? In this stuff?”
Angus nodded, almost apologetically. “Yes. This business with Antonia. Is it wise? What if you were caught?”
Maeve gave a dismissive snort. “You can’t go through life worrying about being caught. And anyway, I see nothing wrong with this at all. Willing seller, willing buyer.”
Angus drew in his breath sharply. “But what about the misery?” he asked. “This stuff ruins lives.”
Maeve looked at him in astonishment. “Only if you have too much of it. Not that I’ve ever encountered anybody doing that.”
Maeve’s insouciant attitude seemed to give Angus the courage to argue. “You’ve never encountered anything like that? How can you say that? People overdose all the time. They get addicted. Their lives – their whole lives – are directed to getting more. How can you ignore that?”
As he spoke, Maeve looked at him as if she was struggling to make sense of what he said. “I’m really not with you,” she said.
“And then there’s the law,” Angus continued. “It’s a criminal offence, you know. Or maybe you’ve never encountered that side of it either.”
James and Domenica, watching like tennis umpires, their gaze fixed first on one and then on the other, now looked at Maeve to see how she would react.
“Oh I don’t care about the law,” she said. “The law has become ridiculous. It’s become oppressive. Those bureaucrats in Brussels with their unending desire to regulate us out of existence – resistance is the only answer to that. And resist we shall…” She paused, judging the effect of her words. Then she leaned forward and opened the top of the cardboard box. Three pairs of astonished eyes watched in fascination as she extracted a jar from within.
“This marmalade,” she announced, “is utterly harmless. And yet those meddlers – yes, I repeat, those meddlers, in Brussels would prevent us from making it and selling it to our friends. And we in the Scottish Women’s Rural Institute (Provisional Wing) are not going to lie back and let that happen. Oh no! We shall not.”
She passed the jar to Domenica. “Look. Isn’t that a beautiful, rich colour? The finest Seville oranges, roughly cut. Marvellous stuff – a hundred times tastier than the watery rubbish that passes for marmalade in the supermarkets. And yet that’s all that many people can get these days, now that the home-made stuff has been driven underground.”
Domenica prised open the lid of the jar and sniffed at the contents. “One could certainly get addicted to this,” she said, smiling.
“Indeed you could,” Maeve agreed. “And if people weren’t prepared to run this stuff over from places like Fife and Perthshire, then I can assure you there would be many in Edinburgh who would be like addicts deprived.”
“Would you mind if I sampled some?” Domenica asked. “I have some oatcakes in the cupboard.”
“Delighted,” said Maeve. “I always pop a few extra jars in for Antonia. I’m sure that she won’t mind.”
The oatcakes were produced and plates were distributed.
“Ah,” said Maeve. “Blue Spode. I have a particular liking for Spode. Antonia has a similar pattern, if I remember correctly.”
Domenica avoided Angus’s eye. Life was full of connections – and coincidences. Love, blue Spode, marmalade – these were all things that worked away in the background, binding people to one another in invisible nets. She suddenly thought of a piece of seventeenth-century music – was it seventeenth century? – that had haunted her since first she heard it. “In Nets of Golden Wires” – that was what it had been called. In nets of golden wires – such a lovely image of how life, and love, may ensnare us, and now she took a small bite out of the oatcake Maeve passed her. It was a sharing – almost sacramental in its solemnity – and it had for her an evocative power every bit as strong as that which had been exerted upon Proust by those small Madeleine cakes, years ago, in a very different world.