44 Scotland Street: Proportional representation

Illustrations: Iain McIntosh
Illustrations: Iain McIntosh
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VOLUME 10, episode 46: Bertie’s grandmother had arranged that the promised purchase of a kilt for Bertie should take place on a Saturday morning, as that would mean that Stuart could look after Ulysses while she and Bertie went to a kilt-maker on the High Street.

Ulysses could have accompanied them in his pushchair, but Nicola understood that for Bertie this was a very significant trip and he would feel much more important were he to make it in her company alone. From her point of view, she was looking forward to the opportunity to get away from Ulysses for a short time, not that she disliked her younger grandson – well, when she came to think about it, she was not overly fond of him. He could not help his tendency to bring up his food, of course; nor could he be blamed for his prolonged attacks of wind; it was just that there was a limit to the amount of time and energy one had and Ulysses somehow succeeded in using up much of that. Nicola did not complain about grandparental responsibilities – and indeed handled them rather well – but if given the chance to spend some time other than in the company of Ulysses she tended to take it.

Bertie’s excitement over the expedition meant that he had got himself out of bed, had helped himself to breakfast, dressed, brushed his teeth and done his morning music practice by half past six. It was at that point that he took it upon himself to take his grandmother a cup of tea in her bedroom.

“My goodness,” said Nicola, as she emerged from sleep. “Is that a cup of tea I see before me?”

“Macbeth asked whether it was a ­dagger,” said Bertie. “It might have been better for him – and for Scotland – had it been a cup of tea.”

Nicola sat up in bed, rubbing her eyes. She had not yet become used to just how advanced Bertie was, and she was still astonished when he made this sort of pronouncement.

“Have you read Macbeth?” she asked, as he handed her the teacup.

“Yes,” said Bertie. “Mummy got it for me out of the Library, and I read it all.”

“Do you study Shakespeare at school?” asked Nicola, as she took a sip of her tea.

“No,” said Bertie. “I do it by myself. Most of the people I know can’t read yet. Tofu certainly can’t. He says reading’s rubbish.”

“That’s not true at all,” said Nicola. “Tofu’s going to grow up very ignorant, I fear.”

“He’s already ignorant,” said Bertie.

“So it would seem,” said Nicola. “And he does have a very unusual name, doesn’t he? Do you know any other boys called Tofu?”

Bertie shook his head. “Not at Steiner’s,” he said. “We’ve a got a Sirius in my class. There’s a girl called Quinoa in one of the senior classes. She lives in Stockbridge. Quinoa’s a sort of grain, isn’t it?”

“Yes,” said Nicola. “But do you know why Tofu’s called Tofu?”

“His dad is a very famous vegan,” said Bertie. “He’s written a book about nuts and he’s converted his car to run on olive oil. Sometimes you can see him parked outside Valvona & Crolla filling the car up with olive oil.”

“Very strange,” said Nicola. “But back to Macbeth, Bertie, what did you think of it? Did you enjoy it?”

Bertie nodded. “I felt sorry for ­Macbeth,” he said. “I think that Lady Macbeth made him kill King Duncan.”

Nicola agreed. “She was a very manipulative woman, a bit like …” She stopped herself in time. She had almost said like Mummy, which would have been a tactless thing to say. But it is ­absolutely true, she thought; Irene is Lady Macbeth. Stuart had married Lady Macbeth.

“You know, Bertie,” she went on, “Macbeth was probably quite a good king in real life. We’re told that Scotland prospered under him. It was still a dangerous place, though. There was a lot of rivalry between the different factions – that’s always been a big problem in Scotland. We fight with one another.” She paused, thinking of the discourtesy that marred Scottish politics. “We do not have a particularly edifying political culture, Bertie, but at least we don’t use claymores any more.”

“Ranald’s daddy went to a recreation of the Battle of Bannockburn last year,” sad Bertie. “He said that there were people dressed up in armour. They had swords and lances too. He said that he didn’t think they had proportional representation in those days, Granny.”

“No indeed,” said Nicola. “Now, Bertie, it’s far too early to set off for the kilt maker. They don’t open until nine, you see. So I suggest that you sit quietly and read while I get up and get myself organised.”

There was a small bedroom chair in Nicola’s room and Bertie sat himself down on that. The book that Nicola had been reading lay on the floor beside the chair, and Bertie picked this up, examined the title and began to read.

“This is very sad,” he said after a while.

“What’s sad, Bertie?” asked Nicola, from behind her make-up mirror.

Bertie held up the book: Jean Findlay’s biography of Charles Scott Moncrieff. “Mr Scott Moncrieff went off war in France and then he became sick and died. That’s very sad.”

“Well, he managed to do quite a lot in between going off to war and dying,” said Nicola. “He translated Proust into English, for instance.”

Bertie laid down the book. “Who’s Proust?”

“Proust was a French writer,” said Nicola. “He wrote about … well, he wrote about a lot of things. He paid great attention to the small details of life.”

“Did he write about pirates?” asked Bertie.

Nicola smiled. “No, I don’t think Proust wrote about pirates. He wrote about cakes, though – Madeleine cakes.” She remembered something else. “He may not have written about pirates, but he did write about boats sometimes. He said something about steamships, as I recall.”

Bertie’s attention was engaged. “I like steamships a lot,” he said. “Did Mr Proust like them?”

“No,” said Nicola. “He said that steamships insulted the dignity of distance.”

“That’s a very odd thing to say,” said Bertie. Then he changed the subject. “Do you like martinis, Granny?”

Nicola looked sideways at her grandson. She did like martinis, but what had possessed him to ask?

It was as if Bertie had intercepted her unexpressed question. “Because Mummy says you have a weakness of them. She says that you probably have them for breakfast – but I’ve never seen you eating martinis for breakfast.”

“You don’t eat martinis, Bertie,” said Nicola indulgently. “You drink them.”

“Then you do have them for breakfast,” said Bertie, quite politely. “I’ve seen you.”