A Time of Love and Tartan

A Time of Love and Tartan

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 […]

Morality for Beautiful Girls

Date Published: 26th January 2016

Mma Ramotswe cleared her throat.

“Mma Makutsi,” she began. “I have been thinking about the future.”

Mma Makutsi, who had finished her rearranging of the filing cabinet, had made them both a cup of bush tea and was settling down to the half-hour break that she usually took at eleven in the morning. She had started to read a magazine—an old copy of the National Geographic—which her cousin, a teacher, had lent her.

‘The future? Yes, that is always interesting. But not as interesting as the past, I think. There is a very good article in this magazine, Mma Ramotswe,’ she said. ‘I will lend it to you after I have finished reading it. It is all about our ancestors up in East Africa. There is a Dr Leakey there. He is a very famous doctor of bones.’

“Doctor of bones?” Mma Ramotswe was puzzled. Mma Makutsi expressed herself very well—both in English and Setswana—but occasionally she used rather unusual expressions. What was a doctor of bones? It sounded rather like a witchdoctor, but surely one could not describe Dr Leakey as a witchdoctor?

“Yes,” said Mma Makutsi. “He knows all about very old bones. He digs them up and tells us about our past. Here, look at this one.”

She held up a picture, printed across two pages. Mma Ramotswe squinted to make it out. Her eyes were not what they once were, she had noticed, and she feared that sooner or later she would end up like Mma Makutsi, with her extraordinary, large glasses.

“Is that Dr Leakey?”

Mma Makutsi nodded. “Yes, Mma,” she said, “that is him. He is holding a skull which belonged to a very early person. This person lived a long time ago and is very late.”

Mma Ramotswe found herself being drawn in. “And this very late person,” she said. “Who was he?”

“The magazine says that he was a person when there were very few people about,” explained Mma Makutsi. “We all lived in East Africa then.”

“Everybody?”

“Yes. Everybody. My people. Your people. All people. We all come from the same small group of ancestors. Dr Leakey has proved that.”

Mma Ramotswe was thoughtful. “So we are all brothers and sisters, in a sense?”

“We are,” said Mma Makutsi. “We are all the same people. Eskimos, Russians, Nigerians. They are the same as us. Same blood. Same DNA.”

“DNA?” asked Mma Ramotswe. “What is that?”

“It is something which God used to make people,” explained Mma Makutsi. “We are all made up of DNA and water.”

Mma Ramotswe considered the implications of these revelations for a moment. She had no views on Eskimos and Russians, but Nigerians were a different matter. But Mma Makutsi was right, she reflected: if universal brotherhood—and sisterhood—meant anything, it would have to embrace the Nigerians as well.

“If people knew this,” she said, “if they knew that we were all from the same family, they be kinder to one another, do you think?”

Mma Makutsi put down the magazine. “I’m sure they would,” she said. “If they knew that, then they would find it very difficult to do unkind things to others. They might even want to help them a bit more.”

My Italian Bulldozer: A Novel

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.”

“I see.”

“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.”

“Where?”

“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.

The Sands of Shark Island

Date Published:

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 […]

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?”

“No.”

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 Kalahari Typing School for Men

Date Published: 4th February 2016

During Mr J. L. B. Matekoni’s illness they had moved the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency into the back office at Tlokweng Road Speedy Motors. It had proved to be a successful arrangement: the affairs of the garage could be easily supervised from the back of the building and there was a separate entrance for agency clients. Each business benefited in other ways. Those who brought their cars in for repair sometimes realised that there was a matter which might benefit from investigation—an errant husband, for example, or a missing relative—while others who came with a matter for the agency would arrange at the same time for their cars to be serviced or their brakes to be checked.

Mma Ramotswe and Mma Makutsi had arranged their desks in such a way that they could engage in conversation if they wished, without staring at one another all the time. If Mma Ramotswe turned in her chair, she could address Mma Makutsi on the other side of the room without having to twist her neck or talk over her shoulder, and Mma Makutsi could do the same if she needed to ask Mma Ramotswe for anything.

Now, with the day’s post of four letters attended to and filed, Mma Ramotswe suggested to her assistant that it was time for a cup of bush tea. This was a little earlier than normal, but it was a warm day and she always found that the best way of dealing with the heat was a cup of tea, accompanied by an Ouma’s rusk dipped into the liquid until it was soft enough to be eaten without hurting the teeth.

“Mma Makutsi,” Mma Ramotswe began after her assistant had delivered the cup of freshly made tea to her desk, “are you happy?”

Mma Makutsi, who was halfway back to her desk, stopped where she stood. “Why do you ask, Mma?” she said. “Why do you ask me if I’m happy?” The question had stopped her heart, as she lived in fear of losing her job and this question, she thought, could only be a preliminary to suggesting that she move on to another job. But there would be no other job, or at least no other job remotely like this one. Here she was an assistant detective and previously, and possibly still, an acting garage manager. If she had to go somewhere else, then she would revert to being a junior clerk, at best, or a junior secretary at somebody else’s beck and call. And she would never be as well paid as she was here, with the extra money that came to her for her garage work.

“Why don’t you sit down, Mma?” went on Mma Ramotswe. “Then we can drink our tea together and you can tell me if you are happy.”

Mma Makutsi made her way back to her desk. She picked up her cup, but her hand shook and she put it down again. Why was life so unfair? Why did all the best jobs go to the beautiful girls, even if they barely got fifty per cent in the examinations at the Botswana Secretarial College while she, with her results, had experienced such difficulty in finding a job at all? There was no obvious answer to that question. Unfairness seemed to be an inescapable feature of life, at least if you were Mma Makutsi from Bobonong in Northern Botswana, daughter of a man whose cattle had always been thin. Everything, it seemed, was unfair.

