Scotland Street Volume 17, Chapter 10: Diet, Height, Statistics

It was the first time they had discussed the issue of Bob’s size, and its implications for his health. As they sat together in the kitchen of the Canonmills flat, Big Lou remembered that they had once talked about the low male life expectancy in parts of Scotland, but that had been a general discussion, and although lifestyle issues had been at its heart, it had not been in any way personal.
44 Scotland Street44 Scotland Street
44 Scotland Street

The conversation had started with Bob’s observation that if you lived in Orkney, and were male, then your life expectancy was eighty.

Big Lou had not been surprised. “Aye, and I think that tells us something, doesn’t it? Live on an island, keep calm, look at seabirds, and you’ll carry on for a long time.”

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Bob laughed. “Whereas, live in a city…” He paused. “But they drink in Orkney, I imagine. They like a whisky, don’t they?”

“Yes,” said Lou. “But I suspect they don’t drink quite as much as they do in Glasgow.”

She looked apologetic. “I’m not picking on Glasgow,” she said. “It’s a great place. And I know that people are always going on about the statistics there, but they don’t, I’m afraid, make very good reading.”

Bob nodded. “My pal, Tommy Maguire – he’s on the weightlifting circuit – he came from Maryhill. He left us aged forty-eight.”

Big Lou shook her head. “So sad. Diet. Smoking. Drinking. Bad housing. Poverty. It all adds up.”

Bob corrected her. “No, Lou, in his case it happened in the gym. He was trying to beat his personal record, and the weights crushed him. That was it.”

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Big Lou sighed. “Poor fellow. If only we could do something about the Scottish diet. We need to get vegetables back into the mainstream. We need to get cigarettes out of the equation. And fizzy orange-coloured drinks.”

“They call that ginger over there,” said Bob. “Ginger or juice.”

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“Pure sugar,” Lou said. “Before sugar and fats came into it, our diet was healthy enough. We got our protein from fish if we lived near the coast and from rabbits and so on if we lived in the country. We weren’t doing badly. Then came sugar . . .”

“And juice.”

“Yes, and juice.”

“Of course, you do your bacon rolls in the café,” Bob pointed out. “Perhaps you should take those off the menu, Lou, and put broccoli burgers in their place. On wholewheat.”

Big Lou thought about this. “You may be right, Bob. After all, what is it about bacon that people like so much? It’s the smell. We could have some bacon frying in the background – permanently – but never serve any of it. People would be able to appreciate the smell, but not undergo any of the risks.”

The conversation might have gone on to Bob’s weight, but it did not, as something else had cropped up. But now, after Bob’s sudden resolution to embark on a weight-loss programme, the subject could hardly be avoided.

“So, what will you do?” Big Lou asked.

“I’m going to go on a low-carb diet,” he answered. “That’s the way forward, Lou.” He paused. “And I’m going to get help. I’m going to get a personal trainer.”

Big Lou looked sceptical. She did not think that people really needed assistance to do the things they needed to do – all that was required was willpower. Personal trainers, she felt, were no substitute for that.

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“Will that be necessary, Bob?” she asked. “All you have to do is get on an exercise bike or one of those running machines. Then it’s up to you. Personal trainers don’t do the actual exercise for you.”

She smiled as she thought of how very wealthy people might perhaps have personal trainers who did their exercise for them. That would be the ultimate in luxury.

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“They make up a programme for you,” said Bob. “They say: ten minutes on this machine, and then ten minutes on that one. That sort of thing. They’re very scientific.”

“But I could tell you that,” said Lou. “I could come with you to the gym and say, ‘Do ten minutes on the rowing machine, Bob.’ And I wouldn’t charge for my advice.”

Bob laughed. “Maybe it’s motivation, Lou. Maybe they provide the encouragement that we need.”

Big Lou conceded that this was possible. But then she asked, “Are you serious about this, Bob?”

He confirmed that he was. “I’m going to change, Lou. There’s going to be a new me – you wait and see.”

“But I like the existing you,” Big Lou said. “I married a man called Fat Bob, and I’m happy with him. If I’d wanted a thin man, I would have found one. But I didn’t. I found a nice fat man, who’s just perfect for me. Just perfect.”

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Bob looked at her with fondness. “And I married somebody called Big Lou,” he said. “I married a large-boned lady, a tall lady. If I’d wanted somebody who was petite, I would have found somebody like that. I would have gone over to the west of Scotland and found a short lady there. The average height in the west of Scotland is lower than in the east. Or I would have gone to Dublin. The Irish are slightly shorter than the Scots and the English are taller than both Irish and Scots. And the Dutch, of course, are taller than everybody else.”

“So, why bother, Bob?”

Bob looked at intently. “Because I care about you, Lou. And Finlay. When that wee boy said that he wanted me to lose weight, it cut very deep, Lou. It just did.”

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She understood. “Then I’ll stand by you, Bob. No bacon rolls for you from now on. No chips. No butter – we’ll use that spread they make. No cakes. No shortbread, Highland or otherwise.”

He listened solemnly. “Don’t think I’m going to miss any of that, Lou. My mind’s made up.”

“And where will you get your personal trainer?”

“I already know one,” Bob said. “I met him in the pub. He’s been a personal trainer for three years now, he tells me.”

“What did he do before?”

Bob explained. “He was the man who oiled the Falkirk Wheel,” he said.

Big Lou looked surprised. “That’s an unusual job.”

“Somebody has to do it,” said Bob. “If they didn’t oil it, it wouldn’t really turn, would it?”

Big Lou nodded. “Tell me more about carbs,” she said, adding, “Such an interesting subject.”

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Bob gave her a sideways glance. “I’m serious about this, Lou. Deadly serious.”

It was the first time an atmosphere had developed between them, and Big Lou briefly entertained the thought that so many recently married people must have, even if they never confess to it, even if they suppress it the moment it occurs: have I married the right person? She wanted her marriage to succeed, and did not like to think that carbs would be the rocks upon which it might flounder.

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© Alexander McCall Smith, 2023. The Stellar Debut of Galactica MacFee will be published by Polygon in November, price £17.99. The author welcomes comments from readers and can be contacted on [email protected]