1. The Question of Birth Order
Elspeth Harmony’s triplets arrived in the order that was to dog them for the rest of their lives: first, second, and third. They could not do otherwise, of course, but this was to determine so much for the three boys: emotional development, confidence, academic achievement, marriage, and ultimately – with that extraordinary synchronicity that nature can sometimes muster – the leaving of this world. Had the hospital not noted their order of appearance, and recorded it on the tiny bracelets fixed round the ankle of each by a nurse, then it would have been chance, rather than seniority, that governed how they fared in relation to one another. But these bracelets were put on, and the die, so to speak, was cast.
Matthew had some inkling about the significance of birth order within a family. As an only child, he had no sibling with whom to develop rivalries and other passions, but he knew so many who did. One friend, the youngest of five boys, had once opened up to him in a maudlin moment in the Cumberland Bar. “They’ve never taken me seriously,” he said. “Never. And everything I had at home – everything – was fifthhand. Fifthhand clothes, shoes, handkerchiefs – the lot.”
Matthew thought about this for a moment. “Fourth,” he said.
His friend, absorbed in self-pity, had said, rather peevishly, “Fourth? Fourth what?”
“Hand,” said Matthew. “It’s been through four hands by the time it reaches the fifth child. Therefore – fourthhand.”
Self-pity does not appreciate pedantry. “Fifth,” said Matthew’s friend. “Five owners – fifthhand.”
Matthew had stuck to his guns. “No. It depends on the number of hands it has been through. And something that’s secondhand has been through two sets of hands: the original owner’s and the new owner’s.”
“That means you have to count the fifth owner too,” said the friend. “My clothes were fifthhand. Five owners, including me.”
Matthew had lost the point. “You’re probably right. But anyway . . .”
“Well, it was awful, I can tell you. And it’s carried on all my life. Do you know my oldest brother? You’ve met him, haven’t you? He still treats me as if I’m six. He expresses surprise if he phones and my wife says I’m in the pub. He thinks I’m not old enough. He still thinks that.”
“It could be worse,” said Matthew. “You could have no siblings – like me. Nobody to compete with. Nobody to think you’re too young. Nobody to dilute parental attention.”
He was determined, of course, that he and Elspeth should make as few mistakes as possible in bringing up their triplets. A whole library of books had been purchased – each claiming to be the definitive guide to the raising of infants and young children. They had gone to a special talk put on for the parents of twins – prospective multiples had been the term used – and had listened intently to the advice that one should seek to achieve a balance between economy of scale and recognition of individuality.
“Your twin is a person, and not just a twin,” said the lecturer. “I call this the paradox of the shared self. We are all ourselves, but we are, at the same time, something other than an isolated self. We are a social self – a self defined by those with whom we live; a self that has imposed upon it a number of roles – the role of sibling, the role of child, the role of lover, the role of employee and so on. The self has so many facets.”
This required further thought. More immediate were the various questions raised by those attending, among them that of the effect on the child himself or herself of being a twin or, as the questioner somewhat untactfully put it, worse. This led to a discussion of the usual behavioural issues, and, significantly, to the issue of birth order.
“The experience of the multiple is different from other children,” explained the lecturer. “The twin or triplet does not have to deal with existing rights – unless there are already older brothers and sisters. So there will not be a brother or sister who can do things better, who has an established position in the family: the playing field is level in that sense. Unless, of course, you tell the children who is oldest. And, frankly, I don’t recommend that. Why create any sense of entitlement?”
“My father was a twin,” whispered Elspeth. “He knew that he was younger than his brother. By a couple of minutes, apparently.”
“Why did they tell him?” asked Matthew.
“They must have told them when they were very young. He said that he always knew.”
“We won’t tell,” said Matthew. “We don’t want to create any sense of entitlement, do we?”
They might not have wanted to, and yet they did. Five years later, in the face of persistent questioning, the parental position on birth order began to change and the official position that all three boys had been born at exactly the same time began to change. Yes, it was conceded, one had arrived first, but they claimed that they had forgotten who it was. That satisfied curiosity for a year or two, but the questions returned, and with the same determination as Mr. Tam Dalyell had shown in trying to winkle admissions out of Mrs. Thatcher on the sinking of the Belgrano, the boys managed to find out who was the oldest and who was the youngest. And so the fateful work was done, and the lottery of birth began to make its effects felt.
The first to be born was Rognvald, named after the Norse founder of the Earldom of Orkney, Matthew being Orcadian on his grandmother’s side. The tiny baby, so small to be burdened with so great a name, was taken from his mother’s arms, swaddled in a cloth, and given to his father, who wept with pride, with joy, as he looked down into the puckered little face. “Rognvald,” he muttered. “Hello, my darling.”
So moved was Matthew by this encounter that he quite forgot that Elspeth, still in the travails of labour, had two more babies to bring into the world. Matthew wanted to play with Rognvald, and had he brought with him to the hospital a Hornby Dublo train set – as some excessively keen fathers have been known to do – he would no doubt have set it up there and then and introduced his son to the pleasure of model railways. But all too soon, the nurse who had handed him Rognvald asked for him back. “You’ve got another one now,” she said. “Look.”
Matthew spent a moment placing the nurse’s accent. It had a touch of the Hebrides to it – Stornoway, perhaps. He said, “Where are you from?”
She said, “Mull. Tobermory.”
He was filled with gratitude. “We’ll call the next one Tobermory,” said Matthew. “As a thank you.”
