44 Scotland Street: The innocent games of the innocent

Illustration: Iain McIntosh
Illustration: Iain McIntosh
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The seventy-third installment of Alexander Mccall Smith’s daily novel

Volume 9

Picture: Submitted

Picture: Submitted

Episode 73

The innocent games of the innocent

Bertie returned unscathed from the cub scout expedition to Ardnamurchan. The ill-fated trip to the Cairns of Coll that he made with Tofu and Ranald Braveheart Macpherson had not had the serious consequences it might otherwise have had. For some reason their absence from breakfast had gone unnoticed – such was the general excitement – and by the time they were eventually missed they had been landed by their rescuer and were making their way up the brae to the camp ground.

The boys agreed that nothing would be said about their experience. “There’s no point making adults worried,” said Tofu. “You know how anxious they get over nothing.”

Both Bertie and Ranald Braveheart Macpherson remained silent over this. Ranald opened his mouth to speak, but was warned off by Tofu, who leant towards him in a way that was unambiguously threatening.

“Agreed, Ranald?” growled Tofu.

Ranald nodded. He did not express the wish he privately felt, and had whispered to Bertie, that Tofu had taken the boat by himself and had been blown over to the Outer Hebrides, possibly never to return. But such sentiments had no effect on his, or on Bertie’s enjoyment, of the next few days, and when the time came to return to Edinburgh they were in a state of complete bliss.

When the bus arrived back in Edinburgh, Stuart and Ulysses was waiting to meet Bertie. On seeing his brother, Ulysses let out a shriek of delight and waved his tiny arms about hysterically.

“You see,” said Stuart. “He’s been missing you, Bertie.”

“I think he needs changing,” said Bertie, wrinkling his nose.

“All in good time,” said Stuart.

“And is Mummy still …” Bertie’s voice trailed off.

“She’s still in the desert, Bertie,” said Stuart. “They say it might be as long as three months.”

Bertie absorbed this information stoically. The true period, which Stuart did not communicate to Bertie out of sensitivity to his feelings, was six months – or so the Foreign Office had recently revealed. They had been in touch with the Bedouin sheik who was holding Irene and he had disclosed that he was in no hurry to release her. Apparently Irene had organised a book club for the wives in the harem, and this had proved immensely popular. The sheik, who was used to grumbling wives, was pleased with the relative peace that prevailed in the harem and was under no inclination to bring it to an end.

As they made their way back to Scotland Street, Stuart mentioned a conversation that he had had with Angus on the stair.

“I was talking to Mr Lordie, Bertie” he said. “He had been taking Cyril for a walk. I think Cyril is missing you – he looked around my feet just to check that you weren’t somewhere there.”

“He’s a very good dog,” said Bertie.

Stuart nodded. He wondered whether it was hard to be a good dog – whether they had to make a moral effort – or whether it came naturally. Was human goodness natural? He looked at his son; he was naturally good, he thought, but no doubt the world, alas, would chip away at that as he got older. The doctrine of original sin, Stuart had always thought was an utter nonsense – a miserable notion, full of fear and negativity about human nature; if anything we arrived in this world, he thought, endowed with original goodness rather than burdened with evil.

“Mr Lordie made a very interesting suggestion,” said Stuart. “I thought I’d run it past you, Bertie.”

Bertie looked at his father expectantly.

“He had heard that your birthday party had never really got off the ground,” said Stuart. “What with Mummy being very busy and then having to go off to Dubai at short notice. So he wondered whether you would like to have it at the same time that he and Domenica have a little party they’ve been planning. You could ask your guests and they could ask theirs. Mr Lordie would open up the Drummond Place Gardens for you and your friends to play whatever it was you wanted to play.

“Chase the Dentist?” asked Bertie excitedly. “Could we play that, Daddy?”

“Of course,” said Stuart.

“And Greeks and Turks?” asked Bertie. “Could we play that one as well? We’ll need some mud for that.”

“How do you play it?” asked Stuart.

“Well,” said Bertie, “you have two sides, see? And one side are the Greeks and the other side are the Turks. And they shout at each other. You shout “Horrid Turk!” and then the Turks shout “Horrid Greek!” And then they throw mud and hit each other – not hard, just pretending – until somebody shouts “European Union!” and they stop. Then somebody shouts: “European Union Over!” and it all starts over again.”

“What fun,” said Stuart. “I’m sure we can arrange that.”

“And could we play Campbells and Macdonalds too?” asked Bertie.

“Yes,” said Stuart. “If there’s time.”

“I think it’ll be really good fun,” said Bertie. “When will it be?”

“On Saturday,” answered Stuart. “It will be a sort of lunch for the adults and you and your pals can have a separate lunch …”

“Of sausages?” interjected Bertie.

“Yes. Sausages,” said Stuart.

The question of the guest list was then discussed. “Do I have to have Olive?” asked Bertie.

Stuart shrugged. “Not if you don’t want her to be there, Bertie. It’s up to you.”

Bertie frowned. He was a kind boy, and he did not want to hurt Olive’s feelings. Perhaps she could come, after all, but would find it difficult to order him around if she were outnumbered by boys.

“She can come if she wants to,” he said at last. “And she can bring Pansy too. But no other girls will be allowed.”

“Fair enough,” said Stuart. He paused. “What about your friend, Tofu?”

Bertie hesitated. “He can come,” he said. “And so can Ranald. But not Larch or Eck.”

Again Stuart readily agreed. “There’s another boy you might like to ask,” he said. “Big Lou – you know that woman with the coffee shop, round the corner – she’s looking after a boy of about your age. He’s called Finlay, I’m told. I hear he’s very nice. It would be good to have him along, don’t you think?”

“Yes,” said Bertie. “He can come.”

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?

© 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