Date Published: 25th July 2018
The Quiet Side of Passion is the twelfth book in the Isabel Dalhousie series. The nursery gate is a good place for parents to meet one another. As the mother of two small children, Isabel finds herself enlarging her circle of friends to include other parents. She meets Patricia, an Irishwoman, a musician and the single […]
Date Published: 2nd May 2019
In To the Land of Long Lost Friends, the 20th novel in the widely beloved No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series, Precious Ramotswe takes on a case for a childhood acquaintance but her inquiries will require an even more delicate touch than usual. Mma Ramotswe reconnects with an old friend who has been having problems with her daughter. […]
1. Remarkable Cousin Chloe
It was one of Paul Stuart’s friends who said to him, “I can’t stress this enough, you know: breathing is important. Really important.”
“I’d already worked that out,” Paul replied.
“Oh, I know it sounds obvious . . .”
It does, thought Paul.
“But people forget. And they just breathe—you know, like this.”
“Whereas,” his friend continued, “you should breathe like this.”
In, out . . .
“I thought I already was,” said Paul. “In, out. Like that?”
“Deeper. And hold the breath in for a while. Like this.”
There was silence. Then the friend said, “And while you hold it in, think. That’s the important thing. Concentrate your thoughts. Think of the present, Paul. The right now. The actual.”
“Good. You need to be mindful, Paul. Mindful. In. Think. Out. Still thinking.”
And he should also close his eyes from time to time, the friend said, and think about where he was and what he was doing, rather than about where he was going to be, and what he was going to be doing. And it was for this reason then that Paul, well–known food writer, celebrated cook, and a kind but slightly accident-prone man, now closed his eyes and took a deep breath.
He smelled coffee, and this was, he thought, a mindful sort of smell. In front of him, in the real world, was a freshly made, piping-hot cup of Brazilian coffee, its aroma drifting up to him on little wisps of steam. He loved the smell of that; a dark smell, a chocolate smell, but without chocolate’s note of sweetness. The smell of coffee, really; that, he decided, was the way he would describe it. He opened his eyes, and gazed out of the window.
He thought—as he took a deep breath—Should I go? He knew that was not mindful. He needed to think again, not about what he should do in the future, but about what he was doing now. But still the same question came back. Should I go to France? Should I call Chloe right now and tell her: no France?
He exhaled. He could still smell the coffee, which was now.
It was late spring in Scotland and life was undoubtedly good—as was the view. From where he was sitting, in the kitchen of his flat, Paul could see in the distance, kissed by sunlight, the castle that dominated the city. Beneath it, the roofs and spires of the Old Town, with, here and there, those odd architectural spikes for which Edinburgh was so well known, sticking up as if to proclaim Scotland’s ancient motto Nemo me impune lacessit—Nobody challenges me with impunity. Spikes placed on the tops of buildings, prickly thistles, the sharp-tipped antlers of Highland deer: these all played a major part in the iconography of Scotland, Paul thought; but so did the hills, those gentle, feminine hills; so did the waterfalls, and the light, and the cold blue sea; so did this city, that was like an opera set, on which at any moment somebody might fling open a window and start to sing.
Paul lived—in a part-time way, as he put it—with his girlfriend, Gloria, who was also the editor of his books, and with her two Siamese cats. It was living with somebody in a part-time way because Gloria kept her own flat on the other side of town, and still spent much of the day there. That was where her office was, where her mail was delivered, and where most of her clothes—a disorganised wardrobe, a riot of colour—were kept. It would have been easier, of course, if they had co-habited fully, but Gloria simply could not face sorting out the detritus of the years she had spent in that particular flat. It was just all too complicated; much simpler to leave things as they were. Besides, the arrangement gave both of them space, and space, she felt, was what every relationship—with anyone at all—required.
Paul and Gloria got on well. It had never been one of those passionate affairs, in which two people, in mutual intoxication, filled their waking moments with thoughts of one another. “It’s not like that, with us,” Gloria had said to a friend. “It’s different with Paul; it really is. We’re not like two love-struck kids, gazing into one another’s eyes. We’re . . .”
“Mature adults?” supplied her friend.
“Oh, well,” said the friend.
It had its moments, though, and neither Paul or Gloria wanted or expected much more out of it. They were friends, as well as lovers, and that, they had both decided, was a good state to be in. To be a lover was easy enough; to be a friend required rather more. To be both was something not given to everyone.
There were disagreements, though—areas where a different view was taken of something that might not have been of great importance in itself, but was capable of disturbing the otherwise tranquil waters of their domestic relationship. Such as cats, and it was of these cats that Paul was thinking as he looked out from his kitchen window that morning.
Gloria was the owner of two Siamese cats, Hamish and Mrs. Macdonald. They were sleek, self-satisfied creatures, cuttingly arrogant and effortlessly handsome in a way in which lesser cats were not. They had light blue eyes that stared at you with a somewhat off-putting intensity. They had silky coats of a shade that a Belgian chocolatier might have taken years to perfect. They were vocal in a way that only Siamese cats can be, voicing their opinion in long-drawn-out cat-sounds that seemed to demand an instant response. They had several recognisable yowls: what Paul called an asking yowl; what he described as a complaining yowl; and finally, and more seriously, a warning yowl. The cats lived in Gloria’s flat, among the books, papers and colourful clothing. They had cat beds hooked onto radiators, and timed, battery-operated cat feeders that opened at set hours to reveal supplies of salmon and tuna within. They had everything, it seemed to Paul, that any cat could possibly want. And yet they always seemed to expect more. These cats, he said to himself, would never understand the virtue of moderation. Do not want too much did not apply to cats.
“How fond are you of those cats of yours?” he asked Gloria one evening.
This brought a surprised response. “What a question. Really, Paul! It’s like asking a parent if she likes her children . . . or almost.”
Paul did his best to explain. “Don’t take this the wrong way, but those cats seem almost indifferent to you—or so it seems to me. The way they look at you . . .”
He now realised just how far he had strayed into sensitive territory. “Indifferent?” said Gloria, her tone now one of decided reproof. “Hamish and Mrs. Macdonald are not indifferent to me. How could you say such a thing?”
“I’m sorry, it’s just the way they . . . Maybe that’s the way cats are. I don’t know much about these creatures.”
Again, he was cut short. “Hamish and Mrs. Macdonald are both very fond of me,” said Gloria firmly. “In fact, they love me—actually love me.” She intercepted Paul’s look of incredulity. “No, don’t be cynical. I’m absolutely sure of that. In fact, I positively bask in the love of my cats.”
Paul had thought she might be speaking ironically, but now realised his mistake. Discretion might have prompted him to leave the matter there, but he persisted.
“I’m not sure that cats love humans,” he mused. “Dogs do, of course.”
Gloria shook her head. “Dogs . . .” she began.
