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“Rain”: a short story by Alexander McCall Smith

A chance encounter at a party brings two people together. On the damp streets of Glasgow, they discover what it means to be a parent.


If there is one rule that authors should observe above all others, it is this: keep out of the story. Of course, everybody now understands that is impossible - indeed naive - and so the rule has been recast. Pretend to keep out of the story is the modern version of the injunction. It is, in general, a sound rule: nobody wants to hear from the author directly; we want to hear from the characters. We want to believe that what we are reading is not mediated by anybody else - in other words, we want to believe that it is the truth, that it really happened. This allows us to cry real tears for fictional characters when we know, if we stop to ask ourselves, that none of the pain they feel is real. There is a special category of emotion, I believe, that is invoked by artifice but that is powerful nonetheless. This emotion is often deceptive: it appears to be about one thing but it is really about another. When we feel regret for what happens in a story, that regret is often not for the experiences of the characters but for ourselves, for all that we have lost in our lives. And so that regret, or the tears it brings, can be very real, can be about real people and real loss.


This story breaks that rule about the invisible author but only does so here at the beginning, when a few important matters are explained. These things may not seem important at this stage but they are. You will have noticed that the story is broken into chapters, even though it is not a novel but a short story. This is not a conceit. There is no reason why novels should have chapters and short stories should not; breaking up a short story in this way allows for darting about in the narrative. Chapter breaks allow us to change continents; to pass from decade to decade. And there may be many short stories that, although no more than a few thousand words in length, encompass a whole lifetime, or more.

The other matter is the title. "Rain" was used by Somerset Maugham as the title of one of his most powerful stories. It is a tale of religious hypocrisy, set against the backdrop of a prolonged fall of rain, a monsoon. It is a marvellous title for a story of that intensity; the drumming of the rain against the roof and the vegetation accompanies the beat of the human heart, makes almost tangible the sense of being trapped. And Maugham, of course, was him-self trapped; he had to pretend that the world was heterosexual or, at least, he was obliged to ignore the many dramas that occur outside that particular context. He might have enjoyed the story that follows, particularly if he were to know that it is entirely true, which is, in fact, the case.


It began, as do most of our human dramas, with a meeting. Two university students met at a party some years ago. The party was one of those affairs that 19-year-olds, or those in their very early twenties, enjoy so much - a long-drawn-out, unstructured gathering with people drifting in and then drifting out again, sometimes picking up somebody, sometimes making themselves miserable because everybody else seemed to be having a better time, sometimes drinking too much and disgracing themselves.

It took place in a flat in the Edinburgh New Town, that great sweep of Georgian architecture that tips over the ridge of George Street and down towards the Firth of Forth below. To live there as a student requires parental wealth, which is what Ian had. He came from a family in Broughty Ferry, a well-set town on the outskirts of Dundee. That was where the jute traders lived in the days when the Calcutta jute industry was controlled from Scotland. Considerable fortunes were made, and some of them survived. Ian came from that background. They were not flashy people, though; Scotland does not approve of flashiness, as Robert Burns and a hundred others have made abundantly clear.

One of the guests at this party - in so far as student parties bother with invitations and guests - was a young man called Ruthven, or Riv for short. The name Ruthven in Scotland is pronounced Riven, and this led to that particular abbreviation.

“You've got a great name," said Ian, when he met him at the party. "Short for River?"Riv explained. They then talked about something else. They were studying very different things and, indeed, they were very different people. Ian was studying engineering and played rugby. Riv, whose subjects were music and philosophy, glanced away when Ian revealed these two bits of information; just glanced away very briefly, but enough for the reaction to be picked up by Ian, who said, "Listen, not everybody who does engineering and plays rugby . . ."

He left the sentence unfinished.

Their conversation moved on to what they had planned for the summer. Ian was going to India.

“I want to see Jaipur," he said. "And Calcutta, too. We've got friends there - they go back to my grandfather's day. They've invited me."

