DCSIMG

Scotland Street short story: Bertie’s Christmas

Bertie

Bertie

  • by ALEXANDER MCCALL SMITH
 

Several factors had combined to improve summer for Bertie Pollock (six), son

of Stuart Pollock (39) and Irene Pollock (38), of Scotland Street (44).

The most important of these was the cessation, at least for the months of July and August, of

those two features of his life that irked and oppressed Bertie the most – psychotherapy

and yoga classes, both of which were organized by his mother as part of what she had

once tellingly referred to as “the Bertie project”

As far as psychotherapy was concerned, Bertie’s regular weekly sessions with Dr

St Clair in his Queen Street consulting rooms, came to a temporary end when the

psychotherapist left for a two-month visit to Australia, timed to coincide with the

marriage of Dr St Clair’s cousin, Eunice, in Brisbane. Bertie was relieved, and wished

that Dr St Clair had more cousins contemplating marriage, as this might reduce the

number of occasions on which they would have to sit together for an hour while the

psychotherapist asked Bertie about his dreams.

Bertie remembered some dreams, but not enough, it seemed, to keep Dr St Clair

happy, and so he had taken to inventing them – not out of mischievousness, but

simply to be obliging. The psychotherapist had been particularly interested in a dream

in which Bertie had seen a number of wolves sitting in a tree. Such a dream might be

expected to excite any psychotherapist familiar with Freud’s classic case of the Wolf

Man, who had precisely such a dream. But it was not just psychotherapists who might

be familiar with that case; the same might be true of six-year-old boys of advanced

reading tastes – as Bertie was – who had taken a copy of Muriel Gardiner’s The Wolf

Man and Sigmund Freud from his mother’s shelves and had read, with great interest,

of Sergei Konstantinovich Pankejeff’s much discussed dream.

“Why wolves?” asked Dr St Clair, noting something down in his small Moleskine

notebook with its BERTIE label. “Do we normally see wolves in a tree, Bertie?”

Bertie shrugged. “No,” he said. “But dreams are funny things, aren’t they, Dr St Clair?

Do you have funny dreams?”

“We all do, Bertie,” said Dr St Clair. “Dreams can be very strange.”

“Would you like to tell me about some of your dreams, Dr St Clair? Then maybe I can

tell you what I think they mean.”

“No, Bertie, that’s kind of you, but that’s not what this is about.”

And so it continued, seemingly endlessly, thought Bertie. “Do I really need

psychotherapy, Mummy?” he asked his mother. “Other boys don’t have it, you know.

Look at Tofu …”

“Look at him indeed,” interjected Irene. “If ever there were a case for

psychotherapeutic intervention, it’s that boy. No, carissimo, Tofu is not a good

example. We must choose our examples more carefully if we are to use them at all.”

Bertie realised that his friend was probably not the best advertisement for a

psychotherapy-free existence. Tofu, the son of two well-known Edinburgh vegans,

was inclined to be forceful, to the extent of regularly spitting at people with whom

he fell out, particularly at Olive, a girl in their class at school. He also ran a small-

scale numbers racket, in which other children were persuaded to back a weekly

number to the tune of 50 pence. Most weeks, Tofu himself won, a fact that he put

down to a combination of chance and good luck, but which was the cause of constant

murmuring among the other participants.

“But I don’t see why I need to go to psychotherapy,” Bertie had persisted. “And it

would be cheaper if I didn’t go. You could go and spend the money in Valvona &

Crolla, Mummy. Think of that!”

Irene had laughed. “Dear Bertie! Mummy has quite enough money to buy what we

need at Valvona & Crolla, but thank you very much anyway. No, psychotherapy is

essential for your development, as Mummy has explained on numerous occasions.

Weren’t you listening, Bertie? So when Dr St Clair comes back from Australia we’ll

start again.”

Bertie knew that there were some battles in this life that are simply destined to be lost,

and he felt that this applied on a blanket basis to any discussions he might have with

his mother. There was just no relief there: he would just have to wait until he turned

18 when he could go to live in Glasgow or Paris, the only two other cities he had seen

in his life, and which he hoped would offer, from the morning of his 18th birthday,

independence from his mother. Currently the odds were favouring Glasgow, where he

and his father had met the well-known informal businessman, Lard O’Connor (RIP),

and had visited the Burrell Collection with him. Glaswegian was also easy to learn,

Bertie believed, being not unlike Italian, or certain dialects of Italian perhaps.

