Robert Burns and I met for tea at Flavors Bakery where the scones are without peer. He hung his tweeds on the coat stand by the door, and I called to Janet that a spot of the Earl wouldn’t be unwelcome. It was Robert, after all, so I was getting my inner Brit on.
“Good to see you, Annie,” Janet said. “Earl on the way.”
I introduced myself to Mr. Burns with an American handshake, “Annie Proud. Nice to meet you.”
“Robert Burns,” he returned. “A true pleasure.”
Just back from a brief leave, I was interviewing Robert for the Arts and Culture weekend insert in our Garrett Gazette. Neal, our editor, thought it would be a softball way to get my feet wet again, to get back on my game. Neal had focused on the technical end of a journalism major and had avoided literature altogether. He didn’t know much about the Scottish bard.
‘Charming’ was the word I jotted, as Robert pressed the plunger down to extract the essence of Earl Grey. He accomplished the tea table in that rare masculine way that would set both farmers and lords at their instant ease. No airs, but comfortable. It helped to set me at my ease, not a farmer or a lord, but an anxious reporter with a deadline and a game face.
We exchanged niceties and utensils as we sugared and creamed and settled it all to our liking. Then I began, “So let’s start with Auld Lang Syne since the whole world sings it on New Year’s Eve. Who did you have in mind when you wrote it?”
“Not one person in particular. I was almost 30, mind you, and feeling old,” Burns smiled here. “I felt qualified to begin mourning for all that comes between us and precious things. I had lots of starts and stops in my life. Lots of failures. In that song I think I turned back to remember and toast them all.”
Hearing him characterize his life as littered with failures was a new thought. So I continued, “What about that song, then, do you think makes it so loved?”
Spreading soft butter on a cranberry shortbread cookie – “And why not?” I thought, saluting this stellar idea – he ventured a thought, “We all have moments when we realize how little our times are, how those exquisite times, so very physical, are just memories now, how we’ve suffered much and our strength is diminished. Even if I could go back, I haven’t the strength now.” He paused.
I sipped and waited.
“And the best we have, all we have, Lass, is that cup of memories between us and the kindness of connection to each other. That’s it.”
Refusing to allow any of his words to settle on the recent events of my life, I pressed him, “But what about Red, Red Rose? You seemed certain in that poem that your love would last through an apocalypse, that you would never be separated from your love. Or if you were, you would move the world to find it again.”
Robert was sitting back in his café chair, looking intently at me. It occurred to me how rarely we actually do that with people. It was way too intimate and uncomfortable. He said finally, “So tell me about your knowledge of apocalypses. You’ve had one recently, have you?”
Caught completely flat footed, and short of breath besides, the best I could do was stammer and deflect. “My editor didn’t send me here to talk about me. Let’s go lighter, then, and talk about the wonderful To A Mouse.”
He chuckled and said, “Well, only ‘lighter’ if you aren’t the mouse. He’s homeless now from the farmer’s carelessness in destroying his ‘wee housie.’ It really happened, you know. And I watched the desperate mouse, so cozy and prepared, you know, a moment ago, now exposed and on the run. No hope of a warm home now before the real winter begins.” He looked out at January through the tall windows behind me, at the reclaimed warehouses that housed this bakery and other specialty shops, and he said, “And I thought to myself, ‘The best laid plans of mice and men. . .’”
“Gang aft agley,” I finished for him. Oh, how they gang agley and agley.
“Ahhh,” he smiled with pleasure. “Even in this tiny corner of your fine country, you know my poems, and in dialect? Humbling, indeed.” He refilled both our tea mugs from the tall French press, and resumed casually, “So you understand the mouse, then? Winter is coming on you and your cozy house has been flattened by a farmer’s plow?”
I didn’t try to deflect this time. “Yes. I understand the mouse.”
He held a finger up, “I’ll just go get us a few more of these cinnamon buns while you decide where to start your tale, right?”
My notepad still had only the one word on it – ‘charming.’ Janet evidently agreed as they talked animatedly about the perfect scone, Robert promising to send her his beloved wife Jean’s recipe.
“She informs me these are called cinnamon ‘rolls,’ not ‘buns,’” he noted as he placed the fresh rolls between us. “Delightful girl, that. I asked her to go back to Scotland with me, but she said her husband might object. And what about my wife? Well, what about her?” Robert finished with a shout and a laugh. His open joy was a kindness meant to help me find an opening. Which it did.
“Your Jean was a patient woman,” I stated flatly. I had read Burns’ biography. Jean was beloved but not alone in his affections. His face sobered quickly when he saw I had done my homework and knew a timeline of his life.
“It’s an unfair advantage you have over me, knowing my whole life,” he chided. “But I can’t call it unfair really, for the decisions were all mine. Whatever it looks like all spread out in a row on paper, well, Lass, it was probably worse in truth. But, why do you say Jean was patient? She wasn’t particularly, you know.”
“She shared you, and stayed faithful. No woman signs up for that.”
“I suppose I can see that now,” he mused. “At the time, it just seemed my right to take what I wanted when I wanted it. Would your man and I have gotten along well?”
“Peas in a pod.”
“And?” he prodded the air with half a cinnamon roll.
“Unlike you, my ‘man’ as you call him, never came back. He took what he wanted and kept on going.”
“I am sorry for that,” Burns observed sadly. “And are you truly left with nothing, like the wee mouse?”
“I have this job. I have a wedding dress to sell – worn once, size 10. And I have a due date.”
“Is that an American something?”
“No, Robert, it is a universal something. Your Jean had several of them. And so did Mary and Jenny and who was the other?”
He looked unapologetically at me, “Bess.”
“And Bess. Only there’s nothing actually due on my date anymore. I was standing in the driveway. I felt it and I knew. Instantly. There’s no knowing like knowing that. You cry and pray, ‘Hang on, babies, hang on.’”
He looked pierced, I knew, because he and Jean had twins.
“Yes, twins,” I confirmed. “Two miracles. But they were too little to hang on. And there was nothing I could do. I would have stood on my head for nine months if it would have helped. I would have stopped breathing if necessary. But Bobby drove away and I watched from the driveway. And . . .I think three people died that day.”
Robert was silent for a long while, and then ventured, “Bobby? That’s short for –“
“Yes, did I mention? My husband’s name is Robert. Robert Proud, of the Garrett Prouds. His father is Cainer, the lawyer. His sister is Cainer, the princess. I had a fairytale, and now it’s over.”
He remained silent and thoughtful, then spoke, “I am bereft for your babies. That is a roaring sea, indeed. Might I hope that someday you will be glad to be rid of the Prouds? You will find an honest man, a man of gold, and he’ll be your true prince.”
I couldn’t help but smile at him and quote, “For a’ that, and a’ that, Their tinsel show, and a’ that; The honest man, though e’er sae poor, Is king o’ men for a’ that.”
“I had a way with words, didn’t I?” he laughed softly.
“You did, indeed,” I agreed. “But I’ll need more than love and memories to get me through this, Mr. Burns.”
“And I hope you find it, dear Lass. I wish I could tell you what that might be, but you know, I only lived to be 37. So I’m not much of an expert. Do you think Janet has something we can put these buns – rolls – in and take along on our way?”