Scotland Street Volume 15, Chapter 15: Dear little Argonaut

Nicola might have been expected to feel disappointed when she heard of Irene’s departure for Aberdeen. She might have been expected to regret the dashing of her plans for a relaxed, even if slightly self-indulgent, existence in Edinburgh but, as it happened, she felt quite buoyed by the news, and lost no time in volunteering to fill the child-care gap that Irene had so selfishly created.

44 Scotland Street

Stuart was reluctant to take advantage of his mother. “I could always employ somebody,” he said. “I gather that there are plenty of qualified people searching for jobs looking after children. I heard of somebody who received thirty-two applications for a job they advertised. Thirty-two!”

“It doesn’t exactly surprise me,” said Nicola. “People like working with children.”

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“But thirty-two, mother!” exclaimed Stuart. “Thirty-two – and apparently they were all pretty impressive. One had a master’s degree in early education.”

Nicola made a dismissive gesture. “Everybody has a master’s these days.”

“Another was a qualified music teacher,” Stuart continued.

This did not impress Nicola. “Frankly, I don’t think you need any formal qualifications to look after children. You don’t need them to be a parent – and I don’t see why you should need them to be in loco parentis.” She paused. “No, Stuart, you don’t need to get anybody in. I shall be only too happy to do my grandparental duty. I shall make myself available and, with any luck, we can start undoing the damage that …”

She stopped herself, but Stuart had heard. “Go on, mother,” he muttered, tight-lipped. “Say it.”

“Well, I thought that perhaps a small corrective might help to deal with the influence of the last little while …”

Stuart interrupted her. “Irene’s influence?”

Nicola lowered her eyes. “One might say that.”

Stuart bit his lip. He knew what his mother felt about Irene, and it made him feel uncomfortable, even if he also knew that her animosity had every justification. Irene was intolerable – at least from most people’s perspective, and it was only loyalty, and a certain embarrassment, that prevented him from acknowledging that fact.

He fixed his gaze on his mother. “You never liked her – right from the start, you never liked her, did you?”

Nicola hesitated. Then she said, “No, I didn’t. I couldn’t stand her. But I did try, you know. I made an effort.”

He granted her that. “Yes,” he said. “I noticed. I don’t think anybody would fault you on that. You did your best.”

She looked relieved. “I’m glad that you saw that,” she said. “It’s an odd thing – having to like somebody as a matter of duty. We all know that we have a duty to the people we have to live with, but sometimes … Well, sometimes, it’s an awful effort.”

Stuart thought about this. “Like, or tolerate? I’m not sure that anybody says to us that we have to like others. They do say, though, that we have to tolerate them.”

“I think that Christianity has something to say about that,” said Nicola. “Love your neighbour as yourself. Isn’t that the second great commandment?”

Stuart said, “If you’re talking about religion, yes. But not otherwise. Not in ordinary morality. That’s less …”

“Less strenuous?”

“Yes, that’s what I meant. We’re not meant to be unpleasant to others, but we’re not told to like them.” Stuart paused. “Well, you did your best. You tried – I know you tried.”

“And so did you,” said Nicola. “You worked at your marriage.”

Stuart was silent.

“I saw how you bit your tongue,” Nicola continued. “I saw how you struggled when she was going on and on about Melanie Klein and Bertie’s psychotherapy. And his yoga and his saxophone lessons, and his Italian. All of that. You bit your tongue when another might have exploded and said that enough was enough and all that Bertie needed was to be left alone and allowed to be a little boy. To have a Swiss Army penknife and join the Wolf Cubs or whatever they call them these days. To do all of the things that little boys like to do and that people like Irene try to stop them doing.”

Nicola stopped. She understood that there were limits to what she could say about Irene because everything that she said – the entire catalogue of Irene’s failings – could be taken as an indictment of Stuart’s bad judgment in choosing to marry her, and, after that event, of his weakness in not standing up to her barrage of criticism. Bullies got away with what they got away with because people allowed them to do their work of bullying without standing up to them. Stuart should have put his foot down a long time ago. He should have told Irene that she could not expect him to share all of her attitudes, and that a civilized marriage involves acceptance by each party of the fact that two people might have different views of certain subjects. Jack Spratt could eat no fat and his wife could eat no lean. They got on all right in spite of these different tastes. People could do that – at least they could in the past. It was different now, of course, and today the Spratts might well be expected to be searching for more personal space.

Nicola moved into 44 Scotland Street, taking over a room that Irene had previously used as a study. Her days became busy, as Ulysses was getting bigger and was requiring more attention. That kept her busy all morning until it was time to set off to collect Bertie from the Steiner School. She did that by bus, taking Ulysses with her. As often as not, Ulysses would be dressed in a neat sailor suit, on the sleeves of which Nicola had embroidered the name Argo.

“Dear little Argonaut,” she muttered, kissing him on the top of his head, as the bus wended its way up the Mound.

Ulysses beamed. He had been in a much better frame of mind since Irene had gone off to Aberdeen, and was sick far less often. Prior to Irene’s departure, he had manifested the trying habit of being sick whenever Irene picked him up or addressed him directly. That behaviour seemed to have been completely corrected, and now nobody could remember when Ulysses had last brought anything up. That was not to say that he was completely without vices. He still made somewhat embarrassing bodily noises whenever a friendly adult face beamed at him, and it was generally impossible to take him into any form of human society, owing to the somewhat overpowering smell that tended to emanate from him. Apart from that, though, he was an ideal baby and a little brother of whom Bertie was quite proud.

It had not always been thus. Until recently, Bertie had been rather too ready to speculate in public about what might happen if Ulysses were to be left somewhere – inadvertently – and never recovered. Could they sell his toys, he asked, and if he did the selling, could he get commission on his brother’s estate?

“I’m not saying that I want Ulysses to go away, Daddy,” he told his father. “I’m not saying that we should get rid of him. All I’m saying is that I don’t really see the point of him. I’ve tried, but I just can’t.”

Bertie looked miserable. He was a kind boy. So he concluded, “I’ll carry on trying, though. I promise. Scout’s honour.”

He was not a scout. Irene had always forbidden it. But a moral profession is often aspirational, and all the more forceful for that.

© 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.