He turned to her, as if surprised that anybody should come to open up the café.
“This your place?” He spoke in an accent that was familiar to her – Dundee perhaps.
She nodded. “Aye, it’s my place.”
“You Big Lou then?”
Again, she nodded. “That’s what they call me.”
He looked at her and smiled. She saw that he had a tooth missing to one side, in the upper row. The effect was not unpleasant – giving him a slightly raffish, almost piratical look. But just as she noticed this, her gaze fell to the broad shoulders and the powerful, stocky build. This was a man who would be more at home on a building site, or the docks, rather than a New Town coffee bar. He was the size – and shape – of a large industrial fridge, and she found herself thinking that one could probably attach fridge magnets to him.
“They call me Fat Bob.”
Big Lou raised an eyebrow. Her inspection had continued, and had picked up the tattoo on his right forearm, just below his rolled-up sleeve. It was a large thistle, under the legend, SCOTLAND FOREVER. “Your friends?” she said. “That’s what your friends call you?”
Fat Bob shrugged. “Everybody. I don’t mind.” He grinned. “And it’s muscle, not fat.”
“Well,” said Big Lou, extracting her keys from the bag she was carrying. “Folk often get it wrong, don’t they?” She paused. “We’re not open yet, you’ll have seen. Eight o’clock.”
Fat Bob looked at his watch. Big Lou noticed that it was a large, round watch of the sort that sportsmen – or the slightly showy sort of sportsmen – liked to wear. She had heard Matthew describe such watches as Dubai Airport watches, and she had been struck by the description. Yet there was something unusual about this watch: it was a Mickey Mouse watch, with Mickey’s rotating arms being the hands.
Fat Bob intercepted her glance. “Aye, Mickey Mouse,” he said, a note of apology in his voice. “But I’ve always liked him.”
“Nothing wrong with Mickey Mouse,” said Lou. She hesitated for a moment. Then she said, “You can come in, if you like. I’ll get the coffee going – if that’s what you want.”
“I’ve heard about your bacon rolls,” said Fat Bob. “I’d like one of those. But no hurry, of course.”
Big Lou was pleased by the mention of her bacon rolls. Since James had come to work for her, their food menu had improved greatly, but the most popular item continued to be their bacon rolls. These were carbohydrate-rich rolls that made no concession to full-grains, in which two rashers of bacon were inserted, curling crisply at the edge, untrimmed of surplus fat, dripping in grease. When they were cooked, the smell permeated the coffee bar, pushing that of freshly-ground coffee into the background. And like the distant sound of the sirens on Scylla, this olfactory lure enticed people off the street and into the café. Some of this passing trade felt guilty, and would explain, as they placed their orders, that it was years since they had treated themselves to a bacon roll; that they otherwise had a perfectly healthy diet, consuming a lot of roughage and plenty of Omega-3 oil; and anyway, wasn’t there research somewhere that showed that one bacon roll a week was positively beneficial, in the same way as two glasses of red wine per diem (and, of course, per os) were – or was it that the two glasses of red wine would cancel the cholesterol-raising effect of the occasional bacon roll – something like that? And anyway, could I have my bacon quite crisp, if you don’t mind, and is that tomato sauce I see: I haven’t had that for years – for years! – or not since I was at school and we used to cover our chips with it – you should have seen us. We had such an unhealthy diet in those days, with all those e-numbers that went into everything. Mind you, nobody had allergies in those days, did they? It’s only now that people are developing all sorts of allergies because their food is so pure and their immune system is not getting the challenge it needs to build up a memory.
Big Lou unlocked the door and pushed it open. It occurred to her that it was perhaps slightly unwise to be letting this stranger into the coffee bar when there was nobody else around. What if he suddenly pushed past her, slammed the door behind them, and demanded money from the till? That sort of thing happened, she knew, because she had read about it recently in the Sunday Post, the newspaper on which she had been brought up, and still read each weekend, cover to cover, along with Scotland on Sunday and the Sunday Herald. A shopkeeper in Oban, of all places, had let a customer into his shop before normal opening hours and had been rewarded for his consideration with the theft of the entire contents of his safe.
She looked over her shoulder. Fat Bob was immediately behind her, but there was nothing in his demeanour that suggested malicious intention, and she relaxed. There was something about him that Big Lou liked. She did not like thin men – at least she did not like thin men in that way. Nor did she like men who took too much trouble with their grooming: men simply did not do that in Angus, where she had been brought up. There had been a man in the coffee bar recently who quite clearly plucked his eyebrows, and Big Lou had been unable to keep her eyes off them. What sort of man plucked his eyebrows? She was not sure how to answer her own question, but she was certain that Fat Bob would not do something like that: some men might be in touch with their eyebrows, she thought, but not him.
Fat Bob was looking around the coffee bar appreciatively. “Braw,” he said.
Big Lou smiled. Yes, it was braw. Of course, it was braw, and the fact that he used the Scots word to describe what he saw, further endeared him to her.
“I’ll heat up a bacon roll for you,” she said, as she went behind the counter, adding, “Two maybe.”
He thanked her. “You’re a great lass, Big Lou,” he said.
“Thank you, Bob …er, Fat Bob.”
The compliment was completely sincere. Fat Bob himself was completely sincere. He was authentic – in a way that only those who have never heard of Jean-Paul Sartre can be. Here was no hesitant aesthete; here was a man who could manage two bacon rolls, and who had a SCOTLAND FOREVER, not SCOTLAND PRO TEM, tattooed on his forearm.
© 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.