“All right then, dogs,” Paul interjected. “How about dogs? Dogs will sacrifice their lives for their owners, if necessary. You know how it is—they’ll jump into rivers to save a drowning child—tackle an armed burglar—that sort of thing. Whereas cats . . .” He looked up at the ceiling. “Is there any recorded instance of a cat doing anything unselfish? Feline altruism?” This, he felt, was the clinching argument. “An oxymoron?”
Gloria stared at him reproachfully.
“You see,” Paul went on, “I have a theory that cats are perfect psychopaths.” He had just thought of it, but it seemed to make sense.
Gloria looked doubtful. “You’re making this up, Paul.”
He smiled. She was right—but so, he felt, was his theory.
“If you want to understand the psychopathic personality, look at a cat. They never experience guilt—unlike dogs, who look so guilty if they do anything wrong.”
Gloria sniffed. “It might be that you don’t understand cats, Paul. Cats are not . . .” She searched for the right word. “They’re not obvious.”
“Yes. You mentioned dogs, so let’s go back to them. They wear their heart on their sleeve. All that grinning and barking and slobbering.” She gave a shudder.
Gloria was in no doubt. “Cats are effortlessly cool. Cats, one might say, have it.”
Paul knew that it existed, but was uncertain as to what it was. “I think we’re going to have to disagree,” he said. “Perhaps the world is divided into dog and cat factions, just as it is into those who like chocolate and those who like strawberries.”
Gloria laughed. “Really? There are many—millions, I suspect—who adore both chocolates and strawberries. There are people who eat those strawberries covered with chocolate.”
Paul thought about the taste wheel in one of his kitchen encyclopaedias; chocolate was earthy while strawberries were fruity, and he was sure that they were on different segments of the wheel. “Let me tell you, Gloria, strawberry and chocolate do not go together. They just don’t.”
“Yes, they do,” said Gloria. “I like them.”
“I won’t argue,” said Paul.
She brightened. “Which reminds me . . . Taste, aesthetics, philosophy . . . The offer for the new book: Have you decided yet?”
As Paul’s freelance editor, Gloria’s job was to edit the highly successful books that he wrote on a wide range of culinary subjects. She had nothing to do with contractual matters, but she had an obvious interest in his keeping up the supply of the manuscripts she would read and knock into shape. Paul wrote well but tended to use long sentences that Gloria would have to chop into two, or sometimes even three parts. She also arranged his illustrations, consulting picture librarians or engaging food photographers to ensure that Paul’s reputation for lusciously presented books be preserved.
Paul was happy to abandon the subject of cats. He felt that he had somehow argued himself into an unwanted corner. He was not anti-cat—far from it—he was just being realistic about them. Cats were fine, but there was no getting away from their fundamental attitude. That was it, he thought: cats had attitude, whereas dogs . . . He stopped himself. It was time to address the offer for the new book.
He found that it was unnecessary to think for very long. Of course, he would accept. It was an extremely generous offer by any standards, the only drawback being that they wanted him to have the book ready within six months. Yet that was not impossible: he had already worked out what he wanted to say, and it would be refreshing to move away from his usual series—Paul Stewart’s Tuscan Table being the latest title—and deal with something as broad and exciting as the philosophy of food. Paul had taken a philosophy course at university, but it was an introductory course that had spent far too much time on Hume, he felt, and had left many other philosophers untouched. Yet there was a clear role for the enthusiastic amateur, presumably even in philosophy, which was, after all, about things of concern to ordinary people as much as to experts. If he were to write about the philosophy of food it would be a personal statement, written from the heart as much as from the mind. The writing of it would not be a chore; rather, it would be a celebration, a meditation, an act of homage to a subject—food and its preparation—that had engaged him from the age of twelve. Unlike some of the chefs he wrote about, Paul was modest, but he felt that this book would be a good one. All he had to do, of course, was to write it.
Date Published: 12th March 2019
Detective Ulf Varg from the Department of Sensitive Crimes is often called upon to investigate unusual matters. But rarely is he asked to conduct an inquiry on behalf of his own family. Is such a thing ethical? Adding to Ulf’s moral discomfort is the fact that he does not exactly see eye to eye with […]
The Department of Sensitive Crimes is a Scandinavian Blanc novel. Scandinavian Blanc is different from Scandinavian Noir: there is nothing noir about the world of Ulf Varg, a detective in the Sensitive Crimes Department in the Swedish city of Malmo. Ulf is concerned with very odd, but not too threatening crimes – injuries to the back […]
Date Published: 18th October 2018
The Colors of All the Cattle is the nineteenth book in The No.1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series. It is published in the 20th anniversary year of publication of the first book in the series. Mma Ramostwe’s friend will persuade her to stand for election to the City Council. ‘We need women like her in politics,’ Mma […]
Date Published: 29th January 2017
“Adlestrop,” said Isabel Dalhousie.
Jamie thought for a moment. They were sitting in their kitchen, on one of those indecisive days that was summer, but not quite yet; a day when the heating might as well be off as on, but when prudence—and superstition—required it still to be kept going. If you lived in Scotland and you turned off your heating too early, then the weather gods—stern, Nordic and unforgiving—could send a body of cold air down from the Arctic and remind you that they, not you, were in control.
Jamie at least had taken off his sweater—as an act of faith, thought Isabel—while she had kept hers on. One of the newspapers, glimpsed in the local newsagent’s shop, had featured the headline Weathermen say summer will be scorching! but Isabel remembered that this particular newspaper said much the same thing every year, out of concern for its readers, she decided, who otherwise were deprived of good news, and who were desperate for any meteorological crumb of comfort.
“Yes, I remember it,” said Jamie, looking at her from over the table. “Although I’ve never been there, of course. It all depends on what one means by remember.” He paused. “Not that I want to sound too much like you, Isabel.”
She smiled; the allusion had not been lost on her. They were playing Free Association, a game they sometimes resorted to when conversation failed, when there was no newspaper or magazine to browse, or when there was simply nothing else to think about. Each would come up with a name of a person or a place, and then the other would describe the thoughts that the word triggered. They had not invented it, of course: Isabel was careful to credit Freud for that, even if there were plenty of other practitioners, including Proust, who, she felt, only had to glance at something before he would be off into several pages of triggered memories.
Her reference was to the railway station at which Edward Thomas’s train had stopped one day in 1914. Adlestrop—seeing the name on the platform sign had prompted the famous poem: the steam hissed; somebody cleared his throat; no one came or left on the bare platform. Yes. I remember Adlestrop was the first line, and this had been what triggered Jamie’s response. She was proud of him: few people bothered to remember poetry any more, but Jamie did and could reel off screeds of it. “It somehow sticks in my mind,” he once said. “I just remember it. All sorts of poetry.”
“Things you learned at school?”
He nodded. “Especially those. We were encouraged to commit poems to memory. Shakespeare’s sonnets, Wordsworth, Byron. The lot. Remember Hiawatha? Longfellow’s still there.” He smiled at her. “Or some of it. On the shores of Gitche Gumee, / Of the shining Big-Sea-Water, / Stood . . .”
