44 Scotland Street: The Scottish Enlightenment

44 Scotland Street’s Bertie Pollock, his father, and brother Ulysses pick up Bertie’s granny from the airport in this exclusive story by Alexander McCall Smith

Illustration: Ian Mcintosh

Bertie, his father, and Ulysses arrived in the hall where liveried drivers, some bearing small boards on which names were displayed, were waiting to whisk their charges off to their destination.

A driver from Gleneagles Hotel ­patiently waited for the Yamimoto Party – golf was their goal – while Stuart imagined a more prosaic day awaited a couple of accountants from London being met by a driver holding up a placard announcing Deloitte.

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“Should we not have a placard with Granny’s name on it?” asked Bertie. “Just so that she knows.”

Stuart laughed. “I think she just might recognise us, Bertie, whereas Mr Yamimoto and his friends won’t know the driver who’s taking them up to Gleneagles. That’s why he needs a sign.”

“But we haven’t seen her for ages,” persisted Bertie. “And she’s never even met Ulysses. She doesn’t know how ugly he is.”

“Poor wee Ulysses,” said Stuart, and then reprovingly to Bertie, “Your brother’s not ugly!”

Bertie looked down at his brother, strapped into his pushchair. He was fond of Ulysses, but he felt nothing could disguise the fact that he was a girning little boy who was prone to ­regurgitation.

“I’m not saying it’s his fault,” Bertie protested.

“It’s just that his face looks so funny. Olive said that she thought he was upside down when she saw him for the first time. She thought that his face was actually his bottom.”

Stuart made a dismissive gesture. “Olive is badly-informed,” he muttered.

“I told her he was the right way up,” Bertie continued.

“Good,” said Stuart. “Now perhaps we should concentrate. Passengers are ­beginning to come through and any moment we’ll see Granny. Pay attention, Bertie.”

They had only a couple of minutes to wait before Nicola emerged through the arrivals door. She was pushing a wheeled cabin bag, and she left this to one side as she opened her arms in ­delight.

Bertie, feeling himself being gently pushed forward by his father, hesitantly took the few steps that separated him from his grandmother.

“Bertie,” said Nicola, embracing the small boy. “Darlingest, dearest Bertie!”

Small boys are undemonstrative; small boys may freeze when enveloped by the arms of relatives; but on this ­occasion Bertie did not. He closed his eyes and took a deep breath. His grandmother smelled of perfume and aniseed.

She reached into a pocket of her jumper and extracted a small bar of ­Toblerone that she thrust into his hands. “I love this stuff, Bertie,” she said. “It’s got honey in it. Chocolate and honey is such a delicious combination.”

Bertie fumbled with the yellow cardboard and the silver wrapping paper beneath it. He sunk his teeth into the hard, delicious confection; she was right – he could taste the honey.

Nicola stood up again and embraced her son, planting a kiss on each cheeks.

“Stuart, my dear,” she muttered, and for a moment the tears that had welled up when she first saw Scotland from above reappeared.

“So this is dear little Ulysses,” she said, bending down to kiss the infant. “Oh dear, has he been sick?”

She dabbed at his front with a muslin cloth that had been lying on his lap. “Poor wee fellow.”

“He’s always sick,” volunteered Bertie, mumbling somewhat as his mouth was full of Swiss chocolate.

“Mostly he’s sick when he sees Mummy, but he’s still a bit sick even when she’s away.” He paused. “Mummy’s in the desert, you know.”

Nicola glanced at Stuart. “Oh well, there we are; that’s cleaned him up a bit.”

“We should pick up your cases,” said Stuart. “Carousel five.”

They moved across to the baggage carousel, where a number of Nicola’s fellow passengers were milling about, waiting for their suitcases to appear from behind an opaque flap of thick plastic.

“Look out for a large red suitcase,” said Nicola to Bertie, “and a medium-sized black one with a striped strap round it. You see if you can recognise them, Bertie. A 50p prize if you can.”

Bertie, whose pocket money had long been pegged by his mother at 20p a week, was immediately excited by the prospect of such riches.

“Can I hold Ulysses,” he said. “We don’t want him to be sick over everybody’s luggage and he’s never sick if I pick him up.”

“Yes, you may,” said Stuart. “But be careful with him – he’s getting a bit heavier. Don’t let him drop.”

“You dropped him once, Daddy,” said Bertie. “Remember? He landed on his head. It was in the kitchen.”

Nicola laughed. “They bounce, thank heavens. I dropped you, Stuart, when you were about two. It was at Kelso Races, and you landed on the grass and seemed perfectly happy.”

A warning light was suddenly switched on and a discordant siren sounded.

“Stand well back, Bertie,” said Stuart. “The luggage belt is about to move.”

Holding Ulysses was an effort for Bertie, and his arms were beginning to ache.

But Ulysses himself, for whom nothing was nicer than to be held by his much-admired older brother, was ­emitting satisfied cooing sounds, and this made Bertie determined to persist. Suitcases started to emerge.

There were many more people around Bertie now, including the members of a rowdy hen party who had travelled up from Stansted to spend a weekend in Edinburgh; a weekend of binge-drinking, of screeching in the streets, of tottering along the pavements from club to club on unsteady high-heels and clad in absurdly short skirts.

Stuart tried to control his visceral distaste; Essex girls, he thought, and then silently reproached himself; Edinburgh had people every bit as awful as these and they were just here to enjoy some harmless fun.

“I’m going to get seriously wrecked,” shrieked one of the girls, addressing her friends, but also all those standing round the carousel.

“First bar we get to!” This brought cheers from others of her party. “Wicked!” shouted another. “And I’m going to find a…”

The end of this statement of intent was drowned out by the delighted screeching that greeted it. Stuart heard a whining sound outside; a jet engine revving up, he thought, or the sound of Enlightenment philosophers, not to say John Knox himself, birling in their graves.

A large red suitcase hove into sight and Bertie, in the excitement of ­recognition, and in eager anticipation of his reward, put Ulysses down. On the ­carousel.

© Alexander McCall Smith, 2014