53. Be Prepared, Be Very Prepared
It was indeed the 23 bus that eventually took Stuart and the two boys up the Mound and in the direction of Holy Corner. Stuart had tried to locate the car, but had failed, and had been unwilling to seek Irene’s help just yet. It was possible that she had been the last to use it, and knew where it was parked, but it was more likely, he admitted to himself, that he had been its most recent driver.
“I’m sorry, Bertie,” he said. “I have no idea where the car is. We shall have to use the 23 bus after all.”
Bertie had accepted the situation gracefully. “That’s all right, Daddy. I know the 23 bus. The important thing is to get there. It doesn’t matter how you do it.”
He felt disappointed, though. Tofu, who had come back with him from school in order that they might go off to cubs together, was usually rather disparaging about everything that Bertie possessed, but their car, Bertie knew, although somewhat old, was considerably more impressive than Tofu’s own family car. Tofu’s father had converted his car to run on olive oil, and this meant that it was considerably slower than the Pollocks’ Volvo, which still ran on petrol. But Bertie’s pride was saved – to an extent – when Tofu revealed that he had only a few scraps of uniform. In that respect, at least, Bertie was in a much stronger position.
“You don’t really need a uniform,” Tofu said carelessly, eyeing Bertie’s attire. “Uniforms are silly.”
“Then why are you wearing that cap?” Bertie asked. “It says cubs across the front, doesn’t it? That’s a uniform.”
“Who cares?” said Tofu. “And what’s that thing round your neck?”
“That’s the scarf,” said Bertie. “And this thing here is a toggle.”
“Woggles are stupid,” said Tofu, peering at the small leather ring through which Bertie’s cub scarf had been threaded.
“I don’t think so,” said Bertie, adding, “I’ve got another one, you know. My dad bought me two, just in case I should lose one.” He paused. “Would you like to borrow the other one, Tofu? Then we can make you a scarf out of a handkerchief.”
“Yes,” said Tofu immediately. “Go and get it, Bertie.”
Shortly afterwards, Stuart shepherded the two boys along Scotland Street to catch the 23 bus as it lumbered up Dundas Street. The boys’ pride in their uniforms was very evident, even if in Tofu’s case the uniform was eccentric and incomplete. And Stuart himself felt a certain flush of pride to be taking two boys off on such an expedition. When you are six, he thought, the world must be a grand place; and when you are thirty-six, as he was, it has shrunk so much; has become a place of worries and limitations and dismaying statistics. What was the point? What was the point of serving out the years, going to the office every morning and returning in the evening, and then going back into the office in the morning? Where was the enjoyment, the excitement in that?
These thoughts passed through his mind as they waited for the bus to stop, and continued as it began to make its way up Dundas Street. By the time they reached Princes Street, though, Stuart’s chain of thought had moved on to broader topics: It was all very well to wonder where one was going personally, but where was the whole country going? He looked up at the Castle as the bus began its journey up the Mound. The Castle was a work of man, but it seemed to grow out of the very rock, to be an extension of this exposed part of Scotland’s spine. Above it the Union flag fluttered in the breeze; there were those who would change that, would hoist a different flag in its place, just as there were those who would defend the place of the current flag. How strange, thought Stuart, that we invest these symbols with such potency; how strange that people should be prepared to die for their flags, for territory that they might sometimes never even see. What really counts, he thought, is how we live – and yet that, perhaps, is why we care about flags.
Stuart looked at Bertie, who sat, nose pressed to the window of the bus, pointing some sight out to Tofu. He assumed that this evening the boys would be inducted and make their promise. He had spoken to Bertie about that, and his son had listened carefully as he explained the elements of the promise.
“You have to say, ‘I promise to do my best; to do my duty to God and the Queen,’” said Stuart.
“I know,” said Bertie. “I’ve read about that, and I will do my best, Daddy. To God and the Queen. To both of them.”
“That’s good, Bertie,” said Stuart. “And then there’s the cub scout law. That says that you must think of others first and do a good turn for somebody every day.”
“I’ll try,” said Bertie. He was not sure what good deeds would be expected of him, but he supposed that it would be something to do with Ulysses. Ulysses seemed to require a great deal of attention, and there were always tasks that had to be performed to keep him happy.
And now, as they reached Holy Corner and the bus stop at which they were to alight, Bertie felt a great wave of anxiety come over him. He would shortly have to make the first public promise of his life, the very first, and it would be based on a lie. The cub scouts were for those of eight and above and he was only six. He was about to enlist under false pretences and take an oath that he was not even entitled to take.
As they approached the Episcopal church hall, Bertie tugged at his father’s sleeve.
“What is it, Bertie?” enquired Stuart.
“I don’t think I want to join after all,” Bertie whispered. “I don’t think it’s such a good idea any more.”
Stuart bent down and put his arm about his son. “Come on, Bertie,” he said. “You’ll have tremendous fun.”
“Yes, don’t be such a wimp,” said Tofu.
Stuart scowled at Tofu. “Bertie is not a wimp, Tofu, if you don’t mind. And I won’t have such language.”
Tofu was defensive. “I was only saying what other people say,” he protested.
“And why should people call Bertie a wimp?” asked Stuart.
“It’s not him, Mr. Pollock,” said Tofu politely. “It’s not him they call a wimp. It’s you.”