He seemed taken aback by the question – as if he were surprised that anybody should take any interest in him.
Big Lou smiled encouragingly. “Yes, Bob. You’ve told me about Mags, but what about you?”
He still seemed surprised. “You want to know about me, Lou?”
She was taken by his modesty. “Unless you’re in a hurry to get away.” She glanced at her watch. There were still fifteen minutes before her normal opening time.
“There’s not much to tell,” he said. “I’m not one of those people who’ve done very much. Not really.”
Lou pointed to his empty plate. “Could you manage another bacon roll? On the house?”
Bob grinned. “Now I know why they’re legendary,” he said.
Big Lou took a container of bacon out of the fridge and put two generous rashers into the grill. From the high-stool on which he had seated himself, Fat Bob watched Big Lou at work.
“I tell myself that eating bacon rolls is part of my job,” he said. “That makes me feel a bit better. Somebody said I could claim them against tax.”
Big Lou smiled. “I doubt that, Bob. The tax people don’t like you claiming things that you need anyway, if you see what I mean. You need food whatever you do. They don’t treat food as a business expense.”
Bob frowned. “But I was told that I could claim extra food. There’s the stuff I need to keep alive – that’s not an expense as far as the tax people are concerned. All right. But the food that you need to build up strength for the job, so to speak – that’s different.”
Big Lou waited for an explanation.
“You see,” continued Fat Bob, “I need to have extra energy for my job. I’m a professional strongman.”
Big Lou could not conceal her astonishment. “Professional …” She did not complete the sentence. She had not anticipated the effect that his announcement had on her. Had Fat Bob said that he was a builder, or a driving instructor, or a pastry chef – or anything of that sort – she would have not thought much about it. But a professional strongman was quite different, and considerably more interesting than any of those other, unexceptional occupations.
“You mean you … you tear up telephone directories? That sort of thing?”
Fat Bob laughed. “Oh, Jeez, Lou – there’s more to than that. I go to Highland Games.” He reeled off a list of Highland events. “Strathmore. Deeside. The Braemar Gathering. Inverary. Mull. The whole circuit.”
Big Lou put a hand to her forehead in a gesture of realisation. “Of course,” she said. “Of course. I should have guessed. You’re one of those fellows who goes around winning prizes for tossing the caber and so on.”
“Hoping to win prizes,” Fat Bob corrected her. “But that’s not guaranteed. There are a quite a few of us who are professional. I don’t always win. Sometimes it’s Wee Eric or Billy Mactaggart – people like that. Then there’s a young guy from Lochearnhead who’s doing rather well these days. He works for the South of Scotland Electricity Board. That’s how he discovered his talent.”
Big Lou did not see the connection.
“Electricity poles,” explained Bob. “He was working with those big poles they use for electricity wires. You know the sort? Telephone poles, they used to call them.”
Big Lou nodded. “And he …?”
“Yes. They found that he was good at moving these things. If they wanted a pole moved from one place to the other, this guy just picked it up and threw it. Amazing. He’s called Jimmy Wilson. Not a particularly large fellow, and still in his early twenties. But pure muscle. Built like a tractor.”
“And the hammer?” asked Big Lou. “You throw that too?”
“Yes,” said Bob. “I do caber and hammer. I actually prefer the caber, but I won several big hammer events last year.” He paused. “You don’t think I’m boasting, Lou? You did ask me.”
She reassured him. “Of course not. I’m interested – that’s all. How much does that hammer weigh, by the way?”
“Twenty-two pounds,” said Bob. “These things are all strictly controlled. It’s sixteen pounds for the women’s events. There’s Lilly Mackay at the moment – she’s from Inverness. Great lass. Big quads. She’s the one to watch when it comes to the hammer. I wouldn’t get on the wrong side of her.”
The bacon roll was ready, and Lou passed it over to Fat Bob. He leaned over the plate and sniffed. “This is the first thing you get when you get to heaven,” he said. “A bacon roll.”
Lou laughed. She had been right, she thought. Fat Bob was fun.
“Yes,” said Bob, as he took his first bite out of the roll. “It’s a very well-regulated sport. And there’s no cheating. Most sports these days are full of cheats – aren’t they? And people who are too competitive. Look at Formula One racing. Look at it, Lou. They do their team-mates down all the time. Cut corners. All that stuff. It’s not a sport for gentlemen.”
Lou noted his use of the word gentlemen. It was an unfashionable word, and only used apologetically, in most cases. But she knew what he meant, and she was pleased that he was not embarrassed to use a word that was widely sneered at. Big Lou believed that it was still a good thing to be a gentleman, which involved treating other people with courtesy and consideration. That was all that it entailed.
She looked at Far Bob. He was a gentleman. That was perfectly apparent.
“The caber weighs even more,” Fat Bob was saying. “It’s between one hundred and one hundred and eighty pounds. And there are regulations about its length.”
“How long is it?” she asked.
“Between sixteen and twenty-two feet,” said Bob, as he swallowed the last of the bacon roll. “That was terrific, Lou. And are you sure I can’t pay?”
Big Lou politely refused his offer.
“In that case,” said Fat Bob. “Would you let me buy you dinner? This evening? No notice, of course, but …”
Big Lou hesitated. “I have a wee boy,” she said. “I can’t.”
Fat Bob stared at her directly. “Have you got a man, Lou? I’m sorry if …”
“No,” she said quickly. “I’m single. But there’s Finlay, you see.”
“Bring him along,” said Fat Bob. “We can eat early. Six o’clock. Seven. There’s an Indian restaurant down in Leith that I like. Does he like Indian food?”
“He loves it,” said Big Lou.
She turned round, so that he should not see the emotions within her. That she had been sent a man like this, and that he should be prepared to include Finlay in their date, was more than she could ever have dared hope for. Big Lou had been unlucky in matters of the heart, but runs of bad luck came to an end – statistically, that was more likely than not – and now, perhaps, her own turn for happiness had at last arrived.
© 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.