44 Scotland Street: Misunderstandings at altitude

Illustration: Iain McIntosh

Illustration: Iain McIntosh


The fifty-fourth installment of Alexander McCall Smith’s new daily novel

NOW clad in a borrowed Emirates cabin attendant’s uniform, her own coffee-soaked clothes neatly bundled into a plastic bag and stored in the luggage bin above her head, Irene sat back to enjoy the rest of the flight. She had brought several books with her, but she was not in mood for reading anything serious, and so spent her time looking through the selection of magazines that the airline made available for perusal by its business class passengers. She also dozed a bit, lulled into somnolence by the steady drone of the jet engines and the comfortable temperature of the cabin. Waking up, she decided to get up and replace the magazine she had been reading with something else. She rose to her feet, adjusted the long brown skirt that was part of the uniform of the female cabin attendants, and made her way to the back of the cabin, where the magazine rack was located.

It was while she was choosing a new magazine that Irene was tapped on the shoulder. Turning round, she was confronted with a rather harassed-looking woman who had made her way up from the economy class section.

“Excuse me,” said the woman. “Could you come and give me a hand?”

For a moment Irene wondered why this woman should have approached her, and then she remembered what she was wearing. “I’m sorry,” she said. “I’m not …”

She had been intending to explain that although she was wearing a crew uniform, she was a passenger, but the woman cut her short. “Look,” she said. “I really need you to help me. I pressed the button some time ago and nobody came.”

“But I’m …”

Again the woman stopped her. “I’m not interested in excuses,” she said. “It’s your job to help people.”

Irene sighed. “Very well,” she said. “What’s the problem?”

“Come with me,” said the woman, leading Irene back into the economy class cabin. Irene looked about her; this part of the aeroplane was less luxuriously appointed than her own cabin, and there seemed to be rather more people. How did they all fit in, she wondered? How many were there in a row? She started to count, but was distracted by the woman’s tugging at her sleeve. “We’re over there. That’s my husband, and those are the kids.”

A few rows away, a mild-looking man in a beige cardigan and tobacco-coloured trousers was holding a baby – of no more than a few months age – on his lap. Next to him was a child who looked as if he were three or four, and then another child, of six or seven, who was herself holding another baby.

“They’re twins,” said the woman. “The little ones, that is.”

“Ah, yes.”

“They both need changing,” said the woman. “But Ed’s got to look after the four-year-old because he panics on planes and you can’t leave him. In fact, if either of us leaves for more than a moment or two, he goes bananas, and we can’t have that.”

Irene frowned. “Do you want me to babysit?” she asked. “If you need to go to the bathroom, I could, I suppose.”

“No,” said the woman. “Could you go and change the babies – one at a time? Take Willie first and then little Gordon.”

Irene caught her breath. “Me?” she said. “Change your children?”

The woman looked surprised at the note of indignation that had crept into Irene’s voice. “Yes. Why not? It’s your job to look after people, isn’t it? Well, we need to be looked after.”

Irene smiled. “I really need to explain something,” she said. “I may be wearing …”

She was not allowed to finish. The woman had stepped forward, lifted up one of the babies, and was now pushing it into Irene’s unwilling arms. “There,” she said. “That one’s Willie.”

Finding herself holding the infant, Irene could hardly drop him. She looked at him; he had a small, wizened face that was flushed and angry. He stared back at her. He did not smell fresh.

“Here’s his nappy,” said the woman. “Put the old one in this bag and then please dispose of it.”

“Excuse me,” protested Irene. “I have no intention of changing this wretched child.”

The woman stared at her in astonishment. “Wretched child? Did you call my baby a wretched child?”

A middle-aged woman sitting nearby confirmed that this was so. ‘Yes,” she said. “I heard her. I heard her say exactly that. Shocking, if you ask me.”

Irene spun round at this intervention. “Mind your own business, you stupid old ...”

“Did you hear that?” shouted the object of Irene’s insult. “Did you hear what she said?”

A number of other passengers sitting nearby nodded their heads. “Send for the captain,” said one.

Irene tried to give the baby back to his mother, but failed to do so, as the mother had now folded her arms defiantly, holding her ground. The baby himself glared at Irene with growing animosity, his little face puckering in outrage. Then he was copiously sick, mostly over the front of Irene’s uniform.

“Look what you’ve done,” complained the mother. “Here, give him back to me. You’re useless, you know, just useless.”