“Nokomis,” supplied Isabel. “My mother loved that poem and read it all to me—all how many stanzas? It goes on forever, doesn’t it? Still, Nokomis . . . Now then . . . Stood Nokomis, the old woman, / Pointing with her finger westward . . .” She paused as the words, with their insistent, repetitive rhythm, came back to her. She had not thought about Nokomis for a long time. Then she continued, “Nokomis sent him off to avenge her father, didn’t she?”
“She did,” said Jamie. “It was somewhat vindictive of her, don’t you feel?”
“Oh, I think you’re being a bit unfair. Nokomis was right to encourage him to deal with Megissogwon who was, after all, Tall of stature, broad of shoulder, / Dark and terrible in aspect, / Clad from head to foot in wampum . . . My goodness, why did I remember that?”
Jamie laughed. “What exactly is wampum? I was never quite sure what the word meant.”
“Shell beads,” said Isabel. “They were used as money, as well as being worn. You might describe Wall Street brokers as clad in wampum. I suspect they probably are.”
But now it was his turn. Leaning back, looking up at the ceiling, he said, “Glyndebourne.”
Isabel’s reply was immediate. It was a rule of Free Association that if you did not reply within ten seconds you lost your turn and the other player had another go. It was a further rule—invented by Jamie—that if you hesitated twice in a row you had to get up and make tea.
“Wagner,” she replied.
He looked at her. “Glyndebourne doesn’t make me think of Wagner,” he said. “It makes me think of Britten.”
She shook her head. “That’s not the point of this game, Jamie. You say the first thing that comes into your head, not into somebody else’s. And another rule is that you can’t argue with the other player’s association. If I say ‘Wagner,’ it’s because I thought of Wagner, and your saying ‘Britten’ counts as a hesitation. If you do that again, you have to make us both tea.”
He pretended to sulk. “Your go, then.”
“Tea,” she said.
“Mist,” came the reply.
She looked at him enquiringly. “Why mist?”
“Now you’re arguing.”
She defended herself. “No, I’m not. I’m just interested in why you said ‘mist.’ I’m not saying you can’t think of mist, I was just wondering why.”
“Because that’s what I see. I thought of a tea estate somewhere up in the hills, in Assam, maybe. And I saw women in saris picking tea leaves.”
“Fair enough.” But she was back in Glyndebourne. “I thought of Wagner,” she said, “but not any old Wagner. I thought of Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg.”
“Ah.” He looked at her cautiously. He had almost taken a job at Glyndebourne—a long time ago, before they married. That road not taken could have been the end of their relationship, and they both skirted around the subject.
“Don’t worry,” she said. “It was not an unhappy memory.”
And then, years later, they had eventually made it to Glyndebourne together, leaving Charlie in the care of the housekeeper, Grace, who had moved into the house for the weekend. Charlie loved Grace, and she loved him in return, although something in her background—something that Isabel could not fathom—made her adopt a brisk, and slightly distant, manner with children. “You have to be firm,” she said. “If you aren’t, then they’ll take advantage. They watch us, you know. They look for the slightest excuse to avoid bedtime.”
They had flown down to Gatwick and then gone to a pub in the Sussex Downs that had rooms at the back for opera-goers and enthusiasts of real ale. The two groups, sitting in the pub, could not have more easily identifiable had they sported large labels. The beer enthusiasts were bearded and loud; the opera-goers, elegantly dressed and feeling out of place, spoke more quietly than they would do later amongst their own in the opera house bar.
It was Isabel’s first visit to Glyndebourne. She had been invited before, once when she was living in Cambridge and again after she had returned to Edinburgh, but had been unable to make it on either occasion. The second of these invitations had come from her niece, Cat, who had been given two tickets by one of her customers, and had offered to take Isabel with her. When Isabel had been unable to go, Cat had gone with a friend, and had complained about the opera, Tippett’s The Knot Garden, which she had not enjoyed.
Even Cat, who was musically hard to please, would have luxuriated in The Meistersinger, a rich and spectacular production. Isabel sat transfixed and had to be prodded by Jamie to return to reality at the interval, when they went off to have dinner in one of the opera house’s restaurants. And at the end, when they went out into the summer night, the sky still light enough for them to read the programme notes, Isabel did not want the evening to end. But Glyndebourne’s spell was slow to fade, and it was still upon them when they returned to the room they had booked in the pub, and closed the door and lay together on the lumpy double bed, still in their evening clothes, holding hands like two students newly in love, staring up at the ceiling with its uneven ancient beams of darkened oak. And she thought: How extraordinarily fortunate I am to be here, with him, when my life might have been so different if he had not come into it. She looked at him, and loosened his black bow-tie—a gesture that struck her, even as she performed it, as one of ownership. It was a curious feeling—one of . . . what? she wondered. Sexual anticipation? The feeling that you have when you realise that you will be sleeping that evening with the person you most want to sleep with in this world.
The game of Free Association might have continued had it not been for the sudden eruption of sound from a small monitor perched on the kitchen dresser.
“Magnus,” said Jamie.
“Bottles,” said Isabel. “Endless nappies. Sleepless nights.”
Jamie laughed. “I had stopped playing Free Association,” he said, pointing to the monitor.
“I know,” said Isabel, smiling. “But I couldn’t resist the associations.”
Magnus was their second child, who had arrived three months earlier, and who had just signalled that he had woken and was in need of attention. His nap had overlapped with Charlie’s; Charlie, although still sleeping, would shortly wake up too and make his presence felt.
“Do you remember what it was like?” said Jamie, as he rose to his feet.
“What what was like?”
“When we only had Charlie.”
Isabel rolled her eyes. “Life was so absurdly simple then.”
“Not that I’d change anything,” said Jamie hurriedly. “I love them both to bits.”
She knew that he did. He loved his two boys to bits, and she loved them that way too. She also loved Jamie to bits, and he had assured her that he loved her to bits. And if an inventory of affection were being made, she thought of so many things she could add to it: their house in Edinburgh, with its shady garden and elusive resident, Brother Fox; their city, with its fragile, spiky beauty, its mists and its skies and its romantic history; and her country too, Scotland, with all its curious quirks and its capacity to break the heart again and again.
“I’ll go and get him up,” said Jamie. “I’ll change him if he needs it.”
“I’ll entertain Charlie when he wakes,” said Isabel.
“How do people who have four or five children cope?” asked Jamie.
“The older ones look after their younger siblings,” said Isabel. “Look at old photographs. Fifty, sixty years ago. Look at pictures showing children in the street—the young ones are holding hands with their older brothers and sisters who are clearly baby-sitting. An eight-year-old would look after a one-year-old, and a six-year-old would look after a four-year-old.”
“Everybody looked after everybody else, I suppose.”
“They did,” agreed Isabel. “And did so without complaint.”
The monitor gave a further squawk. “Yet they didn’t even have monitors,” said Jamie.
Magnus’s arrival on the stage had been two weeks early, brought about, Jamie half seriously suggested, by Isabel having listened to a foot-tapping piece of music from the Penguin Cafe Orchestra. She had closed her eyes as she listened and then opened them suddenly, wide-eyed at the stab of pain.
