That evening, Big Lou was sitting in her second-floor flat in Canonmills, which had a distant view of the river, the Water of Leith, on its winding progress through the city towards its appointment with the sea. At her feet, on the floor of her living room, her adopted son, Finlay, was struggling to complete a large jigsaw puzzle. The theme was the Massacre of Glencoe, an unfortunate incident in Scottish history, portrayed here in a nineteenth century painting entitled How Not to Behave Towards Your Guests. Finlay was now attempting, without much success, to find a place for a piece that looked as if it came from a Campbell kilt. It was a 500-piece puzzle, and Big Lou had already had to speak to him on the need for patience in tackling jigsaw puzzles.
“It’s not simple, Finlay,” she said. “And it’s no good trying to force a piece to fit. That never works.”
As she said this, she reflected on the fact that this was advice that held for most things, not least for our personal lives. Forcing yourself to be something you were not was never entirely satisfactory, and was likely to lead to at least some degree of unhappiness. Very rarely, people got away with it – they acted a part and then, at length, discovered that the created persona had put down deep enough roots to become the authentic person. But for the most part, the result was more likely to be inauthenticity or bad faith. Big Lou had read Sartre, whose works were amongst the collection of books she had inherited when she bought the bookshop that became her café. She knew about existentialism, but was not convinced by the arguments around authenticity. These left so many questions unanswered, and in particular she wondered what existentialists had to say about those who felt authentic only when being cruel or exploitative. In other words, what was the essential merit in authenticity, if the self to which one was being honest was flawed in some way? Would it not be better overall to pursue an aspirational, pro-social ideal, even if that was something that you felt was not authentic to you? Was there a moral distinction between the authentically bad, on the one hand, and those on the other hand who were authentically bad but behaved in an inauthentically good way?
She thought of this as she gazed down at the spread-out puzzle. Finlay had finished a corner in which a sheepdog belonging to the unfortunate Macdonalds was cowering in a corner watching its owner being put to the sword. The artist had been particularly skilful in revealing the dog’s expression, which was one of abject terror.
“Poor dog,” she muttered.
Finlay looked up. “I wonder if the Campbells killed the Macdonald dogs too. Do you think they did, Lou?”
Finlay had called Lou by her first name from the beginning, when she had first fostered him. Now and then he had called her Mum, and her heart had leapt with delight when he did so, but he had always corrected himself, and she thought it best not to ask him to address her thus. If, in due course, he chose to make that change, she would quietly accept it, and rejoice in the bond that it created, but until then she would not raise the subject.
She addressed his question. “I doubt it, Finlay. The Campbells were certainly a ruthless bunch, but I don’t think they would have slaughtered the Macdonald dogs. Stolen them, perhaps, but not massacred.”
“There’s a boy at school who’s called Campbell,” said Finlay. “He says it’s not true. He says that the Massacre of Glencoe never happened. He said that the Macdonalds had stolen the Campbells’ cattle and they were just trying to get them back.”
Big Lou shook her head. “I’m afraid it did happen,” she said. “But I don’t think we should make too much of it, you know. A lot happened in history.”
She looked at her watch. It was time for Finlay to have his bath and then be tucked up in bed. He would have a story, of course – she was currently reading him The Wind in the Willows and they were at a crucial moment for Toad. Justice was about to be done, with reckless driving getting its comeuppance, and Big Lou found herself looking forward to each night’s chapter every bit as much as Finlay was.
“Ten minutes more with the jigsaw,” said Big Lou, “and then it’ll be time for your bath.”
But Finlay had had enough. “I’ll never finish this,” he said, tossing the problematic piece down on the ground. Then, getting to his feet, he suddenly leapt into the air, brought his toes together, separated then in a scissor movement of the legs, and landed back on his feet. Finlay studied ballet.
“Very neat,” said Big Lou, with a smile.
“And then there’s this,” said Finlay, quickly managing a further échappé and cabriole.
Big Lou smiled. “You’re making such good progress,” she said.
Finlay inclined his head in acceptance of the compliment. She watched him, and thought about how difficult it would have been for a boy like him in the time of her own childhood. She could not imagine any of the boys with whom she had been at school in Arbroath all those years ago being able to do what Finlay was doing and profess an interest in ballet. That would have been greeted by cries of derision, by ruthless teasing from the other boys, and by smirking looks of disapproval from the girls. Insults would have been hurled, each with a barb and a not-so-subtle innuendo, and the boy would have gone home each day with those hurtful words ringing in his ears.
How things had changed. Scotland was now simply a kinder place. And that was true of just about everywhere, except for those few countries, redoubts of old-fashioned machismo and reaction, where men strutted, where cruelty still reigned. And that kindness – how had it been brought into existence? The answer, Big Lou thought, was easily discerned: feminization. Scotsmen, previously encouraged to be strong and silent, afraid to cry, afraid to be seen to be weak, afraid to feel …Now released from the tyranny of their gender straitjacket, men had been allowed to be something different. Scotsmen can skip, Big Lou had read on a poster somewhere. Absurd; embarrassing, but it was true. They could.
She stopped herself. Men had become liberated by a side-wind to the liberation of women. Or some men had been transformed: she was not sure just how far this applied to her new boyfriend, Fat Bob. If there were indeed new Scotsman, then Fat Bob was definitely not one.
© Alexander McCall Smith, 2021. A Promise of Ankles (Scotland Street 14) is available now. Love in the Time of Bertie (Scotland Street 15) will be published by Polygon in hardback in November 2021.