A Story for August: The Peppermint Tea Chronicles

August 2019


  1. The Plight of Cats in South Australia

Domenica Macdonald, anthropologist, resident of Scotland Street, and wife of Angus Lordie, portrait painter and longstanding member of the Scottish Arts Club, sat in the kitchen of her flat in Scotland Street. She was immersed in a magazine she had bought on impulse at the local newsagent’s, and so did not hear Angus when he asked her about her plans for the day.

“I said,” repeated Angus, “are you going to be doing anything very much today?”

“I’m sorry,” said Domenica, looking up from her magazine. “I didn’t hear you. I’m reading something here that I can hardly believe.”

“Ah!” said Angus. “Oscar Wilde.”

“What about him?”

Angus tried to remember exactly what Oscar Wilde had said – he had pronounced on so many things – but found that he could not recall the precise words. “He said something about his diary being sensational reading. Or somebody else’s diary. I don’t really remember . . .”

“It doesn’t matter too much if you can’t remember exactly what he said,” Domenica reassured him. “Wilde will undoubtedly have more to say. Uniquely, perhaps, among those who are no longer with us, he continues to make witty remarks from beyond the grave – people impute them to him, you see. The volume of his quotations grows daily. This article, though, is about cats in South Australia.”

Angus was puzzled. “What about them?”

Domenica shook her head. “They’re to be confined.”

“In what sense?”

She looked down at the article. “Apparently cats in South Australia have been eating too many birds and small mammals. They’re very destructive, cats.”

Angus glanced down at his dog Cyril, who was lying under the kitchen table, one eye firmly closed, but with the other slightly open, allowing him to watch his master. Angus was sure that Cyril knew when the conversation concerned him, or in more general terms had something to do with canine issues; the flicker of an eyelid, almost imperceptible, was enough to reveal that Cyril was listening, waiting to see whether the situation developed in such a way as to be of interest to him. Cyril’s vocabulary, like that of all dogs, was limited to a few familiar nouns – walk, bone, sit, and so on – and one or two adjectives, good and bad being the most important ones. Beyond that, Cyril’s intellectual life was no more than Pavlovian. So when anybody mentioned the Turner Prize, an institution that for Angus stood for everything that was wrong in the contemporary art world, Cyril would dutifully raise a leg. This was not a gesture of contempt, of course, but was a trained response, instilled in Cyril through the use of rewards. Angus found it amusing enough – as did most of his friends – but Domenica had expressed the view that it was childish. Many of the things that men do are childish in the eyes of women, but this was egregiously so.

“Really, Angus,” she had said when she first saw Cyril performing his new trick. “That’s a bit adolescent, surely.”

Angus was unrepentant. “I have little time for the Turner Prize,” he said. “I have no taste for its pretentiousness. I dislike the way it is awarded to people who cannot paint, draw, nor sculpt.” His eyes widened; he became slightly red, his breathing shallow – all fairly typical reactions provoked by the Turner Prize in those of sound artistic judgement. “You are not an artist if you merely make a video about paint drying or pile a few objets trouvés in a heap. You just aren’t.”

Domenica shrugged. “Calm down,” she said. “Installations make us look at the world in a different way. They must have some artistic merit. They challenge us. Isn’t that what the Turner Prize is all ab—?”

She had stopped herself, but it was almost too late. “Don’t say Turner Prize,” blurted out Angus. “Not when Cyril . . .”

But he, too, had spoken without thought of the consequences.

“Cyril,” he shouted, just as the dog, impervious to the fact that they were indoors at the time, prepared to pass judgement on installation art. “No, Cyril! Sit!”

It had been the right – and timeous – counter-command. Cyril, confused, forgot about the Turner Prize and lowered his hindquarters, waiting for further instructions.

Now, with Cyril somnolent below the table, the discussion of feline destructiveness continued. “Yes,” Angus mused. “Murderous creatures. Birds, in particular. The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds gets hot under the collar about cats.”