Her breath had been taken away from her, and it was a few moments before she could speak. “She’s coming,” she said. They had been calling the baby “she” although they had asked not to be told what sex it was. Yet they were convinced; it would be a daughter this time. They knew they should not make any assumptions, but somehow they felt certain.
Jamie had looked puzzled. “But it’s two weeks . . .”
She did not let him finish. “I need to phone the midwife. I need to let them know.”
He realised that she was serious. “I’ll take you to the Infirmary,” he said hurriedly. “Grace can look after Charlie. I’ll phone her right now.”
Isabel held up a hand. “Hold on,” she said. “They’ll tell me to wait. We’ll have hours.”
But she did not have much time. Things happened quickly, and she was in the labour ward within three hours, Magnus appearing twenty minutes later.
“A boy,” said the obstetrician, passing the glistening infant to a waiting nurse.
Jamie gasped. They had been so sure.
“A little boy,” muttered Isabel.
The nursing staff fussed around the baby before handing him to Isabel, loosely wrapped in an off-white cotton blanket. Swaddling clothes, thought Isabel. But this is loose, and is not proper swaddling.
Jamie cried, wiping at his tears with the back of his hand. They were tears that came with the cathartic welling up of more than one emotion: relief, sheer joy, love. These had all been his companions at the bedside, where he had sat through Isabel’s short labour; now they found release. A young nurse in training, attending her first birth, was similarly afflicted, struggling to force back her own tears but finding the battle too much. A senior nurse, standing at her side, whispered something in her ear and touched her briefly on the shoulder.
“Are you sure he’s a boy?” asked Isabel.
The obstetrician peeled off his gloves. “I’ve never been wrong on that one,” he said.
The trainee nurse giggled.
“You need to get some sleep,” said the senior nurse. She looked at Jamie. “Father too.”
“We thought it was going to be a girl,” said Jamie.
“Well, there you are,” said the nurse. “You were going to get one or the other, weren’t you?”
Isabel held the baby, her cheek pressed lightly against his tiny forehead. She saw that the baby’s blanket had letters printed on it, and they suddenly registered. RIP: what a tactless thing to put on a swaddling blanket, but then she noticed that the letters actually said RIE. The Royal Infirmary of Edinburgh. That was considerably better. The eye could so easily deceive—as when, a few months ago, she had misread a newspaper headline Pope hopes as Pope elopes, and had, for a moment, been both shocked and surprised. Of course now that a pope had broken with long historical practice and retired, it was always possible that a radical successor might feel that the time was ripe to elope.
Through the euphoria of the morphine they had given her right at the end, she felt a small niggle of disappointment. She had so wanted a girl, but she knew that she must not allow herself to think about it. She had a healthy, breathing baby, and that was all that mattered. Perhaps it had been a mistake to remain ignorant of the baby’s sex; the sonographers had found out when they performed the ultrasound scans but at her request had deliberately not shown her the screen. Perhaps she and Jamie should have asked, because that would have prevented their building up hopes. She had wanted a girl because there were things a mother could do with a girl. They would be friends, as mothers and daughters so often are, and would share their world with each other. This was a boy, and it would be like Charlie all over again; not that she regretted anything about him, but the demands of a boy were different.
Jamie held her hand. “Well done,” he whispered.
She squeezed his hand. “Twice as many things for you to do now that he’s a boy,” she said drowsily, not knowing exactly what she meant, or why she said it.
Date Published: 2nd April 2018
The Good Pilot is a stand alone novel, a heartwarming tale of hope and friendship set amid the turmoil of World War II. Val Eliot, a young woman working on an English farm during the war, meets Mike, a U.S. Air Force pilot stationed nearby. When Val rescues a Border Collie named Peter Woodhouse, who is […]
Date Published: 27th October 2017
The latest installment of Alexander McCall Smith’s perennially popular and irresistibly charming 44 Scotland Street series When Pat accepts her narcissistic ex-boyfriend Bruce’s invitation for coffee, she has no idea of the complications in her romantic and professional life that will follow. Meanwhile, Matthew, her boss at the art gallery, attracts the attention of the […]
THE CLOTHES OF OTHERS
MMA RAMOTSWE, owner of the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency (as featured in a two-page article in the Botswana Daily News, under the headline: A Lady Who Definitely Knows How to Find Things Out), had strong views on the things that she owned. Personal possessions, she thought, should be simple, well made and not too expensive. Mma Ramotswe was generous in all those circumstances where generosity was required—but she was never keen to pay one hundred pula for something that could be obtained elsewhere for eighty pula, or to get rid of any item that, although getting on a bit, still served its purpose well enough. And that, she thought, was the most important consideration of all—whether something worked. A possession did not have to be fashionable; it did not have to be the very latest thing; what mattered was that it did what it was supposed to do, and did this in the way expected of it. In that respect, there was not much difference between things and people: what she looked for in people was the quality of doing what they were meant to do, and doing it without too much fuss, noise or complaint. She also felt that if something was doing its job then you should hold on to it and cherish it, rather than discarding it in favour of something new. Her white van, for instance, was now rather old and inclined to rattle, but it never failed to start—except after a rain storm, which was rare enough in a dry country like Botswana—and it got her from place to place—except when she ran out of fuel, or when it broke down, which it did from time to time, but not too often.
She applied the same philosophy to her shoes and clothing. It was true that she was always trying to persuade her husband, Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni, to get rid of his old shirts and jackets, but that was because he, like all men, or certainly the majority of men, tended to hold on to his clothes for far too long. His shoes were an example of that failing: he usually extracted at least four years’ service out of his oil- stained working boots, his veldschoen. He recognised her distaste for these shoes by removing them when he came back from the garage each evening, but he was adamant that any other footwear, including the new waterproof oil- resistant work boots he had seen featured in a mail order catalogue, would be a pointless extravagance.
“There is no point in having fancy boots if you’re a mechanic,” he said. “What you need is boots that you know will always be there.”
“But new boots would also always be there,” she pointed out. “It’s not as if they would march off by themselves.”
Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni laughed. “Oh, I don’t think shoes would be that disobedient,” he said. “What I mean is that you want shoes that you know—that you trust. I have always liked those boots. They are the ones I’ve always worn. I know my way around them.”
Mma Ramotswe looked puzzled. “But surely there’s not much to know about shoes,” she argued. “All you have to know is which way round they go. You wouldn’t want to put them on back to front, nor put the left shoe on the right foot. But is there much to know beyond that?”
