He had told his mother, Nicola, both of his resignation and Irene’s intention to go to Aberdeen; she had been supportive – and, more than that, she had been positively enthusiastic.
“I’m sorry Irene’s going up to Aberdeen,” she said, thinking, I wish it were further. Ulaanbaatar, for instance, or South Georgia Island.
“Oh well,” said Stuart. “She’s always wanted to do a PhD.”
“Of course,” said Nicola. “Quite understandable.” She thought: quite understandable if you’re an incorrigible intellectual snob with a desire to impress others.
“Her academic career is very important to her,” Stuart went on.
Academic career? thought Nicola. Pontificating at the Carl-Gustav Jung Drop-in Centre? Is that meant to be an academic career? “Of course,” she said. “Of course it is. She has so much to contribute.” Her unasked-for opinions, for example.
“She knows people up there,” Stuart continued. “She won’t be lonely.”
Nicola smiled. “Well, that’s good to know.” And she knows one person particularly well. Her nights certainly won’t be lonely.
Nicola had offered not only to look after Bertie and Ulysses, but also to move in to do so. She had risen to that challenge while Irene had been held in that Persian Gulf desert harem, and she had found that the art of looking after small children, rather like the art of riding a bicycle, never left one. In fact, she was delighted to do it; her life in Edinburgh, although reasonably full, lacked an element of purpose, and day-to-day responsibility for two small grandsons was purpose of the highest nature.
As the meeting was taking place upstairs of Domenica and her pygmy visitors, Nicola was downstairs in the Pollock flat, awaiting with Stuart the return of Irene from a lecture she had been attending at the Scottish National Gallery on the Mound. “I hope Irene is not going to be awkward about any of this,” she said to Stuart. “What if she decides to take the boys to Aberdeen?”
“She won’t,” said Stuart.
“I must say, darling, I find it a bit strange that she should be so cool about leaving them. That’s not very typical behaviour for a mother, if I may say so.”
“Irene is not very typical, Mother,” said Stuart.
“No, dear, she isn’t. And I have a feeling – just a tiny, wee feeling, that you might be better off by yourself. And the same goes for Bertie and Ulysses.”
“Possibly,” said Stuart. “But I don’t want any recrimination. I don’t want any nastiness.”
Nicola rushed to reassure him. “Of course not. I’d never say anything.”
They heard the sound of a key in the door, and Stuart went into the hall to greet Irene.
“Well, that was a highly entertaining lecture,” said Irene as she came in. “It was all about Poussin. A very well-informed lecturer. He concentrated on that painting they have down in London, in the National Gallery. Landscape with a Man Killed by a Snake.”
“Mother’s here,” said Stuart. “She’s in the kitchen.”
Irene appeared not to be interested, but wandered through into their bedroom followed by Stuart. “It’s a remarkable painting,” she said. “I’ve seen it before, of course, but I’d never really studied it – and it’s astonishing how much more you see once you do that. There’s that man lying on the ground and the large snake engaged with him. Then there’s a figure running off to report the tragedy. It’s quite disturbing.”
“Oh well, you were safe in the Scottish National Gallery.”
“Oh, don’t be so ridiculous, Stuart.”
“I wasn’t being ridiculous. I was simply pointing out that you shouldn’t be frightened of a mere painting.”
Irene looked at him disdainfully. “But that’s the whole point of art, Stuart. It engages us, so that the things that the artist portrays become real. And that’s exactly what a member of the audience said at the end. He complained.”
“About the failure to warn the audience at the beginning of the lecture. He said the Gallery people should have warned us that this particular painting could be distressing. He said we were entitled to safe space.”
Stuart looked at Irene in astonishment. “This character said that they should have warned you about … about Poussin?”
Irene nodded. “And I think he had a perfectly valid point. That’s what the safe space movement is all about – ensuring that people aren’t made to feel uncomfortable.”
“And only hear the things they want to hear?” said Stuart.
Irene gave him a warning glance. “You said your mother was here?”
“Yes, she’s in the kitchen. I thought we should all talk about the boys.”
Irene looked out of the window. “I’ve been thinking, Stuart.”
Stuart held his breath, wondering whether she had changed her mind.
“I’ve been thinking of going up there next week,” said Irene. “I can’t wait to start work on my PhD.”
Stuart breathed out. “That’s fine,” he said, trying not to sound too eager. “You must get down to it. You need to commit yourself to it.”
Irene looked at him. “Has our marriage been a success, Stuart?”
He returned her gaze. There was so much he wanted to say, but he knew that he would never say it.
“I think, by and large, it has. But then …”
“But then, I think we’ve drifted apart. I think we’ve …”
“Been on different vectors? Is that it?”
He had no idea what she meant, but it sounded as that might be it. Vectors sounded rather like aircraft approach paths, but perhaps there were vectors for people too – vectors that took them through the troubled airspace that was our daily life. The troubled airspace of our daily lives … He would have to remember that. That girl – the one he had met in Henderson’s Salad Bar, the one studying twentieth century Scottish poetry; she would appreciate that phrase.
“Irene,” he said. “May I ask you to do one thing?”
She looked at him. “In principle, yes.”
“Say thank you to my mother.”
She did not reply immediately. He noticed that her watch strap was frayed. It was strange, he thought, that at moments of great intensity, one sees the details, the things of no consequence in themselves, but things that may say so much about our human frailty.
At last she responded. “Yes, I’ll do that. Because it’s very good of her, Stuart.”
He felt relieved. “I know.”
“And it’s good of you, too.”
He was silent.
“It’s good of you to give me my freedom, Stuart.”
He leaned forward and kissed her lightly on the cheek. She touched his shoulder. She said, “Will you forgive me, Stuart?”
He nodded. He could not speak. But he could forgive, and had done so now.
Volume 12 - Chapter 57