“God, I'd love to go to India."

Ian hesitated. Then: "Come."


“Why not?"


They became lovers while in Jaipur. The progress of their relationship had been natural and unforced. They simply wanted to be in one another's company; somehow Ian made sense to Riv, and Riv to Ian. Neither had had a full-blown affair before, only longings; now, suddenly, the full force of Auden's line about finding himself in the other made complete sense. Riv felt blessed. He had never imagined that he would find a friend who could be so different from himself and yet so appreciative. In his mind, Ian represented everything that he loved about Scotland - that solidity, that directness, that particular feeling of unfussiness that makes it the place it is.

“Look," said Ian. "Could we share the flat when we get back?"

Riv had not dared to think about what would happen when they got back. He felt a sudden outpouring of gratitude. It had never occurred to him that he could think of a future with one person, in one place. He had always fallen for young men who were straight, whose lives had no place for him, other, perhaps, than a momentary indiscretion, a short concession to a side of themselves that they did not wish to acknowledge, but nothing more than that.

Now, he was being offered something more, and he took it with a sense of awe, fearful of its fragility, of the touching insights that it had vouchsafed him.


Nothing went wrong. Riv feared that it would, but it did not and, when they both graduated a year later, they continued to share the same flat. Their social life was broad. "The last thing I want, the very last thing," said Ian, "is to live in a ghetto. I want us to be completely normal."

“That word," said Riv.

“You know what I mean. I want a social life that doesn't distinguish between gay and straight, that looks at . . . looks at people as people. Do you understand what I'm driving at?"

“Of course," said Riv. "But will other people look at us as people and not as some . . . some category?"

“Some will. Most, these days."

Riv was silent. "What about children?" he asked.

“What do you mean?"

“What if we wanted to have children?"

Ian was silent for a moment. "That's their problem," he said eventually.




Adoption was too daunting.

Ian shook his head. "I'm not going there," he said. "I was speaking to somebody the other day who told me about the difficulties she had had. Ghastly. They become really intrusive. I don't want social workers picking over our lives for two years or whatever it is. Can you imagine it? Every detail? All our attitudes? Meeting after meeting with other parents who will all disapprove, no matter what they say. No."

Riv did not agree. "It doesn't have to be like that."

Ian was adamant. "No."

“Then what about a surrogate?"

“Too complicated."


The surrogate mother was called Annie. Ian and Riv found that they both liked her, although they argued about her interpretation of reasonable expenses. She lived in Glasgow with a partner, Teddy, who assured them that he was perfectly happy with the arrangement.

“Gives her something to do," he said with a grin. "Know what I mean?"

Later, Ian confessed to Riv, "I don't like Teddy."

“He won't be related to us," said Riv. "Don't worry."

“He could prove difficult in the future."

Riv assured him that this was unlikely. "Types like that have no interest in children," he said. "Money. Sex. Beer. That's Teddy."

“You're forgetting football."


They decided that it would be best not to know which one of them was the father. A mixed donation, then, would mean that either could be. "A very good idea," said the doctor friend who had agreed to do the procedure. He thought for a moment before continuing, "The danger, I would imagine, would be resentment. If one of you knew that you were the real father, then you could start assuming that your word carried more weight than the one who wasn't. Humanity is messy. People behave in ways they'd never dream they'd behave in. Let me assure you of that."


He was a boy and they called him David.

Annie moved in with them immediately after getting out of hospital, so that he could be settled.

“I could stay for a few months, if you like," she said. "But you'd have to pay me."

Riv glanced at Ian. "I think it might be best for him to get accustomed to . . . to your not being around. He'll get used to us more quickly, then."

“Fair enough," said Annie. "I'm going to miss him."

Ian and Riv were silent.

“But not too much," she went on. "I'm really happy that you've got him and I know he's going to be well looked after. I know that."

