Alexander McCall Smith: Bertie’s Christmas Journey

Alexander McCall Smith, pictured in his native Edinburgh, resolves to one good deed a day (most of the time, anyway). Lorraine Kelly and Danny Alexander, both below, also share their resolutions for the New Year. Pictures: Phil Wilkinson/Getty
Alexander McCall Smith, pictured in his native Edinburgh, resolves to one good deed a day (most of the time, anyway). Lorraine Kelly and Danny Alexander, both below, also share their resolutions for the New Year. Pictures: Phil Wilkinson/Getty
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ALEXANDER McCall Smith’s 44 Scotland Street returns to The Scotsman next month (Jan 9th), but in the meantime, the Edinburgh author has provided us with a short Christmas story...

‘See that Mr Auden, Mummy?” said Bertie.

Irene looked up from her crossword. Auden? What was Bertie mentioning Auden for? He conquers all, a nubile tram – that odd, rather haunting line from Auden came back to her. Tamburlaine was the solution, of course, being an anagram of a nubile tram; not that one wanted to think about trams at the moment; not in Edinburgh where even the most discreet mention of trams could have the effect of killing an otherwise civil conversation stone dead. Mind you, Edinburgh trams was itself a promising phrase for an anagram: a thumbs grinder? Yes, that worked, and how utterly appropriate.

“What about Mr Auden, Bertie?” she asked. It pleased her that Bertie should talk about people like Auden at the age of six: a sign of the success, she felt, of what she called the Bertie project. No Winnie the Pooh or – shudder – Christopher Robin for him, thank heavens! She had always felt that that particular example of the genus Ursus was sexually suspect (arrested development) and as for Christopher Robin … he was the very embodiment of those smug social certainties of his class; so if Auden could replace AA Milne, then that was all very satisfactory.

“He liked trains,” said Bertie.

Irene frowned. Was that true? Did WH Auden really like trains?

“Yes,” said Bertie. “He wrote a poem called The Night Mail, Mummy. It’s all about a train that travels from London to Edinburgh at night. I saw some of it at the museum when I went there with Daddy. They were showing it. Mr Auden wrote the poem for it.”

“Of course,” said Irene. “I’d forgotten that. This is the night mail crossing the border …”

Bertie supplied the next line: “bringing the cheque and the postal order.”

Irene put down her crossword. “Well done, Bertissimo!” she said. “Mummy really appreciates it when you quote Auden, bambino mio.”

Bertie looked at her impassively. Auden was a means to an end; not an end in himself. “I like trains too,” he said.

Irene was cautious. “Yes, I believe you do. It’ll pass, of course.”

Bertie decided to make his bid. His mother was unpredictable; as a general rule she vetoed any plans he came up with, but he felt that if he came to the point by way of Auden or, better still, Melanie Klein, then there was always a chance that she might agree.

“See Ranald,” he went on. “Well, he …”

Irene interrupted him. “No need to say see at the beginning of every sentence, Bertie. That’s a very common way of speaking in Scotland, but we should avoid it. It demonstrates a paucity of vocabulary. It’s like saying like all the time.”

Bertie did not disagree; his mother, once launched on a crusade, could continue for hours if contradicted in any way. “Ranald’s dad is taking him to Aberdeen by train for a Christmas treat.”

Irene did not appear very interested. “Oh yes? And why are they going to Aberdeen?”

“To see the Christmas lights. That’s what Ranald says.”

Irene snorted. “Christmas lights in Aberdeen? A pretty peely-wally display, I should imagine, Bertie. Twenty-five watts at the most, I’d think. They don’t waste their electricity up in Aberdeen.” She paused. “Perhaps one should say that one goes to Aberdeen to see the Christmas light, singular.”

Bertie did not think this funny, but Irene smiled in self-appreciation.

“They’ve asked me to go with them,” Bertie blurted out. “They’ll pay for my ticket, Mummy. Ranald’s dad has got heaps of money. He keeps it in a safe. Ranald told me: Ranald say he’s found out the combination and can show me any time.”

Irene smiled wanly. “Ranald is that Macpherson boy isn’t he?”

“Yes,” said Bertie. “His full name is Ranald Braveheart Macpherson.”

Irene let out a hoot of laughter. “Really, Bertie that’s just too much! Braveheart! I ask you! We may as well call you Ossian. Bertie Ossian Pollock.”

“But that’s his real name, Mummy,” said Bertie.

“Oh, I can well imagine that,” said Irene. “People give their children the most extraordinary names. They call them after footballers, Bertie! Can you imagine? Or after some ridiculous singer – Kylie, and names like that. Ranald Braveheart Macpherson indeed!”

Bertie sat quite still. He loved trains; he loved them with all his heart, and yet he had never been further than Glasgow by rail, and here was an invitation to go all the way to Aberdeen, which seemed impossibly far away, and exotic; more exotic, even, than Dunfermline. The Glasgow trip had been with his father, when they had gone through to Queen Street to find their car, inadvertently left behind over there when Stuart, having driven through for a meeting, had returned by train. That had been such a wonderful journey, culminating in their meeting with Lard O’Connor († RIP) and that instructive visit to the Burrell Collection with Lard and his friend, Gerry. Now the prospect of going on a train again seemed to be fading rapidly as the prospect of a parental veto loomed.

