Scotland Street Volume 15, Chapter 40: Poppadoms and theology

As the onion bhajis were consumed and the pile of poppadoms steadily lowered, Fat Bob continued the story of his arrival in Glasgow. He had been a youth of sixteen, he told Big Lou, with no more than a few pounds in his pocket and an introduction to an unhelpful cousin, and now he found himself sleeping rough in the courtyard of Wee Jimmy’s pub. He was already homesick and fearful of discovery, but felt unable to return to the home he had only so recently left.

44 Scotland Street

“Oh, Bob,” said Big Lou. “I can just imagine how you felt. When I went up to Aberdeen as a young lass at least I had somewhere to go to. You had nowhere. And you had nothing – or next to nothing.”

“That’s right, Lou. But when you’re that age, you don’t necessarily realise how little you have. It doesn’t seem to matter so much.”

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Big Lou said that she thought that by and large that was true. “And yet, where was your next meal coming from?”

“I wasn’t so much worried about that,” said Bob. “What I wanted was a job. I thought that if I got work, everything else would sort itself out. So I decided that I would simply go down the street and knock on every likely-looking door. I thought that sooner or later I would find somebody who could do with some help.”

“And did you have any luck?”

Bob laughed. “A lot. The first door I knocked on was a builder’s merchant’s. He was a big fellow and he looked at me and laughed. “Does your mammy know you’re oot?” he said. He was very pleased with himself for that remark. But then he said that, as it happened, he needed somebody to shift piles of timber. He would pay me in cash, he promised, at the end of each day for the first week, and that if I worked hard, he would take me on properly.

“Then he asked me where I lived. I said that I had been staying with a cousin, which was true, I suppose, but that I was hoping to find somewhere else. He looked at me as if he didn’t quite believe me, and then asked me whether the police were looking for me. I think that my indignant reaction to that convinced him that I wasn’t on the run, and so he didn’t wait for me to deny it. He explained that he had to be careful. A few months previously he had taken on a boy who had stabbed somebody and the police had given him a lot of trouble over that. Glasgow had gang issues at the time – it still does – and people were jumpy.”

Big Lou saw Bob look longingly at the last of the poppadoms. “You have it,” she said. “I’ve had enough.”

He reached for the poppadom and broke it in two. “Let’s share,” he said.

Big Lou was pleased: sharing the last poppadom was a good sign. She had known plenty of men who would have eaten it all themselves.

“It was hard work,” Bob went on. “I was given thick work gloves – I can still smell them – and shown the timber that had to be moved. Then I was left to get on with it, which I did. At twelve o’clock I was told I could take an hour off if I wanted to go and buy myself something to eat. The boss gave me money for this and to buy a pie for himself. He said that I would have to pay for my own lunch the following day, but by then I would have my first day’s wage in my pocket.

“He was as good as his word about paying me. I got the cash in my hand and was told that he was pleased with the work I had done. He said that the following day he would fix me up with a set of overalls as he didn’t think my clothes were quite suitable for the job I was doing.

“I went out into the street. I had no idea of where I was going to find a bed for the night, and so returned to the shed I had left that morning. It had started to rain, and I was getting wet. At least that would give me a roof – of sorts – over my head.

“There was nobody around in the yard. I slipped in and let myself into the shed and lay down on the sacking. The work had tired me, and although I felt hungry, I decided to rest before I went out in search of fish and chips for my supper. Oddly enough, I felt quite happy. I had done a day’s work; I had money in my pocket; and I had somewhere to go that night. Obviously, I would have to find somewhere better to stay, but for the time being, I thought the shed would do fine.

“I slept rather longer than I had planned. When I woke up, it was almost ten o’clock and I thought that I would have to rush if I were to find a chippie open. I need not have worried – there were plenty of places still serving, and enough people coming out of pubs to keep them open for a good while yet. I ordered fish and chips and a pie for good measure. I stood outside and ate the meal, watching what was going on about me. Somewhere down at the end of the street there was a brawl – an angry shout and the sound of glass being smashed. Then the police arrived, the blue lights on their car illuminating figures in the road. A woman was shouting at the police. It had never occurred to me that you might shout at the police; that never happened where I had been brought up. But this was Glasgow, with rules of its own, and I thought that I would have to learn a whole new way of behaving if I was to fit in here.

“I went back to the yard behind the pub. Nobody was about, and I was able to slip back into my shed. I took off my boots and prepared for bed. In those days, Lou, I said my prayers every night – my mother had always insisted on that. She was a Catholic and said that if you died in the night, the state of your soul might depend on having said your prayers before you went to sleep. I don’t believe any of that now, Lou, but I did then.”

“You were sixteen,” said Big Lou.

“Yes. And I believed what they told us about Hell. It was a place of eternal torment, they said, and any of us could end up there if we weren’t careful.”

Big Lou sighed. “The Devil’s just a tattie-bogle. And there’s no such place as Hell, Bob.”

Bob hesitated. “No, I don’t think there is. But why did they tell us all that?”

“It was a useful threat, Bob. Fear works. It secured compliance.”

“What a wicked thing to do,” said Fat Bob.

“Aye,” said Big Lou. “But the Catholic Church has changed, Bob. It’s not the same. It’s now more about love and charity, which is what it should have been all along.” She paused. “You can’t condemn the present for the wrongs of the past.”

Fat Bob listened. He wanted more love and charity in this world. He wanted that.

“Mind you, it’s high time they allowed women priests,” said Big Lou.

“You’re right there, Lou,” agreed Fat Bob, adding, “Shall we order more poppadoms?”

She looked at him fondly: here was a new man who was nonetheless strong, and who liked poppadoms. It had been a long search.

© 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.