Follow 44 Scotland Street each day in the print edition of The Scotsman.
IT'S been a great week for sorting things out on Scotland Street. For Matthew, most of the sorting-out has been done by Elspeth, to whom he admits a) that he's overpaid a small fortune for the new flat in Moray Place b) that said new flat is structurally unsound and liable to collapse at any time, bringing Moray Place down with it and c) that Kirsty, his new employee at the gallery, appears to be even more dangerous than that.
To a woman about to bring triplets into the world, however, all of these problems are eminently solvable. First, an appointment with a different surveyor reveals that not only is the Moray Place flat structurally sound but that they've actually bought it for a bargain price. Then the Kirsty problem is solved too, even if Elspeth's rather brusque dismissal of her is followed by an unseemly hair-pulling incident in which Kirsty reveals her true colours.
But for the biggest sorting-out of all we have to turn to Tuscany, where, in Antonia's absence, Angus Lordie and Domenica begin to realise their true feelings for each other. And, finally, act on them: Angus proposes marriage and Domenica accepts. Happiness surely awaits.
Completely by accident (blame Stuart's profound ability to get lost) Bertie's day out fishing with his father in the Pentlands ends with a glimpse of paradise. When they knock at a farmhouse door seeking directions, the farmer's wife invites them in for a cup of tea. Bertie, she decides, ought to meet her own son Andy.
Andy is the kind of boy who doesn't go to yoga classes or see psychotherapists and isn't forced to learn Italian. Instead, he has a small pen-knife collection, freedom to roam the hills, and everything to look forward to. He and Bertie become friends and Bertie is allowed to stay the night at the farm. He is as happy as we have ever seen him.
Over in Italy, so is Antonia. In fact, she has reached the point, well known to Florentine psychiatrists, when she is overcome by the sheer bliss of being surrounded by so much great art. At the Uffizi, this is quite common. People are carried out from there – not quite on a daily basis but near enough – suffering from extreme art overload. The clinical term for this mania is Stendhal syndrome, and Antonia has a bad case of it.
Fortunately, at Santa Maria Nuova Hospital, Professor Sergio Novelletto is able to make a quick and accurate diagnosis. Antonia is sent off for three weeks of palliative care at the Convent of the Tiny Sisters. In the meanwhile, Domenica and Angus will just have to get on with enjoying Italy by themselves ...
THIS week, our cast has left New Town Edinburgh behind – quite a long way behind, in the case of Angus Lordie, Antonia and Domenica, who have started their month-long stay at Antonia's cousin's Tuscan villa. It's an idyllic place, the sort of gently hilly landscape that one could easily imagine angels in, if only they existed, and Antonia in particular seems captivated by it. We leave them on a trip to Florence, about to enter the Uffizi, feeling completely at ease with the world, even the multinational gaggle of tourists they are queuing behind.
For their part, Bertie Pollock and his father Stuart, haven't travelled so far from Edinburgh, but for a six-year-old boy the whole notion of going fishing with his father in the Pentlands is almost as paradisiacal – not least because his mother Irene (back home, looking after Ulysses) isn't with them.
At the loch, Bertie almost manages to catch his first fish, and Stuart hints that they ought to come back for a longer walk to Nine Mile Burn. For once, the six-year old boy seems happy – or as happy as he can be in the absence of being seven. But happiness is so often an elusive thing, and when Stuart takes a shortcut back to their car at the same time as the haar descends, it begins to dawn on Bertie that they might actually be lost.
PROMISES, once made, must be kept. Even a child of six know that – and if the six-year-old child in question is Bertie Pollock, he also knows how the Romans expressed that very motto: Pacta sunt servanda. Not many fathers of six-year-olds in Edinburgh are reminded of their promise to take their offspring fishing in the Pentlands by said offspring quoting Latin, but as we have had cause to note before, Bertie Pollock really is a remarkable boy.
So it is that this time at least Stuart Pollock finds it in himself to withstand his wife Irene's opposition and to take young Bertie fishing, as he had promised, in the Pentlands. Not only that, but to buy him crisps AND chocolate en route.
Promises have been made by Matthew too. At his gallery he has just taken on Kirsty as an assistant despite Pat's warnings that she is completely unsuitable. And he's also just bought a flat at Moray Place for Elspeth in a quite reckless way – paying a million pounds for it without first getting a surveyor's report on its structural soundness.
In our bones, we know that this is a bad move. And when Bruce the surveyor reappears in our story, it is to confirm that the Moray Place flat is worth nowhere near that amount. What's worse, the flat has a supporting wall removed. All that's keeping up the ceiling, he warns, is a Chinese display cabinet. Remove that, and the whole building could fall down. And if that happened, half of Moray Place could come with it ....
