Scotland Street Volume 16, Chapter 17: The pronunciation of Gullane (Pt 2)
That morning, not all that far from Big Lou’s coffee bar, on the eastern side of Scotland Street, behind a Georgian window, with its white-painted astragals and its Palladian proportions, Stuart Pollock sat across the breakfast table from his mother, Nicola, ex-wife of an unfaithful Portuguese wine producer, proprietrix of the Glasgow pie factory now trading as Inclusive Pies, and grandmother – now mother-substitute – to the two small boys, Bertie and Ulysses.
The adults were by themselves. Ulysses had had a disturbed night – he had been projectile vomiting – and was having a long lie-in to catch up on sleep; Bertie had gone out with their neighbour, Angus Lordie, to walk Angus’s dog, Cyril, in the Drummond Place Gardens. It was the school holidays now, and although both children had been enrolled in a holiday club, it had not yet convened and several days at home were in the offing. Fortunately for Stuart, his mother provided full-time care for the boys, and indeed had moved in, leaving her own flat in Northumberland Street to be on hand for the boys’ needs. Nicola had been happy to take on that role when Stuart’s wife Irene had gone to study for a PhD in Aberdeen with her close personal friend, Dr Hugo Fairbairn, now Professor Fairbairn, author of that classic of child psychotherapy, Shattered to Pieces: Ego Dissolution in a Three-Year-Old Tyrant.
If Stuart had been relieved to see Irene go, then Nicola had been overjoyed. She had never approved of her son’s wife, and had endured years of condescension from her. When the marriage had run into difficulty – all of it Irene’s fault, Nicola was convinced – she had seen this as the chance for the hauden-doon Stuart at last to make something of his life – and he had done that – to an extent. Aberdeen was far enough away for a fresh start, Nicola thought, although she would have preferred it had Irene gone even further afield – to Shetland perhaps – there was a lot to be said for Unst – or even the Faroes. And there was always Iceland, of course, or Northern Scandinavia, although, faute de mieux, Aberdeen would do.
But now Nicola sat at the table, a pained look on her face, her mouth half open, as if she had been about to say something before being abruptly interrupted.
“She’s what?” she stuttered. “She said she’s what?”
“Coming back,” said Stuart.
He was holding his telephone before him, and now he scrolled down the screen, his expression darkening as he did so.
“This is what she’s written,” he said. “Listen. ‘I have decided to spend two months of the summer in Edinburgh, and so I shall be arriving towards the end of this week. Don’t worry about being there to let me in, as I still have my key. I’ll have the spare room. I can bring sheets if necessary. Let me know. And, by the way, you’d better let that . . .’” Stuart’s voice trailed off.
“That what?” Nicola pressed. “You’d better let that what?”
Stuart swallowed. “I don’t like the way she puts this,” he said.
“You can say that again,” said Nicola. “I’ve never liked the way she puts anything. What does she say, Stuart?”
Stuart read out the rest of the message from Irene. “‘You’d better let that woman know that I’m coming and that she can go back to her own flat.’”
He looked at his mother apologetically. “I don’t think she means to be rude.”
Nicola laughed. “But that’s exactly what she does mean,” she said.
Stuart bit his lip. “She goes to say why she’s coming to Edinburgh. She wants to do some work in the National Library of Scotland. It’s to do with her PhD thesis.”
Nicola’s lip curled. “Hah!” she said. “We could all do a PhD and go off to Aberdeen, couldn’t we? Or Florence, for that matter. Or Paris. Or anywhere, really. Anywhere where we happen to have a lover, that is. I’m off to do a PhD. Wonderful. And who will look after the children, might one ask? That woman – that’s who.”
“Mother,” said Stuart, trying to calm her. “There’s no point––”
Nicola cut him short. “And so she imagines that I’ll move out now that she’s coming back for a few months? Well, Stuart, you need to take command of this situation.”
“I know mother, I know. I’ve been thinking––”
Again, she stopped him. “You’ve been thinking? The time for thinking, Stuart is most decisively over. You need to get back to her and remind her that she no longer has any claim to this house. Your marriage is over, Stuart, and she can’t come along and move back in when she wants to.”
“I suppose so.”
“Good. So, send a reply right now. Tell her that she’s very welcome to come back to Edinburgh and that there are many Airbnbs from which she may select one to rent. Preferably on the other side of town. Burdiehouse, perhaps. Or Niddrie. Or Even North Berwick or Gullane. It’s very invigorating down there.”
Stuart nodded. The mention of Gullane had reminded him that while Nicola pronounced it correctly – as Gillin – Irene had always insisted on calling it Gullin. That was because she considered Gillin to be a middle-class pronunciation, and therefore not one favoured by those with a finger on the common pulse.
“Gillin,” he muttered.
“Yes,” said Nicola. “Gillin. And don’t you start, Stuart.”
“I wasn’t going to start.”
“The etymology is clear,” said Nicola. “We may not know what Gullane means, but we do know that it’s Welsh.”
“Yes,” said Stuart. He was not really paying attention now.
“Because everybody round these parts spoke Welsh at one time,” Nicola went on. “Or English. They did not speak Gaelic.”
Stuart did not disagree.
“So, it’s Gillin,” concluded Nicola.
“I didn’t say it wasn’t,” said Stuart.
Nicola had not quite finished. “May I ask you, Stuart: what is wrong with being middle-class? What is wrong with saying Gillin rather than Gullan?”
Stuart shrugged. “It’s thought to be a bit ... well, middle-class.” He paused. “Not that I think it helpful to go on about things being middle class. Or any sort of class, actually. We’re all the same, aren’t we? We’re all Jock Tamson’s bairns. Nobody is any better, or worse, than anybody else.” He thought of Burns, and A Man’s a Man For a’ That. That said it all, Stuart felt.
“I agree,” said Nicola. “But middle class is still used as a term of abuse, isn’t it? By middle-class people, of course. Who pours scorn on middle-class attitudes? Middle-class social commentators, leading middle-class lives – that’s who. Isn’t that rich?”
Stuart sighed. “Oh well,” he said. He knew that his mother was talking about Irene, who often expressed her contempt for the middle-class from which she had sprung. He looked at his phone. A further message had arrived from Irene. Now he read it out to Nicola: “And I have enrolled Bertie in a camp. This is a sort of re-education camp for middle-class children. It’s going to be at Carlops for ten days. They’ve confirmed his place.”
Nicola’s mouth opened in astonishment. “Re-education?” she stuttered.
“Perhaps she’s joking,” said Stuart. But he knew that Irene did not joke about such things. He groaned inwardly. He hated conflict.
For Nicola it was different. This was war, and the air was filled with the wail of the great war pipes of her ancestors. She was fighting for her grandchildren now, and nobody, neither Stuart nor even Irene herself, should be in any doubt about her determination. She was a lioness prepared to protect her cubs.
© Alexander McCall Smith, 2022. Love in a Time of Bertie (Scotland Street Volume 15) is in bookshops now. The Enigma of Garlic will be published in November by Polygon, price £17.99