The Talented Mr Varg

The Talented Mr Varg

Date Published: 23rd January 2020

In the second installment in the bestselling Detective Varg Novels, Ulf and his team investigate a notorious lothario – a wolf of a man whose bad reputation may, much to his chagrin, be all bark and no bite. The Department of Sensitive Crimes, renowned for taking on the most obscure and irrelevant cases, led by […]

Love Over Scotland

Date Published: 3rd February 2016

At the end of the seminar, when Dr Fantouse had shuffled off in what can only have been disappointment and defeat, back to the Quattrocento, the students snapped shut their notebooks, yawned, scratched their heads, and made their way out of the seminar room and into the corridor. Pat had deliberately avoided looking at Wolf, but she was aware of the fact that he was slow in leaving the seminar room, having dropped something on the floor, and was busy searching for it. There was a noticeboard directly outside the door, and she stopped at this, looking at the untidy collection of posters which had been pinned up by a variety of student clubs and societies. None of these was of real interest to her. She did not wish to take up gliding and had only a passing interest in salsa classes. Nor was she interested in teaching at an American summer camp, for which no experience was necessary, although enthusiasm was helpful. But at least these notices gave her an excuse to wait until Wolf came out, which he did a few moments later.

She stood quite still, peering at the small print on the summer camp poster. There was something about an orientation weekend and insurance, and then a deposit would be necessary unless …

“Not a nice way to spend the summer,” a voice behind her said. “Hundreds of brats. No time off. Real torture.”

She turned round, affecting surprise. “Yes,” she said. “I wasn’t really thinking of doing it.”

“I had a friend who did it once,” said Wolf. “He ran away. He actually physically ran away to New York after two weeks.” He looked at his watch and then nodded in the direction of the door at the end of the corridor. “Are you hungry?”

Pat was not, but said that she was. “Ravenous.”

“We could go up to the Elephant House,” Wolf said, glancing at his watch. “We could have coffee and a sandwich.”

They walked through George Square and across the wide space in front of the McEwan Hall. In one corner, their skateboards at their feet, a group of teenage boys huddled against the world, caps worn backwards, baggy, low-crotched trousers half-way down their flanks. Pat had wondered what these youths talked about and had concluded that they talked about nothing, because to talk was uncool. Perhaps Domenica could do field work outside the McEwan Hall—once she had finished with her Malacca Straits pirates—living with the skateboarders, in a little tent in the rhododendrons at the edge of the square, observing the socio-dynamics of the group, the leadership struggles, the badges of status. Would they accept her, she wondered? Or would she be viewed with suspicion, as an unwanted visitor from the adult world, the world of speech?

She found out a little bit more about Wolf as they made their way to the Elephant House. As they crossed the road at Napier’s Health Food Shop, Wolf told her that his mother was an enthusiast of vitamins and homeopathic medicine. He had been fed on vitamins as a boy and had been taken to a homeopathic doctor, who gave him small doses of carefully chosen poison. The whole family took Echinacea against colds, regularly, although they still got them.

“It keeps her happy,” he said. “You know how mothers are. And it’s cool by me if my mother’s unstressed. You know what I mean?”

Pat thought she did. “That’s cool,” she said.

And then he told her that he came from Aberdeen. His father, he said, was in the oil business. He had a company which supplied valves for off-shore wells. They sold valves all over the world, and his father was often away in places like Houston and Brunei. He collected air miles which he gave to Wolf.

“I can go anywhere I want,” he said. “I could go to South America, if I wanted. Tomorrow. All on air miles.”

“I haven’t got any air miles,” said Pat.

“None at all?”


Wolf shrugged. “No big deal,” he said. “You don’t really need them.”

“Do you think that Dr Fantouse has any air miles?” asked Pat suddenly.

They both laughed. “Definitely not,” said Wolf. “Poor guy. Bus miles maybe.”

The World According to Bertie

Date Published:

“Chinos,” she said suddenly.

Matthew looked up, clearly puzzled. “Chinos?”

“Yes,” said Pat. “Those trousers they call chinos. They’re made of some sort of thick, twill material. You know the sort?”

Matthew thought for a moment. He glanced down at his crushed-strawberry corduroy trousers; he knew his trousers were controversial—he had always had controversial trousers, but he rather liked this pair and he had seen a lot of people recently wearing trousers like them in Dundas Street. Should he have been wearing chinos? Was this Pat’s way of telling him that she would prefer it if he had different trousers?

“I know what chinos are,” he said. “I saw a pair of chinos in a shop once. They were … ” He tailed off. He had rather liked the chinos, he remembered, but he was not sure whether he should say so to Pat: there might be something deeply unfashionable about chinos which he did not yet know.

“Why are they called chinos?” Pat asked.

Matthew shrugged. “I have no idea,” he said. “I just haven’t really thought about it … until now.” He paused. “But why were you thinking of chinos?”

Pat hesitated. “I just saw a pair,” she said. “And … and of course Bruce used to wear them. Remember?”

Matthew had not liked Bruce, although he had tolerated his company on occasion in the Cumberland Bar. Matthew was a modest person, and Bruce’s constant bragging had annoyed him. But he had also felt jealous of the way in which Bruce could capture Pat’s attention, even if it had become clear that she had eventually seen through him.

