44 Scotland Street: Touch, stepmothers, response to crisis

Illustration: Iain McIntosh
Illustration: Iain McIntosh
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Volume 10, episode 32: Rather to Matthew’s surprise, Pat showed no interest in his parcel. She had arrived in the gallery ten minutes before he had that morning, and was already seated at her desk when he came in. He laid the wrapped painting beside his chair without opening it and looked at her. Normally, her innate curiosity would have prompted her to ask what was behind the bland packaging, but that did not happen now.

It was the start of another week, and so Matthew began, “Well here we are,” and then added with a weary smile, “Again.”

This was not an unreasonable thing to say. It may have been a somewhat trite remark, but there was no reason why it should have provoked tears – which is what it now appeared to do.

Matthew stared at Pat in incomprehension. Was the prospect of another week that depressing?

“Did I say something?” he muttered after a few moments. “I know it’s Monday, but …”

This seemed only to make matters worse. As the volume of her sobs increased, Pat reached into a drawer for a tissue. She dabbed at her eyes and then blew her nose. “I’m sorry,” she stuttered. “It’s got nothing to do with Monday … or with you.”

Matthew left his desk and crossed the gallery floor. Putting an arm about Pat’s shoulder, he gave her a hug.

“Has something happened?”

She sighed; her sobbing now abating. “Everything,” she managed to say. “Absolutely everything.”

He hugged her again. It was a strange sensation – one about which he felt a certain caution. He and Pat had been emotionally involved some time ago – indeed, he had once even proposed to her – but things had changed since then: he now had a wife and three small sons … and yet, and yet … the heart could still be stirred by proximity to one with whom an intimacy had been shared. He reduced the pressure of his embrace, and moved away just enough so that only his arm touched her. They could be seen from the street outside, and if anybody were to peer through the large expanse of the glass display window they would see him with an arm around his young assistant. Any explanation of such a situation would sound so hollow: She was crying and I was comforting her …

That, he realised, was impermissible: we could no longer put our arms around others to comfort them. The most natural of human reactions – to embrace, to touch in sympathy – had now been forbidden by lecturing moralists who had interdicted ordinary tactile reactions and put in their place a cold rectitude. Latin cultures, of course, had ignored this, but in northern latitudes this coldness had settled on the human landscape like a thick layer of frost.

He drew up a chair and sat down. “Tell me,” he said. “Is somebody ill?”

Pat shook her head. “No, it’s nothing like that. It’s just that …” She broke off, staring morosely at the floor.

“You don’t have to,” said Matthew. “Only if you want to …” He thought: it’s that boy. Of course it’s that boy. What was his name? Michael, that was it. He was a woodworker, wasn’t he? He made the table that Pat had pointed out so proudly in the Scottish Gallery over the road when they had called in to see Guy Peploe.

“It’s my father,” Pat said suddenly “It’s him … and other things.”

Then the other things must involve that boy, thought Matthew; but first things first.

“Is your dad in some sort of trouble?”

Pat sniffed. Her tears had stopped now and her voice had returned to normal. “I think he is. I’m not sure if he realises it – in fact, I suspect that he doesn’t.”

Matthew frowned. Pat had said something about her father the other day, but he had not taken it in. He did not know Dr MacGregor all that well, but he liked him. He seemed so grounded, so reasonable in his views – which he had to be, Matthew decided, given the nature of his work. If one spent the entire day dealing with disturbed people, then one’s own world would have to be fairly firmly anchored.

“You know that he’s been seeing this woman?” said Pat.

Matthew tried to remember whether she had mentioned a woman. “Not really,” he said. “Have they split up?”

“No, that’s the problem. They haven’t split up. They’re …” She paused, and looked at Matthew as if she were expecting his help. “They’re now engaged and he’s going to marry her.”

“Ah,” said Matthew. “And you don’t think that’s a very good idea?”

“No,” said Pat. “It’s a very bad idea.”

“You don’t like her?” It was such a trite question, and the answer was perhaps obvious, but there did not seem much else that he could say.

“I hate her,” said Pat. “I hate her.”


“With good reason.”


He waited. He was trying to remember something somebody had said to him about the Wicked Stepmother Syndrome. He himself had had a stepmother and knew that the relationship was a potentially difficult one, but what had surprised him was to hear that the concept of the wicked stepmother had such profound roots. In classical times a good day was called a “mother day” while a bad day was called a “stepmother day”. And in a hundred other traditions and practices was this relationship cast as entirely negative. And here was Pat expressing it in its very essence …

“Are you sure you hate her?” he asked.

His question was mildly put, but it triggered a passionate answer. “Of course I’m sure! And let me tell you just why I’m so sure …”

He recoiled at the intensity of her response. “Shall I make you a cup of tea?” he asked.

It was the classic response to crisis practised throughout these islands – in England, Scotland, and elsewhere. Emotional turmoil, danger, even disaster could be faced with far greater equanimity if the kettle was switched on. War has been declared! There’s been a major earthquake! The stock market has collapsed! Oh really? Let me put the kettle on …

Pat nodded. “Thanks,” she said.

He went into the small kitchen at the back of the gallery, filled the kettle and plugged it into the wall. Immediately he felt calmer.

© 2015 Alexander McCall Smith

• Alexander McCall Smith welcomes comments from readers. Write to him c/o The Editor, The Scotsman, Level 7, Orchard Brae House, 30 Queensferry Road, Edinburgh, EH4 2HS or via e-mail at scotlandstreet@scotsman.com.