The Scotsman

44 Scot­land St

- By ALEXAN­DER MCCALL SMITH Il­lus­tra­tions by IAIN MCINTOSH © 2020 Alexan­der Mccall Smith. The au­thor wel­comes com­ments from read­ers. Write to him on scot­land­street@scots­ Scotland · Jamaica · Charlie Wilson · Kingston · University of Glasgow · Glasgow · Oxford · Noel Coward · Edinburgh · London · Balliol College, Oxford · Green Island · Ian Fleming · Edinburgh Academy


The ho­tel had been rec­om­mended to them by Matthew’s fa­ther. “There’s a place in Ja­maica,” he said. “I’ve never been there, but Un­cle Char­lie was there back in the late nine - teen-fifties, just be­fore in­de­pen­dence. He knew it quite well, be­cause he used to go up there from Kingston.”

Un­cle Char­lie was Matthew’s fa­ther’s god­fa­ther. Matthew was too young to have met him, but he was a fig­ure so cen­tral to fam­ily his­tory that he felt he knew him. He had been a well-known yachts­man on the Clyde in his early years, hav­ing been born in Rhu, and with yacht­ing in his blood. He had grad­u­ated in eco­nom­ics from the Univer­sity of Glas­gow and then gone to Ox­ford, to Bal­liol, a nurs­ery for tal­ented Scots des­tined for the higher reaches of the civil ser­vice. He had opted to go into bank­ing, though, choos­ing posts where he would be near the wa­ter and where he could sail. Be­ing sent to Ja­maica had suited him very well, and he had for­gone pro­mo­tions in or­der to stay there, end­ing up be­ing re­spon­si­ble for a whole string of banks across the Caribbean. He stayed in Ja­maica for six years after in­de­pen­dence, hav­ing mar­ried a Ja­maican – an “un­ac­knowl­edged sprig of the plan­toc­racy”, as Char­lie had re­ferred to her. He had then come back to Scot­land, to spend his re­tire­ment sail­ing on the Clyde. His wife, though, had sick­ened in Scot­land, which was too cold for her. “She never got warm,” said Matthew’s fa­ther. “Poor Matilda. She just shiv­ered and shiv­ered and even­tu­ally she went home. They had grown apart. She dis­liked the wa­ter and could get sea­sick sim­ply look­ing at it. She died of eat­ing un­ripe ac­kee. They love ac­kee over in Ja­maica but you have to be care­ful. It’s like that poi­sonous fish the Ja­panese love to eat. You have to make sure you don’t eat the wrong bits.”

Matthew had heard the story of Aunt Matilda and the un­ripe ac­kee as a young boy and had re­fused for years to eat any fruit with seeds. Un­cle Char­lie’s demise, too, had put him off sail­ing; he had fallen over­board while sail­ing up Loch Fyne in a gale. He had been wear­ing a safety line, but it was too long, and failed to keep him on board. His go­ing over­board was no­ticed by his crew only ten min­utes or after it oc­curred, and by then it was too late and he had been dragged through the wa­ter at the end of the line for too long.

“Un­cle Char­lie loved that part of the is­land,” Matthew’s fa­ther said. “He was a great fan of a ho­tel not far from Ochos Rios. He went up at week­ends, from Kingston. He had lots of friends, and they used to go up there with him. It was quite a so­cia­ble set, I be­lieve.

“There was a ho­tel up there that he liked. It had a bar that was fa­mous for its rum cock­tails. They served rum with tonic wa­ter and An­gos­tura bit­ters. Un­cle Char­lie drank there with some pretty ex­otic cus­tomers. Noel Coward was a reg­u­lar. He had a villa called Fire­fly not far away, and would drop in on a Fri­day evening. They had a pi­ano, but Un­cle Char­lie said that Coward never touched the pi­ano in the Green Is­land. He didn’t like its tone, ap­par­ently, calling it ‘that soi-dis­ant pi­ano’. And Ian Flem­ing was seen there too. It was quite the place.” He paused. “The orig­i­nal own­ers sold it, I be­lieve, but it’s still there. And I won­dered whether you and El­speth would care to spend your hon­ey­moon there – I’ll pay, of course.”

