44 Scotland Street: Spontaneous combustion

Illustration: Iain McIntosh
Illustration: Iain McIntosh
Share this article
Have your say

The thirty-first installment in Alexander McCall Smith’s new daily novel

BERTIE and his father made their way along Cumberland Street in the direction of Stockbridge and the Water of Leith. Cyril, who was delighted at being taken for a walk, pulled on his lead with all the eagerness of a dog confident that whatever the purpose of their trip may be – and human purposes are frequently opaque to the canine mind – a challenging range of scents awaited classification. Some of these would be familiar – the human scents that ran like ley-lines along the pavements, or the irritating, provocative scent of cats drifting down from walls and other places of feline safety – while others would require a pause and reflection. Cyril had all the time in the world for the evaluation of scents, but he knew that the same did not apply to humans, who seemed puzzlingly indifferent to the world of the nose. A walk, in the canine view, should be a compromise between these two opposing visions, but usually proceeded at the pace dictated by humans. Boys, Cyril noticed, seemed more receptive to the idea of stopping every few yards to allow dogs to deal with scents, but even Bertie tired of constantly interrupting the walk to permit further olfactory investigation.

Picture: Submitted

Picture: Submitted

“Well, this is fun, isn’t it, Bertie?” said Stuart as they reached the top of St Stephen Street.

Bertie nodded. “I like going for walks, Daddy,” he said. “Just you and me and…” He hesitated. He was a loyal boy, and he knew that he shouldinclude Ulysses and Irene, but somehow…

Stuart saved the moment. “Yes, Bertie,” he said. “Just you and me. And Cyril, of course – when he’s available.”

Bertie reached up and took his father’s hand. “Maybe we could go camping one day, Daddy. You and I could have a big tent and we’d get a small tent for Cyril.”

“Good idea,” said Stuart.

“Could we go camping in Glasgow?” asked Bertie

Stuart smiled. “Glasgow? You’re rather fond of Glasgow, aren’t you, Bertie?”

“Yes,” replied Bertie; Glasgow was freedom to him. “Remember when we went to Glasgow to get the car? Remember how we went to Mr O’Connor’s house?”

Stuart smiled again. “I remember that well, Bertie. He was quite a man, was Mr O’Connor.”

“I’m sorry that he died,” said Bertie.

“Yes, it’s a great pity,” agreed Stuart.

“What did he do for a living, Daddy? Did he work for the Scottish Government, like you?”

Stuart tried to look serious. “Not quite, Bertie. I think Lard O’Connor bought and sold things. Or maybe just sold them – I’m not sure if he did much buying.”

“And his friend, Gerry, helped him in the business?”

Stuart said that he thought this was so. Gerry, he imagined, was an enforcer, and would undoubtedly have been able to offer his talents elsewhere.

“Gerry will be missing him,” said Bertie.

“He’ll probably be all right,” said Stuart. “These fellows are quite tough, you know Bertie. They bounce back. Glasgow’s a bit different from Edinburgh, you see. Gerry will be all right.”

Bertie thought about this for a moment, and decided that this was enough about Glasgow and Mr O’Connor. There was something else he wanted to ask his father.

“I was reading something, Daddy,” he said.

Stuart looked at him enquiringly. Bertie’s reading habits were extraordinary.

“You like your reading, don’t you, Bertie? What was it this time?”

“There was a magazine in the 23 bus,” Bertie said. “Somebody had left it there.”

“Oh yes?” Stuart sounded cautious.

“There was an article in it that I didn’t manage to finish,” Bertie began. “We reached Holy Corner and we had to get off. And Ulysses had just been sick over Mummy again, and I had to try to wipe it off her jersey. You know that red one? Mummy had given him some squashed beetroot so it didn’t matter too much. The sick was all red, you see. It was full of little bits of beetroot.”

“Yes, Bertie, I can imagine. But what was the article you read?”

“It was about spontaneous combustion. It said that people can be walking along and then suddenly – whoosh – they go up in flames. They burn to bits and all that’s left is the shoes. There was a photograph.”

“A photograph of somebody spontaneously combusting? I don’t think so, Bertie. I don’t think they’ve ever recorded it in a photograph.”

“No, just the shoes,” explained Bertie. “They had a picture of some shoes with smoke coming out of them.”

Stuart laughed. “That would be fake, Bertie. Magazines do that sort of thing. There’s something called Photoshop. You can do things with photographs.”

“But they said that it really happens. Is that true, Daddy? Can people suddenly burn up altogether – just like that?”

“It’s a peculiar thing, Bertie. Some people say that it happens. I read something about it too – quite some time ago. But I think there have been cases where it seems to have happened. And I think that Charles Dickens…”

“Did Mr Dickens spontaneously combust, Daddy? Is that how he died?”

“No, Bertie, Charles Dickens wasn’t a victim of spontaneous combustion. But he did mention it in one of his books – Bleak House, I seem to recall. There’s an incident of spontaneous combustion in that novel, I think. It’s certainly a very odd thing.”

Bertie looked thoughtful. “Has it ever happened in Edinburgh?” he asked.

Stuart shook his head. “I don’t think so, Bertie.”

“Maybe it’s happened in Glasgow,” suggested Bertie.

“Possibly. Who knows? But I wouldn’t worry about it, if I were you.”

But Bertie was still intrigued. “I wonder if you just feel yourself getting a bit hotter,” he said. “Then you get hotter and hotter until you start to go on fire.”

