Stuart very much regretted his acceptance of Katie’s invitation to dinner. He had done so, of course, before she had sprung on him the news that she had a boyfriend and that she wanted to arrange for the two of them to meet. Having accepted, though, it would be difficult for him to get out of the commitment, and now the evening of the dinner party was upon him.
Nicola was happy to look after the boys. By now she was well-established in the maternal role all but abandoned by Irene, and although she still maintained her flat in Northumberland Street, she frequently stayed overnight in Scotland Street. For Stuart, this was the perfect arrangement. He had the luxury of a constantly-at-hand babysitter while his mother could still withdraw to the private space of her flat from time to time. Since her return to Scotland, she had re-established contact with her old friends from the Borders, some of whom had moved into Edinburgh from Kelso or Melrose and were now living barely a few minutes’ walk away from Northumberland Street. It was a whole new second life – one blessed with friendship, regular bridge afternoons, and a role as grandmother. And being needed suited Nicola – the loss of that, above all, was what had distressed her in the collapse of her marriage to her Portuguese former husband, Abril Tamares de Lumiares. Abril had ceased to need her in his life, and that had hurt her to the quick.
“A dinner party?” Nicola asked.
“Yes,” said Stuart. He was cagey. He had never liked discussing relationships with his mother. He understood why she should be interested, but this was an area of his life that he did not wish to share with her. That reticence went back a long time.
“Anybody I know?” asked Nicola.
“I don’t think so,” Stuart replied.
There was silence. Then Nicola remarked, “People don’t have dinner parties all that much these days, do they?”
Stuart was noncommittal. “Maybe not.”
“In my day,” Nicola continued, “people in Edinburgh had dinner parties virtually every week. Friday and Saturday were dinner party nights. You invited people to dinner and then they invited you back. You met the same people week after week.”
“Somewhat tedious, surely?” said Stuart.
Nicola looked thoughtful. “Not really. I always found it rather reassuring. It created a sense of community.” She paused. Community, community, community: it had become a bit of a mantra, and yet it did count for something, elusive and difficult to define though that something might be. “In fact, often I found myself hoping that there wouldn’t be anybody I didn’t know there. And I was relieved when I went into the room and there they all were. The usual crowd.”
Was that the famous rut into which people fell, she wondered? Was that the mud in which they metaphorically stuck? Did this lead inexorably to the well-known slough in which they desponded? She imagined a map of such terrain. There was the unadventurous mud; there was the slough of despond – a Dantean morass of hopelessness; and there, glorious and shining, was the moral high ground – populated by the pharisaical – behind which, glimpsed through the clouds of confusion, were the peaks of achievement.
Stuart interrupted her reverie. “What happened?” he asked. “Why did things change?”
“People became busier,” said Nicola. “That was one thing. Social habits changed. Life became less formal.”
Stuart nodded. He remembered a time when colleagues from work met in the pub on a Friday evening. That seemed to have stopped. Everybody was too tired.
Nicola had one more try. “Where is it?” she asked. “This dinner party of yours?”
Stuart told her. “Howe Street.”
She waited, but there was nothing more. Nicola looked away.
“Darling,” she said, her voice lowered. “You’re a free man now, you know. And, frankly, I’ve considered you a free man for years. You did your best – you really did – and you put up with so much. Nobody – and I mean nobody – would reproach you if you tried to find happiness elsewhere.”
For a few moments he said nothing. Then, turning to his mother, he confided. “Thanks, Ma. Thanks. And yes, I’d like to meet somebody. I thought I had, but I’ve found out that she’s got somebody else now.”
Nicola reached out to touch him gently on the forearm. “My darling …”
“She asked me to dinner and my hopes shot up, but then …”
“Oh my darling, my darling.”
“It turned out that she only wanted to introduce me to this new man of hers. That’s all.”
Nicola’s eyes narrowed. “That’s what she said?”
“Yes. I went to see her and we got on really well. I thought I could resume what I’d started before, but then she mentioned this man and said that she would like me to meet him. I could hardly say no.”
Nicola reflected on this. Her interpretation was different. “Are you sure that there’s no hope? Don’t you think it possible that she would prefer you? Otherwise, why would she invite you to dinner?”
“For old time’s sake?”
Nicola shook her head vigorously. “Oh no, Stuart, that’s not the way a woman looks at things. If she invites somebody to dinner in such circumstances, it’s because she wants to achieve something.”
“And what would that be?”
“One of two things,” explained Nicola. “One possibility is that she wants to get the new man to pay her more attention. Bringing you to the table, so to speak, is intended to show him that there are always other possibilities if he fails to shape up. That’s one possibility.”
“And the other?”
“The other is that she wants you but would prefer it if the current boyfriend were the one to break off the relationship. She wants to provoke him into a show of jealousy, which will give her an excuse to end the relationship with him. It’s called creating the casus belli.”
Stuart was doubtful. “I don’t think either of those is all that likely,” he said. “I think she feels sorry for me.”
“If that’s the case,” said Nicola. “Then you should politely decline.”
“Too late,” said Stuart.
Nicola smiled. “People get flu,” she said.
Stuart reproved her. “When I was a boy you told me never to lie.”
Nicola defended herself. “You were too young to understand constructive mistruths,” she said.
“Lies that make things better.”
“For whom? For the person uttering the lie, or the person to whom it’s addressed?”
“Both,” said Nicola.
“Too late,” said Stuart. “I’m going. And I don’t care any longer, Ma. I just don’t care.”
She moved forward and embraced him. “Don’t say that, darling. Don’t get all dried up inside.” She looked at him. What had Irene done to her son? How had she managed to kill the spirit within him?
Nicola sighed. Throughout history, men had crushed women and any spirit that women might show. Now at last that was being confronted, but the necessary corrective had been interpreted by some women as licence to belittle men. Irene was one of those women. Irene had won. She had gone, but she had won.