The conversation went nowhere, as it always did when this subject was raised, and Mma Ramotswe had come to accept that men’s clothing was a lost cause. There might be a small number of men who were conscious of their apparel and did not hold on to old shoes and clothes for too long, but if there were, then she certainly was not married to one of them. Her own clothes were a quite different matter, of course. She did not spend an excessive amount on dresses, or on shoes for that matter, but she believed in quality and would never buy cheap clothes for the sake of saving a few pula. What she wanted from her clothes was the ability to stand up to the normal demands of the working day, easy laundering, and, if at all possible, light ironing qualities. If clothes had that, then it did not matter if they were not of the latest style or were of a colour that had ceased to be fashionable. If Mma Ramotswe was comfortable in them, and if they responded to the structural challenges posed by the traditionally built figure, then she embraced them enthusiastically, and they, in their way, reciprocated—particularly with those parts of her figure that needed support.
Given this attitude to the functionality of clothes, it was no surprise that she and her erstwhile assistant, now her co- director, Mma Grace Makutsi, wife of Mr. Phuti Radiphuti of the Double Comfort Furniture Store, should not see eye to eye on fashion matters. When she had first started at the agency, Mma Makutsi had not been in a position to spend much money on clothing. In fact, she could spend no money on clothes, for the simple reason that she had none. What savings Mma Makutsi and her family had were committed almost entirely to the fees she had to pay the Botswana Secretarial College, leaving very little for anything else. Then, when she was given the job at the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, Mma Ramotswe had been unable to pay her much of a salary, as the truth of the matter was that the agency’s minuscule profits did not really justify the employment of any staff.
But Mma Makutsi had talked herself into the job and had been prepared to accept the tiny salary on the grounds that in the fullness of time things would surely look up. They did, and when she found she had a bit of money in her pocket—although not all that much—she spent at least some of it on replacements for her two increasingly worn dresses. She also splashed out on some new shoes—a handsome pair of court shoes with green leather on the outside and blue lining within. She had never seen anything more beautiful than that pair of shoes, and they had imparted a spring to her step that Mma Ramotswe, and all others dealing with Mma Makutsi, had noticed, even if they did not know to attribute it to new footwear.
Following her marriage to Phuti Radiphuti, Mma Makutsi’s wardrobe expanded. Phuti was well off, and although he did not believe in flaunting wealth, he was strongly of the view that the wife of a man of his standing, with his herd of over six hundred cattle, should be dressed in a way that was commensurate with her station in life.
Mma Ramotswe had helped Mma Makutsi on that first big spending spree, when they had gone to the Riverwalk shops and purchased a dozen dresses, several petticoats, a rail of blouses and, of course, several pairs of new shoes.
“It’s not that I’d buy all these things,” Mma Makutsi had observed apologetically. “You know that I am not one of these people who like to wear a different outfit every day—you know that, don’t you, Mma Ramotswe?”
It had seemed to Mma Ramotswe that Mma Makutsi needed reassurance, as we all do from time to time, and she gave it. “Nobody would accuse you of being that sort of lady, Mma,” she said, as they staggered through under the weight of numerous boxes and bags to Mma Ramotswe’s tiny white van. “I certainly wouldn’t.”
“It’s Phuti, you see,” explained Mma Makutsi. “He wants me to look smart.”
“That’s very good,” said Mma Ramotswe. “It is better to have a husband who knows what you are wearing than to have one who doesn’t even notice. Some men never notice, you know. They have no idea what women are wearing.”
“That is a great pity for their wives and girlfriends,” said Mma Makutsi. “It must be very discouraging to dress up all the time only to find that your husband doesn’t even see what you have on.”
The taste of the two women was similar in some respects—but different in others. Their views diverged on shoes, but they both agreed that women should dress modestly and should not wear skirts that were too short. This view was probably shared by the vast majority of women in Botswana, even if not by absolutely all of them. Some young women, they had noticed, seemed to have picked up the idea that the more leg a skirt displayed, the more fashionable it was.
“I do not understand that,” said Mma Makutsi. “Men know that women have legs—that is one of the things that they learn at an early age. So why do you have to show them that you have legs, when they are already well aware of that?”
Mma Ramotswe agreed. She might not have put it exactly that way herself, but she shared the general sentiment.
Mma Makutsi was warming to her theme. “Of course, I remember the first time I saw really short skirts,” she went on. “It was when I came down from Bobonong and I went to enrol at the Botswana Secretarial College. I remember that day very well, Mma.”
“I’m sure you do,” said Mma Ramotswe. “It must have been very different for you, coming from Bobonong and then finding yourself in Gaborone.”
Mma Makutsi stiffened. “Why, Mma? Why do you think that?”
Mma Ramotswe quickly corrected herself. Mma Makutsi was proud of Bobonong and she would not wish to offend her. One of the things she had learned about human nature was that people tended to be inordinately proud of the place they came from, and that any disparaging remark about that place was hurtful—even if it happened to be true. There were some towns—indeed some countries—that were, by all accounts, difficult places to live; and yet even if everything that was said about them was true, you could not say as much to people who came from such places. What they wanted to hear was that you had heard good reports of their home town or their country, and that one day you hoped you would be able to visit it. That brought smiles of satisfaction and assurances that half of what was said or written about the place in question being difficult—or downright dangerous—was exaggeration and lies.
“What I mean,” Mma Ramotswe said, “is that Bobonong is not as big as Gaborone. That is all. I was thinking of how it must feel to come from a small place to a big place. There is nothing wrong with Bobonong, Mma. It is a very fine place.”
Mollified by this explanation, Mma Makutsi pointed out that Mma Ramotswe had herself made a similar transition. “Of course, you came from Mochudi, Mma,” she said. “That is just a village, after all.”
“Well, there we are,” said Mma Ramotswe, relieved at the defusing of the discussion. “We are both village girls at heart.” She paused, and then added, “But coping very well in the city—both of us.”
They returned to Mma Makutsi’s first day at the Botswana Secretarial College and to the topic of short skirts.
“There I was,” Mma Makutsi continued. “I was, I admit it, a bit nervous about being at college. There were thirty- two girls in my year and they all seemed to be so much more confident than I was. They knew Gaborone well, and talked about places I had never even heard of—about which shop sold what, and where you could get your hair or nails done. These were things I’d never even thought about, let alone explored, and I was very much out of it, Mma. I had no idea what to say.”
“We’ve all had that sort of experience,” said Mma Ramotswe. “Every one of us, Mma. We’ve all had a first day at school, or a first day in a new job. We’ve all been unsure what to do.”
Mma Makutsi gazed out of the window. “I just sat there, Mma. I sat at the back of the class with all these other girls talking to one another as if they had been friends for many years. I knew nobody, Mma—not a single soul. And then . . .”
Mma Ramotswe waited. She could picture Mma Makutsi in those early days at the Botswana Secretarial College—earnest and attentive, desperate to make a success of this great chance she had been given, trying hard not to worry about where the next pula or thebe was coming from; hungry, no doubt, because she would have had to choose between food and textbooks, and would have chosen the latter.
Mma Makutsi took off her large round spectacles and began to polish them. Mma Ramotswe had noticed that this was an action that preceded the recollection of something painful, and so she was not too surprised by what followed.