“Possibly,” said Stuart. “But let’s not bother ourselves too much with spontaneous combustion, Bertie. As I said, it’s unlikely to happen in a place like Edinburgh, and even if it did, we have an excellent fire brigade. I’m sure that they’d know exactly what to do.”

“If you started to spontaneously combust, Daddy,” Bertie asked, “would you call the ambulance first, or the fire brigade?”

Stuart thought for a moment. “That’s an interesting conundrum, Bertie. Very interesting indeed.”



The sight of Cyril apparently dancing an Irish jig doesn’t impress one of the customers at the bar – an animal welfare officer. Despite assurances from both Angus and Matthew that no dog in Edinburgh is better cared for, the man asks for Angus’s name and address. He is, he says, going to file a report with a view to taking Cyril into care....


After discussing the merits or otherwise of reincarnation, and in particular how it applies to residents of Edinburgh’s New Town, Big Lou admits to Matthew that her romance with Alex, the pig farmer from Mains of Mochle, has run its course. Worse, her biological clock is ticking particularly loudly these days.


Perhaps it was entirely predictable that Matthew’s casual suggestion that Big Lou could have one of their triplets wouldn’t have gone down well with his wife Elspeth. To a mere man, of course, it seemed to make perfect sense: Big Lou would be an excellent mother, and Elspeth had her hands so full looking after three toddlers that she wanted another au pair in order to give their ultra-capable Danish au pair Anna a break...


The omens aren’t good for Bertie’s seventh birthday party – not just because Olive and her girl friends have invited themselves to it but so have some of Tofu’s more thuggish friends too. As for presents, although he has set his heart on a bicycle and a Swiss Army pen-knife, the chances of his mother Irene buying either are remote. Indeed, as she prepares a talk for her bookclub on hidden meanings children’s literature – a talk that will savage Tintin for its amount of head trauma and Captian Haddock’s anger issues and attack AA Milne for the infantilisation of Winnie the Pooh – she reveals to her husband Stuart that what she really wants for Bertie is that he should be able to face up to the world as a woman does, to see everything through though female eyes. #


Convent life in Italy seems to have done surprisingly little to minimise Antonia Collie’s presumptuousness. Or at least that’s what it seems to Domenica and Angus when they read Antonia’s letter not only inviting herself to stay in her flat for three weeks but also to bring one of the nuns from the convent with her. One thing that could be said in reply to such a letter is that Antonia doesn’t have a flat in Scotland Street any more, having sold it to Domenica – but that would be inhospitable.


Oddly, for such an uber-narcissist, Bruce Anderston had never been to the Waxing Studio in Stockbridge before. And though it was always hard to improve on perfection, perhaps his eyebrows DID need a bit of attention. In the studio, his waxologist, Arlene, doesn’t seem to be too impressed by the famous Bruce physique and all-round good looks. Worse, she actually finds some features - nasal hair and warts – that could do with a bit of attention. Not that she seems particularly attentive, being preoccupied by telling Bruce about her divorce and the legal ramifications of a recent waxing accident. So preoccupied, in fact, that she doesn’t see that another waxing accident is about to happen …


Love – or what looks like love - can arrive at any moment and in any place. For Pat Macgregor it happened as she was sitting in the Elephant House cafe on George IV Bridge in Edinburgh, having a coffee to cheer herself up, so downhearted was she by the prospect of leaving university in a month or two. The man who sat at the table next to her introduced himself as Michael. He said he’d seen her before there a couple of times. She’d never noticed him, though, which suddenly seemed very strange, because the more she looked at his face, the more she realised it had the kind of harmonious proportions the Renaissance artists she was studying always looked for in their subjects. What more do we need to know about Michael? That he is handsome, works as a wood carver – and is 23. Exactly Pat’s age.


Angus Lordie hadn’t been looking forward to his appointment in the out-patients department of the Royal Edinburgh Hospital, where he was to be assessed by Dr Macgregor for somnambulism. Worrying over a cup of coffee at a Bruntsfield cafe, he is cheered up by – of all people – Ian Rankin (whom he does not know), who smiles at him and gives him the thumb’s up sign. Not that he mentions any of this to Dr Macgregor...


Meanwhile, in Scotland Street, it’s the morning of Bertie’s seventh birthday, and just as soon as he gets out of bed, he runs into his mother’s bedroom to ask, eagerly but politely, whether he has any birthday presents. He does too: from baby brother Ulysses, a Junior UN Peacekeeping Kit (“A fine gift for those who want to avoid militaristic play”). And from Irene and Stuart, a gender-neutral doll called Jo.....


It’s all very well never knowingly telling a lie, but there are some moments when even someone as innately honest as Bertie Pollock must feel tempted. One of those moments at school that morning, when Mr Cowie the teacher asks him about the presents he has received for his seventh birthday. A lesser boy would have refused to admit that he had received a doll. And a lesser boy wouldn’t have to face the mockery of Tofu and Larch …..

But everything goes badly for Bertie on his birthday. For one thing, his father is prepared to stand up to his mother and insist that Bertie’s Italian lesson should be cancelled and that the two of them should go for a walk down the Water of Leith – where Bertie is told he can dump the doll that Irene bought for him.

• Alexander McCall Smith welcomes comments from readers. Write to him c/o The Editor, The Scotsman, 108 Holyrood Road, Edinburgh. EH8 8AS, or via e-mail at 44scotlandstreet@scotsman.com.

© 2013 Alexander McCall Smith