97. Olive Is Outraged
Bertie walked across the Meadows with his father after an eventful evening at the First Morningside Cub Scouts. Stuart had travelled up to collect him on the 23 bus, but had decided they should walk back to Scotland Street. It was a warm evening, and Bertie, it seemed, was still full of energy. The walk might use up some of that, though that was by no means certain: small boys, he had discovered, were possessed of a boundless reserve of energy barely sapped by even lengthy periods of exercise. Where does it go? Stuart asked himself. Why does it drain away as the years go past, to the point where even the decision to walk from Scotland Street to the Mound involves a certain determination, a supererogatory commitment? And, more worryingly, at what point am I on that inevitable entropic curve?
Bertie wanted to talk to his father about what had happened at cubs, but was still going over it in his mind, rehearsing the extraordinary sequence of events that had suddenly blown up and then played itself out with astonishing speed. It had all started when the various sixers were busy preparing trays of items for Kim’s Game. They had been told the basic rules – items were set out on a tray in random order. The tray was then covered with a cloth, which was then removed for a minute, during which time the contender had to try to memorise all the items that the tray contained. “It’s called Kim’s Game, boys and girls,” said Akela.
Bertie put up his hand. “That’s after the novel by Rudyard Kipling,” he said politely. “Kim was a little boy who got caught up in the Great Game.”
Akela looked at him with surprise. “That’s quite correct,” she said. “Well done, Bertie. And have you read Kim?”
Bertie nodded. “I like Mr. Kipling’s books,” he said. “And I’ve read the Just So Stories and The Jungle Book, and one or two others. But my mummy doesn’t like them. She says Mr. Kipling was a reactionary.”
“And I bet Mr. Kipling would say your mother’s a cow,” whispered Tofu. “Only joking, Bertie.”
Olive’s hand shot up. “Akela,” she called out. “I have something to report. Tofu’s just called Bertie’s mummy a cow. Yes you did, Tofu! I heard you!”
Akela frowned. “Well, let’s not argue,” she said. “I’m sure that Tofu would never say a thing like that, would you, Tofu?” She clapped her hands. “Now each six has its tray, so you can all start.”
Olive took control of their tray and began to set out the random articles that had been provided. Old dominoes, a comb, a key ring and so on; all were laid out on the tray ready for memorising. The boys watched her intently, none more so than Tofu, who was glaring at her through narrowed eyes.
“Why did you clype on me?” he hissed.
“I don’t know what you mean,” said Olive airily, as she continued to arrange the items. “If you’re asking me why I told Akela about that horrid thing you said about Bertie’s mummy, then it was because it was my duty as a sixer. And anyway, it’s not Bertie’s mummy’s fault, is it Bertie? Your mummy can’t help being a cow, can she?”
Bertie looked down at the floor. He wanted only to play Kim’s Game; he did not want to discuss his mother. And it was then that Tofu, who had been sucking his cheeks in and out in a suspicious manner, suddenly spat at Olive, the spittle hitting her on the bridge of the nose, directly between the eyes. Had it been a bullet, it would have been a fatal shot.
Olive screamed and leapt to her feet, desperately wiping her face. Then she started to cry. Akela heard the commotion from the other end of the room and came running across to see what had happened. “Olive,” she cried, putting an arm around the sobbing girl. “Are you all right? What on earth happened?”
Between her sobs, Olive explained that Tofu had spat at her.
“Tofu!” said Akela. “What is this? Cubs do not spit. Nor do they fight.”
“She started it,” said Tofu. “She scratched me really badly. I had to defend myself, Akela.”
Nobody had seen the quick work Tofu had done with a safety pin that had been among the things on the tray. Now he held up his arm and showed Akela the thin, red line of blood that he had discreetly gouged with the point of the pin. Akela gasped. “Olive! Did you do that?”
Olive looked outraged. “I didn’t, Akela! I didn’t.”
Akela turned to Ranald Braveheart McPherson, who was watching the proceedings in astonishment. “Ranald? You tell me. Who started this?”
Ranald looked about in desperation. He glanced at Olive, who was glowering at him, and then at Tofu, who made a quick cutting motion across the front of his throat. Ranald made his choice. “Olive,” he said. “Olive started it, Akela.”
“There,” crowed Tofu. “I told you.”
Akela looked at Olive. “Now, Olive,” she said. “I’ve noticed that ever since you became the sixer, you’ve thrown your weight around. I’ve heard you criticising the boys. And now this. That is not the way I expect a sixer to act. So I’m afraid I’m going to have to demote you and appoint a new sixer.”
Olive stared in crumpled disbelief as Akela turned to the boys. “Now, one of you boys will have to be sixer.”
“Me,” said Tofu.
Akela shook her head. “Thank you for offering, Tofu, but I’m not sure that you’re quite ready for that. So I think I shall appoint you, Ranald. You be the sixer.”
Ranald Braveheart McPherson looked startled. He did not want high office, particularly with this group of unpredictable people; the only person he was not afraid of was Bertie. But there was to be no further discussion; Akela had returned to the other side of the room.
Those were the events that Bertie wanted to relate to his father, but it all seemed to him to be too recent, and so he kept silent as they walked along Forrest Road and then past the statue of Greyfriars Bobby.
“That’s a wonderful statue,” said Stuart. “You do know the story of that dog, don’t you, Bertie?”
Bertie nodded. Greyfriars Bobby had been a great dog; a loyal, true friend to his master. Loyalty, truth and friendship: those were the things that Bertie admired, and that he wanted to find in the world. But it seemed to him that they were qualities that were in short supply: desiderata that one could only hope would one day come into their own, find their place. Until then he had Tofu and Olive and his mother, and the rest of the imperfect world.