With no psychotherapy and no yoga classes at Yoga for Tots in Stockbridge, Bertie

felt quite liberated, and even looked forward to the visits to the Museum and the

National Gallery organised by his mother. He liked the National Gallery, although,

just as any small boy would be, he was puzzled by the acres of unclothed flesh

exposed in the Italian paintings. There was none of this, he noted in the rooms

devoted to Scottish art, and he raised this issue with his mother.

“None of the Scottish paintings have naked people in them, Mummy,” he

observed. “Is this because Scottish artists aren’t quite so rude?”

Irene had laughed. “No, Bertie, I wouldn’t say that.” She paused; perhaps Bertie had a

point. “Mind you, they were probably somewhat inhibited. The bourgeoisie are very

buttoned up people, Bertie. But the explanation is probably a great deal simpler. The

models used by artists would probably freeze if they took their clothes off in Scotland,

Bertie. That’s maybe why.”

Some of these mother-arranged trips caught his interest. A visit to the Prestonpans

Tapestry, where he met not only the artist but two of the weavers from Tranent who

had explained some of the panels to him, had been memorable, but not as exciting

as a fishing trip to the Pentlands with his father. That had been a wonderful outing,

and it had culminated in a visit to a farm where Bertie had met the farmer’s son,

a boy called Andy, who possessed several Swiss Army pen-knives, and who was

entirely unburdened by psychotherapy and yoga. Andy had introduced Bertie to Irn-

Bru, which Bertie had never been allowed to try before and which seemed to him to

be the most perfect drink imaginable. Swiss Army pen-knives and Irn-Bru – what a

marvellous vision it was that Bertie was vouchsafed; a vision of what boyhood might

be like if things were only different, which of course they were not.

But now summer had drawn to an end in a bluster of sharp winds and dancing yellow

leaves. The new school term had begun, and Bertie returned to the old routines. Tofu,

who had acquired over the summer a noticeable yellow tan, was as assertive as ever,

boasting that the tan was the result of a trip to East Africa with his parents.

“Highly unlikely,” said Olive. “It’s a liver complaint, Tofu. I think you’re really ill and

that’s why you’re that disgusting colour. Poor you.”

“Perhaps it’s a dietary deficiency,” said Olive’s friend, Pansy.

“Could be,” conceded Olive. “If they gave you proper food at home, Tofu, then you

wouldn’t be this colour. You’re not going to last long, you know – vegans never do.”

“He cheats,” said Pansy. “I’ve seen you eating sausage rolls, Tofu. Don’t think we

don’t see these things – we do.”

“Yes we do,” said Olive. “We’re watching you, Tofu. You just remember that.”

Bertie found these exchanges somewhat depressing. He wanted people to like one

another, and he did not understand why they had to argue and bicker as Tofu, Olive

and all the rest seemed to do. If only people were polite, thought Bertie, rather than

constantly arguing and even spitting at one another, then life would be much easier

and much more pleasant for everybody. But that, he knew, was not how things were.

The new term brought new activities, including rugby, a game that Bertie had long

wished to play and which had been denied him. Now, however, the school had agreed

that a small amount of rugby would not harm anybody and engaged a coach to teach

rugby according to the educational principles of Dr Maria Montessori, author of De

l’enfant l’adolescent. These principles stressed the importance of co-operation rather

than competition. The first of these, of course, is seminal to good rugby: if a rugby

team does not co-operate, then all is lost – a scrum will only work if the players

on the same side all agree to push in a vaguely similar direction. When it comes to

competition, however, if one eschews this in favour of sharing the ball – even with

the other side – then one of the central tenets of the game disappears and it becomes

somewhat one-sided.

The first foray of the school onto the rugby field had been in a match against George

Watson’s, played on the Myreside turf before an enthusiastic crowd of parents from

both schools. The readiness of Bertie’s team to share the ball had been the cause of

some surprise, followed by general anxiety as the Watson’s players – sturdy types

from the groves of Morningside and the slopes of the Braids – had quickly taken the

score to 84-0. Subsequent games were equally unsuccessful, and the decision to play

rugby had been reversed, in favour of those pursuits, academic and artistic, in which

the school excelled and for which it had a well- deserved reputation.

