“Can you eat all of these things?” Ranald asked, his gaze moving from the shelves stacked with pastas, via the stacked wedges and circles of cheese and the bowls of bright peppers, to the hams and salamis hanging up behind the counter.
Bertie, who had regularly accompanied his mother on forays to the shop, was on familiar ground. “You can eat all of these things, Ranald. And they’re very tasty – I can tell you.”
Nicola pointed to the boxes of Panforte di Siena on a low shelf behind them. “That’s Bertie’s absolute favourite over there,” she said. “Panforte di Siena. It’s a sort of flat cake.”
“Full of fruit, Ranald,” said Bertie. “Orange peel and raisins and things like that. You’d like it, I think.”
Ranald Braveheart Macpherson had started to salivate. A small trail of saliva ran down from his lower lip, dribbled over his chin, and fell in a tiny drop on the front of his shirt. Noticing this, Nicola extracted a handkerchief from her pocket and dabbed at Ranald’s chin.
Bertie looked at his friend with sympathy. “I know how you feel, Ranald. I know that you don’t get much nice food at home.”
“Bertie!” exclaimed Nicola reproachfully. “I’m sure that’s not true.”
“But it is, Mrs Pollock, ” said Ranald. “My mother’s not a very good cook. She drinks, you see. She drinks wine when she’s meant to be cooking and she gets the ingredients wrong. She doesn’t mean to, but she does.”
“That’s rotten luck, Ranald,” said Bertie. “Having a drunkard for a mother.”
“I know,” said Ranald. “We’re both jolly unlucky, aren’t we? My mummy’s a drunkard and yours is a well-known hate figure. We’ve both had bad luck, I think.”
Nicola glanced around them. “Now, boys, you mustn’t talk like that. Ranald, I’m sure that your mother only has the occasional glass of wine. There’s nothing wrong with that.”
“Oh, no,” said Ranald. “She drinks far more than that, Mrs Pollock.”
“And Ranald’s father was had up in court,” said Bertie. “Tell my granny about that, Ranald.”
Before Nicola could stop him, Ranald started to explain about his father’s prosecution, for a technical company law offence, and the resultant community payback order that had been imposed on him at Edinburgh Sheriff Court. “He has to do over one hundred hours of Scottish country dancing,” Ranald said. “He hates it.”
“He shouldn’t have been a crook then, Ranald,” said Bertie, helpfully.
“No,” said Ranald. “You’re right, Bertie.”
Bertie remembered something else. “And now he’s planning to overthrow the British Government, isn’t he, Ranald?”
Ranald Braveheart Macpherson nodded. “My daddy wants Scotland to rise up,” he explained to Nicola. “He thinks the rising might start in Morningside and then spread to Fairmilehead. He says there are lots of people in the area who are ready to rise up.”
“Goodness me,” said Nicola.
“He and some friends tried to raise a standard in Morningside Road,” Ranald continued. “But the traffic wardens came and moved them on.”
Nicola supressed a smile. “I see,” she said.
“He says the French will come to Scotland’s aid,” Ranald continued. “He says that they will definitely send ships.”
“That’s interesting,” said Nicola. “I’m not sure if Scotland can count on the French. That was one of the problems that Bonnie Prince Charlie had, I think.”
Ranald remained confident. “The English will run away when the French come,” he said. “My dad says he has heard this from the man who cuts his hair. He knows all these things. I’ve heard him – he cuts my hair too. He’s one of the people will rise up, my dad says.”
“Very interesting,” said Nicola. “We shall have to watch this space, as they say. In the meantime, I think we should buy some olive oil and some Panforte di Siena. Then we can go through to the restaurant and you boys can have some special Italian ice cream and I shall have a cup of coffee.”
Their purchases made, they made their way into the restaurant at the back of the delicatessen and sat down at one of the tables. A waitress appeared and took their order for ice cream (three flavours) and a latte for Nicola. Bertie, who had been obliged by his mother to have Italian lessons since he was four, placed the order in perfect Italian, much to the delight of the waitress, who pinched his cheek, kissed him on the top of his head, and patted his wrist in admiration. Then she kissed him again on the forehead, ruffled his hair, and exclaimed, Accidenti, è carinissimo!
Bertie blushed red with embarrassment as the waitress left him to make her way back to the kitchen.
“The Italians are a very demonstrative people,” said Nicola. “They’re tactile, Bertie – which means they like to touch things. The important thing is that they mean well.”
After their visit to Valvona & Crolla Nicola took them, as promised, to the Chambers Street Museum, where they spent an hour or so in the machinery department, marvelling at the old vehicles and the antiquated rockets. They saw an old instrument for the administration of chloroform and a Van der Graaf generator. They saw a model of the workings of a coalmine, with a tiny cage in which men, minute painted dolls, their faces darkened with coal dust, were poised to descend into the depths. Nicola gazed at this, while the boys moved on to another exhibit. She thought, There were so many stunted lives. She saw a picture of a Highland blackhouse, a windowless but and ben, outside which the members of a family were standing, and she thought of the Clearances and all the sorrow of life in Scotland. And then she thought: perhaps that is what one should think in a museum and one should not be surprised to feel that way.
Then they caught a bus that took them to Morningside, where Ranald Braveheart Macpherson lived. On the doorstep of Ranald’s house, Bertie said goodbye to his friend. Nicola, sensing the importance of the moment, stepped to the side, pretending to admire a fuchsia in the Macpherson garden, while Bertie spoke to Ranald.
“I hope that you come back, Bertie,” said Ranald, grasping Bertie’s hand in a handshake.
“I’m sure I shall, Ranald,” said Bertie, not with any real conviction.
There was a silence. Then Bertie turned and began to walk down the path. He stopped. He turned and looked back at Ranald Braveheart Macpherson, standing there on his doorstep, with his spindly legs.
Bertie looked up at the sky. It was blue and empty. He raised a hand to wave, and Ranald Braveheart Macpherson, his friend, his only true friend, did the same. Nicola watched. She struggled with the tears that were just below the surface; a struggle that most of us have, when one comes to think of it, most of the time.
© 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.