New Scotland Street Chapter 16: Wee Moupie

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Big Lou had changed the opening hours of her coffee bar. A piece of laminated paper, stuck to the front door, announced that the premises would shut at four in the afternoon. It made no real difference to the business – the two hours between then and the old closing time of six were never particularly busy.

The notice announcing this change had been couched in tactful terms. After extensive consultation with customers, it has been decided to close the coffee bar at 4:00pm each day rather than 6:00pm. It was true that there had been consultation, but it had hardly been extensive. In fact, it had consisted of no more than a brief conversation with Matthew, who had said, “Sure, why not?” and one with Angus Lordie, who had said, “I didn’t know you were open after four anyway.” In Big Lou’s view, these two regular customers could be taken as speaking for the entire public, and the decision was taken.

The reason for this change had nothing to do with any laziness on Big Lou’s part. She had been used to working long hours all her life; even as a small girl, she had put in lengthy periods working on the family farm, helping with the lambing, rounding up sheep, mucking out the byre – all the tasks that a farm-child takes in her stride. And she came from a part of the world where hard work was taken for granted, where people accepted responsibility for themselves and their families, and where leisure was a rare treat. There was always something to do on a farm, there was always something to be cleaned, or painted, or put away. That was the way it had always been, from the days when the hay was scythed by hand, the cattle driven to market along drove roads, and when everybody retired to bed by eight at the latest, tired to the bone from the day’s work.

The reason for the change in opening hours was connected with Big Lou’s foster son, Finlay. She had taken this little boy, Bertie’s contemporary, into her home after he had had a bad start in life with parents who, for various reasons, were unable to give him the love and attention he deserved. That was what he needed above all other things, and that was what Lou, in the bigness of her heart, gave him unconditionally. From being shy and withdrawn, uncertain as to where he stood in the face of confusing life events, Finlay had blossomed into a secure and happy child, safely settled at Flora Stevenson primary school in Stockbridge, and now a promising member of a small ballet class.

At the end of each school day, Finlay was picked up by a woman with whom Big Lou had an arrangement. This woman looked after three children after school, keeping them in her flat in Stockbridge until a parent collected them at the end of the working day. This small after-school club suited all parties: the woman earned a bit of money and the parents were secure in the knowledge that their children would be well looked after.

This arrangement might have continued unchanged had it not been for Finlay’s suddenly expressed desire to learn go to ballet classes. This had happened when Lou’s eye was caught by a television showing of The Red Shoes. It was on an evening when Finlay was up late, having been unable to settle because of a gastric upset. He was lying on a couch with her, enjoying the joint treat of more time with Lou and late-night television. When The Red Shoes started, Lou assumed that Finlay would at last doze off, allowing her to transfer him to his bed. The opposite, though, was the case, and Finlay, from being somnolent, rapidly became alert.

He watched the film intently, and at the end said, “Lou, can I do that? Do you think I can do that?”

“Do what, Wee Moupie?” Wee Moupie was her pet name for Finlay – a name that he appeared to accept quite happily. The name just came to Big Lou, as fond names for children so often do. A moup was a Scottish rabbit, and that might have been the inspiration – Big Lou was not quite sure. But it suited him, as such names usually do.

“Dance.”

She looked at him quizzically. “You liked it? You liked the dancing?”

Finlay nodded vigorously. “Very much, Lou. I really want to do it myself. Could I, do you think?”

The request was made with earnestness and urgency. Even so, Lou was hesitant. “You haven’t tried it yet,” he said. “It’s one thing watching people dancing on television – it’s another, you know, to actually dance yourself. It’s a lot of hard work.”

“I don’t care,” said Finlay. “I’d still like to do it.”

Big Lou smiled indulgently. “Not many boys do ballet,” she said. “It’s mostly girls, I think.”

It was a difficult subject to deal with. Where she came from – the rural hinterland – there would have been no doubt about how boys, among themselves, viewed ballet. She doubted whether those attitudes would have changed all that much. But this was Edinburgh, of course, and things might be expected to be different, especially in Stockbridge where boys were probably encouraged to be in touch with their balletic side. Or was it altogether wrong to regard ballet as a feminine interest? There was a widespread tendency to do that, but was that now considered outdated if not actually impermissible? Big Lou was not sure: the problem with the Zeitgeist, she felt, was that it was not always easy to tell if you were in touch with it quite as closely as you were meant to be.

“I don’t care,” said Finlay. “I bet I’d be good at it.”

He smiled at her, and her heart gave a lurch. Finlay’s arrival in her life had been a miracle, she thought, and that original miracle had been compounded time and time again as she witnessed the occasions of the small boy’s happiness. She could scarcely believe how easy it had been to bring him joy; how much he had appreciated the attention she gave him; how much he valued the fact that in her flat in Canonmills he had a room of his own, filled with his things, and decorated according to his taste. For there on the walls were his framed picture of the Hearts football team, the players lined up and smiling as if victory in all their endeavours was all but assured; there, hanging from the ceiling, were his model planes, painstakingly assembled from balsa-wood kits; and there, on the dresser, was his stuffed Pluto the dog, faithful companion of Mickey Mouse, that he had brought with him from the children’s home.

“You really want to try it?”

He nodded eagerly. “Really, really, really.”

“Then I’ll find out where there’s a class.”

Finlay flung himself into her arms and kissed her. He smelled of freckles, and untidy hair, and boy. She let her cheek linger against his. She said, “Oh, Wee Moupie …”

He looked at her, and smiled again.