Now it was late November, and Edinburgh had become dark and wet. Bertie’s journey

to school each morning on the 23 bus became one marked by trying not to breathe in

the air exhaled by those with coughs and sneezes. Occasionally the sky showed itself,

but not very often; low cloud, scudding in from the North Sea, obscured the hills of

Fife, which otherwise might be spotted from the 23 bus on its return journey down

Dundas Street. Shades of grey were the predominant colour; grey stone, grey sky,

grey coats upon the backs of figures in the street; greyness all about.

“It’s at times like this that I yearn for a more southerly existence,” Irene said to

her husband in their flat on Scotland Street. “Remember Auden’s ‘Goodbye to the

Mezzogiorno’?”

“Not really,” said Stuart.

“Well it’s all about how important the south is for us – for us northerners. A

Mediterranean culture. Olive trees. Colour.”

“We have our own trees,” said Stuart. “And I’m not sure that I sign up for that

southerly enthusiasm. Remember I’m a civil servant and I judge places by

administrative efficiency, cleanness – that sort of thing. Naples may be all very well,

but it’s a mess. Even the Italians have given up on Naples.”

“Don’t be so prosaic, Stuart,” said Irene. “One has to look beyond minor irritations.

Naples may have its little difficulties, but it’s so alive, so colourful. They sing – they

really sing. Bel canto. What do we do here in Scotland? Complain? Be miserable?

What are our songs about, Stuart? Misery and drink. Our big themes.”

“Well, it won’t be November forever,” said Stuart. “Christmas soon. Things pick up a

bit then.”

Bertie, who had been listening to this discussion through the open door of his

bedroom, sat up at the mention of Christmas. But even as he did so, he heard his

mother’s reply.

“Christmas? Frankly, Stuart, I feel that Christmas is a distraction.”

“From what?”

“From the real issues. From the matters that should be concerning us. From the crisis.”

“What crisis are you referring to?”

Irene sighed. “The crisis, Stuart. The one that we are currently in, for heaven’s sake.”

Irene’s sigh was echoed by an unheard counterpart from Bertie. Christmas was a

matter of immense, overwhelming significance for him – as it was for any other six-

year-old – and to hear his mother appearing to be unenthusiastic about it dispirited

him. He knew Irene only too well, and he realised that this preliminary salvo from his

mother would soon be followed by active steps to deny the sort of Christmas that he

and his father wanted.

In this he was right. A few days later there were ominous comments from his mother

as they travelled to school on the bus.

“Look at that, Bertie,” said Irene. “That shop over there has a large picture of Santa in

its window and it’s been there for weeks. They put it up in mid- November, believe it

or not. Commercial manipulation, Bertie. That’s what that is.”

Bertie remained silent.

“No,” Irene continued. “There’s no doubt about it. We are being encouraged to spend

on things we don’t need.”

“But presents are nice,” said Bertie mildly.

“A small present might be nice, Bertie, but these people are wanting us to wallow

in materialism. And it’s all so wasteful. All that consumption of wrapping paper and

tinsel. All those useless trinkets.

All of it unnecessary – quite unnecessary.”

Bertie looked out of the bus window. He thought Princes Street immensely exciting;

he liked wrapping paper and tinsel; he would love to be given some trinkets,

particularly a Swiss Army knife, which he knew he would never be allowed. But the

world, he had read somewhere, is not always what we want it to be. That was true, he

thought.

At school there was much talk about Christmas and about what it would bring in

terms of presents. Tofu had been promised, and was confident of getting, a remote-

control model helicopter. And that was just the beginning. “My dad’s getting me a

whole box of batteries for all the new stuff I’m getting,” he informed Bertie. “Some

of the stuff’s so good that it hasn’t been invented yet. They’re going to invent it just

before Christmas and then I’ll get it. What about you, Bertie?”

“Oh I don’t know, Tofu. I’ll get …”

“Very little, I expect,” interjected Olive. “Sorry about that, Bertie, but I heard your

mum going on about Christmas to Hiawatha’s mum at the school gate. She said

Christmas had got out of control and people were spending far too much on presents.

