The Books
A Promise of Ankles
Format: Trade Paperback , 320 pages
Category: Fiction - Family Life - General; Fiction - Humorous - General; Fiction - Mystery & Detective - General
Publisher: Anchor
On Sale: December 8, 2020
Price: $15.95
ISBN: 978-0-593-31328-2 (0-593-31328-3)
Also available as an eBook.


At the Window, with Binoculars

Standing at her kitchen window, Domenica Macdonald, cultural anthropologist, denizen of Scotland Street, citizen of Edinburgh, lowered the binoculars that for the last fifteen minutes she had trained on the street below. She had owned the binoculars for over twenty years, having been given them by her first, and late, husband. Domenica had been married to a man she had met while working in South India, a member of a prosperous family who owned a small electricity factory outside what was then called Cochin, in Kerala. Her husband, a mild and somewhat melancholic man, had been electrocuted, and Domenica had returned to Scotland to pursue an academic career. That had been a success – or “sort of success”, as Domenica described it – but she had gradually slipped out of full employment in the University of Edinburgh to the status of independent scholar, which enabled her to undertake various anthropological research projects in various parts of the world, while keeping her base in Edinburgh. That, of course, was at 44 Scotland Street, a comfortable address in a sharply descending street – “only in the topographical sense”, as Domenica amusingly pointed out – towards the eastern limits of Edinburgh’s Georgian New Town.

Domenica’s anthropological field trips had included an eventful spell in Papua New Guinea, where she studied kinship patterns and friendship networks amongst a tribal group living along the upper reaches of the Sepik River. These people, known for their worship of local crocodiles, had become accustomed to academic interest, and alongside their important spirit house maintained a lodge specifically for visiting anthropologists. This lodge, known in Pidgin as Haus bilong anthropology fella, had hot and cold running water and copious supplies of mosquito repellent. Anthropologists could stay there for as long as they liked, as the locals enjoyed talking to them and recounting ancient legends, many of which were made up on the spot in return for cartons of Australian cigarettes.

Domenica’s small monograph, Close Friends, Distant Relatives: Patterns of Contact Amongst the Crocodile People of the Sepik River, had been well received, being shortlisted, but eventually not being awarded, the Prix Claude Lévi-Strauss, one of the more sought-after awards in the world of cultural anthropology. That was enough, though, to ensure that her next project, Marriage Negotiations and the Role of the Astrologer in Madhya Pradesh, was given adequate funding by the Royal Society of Edinburgh, the British Academy, and the Carnegie Trust. That led to an article, rather than a book, but it was still widely quoted in the footnotes of other anthropological papers, the measure by which, in an age of quantification, the success of a scholarly paper tends to be measured.

Thereafter, there had been only one overseas project of any significance. That had involved a period living with a community of contemporary pirates on the Malacca Straits. These pirates lived at the mouth of a river, in houses surrounded by thick mangrove. They spoke an obscure dialect, but Domenica had been able to communicate with them reasonably effectively in a variant of the Pidgin she had acquired in Melanesia. She concentrated on the home life of the pirates, taking a particular interest in their domestic economy. For their part, the pirates’ wives had given her a generous welcome, and had been only too happy to discuss with her their housekeeping issues. Domenica had been taught how to cook the dishes local to that part of the country, and over the months that she spent there she had developed a taste for the coconut curries dominating pirate cuisine.

At the end of her stay, of course, she had made a discovery that somewhat overshadowed the entire project. That had come about one morning when, out of curiosity, she had slipped a small boat of a mooring and discreetly followed the pirates as they set off for work in their larger vessels. She had followed them round the headland that marked the end of the river mouth, and then, straining her small outboard engine to keep up, she had trailed them into another river system a few miles up the coast. There all was revealed: the pirates, it transpired, were employed in a pirate CD and DVD factory, and it was to this plant that they travelled each morning and from which they returned early every evening.

That discovery had been slightly disappointing to Domenica, but it did not compromise any of the data she had assembled on domestic economy issues and formed no more than a footnote in the paper she later published on the subject. When she left the Malacca Straits to return to Scotland she was given an emotional send-off by the pirates’ wives, whom she had taught how to make shortbread and clootie puddings. She was still in touch with them years later, sending them a copy of the Scotsman calendar each December and a gift subscription to the Scots Magazine, which they assured her they so enjoyed reading.

On her fiftieth birthday, Domenica decided that there would be no more research trips in the field, or, rather, that the field could be visited, provided that it was local. Her scholarly time was now largely spent on freelance editing for a number of anthropological journals, occasional lectures, and work on a project that she had long nurtured – a study of the networks and customs of Watsonians, the graduates of George Watson’s College who played an important part in Edinburgh life and whose influence extended into the furthest reaches of the capital city. This research was different from that which she conducted on the Crocodile People of New Guinea, but it had risks of its own. It was also a project that would require far more time to be completed – Domenica was thinking of years, rather than months – as access was an issue and the layers of association and meaning in Watsonian affairs required a great deal of semiotic analysis.

But there she was – standing at her window overlooking Scotland Street, lowering her Carl Zeiss binoculars and turning to her husband, Angus Lordie, who was seated at the other end of the kitchen, his dog and familiar, Cyril, at his feet. Angus, a portrait painter, was wearing his studio clothes – a paint- spattered jacket that Domenica wished he would throw away, a shirt of faded tartan material, and a pair of trousers that was slightly too large for him and that was kept from falling down by an improvised belt – a tie threaded through its loops. This tie was that of Glenalmond College, a school tucked away in Perthshire, where Angus had been all those years ago a moderately unhappy boarder and member of the school pipe band. Whenever he heard Mist-Covered Mountains, that most haunting of pipe tunes, he saw Glenalmond under soft veils of rain. He saw his friend playing the pipes beside him in the ranks of the band; and they smiled at one another, because that friendship had been such a profound one, and we must keep alive the happiness we experience before the world closes in on us.

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