Scotland Street Volume 16, Chapter 53: In the Pentlands

Olive surveyed the group over which she had been given command.

44 Scotland Street
44 Scotland Street

“Now, I want you all to keep together,” she said. “I shall be in the front, because I’m the leader. Miss Summers said so – remember?”

Olive’s lieutenant, Pansy, nodded enthusiastically. “Everybody knows that, Olive. You’re the leader.” She paused, giving the four boys a challenging look. “And I’m the deputy leader. Miss Summers also said that. Even if you didn’t hear her, she did. Deputy leader . . . which means that if Olive dies, then I take over. That’s true, isn’t it, Olive?”

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Olive smiled tolerantly. “Yes, that’s true, Pansy. But I’m not going to die, so you shouldn’t worry too much. But it’s good to know about that – just in case.”

She reached into her rucksack and withdrew a folded map. “This is the map,” she said. “Miss Summers gave it to me.”

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Rab, one of the two boys sharing with Bertie and Ranald Braveheart Macpherson, put out a hand. “Could I take a look at it, Olive?” Then he added, “Please, Olive.”

Olive pursed her lips before replying. “No, you can’t,” she said. “I need it. I’m going to be using it to see where we’re going.”

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“I just wanted to look,” Rab complained. “You can’t have everything, you know. Just because you’re the leader doesn’t mean you can do everything and the rest of us can do nothing.”

This was dangerous, Bolshevist talk, and Olive acted swiftly. “You’d better be careful about what you say, Rab. I’m going to be putting in a report to Miss Summers . . .”

“A report,” interjected Pansy. “See? Like those reports you get at school – only this one will be from Olive.”

“That’s right,” said Olive. “I shall have to put in a report, and so you’d better be jolly careful what you do or you’ll be sorry.”

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“Big time,” said Pansy.

“So, now we’re going to set off,” Olive continued. “I’ll be at the front and Pansy will come after me. Then you can come, Bertie, because you’re sort of third in charge . . .”

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“After me,” Pansy put in quickly.

“Yes, after Pansy.”

They began to make their way along the path that led off alongside a small burn before branching off up the hillside. The ground was rough, and the path was overgrown in several places, overwhelmed by clumps of heather and bog myrtle. The ubiquitous bracken was making its presence felt too, its fronds obscuring the more reticent vegetation and needing to be brushed aside by the walker.

“Are you sure this is the right way, Olive?” Bertie called out, as he steadied Ranald Braveheart Macpherson. Ranald had put a foot down what looked like a rabbit hole, had stumbled, and been saved from falling by Bertie.

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“Of course, it is,” Olive replied from the head of the small column. “I’ve looked at the map, Bertie. Do you think I can’t read?”

“I didn’t say you can’t read, Olive. All I asked was whether this was the right way.”

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“I can’t see much of a path,” said Ranald Braveheart Macpherson. “When my dad and I went walking in the Pentlands, there was a proper path. There was a sign that pointed the way to Bonaly. You couldn’t go wrong.”

“Do you want to be the leader, Ranald Braveheart Macpherson?” asked Pansy.

“I didn’t say that,” protested Ranald. “I was only asking.”

“This is definitely the right way,” said Olive. “And stop complaining, Ranald. I’m not going to warn you again.”

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Ranald was silenced, but, some twenty minutes later, as they found themselves surrounded by large clumps of gorse on a sharply-rising section of hillside, he whispered to Bertie, “I think we’re lost, Bertie. I can’t see any path here, can you?”

Bertie shook his head.

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“Olive says she knows where we are,” Ranald continued. “But I don’t think she does.”

“She’s really stupid,” muttered Rab. “I’ve met some stupid people in my life, but she’s one of the stupidest.”

“I want to go home,” said Hamish, the other boy from Lanark. He sounded miserable. “I dinnae want to be here. I dinnae. If there’s mist, then we could walk off the edge of a cliff. That happens, you know. There are loads of people who walk off cliffs in the mist.”

“We shouldn’t have come by ourselves,” said Ranald Braveheart Macpherson. “Miss Summers was meant to be with us. Now we haven’t got an adult. You can’t climb mountains without an adult. We should go back.”

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Olive overheard this. “Go back, Ranald Braveheart Macpherson? Is that all you can say? Go back?”

“Yes,” said Pansy. “Go back? Who said anything about going back?”

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They stood for a moment. Earlier mentions of mist now seemed prescient, as a low bank of white seemed to be rolling towards them, already obscuring the low ground to the east. Bertie glanced at this nervously, and nudged Ranald to draw his attention to it. Seeing it, Hamish began to cry, ignoring the withering looks this sign of distress elicited from Olive and Pansy.

“Is that what you do in Lanark?” asked Olive. “Cry? Is that what you do there?”

“Wherever Lanark is,” added Pansy scornfully.

“Please don’t be mean to Hamish,” Bertie asked mildly. “Maybe he’s frightened because we don’t know where we are.”

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“Because you can’t read that stupid map,” said Ranald Braveheart Macpherson, suddenly emboldened.

Olive opened her mouth to deal with this latest insurrection, when a shout merged from the hillside below. This was followed by another shout, and then the shrill blast of a whistle. Then, suddenly coming into sight, Miss Summers and two young men could be seen running towards them.

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“Thank heavens!” exclaimed Miss Summers as she reached the party of youthful hikers. Then, in a more scolding tone, “Why did you set off by yourselves? Whose idea was that?”

Swiftly, and in such a way as to be undetected by others, Olive slipped the folded map into Bertie’s hands. “Please, Miss Summers,” she said. “It was Bertie’s – wasn’t it, Pansy?”

Pansy hesitated only for a second or two. Then she said, “Yes, it was.”

Miss Summers turned to Bertie. “You should never do that sort of thing, Bertie. The hills can be dangerous. Never forget that.”

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Bertie said nothing. There was no point. He found himself carrying the map, and there were occasions on which it would be futile to protest. Besides, Bertie was composed of goodness, and sometimes goodness means that you take the blame for things you haven’t done. You accept it. You bear it. And he had borne so much in his brief seven years that a little more would not make much 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