“Yes. He did wear them, didn’t he? Along with that stupid rugby jersey. He was such a … ” He did not complete the sentence. There was really no word which was capable of capturing just the right mixture of egoism, hair gel and preening self-satisfaction that made up Bruce’s personality.

Pat moved away from Matthew’s desk and gazed out of the window. “I think that I just saw Bruce,” she said. “I think he might be back.”

Matthew rose from his desk and joined her at the window. ‘Now?’ he said. ‘Out there?”

Pat shook her head. “No,” she said. “Further up. I was on the bus and I saw him—I’m pretty sure I did.”

Matthew sniffed. “What was he doing?”

“Walking,” said Pat. “Wearing chinos and a rugby jersey. Just walking.”

“Well, I don’t care,” said Matthew. “He can come back if he likes. Makes no difference to me. He’s such a … ” Again Matthew failed to find a word. He looked at Pat. There was something odd about her manner; it was as if she was thinking about something, and this raised a sudden presentiment in Matthew. What if Pat were to fall for Bruce again? Such things happened; people encountered one another after a long absence and fell right back in love. It was precisely the sort of thing that novelists liked to write about; there was something heroic, something of the epic, in doing a thing like that. And if she fell back in love with Bruce, then she would fall out of love with me, thought Matthew; if she ever loved me, that is.

The Right Attitude to Rain

Date Published:

She walked back across the Meadows, a wide expanse of common ground on which people strolled and played. To the south, along the edge of the park, rose the high Victorian tenements of Marchmont, stone buildings of six floors or so, topped with spiky adornments—thistles, fleurs-de-lis and the like. There were attics up there, rooms looking out of the sharply rising slate roofs, out towards the Forth and the hills beyond, rooms let out to students and later, during the summer, to the musicians and actors who flocked to Edinburgh for the Festival. As she walked up towards Bruntsfield she could make out the door that led to the narrow hall and, up five long flights of stone stairs, to the flat where more than twenty years ago her schoolfriend Kirsty had at sixteen conducted an affair with a student from Inverness, her first boyfriend and lover. Isabel had listened to her friend’s accounts of this and had felt an emptiness in the pit of her stomach, which was longing, and fear too. Kirsty had spoken sotto voce of what had happened, and whispered, “They try to stop us, Isabel. They try to stop us because they don’t want us to know. And then we find out … ”

“And?” Isabel had said. But Kirsty had become silent and looked out of the window. This was the private past; intimate, unquestioned, precious to each of us.

Reaching Bruntsfield, she found herself outside Cat’s delicatessen. She could not walk past without going in, although she tried not to distract Cat when she was busy. That time in the afternoon was a slack period, and there was only one customer in the shop, who was in the process of paying for a baguette and a tub of large pitted olives. There were several tables where people could sit and be served coffee and a small selection of food, and Isabel took a seat at one of these, picking up an out-of-date copy of Corriere della Sera from the table of newspapers and magazines beside the cheese counter. She glanced at the political news from Italy, which appeared to be a series of reports of battles between acronyms, or so it seemed. Behind the acronyms there were people, and passions, and ancient feuds, but without any idea of what stood for which, it was much like the battle between the Blues and Greens in Byzantium—meaningless, unless one understood the difference between the orthodox and the Monophysites who stood behind these factions.

She abandoned the paper. Eddie, Cat’s shy assistant, to whom something traumatic had happened that Isabel had never fathomed, took the money for the baguette and the olives and opened the door for the customer. There was no sign of Cat.

“Where is she?” asked Isabel, once they had the shop to themselves.

Eddie came over to the table, rubbing his hands on his apron. His nervousness in Isabel’s presence had abated, but he was still not completely at ease.

“She went out for lunch,” he said. “And she hasn’t come back yet.”

Isabel looked at her watch. “A long lunch,” she remarked.

Eddie hesitated for a moment, as if weighing up whether to say anything. “With her new boyfriend,” he said, adding, after further hesitation, “again.”

The Full Cupboard of Life

Date Published: 4th February 2016

As Mma Ramotswe sat at her desk, she heard sounds of activity from the garage on the other side of the building. Mr J. L. B. Matekoni was at work with his two apprentices, young men who seemed entirely obsessed with girls and who were always leaving grease marks about the building. Around each light switch, in spite of many exhortations and warnings, there was an area of black discolouration, where the apprentices had placed their dirty fingers. And Mma Ramotswe had even found greasy fingerprints on her telephone receiver and, more irritatingly still, on the door of the stationery cupboard.

“Mr J. L. B. Matekoni provides towels and all that lint for wiping off grease,” she had said to the older apprentice. “They are always there in the washroom. When you have finished working on a car, wash your hands before you touch other things. What is so hard about that?”

“I always do that,” said the apprentice. “It is not fair to talk to me like that, Mma. I am a very clean mechanic.”

“Then is it you?” asked Mma Ramotswe, turning to the younger apprentice.

“I am very clean too, Mma,” he said. ‘I am always washing my hands. Always. Always.”

“Then it must be me,” said Mma Ramotswe. “I must be the one with greasy hands. It must be me or Mma Makutsi. Maybe we get greasy from opening letters.”

The older apprentice appeared to think about this for a moment. “Maybe,” he said.

