In the case of Nicola’s husband, his excuse was disarming in its effrontery. He had, he said, been instructed by the Virgin Mary, no less, to go off with his young housekeeper. It is difficult to argue with such an explanation, other than to suggest, perhaps rather lamely, that the Virgin Mary can hardly be expected to get everything right, and that her advice should not always be followed to the letter, well-intentioned though it undoubtedly might be.
Nicola returned to Scotland from Portugal. She was pleased to be back, although during her marriage she had immersed herself in Portuguese culture, spoke the language fluently, and had even begun writing a critical biography of Fernando Pessoa. She was financially secure from two sources: the generous settlement that the Virgin Mary instructed her former husband to make, and from an inheritance that Nicola had received in Scotland. This included ownership of a Glasgow pie factory, formerly known as Pies for Protestants, but now called, more appropriately, Inclusive Pies. Nicola did not have the time to adopt a hands-on approach to the pie factory, and had proposed a scheme in which the firm’s management and employees were given a major stake in the enterprise. It was just the right solution: the staff in Glasgow now shared in the profits and participated in management decisions. From Nicola’s point of view, she was happy to involve herself in certain aspects of the company’s affairs while leaving the day-to-day running of the business to those who knew about Scotch pies and the people who ate them.
The life she had planned for herself in Edinburgh was to have been one in which she enjoyed the cultural offerings of the city while re-establishing contact with old friends with whom she had lost touch on leaving for Portugal. It was to have been an unhurried existence: morning coffee with friends, followed by a visit to a gallery. Then lunch with further friends and, after that, something she had become accustomed to in Portugal – a siesta. In the evening, there might be a visit to the Lyceum Theatre, or a concert, perhaps even a dinner party with entertaining guests. It would have been a comfortable, fulfilling existence – not particularly strenuous, but also not markedly sybaritic. It would have been what is sometimes called me time – the time so appreciated by those whose lot it has been to look after others – by exhausted mothers, in particular, who have had to juggle child-care with work and the running of a household. Such persons richly deserve me time, but often do not have the chance to claim it because those they are looking after are enjoying me time themselves.
That had been the plan, but then everything changed when Bertie’s mother decided that the time had come for her to move to Aberdeen to begin a PhD with Dr Hugo Fairbairn, recently appointed to a chair at the university there. Dr Fairbairn had been Bertie’s psychotherapist, and Irene had discovered they both shared an interest in the work of Melanie Klein. This gave an added point to the weekly visits they made to Dr Fairbairn’s Queen Street consulting rooms. While Bertie sat in the waiting room, paging through the old copies of Scottish Field provided for patients to peruse while awaiting their appointment, Irene would sequester herself with Dr Fairbairn and discuss matters of interest. This suited Bertie, who did not enjoy his sessions with Dr Fairbairn, whom he thought to be certifiably insane. Bertie had read about the State Hospital at Carstairs, and thought it only a matter of time before attendants in white coats arrived to take Dr Fairbairn away for the much-needed attention. That this never happened was put down by Bertie to inadequate resources.
And now, of course, Dr Fairbairn was safely in Aberdeen, where Bertie had read hyperthermia was a real issue. Cold shock therapy might help him, he imagined, but in the meantime he was pleased to be spared those weekly sessions in which Dr Fairbairn invited him to tell him about his dreams, and Bertie, obliging as ever, made up enough dreams to keep Dr Fairbairn scribbling away in his notebook. Bertie had discovered a book about Freud’s cases on his mother’s bookshelf, and had read with great interest about the famous Wolf Man, who had described a dream in which he had been observed by wolves sitting in the trees. This had intrigued Bertie, who thought that the Wolf Man was probably just fibbing: wolves did not sit in trees – everybody knew that, even Larch, a boy in his class at school who was famous for knowing nothing at all, about anything, but who, on request, could burp to the tune of La Marseillaise, perfectly in tune and with surprising attention to the dynamics of the music.
Bertie had told Dr Fairbairn about a dream he had had in which wolves had stolen his underpants and had hung them in a tree. The narration of this dream had been received with rapt attention by Dr Fairbairn, who twice broke the lead in his propelling pencil in his eagerness to write down the details. He was pleased that he had been able to satisfy Dr Fairbairn so easily – he did not bear the psychotherapist any ill will – Bertie bore ill-will towards nobody – but if a few tall stories needed to be invented in order to keep Dr Fairbairn from becoming too unstable, then he saw no particular harm in that. Everyone made things up, Bertie had concluded – particularly adults – and a few helpful stories of this sort would do no harm, particularly since they appeared to give such inexplicable pleasure to Dr Fairbairn. Adults, Bertie thought, are often desperate for something to do, and psychotherapists, it seemed, were no exception.
© Alexander McCall Smith, 2021. A Promise of Ankles (Scotland Street 14) is available now. Love in the Time of Bertie (Scotland Street 15) will be published by Polygon in hardback in November 2021.