But what's a man to do? Pacta sunt servanda, after all.
"You can't," Big Lou observed on Monday, "have two women in the same kitchen." This piece of folk wisdom was given in connection with Matthew's plans to employ two women at the Something Special Gallery, but it could easily also apply to Domenica and Antonia on holiday in Tuscany. Thus modified, the Arbroathian aperu would now state: You can't have two women in Italy with designs on the same man – even when that man is Angus Lordie.
To Tuscany in a moment, but first back to Matthew's Gallery, where the fact that he now employs Kirsty as well as Pat might soon prove problematic. There are two reasons for this – first, because Kirsty is revealed to be a leading member of a group called Women's Revenge, and secondly, because Matthew discovers that he still harbours longings for Pat. For a man whose wife is expecting triplets, such thoughts are entirely inappropriate. To his credit, Matthew realises this.
Meanwhile in Tuscany, the holiday hasn't started particularly auspiciously for Domenica, Antonia and Angus. Both on the plane on the road to the Tuscan villa at which they will be staying for a month, there has been much bickering between the two women. Angus's dog Cyril, however, is having a much better time of it. At Pisa Airport, his intervention leads to the arrest of a drugs smuggler, for which, the Italian police hint to Angus, he is now in line for a prestigious canine decoration. He could soon join the ranks of other heroic Italian sniffer dogs as a cane-caviliere – and what could be better than that?
Episodes 56 - 60
THESE are dramatic days in the Pollock household, although at first one would hardly guess. What, after all, could be less dramatic than Irene and young Bertie walking back to Scotland Street after Bertie's therapeutic hour with Dr Sinclair? Not very much, not even when Irene realises that they might as well watch the send-off for the lorries taking second-hand clothes and furniture to Romania later that day.
Even that doesn't sound very dramatic: the short ceremony at Scotland Street is to be graced by the Lord Provost, and a piper will play Will Ye No Come Back Again, and balloons are promised, but none of this sounds particularly ominous. Admittedly, the fact that baby Ulysses throws up could be taken as ominous, but then again baby Ulysses throws up every time he sees Irene, so that can hardly count.
Down at Scotland Street, the speeches are made and the lorries piped off to Romania, and nothing seems remotely amiss. But when Bertie looks for his mother, *she is not there*.
She's not at home either, and suddenly a trifling domestic matter inflates into something far more serious. Of course, the police have to be involved, and as they point out to Stuart, very few women who walk out of their marriage leave their children behind, even if they do leave the husband. But that's what seems to have happened here, they conclude – a thought even more noxious than their suggestion that Irene might have been having an affair (something that Stuart has to admit, when pressed, might be a possibility).
Amid these worrying scenes, Antonia, Domenica and Angus finally set off on their month-long holiday in Italy. Angus recalls the first time he went there on travel scholarship as a young student. Instead of looking at and learning from the great paintings, he admits, he wasted his time enjoying la dolce vita. That's understandable, says the wise Domenica. All young people waste opportunities. The point is not to waste them if they come round again ....
Two of our central characters have been acting oddly this week. Matthew's determination to buy the flat in Moray Place that Elspeth liked so much is so strong that he has been strangely decisive in his dealings with his lawyers. Decisive is not an adjective that one readily associates with Matthew, so perhaps we should be worried – particularly when we realise that the property in question is itself of questionable status, a central wall having been knocked down in contravention of all the rules about what you can and cannot do with a Grade One listed building. None of which stops Matthew putting in an extremely decisive bid of nine hundred and seventy-five thousand pounds ...
Bertie's mother Irene, well known for seldom letting anyone else get a word in edgeways, has also been behaving strangely. Taking Bertie to his new psychotherapist, Dr Sinclair, she monopolises all but about five minutes of his session with her son.
Perhaps we shouldn't be too surprised by this. Irene has always been attracted to psychotherapists – indeed this could well be the reason that her baby Ulysses bears such a striking resemblance to Bertie's former psychotherapist, Dr Fairbairn. All the same, when Dr Sinclair tells Irene about the trials and tribulations of his early life in Australia, Irene does something that we haven't seen her do before. She LISTENS. And sympathetically too. How odd!
Is our identity fixed or can we change? These are the sort of questions Angus can happily discuss with Domenica – and with hardly any of his other friends. Domenica makes him think, he realises. Antonia, by contrast, doesn't: if he does ever think of her, it's only to wonder what on earth she's up to, planning to share her room with him on their forthcoming Italian holiday. He'll have to have put her off tactfully – but how? Perhaps he'll tell her he's a somnambulist?
