Matthew had always found it difficult to cope with tears. Others might be able to endure the visible dissolution that tears involved – the misting over of the eyes, the quivering of the lips, the display of weakness and vulnerability that was our real human lot, no matter how we covered ourselves with the clothing of certainty and conviction. We were, when all was said and done, children lost in the wood, and to break into tears was the most understandable of reactions, the most quintessentially human one too.
He went straight to Elspeth’s side. “Darling, you’ve been crying.”
She shook her head. “No.”
“But you have … you have.”
She turned away, wiping at her eyes with the sleeve of her blouse. On the white linen there were now streaks of mascara; she rubbed at those, making them worse.
Matthew put an arm about her. “Has something happened?”
“No,” she said. And then, struggling to smile, she turned to face him. “And you? What about your day?”
He shrugged. He knew, from past experience, that he would not be able to get out of her what it was that had brought on her tears. Elspeth was stoic in these matters, and the most he could hope for would be some hint, obliquely put, that would throw light on the cause of her distress. He had a vague idea that it was something to do with being stuck out at Nine Mile Burn all by herself – or, if not entirely alone, with the company only of three toddlers and a young, even if charismatic but still-only-nineteen au pair boy. Elspeth had always liked having somebody to talk to, but there were limits to the topics one could discuss with the triplets; James was another matter, of course. He was prepared to listen, and had an ability, rare in one of his age, to relate to somebody older. He was simpatico, Elspeth had decided. That was the simplest way of putting it: simpatico.
And Matthew was simpatico, too, she thought, even if not quite as simpatico as was James. Many men were completely non-simpatico, simply because they were masculine. Was that incompatible with being simpatico, she wondered; or was it unfair to men, who were inevitably masculine, to say that their basic classification, so to speak, was inherently non-simpatico? Why should masculinity be thoughtless or indifferent to the feelings of others? There were plenty of men, she felt, who did not want to be hard-hearted or unfeeling; there were plenty of men who felt the pain of others, who wanted to do something about it, who wanted to comfort those in need of comfort. Yet there were rather more, she suspected, who did not. Bruce Anderson, for example, with his preening and his view of women as playthings – he was definitely not simpatico. Nor was the man in the hardware store she sometimes went too, who spoke harshly to his wife; nor that man from Matthew’s year at the Academy who had become a fund manager and could talk only of money and the stock exchange and expensive German cars with loud exhaust systems. She called him Porsche, because it seemed so much more fitting a name for him than his real name; Porsche was not simpatico in any sense. He was masculine in a turbo-charged, V8 sort of way – if V8 engines still existed, which Elspeth was not sure about. That was a question that no simpatico man could be expected to answer; a man who knew whether V8 engines still existed would, by the very fact of that knowledge, not be simpatico; no, she told herself, that’s not right – she had known a mechanic who was the most sympathetic of men, a faithful follower of Scottish Ballet who was as capable of being moved by the Dying Swan as he was by the sound of a finely-tuned V8 engine – if such things still existed, of course.
Now, having composed herself, she looked at her watch. “What time was Pat …”
He did not allow her to complete her question. “I hope you don’t …”
“Mind? Why should I mind?” Elspeth had read somewhere that you should never make your spouse feel guilty, as that would only exacerbate any underlying problems in the marriage.
“It’s just that I thought you might … well, resent Pat in some way. You know how it is.”
Elspeth looked away. “Why would I resent her?” Of course, she resented Pat. What woman would not resent her husband’s one-time girlfriend, especially when she continued to work for him? Matthew and Pat talked, about art and heaven knows what else, while she sat out there at Nine Mile Burn and looked at the hills in the distance and made mashed potatoes for the triplets. Of course, she would resent her.
Matthew echoed her question. “Why would you resent her?” He shrugged. “I have no idea. It’s just that when I mention her, you seem to breathe differently.”
Elspeth spun round. “Breathe differently? What do you mean – breathe differently?”
“Your nostrils,” said Matthew. “They seem to be pinched. You pull them in somehow.”
Elspeth glared at him. “And how exactly do you pull in your nostrils? Perhaps you could show me.”
Matthew took a deep breath, and felt his nostrils constrict and close. “Like that,” he said.
For a few moments Elspeth said nothing. Then turning away once more, she said, “Matthew, what about your own nose? What about it?”
He looked at her blankly. “My nose?”
“Yes,” she said, clearly struggling to keep her voice even. “Your nose, Matthew. Have you ever stopped to consider it? I mean, really think about it?”
Matthew’s hand went up to his nose. There had never been anything wrong with it, as far as he could tell. He had not thought about it very much, and now, for the first time, he felt doubts about it.
“You should tell me what you mean,” he said. “You can’t just say to somebody that there’s something wrong with their nose and then leave it at that.”
Elspeth shook her head. “But I didn’t say there was anything wrong with it. All I said was that you should perhaps think about it. That’s quite different, you know.”
This conversation was interrupted by the sound of the doorbell. In the country, few people bothered with doorbells, and Matthew had even forgotten that they had one. So he said, “What’s that bell?”
Elspeth dabbed again at her eyes with her handkerchief. “Your friend,” she said. “Your dinner-guest.”
Matthew sighed. “Do you know something, Elspeth?” he said. “Sometimes I wonder why we got married.”
He gasped at his own words, which were so completely unexpected, even by him; and immediately he wanted to snatch them back from the air, where it seemed to him they were hanging, in all their unkindness, like bursts of aerial flak. But it was too late; some words, and usually the wrong ones, seem chiselled in stone the moment they are uttered. Elspeth turned away. “Do you?” she muttered.
He pleaded with her. “No, my darling, no. No. I don’t think that at all. I don’t.”
“Then why did you say it?”
“Because I’m … Because I’m all over the place, and I don’t think about what I’m saying and it just comes out. Just like that.”