The meal had undoubtedly been a pleasure. Five friends gathered together in late Winter for a traditional Sunday meal, accompanied by a first rate Rioja and rounded out by dessert and good coffee. Emerging from the hotel, and with the exception of the driver, they each had the recognizable glow that results when wine and hot food come together in the middle of a cold day.
They were an unlikely quintet, the physician, sociologist, philosopher, anthropologist and surgeon who were now strolling from the hostelry and into the nearby side-streets of a picturesque Scottish fishing town.
‘This place has become such an enclave for well-off retirees from the city’, said the sociologist. ‘They’ve bought up all the period houses, formed their own clubs and societies, grabbed the best moorings in the harbour, and generally made the place their own’.
‘Sounds idyllic’ said the philosopher, who was counting the years to his well-funded retirement from a Norwegian university.
‘But aren’t they eroding the indigenous culture and economy of the place?’ The anthropologist was making a plea to the conscience of the group.
‘Well they do mean work for the likes of us’ said the physician. ‘Plenty of diseases of old age, frailty, and dementia of course’.
‘Yes for me too’ said the surgeon, ‘no shortage of dodgy knees and hip replacements here, to be sure’.
They continued their stroll. The medics a little ahead, deep in conspiratorial shop talk. Those from the pondering sciences bringing up the rear.
Then he appeared, walking towards them on the narrow pavement. Late-sixties, tall and with a bulk that spoke of comfortable means, his longish yellow-grey hair swept back from a prominent forehead. He wore thick corduroys in a faded shade of russet. His brown leather brogues had seen their best days, cracked and worn, but were completely right with the trousers. His old tweed jacket was topped off with a bright silk scarf wrapped several times round his ample neck.
‘You look like you’ve had a good lunch!’ he exclaimed by way of greeting to the sociologist, who it must be said, did look the most post-prandial of the five.
‘We have indeed’, came the reply, ‘and we are now musing on this lovely town and what goes on in it’.
‘Best thing we ever did, moving here’, said the man. ‘Unbelievably favourable property prices. This is my house right here’. He pointed to an exquisitely restored Georgian front door, painted a subtle sage green with cream surrounds. Its shining brass handles and letter box were the epitome of good taste, so too the adjacent fisherman’s lamp.
‘I was glad to get out of the television business and slow down my pace of life. Phoebe feels the same. She was being driven mad running her marketing company, with never a moment to call her own. Now we live differently. Feel part of a community. We all know each other here and the locals couldn’t be nicer’.
‘Where have you been’? asked the philosopher, pointing at the two large hessian bags the man was carrying, one in each hand.
‘Well, we’ve just had a sort of Antiques Roadshow in the village hall. Bring along a few special pieces and see if Prof Millar can tell you their provenance. Not much gets past her. She taught Art History for years at St Andrews’.
‘Sounds like fun’ said the anthropologist. ‘A bit like a Kula ring of ownership that marks out status in the community’.
‘I don’t suppose I’d thought of it that way’ hesitated the man, somewhat puzzled. ‘But I must say, it was great fun’.
‘Do you have other hobbies?’ probed the sociologist?
‘Well yes I do’ came the reply. If you look down this passage here to the harbour, you can see my clinker built Cornish yawl. Twenty seven feet, red sails, and just perfect for conditions in the estuary. I’ve been cleaning her up all Winter and she’ll be back in action within a couple of weeks’.
‘Speaking of action’, said the philosopher, sensing the onset of a long maritime discourse, ‘we’d best be getting on our way. It was really good to meet you’.
‘As it was with you’ said the man, turning back towards his front door, from the road where he stood.
Then came the fateful moment.
Unbalanced by his load, he tripped on the granite edge of the pavement, fell forwards with rapidly increasing velocity, landing literally on his knees, corduroys ripping on impact.
The bags hit the ground just before him.
From the left side came the tinkling of broken glass as it fell from the shattered frame of a painting by one of the lesser known Scottish Colourists, now lying forlorn on the paving stones. On the right, a split second later, came the clunking and cracking of pieces from a nineteenth century Chinese opium jar, as it broke apart inside the bag and fell onto the doorstep.
The three academics shrieked in unison. The man, now in prayer-like posture and facing the portal of his own home, moaned in despair: ‘Pheobe will kill me!’
The medics came charging back, slipping effortlessly into emergency mode. The physician checking for vital signs, uttering reassuring words and looking for a possible medical cause to the fall. Then the surgeon, firmly helping the man to his feet, making sure no bones had been broken.
They had not.
But spewing from each of the two bags was an unlucky dip of shards. Art in pieces. Damage probably irretrievable.
The high spirits of the assembled group were likewise shattered. Making a departure was not going to be easy.
Then a cultural moment occurred to astonish and delight the anthropologist.
Suddenly brightening, raising himself to his full stature, dignity restored, the man put on the bravest of faces. Turning to the quintet, and perhaps sensing the imminent return of Phoebe, he said with a smile: ‘I say, why don’t you all come in for a nice cup of tea?’
I guess you couldn’t make it up. In fact I didn’t.