Having picked up Ulysses from Stuart’s care, Nicola was free to accompany Bertie and his small brother by bus to Ranald Braveheart Macpherson’s house
Irene had always referred to this house as la casa di Macpherson, in a rather sarcastic tone, as if the Macphersons themselves had given it a pretentious name. In fact, Irene frequently gave houses names that she thought the owners might apply to them in innocence of the mockery they would attract. A retired financier, for example, would live in a house called Dun Speculating, while couples whom she considered hopelessly suburban would be described as occupying Mon Actual Repos. Others might live in Bourgeois Towers, or La Maison des Nouveaux Riches, or simply Nouveau Riche.
Nicola had heard her do this, and did not approve. It was only too easy to laugh at the aspirations of others and ignore one’e own. But where did you start with somebody like Irene? Where could you possibly start? The Macpherson house was, in fact, a rather comfortable one, and not at all pretentious. It was typical of the sort of house built in the 1880s by speculative builders who had bought land to the south of Edinburgh, and who were creating new suburbs for those wishing to migrate from the New Town and the reekiness of Auld Reeekie. In this way Morningside had come into existence, providing families with the rus in urbe benefits of fresher air and a view of the Pentland Hills. That Morningside came, in due course, to be synonymous with a rather prissy respectability did not detract from the haven it provided for those keen to pursue the universal suburban dream – space, security, and, if you were lucky, just enough garden room, in the fleeting Scottish summer, to unfold a deck chair or grow a single row of beans.
The Macpherson house in Albert Terrace, perched on the crest of the hill that fell away down into Morningside, was fortunate in having a large walled garden in which there were several well-established trees. At the end of this garden was an area that Ranald’s father had allowed to grow wild, and this had become overgrown with brambles, rhododendrons and a luxuriant and impenetrable stand of bamboo. From the perspective of a small boy, it was a jungle, every bit as full of possibility as a slice of real jungle in Africa or the Far East.
“I think there may be wild animals in my garden,” Ranald once said to Bertie. “I think I’ve seen signs of them.”
“You’re jolly brave,” said Bertie. “There are no wild animals in the Drummond Place Gardens.”
“I’m not saying that there are zebras or anything like that,” said Ranald. “But I think there may one or two of those big cats – you know, jaguars, or panthers, or something like that. I’ve read that some of those have got loose and are hiding in people’s gardens.”
“Or wolves?” asked Bertie. “Do you think there might be wolves?”
Ranald was not sure. “Sometimes I’ve heard howling,” he said. “But I think that might just have been a dog somewhere. But it might be a wolf for all I know.”
“It’s best to be careful,” said Bertie.
When they arrived, it was Ranald who opened the front door to them.
“Well, well,” exclaimed Nicola. “Look at Ranald, Bertie – he’s wearing his kilt. Isn’t that nice?”
“Why are you wearing your kilt, Ranald?” asked Bertie.
Ranald pointed over his shoulder into the house. “I always do on Saturdays, Bertie. My Dad has his Scottish country dance group. He likes me to wear the kilt when they’re here.”
“Isn’t that nice?” said Nicola, peering beyond Ranald into the hall beyond. “To have Scottish country dancing on a Saturday afternoon … In Morningside ….” She paused. “Perhaps next time Bertie could wear his kilt next time and join in.”
Bertie shook his head. “Mummy made my kilt into a cushion, Granny.”
Nicola bit her lip. That woman!
“I’ve got a spare one,” said Ranald. “But I’m sorry, I can’t let you wear it, Bertie. It’s a Macpherson kilt and only Macphersons can wear it.”
“I don’t mind,” said Bertie. “If those are the rules, Ranald, I don’t mind. It’s not your fault.”
“Yes, they are the rules,” said Ranald. “I’m very sorry about that, Bertie.”
“Well,” said Nicola. “I’ll come back for Bertie at six-thirty. I think that’s what your Mummy said, Ranald.”
Ranald nodded. “She said that Bertie can have his tea here and then go back to Scotland Street. She said he’d get a better meal here.”
“Did she now?” said Nicola.
She bent down and kissed the top of Bertie’s head. Once she had gone, Bertie followed Ranald Braveheart Macpherson along a corridor to his room. He always enjoyed being in the Macpherson house, as the walls were lined with pictures of clan events – battles and gatherings, farewells and arrivals – all the things that made Scottish history so stirring. He paused at a large coloured engraving of Charles Edward Stuart, Bonnie Prince Charlie no less, about to embark on a rowing boat. The oarsmen, of whom there were four, were all obvious Highlanders, windswept and wild in their appearance, their brows set to the task in hand. In the background, towering above a range of Highland mountains, storm clouds signalled tricky weather ahead.
“That’s Bonnie Prince Charlie,” said Ranald. “My Dad is a big fan of his. He says he’s going to come back one of these days.”
Bertie frowned. “I don’t think so, Ranald. I think Prince Charlie’s dead.”
Ranald Braveheart Macpherson looked at Bertie with dismay. “Dead, Bertie? Since when?”
“Oh ages, Ranald. Months and months. Ages. That’s why that song goes Bonnie Charlie’s noo awa’ … You know the one? That means Bonnie Charlie’s now away. That means he’s dead, Ranald.”
Ranald lip quivered. “My Dad’s going to be really sad, Bertie.”
Bertie looked sympathetic. “Maybe someone else will come instead, Ranald. You never know.”
Ranald shook his head. “I bet it was the Campbells. I bet they got rid of Prince Charlie.”
“Very likely,” said Bertie. “Campbells are very wicked people, Ranald. Everybody knows that.”
They moved on to Ranald’s room. Drifting through from the drawing room came the first strains of Mairi’s Wedding as interpreted by Jimmy Shand and his Band.
“My Dad and his friends are going to start dancing,” said Ranald. “They always play that tune when they’re about to begin.”
In the sitting room, unseen at that point by Bertie and Ranald Braveheart Macpherson, six couples, the men in kilts, the women in long tartan skirts and white tops, took their places for the first dance. This was regular meeting, brought about after Ranald’s father’s conviction by Edinburgh Sheriff Court for a regulatory financial offence connected with his company. It was not an offence of dishonesty, but it did involve disregard of the law, and for that the Sheriff deemed it appropriate to impose a community service order. The resulting sentence was two hundred hours of Scottish country dancing, the first forty of which had already been danced, and the remaining one hundred and sixty were yet to be completed.