“Just think,” Stuart gushed. “Aberdeen! You’re a very fortunate boy, Bertie. There are lots of boys who would give anything to go to Aberdeen for three months.”
“Yes,” said Nicola. “Lots.”
Bertie had his eyes fixed firmly on the floor. “Name one,” he said.
Nicola glanced at Stuart. “Well, we weren’t thinking of anybody in particular. But that doesn’t mean that there aren’t lots of boys who would give their eye teeth to have the chance to spend three whole months at a different school.”
“Yes,” enthused Stuart. “Three months at another school will mean a whole lot of new friends. Just think of that.”
“I don’t want new friends, Daddy,” Bertie pleaded. “I’ve got Ranald Braveheart Macpherson. He’s my friend. He’s the best friend anybody could ever have.”
Stuart assured Bertie that he was second to none in his admiration for Ranald. “But it’s always good to have a bit of a change, you know, Bertie. Meeting new people broadens one's horizons. New people are exciting. You’ll have a lot of fun with your new friends in Aberdeen.”
“I have a lot of fun with Ranald,” said Bertie.
“Of course, you do,” said Nicola. “But Daddy has a point, you know, Bertie. New friends are always interesting.” She paused. “Aberdeen is a very friendly place, you know. It’s a bit like Glasgow. I know how much you admire Glasgow, Bertie – well, Aberdeen is very similar to Glasgow, I think.”
Bertie looked at his grandmother. Did she really believe that? Did she really think that Glasgow and Aberdeen were in the slightest bit similar? Was there something wrong with his grandmother? Was this the cognitive decline he had read about in one of Irene’s psychology books?
“I don’t think they are, Granny,” Bertie said politely. “You don’t find people like Mr O’Connor in Aberdeen, I think.”
Stuart forced himself to laugh. “Oh, Mr O’Connor – my goodness me – I’d forgotten all about him.” Bertie had met the late Lard O’Connor (RIP) in Glasgow when Stuart had mislaid their car there, and the meeting had made a deep impression on him.
Nicola took over. “Places have different merits, Bertie,” she said. “You wouldn’t want everywhere to be the same, would you?”
Bertie considered this. “But you’re the one who said Glasgow and Aberdeen were the same,” he pointed out. “You said that, Granny.”
Nicola sighed. “I was just trying to reassure you, Bertie. And what I said is a bit true, even if not completely true. Glasgow and Aberdeen have some things in common – and other things that are a bit different. What I’m saying is that you will find the equivalent in Aberdeen of things you might expect to find in Glasgow.”
Bertie looked unconvinced. “Are there polar bears in Aberdeen?” he asked.
Stuart laughed. “Good heavens, Bertie. Where on earth did you get that idea? No, there are no polar bears in Aberdeen. It’s in the north, but not that far north.”
Something else was bothering Bertie. “Will I get enough to eat?” he asked.
Stuart and Nicola exchanged glances. Poor little boy – how prey were children to the most extraordinary insecurities.
“Of course you will,” said Stuart. “Mummy will be looking after you. You know what a good cook she is.”
This was quite untrue, and all of them knew it, including Bertie; Irene was completely incompetent in the kitchen. But it was not his mother’s lack of cooking prowess that was worrying him – it was the general question of what would be available.
“Ranald said that everybody thinks they’re mean,” Bertie explained. “Ranald said that people in Aberdeen can survive for a whole month on three plates of porridge. He said that there has been research on this. He said that it’s because they don’t like spending money. They save on food.”
“That’s absolute nonsense, Bertie,” exclaimed Stuart. “People in Aberdeen are not mean, Bertie. They are the most generous, warm-hearted, joyful people you could possibly hope to meet.”
Nicola gave Stuart a sideways look.
“And Ranald says it’s very cold,” Bertie continued. “He said that they won’t spend money on heating their houses.”
“Nonsense,” said Stuart.
“Ranald says that people in Aberdeen don’t need to buy fridges,” Bertie continued. “He said that food keeps for ages in Aberdeen.”
“Pure nonsense,” said Stuart. “Ranald clearly doesn’t know what he’s talking about.”
Bertie became silent. Then he said, “I don’t want to go, Daddy. I don’t want to upset Mummy, but I think it’s best if I didn’t go. I’m very happy here with you and Granny, and even with Ulysses. I don’t see why I have to go to Aberdeen.”
Stuart tried to explain. “Mummy loves having you with her, Bertie,” he said. “She’s keen that you go and spend some time with her. She thinks you’ll love Aberdeen and you’ll have great fun together.”
Bertie shook his head. “I won’t, Daddy. I really won’t. I like being here with you – and with Granny. I like being in my own room. I like going to Valvona & Crolla. I like having my own room and all the things in it. I’m really very happy, Daddy.”
“I’m sure you are, Bertie,” said Stuart. “And let me tell you this: if it were up to me, you’d stay. But it isn’t entirely up to me, Bertie. Mummy is allowed to have her turn. That’s only fair, isn’t it?”
“Couldn’t she take Ulysses instead? Wouldn’t she be happy with that, Daddy?” It was, Bertie knew, a vain hope. Ulysses, with his regurgitation and his smells, was not everybody’s cup of tea, and certainly not his mother’s.
“But …” Bertie stopped. It was hard for him to go on. He knew that there was nothing that he could do to stop his being sent to Aberdeen. He had never – not once in his life – been able to stop the things that happened to him. They simply happened, as if ordained by some cosmic force, some destiny, that was beyond him to influence. In that respect, he felt as any small child feels. He knew he would not like Aberdeen, even if it was only for three months, and three months, people said, could go quite quickly.
He was content in Edinburgh. He was happy at school, in spite of the terrible people in his class – Olive and Pansy, whose delight, it seemed, was to taunt him at all points; Tofu, whose criminality in all matters lay just below the surface, and who put pressure on Bertie to bring sausages to school so that he might purloin them; Larch, who was generally unpredictable; Luigi, who had recently joined the school from a Montessori School in Palermo, who had set up a small protection racket in the playground and who spoke, darkly, of his cousins upon whom he could call if thwarted. There were others, of course, of whom the adult world, in its innocence, was quite unaware. In spite of all that, Bertie was happy and he saw no reason why his life should be turned upside down, simply so that his mother could show him off to her new friends. He was not a Pinocchio, an animated toy on strings. He was a boy, and he wanted to stay with his dad, of whom he was so proud.
He looked at his father, willing him to declare that there was a change of plan and Bertie could stay where he was, in Scotland Street. But Stuart came up with no such statement.
© 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.