“And then,” she continued, “at the end of that very first lecture—it was a lecture on the importance of high standards, Mma, and it was delivered by the principal herself—at the end of that first lecture we went outside for a short break. Because I was sitting at the back, I was the last out, and the others were all standing in groups, all chatting in the same way as they had been earlier on. I did not know where to go and so I was pleased when one of the girls called me over to join her group. She said, ‘Why don’t you come and talk to us?’ And I said, ‘Yes, I’ll come.’ ”
Mma Makutsi replaced her spectacles. “And do you know who that was, Mma Ramotswe? That was Violet Sephotho.”
“Ah,” said Mma Ramotswe.
“Yes,” Mma Makutsi said. “It was her.”
“And was that the first time you had seen her, Mma?” asked Mma Ramotswe.
Mma Makutsi nodded. “I must have seen her in the lecture room, but I had not really noticed her. Now I noticed her, because nobody could miss what she was wearing.”
“Oh, I can imagine it,” said Mma Ramotswe.
“Can you, Mma? I think it may have been even worse than what you think. A very short skirt, Mma.”
Mma Ramotswe did not find that surprising.
“The skirt was red, Mma, and then there was a blouse that was hardly a blouse. In fact, you might even have thought that her blouse was made from that stuff they make curtains out of—you know those curtains you can sort of see out of—not proper curtains. What do they call that material, Mma?”
“That’s it. Phuti’s aunt has curtains like that in her bathroom. I am sure people in the street can look right through them, and so when we go to visit her I always hang a towel over the window, just in case.”
“That is very wise, Mma,” said Mma Ramotswe. “People have no business looking into the bathrooms of other people.”
“They certainly do not, Mma. Or through any other windows for that matter.”
Mma Ramotswe pursed her lips. She was about to agree, but realised that she herself occasionally—and only very occasionally—glanced through the windows of others if she was passing by. She would never go up to the window and peer inside—that was very wrong—but if you were walking along a street and you walked past a window, then surely it was permissible to have a quick glance, just to see the sort of furniture that they liked, or the pictures on the wall, or possibly to see who was sitting in the room. If people did not want anybody to see what was going on in the room, then they should pull down a blind or something of that sort—an open window was an indication, surely, that they did not mind if passers- by looked in.
And, of course, as a private detective you had to know what was going on. If you kept your eyes fixed straight ahead of you, then you would be unable to gather the sort of everyday intelligence that was part and parcel of your job, and without that intelligence your ability to help others would be limited. So, looking through an open window was not so much an act of idle curiosity, it was an act of consideration for others . . . But this was not the time to have that debate with Mma Makutsi, and so she waited to hear more about this early encounter with Violet Sephotho.
“So, she called you over, Mma?” prompted Mma Ramotswe.
“Yes, she called me over. And then she said, in a loud voice, ‘Mma, tell me: are you going to a funeral today?’ ”
Mma Ramotswe drew in her breath; she thought she could tell what was coming.
“She asked me that, Mma Ramotswe,” Mma Makutsi continued. “And I did not know why she should say that. So I told her that I was not going to a funeral, and why did she think I was? She did not reply immediately, but looked at the others and then said, ‘Because you’re dressed as if you are.’ ”
Mma Ramotswe expelled air through her teeth. It was the most dismissive, disapproving gesture she knew, and this was precisely the sort of situation that called for it.
“The other girls all burst out laughing,” Mma Makutsi said. “And Violet was very pleased with herself. She smiled and said that she hoped I had not taken offence, but being a secretary was different from being an undertaker, and so were the clothes you should wear for the job.
“The others thought this very funny, and they all laughed. Have you noticed, Mma Ramotswe, how people love to join in when one person is laughing at another? We like to do things together, it seems, even if the thing everybody is doing is cruel or unkind.”
Mma Ramotswe thought about this. Mma Makutsi was right. “Especially if the thing is cruel or unkind,” she said. But then she added, “But that is only a certain sort of person we’re talking about there, Mma. And I think that most people are not like that. Most people do not want others to suffer. Most people are kind enough right deep down in their hearts.”
“Not Violet Sephotho,” said Mma Makutsi.
“Perhaps not,” said Mma Ramotswe. “Although even Violet might change one day, Mma. Nobody is so bad that there is no chance of change.”
Mma Makutsi looked doubtful. “You’re too kind sometimes, Mma,” she said.
“Perhaps,” said Mma Ramotswe. “But you’d think the college would have told her to dress more modestly.”
“I think they did,” said Mma Makutsi. “Not directly, of course—they gave us all a lecture on the importance of high standards in the way in which we presented ourselves. They told us that when we dressed for the office each day we should dress as if we believed that the President was going to call in and inspect us.”
“And what did Violet Sephotho make of that?”
“She just smiled,” said Mma Makutsi. “She smiled and then later on she said to the others that she knew what the President would like to see if he came to inspect an office. It would not be formal clothes but rather the sort of clothes that she wore—bright and optimistic clothes, she called them.”
“Nonsense,” said Mma Ramotswe. “The President does not want to see that sort of thing. Look at what he wears himself. He wears sober dark suits. He wears khaki when he has to go out into the country.”
“That is for camouflage,” said Mma Makutsi. “It is so that he cannot be seen by lions and wildebeest and such things.”
Mma Ramotswe looked doubtful. “I’m not sure about that, Mma. But anyway, I don’t think we shall ever get a visit from the President.”
The mention of camouflage made her think. It could be unnerving if a very important visitor were to come into the office wearing camouflage. He might be there for some time before anybody noticed him, lurking by the filing cabinet, perhaps, or in a corner, watching, waiting.
“Stranger things have happened,” said Mma Makutsi. “You never know.”
That, thought Mma Ramotswe, was true: you never knew.
Excerpted from The House of Unexpected Sisters by Alexander McCall Smith. Copyright © 2017 by Alexander McCall Smith. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Date Published: 29th January 2017
Scotland fell away beneath him, a stretch of green pasture, of hills, of swirling mist. Suddenly they were bathed in sunlight; fields of cloud, topped with crenulations of white, now lay beneath them as their plane pointed towards south. In his window seat he closed his eyes against the glare, imagining for a few moments their destination, as much an idea, a feeling, as a place. He saw a small tower that he had never seen before, a tower of warm red brick with a pattern of holes for doves. Down below, a man was pulling at a bell rope; as the bell rang the doves launched themselves from their holes in the brick and fluttered skywards.
He opened his eyes, and noticed that the passenger in the seat beside him, a man in perhaps his early fifties, dressed in a lightweight linen suit, was looking at him. The man smiled at him, and he returned the smile.
“What takes you to Pisa?” the man asked. His accent revealed him as Italian.
Paul hesitated, unsure as to whether he wanted to strike up a conversation that went beyond the niceties. He had brought with him a book that was just beginning to engage him and he was looking forward to getting back to it. But the man smiled at him again, and his natural politeness decided the matter.
“So parlare Italiano,” he began. “Sono … ”
The man did not allow him to finish. “Ah!” he said, and then, continuing in Italian. “What a pleasure it is for us Italians to discover somebody who speaks our language.”