2. The Naming of Boys
Tobermory’s tiny lungs, once filled with air, lost no time in expelling it in the form of a cry of protest. If birth – our first eviction – is a deeply unsettling trauma, and we are told by those who claim to remember it that it is, then this child was not going to let the experience go unremarked upon. Red with rage, he vented his anger as Matthew cradled him. “Hush, Tobermory,” the new father crooned. “Hush, hush.”
On her pillow of pain, already exhausted by the effort of giving birth to two boys, Elspeth half-turned her head. “Tobermory?”
“Just a working title,” said Matthew, above the sound of Tobermory’s screams. “It suits him, don’t you think?”
Elspeth nodded wearily. They had agreed in advance upon the name Rognvald, and had more or less decided on Angus and Fergus for the others, but Elspeth, being wary of having children who rhymed, was less enthusiastic about these last two names. Tobermory sounded rather attractive to her; she had been there once, on a boat from Oban, and had loved the brightly painted line of houses that followed the curve of the bay. Why were Scottish buildings grey, when they could be pink, blue, ochre? Moray Place, where they lived, could be transformed if only they would paint it that pink that one finds in houses in Suffolk, or the warm sienna of one or two buildings in East Lothian.
“Tobermory,” she muttered. “Yes, I rather like that.”
She returned to the task at hand, and a few minutes later gave birth to Fergus, who was markedly more silent than Tobermory, at whom he appeared to look reproachfully, as if censuring him for creating such a fuss.
The family of five was now complete. Matthew stayed in the hospital for a further hour, comforting Elspeth, who had become a bit weepy. Then, blowing a proud kiss to his three sons, he went back to the flat in Moray Place that the couple had moved into on the sale of their first matrimonial home in India Street. Once back, Matthew made his telephone calls – to his father, to Elspeth’s mother in Comrie, and to a list of more distant relatives whom he had promised to keep informed.
Then there were friends to contact, including Big Lou, who had been touchingly concerned over Elspeth’s condition during her pregnancy.
“You’re going to have to be really strong, Matthew,” she warned. “It’s not an easy thing for a lass to have triplets. You have to be there for her.”
You have to be there for her. Matthew had not expected that expression from Big Lou, whose turn of phrase reflected rural Angus rather than the psychobabble-speaking hills of California.
“I’ll be there for her, Lou,” he said, following her lead. “In whatever space she’s in, I’ll be there.”
“Good,” said Lou. “She’ll be fair trachled with three bairns. You too. You’ll be trachled, Matthew. It’s a sair fecht.”
“Aye,” said Matthew, lapsing into Scots. “I ken. I’ll hae my haunds fu.”
But now there was no word of caution from Big Lou. “They’re all right, are they, Matthew?” she said over the telephone.
He assured her that they were, and she let out a whoop of delight. This show of spontaneous shared joy moved Matthew deeply. That another person should feel joy for him, should be proud when he felt proud, should share his heady, intoxicating elation, struck him as remarkable. Most people, he suspected, did not want others to be happy, not deep down. However we pretended otherwise, we resented the success of our friends; not that we did not want them to meet with success at all – it’s just that we did not want them to be markedly more successful than we were. Matthew remembered reading somewhere that somebody had written – waspishly, but truly – every time a friend succeeds, I die a little. Gore Vidal: yes, he had said it. The problem, though, with witty people, thought Matthew, was working out whether they meant what they said.
And it was the same with money. If somebody knew you had money – and Matthew had, when all was said and done, slightly more than four million pounds, transferred to him by his father – if a friend knew that sort of thing, then his face would cloud over, just for a moment, as the emotion of envy registered itself. We do not want our friends to be poor, but by and large we prefer them to be slightly poorer than we are – just a fraction.
Big Lou meant what she said. She was delighted that Elspeth and the triplets were well; she was thrilled that Matthew was so happy; she was, moreover, very pleased that the population of Scotland had gone up by three at a time when demographic trends pointed the other way.
“I’m going to celebrate,” she said to Matthew.
“That’s great, Lou. How?”
“I’ll work something out,” she said.
Matthew realised that his enquiry had been tactless. Big Lou lived on her own, and the thought of her celebrating by herself, opening a bottle of wine, perhaps, in her flat in Canonmills and then drinking a toast that would be echoed by nobody else, saddened him. Life could be a lonely affair, and there was no justice in allocation of company. There were many selfish and unmeritorious people who were surrounded by more friends than they could manage; there were many good and generous people who were alone, who would love to have somebody to go home to, but who did not.
Big Lou was one of those. Matthew had met some of her male friends, and had taken a thorough dislike to them. There was that cook who had gone off to Mobile, Alabama, and who had shown excessive interest in young waitresses – Matthew had not liked him at all. Then there had been the Jacobite plasterer, who had gone on about the Stuarts and their restoration and who had, in Matthew’s view, been certifiably insane. No, Big Lou had not had the luck she deserved, but could anything be done about it? Should she wait until some man wandered into her life – if that was ever going to happen – or should her friends perhaps speak to her about a dating agency? Why not? Dating agencies worked – sometimes – and Matthew had read of one that allowed you to get as many men as you liked – seriatim, of course – for three hundred and fifty pounds. Matthew had three hundred and fifty pounds; perhaps he would speak to Big Lou – tactfully of course. Big Lou came from Arbroath, and people who came from Arbroath were fine people in so many ways, but could be unexpectedly touchy-touchy, not touchy-feely.
Excerpted from Bertie Plays the Blues by Alexander McCall Smith. Copyright © 2013 by Alexander McCall Smith. Excerpted by permission of Anchor, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.