Matthew had ac­cepted. There had been a time when he would have de­clined, but he had stopped do­ing that when he had re­alised that his fa­ther got such plea­sure from buy­ing him things. There was such a thing as gra­cious ac­cep­tance, Matthew thought. So he said, “That’s re­ally gen­er­ous, Dad” and ar­range­ments were made.

They flew from Ed­in­burgh to Lon­don, and then from there to Kingston. On the flight, as their plane soared over the clouds and the cabin filled with light, Matthew took El­speth’s hand in his and pressed it. “Ex­cited?” he asked.

She smiled. He loved her smile. He loved it, and his heart soared. He could not be­lieve his good for­tune that he had found some­body as per­fect as she was – a per­son com­pletely with­out fault. But then he thought, was that love speak­ing? Was love, as the Latin phrase would have it of anger, a furor bre­vis – a brief mad­ness? And if one could fall in love sud­denly – in just the same way as one catches a cold – then could one fall out of love equally quickly, and equally un­pre­dictably? He thought of a poem he had once picked up by chance: it was Bet­je­man, at whom his English teacher had sniffed, and he was talk­ing about a cou­ple in a restau­rant; In­gang, they were in love again, and Aus­gang they were out. Some­thing like that, he thought. He knew, of course, what his English teacher had meant. He had talked of sen­ti­men­tal­ism, and warned against it. “It cheap­ens real emo­tion,” he had said. “Real at­tach­ment. Real loss. Real love.” But then he had said – and Matthew re­mem­bered his pre­cise words – “The prob­lem is that Bet­je­man was pop­u­lar. It’s a great sin to be pop­u­lar.”

Matthew had put up his hand. “But Scott was pop­u­lar. Burns too. They were great writ­ers, but they were pop­u­lar.”

The English teacher had gazed out of the win­dow and stroked his chin. Matthew had no­ticed that he of­ten seemed to cut him­self when shav­ing in the morn­ing. He treated the nicks with an old­fash­ioned rem­edy, a styp­tic pen­cil, which left a line of white where ap­plied to the skin. Could the Ed­in­burgh Aca­dem­i­cal As­so­ci­a­tion not pass the hat round to buy the English Depart­ment an elec­tric ra­zor? They could leave it in the staff com­mon room for gen­eral use. Matthew smiled at the mem­ory. This was ex­actly what the same English teacher had meant when he talked to them about in­ter­tex­tu­al­ity – about how one piece of writ­ing lives on in an­other; how one thought prompts an­other, un­til a ta­pes­try of as­so­ci­a­tion and cross-ref­er­ence re­sults. That talk, of course, had been above the heads of most of the peo­ple in the class, and Matthew, clos­ing his eyes briefly in that pres­surised cabin above the At­lantic, could see them now. Tommy Maclean, who thought only about rugby, and who al­most played for Scot­land, but not quite; Bill Sul­li­van, who thought about the Red Hot Chili Pep­pers most of the time, and who spent hours cul­ti­vat­ing what he de­scribed as a “cool way of walk­ing”; Eleanor Mac­tavish, who spoke a lot about mois­turiser and sham­poo and who prob­a­bly thought about them too – she had split-ends, poor girl; and Bob Anderson, who thought about noth­ing at all, as far as any­body could as­cer­tain. None of them would think about in­ter­tex­tu­al­ity on a plane, with a fresh­ly­poured gin and tonic in hand, and on the way to a hon­ey­moon in Ja­maica.

He turned to El­speth, who smiled at him.

“What were you think­ing about?” she asked.

“Too com­pli­cated,” said Matthew. El­speth gave him a re­proach­ful look. He could not work out whether it was play­ful or se­ri­ous. “I’m mar­ried to you now,” she said. “I’m en­ti­tled to know.”

Matthew hes­i­tated. Was that true? Was that what mar­riage in­volved?

‘Was love, as the Latin phrase would have it of anger, a furor bre­vis – a brief mad­ness? And if so, could one fall out of

love equally quickly, and equally un­pre­dictably?’

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