“This,” she said to Nicola, “is where Bertie will be staying.” And to Bertie, she said, “Your new bedroom, Bertie. Isn’t it snug?”
Nicola’s eyes narrowed – involuntarily. She struggled to control herself. It was so important, she felt, that Bertie be spared overt arguments within the family.
“How very sweet,” she said. She lingered on the word sweet, knowing that Irene would pick up her disapproval.
“Isn’t it just?” said Irene. “Such a change from Scotland Street.”
Nicola was not sure what this implied. She pursed her lips. “It’s a pity the window is so small,” she said quietly.
Irene turned round. “I don’t think one wants large windows in a bedroom,” she snapped. “Such windows leak heat, Nicola – as I’m sure you know. The emphasis now is on insulation.”
“Of course,” said Nicola. “Mind you, I don’t see an obvious heat source here. No radiator – as far as I can make out. Therefore no heat to leak, surely?”
The gauntlet had been thrown, and Irene was not slow to pick it up. “It’s bad for children to be in overheated rooms,” she said. “They are far healthier in a more invigorating environment. There’s no substitute for fresh air, Nicola – as I’m sure you know.”
Nicola addressed Bertie. “Remember to wear a vest,” she said. “At all times.”
Irene glowered at her. “You’ll be wanting to get back down the road to Edinburgh,” she said. “I won’t delay you by offering you tea … or anything.”
Nicola drew in her breath. “I assumed that,” she said icily. “I took the precaution of packing some sandwiches. And I have a flask of tea. I can stop on the way back.” She paused. “But do tell me, Irene, how is your PhD going?”
“Extremely well,” said Irene. “But let me not detain you.”
“Oh, don’t worry about that. I’m so glad that you’re happy here in Aberdeen. No need to rush back to Edinburgh.”
Irene looked down at the floor. “I really must get on,” she said. “And Bertie needs to settle in.”
Bertie had remained silent throughout this encounter. Now he heaved his small suitcase onto the bed and opened it.
“My goodness,” said Irene. “All those woollens, Bertie! You should have let your grandmother pack for you.”
“I did indeed pack,” said Nicola. “Bertie was concerned about being cold. I sought to reassure him.”
Irene bit her lip. “Quite unnecessary,” she muttered. “However, let’s not waste time on these small things. Bertie, shall we see your grandmother to her car? She’ll want to get home before it gets dark. A dark road is not easy if you have aging eyesight.”
Nicola froze. This was too much. But then she looked down and saw Bertie, standing in dejection, and thought: it’s hard enough for him as it is; a showdown would simply make it worse. So she limited herself to saying, “Your mother is so considerate, Bertie – always to be thinking of others. I wish I could be as selfless as she is. Very few are, I fear.”
Irene threw her a suspicious look, but said nothing, and the three of them made their way out to Nicola’s car.
“Goodbye, darling Bertie,” said Nicola, bending down to embrace her grandson. And whispering to him she said, “I know you’ll be strong. Just remember that three months is not very long and we’ll be waiting for you in Edinburgh. Tell yourself that every morning when you get up and it’ll help you through the day.”
“What’s that?” asked Irene, struggling to hear what was being said.
“Nothing,” said Nicola, and Bertie, taking his cue from his grandmother, his co-conspirator, also said, “Nothing”.
That night, after he had been put to bed, Bertie switched his bedside light back on and opened a small notebook he had hidden in his suitcase. On the cover of this notebook he had written, in large letters, MY ORDEAL by BERTIE POLLOCK. This was to be his diary, his secret record of his durance in Aberdeen. If he had to be here, then he might as well use his time to keep a record of his experiences. He had read somewhere that there was a large market for what were called misery memoirs and he thought, therefore, that there might be many potential readers of an intimate diary kept over three months. He would hide the notebook under his mattress, as people did when they wrote their diaries in prisoner-of-war camps. He might even begin to dig an escape tunnel, as some of those brave men did in those days.
He opened the notebook and began to write on the first page. “Chapter One,” he wrote. “I was transported from Edinburgh by road …” He liked the sound of that. Being transported seemed just right for a story of this sort. “My driver took me over the new bridge over the Forth and then headed straight for Aberdeen, where my Mummy was awaiting me.” He liked the sound of all that. He did not mention that his driver was his grandmother, as that rather spoiled the tone and although readers would want a certain amount of detail, they did not need to know everything.
He wrote a few more sentences. There was a description of his room which he said was cold and dark. “I know that my Mummy wants me to be happy. I think she likes me. She also likes Dr Fairbairn, who phoned her today while I was eating my dinner. I knew it was him because he has a way of clearing his throat while he is speaking (Ulysses does the same thing – it’s very strange). Dr Fairbairn is mad, although he tries to hide it. One of these days they will get him and take him off to Carstairs, but in the meantime he is living up in Aberdeen quite openly.
“My Mummy says that Dr Fairbairn is keen to see me to discuss some more of my dreams. I do not want to see him, but I know that I shall have to. I shall make up some dreams for him so that he is kept busy writing them down in his notebook. If he is kept busy like that, he is less dangerous.
“I have to go to school tomorrow. I am not looking forward to that. There is a school called Robert Gordon’s and I am going to be going there for three whole months. I will put a chalk mark on my wall for each day, and I shall strike out each group of five, which will be a full school week. But now I shall stop writing this because it is time to go to bed and my fingers are already so cold that I can’t hold the pencil properly. And this is summer here. End of chapter one: (signed) Bertie Pollock (7).”
© 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