A Story for June: The Conditions of Unconditional Love

June 2024

‘Modesty,’ said Isabel Dalhousie, as she spread thick-cut Dundee marmalade over her slice of toast, ‘is not quite the same thing as humility.’

This was not the sort of remark one would hear at every kitchen table, but Isabel was, after all, a philosopher, and if there are any breakfast tables at which such statements might be made over cereal and toast, then they must be tables such as these, here in the intellectual latitudes of Edinburgh, where she lived with her husband Jamie, a bassoonist, and their two small boys, Charlie and Magnus. And Brother Fox, of course, who lurked in the garden, although he was an itinerant, a temporary resident, having business in other gardens and nearby back streets.

Small children have an effect roughly equivalent to that of a minor tornado, leaving in their wake a detritus of abandoned toys, rearranged furniture, chocolate wrapping paper and crumbs. Isabel’s kitchen table bore witness to the boys’ breakfast with a half-eaten piece of bread, the teeth-marks still clearly impressed in the layer of peanut butter; an unfinished bowl of cereal, soggy with milk; and several smears of jam, honey and something that had the appearance and texture of a mixture of the two.

Isabel was fortunate. As a working mother – she was the owner and full-time editor of a philosophical journal, the Review of Applied Ethics – she needed help in the house. This was provided by Grace, who had been housekeeper to Isabel’s father, and who had stayed on after he died and Isabel took over his house. Grace was good at her job, although she had her moments when she unexpectedly, and for obscure reasons, took umbrage. Isabel handled those situations with tact, usually by saying, ‘You’re absolutely right, Grace.’ Most people like to hear that – and Grace was no exception, particularly when she was absolutely wrong, which was occasionally the case.

Grace was cheerful about her provenance. ‘I came with the house,’ she said. ‘I might have gone elsewhere, but somehow I didn’t. So, here I am, I suppose. One of the fixtures. Part of the furniture.’

Grace liked walking the boys to school in the morning, occasionally posing as their mother when she engaged in casual conversation at the school gate. Isabel had heard about this from the mother of one of Charlie’s friends, and had initially been discomfited by the pretence. But then she had found out that Grace never actually claimed that the boys were hers, but would simply let people believe this, doing nothing to correct the misapprehension. That, she thought, was innocent enough, and, anyways, we all fantasised about something from time to time, and admitted it – if we were honest.

On that particular morning, Grace had arrived early to take the boys to school, leaving Isabel and Jamie to enjoy breakfast in peace. And it was against such a domestic background that this conversation about pride and associated concepts took place.

It began when Jamie, scraping the last of his boiled egg from its shell, remarked, ‘You know I try to like people – in general – but there’s this new violinist in the band who’s just…’

He hesitated, searching for the right metaphor. ‘Who just gets up my nose. Right up.’

Isabel looked up in surprise. Jamie was usually moderate in his opinions and rarely expressed strong antipathy towards others.

‘Pronoun?’ she asked.

He looked puzzled. ‘Pronoun?’

‘I mean, is this violinist a him or a her?’

‘Him,’ he answered. ‘Very much so. Alpha male. He’s called Fionn. With an ‘o’. Plain Finn isn’t good enough for him, I imagine.’

This was not a tone that Jamie struck very often. Fionn must have made quite an impression.

‘He’s Irish,’ he continued. ‘He played in a chamber orchestra in Dublin before he did some sort of master’s programme at the conservatoire in Glasgow. Then he got the job here in Edinburgh. That’s Fionn.’

Isabel listened to this. ‘I like the name Fionn,’ she said mildly. ‘I haven’t known a Fionn before – at least not one with an ‘o’.

Jamie looked dubious. ‘I’m not sure I like the name – at least not now that I’ve met this particularly Fionn. He told me that he was named after a famous figure in Irish mythology – Fionn MacCool.’

Isabel knew about that. ‘When I was a girl, I had a book on myths that was full of the exploits of Fionn. He crops up everywhere. In Scottish mythology too.’

Jamie smiled. ‘People in the orchestra refer to him as MacCool – discreetly, of course. They think it suits him. And I must say he’s pretty pleased with himself. On an ocean-going scale. He’s a terrific player – extremely talented – but…’

Isabel interrupted him. ‘You’re not a tiny bit envious?’ she asked.

‘Envious of his playing?’

Isabel nodded. ‘People feel envious of professional rivals. Or even of their own colleagues.’

Jamie was silent.

‘We don’t always like those who can do things better than we can,’ Isabel continued.

Jamie thought about this. ‘There’ll always be players who are better than oneself. I can name three bassoonists in Scotland alone who are more technically skilled than I am. And there are probably plenty more. But I don’t feel the slightest bit envious of any of them.’

‘You’re not an envious person,’ suggested Isabel. ‘You’re lucky.’

‘It’s not that,’ said Jamie. ‘It’s just that they’re modest bout their playing. They don’t boast, That’s what counts, I think. If you’re modest about your abilities, then people don’t resent the fact that you’re better than they are.’

And it was at that point that their conversation about pride and its implications began.


The Conditions of Unconditional Love is the latest novel in the Isabel Dalhousie series, published on 16th July.