Scotland Street Volume 15, Chapter 30: What Tam didn’t do

On that very first dinner with Fat Bob, Big Lou felt that she had done the right thing in accepting his invitation to join him for dinner at an Indian restaurant in Leith. He had invited Finlay as well, and she had been touched by that. There were few men, she thought, whose face might not fall, even slightly, on finding out that the person whom they were inviting out was encumbered by a young child; Fat Bob’s insistence that Finlay should join them on this outing had been as sincere as it was spontaneous. “Of course he must come,” he said. “I imagine he likes Indian food – poppadoms and so on. He can have as many of those as he likes.”

44 Scotland Street

Big Lou had smiled. “He loves poppadoms. Of course, he goes for the milder curries – most youngsters do. But Indian restaurants understand that. They usually have a children’s curry somewhere on the menu – one of those dishes with plenty of yoghurt.”

Fat Bob agreed. “A strong curry is an acquired taste, isn’t it? You have to get used to it. I go for the milder curries myself, although my friend Tam can’t get enough of those really hot ones …”

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“Vindaloos?”

“Yes, that’s the stuff. The ones with the government health warnings. He loves those. You see the smoke coming out of his mouth.”

The meal had been a success. Fat Bob had been kind to Finlay, and the young boy had responded accordingly. Children, Big Lou knew, had an innate ability to understand when an adult was condescending to them and when they were addressing them as equals. Finlay had told Bob about his ballet lessons and Bob had revealed that he had gone to see Scottish Ballet perform Swan Lake in Glasgow and had enjoyed every moment of it. “Those people can dance,” he had said with admiration. “Boy, can they dance!”

Finlay had asked about his career in Highland Games, and he had told him about his first big win – a £50-prize purse in the Mull Highland Games, when he had first competed against the same Tam Macgregor who so enjoyed strong curries.

“I won the caber event,” Fat Bob said. “Tam was expected to win, as he had won at Mull the previous year, but do you know something? When I threw my winning throw, he came up to me and shook my hand. Straight away. Straight away he came up to me and he said, ‘Fat Bob, that was a great toss. I’ll no be able to match that, and that’s the truth.’”

“A true sportsman,” Big Lou observed. “Do you hear that, Finlay? That’s how you a gentleman behaves when he loses. He congratulates the winner – and he means it.”

“True,” said Fat Bob. “That’s the way to do it. Tam’s a good man. One of the best.”

There was something in the way he said this that gave Big Lou the impression that he was harbouring a reservation. And that was revealed on their second date – this time without Finlay, for whom Big Lou had been able to arrange a babysitter. On this occasion, they went to a bar at the west end of Princes Street before going to another Indian restaurant near Haymarket Station.

“Your friend, Tam Macgregor,” Big Lou began. “When you were telling Finlay about him the other day …”

“Aye?”

“I wondered if …”

He interrupted her. “You picked it up. Yes, there’s something.”

She waited. It seemed to her that he was uncertain as to whether to reveal whatever it was. But he did.

“Tam was up in Perth Sheriff Court. Three years ago.”

Big Lou frowned. She was not sure what to say.

“He was charged with an offence he didn’t commit,” said Fat Bob. “He was innocent.”

Big Lou said nothing. Fat Bob was obviously being loyal to his friend.

“I’m not just being loyal,” he said.

She felt that he had read her thoughts. “I wasn’t going to say anything,” she said quickly.

“His brother did it,” explained Fat Bob. “His brother, Stuart, pinched a police motorbike. It was a stupid thing to do, as the police don’t like it if you pinch their motorbikes.”

“I can imagine that,” said Big Lou.

Fat Bob nodded. “The found the motorbike at their mother’s house. It was hidden in the shed, under some sacking. It was Tam, though, who confessed. He was fined £300 and given one of these payback orders. He had to wash police cars for six months.”

“But why did he confess – if his brother did it?”

“Because of their mother,” Fat Bob said. “She has Parkinson’s and relies on the brother, you see. He’s the carer. If anything happened to him it would be really hard for the mother. Tam said they couldn’t risk the brother being sent to prison. The police were really cheesed off, you’ll understand, about their motorbike, and they may have pressed to make an example of him. Tam took the blame. Now he has the criminal record. But he’s really a good man – an honest, good man.”

Big Lou thought about this. He should not have confessed to something he did not do – that was called perverting the course of justice, she thought – but she could understand why he did it.

“Did their mother know about this?”

Fat Bob shook his head. “They managed to keep it from her. She’s never found out.”

“And the brother?”

“Stuart said he felt really bad about it. He didn’t want Tam to do it, but by then it was too late. Tam had made a statement to the police, and if he withdrew it, then they would be even crosser with the brother.”

Big Lou saw that. She remained puzzled, though, as to why the brother should have done something so ill-advised as to steal a police motorbike. Was it not clearly marked?

“Yes, it was,” answered Fat Bob. “But it was in Gaelic. You know how all police vehicles now have police written in Gaelic on them? They had done that with this motorbike, but had run out of space, and so they just had police in Gaelic on it – there wasn’t the space for the English translation. The brother said he didn’t know what it meant.”

Big Lou raised an eyebrow. “I find that hard to believe,” she said.

Fat Bob agreed. “So do I. I think the brother’s lying.”

“Could be,” said Big Lou. She gave the matter further thought. “It’s an odd way to make a statement,” she said. “Bringing motorbikes into cultural politics. A bit odd, don’t you think?”

“It’s making up for the wrongs of the past,” said Fat Bob. “It’s all to do with what happened after the Forty-Five. The attempt to obliterate Gaelic culture. Remember?”

“Yes,” said Big Lou. “I suppose points have to be made.”

They looked at one another, each aware, at that particular moment, that they were at an historical crossroads, when the past came back and met the present. Such a realisation can come to any of us, at any time, and in any place – including in an Indian restaurant when we are looking at the menu and trying to decide which of the curries are unpalatably hot and which are not.

© 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.