44 Scotland Street: The Caledonian antisyzygy

Illustration by Iain McIntosh.

Illustration by Iain McIntosh.

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VOLUME 10, episode 63: ‘I’d like to make one thing clear,” said Irene. “I do not want any sympathy.”

She was addressing Stuart and Nicola in the kitchen. The three of them were seated at the scrubbed pine table, finishing the meal that Nicola had prepared – the remnants of a large pot of risotto she had made the previous day. When she had made the risotto, little had Nicola imagined that she would be serving it the following day to Irene, newly returned from almost six weeks in the Persian Gulf – a five-day holiday that had gone spectacularly wrong: losing one’s luggage on holiday is one thing – being mistaken for the new wife of a Bedouin Sheik and being immured in a desert harem is quite another.

Nicola frowned and wondered why Irene should not want sympathy; if she had herself been detained in the desert, whether or not in a harem, she would be looking for every available scrap of sympathy, she thought, and for as long as possible. Some people could draw on sympathy for years after the event, as Aunt Ada Doom did in Cold Comfort Farm – she had seen something nasty in the woodshed years ago and still needed sympathy …

Irene continued. “The Foreign Office counsellor went on and on about Stockholm Syndrome and PTSD and so on. I told them that I had had a very enjoyable spell in the harem and had succeeded in introducing the women to a number of new ideas. I was treated with the utmost courtesy.”

Nicola’s eyes widened. “And the Sheik …”

“I very rarely saw him,” she said. ‘In fact, I think he was unaware of my presence. He had nothing to do with my being there – that was an administrative slip by his harem manager. He was the one who made the original mistake, but he was one of those typical men who can’t admit to being wrong. All the women were shouting at him in Arabic to the effect that I was not meant to be there, but he would have none of it. He said that he had signed for me and that was that.”

Stuart sighed. “It’s difficult to believe that this sort of thing still happens.”

“Oh, it does,” said Nicola. “I read a book a few months ago on Barbary piracy – you know, the corsairs. They captured numerous people – snatched them from villages on the coast in the South of England. They even went up the Thames to take people into slavery. Whole villages in Italy and Spain were led off into captivity.”

“And yet they gave us mathematics,” mused Stuart.

“Mind you,” Nicola went on. “Barbary pirates flourished in the eighteenth century. It didn’t really go on into the nineteenth, let alone the twentieth.”

“I did not consider myself a slave,” said Irene sharply. “I considered myself a guest.”

“A sort of guest-concubine,” suggested Nicola. “Rather like a Gastarbeiter.”

Irene shot her a glance. “Hardly the same thing,” she said. “And I was never a concubine. Nothing of that nature took place.”

‘Well, we’re so pleased to have you back,” said Stuart. “All of us.” He looked at his mother, who was staring fixedly at the floor.

‘Of course,” said Nicola. “It’s a great relief.”

“I must thank you for looking after the boys in my absence,” said Irene. “It was very good of you to come all the way from Portugal.” She paused, and then turned to Stuart. “Have you checked tomorrow’s flights?”

He paled. “Tomorrow’s flights?”

“Yes, for your mother. To go home.”

Stuart muttered something indistinct.

‘Well, Stuart?” pressed Irene. “You can book online these days. It’s terribly ­simple.”

Nicola rose to her feet. She was 
trying hard; nobody noticed her clenched fists and whitened knuckles. For a moment – a glorious, irrational moment – she imagined herself lunging at Irene. She saw herself grabbing 
her hair – that ridiculous hairstyle of hers – and pulling hard, so hard that at least some hair would come out at the roots. She imagined scratching her – digging her nails in so that Irene shrieked in her … in her dreadful, politically correct way. A politically correct shriek? What on earth would that sound like?

She hesitated. It would be easy, oh so easy, to succumb to the temptation. It would be easy to take the three steps that separated them and do exactly this. She so richly deserved it. She had had it coming to her for years and years and nobody had done what so many must have dearly wished to do. But the moment passed. This was Edinburgh. These things did not happen in Edinburgh, no matter how far the famed Caledonian antisyzygy made for a divide in the soul, a divide between respectability and the dark domain of violence.

She left the room, muttering something about having to make a start on her packing. Bertie and Ulysses had been put to bed, but as she went past Bertie’s door she heard a noise, a small sound, a whimper perhaps. She pushed at his door; the night light was on in his room, and she could make out the small figure of her grandson lying under the space-rocket duvet cover, his head on the pillow on which further space rockets passed by shooting stars and ringed planets. And she heard that he was ­crying.

She crept in and crouched down at the head of his bed.

“Dear Bertie,” she said. “You mustn’t cry.”

But perhaps you should, she thought; perhaps that’s precisely what you should do; perhaps you need to cry.

She wondered what she could say. The poor little boy had glimpsed freedom and a life untrammelled by all the things that had enclosed his world – the yoga, the psychotherapy, the Italian conversazione. Now all of that would return, and freedom, that blessed state of being able to be a little boy, would recede from his grasp.

“Would you like me to tell you a ­Fersie Macpherson, story?” she whispered. “It will help you to get to sleep and might cheer you up a bit.”

He moved his head against the pillow – an attempt, in his misery, at a nod.

She reached out to touch his cheek, damp with his tears.

“Fersie Macpherson, the Scottish person, lived in Lochaber, as well you know. Sometimes he went out to stay with his uncle on South Uist when he was a small boy – a very strong small boy, remember – and he used to walk down to the machair, you know what that is, don’t you – the strip of sand and grass and shells between the water and the land, and he would pick up shells and listen to them and hear the sea in them … And he would think of the things that made him sad and realise that they would not last forever and that if he was unhappy now he was bound to be happy tomorrow, if he waited patiently enough …”

© 2015 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 scotlandstreet@scotsman.com.

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