Out at Nine Mile Burn, Elspeth sat in the kitchen, looking out over the lawn towards the Lammermuir Hills.
She glanced at her watch, and saw that one of the hands had fallen off. Trapped underneath the glass, the tiny metal finger, the minute hand, had been caught up on the sweep of the hour hand and was now lodged in such a way as to bring the entire mechanism to a halt. This impasse had been reached shortly before three. At ten to three … An old memory was triggered, of an aunt who liked poetry, and had read to her when she was a girl. Stands the church clock at ten to three? And is there honey still for tea? Her aunt had considered these lines poignant, but Elspeth had not understood why this should be so. Surely there was nothing special about a clock that stopped at ten to three, and honey was, well, honey was all right but one would not want to have it for tea every day. Was it nostalgia that lay behind that poem, or irritation perhaps? Clocks had to stop somewhere if nobody wound them up, or if their minute hand broke off, and the fact that it was at ten to three was neither here nor there. What might be irritating, though, was if nobody bothered to fix them, and then did nothing about variety in what was offered for tea. Honey again? Oh really …
And then another line came to her – something about five in the afternoon. A las cinco de la tarde … At five in the afternoon, at that terrible five in the afternoon. And she was back at school, a little bit older than she had been when it had been church clocks and honey, and in a very different register. Lorca, that was it. The death of a bullfighter. Elspeth was at school again, on a warm afternoon in the summer, and studying for her Higher English and they were looking at Lorca. And she found herself thinking, What’s so special about five in the afternoon? Why should five in the afternoon be so terrible and require to be repeated time and time again before the poem came to an end? And she had voiced those thoughts and the English teacher had looked at her and smiled before saying, “That’s not the point, Elspeth; that’s just not the point.” And had then returned to Lorca and the drum-like repetition of a las cinco de la tarde about five in the afternoon.
Bullfighting … That was a terrible thing, Elspeth thought, and the people who did it should be ashamed of themselves. To dress up for the slaughter of an animal, in terror; to accompany it with music and cheering and all the accoutrements of a popular spectacle while before you, trapped in a ring, a poor creature was stabbed and cut to its death. What sort of mentality revelled in all that?
Her thoughts drifted. Of course, there were other people who dressed up to slaughter animals, particularly foxes. Elspeth had lived in the countryside long enough to know that foxes and farmers were not the closest of allies, but did one have to dress up to do what you felt needed to be done to protect your chickens and lambs?
She looked at her watch again. It was a pity, as Mathew had given it to her shortly after they had become engaged, and she had chosen it at Hamilton & Inches, and would they be able to fix it? They probably could, but she would have to go into town or give it to Matthew to drop off on George Street, and Matthew seemed to be so busy now and did not like to be burdened with errands, and … She stopped, and looked out towards the Lammermuirs once more. Everything was so empty here. The land was empty; the sky was empty; there was nowhere for her to go for a cup of coffee with friends, or to read the newspaper or her e-mails. And there were so few e-mails to be read, anyway, as she never saw her friends any longer, now that she was stuck out here with the triplets. Every minute of the day was taken up with attending to the needs of the three small boys, except for those spells, as now, when James took them and entertained them. Without him, life would be utterly impossible, but even with him here and working in such an obliging manner and without complaint it seemed somehow to be so empty, like the sky, and the land, and …
Elspeth started to cry. I love my husband, she thought. I love my boys. I love this house. And yet I feel so miserable and alone and trapped. Yes, trapped is the word. I’m trapped. Caught. Pinned down. I wanted to be something, to have a career, to have a life of my own. I wanted to travel and see the world and get caught up in adventures with interesting people. I wanted to have those interesting people about me, saying interesting things and sending me interesting e-mails. But where are they? Not here in Nine Mile Burn. Not in my life.
There was a burst of sound – a banging of doors and the clatter of high-pitched young voices. This meant that James had brought in the boys from outside, and there would be mud on their boots – there always was – and that mud would be transferred to the carpets – it always was – and then onto the sofa, which had covers that did not detach easily and that was impossibly light-coloured, anyway, for a household with male triplets on the rampage. And then there was Matthew’s dog, Henderson, who was also always covered in mud and who regarded the sofa as his territory when he could get away with it, and who had the irritating habit of grinding his teeth, which the vet had said dogs just did not do. The vet had offered pills, but Matthew had turned them down.
“You shouldn’t tranquillize dogs,” he had said. “It’s not natural.”
“But do we have to live with it?” Elspeth had asked.
“It’s a stage,” said Matthew. “Henderson’s young. He’ll get over it.”
“But what if he doesn’t? What then?”
Matthew had looked at her in the way in which men sometimes look at women. As if to imply that she did not know. But she did. She knew, and had always known.
And then, just as she was trying to compose herself, and not let the boys see her crying, the telephone rang and it was Matthew and he said that he had invited Pat round for dinner that night and he hoped she didn’t mind. And Elspeth had closed her eyes and been unable to stop herself sobbing, more volubly now, so that Matthew, at the other end of the line could not hear her, but thought that it was just a problem with reception and had rung off with a jaunty “That’s fine then. Bad line. See you later, sweetheart.”