Scotland Street Volume 16, Chapter 6: A strawberry-blonde experience

Bruce Anderson, surveyor and former narcissist, was waiting in his flat in Abercrombie Place for the arrival of his old school-friend, Borthy Borthwick.

44 Scotland Street
44 Scotland Street

Bruce had known Borthy – whose real, never-used name was Arnold – from the age of five, when they had first eyed one another with suspicion on their first day of school in Crieff. The friendships of very early childhood are notorious for their fickleness, although a few survive those early years in which all others are, at best, potential rivals for attention. Bruce and Borthy continued to be friends as they went through school and through life. Both finding themselves in Edinburgh in their early twenties, they joined the same rugby club, shared common friends, and had even both been briefly arrested by the Polish police on a rowdy stag party in Kraków and found themselves sharing a cell for a few hours.

Borthy had always stood in awe of Bruce, whose style and general insouciance he admired but could never quite match. In his eyes, Bruce had that almost indefinable quality of coolness that, although difficult to explain, was immediately recognisable when one encountered it. It was not just a question of outward presentation, important though that might be; more significant was the projected sense of self-assurance, the unruffled confidence, that led people to believe that everything that Bruce did was planned and nothing was a response to the exigencies of the moment. While most of us have to accept the world as it presented itself to us, and do so with a varying degree of resignation, Bruce gave the impression of being in perfect command of the circumstances in which he found himself. It was this apparent mastery that so impressed Borthy and for which he would have given a great deal to possess himself.

At Morrison’s Academy in Crieff, the school they had both attended until the age of eighteen, Borthy particularly admired Bruce’s ability to attract the attention of girls – even those with a reputation for despising boys. One of these girls, Candace Connaught, whose father owned a riding-stables, and whose strawberry-blonde hair exactly matched the coat of the Highland pony she rode at Pony Club events, was a magnet to boys but utterly dismissive of any young male who dared so much as to address a chance remark to her. “Yeah, sure,” she would say in response to any such approach, and then, without saying anything more, would turn away and busy herself with more important business than the awkward teenager who had plucked up the courage to speak to her.

Borthy himself had been amongst those who had dared to approach Candace. It had cost him a great deal of sleep, as he lay awake planning how he might engage her in conversation and how, one thing having led to another, they might find themselves seated next to one another in the back row of the cinema in Perth, a place well-known to the planets whose orbits determined the fortunes of love. He had finally decided that the best thing to do was to compliment her in some way, as he had read in a magazine an article that gave that particular advice to the reader. “Women like compliments – extensive psychological research has confirmed that. Factor compliments and flowers into your dating plans and you will never be disappointed. Fact.”

That counsel had made a deep impression on Borthy, who had never gone out with a girl and whose secret fear was that he would die before he had the chance to do so. Knowing that Candace would be competing at the Strathearn Pony Club Day, he made sure that he was there too, ready to address her as she groomed her pony before her event.

Candace looked at him. She had been aware that there was a boy watching her, but had given no indication that she had noticed him. But eventually, as Borthy edged closer to her, her irritation had broken through her affected indifference.

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“Do I know you?” she asked, glancing at him briefly before returning to her task of grooming.

She then answered her own question. “Oh yes, you’re at Morrison’s, aren’t you? Bobby something.”

“Borthy. I’m called Borthy.”

Candace ignored this. She was not intending to call him anything and so this information was hardly needed.

There was a brief silence. The hills towards Comrie were layers of blue. There was the smell of cut grass in the air. A loudspeaker cackled into life, announcing the next event. Somebody laughed somewhere.

Then Borthy spoke. “I really like your hair,” he said.

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Candace’s hand, holding the grooming brush, faltered in its sweep of the pony’s flank before resuming its task.

Emboldened by the fact that the earth had not opened to swallow him, Borthy continued, “I like the way it matches your pony. It makes you look the same.”

The grooming hand came to a halt. A head was turned. Another head turned, too, as the pony gave Borthy a cold stare.

“You trying to be funny or something?” said Candace.

“No,” stammered Borthy. “I wasn’t. I meant it.”

“So you think I look like a horse?”

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Borthy was appalled. His voice rose several notes, and he struggled to lower it. He had always tried to sound like Sean Connery. He had practised and practised, and now, just at the moment when it was all so important, it was all failing him. “Of course not. I never said that. I didn’t. I said that your hair is sort of the same colour as your pony. That’s all. I said I like that.”

Candace turned her back on him. She did not even say “Yeah, sure” but was completely silent. From the depth of his misery, Borthy struggled to apologise, but was ignored. He walked off, burning with a shame that lasted for several days and was not alleviated in any way when Bruce later told him that he had been at the Pony Club dance that evening and had danced with Candace Connaught – at her request.

“She was eying me up,” he said. “She usually doesn’t do that sort of thing – as you know. But she really wanted to dance with me. I had to let her. It’s unkind to keep girls hanging around.”

Borthy struggled to conceal his envy. “And?”

Bruce shrugged. “A close number. You know – cheek to cheek. Hah!”

Borthy’s eyes widened.

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“And you know what?” Bruce continued. “I licked her hair.”

It was a few moments before Borthy could speak. Then he said, “While you were dancing?”

“Yes. Up close and personal. I licked the hair just above her ear. And you know something? It tasted of strawberries.”

Borthy closed his eyes. That such things could happen in Crieff . . . but not to him. Life was so unfair. Here was he, with whom Candace Connaught would never dance, and here was Bruce, who had actually licked her famous strawberry-blonde hair. It was all so unfair.

© 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