Scotland Street Volume 16, Chapter 13: Minor disagreements, germs, promises

As this conversation about Ern Malley took place at Angus and Domenica’s table, on the other side of hall, the younger guests, seated around a low-level juvenile table of the sort to be seen in primary school classrooms, were contemplating the spread of sugary cakes and unhealthy aerated drinks that Big Lou had asked the caterers to provide for the children.

44 Scotland Street
44 Scotland Street

The infantile guestlist was not a large one, but included Finlay, Big Lou’s adopted son; the triplets, Rognvald, Tobermory and Fergus; Bertie, who had been allowed to bring his friend Ranald Braveheart Macpherson; Bertie’s tormentor and would-be Nemesis, Olive; and Olive’s lieutenant and Greek chorus rolled into one, Pansy. There was also a boy with glasses, Tommy, who lived in Drummond Place, his sister, Henrietta, also with glasses, and Bertie’s young brother, Ulysses, who was now able to walk although he was still to make significant progress in toilet training and in learning to refrain from biting.[

Bertie’s heart had sunk when he had seen Olive sitting several pews ahead of him in the church.

“Look over there,” he had whispered to Ranald Braveheart Macpherson. “Do you see her, Ranald?”

Ranald followed the direction in which Bertie was pointing his finger. When his gaze settled on Olive, he gave a low groan. “It’s her,” he whispered.

“Maybe she’s here by mistake,” said Bertie. “You never know.”

“And Pansy too,” said Ranald. “They must have been invited because I can see her Mummy sitting next to her. And her Dad, too. My Dad says that Olive’s Dad drinks even more than he does.”

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“Maybe that’s why they’re at the wedding,” said Bertie. “Some people just go to weddings to drink lots.”

Ranald looked thoughtful. “My Dad does that,” he said.

Bertie nodded. “So I’ve heard, Ranald.”

They managed to avoid Olive and Pansy coming out of the church, but when they reached the reception there was to be no escape.

“You and your friends are going to be sitting at a nice wee table specially for you,” said Big Lou, as she greeted them at the Mansfield Traquair Centre. “And we’ve got lots of cakes and sweets for you. And Irn Bru too. Lots of that.”

Olive and Pansy were already at the table when Bertie and Ranald arrived to take their seats.

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“So, Bertie Pollock,” said Olive, fixing Bertie with a triumphant gaze. “So here you are at a wedding after all.”

Bertie did not know how to respond. He and Ranald stared silently at Olive.

“I must say that I’m pleased to see you here,” Olive continued. “After all, it’s a good opportunity for you to practise.”

Bertie continued to look at her suspiciously.

“I don’t think he even knows what you’re talking about,” interjected Pansy. “You know how stupid boys are.”

Olive considered this for a moment. “You may be right about boys in general, Pansy,” she said. “But I think Bertie knows fine well what this is all about.”

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“I don’t,” muttered Bertie. “I don’t know what you’re talking about, Olive.”

Olive’s eyes narrowed. “Oh, you don’t, Bertie Pollock? You say you don’t? Well, let me tell you.” She paused, her gaze fixed on Bertie as if she were sizing up a victim. “Should I let you know what I was thinking?”

“Yes,” urged Pansy. “You tell him, Olive.”

“I was thinking of how this was good practice for you on how to behave at a wedding. That’s what I was thinking.”

Pansy rubbed her hands together. “You have to know what to do,” she said. “So you’ve been able to watch what’s going on here and see what you’ll have to do when . . .”

“When you and I get married,” Olive crowed. “Because I can tell you one thing, Bertie. That’s one wedding that’s definitely, totally going to take place.”

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“Totally,” echoed Pansy. “Probably right here.”

Olive frowned. “I’m not sure that I want to commit myself to hiring this actual hall. I’ll have to wait and see how they do things today.”

“If they’re good enough, then you can,” Pansy suggested.

“Yes,” said Olive. “We’ll wait and see. But the important thing is that you should watch it all very carefully. I don’t want any mistakes at our wedding – when it takes place.”

“But I don’t want to marry you,” Bertie said quietly. “I never asked you, Olive.”

“You did so!” hissed Olive. “And don’t you forget: I’ve got it in writing. You signed, Bertie Pollock – and you can’t go round signing promises to marry people and then pretend you didn’t.”

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“That’s not the way it works, Bertie,” said Pansy. “Even your stupid friend Ranald Braveheart Macpherson knows that.”

“He’s not stupid,” muttered Bertie.

“You’re the stupid one, Olive,” said Ranald Braveheart Macpherson.

Olive spun round. “You’d better take that back, Ranald Braveheart Macpherson,” she spat. “If you don’t, you’ll be kicked out of the Mansfield Traquair Centre. I’ll tell Big Lou and they’ll throw you out.”

Pansy rose to her feet. “I’m going to go and tell her right now,” she said.

Olive restrained her. “Not just yet, Pansy. If Ranald apologises we’ll let him off this time.”

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Bertie nudged his friend. “Just say sorry, Ranald,” he whispered. “It’s not worth it.”

Ranald’s grudging apology was accepted by a smirking Olive. “Now,” she said,” we can get on with enjoying this party before the dancing starts.”

She looked at Bertie. “I hope that you and Ranald know how to do a Non-binary Gordons,” she said.

Bertie looked at the floor, as did Ranald. He was just about to reply that he was not sure, when Pansy suddenly let out a piercing scream.

“Olive!” she shouted. “Look what that horrible little boy has done!”

They all turned to look at Ulysses, who, unnoticed by any of the other children, had just finished licking every cake on the large plate of iced cakes that the caterers had set out for the children.

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“Disgusting!” shrieked Olive. “Look at your disgusting little brother, Bertie. That’s your fault. He’s totally your fault.”

Ulysses beamed at his accusers. “Cake,” he said. “Nice.”

Olive shrieked again. “What are you going to do about that, Bertie? You’d better do something quick.”

“I don’t mind eating them,” said Bertie nonchalantly. “Do you, Ranald?”

“Not at all,” said Ranald. “I don’t mind getting a few germs from Ulysses.”

“They say our food is too clean anyway,” Bertie said. “If you don’t get a few germs now and then, you get allergies.”

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“Bertie’s right,” said Ranald Braveheart Macpherson, helping himself to one of the cakes. “Look, I’m eating this and I’m not getting sick, am I?”

Olive’s mouth pursed in fury. “You wait, Ranald Braveheart Macpherson. You just wait. Those germs take a bit of time to work, but you’ll almost certainly be dead really soon.”

“Exactly,” said Pansy. “Totally dead. By four o’clock tomorrow afternoon, Ranald Braveheart Macpherson. You just see.”

“Half past three, max,” added Olive.

On the other side of the hall, Domenica looked across towards the children’s table. “How nice to see the youngsters enjoying themselves,” she said to Angus.

Angus nodded. “Like little angels.”

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“Childhood,” commented Sister Maria-Fiore dei Fiori di Montagna. “A time of innocent pleasure and pleasant innocence.”

Antonia Collie sighed. She had already had two glasses of Italian sparkling wine. “Oh really,” she said.

Carissima,” whispered Sister Maria-Fiore dei Fiore di Montagna, leaning forward, “Chiudi il becco, per piacere.”

It was not the language one expected from a nun, but at least, as Domenica noticed, Sister Maria-Fiore dei Fiori di Montagna had added per piacere. These things make a difference.

© Alexander McCall Smith, 2022. Love in a Time of Bertie (Scotland Street Volume 15) is in bookshops now. The Enigma of Garlic will be published in November by Polygon, price £17.99