Irene thrust the baby into the mother’s arms and then turned on her heels and stormed back to her seat. There she tried to wipe the mess off the front of her tunic – succeeding to an extent, but not completely. She felt her face glowing with anger. How dare that woman assume that she should change her wretched baby – and it was wretched – a most ugly and unattractive infant altogether. She closed her eyes. This trip was proving to be something of a disaster. Firstly, Ulysses had been sick over her at the airport; then she had had coffee spilled all over; and now this ghastly economy class baby had been sick over her too. It was very unfair. This was her one opportunity to travel somewhere in comfort and style, and she had been humiliated and insulted.

She took a deep breath. She would control herself. She would not allow these ridiculous set-backs to spoil the essential fact that she was about to rub shoulders with the literati – the real, international literati, at the Emirates Book Festival. Ultimately that was what counted; that was what made it possible to bear all sorts of humiliations. She felt much better with this thought. It put things in perspective, which is how things should always be viewed, no matter what temporary irritations may occur.



Sometimes – just sometimes – parents get things right, even though often it’s when they think they aren’t being overheard. At least Olive’s father – not knowing that his daughter was hiding underneath the bed – was particularly accurate in summing up the Pollocks: as Olive took pleasure in informing Bertie, her father (“who is always right”) thinks that Bertie’s father Stuart is a wimp and his mother a cow. She is, she tells him, only telling him this because she is on his side. But back in the Pollock household, there is, for a change, some good news. Irene has won a competition in The Scotsman writing a slogan for the Dubai Tourist Board (“Lots of sand – so close at hand”). But even though it also includes a visit to the Dubai Literary Festival, she couldn’t possibly accept, could she? Yes, comes back the response, even from baby Ulysses. She must go....


The Pollock family’s farewell to Irene at Glasgow Airport turns out to be a distressing affair. First, baby Ulysses is sick all over her when she picks him up for a goodbye kiss – but frankly, this could have been predicted. What couldn’t have been is that Bertie should choose precisely that moment to again voice his suspicion that Dr Fairbairn is his brother’s father on account of a strong similarity around the ears. For his part, Stuart has the odd premonition that he might not see his wife again, and is weighed down by a sense of dread. It doesn’t last too long though – and once he has located his car in the car park, he takes his sons off for a treat they wouldn’t have been allowed had Irene still been with them – a pizza in Glasgow before heading home.


Back in Edinburgh, things were hotting up at the Moray Place headquarters of the Association of Scottish Nudists, where an extraordinary general meeting was being held to amend the associations rules. These gave extra voting rights to Edinburgh nudists over other categories of member (resident, non-resident and emeritus): as the chairman explained, this gave the organisation a certain stability and meant that the wrong sort never got elected onto the committee. The meeting isn’t mollified, however, and members line upto point out some of the committee’s failings – the trip to Glencoe at the height of the midge season, the wearing of plastic macs on rainy days, etc. The organisation must be transparently democratic, they insist (many of them, it should be noted, in accents of the purest Glaswegian). When a vote is called, the opposition wins the day and the chairman resigns.


It’s been far too long since we last checked on how Big Lou’s application to become a foster parent was progressing – and now it’s the very day that Marjory, the social worker is to arrive with the two children they had talked about. When she arrives, though, the social worker is only accompanied by a boy: the social worker’s story of the brother and sister whose parents were feckless and drug abusers was just a “love test” - which the warm-hearted Big Lou quite naturally passed. Finlay gets on well with Big Lou right from the start. That night, when he goes to bed, he asks her if she can hold his hand while he drifts off to sleep. Which is precisely what happens. The omens, in other words, are good.


The omens are not so good, however, for the visit to 44 Scotland Street of Antonia Collie and Sister Maria-Fiore dei Fliori di Montagna, one of the nuns at the Tuscan convent at which Antonia is a resident lay member. Before that, of course, she was Domenica’s neighbour – and her self-invited three-week visit doesn’t get off to a good start when she notices that her name has been taken off the old doorway to her flat. Once inside Domenica and Angus’s new, expanded flat, she comments uncharitably on its new internal doorway – and on the absence of her favourite blue Spode cup (a source of past contention) from her former kitchen.

© 2013 Alexander McCall Smith

• Alexander McCall Smith welcomes comments from readers. Write to him c/o The Editor, The Scotsman, 108 Holyrood Road, Edinburgh. EH8 8AS, or via e-mail at 44scotlandstreet@scotsman.com.




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