“There’s very little point in trying to talk to them,” Mr J. L. B. Matekoni had observed when Mma Ramotswe subsequently told him of this conversation. “There is something missing in their brains. Sometimes I think it is a large part, as big as a carburettor maybe.”

Now Mma Ramotswe heard the sound of voices coming from the garage. Mr J. L. B. Matekoni was saying something to the apprentices, and then there came a mumbling sound as one of the young men answered. Another voice; this time raised; it was Mr J. L. B. Matekoni.

Mma Ramotswe listened. They had done something again, and he was reprimanding them, which was unusual. Mr J. L. B. Matekoni was a mild man, who did not like conflict, and always spoke politely. If he felt it necessary to raise his voice, then it must have been something very annoying indeed.

“Diesel fuel in an ordinary engine,” he said, as he entered her office, wiping his hands on a large piece of lint. “Would you believe it, Mma Ramotswe? That … that silly boy, the younger one, put diesel fuel into the tank of a non-diesel vehicle. Now we have to drain everything out and try to clean the thing up.”

“I’m sorry,” said Mma Ramotswe. “But I am not surprised.” She paused for a moment. “What will happen to them? What will happen when they are working somewhere else—somewhere where there is no longer a kind person like you to watch over them?”

Mr J. L. B. Matekoni shrugged. “They will ruin cars left, right, and centre,” he said. “That is what will happen to them. There will be great sadness among the cars of Botswana.”

Mma Ramotswe shook her head. Then, on a sudden impulse, and without thinking at all why she should say this, she asked, “And what will happen to us, Mr J. L. B. Matekoni?”

The words were out, and Mma Ramotswe looked down at her hands on the desk, and at the diamond ring, which looked back up at her. She had said it, and Mr J. L. B. Matekoni had heard what she had said.

Mr J. L. B. Matekoni looked surprised. “Why do you ask, Mma? What do you mean when you ask what will happen to us?”

Mma Ramotswe raised her eyes. She thought that she might as well continue, now that she had begun. “I was wondering what would happen to us. I was wondering whether we would ever get married, or whether we would continue to be engaged people for the rest of our lives. I was just wondering, that was all.”

The Unbearable Lightness of Scones

Date Published: 3rd February 2016

The wedding took place underneath the Castle, beneath that towering, formidable rock, in a quiet church that was reached from King’s Stables Road. Matthew and Elspeth Harmony had made their way there together, in a marked departure from the normal routine in which the groom arrives first, to be followed by the bride, but only after a carefully timed delay, enough to make the more anxious members of her family look furtively at their watches—and wonder.

Customs exist to be departed from, declared Matthew. He had pointedly declined to have a stag party with his friends but had none the less asked to be included in the hen party that had been organised for Elspeth.

“Stag parties are dreadful,” he pronounced. “Everybody has too much to drink and the groom is subjected to all sorts of insults. Left without his trousers by the side of the canal and so on. I’ve seen it.”

“Not always,” said Elspeth. “But it’s up to you, Matthew.”

She was pleased that he was revealing himself not to be the type to enjoy a raucous male-only party. But this did not mean that Matthew should be allowed to come to her hen party, which was to consist of a dinner at Howie’s restaurant in Bruntsfield, a sober do by comparison with the Bacchanalian scenes which some groups of young women seemed to go in for. No, new men might be new men, but they were still men, trapped in that role by simple biology.

“I’m sorry, Matthew,” she said. “I don’t think that it’s a good idea at all. The whole point about a hen party is that it’s just for women. If a man were there it would change everything. The conversation would be different, for a start.”

Matthew wondered what it was that women talked about on such occasions. “Different in what way?” He did not intend to sound peevish, but he did.

“Just different,” said Elspeth airily. She looked at him with curiosity. “You do realise, Matthew, that men and women talk about rather different things? You do realise that, don’t you?”

Matthew thought of the conversations he had with his male friends. “I don’t know if there’s all that much difference,” he said. “I talk about the same things with my male and female friends. I don’t make a distinction.”

“Well, I’m sorry,” said Elspeth. “But the presence of a man would somehow interrupt the current. It’s hard to say why, but it would.”

So the subject had been left there and Elspeth in due course enjoyed her hen party with seven of her close female friends, while Matthew went off by himself to the Cumberland Bar.

In the Company of Cheerful Ladies

Date Published: 4th February 2016

Mma Ramotswe raised her tea cup to her lips and looked out over the brim. At the edge of the car park, immediately in front of the café, a small market had been set up, with traders’ stalls and trays of colourful goods. She watched as a man attempted to persuade a customer to buy a pair of sunglasses. The woman tried on several pairs, but was not satisfied, and moved on to the next stall. There she pointed to a small piece of silver jewellery, a bangle, and the trader, a short man wearing a wide-brimmed felt hat, passed it across to her to try on. Mma Ramotswe watched as the woman held out her wrist to be admired by the trader, who nodded encouragement. But the woman seemed not to agree with his verdict, and handed the bangle back, pointing to another item at the back of the stall. And at that moment, while the trader turned round to stretch for whatever it was that she had singled out, the woman quickly slipped another bangle into the pocket of the jacket she was wearing.

Mma Ramotswe gasped. This time, she could not sit back and allow a crime to be committed before her very eyes. If people did nothing, then no wonder that things were getting worse. So she stood up, and began to walk firmly towards the stall where the woman had now engaged the trader in earnest discussion about the merits of the merchandise which he was showing her.