So, I don’t think you’ll get much, Bertie.”

Olive herself was hoping for a junior surgeon’s kit, having already been given a

junior nurse’s outfit for her last birthday. “It has a plastic scalpel in it, Bertie,” she

crowed. “But I’m going to change the blade and put a real one in. My dad’s got a

Stanley knife and I can take one of the spare blades from that. Then I can do small

operations on people, Bertie. If you’ve got any warts, I’ll take them off for you. Free. I

won’t charge you, I promise.”

The real talk of the school, though, was the impending nativity play, in which

Bertie, Tofu and Olive all had parts. There had been some preliminary skirmishes

here: Olive, who was determined to play the part of Mary, had declared that in no

circumstances would she play opposite Tofu, should he be chosen for the role. Tofu in

turn had said that he would not be Joseph to Olive’s Mary, but was happy to consider

Pansy for that part. These issues continued to preoccupy the children to such an extent

that they did not notice that the school had appealed to parents for a volunteer to

produce the play. So when it was announced that the parent who had stepped up to

this challenge was Irene, the news came as a complete surprise to the would-be actors.

“Your mother, Bertie!” exclaimed Olive. “I hope that she has enough experience to do

this sort of thing. Has she any theatrical training, Bertie?”

“She’s a cow,” said Tofu. “Sorry Bertie, it’s not your fault, but there we are. It’s going

to be a disaster.”

Irene was secretly flattered to have been chosen to produce the play and announced

that she would be taking a fundamentally different approach from that normally

adopted by the producers of such events. “Nativity plays are very tired,” she

said. “The same old setting. Alien cultural associations: camels, stars, stables. What

modern urban child even knows what a stable is?”

This did not bode well for her own interpretation, and when she revealed it to her

husband, his initial response was an anxious one.

“I’m going to change the setting entirely,” Irene said. “We shall be in the

contemporary West Bank. The Mary figure will be …”

“I’d be terribly careful about that,” he said. “These issues are very controversial. I’m

not sure that it’s appropriate to engage the children in them.”

Irene sighed. “Stuart, the children are engaged in the Middle East, whether they like

it or not. Their future is affected by what happens in that region. It’s no good burying

your head in the sand.”

The children, of course, were disappointed that the outfits they had been planning

to wear – sheets done up as robes, crowns and so forth – were replaced with

contemporary garb. They were confused, too, by the plot, which dealt with issues that

seemed to them to be rather more complicated and less interesting than the traditional

nativity play.

“Your mother’s ruined everything,” Olive said to Bertie. “God’s going to be really mad

with her, Bertie. You just wait and see what He does to her. You just wait.”

News of Irene’s efforts with the nativity play soon leaked out. In Big Lou’s coffee

bar on Dundas Street, the conversation soon got round to a report received from

Domenica Macdonald – who lived above the Pollock flat in 44 Scotland Street. This

report was passed on by Angus Lordie, the portrait painter from Drummond Place,

who had recently become engaged to Domenica.

“That ghastly Pollock woman,” said Angus, “has got her hands on a nativity play at

that poor little boy’s school. She’s made it into some big agitprop treatment of the

Middle East.”

“She’s the one Cyril bit, isn’t she?” asked Matthew.

“Yes,” said Angus. “A small lapse on Cyril’s part, but entirely deserved. Dogs are very

good judges of character, I find.”

“I feel sorry for that wee boy,” said Big Lou, from behind her counter. “He’s sair

hauden doon.”

“Indeed,” said Angus. “Domenica met her on the stair and she went on and on about

her wretched play. Apparently the three wise men aren’t kings at all, but some sort of

mediators.”

“Like Mr Blair?” suggested Matthew.

Angus nodded. “That sort of thing. If I were writing it, though, I’d be a bit more

creative, I think. I’d make my three wise men a more interesting group. Perhaps Sir

Angus Grossart, Sir Timothy Clifford and the Lord Provost. That would be more like

it.”

Matthew smiled. “Such fun,” he said. “Except for those children. They must have

been wanting the usual thing and they get that peculiar woman’s version. Rather sad,

I’d say.”

