There was no reason why Pat should have thought she was coming upon a scene of domestic disharmony when she arrived at the house in Nine Mile Burn.
On the contrary, she was greeted at the door by a smiling Matthew, who ushered her into the rather untidy hall – it was, after all, a house inhabited by young triplets – where she hung her coat and put down the small holdall she had carried with her on the bus from Edinburgh.
“Kiwi fruit,” she said, taking a brown paper bag out of the holdall. “I saw them in the greengrocer’s near the King’s Theatre. You know the one?”
“I’ve walked past it,” said Matthew, peering into the bag.
“He has all sorts of exotic fruit there,” said Pat. “And vegetables too – I mean, exotic vegetables – not that kiwi fruit are exotic any longer.”
“We like them,” said Matthew. “Thank you. Elspeth will be really pleased. She often has one for breakfast.”
“You can eat them as you’d eat a boiled egg,” said Pat. “You can take the top off and the use a spoon.”
“I peel them,” said Matthew. “I don’t like the little hairs.”
“Nobody likes hairy food,” said Pat.
Matthew thought of globe artichokes. “What about artichokes – the above-ground ones? You know, the ones that look like thistles? They have all those hairs under the thick bit that you eat. Thousands of little hairs.”
“But you’re not meant to eat that bit,” said Pat.
“No, of course not. I was just wondering whether you’d describe them as hairy food – that’s all.”
Pat frowned. “Possibly. But what about pork? Sometimes pork is a bit hairy. You know – the crackling bit has hairs on it.” She paused. “I used to love crackling. My father always gave me his, if we had pork for dinner. He would take his crackling and put it on my plate.”
“Mine gave me his chicken skin,” said Matthew. “He knew I loved it.”
For a moment, both of them were silent at their respective memories. Pork, thought Pat, and, for his part, Matthew thought, The act of nourishment. That most simple transaction between parent and child, into which so much love was poured, so simply, so unquestioningly. And then he remembered what he had said to Elspeth, and he felt a sharp stab of remorse.
“I’ll take these through to Elspeth,” he said. “She’s in the kitchen. Do you want to go out along and see the kids? They’re still up and about – somewhere down there.” He waved in the direction of the corridor that led to the boys’ rooms.
Pat went off, and Matthew made his way back into the kitchen. Elspeth was looking for something in a cupboard, and she turned around, looked briefly at Matthew, and then continued with her search.
“Have you seen the colander?” she said. And then added, “I haven’t cooked anything. Nothing.”
Matthew was surprised. Elspeth usually planned the day’s meals each morning and had them more or less prepared by nine. She had always approached such tasks with an almost military precision, and to have nothing done about dinner at this point in the day was unusual.
“Couldn’t we get James to do something?” he said. “You know how good he is at rustling something up.”
Elspeth closed the cupboard door. “We could, I suppose,” she sighed. “He does most of the cooking these days.”
“He likes it,” said Matthew. “He told me so. He said, ‘I really enjoy cooking.’ That’s what he said, and I think he really meant it.”
“Oh yes,” said Elspeth. “Little Mr Perfection.”
Mathew stared at her. “But he’s …” His voice trailed off, as he wrestled with the idea that Elspeth resented James as well as Pat. He could understand if she had some grudge against Pat – not that Pat had done anything to deserve it – but James? Why would anybody resent a nineteen-year-old (just) young man – a boy really – who had the smile that James had, and the willing manner, and all the friendliness of a puppy dog? Who cycled to the supermarket in Penicuik and did the shopping, unbidden, and who had even been known to ride all the way back if there was something he had forgotten to buy? All without complaint? Who kept his shoes neatly under the bed and who put his dirty washing in the washing basket – unlike any other teenager ever invented – and who then took it upon himself to put all the washing in the washing machine? And who put the detergent in the correct side of the pull-out drawer?
Matthew expressed his astonishment. “Why call him that?”
Elspeth met his stare. She looked guilty. She knows she’s in the wrong, thought Matthew. She knows that’s a snide thing to say. And what about my nose? What had she said about my nose?
Elspeth suddenly flung herself into Matthew’s arms, “Oh, Matthew, I’m so sorry. I really am. I’ve been horrid to you, and what I said about …”
“About my nose?”
She shook her head. “There’s nothing wrong with your nose. It’s a fantastic nose.”
“And yours is too,” muttered Matthew. Stroking her hair. “Your nose is really … well, it’s just perfect. You couldn’t have a nicer nose.”
“Do you mean that?” Elspeth asked.
“Of course, I do. What I said earlier on was just nonsense.”
She turned her face up to his and kissed him. “Big kisses,” she said.
“Really big kisses,” Matthew replied. Then he added, “And poor James – you don’t dislike him, do you?”
She did not hesitate. “Not in the least. He’s sweet.”
Matthew smiled. Of all the adjectives to annoy a young man, sweet was probably the best-chosen. Cute yes; sweet no. “I wonder what Pat will make of him.”
Elspeth drew back. “Why?”
Matthew shrugged. “It’s just that she’s had that thing for Bruce. I think it’s over now, but it would do no harm for her to meet somebody who’s nice, as opposed to Bruce-like, if you see what I mean.”
Elspeth looked thoughtful. “But James is just a boy. He’s …”
“Yes, but what age is Pat? Twenty-five?”
“All right, twenty-four. That’s five years between them.”
Matthew felt that was not too large an age gap. “All I’m suggesting is that she might appreciate him.”
“Appreciate as in …”
“As in appreciate. That’s all.”
Elspeth looked doubtful. “Five years at that stage is too much,” she said. “And anyway, where is she?”
“She’s with James and the boys. And she brought you some kiwi fruit.”
He had put the paper bag down on the kitchen table, and now she opened it and took out a kiwi fruit. “Odd present,” she said. “I wonder what this means.”
“Oh really!” exclaimed Matthew. “Kiwi fruit means … kiwi fruit.”
“Are you sure?”
“Positive, my little honey bunch. Positive.”