Scotland Street Volume 15, Chapter 12: The story of Mags

Fat Bob, having eaten his bacon rolls, paid the six-pound bill entirely with fifty-pence coins. These were extracted from a wallet that he produced from his back pocket. The wallet was tartan, and had been engraved with Bob, and, beneath that, with a lover’s heart symbol, complete with Cupid’s arrow. Big Lou’s eye was caught by this, and Fat Bob noticed.

44 Scotland Street

“Nae doot about who that wallet belongs to,” he said, winking at Lou. “That’s my tartan, you see. Macgregor, of course.”

Big Lou nodded. She pretended to busy herself with wiping the coffee bar counter. “It’s bonny.” And then she added, rather absently, “Macgregor. Of course. Macgregor.”

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She had been dismayed to see the heart. That suggested that somebody had given the wallet to Bob – somebody who loved him sufficiently to have his name engraved, along with a heart. That meant a girlfriend or wife, and Big Lou suddenly felt that she did not want this man to have a wife or girlfriend. She did not stop to ask herself why; she just did not want him to have somebody else.

“And the … the heart?” she stumbled on the word. All the men I meet are taken, she thought. There are no men left. None.

Bob laughed. “Oh that. That was a long time ago.” He paused. “It doesn’t mean anything.”

She saw a faint glimmer of hope. “You were married?”

Bob shook his head. “Never quite married. Almost.”

“Engaged?”

This brought a similar shaking of the head. “Never quite.”

She looked away. She did not want Bob to see that this disclosure had pleased her.

“She was a great girl,” he said, in a voice tinged with regret. “Mags, she was called. We had something going – we really did. And then …” He shrugged. Now he was wistful. “Her career got in the way.”

Big Lou sighed. “A familiar story.” She wondered what Mags had done.

“She was doing so well,” Bob continued. “She had to make a choice, I suppose. And I can’t blame her, to be honest. If I had been in her position, I would probably have done the same.” He fixed Big Lou with an intense look. “You never know what you’re going to do until the chips are down. Then …” He shrugged. “Who knows how they’ll react?”

Big Lou made an understanding noise. Then she said, “Of course, it depends on what the career is, doesn’t it? Some things you can shelve for a few years and then take them up again – others you can’t. What do they say: there’s a tide in the affairs of men?”

“Aye,” said Fat Bob. “You can say that again. You have to make a choice or you may lose

a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. That’s what happened to Mags.”

Big Lou waited, but it seemed that further information was not going to be vouchsafed.

“What was it?” she asked.

Bob’s tone was matter-of-fact; it was as if Mags had pursued the most mundane of occupations. “Weight-lifter,” he said.

Big Lou’s eyes widened. “Weight-lifter?”

“Aye. She was the Scottish champion – female, of course. And she would have been European champion if it weren’t for the fact that one of the Russians cheated. She was entered as a woman but she was really a man – people heard her being called Ivan. That’s a man’s name in Russia, you know. A dead giveaway. In fact, Mags inadvertently came across her in the showers at one competition, and she saw that he was definitely a man. She said you don’t get things like that wrong – usually.”

“Did she complain?”

Fat Bob nodded. “She went to the organisers of the competition and told them what she had seen. They made enquiries but were met with a blank denial. They said it was bad sportsmanship on Mags’ part. So nothing was done.’

“That must have been hard for Mags.”

Fat Bob agreed. “She was pretty cut up. But then she got this offer, you see, and she accepted. It was a weightlifting scholarship to a university somewhere near Boston. That’s in America. You heard of the place?”

Big Lou nodded.

“It has a great reputation, they say. And they offered Mags full tuition fees and living expenses. How could she say no?”

“I don’t think she could,” said Big Lou. She wondered what Mags had studied. “And her degree?”

“Oh, that’s nae bother with these scholarships. You register for whatever you like – either that, or they allocate you to some programme where they don’t have enough students. That’s not the important part.”

“So what was it?”

“Philosophy,” said Fat Bob. “Mags liked it. She had always been an ideas sort of person, and philosophy was just right for her.”

“Very fortunate.”

“Yes, and Mags found that they didn’t mind too much if she didn’t go to any lectures – they said they would tell her what they were about later on. What they really wanted her to do was to lift weights and, in particular, to win against a place called Yale. Have you heard of that place?”

“Aye,” said Big Lou. “Yale.”

“She spent a lot of time practising. She went to some classes, she said, but she used to sit at the back and lift those small portable weights while the professor was talking. Nobody minded, she said, because they all knew that she was their big hope to beat Yale, and they were in on it – the professors, the works.”

Big Lou said nothing. She had a deep respect for education, and she would have leapt at the opportunity to go to university, although she would much prefer Aberdeen to this Boston place. Had she been in Mags’s position, she would have made use of the academic opportunity and immersed herself in her studies. But nobody would ever offer her a scholarship to anywhere, and so all that was hypothetical.

“What happened to her?” she asked. “Did she come back to Scotland?”

Fat Bob shook his head. “No,” he said. “She stayed in the US. She took a job teaching at Princeton. She runs a course called Intellectual Heavy Lifting. It’s very popular, I’m told. There’s always a waiting list.”

“Will she ever come back to Scotland?” asked Big Lou.

Fat Bob looked doubtful, perhaps rather regretful. But then he brightened. “I don’t think so. But she was a great woman,” he said. “One of the very best, – and I miss her an awful lot. Right here.” He placed a hand across his chest. “A man needs a woman, you know, Big Lou. He needs somebody to go through life with – know what I mean? Just to share things with. Have a laugh with – that sort of thing.”

Me, thought Big Lou. Me.

© 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.