A Story for September: A Labourer in the Vineyard of Love

September 2023

September 2023

They were sitting in the office of the Perfect Passion Company, Scotland’s only non-virtual dating agency, as the local paper had called it, or, in the words of an article in a lifestyle magazine, ‘a place where you go if you want to meet other people who don’t know how to use a computer’.

That was not only snide, but was simply wrong, thought Katie, the company’s acting manager and, in a rather ill-defined way, its owner-in-waiting. There were plenty of people who were quite capable of negotiating their way about internet dating sites, but who chose to steer clear of them. They had their reasons, and most of these were perfectly good ones. Some were wary of the way in which the frequenters of these sites misdescribed themselves in their profiles. How many dates got off to a bad start because the photograph displayed in an online profile was an out-of-date one, reflecting reality before gravity or weathering wreaked their effects, or misleading because the picture had been taken from a flattering angle, in crepuscular conditions, when light is at its most forgiving?

Then there were concerns over safety. Most people on dating sites might be innocent, posting in complete good faith, but at least some would be anything but that. And so, if people opted to have an old-fashioned matchmaker choosing the person they were to meet, then their choice was entirely understandable, and sarcastic throw-away remarks about computer skills were misplaced.

That is what Katie thought, and she knew that William, the Australian knitwear designer and quasi-colleague with whom she was sitting in the office that morning, agreed with her. She had discovered that she and William were in agreement over most things, although she had never said anything to him about this comfortable consensus. William was engaged to somebody else—in Australia—and Katie did not want him to think that her feelings for him were anything but those ordinary feelings of friendship. She knew that in life we often have to settle for what we can get, and if all she was going to get from William was his friendship, then that was enough. Might it have been otherwise? She tried not to dwell too much on that. The thing about temptation was that if you ignored it, it faded away. That was the theory, anyway.

William’s status as a quasi-colleague had arisen without the two of them ever having specifically discussed how he fitted into the business. He had a studio on the same landing as the office of the Perfect Passion Company, at No. 24 Mouse Lane, at the eastern end of Edinburgh’s Georgian New Town. That was where he designed, and in some cases, knitted the sweaters for which he was acquiring a growing reputation. There had been an article in Vogue, complete with pictures of what the magazine described as the “beguiling, post-modern creations of this dashing young Australian Apollo.” That description had made William wince, which, Katie thought, was a good sign. She would never feel easy with anybody who did not experience at least some embarrassment on being called an Apollo, Australian or otherwise. William was modest, and she approved of that.

The growing appeal of his knitwear could have meant that William had no time to do much else. Yet he seemed increasingly keen on involving himself with the Perfect Passion Company, and Katie regularly sought his advice on a whole range of issues. Sometimes, though, they simply chatted, as they were doing now, over a cup of coffee when nothing else was happening.

She enjoyed these moments, as did he. William was younger than she was by almost four years, but the disparity between their ages seemed to make little difference. There were some twenty-six-year-olds who were still surprisingly immature, Katie thought, but William was certainly not one of those. He understood, she told herself; he empathised. He was one of those people who could sense what it was like to be you—it was as simple as that. People who had that gift gave you their full attention, which, after all, was what most of us wanted. And we did not like the opposite of that: it was particularly annoying, Katie thought, to find yourself talking to people who patently could not be bothered to listen to what you had to say, or, if they listened, were clearly indifferent to what they heard. She remembered somebody she had met in London who was just like that—a minor art critic who seemed to be at every gallery opening and who had made a point, it seemed to her, of forgetting her name.

It was this issue of attending to others that, as it happened, Katie and William were discussing that morning as they sat in the office, Katie behind her desk, and William leaning against a filing cabinet. William, Katie had observed, liked to lean, which he did with an appealing nonchalance.

Everything about him was appealing, though, as far as she was concerned, and so it was no surprise that when it came to leaning, he should lean in an attractive manner.

“You could always sit down,” said Katie, gesturing towards the chair before her desk. “You might be more comfortable.”

Nursing his mug of coffee in clasped hands, William shook his head. “No,” he said, “When I’m in my studio, I usually sit down. I like to stretch a bit.”

“You should do yoga,” said Katie. “Lots of stretching.”

“I’ve done it in the past,” said William. “Back in Melbourne. I went to yoga classes for two years. Our teacher was amazing. She could bend herself right over until she was the wrong way up—or most of her was upside down. You found yourself talking to her feet, which were where her head should have been.” He paused. “You know something? You can say things to a person’s feet that you can’t say to their face.”

Katie burst out laughing.

“Not that I ever did,” said William, with a smile. He took a sip of his coffee. “You were saying this critic would come into the room and look about him to see if . . .”

“If there was anybody worth talking to,” said Katie. “Yes, he came to the gallery openings. People like that love gallery openings.”

William made a face. “I can’t stand those things,” he said. “You can’t get anywhere near the paintings because the place is full of people drinking wine and chatting to friends. The pictures might as well not be there.”

Katie agreed. For two years she had attended monthly openings at the gallery in which she worked in London, and she had seldom enjoyed them. She felt sorry for the artists, who were sometimes completely ignored on these occasions. At one opening, she had seen the artist mistaken for a waiter and asked to fetch a glass of wine; at another she had heard somebody delivering a scathing criticism of the work on show without realising that the person he was addressing was the artist herself. Those were egregious examples, but there were many lesser humiliations in store for artists at their openings, especially in the earlier stages of their career.

Alexander McCall Smith, September 2023


This extract was taken from A Labourer in the Vineyard of Love, part of the Perfect Passion Company series