Domenica poured both of them a fresh cup of coffee. She was enjoying this conversation with her neighbour, even if it was … well, if one were to be honest with oneself, it was gossip. But then what was wrong with that? A life devoid of at least the occasional gossip would surely be a bit bland – like an endless stock market report, or some such recitation of simple fact, or a meal without salt, pepper or any other seasoning. Gossip allowed one to be amused by the human comedy, involved irony and other shadings of the palette, and was permissible, surely, as long as it refrained from cruelty. Gossip cemented our links with one another, reminded us of community. In the foibles of others, after all, we saw ourselves – or should do.
“Yes,” said Domenica. “Irene – Stuart’s wife, and mother of Bertie and Ulysses – is now doing a PhD in Aberdeen. She comes down here from time to time – I saw her a few weeks ago, briefly – but it’s Nicola – Stuart’s mother – who is looking after the boys. Stuart himself, of course, is a conscientious, hands-on father, but he struggles a bit.” She paused. “In fact, he has struggled for years, that man. Irene was a touch on the dominant side. In fact, she was completely appalling. A termagant. The day she left was liberation day as far as Stuart was concerned. And the boys. And the rest of us too. There was dancing in the street. Fireworks.” She looked at Torquil, who was listening wide-eyed. “I exaggerate a touch. But we were certainly pleased.”
“I see,” said Torquil.
“I suppose she meant well,” said Domenica, slightly reluctantly. “But she was devoid of tolerance of other people’s views. She hectored. And that poor little boy, poor wee Bertie. How he suffered! He’s composed of pure goodness, and he never complained about that mother of his – he bore it all with fortitude. Italian lessons from the age of four – yes, four! He’s seven now, and, if anything, the pressure is worse – or at least it was until Aberdeen beckoned Irene. Psychotherapy every week – every week! Yoga sessions down at Stockbridge. It was relentless. And all the time he just wanted to be an ordinary little boy, doing the things that ordinary little boys do.”
Torquil shook his head. “It’s rather hard to be a boy these days, I think.”
“Virtually impossible,” Domenica agreed. “There may be a place where boys roam free – but it’s not here.”
Torquil looked thoughtful. “She sounds a bit like Agrippina.”
Domenica tried to remember who Agrippina was. A Roman clearly, but beyond that …
“She was Nero’s mother,” Torquil explained. “I’ve been writing an essay on Nero in my ancient history course. You have to do ancient history if you do classics – you can’t do just the languages and literature, you have to do the Caesars and the corn supply and the decline of the Republic and all that. Nero’s rather interesting. He’s being rehabilitated at the moment, believe it or not. There’s been a big exhibition in London of Nero-related material, and the line is: Nero wasn’t as bad as he’s been portrayed.”
“Revisionism,” said Domenica. “People can’t resist the temptation to change the way we see figures of the past. They’ve been doing that with the Vikings. There are quite a few historians now who argue that the Vikings meant well.”
“That they weren’t just about burning and pillaging?”
“Exactly. Apparently, that was not the whole point of Viking raids. The real point was to spread Scandinavian culture. The Vikings were very keen on art and music, according to this view.”
Torquil shook his head. “I doubt it.”
“So do I.”
“Nero, of course, was interested in the arts.”
“All I remember learning of him at school,” Domenica said, “was that he played the fiddle …”
“While Rome burned. Yes, that was his metaphor, so to speak. But he was actually rather interesting.”
“And Agrippina was his mother?”
“She was married to Claudius. You may have read …:”
“Robert Graves? Yes, I did.” It was a long time ago, though, and she remembered nothing about the book except its title, and the fact that Claudius stammered.
“She was a great poisoner. She murdered Claudius by feeding him a poisoned mushroom. Of course, he had a food-taster, who sampled the mushrooms and pronounced them fine, but they slipped in a large, choice one that he knew Claudius would go for. And he did. And that was the end of him.
“She was ruthlessly ambitious,” Torquil continued. “She loved power and her sole objective in life was to acquire more of it for herself and her son, Nero. That was the agenda. So, once Claudius was out of the way, Nero took over with Agrippina standing behind him, so to speak. He was just a teenage boy when he found himself ruler of a vast empire. He was a bit wild. I read that he used to disguise himself in ordinary clothes and go out at night with the boys, and get into all sorts of fights.”
“Others have gone out in disguise,” Domenica mused. “The Gudeman of Ballengeich? James V? He used to dress in humble clothes and go out among the people.”
“Of course. And the Duke of Edinburgh used to drive himself round London in a taxi cab.”
“Agrippina?” Domenica reminded him.
“She tried to control Nero. She was the ultimate interfering mother. Unfortunately, Nero murdered her. He had a special boat built that was designed to break in two and tip her into the sea. He saw her off on this after inviting her for dinner at his seaside villa. Halfway across the Bay of Naples, the boat performed as intended. Agrippina found herself in the water, but managed to get herself picked up by some obliging fishermen. Nero sent men round to her house to finish her off. It was very unpleasant. One should not treat one’s mother like that.”
“Definitely not,” said Domenica. “One should appreciate one’s mother. One should not tip her into the sea.”
“And ye cannae shove your granny aff a bus,” added Torquil.
Domenica laughed. “That goes without saying,” she said.
© 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.