“We want to give you a present," said Ian quickly. "I know that money shouldn't change hands but I don't see why we can't give you a birthday present. When's your birthday?"

Annie laughed. "Today," she said.

“How convenient," said Riv.

Ian handed over an envelope, which Annie opened immediately. She took out the bank­notes and counted them. They were crisp, unused Bank of Scotland £100 notes: a thick wad of them.


David could not have been an easier child. He flourished in the atmosphere of love and security that Ian and Riv provided for him. He called Ian Dad and he called Riv Riv. That was unplanned and, although it led to a slight feeling of resentment on Riv's part, he overcame it. It had nothing to do, he told himself, with the fact that Ian was clearly stronger than he was, or perhaps more masculine - if one was going to be old-fashioned about it. And Ian, for his part, handled that tactfully. "It could have been the other way round. Easily. I think he just loves the name Riv - he loves the sound of it. Who wouldn't?"

Of course, they speculated about paternity but not openly. Ian found himself staring at David and deciding that, in a certain light, when he held his head in a particular way, he could see himself or even his own father. Yet it was difficult with children, he reminded himself; their features were too plastic, too unformed to give any real hint of parentage.

Riv was more interested in behaviour. He noticed one day, shortly after the boy's fifth birthday, that David seemed able to hold a note when singing. He took him to the piano and played a G. "Sing that to me," he said. The result was what he wanted. "And this," he said, playing an A. Then later he said, "Sing A for Riv. Remember A?"

He muttered to himself, "Perfect pitch!" And that was genetic, some people thought. And who had perfect pitch? Not Ian, he told himself. I do. Me.


They both made efforts to suppress such thoughts but it was difficult. The problem, Riv thought, was that he loved David so much that he wanted him to be his - not just as a son but as his son. All that nonsense about blood and the ties that it brought; the sentiments that as a young man he had so assiduously dismissed; all that nonsense was absolutely true. There was something about continuing one's very flesh, about seeing oneself in another person; so that, as one's own future diminished, it manifestly continued in the growing child. It was the essential mystery of parenthood; the paper-thin slice of immortality that stood between the mortal self and emptiness.

He could bear it no longer and he raised the subject with the doctor friend who had ad-vised on the impregnation. The friend listened sympathetically. "Would it be better to know one way or the other? Is that what you're asking me?"

Riv nodded. Even to admit it now made him feel relieved.

“You can do it by post," said the friend. "They'll send you a kit. Buccal swabs. That's from the mouth. It couldn't be simpler."

“And the results are accurate?"

“Ninety-nine point nine per cent," said the friend. "Recurring."

“Can the results go to you?" asked Riv.

The friend looked at him intently. After a short period of hesitation, he said, "Yes. If that's what you want."


“Sit down," said the friend. "Just sit down."

Riv knew immediately what the news would be. He sat down, despondent. "It's going to make no difference," he said. "And it's better to know."

“Exactly," said the friend. "You love that little boy. You both love him. And you love Ian. It makes no difference."

But then, a few months later, Ian came to the friend and asked him whether he could speak to him in complete confidence, as patient to doctor, not as friend to friend. The friend agreed.

“I want you to arrange a paternity test," he said. "I'm pretty sure that David's mine but I would really like to know. Just to have that certainty. Do you understand?"

The friend looked out of the window. If Ian had not started their conversation in the way that he had, then he might not be bound. But even if he could speak freely to Ian, he could not betray Riv's confidence, and so he simply nodded and said, "I'll give you a kit. Take a swab from yourself and one from David. Do you want me to send it in?"

Ian said that he did. "It'll be easier that way."

It won't, thought the friend, but did not say that.


“Sit down," said the friend. "Just sit down."

“Oh, my God!" said Ian. "I'm not the father. It's Riv, isn't it?"

At first, the friend was not sure how to answer that question. So he simply said, "You're not the father, Ian. But it shouldn't make any difference to the way you feel about David. You love him, don't you?"