“Excuse me, Mma.”

The voice came from behind her, and Mma Ramotswe turned round to see who had addressed her. It was the waitress, a young woman whom Mma Ramotswe had not seen at the café before.

“Yes, Mma, what is it?”

The waitress pointed an accusing finger at her. “You cannot run away like that,” she said. “I saw you. You’re trying to go away without paying the bill. I saw you.”

For a moment Mma Ramotswe was unable to speak. The accusation was a terrible one, and so unwarranted. Of course she had not been trying to get away without paying the bill—she would never do such a thing; all she was doing was trying to stop a crime being committed before her eyes. She recovered herself sufficiently to reply. “I am not trying to go away, Mma,” she said. “I am just trying to stop that person over there from stealing from that man. Then I would have come back to pay.”

The waitress smiled knowingly. “They all find some excuse,” she said. “Every day there are people like you. They come and eat our food and then they run away and hide. You people are all the same.”

Mma Ramotswe looked over towards the stall. The woman had begun to walk away, presumably with the bangle still firmly in her pocket. It would now be too late to do anything about it, and all because of this silly young woman who had misunderstood what she was doing.

She went back to her table and sat down. “Bring me the bill,” she said. “I will pay it straightaway.”

The waitress stared at her. “I will bring you the bill,” she said. “But I shall have to add something for myself. I will have to add this if you do not want me to call the police and tell them about how you tried to run away.”

As the waitress went off to fetch the bill, Mma Ramotswe glanced around her to see if people at the neighbouring tables had witnessed the scene. At the table next to hers, a woman sat with her two young children, who were sipping with evident pleasure at large milkshakes. The woman smiled at Mma Ramotswe, and then turned her attention back to the children. She had not seen anything, thought Mma Ramotswe, but then the woman leaned across the table and addressed a remark to her.

“Bad luck, Mma,” she said. “They are too quick in this place. It is easier to run away at the hotels.”

For a few minutes Mma Ramotswe sat in complete silence, reflecting on what she had seen. It was remarkable. Within a very short space of time she had seen an instance of bare-faced theft, had encountered a waitress who thought nothing of extorting money, and then, to bring the whole matter to a shameful conclusion, the woman at the next table had disclosed a thoroughly dishonest view of the world. Mma Ramotswe was frankly astonished. She thought of what her father, the late Obed Ramotswe, a fine judge of cattle but also a man of the utmost propriety, would have thought of this. He had brought her up to be scrupulously honest, and he would have been mortified to see this sort of behaviour.

The Finer Points of Sausage Dogs

Date Published: 3rd February 2016

Professor Dr Moritz-Maria von Igelfeld, author of that great triumph of Germanic scholarship, Portuguese Irregular Verbs, had never set foot on American shores. It is true that that he had corresponded from time to time with a number of noted American philologists—Professor Giles Reid of Cornell, for example, and Professor Paul Lafouche III of Tulane—and it is also true that they had often pressed him to attend the annual meeting of the American Modern Languages Association, but he had never been in a position to accept. Or so von Igelfeld said: the reality was he had never wanted to go and had inevitably come up with some excuse to turn down the invitations.

“I have absolutely no interest in the New World,” von Igelfeld said dismissively to Professor Dr Dr Florianus Prinzel. “Is there anything there that we can’t find in Germany? Anything at all? Can you name one thing?”

Prinzel thought for a moment. Cowboys? He was a secret admirer of cowboy films but he could never mention this to von Igelfeld, who, as far as he knew, had never watched a film in his life, let alone one featuring cowboys. Prinzel rather liked the idea of America, and would have been delighted to be invited there, preferably to somewhere in the West.

Then, one morning, Prinzel’s invitation arrived—and from no less an institution that the ideally-situated University of San Antonio. This was a city redolent of cowboys and the Mexican border and Prinzel immediately telephoned von Igelfeld to tell him the good news.

Von Igelfeld congratulated him warmly, but when he replaced the receiver his expression had hardened. It was quite unacceptable that Prinzel should go to America before he did. After all, the Americans might think that Prinzel, rather than he, von Igelfeld, represented German philology, and this, frankly, would never do. Quite apart from that, if Prinzel went first, they would never hear the end of it.

“I have no alternative but to go there,” he said to himself. “And I shall have to make sure that I go before Prinzel. It’s simply a matter of duty.”

Von Igelfeld found himself in a difficult position. He could hardly approach any of his American friends and solicit an invitation, particularly after he had so consistently turned them down in the past. And yet the chance that an invitation would arrive of its own accord was extremely slender.

Over coffee at the Institute the next day, he directed a casual question at Professor Dr Detlev Amadeus Unterholzer.

“Tell me, Herr Unterholzer,” he said. “If you were to want to go to America to give a lecture, how would you … well, how would you get yourself invited, so to speak?” Quickly adding: “Not that I would ever be in such a position myself, but you yourself could be, could you not?”

Unterholzer had an immediate answer.

“I should contact the Deutscher Akademischer Austauschdienst,” he said. “I should tell them who I was and I should ask them to arrange a lecture somewhere in America. That is what they are paid to do.”

“I see,” said von Igelfeld. “That would no doubt save embarrassment.”

