Nicola was in charge of bedtime that day. Ulysses was already asleep, snoring loudly in the way in which, atypically for a young child, he had always done. Medical advice had been sought, and his nose had been closely examined by a paediatric ear, nose and throat specialist at the Sick Kids. It had been pronounced to have slightly unusual properties, but nonetheless to be within the range of normality and would not require any medical attention.
“It’s very large,” Bertie had observed. “That’s why he snores, I think. Could they not cut a bit off at the hospital? Just a bit?”
Stuart had smiled, but his smile had faded with Bertie’s next comment, innocently made, but nonetheless not the sort of remark that Stuart wished to hear.
“It’s funny, isn’t it, Daddy,” Bertie had continued, “that Ulysses’ nose is so like Dr Fairbairn’s. It’s the same shape, I think, particularly if you look at it from the side.” He paused. “I wonder if Dr Fairbairn snores. Mummy probably knows that. I could ask her, I suppose.”
This had been said in the hearing of Nicola, who was setting up the bread-maker at the time, and who, distracted by what had been said, spilled a large quantity of flour on the floor. She did not know Dr Fairbairn well, but had met him on a couple of occasions and knew that what Bertie said about the similarity was quite true. She also suspected that any resemblance between Ulysses and the psychotherapist was not merely coincidence, although she had not voiced her doubts in this respect to Stuart. But now that was exactly what Bertie was doing, and Nicola waited anxiously to see how Stuart might respond.
Stuart had looked up at the ceiling. He had always done that, Nicola reminded herself. Even when he had been a small boy and had been found to have committed some minor transgression, he had looked up at the ceiling while being reprimanded. And Nicola remembered how at his wedding, when vows were exchanged, she had glanced at her son from her position in the front pew of the church, and had seen that he was looking up at the ceiling. That had struck her as a bad sign, and for a moment she had reflected that perhaps her instinct to wear black to that particular wedding had been a sound one. But one did not wear black to a wedding, however strong the temptation.
Stuart had stared at the ceiling and had then said to Bertie, “I don’t think we should talk about other people’s noses, Bertie – I really don’t.”
That was typical of Stuart, thought Nicola. Much as she loved her son, she was not blind to his faults, and one of them was an unwillingness to address painful issues. It was that failing that had led, she thought, to his putting up with Irene and her ways as long as he had. If he had only had the courage to stand up to her at an early stage – their honeymoon would have been a good time to start – then he might not have been relegated to the subsidiary role that had then been his lot for the remainder of the marriage. And even now, when the two of them were leading separate lives, it seemed to be Irene who was calling all the shots.
Of course, it was difficult to see what he could possibly do about this tricky issue of paternity. Even if it were the case that Ulysses was Dr Fairbairn’s son, as she suspected was the case, it was not at all clear how the admission of that fact would change anything. Parentage could never be a child’s fault: none of us, after all, chose the bed in which we were born, and nor did that have any bearing on the immediate needs of a child. It was unthinkable that she or Stuart could ever claim that Ulysses was nothing to do with them: he was their son and grandchild whatever his provenance, and it would be quite wrong to open that issue.
Now, with Ulysses’ snores reverberating from his small bedroom at the back of the flat, Bertie had been tucked up in his own bed and left to read for half an hour or so before lights out. When Stuart next checked up on him, he found Bertie was fast asleep, having dropped the book that now lay on the rug beside his bed. Stuart picked it up, glancing at the title. Bertie was a prodigious reader, picking up anything he came across, and devouring books well beyond anything one would normally expect a seven-year-old to read. That evening it was Eric Linklater’s The Prince in the Heather, a book that Bertie had discovered in the help-yourself library box at the end of Scotland Street and in which he had quickly immersed himself, giving regular précised accounts of the contents to Ranald Braveheart Macpherson, who had yet to learn how to read.
Stuart looked down at Bertie’s tousled hair upon the pillow. He looked at the space rocket motif of the pillow case: little astronauts in bubble-helmets, floating in space alongside their space dogs, similarly clad in shiny inflated space-dog suits. He looked at the lobe of his son’s right ear, with its tiny indentation, a genetic peculiarity of the Pollock family, passed down from generation to generation, like a family badge, from the earliest ancestor they had identified, a Covenanting minister from the South-west of Scotland. The minister had been captured in a pencil sketch by his wife, who had drawn his ear with its characteristic mark. In these little ways, we were bound up in the notion of family and continuity, of identity – the things which we held so tenuously against all the confusion of this world. We had to believe in something, thought Stuart; we had to think that something was important, that something counted, because otherwise what were our lives but tiny events of no significance at all?
He reached down and switched off Bertie’s light before returning to the kitchen.
“I’m going out,” he said to Nicola.
She looked at him. She did not ask him why, or where, but he told her nonetheless.
“I’m going to walk round Drummond Place Gardens. I need some air.”
She sighed. She knew what was going to happen. He was going to get in touch with Irene and go back on everything that had so far been agreed. Irene would resume control of their lives, running them from Aberdeen, returning to Edinburgh from time to time to exert her control. He would never leave that woman – never. She sighed again. Even an anticyclone of sighs would not be insufficient to express the regret engendered by this situation; Irene was permanent; Irene was immutable; Irene was omnipotent.
© 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.