“I love him . . . more than I could ever say. I love him so much, so much."

“Well, there you are. Nothing's changed, has it?"


Nothing did change, at least in respect of the relationship between Ian and Riv, and between the two of them and David. There was a sadness, perhaps, in the way in which Riv sometimes looked at David but it was not noticed by Ian, or by anybody else, for that matter.

Then, one evening at the reception that accompanied a gallery opening, Riv found himself talking to the doctor friend and his wife, Maggie. Maggie's attention was distracted by somebody she knew at the other end of the room and she detached herself.

There was something that Riv had been wondering about and now he asked about it. "Does Maggie know about how you helped us to have David?"
The friend shook his head. "Of course not. Nor does she know about that test I did for you. Nobody knows about that. Nobody."

Riv nodded. "Sorry to ask. I was just wondering."

The friend smiled. "You know, I remember so well that afternoon you came to see me about the DNA test. I remember our sitting there in the coffee bar and discussing it with you and it was raining outside. Really heavy rain. Like a monsoon. You had an umbrella, and so you didn't get wet when you went off. I waited for a while and then braved it. I thought the rain would stop but it didn't. I got soaking wet."

Riv looked at him blankly.

“It didn't rain," he said.

“It did. I remember . . ."

Riv looked down at the ground. Then he looked up and he saw from his friend's expression that his surmise was correct. Ian had arranged a test, too.


Annie opened the front door to them. What hit them first was the smell of frying. She had been frying chips, for years, and the smell had seeped into the carpets, into the walls.

“You!" she said. It was a warm welcome, even if she did look behind them, as if searching for David.

“He's stayed behind," said Riv. "We need to talk. Just us, Annie."

They went inside.

“We'll come straight to the point," said Riv. "What did you do with our . . . with our donation?"

She pretended ignorance at first. "I don't know what youses are talking about."

“Yes, you do," said Ian. "You know very well. So let me put it another way, who's David's father?"

She looked at them challengingly. "What's it to you?"

“I'm his father," said Ian.

She laughed. "You've answered your own question. So why are you asking me?"

“It's Teddy, isn't it?" said Riv. "Your man. The one we met."

Annie shrugged. "If you say so. But Teddy's history now."


She shrugged again. "Does it matter? You've got that wee boy. I gave you what you wanted, didn't I?"


They went outside. They had parked the car at the end of the street and they had a short walk to get back to it. Halfway along, Ian stopped.

He began to weep. Riv comforted him, standing beside him, his arm about his shoulder. "It doesn't matter," he said. "It doesn't matter in the slightest bit."

They stood there, quite still. And then something quite extraordinary happened. A man in his mid-forties, dressed in a black donkey-jacket, a mere passer-by, came up to them and said, "Are you boys all right?"

It was Glasgow, and people did that. This man spoke with the accents of Clydeside. Had there been a shipbuilding industry, he would have been a shipbuilder.

Riv looked at the man. "You wouldn't understand. Sorry, but I don't think you would."

The man said, "Try me."

Hardly believing that he was telling this to a complete stranger, Riv told the man what had happened. It had begun to rain, but neither he nor Ian moved for shelter, nor did the man.

At the end, the man said, "You know what I've always said? You want to know? I've always said that bairns are a gift of God. That's what I've said."
Ian said nothing. He did not believe and nor did Riv. But he reached out and took the man's hand. There was no embarrassment, no resistance.
“Thank you," he said.

“But don't stand out too long in this rain," said the man.

“No," said Riv. "We won't."

Alexander McCall Smith's novel "A Conspiracy of Friends" will be published by Polygon on 1 May (priced £16.99)

This article first appeared in the 25 April 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Easter special

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Sunjeev Sahota’s The Year of the Runaways: a subtle study of “economic migration”

Sahota’s Man Booker-shortlisted novel goes to places we would all rather not think about.

