98. The Lightness of Scones
Matthew and Angus walked smiling into Big Lou’s caf'e. They were slightly earlier than normal, and they found Big Lou, her sleeves rolled up, washing the floor with mop and pail. Cyril, who had entered the caf'e discreetly, always being worried about being made by Big Lou to sit outside, slunk off to find his favourite spot under his master’s favourite chair. Big Lou, to his relief, ignored him.
“You’re looking very pleased with yourselves,” Lou said to the two men.
Matthew and Angus exchanged mutually congratulatory glances. “Well,” said Matthew, “there are occasions when one may feel a certain… how shall I put it? A certain satisfaction with the way things have worked out.”
Big Lou squeezed her mop into the pail. “You mean you’ve just sold a painting. For twice what it’s worth, no doubt.”
“Nothing as simple as that, Lou,” said Matthew.
“We have pulled off a major coup… for the nation,” said Angus. “Not that we wish to trumpet that from the rooftops. It’s just that you asked, Lou. And we’re telling you.”
Big Lou snorted. “I cannae imagine either of you doing anything for the nation,” she said.
Angus smiled. “Well, that’s where you’re wrong, Lou. Sorry to be the one to point it out, but you’re wrong.”
Big Lou picked up the pail and put it behind the counter before washing her hands at the sink. “You tell me all about it then, boys,” she said. “And I’ll let you know what I think of it.”
Angus and Matthew sat down at their table. “We’ll have scones with our coffee this morning, Lou,” Angus said. “A couple of those rather sturdy scones of yours, please.”
“Sturdy?” snapped Big Lou. “And what do you mean by that?”
“I mean that they’re not perhaps the lightest of scones,” said Angus. “Not that I’m criticising you, Lou. It’s just that… well, those scones might go down well in Arbroath, but here in Edinburgh… people prefer, perhaps, a slightly lighter scone.”
“Nonsense,” said Lou. “Light scones are all air and nothingness. You can get your teeth into my scones.”
“A scone can never be too light,” said Angus. “Read the cookery books, Lou. They all say that.”
“Not where I come from,” retorted Lou. “But anyway, what’s this thing you’re so pleased about?”
Angus looked at Matthew, who indicated with a nod of his head that he should go on to tell the tale. “It’s all about Burns,” he said, “and a Raeburn portrait.”
He told Lou what had happened. Frankie O’Connor, younger brother of the late Lard O’Connor, had arrived from Glasgow, as he had threatened to do. Not only had he come, though, but so had two of his friends.
“You should have seen them, Lou,” said Matthew. “They were straight from Central Casting. Glasgow hoods. Frankie’s pals.”
Matthew went on to narrate how Frankie had shown no interest in seeing his brother’s painting, but had said he was perfectly willing to sell it for GBP 200. Matthew had readily agreed, but asked, as he paid, about the painting’s provenance.
“He claimed Lard had been given it in return for cutting a hedge,” he said. “Such a wonderful explanation that it may even have been true. There was no mention of the aunt in Greenock or Gourock or wherever it was.”
“Otherwise obtained,” said Angus. “As we thought.”
“So now?” asked Lou.
“Now we hand it over,” said Angus. “And the powers that be let us know if it’s on their list of stolen paintings. Nobody has come forward, so it probably isn’t. So it goes to the Scottish National Portrait Gallery.”
As this conversation proceeded, Cyril dozed beneath the table. As a dog, human speech was a mystery to him – a babble of sounds that was so hard to interpret, no matter how hard he strained. Tone of voice, though, provided a key: when the sounds were low and constant, all was well; when the pitch was raised, something was happening, and that might have consequences for dogs. Then there were the few words he really did understand – words laden with meaning, from the canine point of view. “Walks,” that rich and promising word, was of immense importance in the canine vocabulary; a word that activated every pleasure centre in a dog’s brain. “Good dog,” a more complicated phrase, standing, in its complexity, at the very outer limits of canine understanding, as obscure as the rules of quantum physics. That two words should combine to produce a single meaning – that was the conceptual challenge for a dog. So the canine brain ignored the word “dog” as a superfluous complication, and focused, instead, on “good.”
But when Cyril awoke from his brief nap, the problem that confronted him was not one of understanding what was being said over the table, but what he saw underneath, down at dog level, close to the floor. For there before him, only inches away, were Matthew’s ankles; half clad in socks, half exposed. It was a sight of which Cyril had dreamed, and in some of his dreams he had acted. This was Cyril’s temptation, and it was an immensely strong one. Indeed, had Mephistopheles himself concocted a challenge for Cyril, he could not have come up with a stronger, more tempting enticement. Matthew’s ankles were Sirens, and they beckoned from the rocks of his ruination.
He could not resist. For years he had gazed upon these ankles and restrained himself. But now he knew he could do that no longer. His life would soon be over; dogs did not last all that long, and he wanted to do this before he passed beyond temptation. So, suddenly, and without giving Matthew any warning, Cyril moved forward and nipped Matthew’s right ankle; not too hard – he liked Matthew – but enough for Matthew to give a start and look down.
Cyril looked up, his jaws still loosely fixed around the ankle; he looked up into Matthew’s surprised eyes. This was the end; Cyril knew there would be shouting and he would be beaten with a rolled up copy of The Scotsman. He would be in disgrace, perhaps forever. This was truly the end.
Matthew stared at Cyril. He opened his mouth, ready to say something, to shout out in outrage even, but he did not. He looked down upon Cyril and then, reaching down, he gently pushed him away. He did not want Cyril to be punished. He said nothing.
Thus we forgive one another; thus reconciliation and healing begin.