“Of course,” said Unterholzer. “They are experts in finding places for German academics to go and lecture to other people, whether or not they want to hear them. They are very persuasive people. That is how I went to Buenos Aires and gave my lecture there. It really works.”

And indeed it did. The local director of the Deutscher Akademischer Austauschdienst was delighted to hear from von Igelfeld the following day and assured him that a scholar of his eminence would be snapped up should he deign to leave Germany. It was only a question of finding the right institution and making the detailed arrangements.

“Rest assured that you will be invited within days,” von Igelfeld was assured. “Just leave it all in our capable hands.”

Thus von Igelfeld found himself arriving in Fayetteville, Arkansas, a charming college town nestling in the Ozark Mountains, seat of the University of Arkansas, or at least of that part not located in the minor campus at Little Rock. When the whole idea was conceived, he had not envisaged going to Arkansas. He had imagined that his destination might be California, or New York, perhaps, but one American state was very much the same as another—at least in von Igelfeld’s view, and it really made no difference. The important thing was that he was going to America, and a good two weeks ahead of Prinzel.

Von Igelfeld’s host greeted him warmly. They had insisted that he stay with them, rather than in a hotel, and so von Igelfeld found himself installed in the sleeping porch of a traditional Ozark farmhouse on the edge of the town, the home of Professor R. B. Leflar. After he had unpacked, he and von Igelfeld sat down on the swing-seat on the front verandah and discussed his programme. There would be visits to the surrounding area the next day, promised Professor Leflar, and the day after that a set-piece lecture had been planned before an open audience.

That night, after dinner, von Igelfeld retired to his bed and looked out through the gauze-covered porch windows. The house was surrounded by mixed forest, oak trees and sycamores, and their shapes, dark silhouettes, swayed in the breeze. And there, he thought, there’s the moon, rising slowly over the trees like a giant lantern. What were they planning for him tomorrow? Would they show him their libraries? Were there manuscripts? What about Leflar’s maternal grandfather, the adventurer, Charles Finger? He had been in South America and may have come across some Portuguese manuscripts of note, which could well be in the attic above his very head. Arkansas, it seemed, was rich in possibilities for the philologist.

The next morning he ate a hearty breakfast with Professor and Mrs Leflar before they set off.

“We’re heading north,” said his host. “We’ll show you a typical hog operation.”

“Most intriguing,” said von Igelfeld. “I am always interested in … ” He paused. What was he interested in? Philology? Portuguese verbs? “I am always interested in everything.”

They drove out of town, following a road that wound up into the hills. It was a gentle landscape—limestone hills which had been softened by the action of the rain; meandering valleys dotted with farmhouses under shady oak trees. Von Igelfeld had not thought of America as being at all like this; there were no dry plains, no glittering Dallas in the distance, no leafy suburbia with neat white houses. This could have been Bavaria, or even Austria.

Suddenly Leflar turned off the road and followed a dusty track leading towards a large, unpainted barn.

“Here we are,” he said. “They’re expecting us.”

The farmer came out and shook von Igelfeld’s hand. Von Igelfeld sniffed the air; it was distinctly malodorous.

“This way,” said the farmer. “The hogs are in here.”

The farmer opened a door in the side of the barn and ushered von Igelfeld inside. For the next half hour, they wandered between rows of large sties, each surmounted by a large sun lamp and each filled with a squealing mass of pigs. The farmer demonstrated the automatic feeding system and showed von Igelfeld the blood-sampling equipment.

“We’re mighty careful about viruses here,” he said. “You’d know all about that.”

Von Igelfeld looked at the farmer. Did pigs get colds, he wondered?

“You have to be careful about viruses,” he agreed. “I myself always use vitamin C during the winter … ”

He did not finish. “You’re right,” said the farmer. “Each pig gets sixty IU vitamin C every morning with its food. And then we given them a shot of B group when they’re seven weeks old. Some people are trying a short course of potassium a week before market. What do you think?”

Von Igelfeld shook his head. “You have to be careful,” he said. “I would never use potassium myself.”

The farmer listened intently. ‘You hear that, Professor Leflar? No potassium. I’m inclined to agree with our visitor. You tell those folks down in Little Rock, no potassium—the Germans recommend against it.”

Leflar nodded. “Could be,” he said.

An hour later they set off again. After a brief lunch, they made their way to a chicken farm, where von Igelfeld was shown the latest methods of production by a farmer who spoke in such a way that he could understand not one word. Then there was a call at some sort of animal laboratory, which interested von Igelfeld very little. Then home to dinner.

That night, in the silence of his sleeping porch, von Igelfeld reflected on his day. It had been interesting, in its way, but he wondered why they had chosen to show him all those farms and animals. Animals were all very well; indeed he had once written a small paper on the nature of collective nouns used for groups of animals, but that was about as far as his interest went. Still, this was America, and he assumed that this was what they laid on for all their visitors.

The lecture was to be at six thirty, following a short reception. When von Igelfeld arrived with Leflar the audience was largely assembled, milling about the ante-room of the lecture theatre. Glasses of wine had been provided, and plates of snacks were being circulated by waitresses dressed in black and white.

Everybody seemed keen to talk to von Igelfeld.

“We’ve all heard about your work,” said one man in a lightweight blue suit. “In fact, I’ve got an off-print here which I thought you might care to sign.”