Angus agreed. “Mind you, it gets worse. Domenica tells me that Bertie wanted to

go to see Santa Claus at Jenners but Irene has said no. She’s got this thing about

commercialisation and she believes that Santa is some sort of sinister myth dreamed

up by grasping members of local chambers of commerce. I ask you!”

Big Lou shook her head in disbelief. “The poor bairn,” she said. “All he wants to do

is see Santa and he gets some muckle ideological diatribe from that woman…” She

paused. “Unless, of course …” She looked at Angus. “Domenica’s flat is on the top

floor, isn’t it?”

“Yes.”

“And she has access to the roof?”

“I believe so,” said Angus.

Angus listened to her suggestion, nodding encouragingly as she expounded

upon the plan she had made up on the spot. When she had finished, he gave his

approval. “Great idea,” he said. “We can but try.”

On Christmas Eve, a resident of the corner of Drummond Place, looking down over

the roofs of Scotland Street – had he or she been doing so – would have seen the

curious sight of a man emerging through a skylight and making his way carefully to

a stack of chimneys. Such an observer would have seen a light folding ladder set up,

while the man, like some enterprising cat burglar, climbed up the side of the chimney

stack and appeared to peer down the pots emerging from the top. An observant

observer would have noticed more – that the man was wearing a curious red outfit,

edged with white cotton wool.

Up on the roof above 44 Scotland Street, Angus Lordie, watched from the open

skylight by a slightly tipsy Domenica Macdonald – they had both decided to celebrate

Christmas Eve with generous glasses of mulled wine – cupped his hands and bellowed

down the chimney pots. “Bertie Pollock! Bertie Pollock! Stand by for Santa!”

He did this several times, and then stepped down and made his way back to the

skylight.

“How did I do?” he asked Domenica.

“Extremely well,” she giggled. “Now let me just brush you down and then you can go

downstairs.”

Sitting in the living room of his flat, his mother reading in her chair in the corner –

her Melanie Klein book, Bertie observed – his father struggling with The Scotsman

crossword – “he conquers all, a nubile tram” he muttered; to which Bertie, had said

quietly “Tamburlaine, Daddy” – and Bertie’s small brother, Ulysses, sitting vacantly

in his portable playpen; in such surroundings Bertie heard the stentorian voice coming

down the chimney.

The others heard it too. Irene dropped her book, Stuart lowered his paper in

astonishment, Ulysses looked vaguely up at the ceiling.

“It’s Santa,” said Bertie. “Should I go and find a stocking to hang up?”

Irene did not reply. It must have been an auditory hallucination, she thought; but were

such hallucinations experience by four people at the same time?

Bertie ran across the room to look up the chimney. “I’m ready,” he shouted. “Please

come down.”

“Bertie!” said Irene. ‘There’s nobody there.”

“But there is,” said Bertie. “Didn’t you hear him too, Mummy. It was Santa.”

And then came the knock on the door.

“That’s him,” said Bertie. “He probably couldn’t fit down the chimney.”

Stuart rose from his chair and went through to the hall, accompanied by Bertie. The

door was opened, to reveal Santa, a large white beard of cotton wool pasted onto his

chin, accompanied by a dog on whose head a Santa cap was held in place by an elastic

band. Santa’s dog moved forward and licked Bertie’s knee.

“It’s Cyril,” said Bertie.

“Well, well,” said Stuart. “Do come in, Santa. What a pleasant surprise.”

“Don’t mind if I do,” said Angus. “And I’ve got a few presents here, too. Have the

children in this house been good this year?” He did not wait for an answer. “I hear

they have. Well done!”

Irene’s smile was slightly fixed as she watched the present-giving ceremony. But

Stuart and Bertie were ebullient, Stuart handing Santa a large glass of whisky and

pouring one for himself, equally generous. Then Santa handed out the presents,

including a present for Irene, a garlic crusher in its original box, surplus from

Domenica’s kitchen.

Stuart poured himself and Santa another whisky, and Santa then produced a can of

Irn-Bru, which he gave to Bertie, urging him to open it immediately. Irene continued

to smile, perhaps slightly less fixedly; it was difficult to tell.

“Thanks so much, Angus,” whispered Stuart. “Great show.”

“Spirit of Christmas,” said Angus. “Touches ilka heart.”

 

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