49. A Subtle Knife Question
The contretemps between Irene and Stuart over the question of whether Bertie would be allowed to join the cub scouts had been resolved in favour of Stuart. It was impossible for Irene to do very much now; certainly there was little that she could do in the presence of Bertie himself, as for all her faults she did not believe in presenting a child with mixed parental messages. But that did not prevent her from confronting Stuart once Bertie had been dispatched to bed.
That dispatching had been carried out by Stuart, who had supervised the cleaning of teeth and the various other small rituals that Bertie performed before settling down for the night. That evening, though, Stuart was aware of what awaited him in the kitchen, and prolonged his time with his son, sitting on the edge of the bed in the artificial gloaming provided by Bertie’s small plug-in night-light.
“So you’ve had a good day, Bertie,” he said, taking the small hand that was resting on the top of the counterpane and giving it a brief, friendly squeeze.
Bertie hesitated before he replied. “A bit,” he said. “Some of it was good and some was bad. But thank you for asking, Daddy.”
“Oh, some of it was bad, was it?” asked Stuart. “Why was that, Bertie? I thought you had fun having your friends round to play.”
“Olive’s not really my friend, Daddy,” confided Bertie. “She thinks she is, but isn’t really. I never invited her here and once she comes all she wants to do is to play house. I hate playing house. We’re incompatible.”
Stuart gave a start at the sophisticated word; his son had a great capacity for astonishing him, never less than in his vocabulary. He was sympathetic to Bertie’s point. He had a vague memory of being forced to play house when he was a small boy and hating it too. And now that he came to think of it, his life with Irene was a bit like being obliged to play house on a prolonged scale. In fact, there were many men who were forced to play house when they really did not want to…
“Girls can be a bit different, Bertie,” he said.
“Mummy says they aren’t,” chipped in Bertie. “Mummy says that it’s society that imposes different roles on boys and girls.”
Stuart looked at his son. He was probably right. That was exactly what Irene would have said.
“I’m sure that Mummy had a point,” he said loyally. “But let’s not worry too much about that. Tell me, did Tofu enjoy himself?”
“No,” said Bertie. “Tofu and Olive fight every time they see one another. Tofu always spits at her and she scratches him. She tried to scratch his face this afternoon but only managed to scratch his neck. That made Tofu pull her hair and quite a bit came out.”
“That’s not so good,” said Stuart. “One does not expect such things to happen among one’s guests. But at least you’ve got the cub scouts to look forward to.”
“Yes,” said Bertie. “I can’t wait.”
“We’ll go and get your uniform tomorrow,” said Stuart.
“Can I carry a knife?” asked Bertie. “That book I was reading, Scouting for Boys, says that every scout should have a knife. Did you have a knife, Daddy?”
Stuart was silent. He had not thought about it for many years – and it seemed such a long time ago. But yes, he did have a knife, although he very much doubted that cubs had knives these days.
“I did have a knife, Bertie,” Stuart said. “I had a lovely red Swiss Army knife with twelve blades, as I recall. Well, they weren’t all blades – they did various things. One was a hook to take stones out of the feet of horses. And another was a corkscrew, I think. It was a lovely knife. I was very proud of it.”
Bertie was listening with rapt attention. It thrilled him to learn that his father had had a knife, and a Swiss Army one at that. He had seen a picture of a Swiss Army knife once, in a magazine – it was Scottish Field, he thought, which he read in Dr. Fairbairn’s waiting-room. It had never occurred to him that he might one day have such a knife, but now that his father had said that he had owned such a thing, then there was a chance, he supposed, a remote chance that he might get one.
He looked at his father. The warm intimacy of the half-light made him wonder whether now might not be the time to make the request.
“Do you think I could have a Swiss Army knife?” he asked, his voice small in the darkness. “Do you think I could, Daddy?”
Stuart said nothing for a moment. He remembered that he had been given his Swiss Army knife at the age of eight, and Bertie, of course, was only six. But children grew up faster these days and six, perhaps, was the new eight… And how could he say no to this little boy who had been said no to so many times – by his mother – and all those nos had been left unchallenged by him? Well that was going to change, and it would change dramatically, whatever Irene said.
“Of course you can have a Swiss Army knife, Bertie,” said Stuart. “We can get it tomorrow when we go to buy your uniform. You just remind me.”
“Oh, thank you, Daddy,” said Bertie, beaming with pleasure. “Can we go in the car to get the uniform?”
“Of course,” said Stuart.
“Where is it, Daddy?” asked Bertie. “I haven’t seen our car for ages.”
Stuart smiled. “Where is our car? Oh, in the usual place, Bertie. Parked.”
“But where?” pressed Bertie.
Stuart stroked his chin. Had he been the last to use the car? Suddenly his prospects seemed to be considerably less attractive. It was one thing to insist on the cub scouts, but it was quite another thing to promise Bertie a knife and to forget – again, it seemed – where the car was parked.
He looked down at his son. If there was one thing that he could wish for his son – one thing that he himself, as a father, did not possess, what would that be? Courage, he thought.
And Bertie looked up at his father and thought: How dare Tofu call my father a wimp? Tofu’s father would never have owned a Swiss Army knife. Tofu’s father… he drifted off to sleep.