This summer’s crisis has reinforced the ­distinction that is often made between refugees, who deserve sanctuary because they are fleeing from conflict, and “economic migrants”, those coming to Europe in pursuit of “the good life”, who must be repelled at any cost. The entire bureaucratic and punitive capacity of our immigration system is pitted against these ne’er-do-wells and their impudent aspirations.

Sunjeev Sahota’s fine second novel, The Year of the Runaways, now shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, takes a closer look at “economic migration”. Why do people – many of them educated, from loving families in peaceful communities – leave their old lives behind and come to Britain? Are they fleeing desperate circumstances or are they on the make? When they arrive here, do they find what they were looking for? Should we welcome them, or try to persuade them to stay at home? The book illuminates all of these questions while, much to its credit, offering no simple answers.

Sahota interweaves the stories of three people whose reasons for emigrating are as individual as they are. Both Avtar and Randeep are from Indian Sikh families that might be characterised as lower-middle-class. Avtar’s father has his own small business – a shawl shop – and Randeep’s father works for the government. Both boys are educated and Avtar, in particular, is smart and motivated. But with employment hard to come by and no social security net to fall back on, it doesn’t take much to make leaving the country seem like the only option. Avtar loses his job, his father’s business is failing and he has high hopes of earning enough to marry Lakhpreet, his girlfriend-on-the-sly. Randeep’s family’s finances fall apart after his father has a psychological breakdown; their only hope of maintaining a respectable lifestyle is for their eldest son to take his chances abroad.

For Tochi, the situation is very different. He is what used to be called an “untouchable” and, although people now use euphemisms (“scheduled”, or chamaar), the taboo remains as strong as ever. He comes to Britain not so much for financial reasons – although he is the poorest of the lot – but to escape the prejudice that killed his father, mother and pregnant sister.

Tying these disparate stories together is the book’s most intriguing character, Narinder, a British Sikh woman who comes to believe that it is her spiritual calling to rescue a desperate Indian by “visa marriage”. Narinder’s progress, from the very limited horizons for an obedient young woman to a greater sense of herself as an active participant in her destiny, reminded me of Nazneen, the protagonist in Monica Ali’s Brick Lane. But Narinder is a more thoughtful character and here the Hollywood-style journey of personal liberation is tempered by a recognition of the powerful bonds of tradition and family.

Once in Britain, Avtar, Randeep and Tochi enter a world of gangmasters, slum accommodation and zero job security, with an ever-present fear of “raids” by immigration officers. They work in fried chicken shops, down sewers, on building sites and cleaning nightclubs. Health care is off-limits for fear of immigration checks. Food is basic and the only charity comes from the gurdwara, or Sikh temple, which provides help in emergencies.

Avtar and Randeep struggle to send money back home while living in poverty and squalor that their families could barely imagine (at one point, Randeep notes with understandable bitterness that his mother has used his hard-earned contributions to buy herself a string of pearls). In the meantime, their desperation leads them to increasingly morally repellent behaviour, from selfishness to stealing and worse. Even if they do eventually find a measure of economic stability in Britain, they have done so at the cost of their better selves.

It has been pointed out that the novels on the Man Booker shortlist this year are even more depressing than usual and The Year of the Runaways certainly won’t have raised the laugh count. At times I had to put it down for a while, overwhelmed by tragedy after tragedy. It was the quality of Sahota’s prose and perceptions that brought me back. He is a wonderfully subtle writer who makes what he leaves unsaid as important as the words on the page. A wise and compassionate observer of humanity, he has gone to some dark places – places we would all rather not think about – to bring us this book. Whether we are prepared to extend a measure of his wisdom and compassion to real immigrants, in the real world, is another question.

“The Year of the Runaways” by Sunjeev Sahota is published by Picador (480pp, £14.99)

Alice O'Keeffe is an award-winning journalist and former arts editor of the New Statesman. She now works as a freelance writer and looks after two young children. You can find her on Twitter as @AliceOKeeffe.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis