89. Confession Time
At more or less the same time that the illicit home-made marmalade, spread generously on Nairn’s low-salt oatcakes, was being tasted in Scotland Street, Matthew crossed Dundas Street to have his morning coffee at Big Lou’s. It had been an unusual morning for him in that he had sold a painting before ten-thirty, the time when he normally slipped across the road for coffee. Most of his business, such as it was, was done at lunchtime or in the late afternoon, but on this occasion a man had come in, glanced around the gallery, and immediately bought a small nineteenth-century watercolour which Matthew had only recently acquired. It was a satisfactory sale from Matthew’s point of view, unless… and as he crossed the road he began to have his doubts. The purchase had been so quick, so decisive, that it was possible that the man had recognised the painting and Matthew had not.
By the time he reached the coffee bar and had negotiated his way carefully down Big Lou’s dubious stairs – the very stairs down which Lard O’Connor had tumbled out of this world – Matthew had decided that he had made a grave mistake.
“I think I’ve just undersold something,” he remarked miserably. “I had this little watercolour, you see, Lou, and this man came in and bought it.”
From behind her counter, Big Lou listened politely. “Well,” she said, “that’s what you do, isn’t it, Matthew? You’re an art dealer, are you not? You can no more get emotionally involved with your paintings than I can with my coffee beans. Both have to go some time or other.”
Matthew attempted a smile. “It’s not funny, Lou. He took such a quick look round I should have realised that he was just skimming the place for bargains. Then he saw the watercolour and bought it immediately.”
Big Lou smiled. “Then that means that he didn’t recognise it as something else.”
Matthew did not see how that followed, but Big Lou went on to explain. “If he had thought that it was really… what, a Turner, he would have pretended to think about it. He would have hummed and hawed and then eventually he would have tried to beat you down. Swooping on something like that is usually a signal for the seller himself to have doubts and to delay the sale.”
This observation, which Matthew had to acknowledge was reasonable enough, served to put him in a better mood. “You’re probably right, Lou,” he said. “And anyway, even if it is something special, should I begrudge him his find? I can afford to lose money.”
“Just as well,” muttered Big Lou. She had always had her doubts about Matthew’s ability to run a business, although now, with Elspeth in the background, she felt more confident. Back home, when she was a mere girl, her mother – and her aunts, for that matter – had drummed into her that old Arbroath saying, “A man on his own is a farm heading for disaster.” She had heard it so often, sometimes apropos of nothing at all, that she had come to accept it as unquestioned truth. Indeed one of her aunts had the words worked into a sampler that hung on the kitchen wall, alongside other aged samplers with equally pithy sentiments. “The last ewe is the one you dinnae see” was one such message; opaque, perhaps, but obviously redolent of something in the mind of the female relative who had worked the stitches.
Big Lou turned the tap of the steam pipe on her coffee machine. It was the part of the process that she liked the most, and it made her feel, in a small way, like a ship’s engineer opening a valve, or the driver of an old steam train. She liked the hiss; she liked the agitation of the milk; and she liked the small cloud of steam that arose if the nozzle emerged for a second or two above the level of the foam.
“You never told me much about Perth,” she said. “You liked it well enough, I take it?”
Matthew watched her pour the foamed milk into his cup. His reply was terse. “Yes, I liked it.”
She picked up the hesitation, and glanced at him. That girl Pat, the one he used to employ, she had been to Perth, Big Lou recalled, and something had happened there; something that she never explained. Had something similar happened to Matthew?
“You don’t sound enthusiastic,” she said. “Did something happen, Matthew?”
Matthew looked up at her. He had not wanted to talk about it, but standing now at Big Lou’s coffee bar, with nobody else about but this strong, sympathetic woman, his resolve broke.
“I was washed out to sea,” he said. “It happened so quickly. I was washed out to sea and then…”
“Well you obviously survived.”
“Yes. I did. I was saved… I was saved by a dolphin.”
He looked at her, expecting her to ridicule him, but she did not. “That’s happened before,” she said.
He looked at her with gratitude. “Does that mean you believe me?”
“Of course,” said Big Lou. “I know you well enough to know that you don’t make things up. If you say that you were saved by a dolphin, then as far as I’m concerned you were saved by a dolphin. And why not? They like us, though heaven knows why.”
Matthew felt the relief flood over him. The fact that he had been able to tell Big Lou about his experience and not be laughed at made things much easier for him.
“I don’t know why it means so much to be able to tell you that,” he said. “But it does.”
“Of course it does,” said Big Lou. “You’ve had a traumatic experience. We need to talk about things like that. And this dolphin business – well, that’s an extraordinary thing that happened and you need to be able to speak to somebody about it. Otherwise you’d begin to wonder if it ever really happened.”
“Thank you, Lou. Thank you very much.” He paused. Big Lou was still frowning, and had started to rub briskly at the surface of the coffee bar with her towel. Matthew knew the signs: when Big Lou did that, she was troubled. “And you, Lou,” he said gently. “You need to tell me something too.”
“Oh, Matthew,” Lou burst out. “It’s Robbie. Robbie and that wretched Pretender.”
Of course it is, thought Matthew. At the heart of every woman’s distress there always lay a man. Or, as in this case, two.