Big Lou smiled. She remembered what it was like to be sixteen. You were still immortal then – just; your future was something that you would shape, and its possibilities stretched out before you.
“My mother had written to a cousin of hers,” Bob continued. “She lived not far from the river and my mother had asked her if I could stay with her for a few weeks while I found a job and some lodgings. She was called Cousin Josephine, I was told, and she was married to a man called Harry. Harry had a good job with a furniture company on Byers Road. They were good people, my mother said, and Harry might help me to find work. She was unwilling to ask him directly, but she was sure that he would do his best. He had been in the Navy, she said, and he was still in contact with a lot of his naval friends. He had influence.
“Their flat was above a laundrette. It was a nice enough place, I suppose. Some of those Glasgow tenements have ornamental tiles on their stair, and this was one of those. You know the sort, Lou? Those tiles with whirly designs?”
“Art Nouveau,” said Big Lou.
“If you say so,” said Bob, and grinned. “Anyway, I turned up there with my suitcase and my fourteen pounds and rang their bell. I had been excited and, as I said, quite confident when I arrived at the station, but now that was fading a bit. Now I was faced with explaining myself to people I had never met and on whom my future seemed to depend. Josephine was a relative, and might be expected to behave like one, but what about Harry? Why should Harry welcome a complete stranger into his house and be expected to help him to get a job. What could I do? I had no trade, no skills, and no real idea of what I wanted to do.
“Josephine answered the door. I’ll always remember her expression when she saw me. You know how people say They looked at me as if I was something the cat brought in? Do you know that expression, Lou?”
Lou nodded. “Aye, Bob. I know that one.”
“Well, that’s how she looked at me. I started to introduce myself and she said, ‘I ken exactly who you are. You’re Betty’s boy and your name’s Bob. I ken all that. And you’re to stay with us for a day or two, so you’d best come in.’”
“A day or two!” exclaimed Big Lou. “Oh, Bob, what an awful start.”
“Yes, it was. I didn’t say anything. I didn’t correct her and say that my mother had told me that it would be a few weeks – I did not feel that I could say anything, really – I felt that anxious. But anyway, she took me to a room at the back of the flat and showed my bed and the cupboard where I could store my clothes. Then she said that she and Harry would be having their tea in ten minutes and that I should come into the kitchen when I had unpacked my things and washed my hands.
“Harry was sitting at the kitchen table when I went in. He was reading the paper, and when I came in, he looked up and nodded. Then he went back to his paper. Josephine pointed to a chair opposite Harry’s. ‘We don’t speak at meals,’ she said. ‘Some folk do, as you may know, but not in this house, you’ll understand.’
“Harry looked at me sternly, as if to underline the warning. I said the first thing that came into my mind, which was ‘My ma says hello.’
“Harry turned to his wife. ‘So his ma says hello,’ he said to Josephine. Then he addressed me. ‘You tell her hello when you see her next, will you? You tell her that Harry and Josephine say hello.’
“I said that I would. I felt miserable. I had not asked to come to these people. This had all been arranged by my mother and had nothing to do with me. It would have been far better, I thought, if they had told my mother that it was inconvenient for me to come to stay with them. I could have found somewhere myself. I could have gone and asked somebody if they knew of a room to rent. That was the way that most people did things, I thought. Of course, I knew nothing of how things worked, but I thought I did. We all think that when we’re sixteen, don’t we?”
Big Lou frowned. “They were very unkind. Imagine treating a wee boy like that. Just imagine it. Shame on him, Bob – shame on him.”
“Thank you, Lou. Anyway, there I was, and somehow I got through the meal without crying. Boys are told that they’re not meant to cry. They still said that in those days, Lou. I think these days boys are allowed to cry, but it was different then. So I didn’t cry and I put up with it.”
“Did Harry do anything for you?” asked Big Lou. “Did he find you a job?”
Bob laughed. “The subject came up the following day. He asked me what I wanted to do and I said that I would do anything. This seemed to amuse him. He said that if you wanted to get anywhere in this life you had to know what you wanted to do. He said that if you didn’t know what you wanted to do, then that meant that you would never be good at anything.
“I asked him whether I might get a job in the furniture trade. He was very discouraging. He said that you needed skills to get into the furniture trade. He said that it took years to make a good French polisher or upholsterer. He said that he didn’t think that I would find anything there. Then he said, ‘Have you thought of joining the Navy?’ He said that he knew a chief petty officer who had something to do with recruiting and that he would have a word with him. I told him that I was not sure about the Navy, but he brushed my doubts aside. He said that a lot of people who signed up were unsure about it, but they quickly got used to naval life. It was a good career, he said, and they would teach you a trade if you were lucky. He said that he would speak to his friend and he was sure something could be fixed up. There would be a medical, of course, but he thought I looked strong and fit enough and that they would almost certainly take me. I should get a haircut before the interview, he said, and that he could take me to the barber the next day because he knew somebody who would cut hair half-price of you went after before ten in the morning.”
Big Lou was appalled. She did not like the sound of Harry. “Uncle Ebenezer,” she muttered.
Bob looked puzzled.
“It’s a familiar story,” Big Lou explained. “Young man has introduction to a relative. The relative tries to get him to fall down the stairs. Stevenson’s Kidnapped.”
“Nobody tried to make me fall down the stairs,” said Bob.
“Aye, but some stairs are metaphorical,” said Big Lou. She dwelt on the word metaphorical, allowing its syllables room to breathe. Words need air.
Bob looked at her with growing fondness. He loved big words almost as much as he loved big women.
© 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.