“I’d be happy to do so,” said von Igelfeld. And what about Portuguese Irregular Verbs? he reflected. Were there copies even here in Fayetteville, amongst these charming hills?

The man in the blue suit produced a pamphlet from his pocket.

“I was sent this by a colleague in Germany,” he said. “He thought that I might find it useful. And I sure did.”

Von Igelfeld took the pamphlet. The cover was unfamiliar; all his off-prints from the Zeitschrift were bound in a plain white cover. This one was blue.

He adjusted his reading glasses and looked at the title page.

Further Studies of Canine Pulmonary Efficiency, he read. And then: by Professor Martin Igelfold, Universtiy of Münster.

Von Igelfeld stared at the page for a moment, his heart a cold stone within him. It was immediately clear to him what had happened. They thought that he was Professor Igelfold, Dean of Veterinary Medicine at Münster. Von Igelfeld knew of Igelfold’s existence, as he had seen the remarkably similar name in the newspaper during an anthrax scare. But he had never dreamed that there would be confusion on such a heroic scale! Those foolish, bumbling people at the Deutscher Akademischer Austauschdienst had mixed them up and sent him off to lecture on veterinary medicine in Arkansas! It was a situation of such terrible embarrassment that for a moment he hardly dared contemplate it. And the lecture was about to begin, before all these people—these expectant scientists, veterinarians and dog breeders—and he had proposed to talk about modal verbs in the writings of Fernando Pessoa.

Almost without thinking, he signed the pamphlet and returned it to the other man.

“We’re so honoured to have you here in Fayetteville,” said the man. “We understand that you are the world authority on the sausage dog. We are looking forward to what you have to say to us tonight. Sausage dogs are quite popular here. German settlers brought them with them in the late nineties and have bred them ever since.”

Von Igelfeld stared at him in horror. Sausage dogs! He was expected to talk about sausage dogs, a subject on which he knew absolutely nothing. It was a nightmare; like one of those dreams where you imagine that you are about to take the lead part in a Greek play or where you are sitting down to write an examination in advanced calculus. But he was awake, and it was really happening.

Leflar was at his side now.

“Almost time,” he said. “Should I ask people to move into the hall?”

“Not yet,” said von Igelfeld, looking about him desperately. “I have so many colleagues yet to meet.”

He detached himself from Leflar and made his way over to a knot of people standing near the door. This proved to be a group of veterinary surgeons who welcomed him to their circle and refilled his glass from a bottle of wine which one of them was holding.

It was in this group that one of the guests drew him aside and engaged him in distinctly unsettling conversation.

“I was sorry to read about your death,” said the guest.

Von Igelfeld looked at him in astonishment.

“My death?”

“Yes,” said the guest. “There was a small item in the International Veterinary Review this week reporting the very recent death of Professor Igelfold. There was a glowing obituary.”

Von Igelfeld stared glassily at the man before him, who was surveying him over his drink.

“I did not read it,” he said weakly.

“Not surprising,” said the man. “One rarely has the pleasure of reading one’s own obituary.”

Von Igelfeld laughed, mopping his brow with his handkerchief.

“Very amusing,” he said. “And you are so right!”

“So this is a posthumous lecture,” said the man.

“Well,” said von Igelfeld. “It would appear to be something of that sort.”

The man looked pensive. “I must say that you don’t look at all like your photograph. They published one with the obituary, you know.”

Von Igelfeld gripped at the stem of his glass. “The camera is often deceptive, I find.”

“You were a smaller man in the photograph,” went on the other. “Not nearly so tall.”

“I see,” said von Igelfeld icily. “A smaller photograph, perhaps? Anyway, do you not know that in Germany we sometimes publish obituaries before a person’s demise. It happens quite often. This is because we Germans are so efficient. An early obituary means that there is never a backlog. That, I suspect, is the explanation.”

There was a silence. Then von Igelfeld spoke again.

“You must excuse me,” he said. “I am feeling rather tired.”

“Quite understandable,” muttered the man. “In the circumstances.”

But von Igelfeld did not hear him. He had moved away and was looking about him. The simplest solution was to escape, to vanish entirely. If he managed to get out of the hall he could summon a taxi, go back to the Leflar house, creep in through the back and reclaim his belongings. Then he could make his way to the airport and await the first flight out of town, wherever it happened to be going.

The front door was impossible. Everybody would see him leaving and somebody was bound to come after him to enquire where he was going. But there was another door at the side of the room, a door out of which it looked much easier to sneak. He moved over towards it, smiling at people as he walked past, nodding his head in acknowledgement of their greetings. Then, having reached the door, he discreetly turned the handle and pushed against it.

“Oh, there you are,” said Leflar. “Is everything all right?”

“I am very well,” said von Igelfeld. “I was just trying … ” His voice faded away.

Leflar glanced anxiously at his watch.

“We don’t have much time,” he said. “The hall has to be used for another purpose in twenty-five minutes.”

“Please don’t hurry,” said von Igelfeld. “The real point of these meetings is that there should be personal contact and I am making sure that this happens by talking to all these excellent people.”

