The seventy-fifth and final installment of Alexander McCall Smith’s new daily novel
THE raw carrots that Irene had envisaged being served at Bertie’s party were not on the menu for the lunch party that day. Nor were they disguised as crudités – false colours under which carrots frequently aspire to travel; they were simply absent. Rather, there were Italian sausages, haggis parcels (haggis concealed in filo pastry), and quantities of smoked salmon. The juvenile palate was catered for through the provision of lashings of ice cream topped with chocolate sauce and a large, sickly cake, dyed green and orange. This was consumed with gusto by the children, particularly by Tofu, who ate six slices, and was copiously sick (in green and orange). Ulysses was sick too, as was Ranald Braveheart Macpherson – in his case from sheer excitement. It was, everybody agreed, a great success.
The conversation was good, as it always was at Domenica’s parties. Sister Maria-Fiore dei Fiori di Montagna excelled herself, coming up with observations on more or less the entire range of subjects discussed, including opera. “The important thing to remember about opera,” she observed to Roger Collins, “is that it is sung.”
Roger considered this for a moment before saying that he thought this was undoubtedly true.
“I’m glad you agree with me,” said Sister Maria-Fiore dei Fiori di Montagna.
Other subjects were subjected to similar analysis, and while this was happening the children went out into Drummond Place Gardens. Finlay, Big Lou’s foster child, got on very well with Bertie, who felt that he had, in Finlay, at last found a true friend and ally. Sensing this, Tofu challenged Finlay by attempting to push him over, but was himself gently but firmly thrown to the ground by Finlay, who uttered the additional verbal warning: “Watch your step, Fish Paste.” Ranald Braveheart Macpherson, who had lived so long under Tofu’s heel, was particularly pleased by this exchange.
They went back inside for Irn Bru, and shortly afterwards Angus, having been asked to deliver his usual poem, stood up and smiled at Bertie. “This time, it’s for you Bertie. It’s a poem for your birthday. Turning seven is not easy – and you have accomplished it at last – and with such grace.”
Bertie inclined his head modestly as the poem began...
“Of the tendency,” Angus said, “of things to get better
Dogs and the optimistic are usually convinced;
Others, perhaps, are more cautious:
When I was your age I remember
Thinking that most of life’s problems
Would be over by the next day;
I still think that, I suppose,
And am often pleasantly surprised
To discover that it is occasionally true;
Thinking something, you see,
Can make it happen, or so we believe,
Though how that works, I doubt
If I shall ever find out.
From your perspective, where you are
Is probably the only place
It is possible to be; some time soon
You will discover that we can, if lucky,
Decide who we shall become.
A word of warning here:
Of all the tempting roles
You will be offered, being yourself
Is unquestionably the safest,
Will bring the most applause
Will make you feel best;
Grease paint, dear Bertie, is greasy:
Leave it to the actors;
The most comfortable face to wear,
You’ll find, is your own.
So what do I wish for you?
Freedom? I imagine
You know all about that
Even if so far you’ve had
To contemplate it from a distance.
I could think of other things;
I might wish, for example,
That you should be whatever
You fervently want to be: a sailor,
A fireman, an explorer?
You may live, you know,
To seventy-seven and beyond:
What, I wonder, will Scotland
Be like seven decades from now?
I’ll never know, but what I wish
Is that some of it will be left for you,
Some of the things we’ve loved.
Happy Birthday, then, Bertie:
Be strong, be thoughtful;
Don’t be afraid to cry, when necessary:
In operas, as in life, it is the strong
Who are always the first to weep.
Be kind, which you already are,
Even to those who deserve it least;
Kindness, you see, Bertie, is a sort of love,
That is something I have learned,
And you’ll learn too if you listen
To the teacher we all should trust:
The human heart, my dear, the human heart,
Where kindness makes its home.
When Angus finished there was silence. Silence, like space in a great painting, can be so eloquent, can be so very important, can be the bit we remember.
The story so far...
UP TO EPISODE 67
A phone call from the Foreign Office informs Stuart that Irene has been mistaken for one of the new wives of a Bedouin leader and carted off to the desert, and that the Dubai authorities reckon negotiations for her return might take weeks, or even months. He decides to keep the news from Bertie, telling him instead that his mother has decided to spend a bit more time in the desert. But as the children gather at Holy Corner for their cub scout weekend in Ardnamurchan, Olive tells Bertie that, according to the Evening News, his mother has been seized by a desert sheik and is being held prisoner in a harem...
UP TO EPISODE 69
Tofu, of course, knows all about the Glencoe Massacre, and delights in telling everybody on the cub-scouts’ coach about it as thy pass the site of the tragedy. Ranald Braveheart Macpherson says little at the time, but after he and Bertie have pitched their tent, seems too frightened by the misdeeds of the Campbells to go to sleep until Bertie gives him a reassuring hug. Back at the Canny Man’s in Edinburgh, Pat looks like she could do with reassurance too – not because of anything Michael has said but because she is so embarrassed by her father’s new girlfriend, Anichka. Why can’t he see how crude and vulgar she is?
UP TO EPISODE 71
Pat goes back with Michael to his flat. It’s small, but delightful, and from looking around she can deduce that he has great taste in music, and that he is a good cook, and that he reads poetry. A card on the mantelpiece reveals something else – that he had a fiancee who died just over a year ago.
Up on Ardnamurchan, before the rest of the cub-scouts have even thought of breakfast, Tofu tells Bertie that he has discovered a dinghy moored on Loch Sunart just below the campsite. He persuades Bertie and a reluctant Ranald Braveheart Macpherson that it would be a good idea to go for a sail. And so perhaps it would have been, if any of them knew how to sail. Instead, the three boys find themselves heading out to sea without any idea how to get back.
UP TO EPISODE 73
The wind is blowing from the east, so the boys find themselves heading out towards the Atlantic. Even when they run aground on what Bertie reckons must be the Cairns of Coll, Ranald doesn’t stop worrying: first of all fearing that Tofu is going to throw him overboard, then that he might be attacked by the Campbells. As it happens, he’s rescued by them: the skipper of the boat towing them back to Loch Sunart introduces himself as Captain Campbell. In 44 Scotland Street, meanwhile, Domenica’s friend Dilly Emslie has an idea about what to do with Sister Maria-Fiore dei Fiori di Montagna: why not launch her into Edinburgh society?
• 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 email@example.com.
© 2013 Alexander McCall Smith