Last night Tori, Ricardo, James, and I dined on the Black Isle, the home of Tori’s grandfather. We had left Kiltoch by boat just as the afternoon was darkening, and the moon was up by the time that we arrived at the island. Tori’s grandfather, the laird of Kiltoch, was a wild old card, whose errant wits had taken refuge in a world of feudal pageantry. When we met him, the laird was wearing a kilt and carrying a ceremonial pike, and he glowered forbiddingly in greeting.
“Hello Pat!” Tori laughed. “How are you faring?”
“Fine. My back is murder, but they’ve given me some new antibiotics. How are you, my dear?”
“Fantastic. This is my husband, Ricardo?”
“Aye. Pleased to meet you.” The laird nodded.
“And these are James and Angus.”
“Angus?” I objected.
“How do you do?” the laird called pleasantly.
Tori went straight to her room to dress for dinner. A manservant took Ricardo on a tour of the armoury. James, the laird, and I ended up drinking together on the battlements.
The laird introduced us to a bottle of Lochkiltoch. “This is my family’s malt. They distil it over the bay. Would you care for a dram?”
James had been repeatedly rehearsing for this moment over the last few days, on one occasion quaffing car shampoo to test his stoicism. He now did pretty well. “What a fine malt!” he recited in a somewhat expressionless voice. “You can really taste the history.”
“Aye you can,” the laird agreed.
“James loves a good malt. Maybe we can have another dram after dinner,” I suggested. James actually thinks that the only good whiskies are manufactured in the American South and drunk with cranberry juice.
We were joined at dinner by Tori’s cousin, Bob, and his wife Charlie. They were both wearing designer suits, and Charlie appeared to be the sort of woman who cares for her appearance with all the labour and knowledge of a skilled artisan. Her haircut was probably more expensive than all of my clothes put together. When James, who was wearing a hoodie with blotches of pasta sauce across the front, sat down opposite Bob and Charlie, he howled with dismay.
“It’s okay James,” Tori said quietly. She took one of his hands under the table.
We commenced to attack the soup, in a chorus of clinking and slurping. “So what do you do for a living, Bob?” James asked tentatively.
“I’m a solicitor up in Edinburgh. Property disputes mostly.”
James ducked his head down and lapped at the soup with greater vigour.
“Scary times at the moment,” I remarked.
“Terrible,” Bob laughed. “We’ve just bought our first house, and we’re taking quite a kicking with the mortgage.”
“How terrible,” Tori commiserated.
James sat up. “A house! Why would anybody agree to own such a preposterous thing?”
“James…” Tori said patiently.
“Did you say something?” Bob looked quickly at James.
“Oh nothing! But, I mean, a house!”
Bob nodded. “A house.”
“Buying a house must be like being diagnosed with cancer. This great shadow falls over your life and you can’t run away or surrender. You just have to sit there and take it.”
Bob smiled. “That’s one way of putting it.”
“Your husband was trying to tell me about Portugal, Victoria,” Charlie said. “It sounds quite an adventure.”
“It‘s an arsehole of a country,” Tori said sadly.
“…and is it one of those pretty, very little houses which is identical to all the others in the estate around it?” James asked.
“No,” Charlie said.
“Yes,” Bob said.
“That’s very hard. Very hard indeed.”
There was silence. A man marched in and began to arrange all of the discarded bowls of soup in steps along his arm. He marched out again. The laird stirred in his sleep. “Oh you little fool, Ellie!” he muttered savagely. “You’re just a stupid little fool!”
“I once knew a man who bought a house,” James began. “It was in one of these Legoland estates. And one night he got home from the pub and he could not tell which house was his own. He wandered around for a bit, calling out his wife’s name and trying to recognise his own car, but eventually he got lost and perished of hypothermia.”
A man with a rattling trolley entered the room, steam billowing in his wake. He began to distribute plates of food.
“I brought back some weed from Portugal. Maybe we could smoke after dinner?” Tori suggested. The room murmured in agreement.
Bob looked up at James. “So what team do you support James? English or Scottish?”
“Oh I’m a socialist – I don’t agree with competitive sport. I believe in cooperative things, like singing together and painting murals. Competitive sport brutalises people – like Circe, it turns them into swine.”
I remembered something. “Tell him your theory about football, James.”
“Well now, I’m not homophobic,” James confided. “But it seems to me that football is founded upon a principle of collective closet homosexuality. Why can’t all these fans be confident enough to admit that they don’t care who scored which goal and why this man was offside, when they just want to sit together and watch beautiful young men running around in the mud? Why this over-elaborate affectation that a football match is a game with meaningful rules, when it’s just a gay festival?”
Charlie remained invincible. “What a splendid castle! It’s so nice to get out of Edinburgh once in a while…” she sang.
The room continued eating in silence.
[To be continued.]