Domenica addressed Torquil, handing him the martini she had just made for him. He took it, smiled appreciatively and replied, “Yes, I did.” And then, after a moment’s hesitation, he continued, “I’m not sure I should tell you, though. We don’t like to hear about other people’s dreams, do we? Perhaps the same is true of mystical experiences.
Dominique disagreed. “No, the mystical experiences are different. We are not interested in other people’s dreams because we know that dreams are unreal. That’s why we forget them so quickly. Did you notice it? “
He had. “It’s strange, isn’t it?” You wake up remembering a dream and then, in two seconds flat, it’s gone.
“This,” says Domenica, “is because the brain knows that it cannot be encumbered with unnecessary phantasmagoria.”
Torquil, taking a sip of his martini, looked at her over the edge of his glass. “What a great word.”
“Phantasmagoria? Yes, that’s it, isn’t it? It was invented by a French playwright to describe magical lantern shows of disturbing images – ghosts and what we would call bogles. People loved it. get scared with them.
Torquil rolled his tongue around the word. “Phantasmagoria …”
“Whereas,” Domenica continued, “a mystical experience is something that actually happens, however elusive it is. So that interests us. And most of us have had one, although we wouldn’t necessarily describe it as one. She stopped. “It all means you can talk about it, you know. My eyes will not freeze.
Torquil took another sip of his martini. “Okay. It was in New York.”
“Ah. The place is important for such things. It is easier to imagine having such an experience in exotic places. Trebizond. Dar-es-Salaam. Does New York belong to such a company?
Torquil thought so. “I know if you live in New York – work there – then that’s probably just where you live or work. But if you don’t, it hits you as soon as you see it for the first time. You cannot be indifferent to it. Here it is. These buildings. The scale of it. Sensation. The sounds. Mermaids. Yellow taxis. The steam coming out of the mouths of the metro. The smell of hot dogs around the corner.
Domenica plunged the tip of her tongue into her martini. The alcohol was pungent. A madeleine soaked in tea. A bar in London. A man in a fur-lined coat, his hair still wet from the rain outside. A red London bus walks past the window. She shook her head. “You were in New York. Keep on going.”
“It was at the end of my freshman year in college,” Torquil said. “Two years ago. As a birthday present, my parents gave me a plane ticket to New York. They said they would pay for my cousin Chris to come too, although we had to live in a Inexpensive hostel – not that anywhere in NYC is cheap.
“I took the offer like a blow and Chris and I left for two weeks. My parents had friends there and they contacted us to ask for a drink in their Upper East Side apartment. We went to the address hoping to find just a… well, a regular apartment. This was not the case. It was huge; at the top of a building, and with its own garden terrace. They had invited other people as well – members of their crowd – and these people were thronging around us making us look seriously shabby, as you can imagine.
“They had a piano on the terrace, played by a little man in a double-breasted blazer and bow tie. He had an oddly shaped head – much like a bullet – and a pair of tiny round glasses. He was playing show tunes, singing some of the lines in a thin, thin voice that sounded like it came out of an old radio. Chris said, ‘This guy is the real McCoy, you know.’ I agreed. It was. I think he might have heard us because he turned around and said in his thin, rather whiny Midwestern voice, “Thanks, boys. Pay attention now. Then he continued to play.
“Chris went to talk to a girl in a green dress. I walked over to the parapet around the terrace. It was topped by an ornate bronze banister, with Art Deco elements – the style you see on the Chrysler Building. I looked over the edge, down twenty-six stories to the street below, which was Madison Avenue. It was early evening, around seven, and the slanting sun was on top of the skyscrapers, making them warm and golden. The sky was empty and I remember thinking it was so pale a blue it was almost white.
” I turned around. I had just finished the martini that was given to me when I arrived. I saw that Chris was on his second, but one was more than enough for me because he had been generous. I looked at the people there, these New Yorkers, and suddenly I felt a surge of affection for them. It was very strange – a feeling of love, in the agape sense – a feeling of being with them in a curious way. It was a feeling of tenderness; I guess you could call it that.
“And everything, it seemed to me, was perfect. The people, the terraced garden, the cars crawling along the road below, New York in all its extravagant and shameless glory, that was it. just right – benevolent and well-intentioned and utterly human – not the indifferent and lucrative machine that is sometimes presented to him, but a place of human tenderness. They were kind and generous people who had just given me, a complete stranger, a martini that changed my life; and now the pianist had started playing Over time of Casablanca, and sang the words, almost in a low voice, as if he didn’t care whether any of the guests could hear him. A kiss is just a kiss, he sang; basic things in life …
“He looked up. Chris had come back to join me. ‘The basics of life. Remember that, boys,’ the pianist said out of the corner of his mouth.
Torquil stopped. He put down his glass and stood up. Then he took Dominique’s hand in his. She caught her breath. Then she said, “Maybe not. And he looked away. He didn’t look hurt or surprised.
They started discussing something quite different – an essay Torquil was writing about how cruelty is portrayed in Homer’s final scenes. Odyssey.
“Odysseus was very ruthless,” Torquil said. “I ended up not liking him at all.
“Me neither,” Domenica said. “A very unfriendly guy.”
At half past seven he left. Angus returned half an hour later.
“I had Torquil for a few minutes,” Domenica said. “We chatted for a little while. Then she added, “We held hands. Very, very briefly. It was his work, not mine.
Angus seemed indifferent. “You will never guess what I heard from Sister Maria-Fiore dei Fiori di Montagna,” he said.
© Alexander McCall Smith, 2021. A Pledge of Pegs (Scotland Street 14) is available now. Love in the Time of Bertie (Scotland Street 15) will be published by Polygon in a hardcover version in November 2021.