Scotland Street Volume 15, Chapter 33: Sleeping rough

Big Lou’s coffee bar had been a second-hand bookstore before she bought it, and with the purchase she acquired the complete remaining stock of books. She had disposed of some of these, bestowing on charity shops multiple copies of Edward Heath’s book on sailing, Delia Smith's cooking tomes, stained by countless splashes and splodges, and any number of out-of-date guidebooks. Books of a more challenging nature were transferred to her flat in Canonmills, where she methodically made her way through piles of titles on philosophy, history, and theology, while making occasional sallies into nineteenth-century poetry, biography, and popular psychology. Her formal education had been limited, but now she made up for that with her voracious reading and her openness to new ideas. The autodidact always fears that the knowledge that he or she has taken such pains to acquire may prove to be pointless; Big Lou had no such concerns. She thought that the more you knew, the better, even if your mind came to be filled with irrelevant detail. Big Lou had no desire to impress anybody with the breadth of her learning: scholarship, of whatever nature, was a good in itself, she thought.

44 Scotland Street

She had recently read rather a lot about life in Royal Navy, having reached that region of her bookshelves where books on naval history were to be found. She had already read three of Patrick O’Brian’s Jack Aubrey novels, and was saving up the remaining seventeen for a later date. These books were full of naval detail, and she soon learned the difference between aloft and aloof and between astern and athwart. She learned about what went on in the gunroom and the captain’s cabin, about beating to quarters and bagpiping the mizzen, and about how press-gangs captured men of marine experience as well as those who had no desire to gain marine experience. She had assumed that sailors now were all volunteers, and was alarmed to hear that Bob might have been cajoled into a life at sea.

Bob sensed her concern. “Don’t worry,” he reassured her. “I wasn’t going to let myself be forced into anything. I removed myself that night.”

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Big Lou was relieved. “You ran away?”

“Yes. I went along with Harry’s suggestion, trying to appear enthusiastic in case he should lock me in until such time as he could get me to the recruiting office. I waited until they had both gone to bed before I repacked my suitcase and slipped out of the flat. I tripped in the corridor, dropping my suitcase with a loud thud, and I froze where I was, in the darkness, my heart beating wildly in my chest. I thought my heartbeat alone would be enough to wake them up, but no sound came from their room, and I was able to make my escape.”

“Did you head for home?”

Bob said that he felt he could not do that. “It would have been a real humiliation to go straight home. Remember that I had gone off because I wanted to relieve my mother of a mouth to feed – if I returned, I would have achieved nothing and we would have been back where we started. No boy setting off on his life’s journey wants to come right back with his tail between his legs.”

Big Lou said that she could understand that. But where did he go? He was alone in Glasgow and he was only sixteen. Did he mean to sleep rough?

“That’s exactly what I had in mind,” said Bob. “I thought I might find a corner that might give me shelter somewhere. In a park, perhaps, or under a bridge. I thought that a big city like Glasgow was bound to have nooks and crannies where you could tuck yourself in. I knew that people lived on the streets – I had read about it in the papers – and I thought that I’d probably find a place to sleep if I poked about enough.

“I actually found somewhere quite quickly. I’d only been walking for half an hour or so –with no real idea of where I was going – when I found a yard behind a pub. It was the place where they stored the empty beer kegs and various other bits and pieces, but it had a small shed in a corner and this was unlocked. It was dark and it had a musty smell to it, but it was dry. Better than that, there were several old hessian sacks piled up in a corner, and that made a comfortable bed for me. I moved in there and then.

“When I woke up the next morning, I heard voices coming from the back of the pub. A man brought out a dustbin and a sack of rubbish. He stood in the middle of the yard and looked up at the sky, as if he was doing yoga. I held my breath. I thought that if he came into the shed I would simply push past him and run. It was not as if I was a thief, or anything like that – I was simply somebody who wanted to take advantage of an empty shed. I was not harming anybody.

“But there’s the thing, Lou. A lot of the things that people want to do can’t possibly cause any harm to other people, but they are still not allowed. Don’t you think that’s unfair? Don’t you think we should let people do the things they want to do as long as they don’t cause harm to any other folk? I believe that, Lou – I really do.”

Big Lou thought for a moment. “John Stuart Mill,” she said.

Bob looked at her. He was waiting for an explanation.

“Yes. What you said is exactly what a philosopher called John Stuart Mill said. I read a book on the subject.”

“Oh yes? So, he agrees with me?”

“You could say that. It might be better, though, to say that you agree with him. He said it first, you see. And he says that the only justification for exercising power over another – in a civilized community – is to prevent harm to others.”

“He’s dead right, Lou. This John Stuart … What’s the boy’s name? He was dead right, I think.”

Big Lou smiled. “John Stuart Mill. Well, there you are, Bob. Sometimes we do philosophy without knowing it, if you see what I mean.”

Bob held up his hands. “I’m no philosopher, Lou. I’m an ordinary working man.”

“Anybody can be a philosopher, Bob. You, me … anybody.”

He made a self-deprecating gesture. “Not me, Lou. I haven’t had the education.”

She wanted to say to him: never, ever sell yourself short. You can think just as clearly as any of them. And what is philosophy but common sense? Hadn’t there been a Scottish school of common-sense philosophy? Surely that would embrace people just like Bob? But there was so much we could tell people that we can’t tell them. That is what she thought.

“What happened next?”

“I’ll tell you, Lou,” he said. “I’ll tell you.”

© 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.