Authors: Alexander McCall Smith
This book is for
Derek and Dilly Emslie
The 44 Scotland Street books, of which
The World According to Bertie
is the fourth, started as a single serial novel in
newspaper. When I began to write this story, I had no idea that the story would continue for as long as it has; nor had I any idea that Bertie, that engaging boy of six, burdened, as he is with his extremely demanding mother, would become so important a character. I certainly did not imagine that he would acquire so many supportersâor sympathisers, perhaps.
Bertie's problem is his mother, one of those ambitious parents who sees her son as a project rather than a little boy. Such mothers are legion, and many sons spend the rest of their lives trying to cut invisible but powerful apron strings. Bertie wants only to be a typical boy; he wants to have fun, to play with other boys, to do all the things that Irene's programme for him prevents him from doing. Instead he is forced to learn Italian, play the saxophone, and attend yoga classes for children.
Bertie seems to strike a chord with many readers. Recently I was in New York and attended a lunch where the first thing I was asked was how Bertie was doing. This happens to me throughout the world: people are more anxious about Bertie than they are about any of my other fictional characters. They want him to find freedom. They want him to escape.
This book continues the story of Bertieâwho has, quite astonishingly, remained six for the past four volumes, even while other characters have aged and progressed. But it does not deal only with BertieâI have carried on my conversation with Big Lou, Domenica, Angus Lordie, and all the others who have walked into Scotland Street and found their place in the saga. All of these people are, in their own way, looking for some sort of resolution in their lives, some happiness, which is what, I suppose, all of us are doing. Some of them find it in this volumeâor appear to find itâothers will have to wait. The whole point of a serial novel is that the future is open. If freedom eludes Bertie in this book, and if Big Lou does not just yet find romantic fulfilment, then all is not lostâthere is always another chapter.
Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â
Alexander McCall Smith
1. In Hanover Street. Watch Out, Pat, Bruce Is Backâ¦Or Is He?
Pat saw Bruce at ten o'clock on a Saturday morning, or at least that is when she thought she saw him. An element of doubt there certainly was. This centred not on the time of the sighting, but on the identity of the person sighted; for this was one of those occasions when one wonders whether the eye, or even the memory, has played a trick. And such tricks can be extraordinary, as when one is convinced that one has seen the late General de Gaulle coming out of a cinema, or when, against all reasonable probability, one thinks one has spotted Luciano Pavarotti on a train between Glasgow and Paisley; risible events, of course, but ones which underline the proposition that one's eyes are not always to be believed.
She saw Bruce while she was travelling on a bus from one side of Edinburghâthe South Side, where she now livedâto the New Town, on the north side of the city, where she worked three days a week in the gallery owned by her boyfriend, Matthew. The bus had descended with lumbering stateliness down the Mound, past the National Gallery of Scotland, and had turned into Hanover Street, narrowly missing an insouciant pedestrian at the corner. Pat had seen the near-missâit was by the merest whisker, she thoughtâand had winced, but it was just at that moment, as the bus laboured up Hanover Street towards the statue of George IV, that she saw a young man walking in the opposite direction, a tall figure with Bruce's characteristic
hairstyle and wearing precisely the sort of clothes that Bruce liked to wear on a Saturday: a rugby jersey celebrating Scotland's increasingly ancient Triple Crown victory and a pair of stone-coloured trousers.
Her eye being caught by the rugby jersey and the stone-coloured trousers, she turned her head sharply. Bruce! But now she could see only the back of his head, and after a moment she could not see even that; Bruce, or his double, had merged into a knot of people standing on the corner of Princes Street and Pat lost sight of him. She looked ahead. The bus would stop in a few yards; she could disembark and make her way down to Princes Street to see if it really was him. But then she reminded herself that if she did that she would arrive late at the gallery, and Matthew needed her to be there on time; he had stressed that. He had an appointment, he said, with a client who was proposing to place several important Colourist pictures on the market. She did not want to hold him up, and quite apart from that there was the question of whether she would want to see Bruce, even if it proved to be him. She thought on balance that she did not.
Bruce had been her flatmate when she had first moved into 44 Scotland Street. At first, she had been rather in awe of himâafter all, he was so confident in his manner, so self-assuredâand she at the time had been so much more diffident. Then things had changed. Bruce was undoubtedly good-lookingâa fact of which he was fully aware and of which he was very willing to take advantage; he knew very well that women found him attractive, and he assumed that Pat would prove no exception. Unfortunately, it transpired that he was right, and Pat found herself drawn to Bruce in a way which she did not altogether like. All this could have become very messy, but at the last moment, before her longing had been translated into anything beyond mere looking, she had come to her senses and decided that Bruce was an impossible narcissist. She fought to free herself of his spell, and she did. And then, having lost his job at the firm of surveyors (after being seen enjoying an intimate lunch in the CafÃ© St HonorÃ© with the wife of the firm's senior partner), Bruce decided that Edinburgh was too small for him and had moved to London. People who do that often then discover that London is too big for them, much to the amusement of those who stayed behind in Edinburgh in the belief that it was just the right size. This sometimes leads to the comment that the only sensible reason for leaving Scotland for London was to take up the job of prime minister, a remark that might have been made by Samuel Johnson, had he not been so prejudiced on this particular matter and thought quite the opposite.
Pat had been relieved that Bruce had gone to London, and it had not occurred to her that he might return. It did not matter much to her, of course, as she moved in different circles from those frequented by Bruce, and she would not have to mix with him even if he did return. But at the same time she felt slightly unsettled by the possible sighting, especially as the experience made her feel an indefinable excitement, an increase in heart rate, that was not altogether welcome. Was it just the feeling one gets on meeting with an old lover, years afterwards? Try as one might to treat such occasions as ordinary events, there is a thrill which marks them out from the quotidian. And that is what Pat felt now.
She completed the rest of the bus journey down to Dundas Street in a thoughtful state. She imagined what she might say if she were to meet him and what he in turn might say to her. Would he have been improved by living in London, or would he have become even worse? It was difficult to tell. There must be those for whom living in London is an enriching experience, and there must be those who are quite unchanged by it. Pat had a feeling that Bruce would not have learned anything, as he had never shown any signs of learning anything when he was in Edinburgh. He would just be Bruce.
She got off her bus a few steps from Matthew's gallery. Through the window, she saw Matthew at his desk, immersed in paperwork. She looked at him fondly from a distance: dear Matthew, she thought; dear Matthew, in your distressed-oatmeal sweater, so ordinary, so safe; fond thoughts, certainly, but unaccompanied by any quickening of the pulse.