As they drove across the bridge spanning the Firth of Forth, Bertie gazed out of the car window at the water far below, a rippling field of greyish-blue. Two working boats, a tug and a pilot vessel, ploughed the surface of the sea, a white line of wake behind them; a little further out, attached to an oil terminal, a long tanker poked out into the waterway. In the distance, pale shadows against the sky, were the islands of the Forth, half-veiled in a mist rising from the sea. The ragged coast of Scotland stretched out to the north, an indistinct, disappearing line that would eventually become Aberdeenshire. Bertie shivered.
“How long before we’re there?” he asked.
“About three hours,” said Nicola.
Bertie considered this. “Could you not drive a little slower?” His tone was pleading.
Nicola glanced at the speedometer. She was travelling at forty miles an hour – slowly, by most standards – but would speed up to sixty once she was off the bridge.
“I don’t think I’m going too fast, Bertie. Are you feeling nervous?”
“Couldn’t we break the journey somewhere?” Bertie continued. “We could spend the night in Montrose or somewhere, and then go on tomorrow – or the day after that.”
Nicola made light of this. “But we don’t need to break such a short drive, Bertie. We don’t need to do that.”
“I’m sure Mummy wouldn’t mind if we didn’t arrive for a few days. That would give her more time to get things ready.”
Nicola tried to change the subject. “Oh, look, Bertie. Look down there. That’s Rosyth, if I’m not mistaken. That’s where the Royal Navy fixes ships.”
The distraction succeeded. “There’s a boy at school called Robbie. His dad is a sailor and he works there,” said Bertie. “Or he thinks his dad works there.”
Nicola frowned. “How can he not be sure? Hasn’t he asked him?”
“Oh, he knows that he goes there to work. It’s just that he’s not sure that it’s his dad.”
Nicola waited, but Bertie offered no further explanation. “Has this person – the man who works in the dockyard – said that he might not be his dad?” she asked.
“No,” said Bertie. “It’s just that Robbie says that when the man who says he’s his dad goes off to sea, a friend of his mummy comes to stay. Robbie says that he thinks this friend might be his dad.”
The car swerved, but Nicola quickly regained control. She tried not to smile. What Bertie said was perfectly feasible, as she had heard that there was a lot of swapping of partners and spouses in Rosyth. One sailor might move out, but another was always available to move in.
“Does Robbie like this … this other dad?” she asked.
“Yes,” said Bertie. “He has red hair – just like Robbie.”
“And the other dad?”
“He has black hair, Robbie says.”
“I see.” And then, “And do you get on well with Robbie?”
Bertie thought about this. “Mostly,” he said. “He has a tattoo.”
Again the car swerved.
“Are you sure about that, Bertie? It’s against the law to give children a tattoo, you know.”
“His mum’s friend gave it to him,” said Bertie. “He did it himself with a pin. It’s a small anchor.”
“Not a good idea,” said Nicola.
“Robbie likes it.”
“Be that as it may,” Nicola insisted. “That’s not the point.”
She decided to change the subject again. “We shall be going fairly close to Falkland Palace, Bertie,” she said. “We can’t stop this time, but maybe someday I’ll take you there. After you come back to Edinburgh.”
Bertie was silent. He would not be back for three whole months – an eternity at his age.
“Falkland Palace,” Nicola continued, “was where James V heard of the birth of Mary Queen of Scots. He was on his deathbed and they brought him news of Mary’s birth. He was hoping for a son, but he got Mary instead, and the whole unhappy story began.”
Bertie looked thoughtful. “Why are so many stories unhappy, granny?” he asked.
“There’s no simple answer to that, Bertie,” Nicola replied. “Perhaps it’s because of all the things that are wrong with us. Not you and me, of course, but people in general – what we call humanity.” She paused. “People are unkind to one another. They are thoughtless in their dealings with others. They want what other people have and they try to take it from them.”
“Ranald Braveheart Macpherson says that the English have always tried to take Scotland from us,” said Bertie.
Nicola thought about this. “There’s some truth in that,” she said. “The English have many virtues, Bertie, but they may be said to have shown a slight tendency to take things from other people.”
“Like the Benin bronzes?” said Bertie.
Nicola was unprepared for this. And yet it was typical of Bertie – his eclectic reading meant that he picked up all sorts of snippets of information. “Yes, Bertie, you could say that.”
“I think you should give back the things you’ve stolen,” said Bertie. “It’s only fair.”
Yes, thought Nicola: it was only fair. And yet when you had stolen so much …
She decided on another change of subject, and the conversation moved on to all the news that Bertie would have to give his mother once he was safely settled in Aberdeen. “There’s so much for you to tell her,” said Irene. “What Ulysses has been getting up to, for instance.”
Bertie agreed. “She’ll be pleased to hear that he’s so much better now that she’s gone,” he said. “He’s not sick as often. And he doesn’t scrunch up his face so much and yell.”
“Possibly,” said Nicola.
“And I could tell him about some of Daddy’s new friends. That nice lady who wrote poetry. I could tell Mummy about her.”
“Best not to burden her with too much news,” Nicola counselled.
“I could tell her about how you threw away most of her things,” Bertie went on.
“I did not throw them away,” Nicola pointed out sharply. “I rearranged them. That’s all.”
“I saw some of the things you rearranged in an Oxfam shop in Stockbridge,” Bertie said.
“Let’s listen to Radio Scotland,” said Nicola, leaning forward to switch on the car radio. And then, “Oh listen, Bertie. Jimmy Shand and his Band! The Braes o’ Auchtermuchty! How about that Bertie?”
© 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.