“I’m sure there are many. Such a beautiful language … ”
“Yes, but what use is a beautiful language spoken just by oneself? It’s all very well for the Spaniards, because there are so many Spanish speakers—all over the world. Even Portuguese has Brazil, but we have just us—just Italy—and after a while we get fed up with speaking only to ourselves. We have heard everything there is to say in Italian.”
“Surely not … ”
“I am not entirely serious. A bit serious, perhaps, but not entirely.” Turning in his seat, he extended a hand towards Paul. “But I must introduce myself. I am Palumbieri—Silvio Palumbieri.”
“I’m Paul Stuart.”
Silvio loosened his tie. “Stuart is the name of Scottish kings, is it not? Mary Stuart … ” He made a chopping gesture across his throat. “She was most unfortunate. Queens cannot choose their neighbours, and if they find they have one who has an axe, then it is most regrettable.” He sighed, as if the execution of Mary Queen of Scots had been a recent outrage.
“It was a long time ago,” Paul said.
Silvio raised an eyebrow. “But I am an historian,” he said. “What happened in the past remains rather vivid for me and … ” He paused, and now removed the tie altogether. “That’s better. Yes I find that the past has a much bigger shadow than people believe. It’s still with us in so many ways. At our side all the time, whispering into our ear.”
“Warning us not to repeat our mistakes?”
Silvio smiled. “We repeat some. Others we’re sensible enough to avoid making more than once. But that’s not what I was thinking about. What I was thinking about was the way in which the past determines our character, not just as individuals, but as nations. A child who is treated badly grows up damaged. A people who are subjected to bad treatment will be suspicious. They will be bad allies.”
Paul, who had been holding his book, slipped it into the seat pocket in front of him. He had endured worse conversations on flights, including an attempt at religious conversion, a confession of adultery, and detailed advice on the attractions of Panama as a tax shelter. “You’re thinking of?”
Silvio waved a hand airily. “Oh, there are many examples. Russia, for one. Russia is a peasant country. It has a past of serfdom that ended only in the nineteenth century. That made for a vast, stubborn, ignorant population—one that was also very resentful. And they are resentful today—particularly of the west.”
“They view the west in the same light as they viewed their feudal masters. Authority.” He paused. “So western politicians who lecture Russia about human rights or their tendency to invade their neighbours will never change them. Not one bit. You’re dealing with a particular sort of bear, you see. One with a history. An abused bear with a short temper.”
Paul savoured the metaphor. He was right. “And Italy?”
“Well, that’s an interesting case. With us, the important thing to remember is that we are very young. We have lots of history, of course, but Italy itself is a teenager. The Risorgimento was really just yesterday, you’ll know. It ended in 1871. That’s yesterday. And that means that as a state, we are still very far from maturity. That’s why half the population doesn’t really believe that the Italian state exists—or, if it does, feel that they owe it nothing. We’re very disloyal to Rome, you know. We look after ourselves—our family, our city—and we don’t like paying taxes to Rome.”
“Nobody likes taxes.”
“Some like them less than others. Take the Greeks. They have a particular aversion to taxes, and this is because they haven’t forgotten that they were once part of the Ottoman Empire and they saw no reason to pay taxes to the Ottomans.”
“So you’re saying that people don’t change?”
Silvio sighed. “They don’t. Or if they do, it takes a long time. A very long time.”
The plane gave a slight jolt as it encountered a pocket of turbulent air. Paul glanced out of the window, and then returned to the conversation. “May I ask you something?” he said. “Is this what you actually do?”
Silvio shook his head. “I’m an economic historian,” he replied. “That’s something quite different, but it doesn’t stop me having views on these more general matters.”
“Economic history,” muttered Paul.
“A sobering science. That’s why I’ve been in Scotland. I’ve been at a conference.” He paused. “You didn’t tell me why you’re going to Pisa.”
“To taste food and wine,” said Paul.
Silvio looked surprised. “So that’s what you do?”
“Yes. I write about it.”
“There is a great deal to be said about Italian food.”
“Yes, I’m discovering that.”
Paul reached for his book.
“I mustn’t keep you from your reading.”
Paul had not intended to be rude. “Forgive me. I was enjoying our conversation.”
“But you must read your book, and I have some papers to attend to.” Silvio reached into his pocket. “Let me give you my card. I’m at the University of Pisa. It has all the details there. If you need help while you’re in Italy, please get in touch with me. My door is always open.”
Paul thanked him and took the card. Professor Silvio Palumbieri, it appeared, was not only Professor of Economic History at the University of Pisa, but a member of the Italian Academy of Economic Science and a cavaliere of the Republic. He slipped the card into the pocket of his jacket and opened his book.
They arrived in Pisa shortly before eleven in the morning. Paul said goodbye to Silvio in the plane, and once again as they were waiting for their luggage at the baggage carousel.
“Don’t forget,” said Silvio. “You have my card. I am at your disposal while you’re in my country.”
Paul thanked him. The first of his two suitcases had now been disgorged and he struggled to retrieve it. A few minutes later the second case appeared, and in that mood of relief and gratitude that always follows a safe reunion with luggage, he began to make his way to the a of the car hire firm with which Gloria had made the reservation of a small saloon car.
And that was the point at which the journey, so smooth until then, began to go badly wrong.
“Your name?” said the reservation clerk.
Paul handed him the booking confirmation Gloria had printed out for him. “It’s all there,” he said.
The clerk took the piece of paper. There was an air of suspicion in the way in which he held it—as if this might be a forgery of some sort. He looked down at his computer and typed in a few digits. Then he scrutinised the form again, glanced at Paul, and then looked back at his screen.
“I am afraid there is no such reservation,” he said.
Paul leant forward, trying to get a glimpse of the computer screen. The clerk shifted it slightly, to ensure that it was even less visible.
“I’m sorry, dottore, but there is nothing. This reservation has been made by one of our overseas offices, and they have not confirmed it with us. This has happened before. It is not our fault.”
Paul felt the back of his neck becoming warm. “But it says very clearly … ”
The clerk cut him short. “There is nothing here on my screen.” He gave Paul a look of reproach. “Nothing. There is no car.”
“But that print-out … ” Paul pointed at his pieced of paper, now seemingly so much more valuable than before.
“That piece of paper has the name of your firm at the top and below that it has the words Reservation Confirmed. Look. Right here. Reservation confirmed.”
The clerk shook his head. “That document is no longer valid.”
“What do you mean by that?” challenged Paul. He was being polite, but was unable to prevent a testy note from creeping into his voice.
“I mean that if a document of that type is not confirmed by an entry in the main computer, then it ceases to have any validity. That is the way these things are.” It was the voice of the patient bureaucrat, explaining how, by immutable custom, the working world ordered its affairs. But even the strictest system has room for humanity. “However, we have a spare car. It is our very last car in hand; it is a very busy time of year, you’ll understand. We can allocate that to you instead of this non-existent car you have been promised.”
