It did not take long for Bertie and Ranald Braveheart Macpherson to get bored with the Scottish country dancing that was taking place – under the terms of a community service sentence – in the Macpherson’s large sitting room.
Jimmy Shand, played on an expensive stereo system, wheezed his way through the repertoire, bringing Auchtermuchty into the heart of Morningside. Close one’s eyes and one might be in Oban, in the bar of the Royal Hotel, or in Tobermory, at a ceilidh in the Western Isles Hotel; open them and one was back in Edinburgh, watching six couples work their way through the intricacies of increasingly obscure traditional dances. Some of these dances had no discernible beginning, nor middle, nor indeed end, and just went on and on until the accordionist and his colleagues succumbed to fatigue or, as in the case of one famous regular ceilidh in an Argyll village hall, until the accordionist, being too drunk to continue playing, fell backwards off his chair, thereby signalling an end to the evening of polite and couthie entertainment.
“Have you had enough of this, Bertie?” whispered Ranald as the dancers prepared for the third Gay Gordons of the afternoon.
Bertie nodded. “I wouldn’t mind doing something else, Ranald,” he replied. “But it’s your house – you decide.”
Ranald leaned closer to his friend. “I’ve had an idea, Bertie. Would you like to hear what it is?”
Bertie said that he would.
“Then we’ll need to go to my room,” said Ranald. “I’ll tell you there.”
They left just as the music started. On the first bar, several of the dancers let out a whoop of delight – that signal, familiar to all practitioners of Scottish country dancing, that at least somebody is enjoying himself.
In his bedroom, the door closed firmly against the music, Ranald told Bertie of his plan.
“I saw something in the Evening News,” he said. “It was an advertisement for a circus, Bertie. I asked my Mummy to read it to me …”
“You should learn how to read, Ranald,” said Bertie. “It’s really useful, you know.”
“I know that,” said Ranald. “I’m planning to learn next week. I’ve been a bit busy, you see.”
“And write too,” said Bertie. “That’s useful too.”
“I will,” said Ranald. “But do you want to hear about my idea?”
Ranald lowered his voice. ‘There’s a circus on the Meadows – just down the road, Bertie. It’s a proper circus, with clowns and a trapeze and everything. A real circus.”
Bertie’s eyes widened. “A trapeze?”
“Ranald nodded. “Yes. And some performing dogs too, I think. There was a picture of them in the paper.”
“I wish I could go,” said Bertie. “I can mention it to my grandmother, Ranald. Then maybe you could come too, if she took us.”
“But I think we should go right now,” said Ranald. “There’s going to be an afternoon show today – a matinée. We could easily go.”
Bertie stared at his friend. Was he suggesting what Bertie thought he might be? Was he actually proposing to go unaccompanied? The idea, so bold and dangerous, nonetheless appealed.
“By bus?” Bertie asked.
“Yes,” said Ranald. “There’s one that goes from the end of the road.”
A practical issue occurred to Bertie. “But how are we going to pay, Ranald? I haven’t got any money with me.”
Ranald did not think this would be a problem. “I’ve got stacks of money in my piggy bank, Bertie. Dollars, Euros, the lot. Dad gives them to me. I’ll pay.”
“I’ll pay you back, Ranald. One of these days I’ll pay you back.”
Ranald was generous. “No need, Bertie. You can be my slave, if you like. That could do instead.”
Bertie was hesitant. The last person whose slave he agreed to be was Tofu, in return for two back numbers of the Beano. It had not been a good bargain, as Tofu had extracted his pound of flesh – and more – remorselessly until Bertie had stood up to him and said that his period of voluntary servitude was at an end. Ranald was a more reasonable master, though, and suggested that if Bertie carried his books in and out of the classroom for a week and did his arithmetic homework for him, that would be more than adequate.
They set off, slipping out of the house unnoticed by the adults who were halfway through a three-couple longwise set of the Reel of the 51st Division. Catching a 23 bus before it lumbered down the brae towards Holy Corner, Ranald and Bertie barely had time to find their seats on the top deck before they reached their stop at Tollcross. Thereafter it was a ten-minute walk to the Meadows and to the sight of a striped big top, pitched amongst the trees of the park, the Saltire flying proudly from the top of the protruding central pole.
Ranald nudged Bertie. “That’s it, Bertie. That’s the circus I told you about. You see, I was right.”
Bertie was almost too excited to speak. “Yes,” he said. “You were right, Ranald.”
They ran across the grass to the ticket office, a small tent pitched near the entrance to the Big Top. Behind a counter, smoking a cigarette and talking on a mobile phone, a woman with a prominent neck tattoo looked down on the two boys.
“Are youses under ten?” she asked.
“Yes,” said Bertie.
“No,” said Ranald.
“Make up your minds,” said the woman curtly. And then into the phone, “There are some weans here who dinnae ken their own age.”
Something was said at the other end of the line, and the woman laughed.
“Half price,” she said to Ranald, who had extracted a Royal Bank of Scotland twenty-pound note from his pocket.
Ranald paid, and then he and Bertie made their way towards the entrance.
“So, boys,” said the attendant to whom Ranald handed the tickets. “You look like a couple of likely lads.”
Ranald and Bertie looked up at the man. They could not help but notice that he had one good eye and one that was clouded and opaque. His teeth were blackened and his lips seemed stained yellow with nicotine. He had only one complete arm, the other terminating in a stainless steel hook to which a cigarette holder had been attached.
Finding their way to two empty seats, Ranald said to Bertie, “That man, Bertie …”
“The one with the funny eye?”
“Yes,” said Ranald. “Do you think he’s English? I think he looks it.”
Bertie nodded. “Maybe, Ranald.”
Ranald Braveheart Macpherson lowered his voice. “My Dad says you have to watch out for the English. The English and Campbells.” He paused. “Perhaps we should be ready to run, Bertie.”
“I don’t think so,” said Bertie, adding, “And you know something, Ranald: people can’t help it if they’re English. And Campbells can’t either. It’s not nice to blame people who can’t help it.”
Ranald looked doubtful. “Are you sure, Bertie?”
“Yes,” said Bertie. “I’m very sure, Ranald.”