Nicola saw no reason why Bertie should not spend the day with Ranald Braveheart Macpherson. She liked Ranald every bit as much as she disliked Olive, whom she regarded as an incipient Irene.
By contrast, in Nicola’s view Ranald was an entirely suitable friend for Bertie, even if his parents, whom admittedly she did not know very well, seemed to be somewhat tiresome. Ranald’s father drank a bit much, Nicola thought, and his mother was given to expostulating on all sort of subjects of which she, in Nicola’s opinion at least, had little or no grasp. She had also heard the occasional rumour about Ranald’s father’s business, Macpherson Securities and General Holdings, but she knew that comments of that sort were often motivated by envy and emanated from people who had no securities themselves and, indeed, no holdings either.
“It’s a very good idea for you to go to Ranald’s,” Nicola told Bertie. “But first I think we should go to Valvona & Crolla. I need to get one or two things there.”
Bertie was very happy to agree to that. Nicola phoned Ranald’s mother and made the arrangements. After their trip to Valvona & Crolla, they would all travel up on the 23 bus, drop Bertie, and then take Ulysses for an ice cream at Luca’s at Holy Corner. Ulysses had no social life of his own, and an ice cream at Luca’s would, for him, count as a major socialising experience.
At Valvona & Crolla Nicola worked through her shopping list with Bertie’s help. There was cheese to be bought – a wedge from a mouth-watering quarter-wheel of Parmesan; there were slices to be pared from a large Milanese salami; there were sun-dried tomatoes, Puglian olives, porcini mushrooms, and balsamic vinegar all to be acquired. Then there was egg-based tagliatelle, artichoke hearts, and a small jar of Simone Calugi’s whole summer truffle to complete the list.
Bertie, who had been brought up on Italian food by the Italophile Irene, was completely at home in the delicatessen. He was able to point Nicola in the right direction for any of the things she needed, and to express a remarkably informed opinion on the choices available to her.
“You must get that olive oil over there,” Bertie said to his grandmother, pointing to a bottle of rich green estate oil. “That’s the one Mummy always bought.”
Nicola suppressed the urge to reject the oil out of hand, saying, instead, “Well, there’s a lot to be said for continuity, Bertie.”
“It’s called Poggio Lamentano,” said Bertie. “And it comes from Italy.”
Nicola smiled. ‘I’d noticed there’s a fair amount of Italian produce here, Bertie.”
“Mr Zyw makes it,” said Bertie. “He grows the olives and then makes them into oil. He has somebody put the oil in bottles, and then Mrs Contini brings them to Edinburgh. That’s the way it works, Granny.”
Bertie reached out for one of the bottles, just within his reach. As he did so, though, he toppled, and snatching at the bottle for support, he brought it crashing down. There was a muted explosive sound as the glass shattered and the viscous green liquid spread across the floor. Bertie struggled to regain his balance and was almost on the point of falling over the fragmented glass when Nicola caught him by the arm, pulling him back on his feet.
“Oh, Bertie,” she exclaimed. “Watch out!”
Bertie stood disconsolate, his shoes spattered with olive oil. He looked up at his grandmother, an expression of horror on his face.
“Oh, Granny, I didn’t mean to drop it. It sort of … sort of …” He could manage no more as tears sprang to his eyes.
Nicola embraced him. “Oh, Bertie, it doesn’t matter. Olive oil’s just olive oil. The important thing is that you didn’t hurt yourself.”
In his misery, Bertie just managed to get his words out. “I can pay for it, Granny. I’ve got some money in my piggy bank. I can pay for it. I’ve got enough.”
“Oh, you don’t need to pay for it, darling. I can do that. It wasn’t your fault.”
A voice came from behind them. “Of course it wasn’t your fault, Bertie. It was nobody’s fault, and it won’t take us a moment to clean that up.”
Nicola turned around, to see Mary Contini standing behind her. She had not met her before, but recognised her from photographs in her books.
“I’m terribly sorry,” Nicola said. “He was reaching out and somehow lost his balance.”
Mary produced a handkerchief and gave it to Bertie. “There, Bertie. You wipe your tears away and then we can have a bit of panforte di Siena. I seem to remember that you liked that – and who doesn’t?”
Bertie took the handkerchief and wiped his eyes.
“I’ll get somebody to clear this up,” said Mary Contini. “You go through to the café at the back and I’ll come along and join you.”
Nicola ushered Bertie round the pool of olive oil and along the corridor to the café. “Now, isn’t that kind?” she said to Bertie. “An accident is an accident. Everybody understands that. You know that, don’t you?”
Bertie nodded. “I didn’t mean to do it,” he said.
“Of course you didn’t, Bertie.” Her heart went out to the little boy, to the little scrap of humanity that was her grandson; whose life so far, she felt, had been blighted by that shrill ideologue of a mother with her pressure and ambitions and consistent failure to understand what went on in a seven-year-old head – and a seven-year-old heart.
She wanted to embrace him, to pick him up there and there, in the middle of the shop, among the salamis and the cheeses and the surviving bottles of Tuscan olive oil, and hug him to her and say Don’t worry, Bertie; don’t worry about anything – anything at all. In fact, at moments like this, she thought, she could only too easily fold her arms around anybody and say the same thing to them. Because the world was so full of anxiety and conflict and it was so unnecessary that this should be so, when all of us wanted the same thing, in our heart of hearts, that was love and understanding and gentleness.
Mary Contini met them in the café. She had a freshly-opened panforte di Siena and placed this on the table in front of Bertie. For Nicola, she had a fresh bottle of Poggio Lamentano extra-virigin olive oil, a tricolour Italian ribbon tied about its neck. “A gift from me,” she said.
Bertie was eyeing the panforte. “Why on earth wait, Bertie?” said Mary. “Tuck in.”