That Saturday, Bertie followed the new routine into which he had settled since the return of Irene from her sojourn on the Gulf. This was to be taken round the corner from Scotland Street to his grandmother’s flat in Northumberland Street. This happened at half-past-eight in the morning, as Irene, who was not her best in the early mornings, or indeed at any other time, liked to have a long lie-in on Saturday. Ulysses would accompany them in his pushchair, but would not be left at Nicola’s; he would be taken home for breakfast and entertained by Stuart until Irene emerged.
Irene only grudgingly permitted Bertie to continue to see his grandmother. “Your mother,” she said to Stuart, “is hardly what I would call a good influence, but I suppose she is Bertie’s grandmother, after all, and we have to give some weight to that.”
Stuart stared at her in frank disbelief. “But your own mother…” he began, and stopped. He had intended to point out at least some of the more egregious faults of his mother-in-law, but Irene’s glance silenced him.
“My mother,” she said, “doesn’t enter into the equation. She very rarely, if ever, has the opportunity to see her grandchildren.”
Just as well, thought Stuart, but did not say it. Irene’s mother, Stephanie, who, like Nicola had been widowed, had remarried, to an Adlerian psychotherapist, and gone off to live on Osney Island, a small island in the Thames in its meandering passage through Oxford. She had never taken to Stuart and he, in turn, had given up on ever establishing much of a relationship with her. She was close to Irene, though, even if the four hundred miles between Edinburgh and Oxford meant that they spent little time together. What they lacked in physical contact they made up for in long telephone conversations, in which Stephanie, now herself firmly in the Adlerian camp, would talk at length about compensation and overcompensation, about fictive goals, and other subjects of common interest.
Nicola had only met Stephanie once, and the two women had taken an instant dislike to one another. “I can imagine no possible world,” said Stephanie, “in which I would find myself drawn to the company of that woman.”
And for her part, Nicola simply smiled and looked out of the window whenever Stephanie’s name was mentioned.
Bertie, of course, being the boy he was, tried to be positive about his maternal grandmother, but did not receive a great deal of encouragement. Nicola, of course, was different. She doted on Bertie and Ulysses, and made sure that the time they spent in her company was filled with as much fun and excitement as could reasonably be mustered. During Irene’s absence, this programme had included trips to pizza restaurants and ice cream parlours – now both out of bounds, unmentioned and only dreamed about under the Irene regime.
That morning Nicola had planned a trip to the Scottish National Portrait Gallery cafe on Queen Street, where she would have a cup of coffee and Bertie would have a large milkshake. That would be followed by a visit to the gallery itself before they walked down the hill to Valvona & Crolla’s delicatessen on Elm Row. There they would meet Stuart at noon, and Bertie would be handed back to his father’s care.
Bertie enjoyed the Portrait Gallery. He had acquired a small red Moleskine notebook, in which he had written a list of portraits, and had then filled in notes with such details as he could muster on the lives of the people portrayed. He also like the frieze in the Gallery’s Central Hall, where round the room paraded figures from Scotland’s past, portrayed against a gilded background. Craning his neck, Bertie would point to those he could identify, and on each visit would concentrate on a particular section, inscribing the names in his red notebook. That morning he focused on the figures between James VI and Mary, Queen of Scots, an unedifying group, but one that fascinated Bertie.
“That’s King James, isn’t it, Granny?” he said, pointed to the instantly recognizable melancholy figure of the Stuart monarch. “He always looks unhappy, doesn’t he?”
Nicola nodded. “He was,” she said. “And I suppose you’d be unhappy too if your mother got her head chopped off.” She pointed to Mary, Queen of Scots, a few figures away.
Bertie did not answer immediately, and for a moment Nicola entertained a mental picture of Irene, in dress of the time, being led off to Fotheringay Castle. No, she thought; one should not even think such things.
Bertie was looking at Mary. “She looks nice,” he said. “And that’s her husband there, isn’t, Granny? That’s Mr Darnley.”
Nicola looked at the young man partly obscured by the figure of his wife and of Mary of Guise. “Yes,” she said. “That’s Darnley.”
“He was blown up, wasn’t he?”
“Yes he was, Bertie. At Kirk o’Fields, where the University is today. He was, I’m afraid to say, blown right up in the air.”
Bertie gazed up at Darnley. “Ranald says that he deserved it. Ranald said that Darnley stabbed Rizzio with a Swiss Army penknife right there in Holyroodhouse.”
Nicola smiled. “I don’t think they had Swiss Army penknives in those days, Bertie. They used hunting knives, I imagine.”
“Was James unhappy just because his mummy got her head chopped off by Queen Elizabeth?” asked Bertie. “Was that why?”
Nicola’s gaze moved to a figure close by – the Humanist, Buchanan, the young James’s severe tutor – such joy as there was in that young life would have been nipped in the bud by that grim killjoy.
“There were other reasons, Bertie. He had a very strict teacher.”
“Did he hit him? Did he hit James?”
Nicola shook her head. “Probably not. But I’m sure he frightened him. And then …” And then what? When did the frustration of love denied first begin to distort the soul? And how could she explain that to Bertie? She could not.
But she did not have to. Bertie had moved on and was gazing up at the figures of Mar and Argyll. “That’s the Earl of Mar, isn’t it, Granny? He was very brave, wasn’t he?”
“He was, Bertie.”
Bertie pointed to Argyll. “And the Duke of Argyll,” he said. “He was a Campbell, wasn’t he?”
Nicola confirmed this.
“You’d think he’d look more ashamed of himself,” said Bertie. “You’d think that he’d look more ashamed of being a Campbell.”
© 2016 Alexander McCall Smith
Alexander McCall Smith welcomes comments from readers. Write to him c/o The Editor, The Scotsman, Level 7, Orchard Brae House, 30 Queensferry Road, Edinburgh, EH4 2HS or via e-mail at email@example.com