Domenica pointed to the article. “This,” she said, “tells us what Australian cats get up to – and it makes sobering reading. Nearly four hundred million birds are killed by cats in Australia every year. A lot of those cats are feral, of course, but pet cats, it says, get through over forty million a year. Some of those are threatened species too.” She looked up at Angus. “Four hundred million, Angus. Four hundred million.”

Angus sighed. “It’s what cats do, I suppose. Nature’s red in tooth and claw, isn’t it?”

Domenica referred to the article again. ‘They take their wildlife seriously in Australia, of course. And so . . .” She looked down at the page. “People have to keep their cats under control in cities. You can’t let them wander around.”

Angus frowned. “But you can’t keep a cat under control. They’re not like dogs. They don’t accept our authority.”

“According to this,” Domenica went on, “in South Australia you have to keep the cat in the house or in a cage in the garden. You don’t have any option.”

Angus looked out of the window. Freedom: everywhere, it seemed to him, the boundaries of freedom were being encroached upon. Passports, regulations, prohibitions, requirements pinched at the lives of us all, and now this. No cats stalking about in the garden; no cats lying on walls in the sun, watching us; no cats leading their parallel lives in the gardens of other cats, or other people; cat doors, the symbol of cats’ liberty, a thing of the past, a reminder of what used to be.

“That poem,” he muttered.

“What poem?”

“That Christopher Smart poem. He wrote it when he was in the asylum. I learned chunks of it as a boy. There was a teacher who believed in poetry. We loved him. He was gentle; he didn’t disapprove. And then he died.”

Domenica listened. Yes, she thought. Great teachers are like that: they believe in something – poetry, physics, it can be anything, really – and they are loved, but often do not know it. Then they die, and are loved all the more.

“He – Christopher Smart, that is – listed all the merits of cats. He said: For his motions on the face of the earth are more than any other quadruped. For he can swim for life. For he can creep.”

“No longer,” said Domenica.

Below the table, Cyril cocked an ear. He was unaware of the subject of discussion, of course, but he hated cats. He resented their freedom and their arrogance. Their humiliation would be heaven for him – justly deserved, and none too soon in its coming.


2. Angus Thinks about Freedom

“I can see the point, of course,” said Angus. “We have to protect species, and cats are certainly a threat to birds. But . . .”

Domenica nodded. “You can’t have unfettered freedom. We certainly can’t, and nor should cats have it. There has to be a compromise.”

Angus looked thoughtful. “You say we can’t have that freedom. It’s interesting to think about what the reach of we is: we as individuals, or we as bigger groups – nations and so on? They’re separate issues, aren’t they?”

“Yes, I suppose . . .”

Angus cut Domenica short. “You see,” he continued, “people talk a lot about freedom at the individual level – liberal individualism has secured that particular conversation. But what about freedom at a higher level: the freedom of nations? Have we given up on that, do you think?”

“You mean sovereignty?”

Angus nodded. “Yes, I suppose I do. Isn’t it the same thing? The right of self-determination?”

“It still exists,” said Domenica. “There was some discussion of it in the paper the other day. It was about Woodrow Wilson and the rights of nations to determine their future. The Americans have always disliked other people’s empires. Their own, of course, was a different matter . . .”


“Yes, but to be fair to then, it was different from the old European empires. And they do take freedom seriously, the Americans. They really do. They fight over it in the courts all the time. They still seem to believe in freedom. I’m not sure if we do.”

“No,” said Angus. “There are plenty of people only too ready to stop other people from saying things with which they disagree. It’s grossly illiberal, of course – intolerance, in fact – not that they’d see it as such. The intolerant never do. How few of them look in the mirror and confess their intolerance? Or their pride?”

Domenica smiled. “Looking in the mirror is a useful exercise. Looking straight into it and describing yourself. Who likes to do that?”

“Narcissists?” suggested Angus.

“Perhaps. But their descriptions are rarely honest. In fact, they’re compliments rather than descriptions. There’s a difference.” Angus remembered something. “Bruce Anderson – you’ve met him in the Cumberland Bar.”

“The building surveyor? The one with the hair?”

Angus nodded. “Yes, him. His hair’s cut en brosse and he puts gel on it. It smells of cloves. Which makes me think of dentists. Cloves trigger Proustian memories for me – when I was a boy my dentist must have used oil of cloves.”

“What about Bruce?” asked Domenica. “I saw him in the Gents at the bar,” Angus said. “He was standing in front of the mirror, staring at his reflection, grinning with satisfaction.”

“Well, he is good-looking, after all. If you look like him, what you see in the mirror won’t be exactly displeasing.”

Angus wrinkled his nose with distaste. “Good looks are something that should be accepted with proper diffidence. It’s rather like having money, or an enviable talent. Like being able to play the piano rather well, or having a low golf handicap. You don’t parade it. You close the piano lid modestly when somebody comes into the room, and you say Just practising, or I never seem to get that particular piece right. That’s what you say. You don’t boast I’m a bit of a Paderewski. Or, mutatis mutandis, Tiger Woods.”

Domenica laughed. “I hate to say it, Angus, but you sound distinctly old-fashioned. Expectations have changed. If you have it these days, you flaunt it. You blow your own trumpet. You bask in your good fortune, and you don’t care if it makes others feel inadequate.”

Angus sighed. “So it seems. But I still believe we should be modest.”

Domenica agreed. “Oh yes. You and I should be modest – and I hope we are. But I suspect we’re in a minority. Have you seen anybody’s CV these days – their résumé? People trumpet their achievements to the rafters – and beyond. They tell you themselves how marvellous they are; how good they are at doing this, that and the next thing. How popular they are. How effective.”

“Do people believe them?” asked Angus.

Domenica doubted it. “I suspect they disregard it. That’s the trouble with formulae of any sort. People get to know that it’s no more than going through hoops – uttering the necessary shibboleths.”

“Noise,” said Angus.

“Yes, noise. It’s rather like these mission statements that clutter up the announcements and advertisements of public bodies. They signal their virtue. They tell us how they’re there to serve us and how they are even-handed in everything they do. Of course they should be even-handed; of course they should behave correctly, but the problem of this constant signalling of virtue is that it weakens the message when the message really needs to be put across. People just don’t hear it any more because it’s always there. The message loses its power. People don’t see it because it has become so omnipresent, so ritualistic.”

“Yes,” said Angus. “It’s interesting how . . .”

But he did not finish; Domenica had more to say. “I have a Russian friend,” she said. “I met her at a conference. She teaches anthropology at St Petersburg University. She told me that in Soviet days people got so accustomed to strident propaganda – you know, those great red posters and so on – that they simply did not see it. They filtered it out – they didn’t see it. And when she told me this, we were sitting with somebody from Los Angeles, and she said, ‘It’s odd that you should say that because we’re the same with adverts. We don’t see the billboards all over the place. We don’t hear the inane jingles on the radio. It’s there, of course, but we become blind to it.’”

Angus tapped a finger on the table. “How did we get on to this?” he asked.

“Sovereignty,” said Domenica. “We were talking about freedom and sovereignty.”

“Ah, yes.”

“And you said . . .”

Angus remembered. “I said that we no longer seemed to be all that concerned about nations – or states, perhaps – having the right to control their future. I wondered if we were losing that altogether.”

“Or just being realistic?” asked Domenica. “We’re all interdependent now, aren’t we? John Donne redivivus?”

“Yes, but . . .” He was not sure how to go on. He felt uncomfortable about giving up freedom, and yet so many people seemed to be enthusiastic about doing just that. Perhaps the idea that a country could control its own destiny was just no longer possible, not in the world in which we now lived. Brussels. London. Berlin. Washington. Places where there’s real power. Not us, not us. Not small people like us. He thought of Hamish Henderson and his lovely lament, Freedom Come All Ye. One might try to sing that, he thought, but what if the choir has gone away – or no longer cares?

The Peppermint Tea Chronicles is the thirteenth book in the 44 Scotland Street series. It is published in the UK this month by Polygon. US publication will follow in December.