The last time we saw Elspeth, she had fainted while looking around a flat in Moray Place. This had nothing to do with the price – although as it's for sale at just short of a million pounds that would have been understandable – and everything to do with the fact that she's pregnant with triplets. Fortunately, she isn't hurt in the fall and recovers consciousness within seconds.
All the same, Elspeth wonders, living in Moray Place is bound to change her. Or is it? So you see, it's not just Domenica and Angus who wonder about the mutability of personal identity. The imminent arrival of triplets, a move to a million-pound flat – these are precisely the kind of things that might indeed change one's sense of identity. Matthew, for example, is already acting very decisively over bidding for the flat. And that's not really him, is it? Or perhaps he's changing too?
No-one knows better than a psychotherapist that who we are has a great deal to with who our parents are. But things are, as all psychotherapists – even those who adhere to the Vienna school – also realise, a lot more complicated than that. Chance has a lot to do with it too.
Take Dr Sinclair, Bertie's new psychotherapist. He wouldn't have been born in Australia had his grandfather not picked up a book in Dumfries library and started reading about farm life in Victoria. And even that wouldn't have appealed so much had it not been February, which isn't the best time of year in Dumfries or indeed anywhere else in Scotland.
But how will chance affect Matthew and Elspeth? Her discovery that she is pregnant with triplets means that it already has. And it's pure chance again that Elspeth has seen a For Sale sign outside a property in Moray Place just as the two of them are realising that the imminent patter of six tiny feet mean that they will soon have to move from their India Street flat.
But as they are looking round, Elspeth falls – not to the floor but halfway across a chair. How badly has she been hurt? Has she been hurt at all? The coin of chance is in the air, spinning ...
Misunderstandings can happen in the best of families. All that it takes is for someone (in this case Irene) not to be paying attention when someone else (in this case Bertie) makes a request. Then again, the request that Bertie made – to take his baby brother Ulysses to school for the "show and tell" session with his new teacher Miss Maclaren Hope – WAS rather unusual. Most children, after all, had contented themselves with bringing along an inanimate object.
But as Irene (not listening) had said yes and was having a lie-in and Stuart (not knowing anything about it) had forgotten it was his turn to take Bertie to school and had gone off to work early, Bertie made his own way there with his baby brother in tow. To tell the truth, Ulysses was fussed over so much by the class that he didn't seem to mind too much. And it was such a relief to get away from his mother ...
Elsewhere on Scotland Street, other people are making plans for get away. In the case of Angus Lordie, the lure of Italy grows more powerful by the day as he and his dog Cyril count the days to their holiday there with Domenica and Antonia. In Edinburgh, all he is working on is a portrait of a board of banking directors, some of whom are now no longer, since the recent economic unpleasantness, employed by the bank. But in Italy, the home and the inspiration for great art, he just KNOWS he'll be able to paint something that matters. He's just gone shopping to kit himself out with summer clothes (and a red bandana for Cyril). When inspiration strikes in Tuscany, it helps to be ready for it.
• 44 Scotland Street has now stopped for a short break over the festive season – for which Alexander McCall Smith extends his best wishes to all his readers. The series resumes in the daily paper on Monday 4 January.
This is a week of glad tidings and great joy on Scotland Street, even though it doesn't particularly seem like it at the time. Elspeth, for example, starts the week feeling rather queasy over breakfast: she won't she decides, bother to tell her rather over-solicitous husband Matthew that she's got her three-month pregnancy check-up at the Infirmary that day. He'd only fret too much.
At the Royal Infirmary, however, she finds out that she is going to have triplets. It's a shock. Even the taxi driver on the way home feels sorry for her. She feels sorry for herself, and drops in at Big Lou's cafe, where the ever-perceptive Arbroathian discerns her worries immediately.
So far, though, Matthew doesn't know any of this, the news, so she goes round to the Something Special Gallery to tell him. But Matthew is debating with himself whether or not to buy a Vuillard painting. Unable to contain herself, Elspeth blurts out the news – whereupon Matthew faints, banging his head hard upon the floor.
A day of wildly swinging emotions as Bertie discovers that the letter he has been told to hand over to his parents is a request for their permission for him to attend a weekend scout camp.
This is potentially excellent news; the added request for parents to come along as helpers is, however, not. After surreptitiously opening the envelope, Bertie alters its wording so that this last request is withdrawn.
Unfortunately, Irene discovers his subterfuge and decides to accompany Bertie on the weekend camp. No matter that Stuart tries to console him by suggesting a secret fishing trip to the Pentlands, this is a black day indeed.
