Both had enjoyed the outing – Bertie because his long-held wish to own a kilt had been fulfilled; Nicola because she had seen the expression of unqualified delight on her grandson’s face as the kilt had been extracted from its wrapping of tissue paper and handed over to him, to be donned immediately, adjusted by the kilt-maker, and then given the final nod of approval. Nicola had asked about a boy’s sporran, but had been told that these would not be coming into stock for a few weeks yet.
“We shall notify you immediately we get them,” said the kilt-maker. “But in the meantime, I’d suggest just wearing it without a sporran. Anything goes these days, you know. People wear kilts with boots, for instance, and lots of people forget about the sgian dubh.” He sighed. “To such a pass have things come …”
“That’s the little knife people tuck into their stockings,” Nicola explained.
Bertie’s eyes widened as he saw his chance. “Couldn’t I wear a Swiss Army knife instead, Granny? I don’t mind.”
The kilt-maker exchanged glances with Nicola, and smiled. “I’m afraid not, young man,” he said. “But when you’re a bit older, come back and we’ll fix you up with a real sgian dubh.”
At length they left the shop with Bertie’s dungarees neatly wrapped up in a brown paper parcel and tied up with string. “We could leave the dungarees here in the shop,” he suggested. “Then we could pick them up some other time.”
“I don’t think so,” said Nicola. “Mummy might wonder where they are.” And she thought: I can just imagine it: ‘Where, may I ask, are Bertie’s secondary dungarees?’ What a cow that woman is.
‘But she’d never know,” said Bertie. “She’s going to be away for years, I think. She really likes it in the desert.”
Nicola thought: Oh, if only! But that Bedouin sheik in his desert fastness is not going to be able to tolerate her for much longer; poor man, who can blame him? And there’s one thing you can be quite certain of – sheiks, for all their undoubted talents, are not exactly new men.
The kilt-maker raised an eyebrow.
“It’s a complicated story,” Nicola explained. “The mother is …” She leaned forward to whisper something to the kilt-maker. “Actually, the poor woman’s in a harem somewhere on the Persian Gulf. Terribly sad, but there we are – we soldier on.” She did not mention the fact that Irene appeared to be enjoying herself and had started a harem book club in which the latest novels (reviewed in The Guardian) were discussed with great interest by the members.
The kilt-maker looked shocked. “Poor wee fellow,” he said. “How’s he bearing up?”
“Oh, actually he rather likes the situation,” said Nicola. “As I said, it’s a complicated story.”
Now, as they approached Scotland Street, Bertie’s heart was close to bursting. Remembering the story his grandmother had begun for him, the story of Fersie Macpherson, the Scottish Person, he asked, “Do you think that Fersie Macpherson had a kilt like this when he was my age, Granny?”
Nicola assured him that he did. “Fersie Macpherson had tartan nappies when he was a baby,” she said. “Ancient Macpherson tartan. Then, when he was a bit older, maybe one and a half, he got his first kilt. They went into Oban to buy it and he never took it off until he was three, and got his next kilt.”
“Except in the bath,” said Bertie.
“Of course. Mind you, he played a lot outside when he was very small. He was mostly washed by the rain. There’s a lot of rain over there in Lochaber and they would just put Fersie outside to get him clean. It toughened him up too.”
“He was jolly strong, wasn’t he?”
“Yes. He started to toss the caber when he was only five, Bertie – a couple of years younger than you. He threw his first telephone pole then. Everybody was astonished. He tossed it at least five feet. It was amazing. There was an article about it in the Oban Times.”
“I bet he had a Swiss Army Penknife,” muttered Bertie.
Nicola did not reply to that. “Remember that he was a kind boy, Bertie. Very strong people are usually kind. It’s only the weaklings who are unkind to other people.”
“I know that,” said Bertie. “I’ll try to be kind too, Granny – now that I have a kilt.”
Nicola looked down the little boy walking beside her. She wanted to lift him up and hug him. She wanted him to stay like this forever. She wanted him to have the fun he was missing, to get some enjoyment out of life, to set out on any one of the glorious paths that lay before him before, one by one, life closed them off.
They reached Number 44 and Nicola opened the door to the stair. Bertie began to bound up, as he usually did, but stopped half way up to see who was coming downstairs towards them. There was a snuffling sound and then a familiar bark as Cyril, accompanied by his owner, Angus Lordie, came into view.
“Well, well,” said Angus as he saw Bertie. “You’re wearing the kilt, Bertie. That’s a fine thing.”
Bertie beamed as Angus admired his new kilt. Bending down, he patted Cyril on the head and the dog, famous for his gold tooth, gave him a broad smile of welcome.
“Is Cyril going for a walk, Mr Lordie?” asked Bertie.
“He is indeed, Bertie,” said Angus. “We’re having a bit of an issue about dogs in the Drummond Place Gardens, but I take the view that regulations do not apply to Cyril. He’s a special case in my view.” He paused as Nicola caught up with them. “And good morning to you, Nicola. I was complimenting your grandson on his very fine kilt. And let’s see …” He broke off and looked at Bertie with dismay. “No sporran, Bertie?”
“They didn’t have one,” explained Bertie.
Angus frowned. “I think we might be able to do something about that. I still have the sporran I wore as a boy and … well, sporrans in cupboards are of no use to anybody. A sporran on a boy is another matter altogether.”
Bertie held his breath. He thought he understood, but he hardly dared hope.
“Nicola?” Angus went on. “Why don’t the two of you join me within. Domenica has gone shopping and so whatever coffee is served will be made by me, although …” He looked at his watch. “A martini, perhaps?”
© 2015 Alexander McCall Smith
• Alexander McCall Smith welcomes comments from readers. Write to him c/o The Editor, The Scotsman, Level 7, Orchard Brae House, 30 Queensferry Road, Edinburgh, EH4 2HS or via e-mail at [email protected]