Scotland Street Volume 17, Chapter 4: A Personal Statement

Far to the south, Bertie’s teacher, Miss Campbell, was introducing the class to a new member who was joining it for the first time that morning.
44 Scotland Street44 Scotland Street
44 Scotland Street

“This, boys and girls,” she said, “is our new member. This is …” She hesitated. She was used to unusual names – after all there was a Tofu in the class, as well as a Valentina and a Brexita – and so no eyebrow should have been raised by the arrival of one Galactica MacFee, a girl of seven and a half with neatly plaited blonde hair and a pert, retroussé nose.

“Galactica,” Miss Campbell continued, “has come to us from Stirling. Her parents are now living in Edinburgh – that’s so, isn’t it, Galactica, dear?”

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“That’s correct,” said Galactica. “We’ve moved to Ann Street. Do you know where that is?”

The teacher shot her a glance.

“It’s the best street in Edinburgh, my mummy says. Miles better than Heriot Row. She says that Edinburgh is full of streets that are suitable for people like us.”

“I see,” said Miss Campbell, through clenched teeth.

“My daddy has taken a job in Edinburgh,” Galactica continued. “He’s a neurologist. Neurologists are very clever. They know all about nerves and brains and things.” She paused. “I shall be a neurologist when I grow up. I already know quite a bit about it.”

The class remained silent as they eyed Galactica.

“There are so many things we can become when we are grown-up,” said Miss Campbell, breezily. “Sometimes the choice is just too great, I fear.”

Galactica lowered her voice, as if to impart a confidence. “I don’t have to worry about any of that. They’re keeping a place for me in Edinburgh. It’s official.”

“Well,” said Miss Campbell, “I think you’ll still have to apply for medicine in the fullness of time. That’s a long way away, though.”

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Galactica stared at her. “We’ll see,” she said, enigmatically.

“Galactica can sit next to Bertie, I think,” said Miss Campbell. “You can put your things in the desk, dear. We’ll find you a peg later on.”

“This is a bit of a dump,” said Galactica.

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Miss Campbell frowned. “We don’t say things like that, Galactica. It’s not nice to call other people’s classrooms dumps.”

“Even if they are?” asked Galactica.

Miss Campbell ignored the question. “I think you’ll find this a very friendly school, Galactica. We are all here to support one another.” She gave Galactica a warning look as she said this, and then went on, “Everyone can be what they want to be here. Everybody has a chance. Do you see what I mean?”

“Yes, I do,” said Galactica. “I was in the Brownies. I would have been a Sixer if I had stayed. I played hockey for the school under-ten team. I can write my name. I can spell Edinburgh and Callander. I have started to write a book that I will finish when I am fourteen or fifteen. I have plenty of time. I can speak fourteen words of Catalan. I’m going to get a pilot’s licence when I’m seventeen. That’s my personal statement.” She paused, and then added, “That’s my truth, you see.”

“Very good,” said Miss Campbell. “It’s so nice that you’re a busy wee soul.”

And she thought: Why did I get these children – and their mothers? This one’s going to be an ocean-going little madam – no two doubts about it. And just think of her mother

Galactica took her place, next to Bertie, who smiled at her encouragingly, even if with a measure of caution. For a few minutes she busied herself unpacking her satchel, placing an array of sharpened pencils on the desktop before her and opening a small blue jotter at a page already headed by the day’s date, carefully lettered in red. Then she turned to scrutinise Bertie.

“So,” she began. “So, you’re Bertie, then.”

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Bertie nodded. “My full name is Bertie Pollock. I live in Scotland Street.”

Galactica absorbed this information with a curt nod. “I see,” she said. “And have you got any brothers and sisters?”

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“I’ve got one brother,” said Bertie. “He’s younger than me. He’s at nursery school. He often gets projectile vomiting.”

Galactica reached for a pencil. “Do you mind if I take notes?” she said.

Bertie frowned. “Why?” he asked.

Galactica tapped her pencil. “Because I like to keep a record,” she said. “You never know, do you, Bertie Pollock?”

Bertie said that he did not mind. His voice was wary. Olive and Pansy were difficult enough, but this new girl seemed to be in a wholly different league. Why were girls so demanding? Why did they have to make it so hard for boys?

“And what is your brother’s name?” asked Galactica.

Bertie hesitated. Other boys had brothers called Bill or Jim, or Harry, even. He had Ulysses.

“He’s called Ulysses,” he answered, almost apologetically.

Galactica began to note that down, but gave up on the spelling. Now she looked about her, which gave Bertie a feeling of relief.

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“Who’s that girl over there?” she whispered, as Miss Campbell had begun to address the class about something.

Bertie followed Galactica’s gaze. He knew at whom she must be looking, even before his glance confirmed it. It had to be Olive. This was destined to be.

“That’s Olive,” he whispered back.

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Galactica’s verdict came quickly. “That’s a stupid name. An olive is a little green thing that people eat. You may as well be called Tomato.”

Bertie allowed himself a smile. That was a line that he might take with Olive, had he the courage. That would show her. But of course that would be to invite retribution on an unimaginable scale and he would never do it. Not even Tofu would dare, and Tofu was, for the most part, fearless.

“And that girl next to her?” Galactica continued. “The one with the thin arms. Who does she think she is?”

Who does she think she is? Bertie’s eyes widened as he played with the words in his mind. This was monumental. Olive and Pansy were … they were the Kremlin – not that Galactica was to know.

“She’s called Pansy,” he said. “She’s Olive’s …” He searched for the right word. “She’s Olive’s assistant.”

Galactica made a quick note, which Bertie tried to decipher before its author placed a concealing hand over the words. He transferred his gaze to the other side of the classroom, where Olive, he noticed, was staring back at Galactica. Bertie sensed trouble. It was as clear to him as if there had been an official declaration of war, complete with sounding trumpets and unfurled battleground banners. He did not welcome this. Bertie wanted only that people should be kind to one another; but they never were. That was not the way the world was, it seemed, and sometimes, as he thought about it, his small soul, composed as it as was of pure goodness, felt overwhelmed by the nature of the world in which he was obliged to live.

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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]

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