On the surface, Lizzie's invitation to her fiance, Bruce, to join her bridge class might sound like a less fraught occasion. It's not. Lizzie's friend Diane makes the mistake (and yes, it's always a mistake) of showing an interest in Bruce. She also tells him that Lizzie's family has been hit by a financial disaster and that Lizzie has had to give back to her parents all the money they had given her.
This was meant to be a test of the strength of Bruce's love for Lizzie. He fails it immediately, switching his own interest to Diane in the space of a sentence. Sadly, Diane appears to be smitten.
This is not, one feels, a relationship that is destined to end happily. But can one say the same thing about the friendship between Angus Lordie and Domenica Macdonald as they discuss their imminent journey to Italy as Antonia's guests? One – at least for now – cannot.
Is Bruce a fortune-hunter? Lizzie, to whom he has proposed, naturally thinks not, but her friend Diane is more has her doubts, especially when Lizzie reveals that her shares and her flat together are worth 750,000. Put him to the test, she urges.
Meanwhile, in Big Lou's cafe, Matthew and Angus are debating political correctness – specifically whether pygmies should be called "forest people" with the proprietrix. Big Lou is of the opinion that political correctness is attacked only by those who sail through life without suffering slights for the way they look, their race or sexuality. But when the conversation drifts towards cosmetic surgery, Big Lou appears to be defensive. Could she, Matthew wonders, be contemplating going under the knife herself?
Someone with no need of cosmetic alteration is Kirsty, Matthew's new assistant at the Something Special gallery. Kirsty is, not to put too fine a point on it, absolutely beautiful. In fact her beauty is, Matthew admits to himself, the main reason he gave her the job in the first place. And Angus has noticed it too. Could she, he wonders, be persuaded to model for him? Perhaps as Aphrodite in The Judgement of Paris? A disrobed Aphrodite even?
For Pat Macgregor, an art history student at Edinburgh University, life is almost serene. No longer romantically involved with either the unselfish Matthew or the totally selfish Bruce, she is enjoying not only her studies but the company of her student flatmates in their top-floor Warrender Park tenement. But how long can such a carefree existence carry on? Possibly not for too long, as she has already attracted the attentions of Andrew, a fellow-student, who doesn't seem capable of taking a hint that she isn't interested in him...
Irene Pollock is equally slow to take a hint – the hint in question being provided by baby Ulysses, who vomits whenever his mother picks him up. She is outraged when her doctor delicately suggests that this might be a causal link. As the doctor has also has the temerity to add that Bertie might also be suffering from being overly hothoused, he clearly knows nothing at all. A psychotherapist would be a lot more use for Ulysses, Irene decides.
Also problematic is the aforementioned Bruce. True, he no longer seems to be quite as vain as he used to be. He has, after all, already – and this is distinctly uncharacteristic behaviour – proposed marriage to Lizzie, the daughter of his boss, Raeburn Todd. A canny Watsonian, Raeburn doubts whether leopards can change their spots. Lizzie is convinced that, in her fian's case, they certainly can. And the fact that she is independently well-off is nothing at all to do with anything.
Casting around for a suitable subject for anthropological study, Domenica Macdonald decides on a minor research project involving visitors to Italian art cities. As her neighbour Antonia has invited her for a month's stay at a villa in the Sienese hills, this could be an ideal way of mixing work with pleasure.
She is, however, slightly alarmed to discover that Antonia – on past evidence an incorrigible man-hunter – has already invited Angus Lordie to accompany them. And not just Angus but his dog Cyril too.
Bertie, meanwhile, remains puzzled by his mother's reluctance to concede that baby Ulysses has more than a passing resemblance to his former psychotherapist, Dr Fairburn. Ulysses's paternity is not, however, the most pressing problem: working out why he is sick whenever Irene picks him up is far more important. For now, anyway ...
The sixth volume of Scotland Street began with a view of married life, as experienced by Matthew and his new wife, Elspeth Harmony. Matthew is a most considerate husband, paying attention to every possible wish that Elspeth might have. She appreciates that, but feels that a certain amount of space is needed in a marriage. The subject of marriage comes up later, in Big Lou's coffee bar, where there is a conversation between Angus Lordie and Matthew about Domenica Macdonald.
Matthew wonders if Angus and Domenica might get together; Big Lou interjects that men should not assume that women need them. And then we meet Bertie again. Poor Bertie, his mother is as bossy as ever and reveals that her son received what she describes as "pre-natal education", having Mozart played to him while he was still in the womb.
Is it surprising, then, that Bertie's little brother, Ulysses, should be starting to show signs of psychological distress?
• Alexander McCall Smith welcomes comments from readers. Write to him c/o The Editor, The Scotsman, 108 Holyrood Road, Edinburgh, EH8 8AS, or via e-mail at [email protected]