Scotland Street Volume 17, Chapter 9: Wee Feartie

The Nutcracker having been a matinée performance, Bob and Finlay stepped off the 23 bus at Canonmills shortly before six that evening.
44 Scotland Street44 Scotland Street
44 Scotland Street

Finlay looked up at Bob as they made their way towards their front door. “You’re really kind, Bob,” the small boy said. “I think you’re the kindest man in Scotland.”

The words touched Bob’s heart. “Oh, that can’t be true, Finlay,” he said, trying to keep his voice even. “There are lots of people who are much kinder.”

“Name one,” said Finlay.

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Bob smiled. “Well, there’s one name comes to mind straight away. Big Lou. I don’t know anybody kinder than her, come to think of it.”

Finlay frowned. “I said man. Big Lou’s a woman. There are loads of kind women. Loads.”

“Are you saying that women are kinder than men?” Bob asked.

Finlay did not hesitate. “Yes. Girls are nicer than boys – everybody knows that.”

Bob reached out to put a hand on Finlay’s shoulder. He tried to remember what it was like to be nine. Had he thought, when he was nine, that girls were nicer than boys? Did he think now, for that matter, that women were nicer than men? It all depended, surely, on what one meant by nice.

He decided to find out more about what Finlay felt.

“Do you prefer to be with girls or with boys?” he asked. “I mean, would you rather spend time with girls than with boys?”

Finlay looked thoughtful. “It all depends,” he said. “I like some boys, and I like some girls. It depends on what’s going on at the time.”

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Bob thought about that. It depends on what’s going on at the time. That was a factor that played a part in any judgement about anything.

“I like to play football with boys,” Finlay went on. “But I don’t like it when other boys fight.”

“Don’t girls fight?” asked Bob.

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Finlay shook his head. “No. Girls aren’t as violent as boys. Everybody knows that.”

Bob felt that he had to agree. Women were not as interested in war and destruction as men were. Everybody knew that.

“I like talking to girls,” Finlay went on, “because they ask you what you feel about things.”

“And boys don’t?”

Finlay shook his head. “No. Boys want you to feel the same way as they do – about everything.”

Bob smiled. “I see.” He paused. “Do some boys laugh at you because you like ballet? Does that happen?”

Finlay shrugged. “Some do. But not many.”

Bob thought back to his childhood. Boys had become more civilised, it seemed.

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“And the ones that do are usually just trying to look strong,” Finlay continued, “when they really aren’t – not inside.”

“That’s true,” reflected Bob. “Really strong people don’t laugh at things like ballet.”

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“And you should know,” said Finlay. “You’re a strongman, aren’t you?”

“It’s one of the things I do,” said Bob. “Only at Highland Games, though.”

Then Finlay said, “Those boys down on Bonnington Road were laughing at you, you know. They said you called yourself a strongman when you should really call yourself a fat man.”

Bob winced. “You heard them?”

Finlay nodded. “They were laughing at you. Particularly that boy called Jimmy Purves. You know him. He’s in P5, but he tells people he’s in P7. He’s a big fibber. He’s the one who said it.”

“I hope you ignored him,” said Bob, through clenched teeth.

“Yes,” said Finlay. “I ignored him – but only after I’d hit him.”

Bob stifled a laugh. “You shouldn’t hit people, Finlay. You know that. Hitting people solves nothing.” That was the official position, of course. In reality, Bob took great pleasure in the thought that Finlay had hit Jimmy Purves. It was so well-deserved. He knew the father – Wally Purves – and had never had much time for him.

“I know,” said Finlay. “I know I shouldn’t. Sorry, Bob.”

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Bob winked. “But I bet he didn’t like it. I bet he ran away.”

“Yes,” said Finlay. “Wee feartie.”

They had reached the front door. In the kitchen, Big Lou had prepared sausages and chips for their tea, and the three of then sat round the table and discussed The Nutcracker.

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“The Russians are very musical people,” Big Lou said. “Strange, isn’t it? They’re always upset about something. All their songs are so soulful.”

“They never got to the moon,” Finlay said.

“Neither did we,” said Bob, and laughed.

Big Lou gave Finlay a second helping of chips. Then she offered the pan to Bob, who looked into it, eyeing the crispy slices of fried potatoes. He saw the salt glisten on their surface; he noted the way the gold faded into brown. It was difficult, if not impossible, to imagine anything more delicious.

“These sausages are from Saunderson’s,” said Big Lou cheerfully. “You won’t find a better sausage.”

“I like them a lot,” said Finlay. “I like sausages and pizza and . . .”

“Anything unhealthy,” said Big Lou. “They’re all right, but you must remember to eat your broccoli and carrots and so on. We don’t want you to turn into a great lump like . . .”

She did not finish.

Like me? thought Bob.

“Like Lard O’Connor,” Big Lou finished.

“Who’s Lard O’Connor?” asked Finlay.

“Was,” said Big Lou. “He’s deid now. He was a man from Glasgow. Some folk said he was a bit of a rascal.”

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“Big time,” said Bob. “I never met him, but people used to talk about him down in Leith. He went there from time to time when he wasn’t in Barlinnie.”

Bob pushed the chip pan away. “No thanks, Lou,” he said. “I’ve had enough.”

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Big Lou looked at him with astonishment. “Are you feeling all right, Bob? I’ve never known you to turn away a second helping of my French fries.”

“Well, I have now,” said Bob.

Finlay yawned. “I’m feeling really tired,” he said. “Can I go and read in my room?”

“Of course you can,” said Big Lou. “Have a bath first, and then straight off to bed.”

Now they were alone at the table, and Big Lou turned to Bob. “You sure you’re feeling okay, Bob?”

Bob took a deep breath. “I have to lose weight,” he said. “I have to.”

Big Lou looked at him suspiciously. “Why now? Has somebody said something? Have you been to see the doctor?”

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Bob sighed. “Finlay made a remark. And passed on another one.”

“Oh dear. He’s only a wee boy. I’m sure he doesn’t understand what he’s saying.”

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“Oh, he kens fine,” said Bob. “And he’s right, Lou. I have to. Now. Not tomorrow. Not the day after that. Now.”

© Alexander McCall Smith, 2023. The Stellar Debut of Galactica MacFee will be published by Polygon in November, price £17.99. The author welcomes comments from readers and can be contacted on [email protected]