A Scotland Street story for February. This story by Alexander McCall Smith first appeared in My Weekly magazine.
“Now then Bertie,” said Irene Pollock to her six-year-old son. “Have you finished your homework?”
Bertie looked out of the window over the rooftops of Edinburgh. Their flat in Scotland Street was high enough for him to see, in the distance, the hilltops of Fife. To him, the sight represented freedom— visible, not far away, tantalisingly beyond reach. He had never been across the Firth of Forth, but hoped one day to do so, preferably without his mother. Much as he loved his mother, he yearned for the day when he would be able to lead a life free of the activities she planned for him—a life in which there would be no Italian conversazione sessions, no yoga for the under-eights, no saxophone lessons, and, most importantly of all, no psychotherapy.
Bertie had been in therapy for the past eighteen months, initially with Dr Hugo Fairbairn, that distinguished author of Shattered to Pieces: Ego Dissolution in a Three-Year-Old Tyrant and then with his young Australian protégé. The incident that had led to his referral for treatment was not a major one, and in any home where the mother was less pushy, would have led to no more than a minor disciplining. This was when Bertie, playing with a box of matches, as any young boy will do if given half the chance, set fire to his father’s newspaper while he was reading it. Bertie’s father, Stuart, barely noticed the conflagration, being distracted by the particularly interesting item he was reading, but his mother, a devotee of the works of the great child psychoanalyst, Melanie Klein, seized the opportunity to take Bertie to Hugo Fairbairn.
The result was a regular weekly session with the psychotherapist, an ordeal that Bertie, a polite and well-mannered child, endured with stoic resignation. Dr Fairbairn was, in Bertie’s opinion, clearly mad and had to be humoured. If Bertie had to sit and relate his dreams to the psychotherapist in order to stop the therapist from doing something dangerous, then he was prepared to do it. And if he could not remember any dreams, or if the dreams were not sufficiently interesting, then Bertie was obliging enough to make them up.
His dream of wolves was in this category. Bertie had never seen a wolf but had read about them in Scottish Field, where he had come across an article on the reintroduction of wolves to Scotland. A voracious reader, with an ability far beyond that of the average six-year-old, he had also read about wolf dreams in a copy of one of Freud’s works that he found in his mother’s bookshelf. This dream had particularly excited Dr Fairbairn, who had listened with intense concentration as Bertie recited his dream. It was not the same as fibbing, Bertie told himself. Dreams were by their very nature untrue, and so it could not possibly be a fib to make one up. And if the dream made Dr Fairbairn happy, as this one appeared to do, then what possible harm could there be in relating it?
Had he done his homework? Yes, he had.
“In that case, Bertie,” said his mother. “I suggest that you go and get all your clothes ready for tomorrow morning so that you’ll be nice and ready for school when it’s time to go.”
Bertie nodded. “Everything’s ready, Mummy. But it’s show and tell tomorrow. I’ll need to take something along. Miss Maclaren Hope says that we should bring something from home and talk about it.”
“What a good idea!” said Irene. “That’s all about sharing, isn’t it, Bertie? You take something in and this means that you share a little bit of your home life with your friends. Isn’t that nice?”
Bertie looked doubtful. He was not sure if he wanted to share too much with some of the other children, who were, at best, a mixed bag. Bertie attended an advanced, somewhat alternative school that practised the theories of a well-known German educationist. He liked the teachers there, but was less enthusiastic about his classmates. It was not that he was friendless, it was more a case of having the wrong sort of friends. His friend, Tofu, for example, was the son of two well-known Edinburgh vegans, although he himself took every opportunity to cajole Bertie into giving him his ham sandwiches whenever he was provided with these. Tofu was also given to spitting at people with whom he was in dispute, the principal target of this behaviour being Olive, an annoying little girl who hated Tofu but had a distinctly soft spot for Bertie, whom she claimed she would marry when they were both twenty. Bertie denied that he had ever agreed to this, but Olive told him that she had the undertaking in writing and that dire consequences lay in store for those who broke their promises, particularly promises of marriage. Olive had an ally in the shape of Pansy, who was almost, if not quite as objectionable as she was. Then there was Larch, who was violent; Hiawatha, whose socks gave off a particularly offensive smell; and various others whom Bertie tried to like, but found it all rather difficult.
The concept of show and tell might have been an attractive one, but it raised the issue of what to take, and Bertie could not think of anything in particular. He had always wanted a Swiss Army penknife, and would have been proud to take that to school, but his mother had strong views on penknives and so that was ruled out. Looking around his room, he saw his saxophone, which he could always take, of course, were it not for the fact that when he had taken it once before it had been damaged by Tofu.
“Take a book,” said Irene. “You can’t go wrong with a book, Bertie. Look at the bookshelves and choose one that you think will be suitable. There are lots of books in the house.”
Bertie reluctantly agreed and while his mother and father settled down to one of their interminable games of Scrabble, he occupied the half hour before bedtime going through the shelves. In one sense there was a great deal to choose from; in another there was not. The house was full of books, it was true, but if you excluded the Melanie Klein, the Freud, and the political tracts, there was very little that Bertie could say much about.
