“I’m ready for that,” said Stuart, glancing at his watch. It was not quite yet a respectable time to pour a gin and tonic, but tea would always do. He had been looking after Ulysses and had eventually managed to settle him for a much-needed nap.
“Dear little Ulysses,” said Nicola. “He can be a touch exhausting.” And then added, quickly, “Not that I mind in the slightest. He is, after all, my grandson.”
“I wish we still had old-fashioned gripe-water,” mused Stuart. “Did you give it to me when I was a baby?”
Nicola smiled. “It was a great tragedy when they changed the formula. You can still get it, but it’s a pale imitation of the original thing.”
“Everybody says it settled babies miraculously,” said Stuart.
“Yes, it did. It worked a treat.”
“What was the magic ingredient?”
“Gin,” said Nicola. “Babies love gin. It stops them girning.”
Stuart laughed. “I can see why they stopped it.”
“Perhaps,” said Nicola. “There used to be all sorts of questionable things in popular products. Coca-Cola used to contain cocaine, I’m told – right up to the nineteen-twenties. And then there was a wonderful mixture that my mother swore by for upset stomachs, until it disappeared from the pharmacies. It was invented by one Dr John Collis Browne, and he called it Dr Collis Browne’s Chlorodyne. It was a horrible brown liquid and you put a few drops in water and drank it. It worked because it contained chloroform and opiates into the bargain. It put your stomach to sleep, so to speak.”
Stuart thought that a rather good idea. “What was that stuff in Brave New World? Soma, wasn’t it?”
“It’s a long time since I read that,” said Nicola. “But I think you’re right. The whole population was dosed with soma to keep them happy.”
“Huxley may have been more prescient than we thought,” said Stuart. He paused and looked morosely into his teacup before continuing. “We need to talk, Mother.”
Nicola knew what was coming. She had been dreading this conversation, which she and Stuart had been having on and off for more than a week, but which had yet to be concluded. Now she took a sip of tea and put down her cup with a clatter.
“You’re right, Stuart. We need to talk. I’ve been dreading it, but we can’t pretend that Irene does not exist. She may be up in Aberdeen, but it’s as if she’s in the room with us here. Pachydermatically, so to speak”
Stuart nodded glumly. “Denial never works,” he said.
Nicola was not sure about that. “Oh, I don’t know. I think denial has its place. There’s no point in fretting unnecessarily. People who deny things often strike me as being quite cheerful.”
“But there’s a difference between denial and that sort of attitude. You might accept that something exists but don’t worry too much about it. I’m not sure if that’s denial. You might call it optimism, or putting on a brave face, or whatever.”
Nicola sighed. “Possibly. But here we go again. We’re talking about something else when we know that we should be talking about …”
“About Irene’s plan.”
Stuart nodded again. He looked up at the ceiling, but then realised that looking up at the ceiling was a form of denial. He looked down at the floor, and thought the same. He closed his eyes. That was pure denial. “All right,” he said. “She phoned me this morning.”
“She hasn’t changed her mind.”
For a few moments, neither spoke. Then Nicola said, “So she’s insisting that Bertie go to Aberdeen?”
“Yes. For three months.”
Nicola pursed her lips.
“I told her that we all thought it was a ridiculous idea,” Stuart continued. “I told her that Bertie’s teacher said that it would set him back if he had to go to a new school up there and then, just when he would be settling in, to bring him back to Edinburgh.”
“Of course, it would,” Nicola exploded. “Anybody can see that. Children need routine. They need security. They don’t need to be carted off to Aberdeen for three months.”
Stuart said that he had argued along those lines when Irene first raised the issue, but had got nowhere. “The thing about Irene,” he said, “is that she thinks she is always right. Most of us experience the occasional moment of self-doubt, but I’m afraid she doesn’t.”
“No,” agreed Nicola. “It must be marvellous to have such complete confidence in oneself.”
Stuart continued with further details of the morning’s conversation. Irene had hinted that if Stuart were to contest her decision to have Bertie with her in Aberdeen for three months, she would review their entire agreement as to custody. “It might be simpler for me to come back to Edinburgh,” she said. “There’s a strong case, I think, for my returning to Scotland Street full-time.”
Stuart had been aghast. “But your PhD? What about your PhD and Dr Fairbairn. . ?”
“Professor Fairbairn,” Irene corrected.
“Yes. What about Professor Fairbairn?”
She did not reply immediately. Then she said, “I’m not proposing to return. All that I’m asking for is for Bertie to come and live with me for three months in Aberdeen and do a term at a school up here. It’s all arranged. It’ll broaden his horizons.”
And end his world, thought Stuart.
Stuart had noticed that nothing had been said about Ulysses. “But what about Ulysses?” he said. “What about your baby?”
Irene snapped back, “Your baby too, may I remind you. It takes two people to produce a baby, Stuart, as I have pointed out to you before on numerous occasions. It’s only because of patriarchy that people refer to mother and child and so on.”
Stuart gritted his teeth. “I think that perhaps you should take both of them for three months. Poor little Ulysses will wonder where his brother has gone. Wouldn’t it be better for him to be up there with you?”
“Certainly not,” replied Irene. “I have my PhD. I’m extremely busy. You have your mother living with you. I’m sure she’s looking after Ulysses in a very satisfactory way, thank you.”
After that, there was little to be said, and now Stuart explained to Nicola that rest of the conversation had been about details, rather than the principle that Bertie should go. Irene would come to collect him, she said, the following week. Could Stuart please pack a suitcase of Bertie’s clothes?
“Do I have to tell him now?” Stuart had asked.
“Of course,” said Irene. “He has to be involved in this decision. He has to take his share of the ownership of it.”
“You won’t be here to see his tears when I tell him,” Stuart muttered.
“Did you say something?” asked Irene.
Stuart put down the telephone. Now, remembering that conversation, he stared at Nicola. She was resourceful. She was constant. She was what a real mother should be – everything that Irene was not. But in this particular matter, she was powerless.
© 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.