“For the same rate?” asked Paul.
The clerk looked at him lugubriously, as if disappointed that Paul could even suspect that they would even consider a higher rate. “At exactly the same rate,” he confirmed. “It is much bigger than the car you claim to have booked … ”
“That I did book,” corrected Paul.
“It is bigger than that car,” repeated the clerk. “It is a Mercedes Benz. I can prepare the documents for you.”
Paul relaxed. He was not yet in Montalcino, but the prospect of arriving there before dinner was beginning to seem more real. “You’re very kind,” he said to the clerk.
The clerk bowed his head. Tapping out details on his keyboard, he printed two sheets of paper for Paul to sign before reaching for a set of keys.
“You’ll find the car outside,” he said, and told him the row in the car park where it would be parked. “Show your copy to the woman at the barrier, and she will let you through.”
It was now midday, and the sun was at its zenith. When he left the cool of the car rental office, with its sharp, air-conditioned air, Paul felt it press down on him like a warm hand; it was humid, and his shirt clung to him uncomfortably, the damp patches showing dark through the fabric. He wiped his brow. It would be cooler in Montalcino, several hundred feet higher than Pisa.
He looked about him. The form gave the colour of the car and the number, and he started to make his way slowly along the lines of vehicles in the relevant row. By the time he reached the end, he had failed to find it. He looked along the line of vehicles in the neighbouring row; perhaps they had made a mistake and parked it in the wrong place. Slowly he worked his way along that row too, checking the number of each Mercedes Benz. It was not there—nor was it in the row beyond that. That left only one possible line of cars, and he now checked this carefully, with the same lack of result.
He felt hot and frustrated. He had heard that car hire in Italy could be an arcane, rather trying process, but he had hoped that Gloria’s arrangements would somehow avoid any difficulties. Obviously not, he said to himself.
The relatively short time he had spent in the sun was enough to make him thirsty. Looking around, he saw on the far side of the car park, separated from it by only a modest fence, a small café. He would find himself something to drink there—something cool and refreshing—before going back to the car rental office. There must be other car parks, he decided; perhaps an employee had put it in the wrong car park altogether; airports were complicated places, with all their roads and buildings, and that sort of mistake could be made only too easily.
He sat in the café for fifteen minutes or so, enjoying the air-conditioning and the bottle of chilled mineral water he had ordered. Then he returned to the terminal building, where the office of Personal-Drive Italia was located. The clerk for some reason pretended not to recognize him, and solemnly noted down his details afresh.
“So you say the car isn’t there,” he said once Paul had finished with his story.
“That’s so,” said Paul. “I have looked very carefully and it isn’t there.”
The clerk stared at him. “Yet you signed for it.”
Paul frowned. “I signed the rental agreement.”
The clerk shook his head. “No, you signed for the car itself. Look … ” He took the form from Paul. “Here—you see—here and here. That says, I have received the above-mentioned car in good condition. That is your signature, I take it.”
“Of course it is. You were here when I signed it. You gave it to me. You.”
The clerk looked away. “Under this agreement,” he intoned, “you are liable for the car once it comes into your possession.”
“But it never did!” exploded Paul. “I never found the car. I’ve just tried to tell you that.”
“That is not what the document says,” retorted the clerk.
For a few moments Paul was speechless. Then he spoke coldly and decisively. “I must speak to the manager,” he said. “Please call him.”
The clerk’s eyes narrowed. “The manager is away.”
“He is at the funeral of his mother. In Ravenna.”
Paul tried to decide whether this was a lie. It was difficult to tell.
“In that case I want to see the assistant manager,” he said.
The clerk replied quickly. “I am the assistant manager.”
Paul looked up at the ceiling. “I suggest we shall forget the whole business, then.”
The clerk shrugged. “When are you going to bring the car back? I can’t cancel the contract until the car has been returned.”
Paul gasped. “I have never seen this car,” he said, chiselling out each word for emphasis. “How can I return something I’ve never had?”
“Then you will be liable for the whole cost of the car.”
Paul closed his eyes. “I’m going to call the police,” he said.
The clerk shrugged again. “There is a policeman standing over there,” he said. “You see him? You can call him if you like.”
Paul strode across the arrivals hall and approached the policeman. The officer was talking to a woman running a small luggage stall, but he broke away when Paul addressed him.
“I am having a bit of trouble over there,” said Paul, nodding in the direction of the car rental desk. “I am being falsely accused of taking a car that I have never so much as seen. I believe this is an attempt at extorting money from me.”
The policeman adjusted his belt. “I shall accompany you, sir,” he said. “Let’s see what’s going on.”
Paul felt relieved that here was somebody who might penetrate the fog of obfuscation into which it seemed he had wandered. But once at the desk, his relief proved to be short-lived.
“This gentleman,” said the clerk, rising to greet the policeman, “has disposed of one of our vehicles. He refuses to return it, and I have simply informed him of the consequences.”
The policeman frowned, and turned to face Paul. “This is a very serious matter,” he said. “Where is this car?”
Paul drew in his breath. “There is no car,” he said. “I have never touched it.”
This was the signal for the clerk to pass a copy of the rental document to the policeman. “Here is the proof that he took it,” he said. “You’ll see his signature down at the bottom there. That establishes that he took possession of the car—the same car that he now refuses to hand back.”
The policeman studied the piece of paper. “Is this your signature, sir? Is your name … ” He stumbled over the pronunciation. “Paul Stuart?”
“That’s me,” said Paul. “And that’s my signature too.”
“In that case,” said the policeman, “you must accompany me to the police station.”
“Oh, this is absurd,” said Paul, his voice rising markedly.
The policeman reached out to touch him on the arm. “You must control yourself, sir. It doesn’t help to shout.”
“But I have never even seen this car,” Paul protested. “I have had nothing to do with it. Nothing.”
The policeman looked at him guardedly. “But you have signed this document.”
“I signed it before I went to look for the car,” said Paul.
“But that’s not what it says here,” said the policeman.
Paul glared at the clerk, who simply stared at his screen, as if waiting for a troublesome client to go away so as to allow him to get back to his work. He looked at his watch. If he had to go to the police station he would do it, so that he could get on with the task of finding another car. And at the police station, he imagined that he might find somebody who would be able to take a more intelligent view of the situation than this junior officer.
“I’m ready to accompany you to the police station,” Paul said. “Although I shall have to come in your car, as I don’t have one myself.”
The policeman smiled. “You mustn’t make light of these things,” he said in a not unfriendly tone. “Car theft is a serious charge, you know.”
Paul opened his mouth to say something, but found that he had no words. His Italian, his English, his French all seemed to have deserted him. Kafka, he thought, and then, more appropriately he felt, Lewis Carroll.
Imagine going to school on a boat! The rip-roaring excitement continues in the second volume of this adventure-mystery series set on the high seas. Ben and Fee MacTavish and their schoolmates on board the School Ship Tobermory are headed thousands of miles from their base in Mull to a small island in the Caribbean. They will […]