A few minutes later, von Igelfeld looked out over the faces of his audience. They had enjoyed the reception, and the supply of wine had been liberal. He, too, had taken several glasses and had recovered after the shock of discovering that he was dead. Now it now seemed to him that to talk for—what time remained? Ten minutes at the most—about sausage dogs would not be an impossible task. And by now he had remembered that Zimmermann himself had been in such a situation some years before, when he had been mistaken for another Zimmermann and had been obliged to deliver a lecture on developments in exhaust systems, a subject of which he was completely ignorant. And yet had not he done so, and with distinction? With such distinction, indeed, that the resulting paper had been published in the Karlsruher Forum für Moderne Auspuffkonstruktion? If Zimmermann could do it, then surely he could do so too.

“The sausage dog,” he began, “is a remarkable dog. It differs from other dogs in respect of its shape, which is similar to that of a sausage. It belongs to that genus of dogs marked out by their proximity to the ground. In most cases this is because of the shortness of the legs. If a dog has short legs, we have found that the body is almost invariably close to the ground. Yet this does not prevent the sausage dog from making its way about its business with considerable dispatch.”

He glanced at his watch. One minute had passed, leaving nine minutes to go. There would be one minute, or perhaps two, for thanks at the end, which meant that he now had to speak for no more than seven minutes. But what more was there to say about sausage dogs? Were they good hunting dogs? He believed they were. Perhaps he could say something about the role of the sausage dog in the rural economy, how they had their place and how unwise it was to introduce new, untested breeds.

This went down well with the audience, and there were murmurs of agreement from corners of the room. Emboldened, von Igelfeld moved on to the topic of whether there should be restrictions on the free movement of sausage dogs. Should sausage dog breeders not be allowed to export animals with as few restrictions as possible? Again the audience agreed with von Igelfeld when he said that this was a good idea.

There were several other points before it was time to stop. After thanking Leflar and the University of Arkansas, von Igelfeld sat down, to thunderous applause.

Leflar leant over to von Igelfeld as the sound of clapping filled the room.

“Well done,” he said. “That went down very well. Guest speakers are sometimes far too technical for an open lecture like this. You hit just the right note.”

Von Igelfeld nodded gravely.

“I hope I lived up to expectations,” he said modestly.

“Oh you did,” said Leflar. “It was a resounding success. Even if you were somewhat brief.”

From his seat on the aeroplane, von Igelfeld looked down at the Ozarks as they became smaller and smaller beneath him. It was a good place, America, and Arkansas was a good state. He had been invited to return, but how could he, particularly when the news of Professor Igelfold’s death became widespread? Besides, he reflected, he had nothing further to say about sausage dogs; indeed he had already said more than enough.

Blue Shoes and Happiness

Date Published: 4th February 2016

Mma Makutsi pondered this for a few moments. In general, she thought that Mma Ramotswe was right about matters of this sort, but she felt that this particular proposition needed a little bit more thought. She knew that there were some people who were unable to make of their lives what they wanted them to be, but then there were many others who were quite capable of keeping themselves under control. In her own case, she thought that she was able to resist temptation quite effectively. She did not consider herself to be particularly strong, but at the same time she did not seem to be markedly weak. She did not drink, nor did she over-indulge in food, or chocolate or anything of that sort. No, Mma Ramotswe’s observation was just a little bit too sweeping and she would have to disagree. But then the thought struck her: could she resist a fine new pair of shoes, even if she knew that she had plenty of shoes already (which was not the case)?

“I think you’re right, Mma,” she said. “Everybody has a weakness and most of us are not strong enough to resist it.”

Mma Ramotswe looked at her assistant. She had an idea what Mma Makutsi’s weakness might be, and indeed there might even be more than one.

“Take Mr J. L. B. Matekoni, for example,” said Mma Ramotswe.

“All men are weak,” said Mma Makutsi. “That is well known.”

She paused. Now that Mma Ramotswe and Mr J. L. B. Matekoni were married it was possible that Mma Ramotswe had discovered new weaknesses in him. The mechanic was a quiet man, but it was often the mildest-looking people who did the most colourful things, in secret of course. What could Mr J. L. B. Matekoni get up to? It would be very interesting to hear.

“Cake,” said Mma Ramotswe quickly. “That is Mr J. L. B. Matekoni’s great weakness. He cannot help himself when it comes to cake. He can be manipulated very easily if he has a plate of cake in his hand.”

Mma Makutsi laughed. “Mma Potokwani knows that, doesn’t she?” she said. “I have seen her getting Mr J. L. B. Matekoni to do all sorts of things for her just by offering him pieces of that fruit cake of hers.”

Mma Ramotswe rolled her eyes up towards the ceiling. Mma Potokwani, the matron of the orphan farm, was her friend, and when all was said and done she was a good woman, but she was quite ruthless when it came to getting things for the children in her care. She it was who had cajoled Mr J. L. B. Matekoni into fostering the two children who now lived in their house; that had been a good thing, of course, and the children were dearly loved, but Mr J. L. B. Matekoni had not thought the thing through and had failed even to consult Mma Ramotswe about the whole matter. And then there were the numerous occasions on which she had prevailed upon him to spend hours of his time fixing that unreliable old water pump at the orphan farm—a pump which dated back to the days of the Protectorate and should have been retired and put into a museum long ago. And Mma Potokwani achieved all of this because she had a profound understanding of how men worked and what their weaknesses were; that was the secret of so many successful women—they knew about the weaknesses of men.