“It’s just for the day,” Bertie said, his voice small and tentative. “Just one day, Mummy. And I promise to come back.”

Irene smiled. “Of course you’ll come back, Bertie. Why wouldn’t you come back to Mummy?”

Bertie could think of many reasons why he would not wish to return, but wisely refrained from listing them. He knew that he would eventually be eighteen and would be able to leave home and go off and live in Glasgow, or Paris. It was just a question of waiting; of waiting and enduring …

Irene picked up her crossword again. Let loose the military bureaucrats in reverse, a desirable state. Seven letters. Interesting.

Freedom, thought Bertie, longingly.

“Freedom,” said Irene suddenly. “Free and then MOD backwards. You see, Bertie. Freedom.”

“So can I go, Mummy?” He hardly dared ask, and the words, such small things for such big issues to depend upon, hung in the air, surely inaudible, he feared, to his mother immersed in her crossword.

“I suppose so,” said Irene, absent-mindedly. “Now then Bertie, here’s a clue for you. They go everywhere and yet get nowhere. Begins with a T, the second letter is R, and it ends with an S. Nine letters. What on earth can that be?”

Bertie could scarcely contain his excitement as the train pulled out of Waverley Station and rumbled slowly through Princes Street Gardens. He and Ranald, who had been allocated window seats, with Ranald’s parents occupying places on the aisle, pressed their noses against the glass, the surface of the window quickly becoming opaque with their breath. Bertie wiped away at the film of moisture with the cuff of his sleeve: the National Gallery of Scotland, the floral clock, the Ross Pavilion (or il padiglione Ross, as his mother called it), the statue of Allan Ramsay, the great red edifice of the Caledonian Hotel: he gazed at it all in wonder: this was the world, or the beginning of the world: beyond this lay Glasgow and the Clyde, and beyond that the islands and the great Atlantic. He felt suddenly free, and it was an exhilarating, almost intoxicating feeling.

“Just think,” said Ranald. “In two days it will be Christmas, Bertie. Two days! And I’m going to be getting loads of presents, Bertie; I always do.”

Bertie nodded, but was silent. Irene did not believe in Christmas and had banned the use of the word in their house. “From now on,” Irene announced, “this family will celebrate the approaching festival as Winter Solstice. That’s far less offensive.”

Bertie was puzzled as to why anybody should be offended by people celebrating Christmas. “But the Queen celebrates Christmas,” he said. “She has this big Christmas tree and she says Happy Christmas to everybody. I saw it, Mummy …”

“That’s entirely up to her,” said Irene. “What she gets up to into her own palace is her own business. For my part, I believe that we should be more prepared to make up for past cultural intolerance and hegemony, Bertie. Saying Happy Solstice will offend nobody. So that’s what we shall do.

He was pleased that Ranald would be getting so many presents – Bertie was a generous boy, and he rarely felt envious of the good fortune of others. But now he changed the subject, as he did not wish to focus on what he feared would be an almost present-free time for him. There would certainly be one or two books in his stocking – a new biography of Mozart, The Boy’s Book of Great Composers – that sort of thing. And oranges, of course; his mother, who was a great believer in vitamin C, was always happy to fill the stocking, now his Solstice Stocking, with oranges.

“Look!” he exclaimed. “Look, Ranald: the Forth Bridge!” In his excitement, forgetting his mother was not with him, he lapsed into Italian: “Eccolo, Ranaldo! Ecco il ponte del Forth!”

The train approached the bridge slowly. Bertie and Ranald crouched on their seats, wide-mouthed in wonder as the land fell away beneath them and the cold grey waters of the firth, impossibly far below, it seemed, took its place.

“There’s a famous film scene involving this bridge,” Ranald’s father said. “Kenneth More in The Thirty-Nine Steps. He gets out of the train and has to make his way over hanging onto struts.”

Bertie recognised the title. “I’m not allowed to read that, Mr Macpherson,” he said. “I wanted to get a copy out of the library, but my Mummy disapproved.”

Ranald’s father looked puzzled. ‘The Thirty Nine Steps? What’s unsuitable about that, I wonder?” He looked enquiringly at his wife.

“Attitudes, I think,” she said. “Some people think Buchan was a frightful reactionary.”

“But everybody was in those days,” said Ranald’s father.

Bertie explained. “My Mummy read something about Mr Buchan,” he said. “There’s a lady called Gertrude Himmelfarb who says that Mr Buchan was rubbish.”

It was selective, distorted reading on Irene’s part, but it was too much for Ranald’s mother. “Gertrude Himmelfarb can go and jump in a lake,” she said.

“Yes,” echoed Ranald Braveheart Macpherson. “Old Himmelfarb can jump in a lake.”

