He began his walk round the perimeter of the gardens, following the path widdershins, as he usually did, enjoying the crunch of gravel underfoot. Somewhere off to his left, a bird called out a greeting – or was it a challenge? It was as difficult, he thought, for us to interpret what birds were saying as it was for them to make sense of our human babble. He hoped it was a thrush, because he loved thrushes and believed that a pair of these birds had taken up residence somewhere nearby, possibly in the gardens themselves.
Irene was in his mind, her disapproving gaze fixed resolutely upon him, even here, in the solitude of the gardens. He now suspected that the three months that Bertie was to spend in Aberdeen would be the beginning of a longer sojourn there – one that would soon become, if he were insufficiently vigilant, six months, and then a year, and ultimately an indeterminate time. He feared that he might lose Bertie altogether; Irene had never been one to share, in spite of her communitarian rhetoric, and she would not hesitate to unpick their carefully negotiated custody agreement. And the mere of that thought of losing Bertie was too awful to contemplate, because Bertie, he realised, was his world. Yes, he had his career as a statistician; yes, he had a few friends whom he saw from time to time; yes, he had the constant and unstinting support of his mother, Nicola; yes, he had interests that diverted and sustained him, but none of these things was as central to him, as important, as his son. Without Bertie, he would be bereft, at a complete loss, devoid of any real reason to continue with life.
His eyes fixed on ground beneath his feet, Stuart only saw Sister Maria-Fiore dei Fiori di Montagna when he was more or less upon her. She had been walking deosil, in the opposite direction to him, and he almost bumped into her as he turned a corner in the path.
The nun smiled. “I had thought myself alone,” she said. “And now, here you are.”
Stuart felt a slight irritation at her presence. The gardens, although privately owned, were open to anybody who was fortunate enough to possess a key, as both he and Sister Maria-Fiore did. And yet there were times at which the presence of others seemed like an intrusion, and that was how he now felt.
“Yes,” he said. “Here I am.”
Sister Maria-Fiore dei Fiori di Montagna clasped her hands together, as if about to pray. But it was not into words of prayer that she now launched, but into an aphorism. “Those we find before us are often those who we have been seeking,” she said, adding, “Even if we did not know that we were seeking them.”
Stuart stared at her. “Possibly,” he said. “Although you and I disprove the proposition, I would have thought: neither of us has been seeking the other.”
This might have deflated the nun, but it did not. “A contrario,” she said, unclasping her hands to make the point. “We may have been seeking one another because we know – even if we do not know – that the other is the one we need to find.” She paused, and then, in a lower, more matter-of-fact register, continued, “You look upset, Stuart. Is there something wrong?”
Stuart was about to say that nothing was wrong, but found that he lacked the energy to dissemble. “I feel awful,” he said, and then, without waiting for further encouragement, told her about Irene’s demand that Bertie go to her in Aberdeen for three months. Sister Maria-Fiore listened sympathetically, and then said, “She’s punishing you, of course.”
Stuart’s eyes narrowed. What did this nun know of the history of their troubled marriage?
“I don’t know …”
“No, she is,” insisted Sister Maria-Fiore. “She is making you and Bertie suffer because she is unhappy – and you do not share her unhappiness. You never will – nor will Bertie. And so she is determined to make you unhappy in the way in which she herself is unhappy. It’s fairly basic psychology. I’ve seen it time and time again.”
For a while Stuart was silent. Then he said, “What should I do?”
“Do not fight her,” said Sister Maria-Fiore. “When we fight others, we are simply fighting ourselves.”
“Allow her to make her point. Do not harbour resentment in your heart. Allow healing to take place.”
Stuart looked doubtful.
“That is the only way,” said Sister Maria-Fiore.
She looked at her watch. “The sun’s over the chapel tower,” she said.
Stuart looked confused. “The chapel tower …”
“Do you not say the sun’s over the yardarm when it’s time to have a drink?”
Stuart laughed. “Oh, that. Yes, some do. It’s a naval expression, I believe. Rather old-fashioned.”
“I wonder whether you would care to come and have a gin and tonic with me,” said Sister Maria-Fiore. “Antonia is in Broughty Ferry, visiting her aunt – such a needful lady, bless her – and so it’s just me, I’m afraid.”
Stuart hesitated. He felt at ease coping with most social situations, but this one was rather unexpected. To be invited to have a gin and tonic with an Italian nun à deux was a new experience, and he was not quite sure how to respond.
“Please say you will,” implored Sister Maria-Fiore dei Fiori di Montagna.
There was something in her voice that made Stuart hesitate even more, but it seemed that time for hesitation was over, as the nun now seized his elbow in a surprisingly firm grip and began to guide him back down the path towards the gate.
“I have a little secret to impart,” said Sister Maria-Fiore dei Fiori di Montagna.
Stuart said nothing.
“Antonia and I are thinking of moving,” she continued. “We’ve found a delightful double-upper flat in the Grange. It’s just come on the market. I can’t wait to tell you about it.”
Stuart smiled. He was relieved that Sister Mari-Fiore’s agenda was so innocent. A move to the Grange? What could be less controversial, less unsettling than 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.