The Careful Use of Compliments

Date Published: 3rd February 2016

Of course a delicatessen in Edinburgh was not the most obvious place to entertain such thoughts on the nature of good and evil, but Isabel was a philosopher and knew full well that philosophical speculations came upon one in the strangest places and at the strangest times. The delicatessen was owned by her niece, Cat, and in addition to selling the usual things that such shops sold—the sun-dried tomatoes and mozzarella cheese, the fresh anchovy fillets and the small bars of Austrian marzipan—this delicatessen served coffee at the three or four small marble-topped tables that Cat had found on a trip to the Upper Loire valley and carted back to Scotland in a hired self-drive van.

Isabel was sitting at one of these tables, a freshly made cappuccino before her, a copy of that morning’s Scotsman newspaper open at the crossword page. Her coffee had been made by Cat’s assistant, Eddie, a shy young man to whom something terrible and unexplained had happened some time ago and who was still awkward in his dealings with Isabel, and with others. Eddie had gained in confidence recently, especially since he had taken up with a young Australian woman who had taken a job for a few months in the delicatessen, but he still blushed unexpectedly and would end a conversation with a murmur and a turning away of the head.

“You’re by yourself,” said Eddie, as he brought Isabel’s coffee to her table. “Where’s the … ” He trailed off.

Isabel smiled at him encouragingly. “The baby? He’s called Charlie, by the way.”

Eddie nodded, glancing in the direction of Cat’s office at the back of the delicatessen. “Yes, of course, Charlie. How old is he now?”

“Three months. More or less exactly.”

Eddie absorbed this information. “So he can’t say anything yet?”

Isabel began to smile, but stopped herself; Eddie could be easily discouraged. “They don’t say anything until they’re quite a bit older, Eddie. A year or so. Then they never stop. He gurgles, though. A strange sound that means I’m perfectly happy with the world. Or that’s the way I understand it.”

“I’d like to see him some time,” said Eddie vaguely. “But I think that … ” He left the sentence unfinished, yet Isabel knew what he meant.

“Yes,” she said, glancing in the direction of Cat’s door. “Well, that is a bit complicated, as you probably know.”

Eddie moved away. A customer had entered the shop and was peering at the counter display of antipasti; he needed to return to his duties.

Tiny Tales: Stories of Romance, Ambition, Kindness and Happiness

Date Published: 24th March 2021

  Tiny Tales – a unique collaboration from bestselling author Alexander McCall Smith and illustrator Iain McIntosh. Perfect short stories that dance across your mind just as an amuse bouche dances on your tongue. Stories do not have to be long. In the space of a couple of sentences – or even a page or two – […]

The Importance of Being Seven

Date Published: 3rd February 2016

For Matthew and his wife, Elspeth Harmony, the adjustment to married life was both rapid and thoroughly pleasant. Neither had the slightest doubt that the right choice had been made—not only in respect of deciding to get married at all, but also in their choice of partner. Matthew loved Elspeth Harmony—he loved her to the extent that everything that was associated with her, her possessions, her sayings, her friends and connections, were all endowed with a quality of specialness that attached to nothing else. The mug from which she drank her morning coffee was special because her lips had touched it; the tortoiseshell comb that she kept on top of the dressing table was special because it had belonged to Elspeth’s grandmother rather than to any other grandmother; the shopping list that she wrote out to take with her to Valvona & Crolla was special because it was in her handwriting. His affection for her was total, and touching.

For her part, Elspeth could not believe the sheer good fortune that had brought them together. She had always wanted to get married, from her university days onwards, but as the years passed—and she was only twenty-eight at the time of Matthew’s proposal—she had become increasingly concerned that nobody would ask her. There had been one or two boyfriends, but they had not been serious, and her intuitive understanding of this had meant that the relationships had been brief. She saw no point, really, in persisting with a man who would not be with her in a year or two’s time. Why invest emotional energy in something that was not expected to last? In her view that led to disappointment and loss, and this could be avoided by simply not taking up with the man in the first place.

Then Matthew came into her life, and everything changed. It was at such a difficult time, too, very close to that traumatic incident when she had succumbed to her irritation over Olive’s mistreatment of Bertie—Olive had used her junior nurse’s kit to diagnose Bertie as suffering from leprosy—and had pinched Olive’s ear quite hard, something she had wanted to do for some time but which she had refrained from doing because to do so would be contrary to every principle of education and child care she had been taught. The fact that Olive richly deserved this pinch, and indeed might benefit from such a sharp reminder of moral cause and effect, was not a mitigating factor, and she had been obliged to resign from her position at the school. Matthew had been there to save her from the consequences of all this. While other boyfriends might have expressed regret over what she had done, and questioned its wisdom, Matthew sided with her completely and unequivocally, making it clear that he believed that the act of pinching Olive’s ear was a blow for pedagogic sanity.

“There are many children who would be improved by such a pinch,” he observed.

Elspeth thought about this. In normal circumstances she would follow the party line and say that one should never raise a hand to a child or indeed pinch any of its extremities, but mulling over Matthew’s pronouncement she came to the conclusion that she could think of quite a number of children who would benefit from a short, sharp pinch. Tofu, in particular, might be improved by a small amount of judiciously administered physical violence, even if only to stop him spitting at the other children. Perhaps if teachers spat at him he would get the message, but modern educational theory definitely frowned on teachers who spat at their pupils. That was the world in which we lived.