Bertie had chosen a visit to Valvona & Crolla’s delicatessen and restaurant. After that, he said, they might go on to the Museum in Chambers Street.
“Two very good choices, Bertie,” said Nicola.
“And I’d like Ranald Braveheart Macpherson to come with us,” added Bertie. “He’s my friend, you see.”
Nicola smiled. “I know that, Bertie. I know that Ranald is very important to you.” She paused. “And I imagine you’ll miss him badly.”
Bertie lowered his eyes, making Nicola immediately regret what she had said.
“Of course, three months will be over in a flash,” she gushed. “And before you know it, you’ll be back in Edinburgh. You and Ranald will be reunited again and you’ll have so much to tell him about all your adventures in Aberdeen. ”
Bertie was unconvinced. “Ranald may have another friend when I come back,” he said. “He’s bound to forget me.”
“Oh, I don’t think so,” said Nicola breezily. She wanted to sound as cheerful as possible, although she knew that what he said might prove to be true. Children were notoriously fickle in their friendships; we all remembered the pain we experienced when the friends of childhood found others to divert them. For many of us, it is our first experience of disloyalty, and, like all first experiences, not easily forgotten.
Bertie did not share Nicola’s optimism. In Olive’s crowing, he had already had some warning of the shoals that lay ahead.
“When you go away to Aberdeen, Bertie,” she had intoned, “you’re going to lose all your friends. That’s one-hundred-per-cent definite. You know that, don’t you?”
Pansy had agreed. “Olive’s right, Bertie. People who go to Aberdeen never hear from their friends again. That’s a well-known fact. I read about it in Wikipedia.”
Bertie doubted that. “But you can’t read yet, Pansy,” he pointed out mildly.
Olive papered over this crack in her lieutenant’s credibility. “Mind you,” she continued. “You don’t have all that many friends anyway, do you Bertie? Perhaps you won’t notice it so much.”
Pansy nodded. “That’s true,” she said. “There’s always Ranald, though.”
“Hah!” exclaimed Olive. “Ranald Braveheart Macpherson. Him indeed. I can tell you that Ranald is already advertising online for new friends. I imagine he’s probably already deleted you from his list of contacts. In fact, I’m sure he has.”
“I feel sorry for you, Bertie,” said Pansy. “It’s no fun being deleted.”
But now, doubts as to Ranald’s loyalty put to one side, Bertie was on his way with grandmother and his friend to Valvona & Crolla’s delicatessen at the head of Leith Walk. As they made their way, Nicola tried to ensure that the conversation was as cheerful as possible, avoiding all reference to Aberdeen, journeys, cold, or the North Sea, gamely making upbeat comments about how time flew and how easy it was to communicate with friends in the electronic age.
“People used to use pigeons,” she said, “to send messages to one another. Can you believe that, boys? Pigeons with messages tied around their legs.”
Ranald and Bertie remained silent.
“Pigeons have an inbuilt sense of direction,” Nicola continued. “They can always find their way home. It’s quite miraculous.”
“Not really,” said Bertie, glumly.
“But it is, Bertie!” Nicola persisted. “You or I would never be able to find our way home if …” She stopped herself. This was not the direction in which she wanted the conversation to go.
“They use the stars,” said Bertie flatly. “They may also use energy fields that we can’t see, Granny.”
Nicola raised an eyebrow. She was constantly finding herself astonished at the things that Bertie seemed to have picked up. He at least was well-informed; Ranald Braveheart Macpherson, by contrast, seemed to know rather less.
“Well, fancy that,” she said.
“Birds know more than we think they do,” Bertie went on. “They may have very small heads, but their brains are quite clever.”
Ranald Braveheart Macpherson seemed surprised. “Do birds have brains?” he asked. “Just like us?”
“Yes,” said Bertie. “Everything has a brain, Ranald.”
“Even a worm?”
Bertie nodded. “They have tiny brains that have 302 cells. We have billions.”
Ranald whistled. “Even Larch?”
Larch was a boy at school not noted for his intellectual sophistication.
“Even Larch,” said Bertie.
“And Olive?” Ranald asked, a certain yearning in his voice. He very much hoped that Olive and Pansy might be revealed to have fewer brain cells, but Bertie had to tell him that even the two girls, long their heartless persecutors, had the same number of brain cells as they did.
“That’s a pity,” said Ranald.
Nicola smiled indulgently. “There’s no difference between boys and girls,” she said.
Bertie looked at her. This was further evidence, he thought, of his grandmother’s cognitive decline: everyone, possibly even Ulysses, knew that there was an important difference between boys and girls; one could hardly miss it, not that one should stare. How could anybody be unaware of that? He looked away. It was sad, really, that by the time he returned from Aberdeen it might be too late. She might have only a few weeks left, if she was saying things like that. That was another reason for him not to go – so that he might spend more time with his grandmother in her declining months.
His thoughts were interrupted by their arrival at Valvona & Crolla. The sight of the gastronomic mecca, home of all things warm, Italian, and tasty, helped him momentarily to forget Aberdeen and the three months of exile that lay ahead, a cloud no bigger than a man’s hand, but imminent now, and almost upon him.
© 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.