As he drove the car up the winding drive of his house at Nine Mile Burn, Matthew reflected on his good fortune. Here he was in his late twenties with a business of his own, an attractive wife, a house, and three boisterous, healthy sons – and he had earned it all by dint of … He stopped there. No, that was the whole point: he had not earned any of this, not really, with the exception, perhaps, of Elspeth and the boys, although he was not sure if it was appropriate to talk of earning, or deserving, one’s family.
All you had to do to get a wife or a husband was to meet the other person, be reasonably nice to him or her, and then propose. For some, that might involve effort and concomitant achievement, but for others it was hardly a major battle. Effort would be most required, Matthew thought, if you had to work at being acceptable to the person you were hoping to marry; if you had major character defects, for instance, that you had to suppress in order to be thought suitable. You earned your partner in such circumstances by the effort of appearing to be nicer than you really were. But he had not had to do any of that – not that he was smug about how desirable he might be to anybody. He was nothing special – he knew that – but at least he was not unduly unpleasant in any conspicuous way. He was, he had always felt, pretty average.
It was luck, Matthew thought, that had brought him Elspeth. He had met her at a difficult point in her life, when she had been suspended from her teaching position for pinching the ear of a supremely irritating child, Olive. There was no excuse for pinching a child’s ear, but in Elspeth’s case it was possible to see why a teacher might be pushed into pinching that particular ear. Olive, who was in the same class as Bertie, was, Matthew believed, a supremely bossy little girl who had tormented the poor boy by diagnosing him with her Junior Nurse Kit. Olive had somehow added a real syringe to the kit’s armamentarium, and had used this to take a blood sample from Bertie. It was on the basis of this blood sample that she had told him that he was suffering from leprosy.
Elspeth had told Olive that the old test for leprosy was to see whether a person had lost sensation in the ear lobe. And at that point, in her anger over Olive’s sheer nastiness, she had pinched her ear to demonstrate the test. Her pleasure matched Olive’s discomfort; some ears just ask to be pinched, and Olive’s was one of them. But that was no excuse, of course, and the fact that Olive richly deserved this recrimination could not prevent the professional opprobrium into which Elspeth was plunged. Fortunately, Matthew was there to pick up the pieces – fortunately both for Elspeth and for him. They were happy together, and when the triplets arrived they were happier still, although busier, of course.
As for the business and the house, neither of these could possibly be considered the result of Matthew’s own efforts. His father, who had extensive commercial interests, was a self-made man by any standards. He had started his career running a small building supplies firm and built it up through sheer hard work and business acumen. He could certainly say that he had earned everything, and would have preferred Matthew to be able to do the same.
Unfortunately, Matthew’s business instincts were less acute than his father’s, and his earlier efforts had proved fruitless. Those failures had led to a resigned acceptance by his father that he should be given the chance to buy the gallery when it came on the market. To Matthew’s father, the gallery would provide Matthew with something to do without risking too much capital and without stretching his son’s very modest business talents too far. The result of this was that Matthew not only owned the business, but also the premises it occupied. There was, in addition, no debt, and a stash of working capital that made it possible to buy paintings at auction and sell them on at a suitable profit. It was not really a business model that could fail all that easily.
Then there was the house. Most young couples were burdened with mortgages, and these arrangements would remain around their necks for the first twenty-five years of their marriage. Inflation might reduce the proportion of monthly income that went towards house repayments, but in times of low inflation that effect would be barely discernible. Matthew and Elspeth had none of that to consider: his father’s generosity had ensured that they owned the house at Nine Mile Burn outright. So here, once again, was something that Matthew could not say he had in any way earned.
Even the car he drove down the drive that evening was a gift from his father, and would have been out of reach of most young men in their late twenties. This was a British-racing-green Range Rover, complete with heated seats and heated steering wheel. It was ideal for transporting triplets and the impedimenta that triplets required, but it was far more luxurious than the cars driven by any of their friends, who made do with much more modest vehicles.
Matthew sighed. A less sensitive person might not have been bothered by any of this, but he was very much aware of the contrast between his life and the lives led by those without his advantages. He felt, too, that things you had not earned probably gave you less satisfaction than those for which you had needed to work hard. So he wondered whether there was something he had missed, and whether, in years to come, by not having had to scrimp and save he would feel that he had lost out on a valuable experience.
These thoughts were in his mind as he parked the car in front of the house, but he had dispelled them by the time he walked in through the front door. He was looking forward to the evening that lay ahead. He would see the boys for bath-time, which was always a riotous time of shouts and splashing, and afterwards he would read a story to them. That was always a good time, as the bottle of warmed milk which each boy nursed while they cuddled up to him seemed to induce calm. The boys smelled of soap, Johnson & Johnson’s Baby Shampoo, warm milk and flannelette pyjamas – and the world, such a harsh and unhappy place at times, seemed somehow less so. The blessing of evening, thought Matthew; of home, and family, and the love that came with these things.
But when he went into the kitchen, he saw that Elspeth had been crying. She had evidently tried to conceal the fact, but there was smudged make-up, and smudged make-up spoke as eloquently as anything ever could of unhappiness beneath the veneer.