The journey continued. The Fife countryside, the fields brown under their winter stubble, stretched out on either side of the line; in the distance, the hills, dusted with snow, were white shapes against a sky that had become gunmetal grey, as heavy clouds stacked up on one another, presaging wintry showers. By Dundee, where the train stopped briefly to disgorge some passengers and to assume others, the first flakes of snow, tiny, fragile things, were fluttering against the train windows; by Broughty Ferry the snow had started to fall in earnest, throwing a sudden blanket across the land, drawing in horizons, filling the air with white. And when they reached Carnoustie, there was no Carnoustie to be seen; the train was now enveloped in the swirling embrace of a full-scale snowstorm – and a heavy one at that. The sound of the steel wheels changed as their progress slackened; within a few minutes of leaving Carnoustie behind, they slowed to walking pace, and then, with a lurch, a squealing protest of brakes, they stopped altogether.

The two boys stared out into the mirk. “I hope the driver can still see,” Ranald said. “He could get lost in all this snow.”

Bertie shook his head. “Trains can’t get lost, Ranald. They can only go backwards and forwards.” He paused, before adding, “Not sideways.”

Suddenly there was a crackling sound and the voice of the guard sounded through the public address system. “Ladies and Gentlemen,” he announced. “Unfortunately we’ve had reports of heavy snow drifts ahead and driver” – he used no definite article, as people will do when referring to those who know best, to nurse, for instance, or mother – “… and driver has decided that we can’t continue our journey. We shall have to return to Edinburgh.”

Bertie stared at Ranald in bitter disappointment. He had feared that something like this would happen; it had been just too good to be true to imagine that he could get as far as Aberdeen; that he would see the Christmas lights; that they would have the much-vaunted butteries that Ranald’s father – who originally came from Aberdeen – had promised they would have.

The train began to move backwards – a sign that all, indeed, was lost. Gradually it picked up speed, until they were hurtling along once more, the falling snow deflected to either side by their slipstream.

“Oh well,” said Ranald’s father. “Some other time. Maybe if we go up in the summer you can come with us, Bertie. I’ve promised Ranald that I’ll take him to Turriff.”

“There’s a statue of a famous cow there,” said Ranald. “It’s called the Turra Coo.”

“That’s right,” explained Ranald’s father. “It is one of the great heroic events of Scottish history, Bertie. The farmers had had enough of being pushed round by the Government. The Turra Coo became the symbol of their resistance.”

“Yes, Bertie,” said Ranald. “We’ll go and see the statue. The coo’s dead now.”

Bertie listened, and wondered what it would be like to have a Turra coo; perhaps in his case …

Ranald’s mother was watching Bertie. She leaned across the table and took his hand gently in hers.

“You look very disappointed, Bertie,” she whispered. “You wanted to go to Aberdeen very much, didn’t you?”

Bertie nodded. He had wanted it with all his heart – with all his heart.

“We’ll go,” said Ranald’s mother. And then, still holding his hand, she said, “I get the feeling, Bertie, that sometimes you’re a bit unhappy. A wee bit hauden doon maybe …”

Bertie looked down at the floor of the carriage.

“I tell you what,” Ranald’s mother continued. “When we get back to Edinburgh, we’ll be in good time to go to the fair in Princes Street. They have that Big Wheel there, you know. Have you ever been on one of those, Bertie?”

Bertie shook his head.

“Well, we’ll do that,” said Ranald’s mother. “And then we’ll go to the German Christmas Market near the Gallery. And we’ll buy lots of chocolate.”

“And some tablet?” asked Bertie. “Could we get some tablet?”

“Of course we can,” said Ranald’s mother. She paused, and then leant forward, over the table, so that she could whisper without being overheard. “Sometimes it seems to us that everybody else has a much better time than we do. That’s not always true, Bertie. You know that, don’t you?”

Bertie did not reply. He was convinced that everybody had a better time than he did; he was sure of it.

“The important thing, of course,” she continued, “is to remember that nothing lasts forever. That things will get better. They usually do, you know. They get better as you get a bit older.”

“When you’re eighteen?” asked Bertie.

“Yes. When you’re eighteen. And when you’re thirty, and forty too.”

“That’s really old,” said Bertie.

“It is,” she said. “The important thing is to go through life believing that things will get better. Then they do, you know. Not always, but much of the time. But let’s not talk about things like that. Let’s think of what we’re going to do later today. Think of being on that big wheel, and the view you’ll get from up there. It’ll be wonderful, won’t it?”

It would, thought Bertie. It would be wonderful indeed. There would be all those lights and the music drifting up from the skating rink below. And he would look down and see the German Market and maybe smell the chocolate and the tablet, and he would have his friend, Ranald Braveheart Macpherson, with him, at his side, and things would not be too bad after all. He could believe that, certainly, and perhaps it was true that by believing one thing, one can then believe another.

© Alexander McCall Smith

• Alexander McCall Smith’s hilarious new von Igelfeld novel, Unusual Uses for Olive Oil (Little, Brown, £14.99), is available now.

44 Scotland Street returns exclusively to The Scotsman in daily episodes starting on 9 January. The latest novel in the series, Bertie Plays the Blues (Polygon, £16.99), is also available now.