He moved from the dining room, where most of the books were shelved, into the corridor, where there was small cupboard that belonged to his mother. This cupboard, which he had been told he was not to interfere with, had been open. Bertie looked inside. There were various papers, an old work box, and, tucked away at the back, something that caught Bertie’s attention. It was a book, but not one he had seen before, and on the cover he read the word Diary. That surprised him. He did not know that his mother kept a diary. Well, if show and tell was all about sharing, then what could be better than a diary? Bertie reached in, extracted the diary, and took it off to his room. He was too tired to read it, and he feared that it might not be all that interesting. It solved the show and tell problem, though, and that was all that mattered.
He travelled to school each morning on the bus. He was accompanied on this journey by his mother and his young brother, Ulysses. Bertie used to enjoy this journey to school but the arrival of Ulysses, who was still a baby, had filled the trip with embarrassment. Ulysses was a vocal infant, and made all sorts of embarrassing noises. His mother had also taken to silencing him by giving him a feed, which embarrassed Bertie beyond measure, in spite of her assurances that it was all perfectly natural and should not cause him any anxiety.
Bertie quite liked Ulysses, in spite of his embarrassing behaviour. Ulysses smiled at Bertie whenever he saw him, and liked his older brother to tickle his nose. Bertie thought Ulysses looked quite funny, especially his ears, which in his view looked remarkably similar to the rather unusually-shaped ears of Dr Fairbairn, his psychotherapist. There were not many ears like that in Edinburgh, he thought.
He said goodbye to his mother and Ulysses at the school gate and made his way into the classroom. It was the custom of the school to start the day with a handshake with the teacher, and Bertie did this dutifully. Tofu, of course, gave painful handshakes, and that morning delighted in making Miss Maclaren Hope wince. Bertie felt some sympathy for the teacher in all this, especially since she was obliged to shake hands with Hiawatha, with whom the children themselves studiously avoided physical contact. He noticed, however, that she discreetly applied a hand sanitizer after she did this; a wise precaution, Bertie felt, and not one that needed to be done so discreetly.
“Show and tell today!” announced Miss Maclarne Hope. “What have we today, children? What exciting things have you brought to show us? You first, I think, Tofu.”
Tofu fished an object out his schoolbag.
“Well, well,” said Miss Maclaren Hope. “What have we here? Can anybody tell us?”
“It’s a fishing reel,” said Bertie.
“Exactly,” said Miss Maclaren Hope.
‘My Dad’s,” said Tofu proudly.
Olive’s hand shot up. “What’s a vegan doing with a fishing reel, Miss Maclaren Hope?”
Tofu frowned. “Shut up,” he said.
“Now then, Tofu, we don’t say things like that, do we?” said the teacher. “Let’s just move on. What have you brought in Pansy?”
Pansy unwrapped a china object she had taken from her bag and held it up for the others to see.
‘Well now, “ said Miss Malaren Hope. “That’s a very pretty little… what do we think it is?”
“A salt cellar?” asked Larch.
“That’s a very intelligent suggestion, Larch,” the teacher encouraged. “It looks Victorian to me. Victorian things are very old, boys and girls. The Victorians loved china. They made some very pretty things.” She paused. “What exactly is it, Pansy dear?”
“My granny’s ashes,” said Pansy. “Not my whole granny. Just some. They keep a bit of her in this.”
There was silence. One or two of the children made disgusted faces; others looked interested. Tofu tried to snatch the container, but was quickly stopped by the teacher.
“Well, children,” said Miss Malclaren Hope quickly. “Let’s move on. What about you Bertie? What have you brought us?”
Bertie took the book out of his bag. “It’s a book my Mummy’s been writing.”
Pleased to be on safer ground, Miss Maclaren Hope clapped her hands in delight. “That’s interesting, isn’t it, boys and girls? Bertie’s mother is an author! Do we all know what an author is?”
The teacher gave a brief explanation and then suggested to Bertie that he might read a few sentences.
Bertie opened the diary and began to read. His mother’s handwriting was difficult to interpret, and he read slowly. It was all about …
Miss Maclaren Hope suddenly clapped her hands again. “That’s enough Bertie!” she shouted. “Thank you so much, dear, but that’s enough.”
Bertie sat down. “I think you should just put that book back where you found it, Bertie. There are some books that are rather private, dear, and that might just be one of them.”
Bertie nodded. He did not know what the fuss was about.
“When will we have show and tell again, Miss Maclaren Hope?” asked Olive. “It’s really good fun.”
The teacher looked out of the window. “Some time,” she said vaguely. “Not just yet, I think.”
She was thinking. That child, Ulysses or whatever they called him: she had seen him at the school-gate with the mother. He had extraordinary, prominent ears, very unlikely Bertie’s, or his father’s for that matter. Could it be …
She turned back to face the class. There was work to do. Elementary mathematics – very important, if not quite as interesting as show and tell.
She smiled, and began the educational day.
The characters in this short story all appear in Alexander McCall Smith’s 44 Scotland Street series