“I am very happy,” said Mma Makutsi miserably. “I am happy with this job. I do not want to go anywhere else.”

Mma Ramotswe laughed. “Oh, the job. Of course you’re happy with that. We know that. And we’re very happy with you. Mr J. L. B. Matekoni and I are very happy. You are our right-hand woman. Everybody knows that.”

It took Mma Makutsi a few moments to absorb this compliment, but, when she did, she felt relief flood through her. She picked up her tea cup, with a steady hand now, and took a deep draught of the hot red liquid.

School Ship Tobermory

Date Published: 21st March 2016

“Ready?” asked Fee’s father. “Are you ready to bring us up?”

Fee nodded. She had sat at the controls of the family submarine many times before this, but you know how it is when somebody asks you to take over a submarine—you always feel just a little bit nervous.

“Yes,” she said, trying her best to sound brave. “I’m … I’m sort of ready.”

Both Fee and her twin brother, Ben, had been taught from a very early age to help sail the submarine belonging to their parents, who were well-known marine scientists. Now, at twelve, almost thirteen, Fee had enough experience to bring the vessel up to the surface all by herself. But it was a very big responsibility, and it always brought to mind the things that could go wrong.

What if you made a mistake and dived instead of surfacing? What if you surfaced too quickly, so that the submarine popped up out of the sea like a cork out of water? What if you came up right underneath a large ship—a massive oil tanker, perhaps—broke the glass observation window, and then went straight down again? There were so many things that could go wrong in a submarine.

“Right,” said her father. “Take her up, Fee! You’ll do fine, of course, but I’ll be in the engine room if you need me.”

Once her father had left the control room she was quite alone. Her brother was doing his packing in his cabin, and her mother was busy in the galley—the submarine’s tiny kitchen—making sandwiches for the twins. Fee was by herself. Entirely.

Slowly she pulled the control column towards her. She could not see exactly where she was going—that’s never easy in a submarine—but she hoped there was nothing ahead of them, or above. The last thing a submarine wants to meet is a whale or a rock—or a whale and a rock, for that matter. You have to hope, too, that there isn’t another submarine coming up for air in exactly the same place as you.

A few minutes later, when they were just below the surface, Ben entered the control room.

“I’ve finished my packing,” he announced. “What about you?”

She glanced at her brother. She could see that he was excited, but she had far more important things to do than talk about packing.

“You mustn’t disturb me,” she said. “I’m just about to look through the periscope.”

He became quiet. It is always a special moment when you raise a submarine’s periscope, because that is when you find out where you are. You hope that you have come up in the right place, but you can never be absolutely sure. So if your hands shake a little as the periscope rises above the waves, and if you feel your heart thump a bit more loudly, then that is entirely normal.

Fee peered into the periscope as she pushed it upwards. There was water, just water, swirling round in every direction, and then, with no warning at all, she saw sunlight. The periscope was above the surface.

“What can you see?” Ben asked.

She blinked. The light was very intense and it would take a moment for her eyes to adjust.

You can turn a periscope round, so that it gives you a view in every direction. She would do that—just to check that nothing was coming—but first she would have a good look at the land.

“I can see an island in the distance,” she said. “I can see the shore.”

Ben caught his breath. “That’ll be Mull,” he said. Mull was the island they were heading for.

“It’s sunny,” said Fee. “It’s morning.”

“And Tobermory?” asked Ben. “Can you see Tobermory?”

“Which Tobermory?” asked Fee. “Tobermory the town or Tobermory the ship?”

She was right to ask: there were two Tobermorys. Tobermory, the town, was where the Tobermory, the ship, was based. They were going to the Tobermory the ship, but Tobermory, the place, was the harbour in which she (and ships are always called she) was normally anchored. The Tobermory was a sailing ship and a school at the same time. It was a boarding school on the sea, and while most schools stay in exactly the same place all the time, this one did not. This one sailed about, teaching everybody not only subjects like history and science – the things that normal schools teach—but also everything that you needed to know if you were going to be a sailor.

“I can’t see either of them,” said Fee. “I think we might be a little way away. But we can’t be too far.”

“Let me have a look,” said Ben, sounding rather impatient. Although they were twins, Fee had been born two minutes before her brother, and that made her older. It was only two minutes, but she often said that those two minutes were very important. “When you’ve been alive two minutes longer than somebody else,” she was fond of saying, “it shows. You’re just a bit more grown-up, you see.”

Ben did not look at it that way. He thought he was every bit as mature as his sister, and felt entitled to do everything she did. Right then he felt that he should have a turn on the periscope. “Let me look,” he repeated.

“No,” she said. “I’ve spotted a seagull. Oh, it’s come down lower. I think it’s going to land on top of the periscope!”

Fee laughed as she watched the seagull land. She had a good view of its yellow feet and of the underneath of its wings, that were white. As she watched, it flapped these wings, sending little droplets of water splashing against the outer lens of the periscope.

Slowly she moved the periscope round, so that she could look in other directions. The seagull did not like this, and he flapped his wings again in protest. Then she saw it.

‘There’s a boat coming straight towards us!” she cried out.

“Dive!” shouted Ben.

Because his sister was busy pulling down the periscope, he decided to take the controls himself. Pushing the column forwards, he opened the throttle as far as he could. The submarine responded immediately, giving a lurch downwards.

It was just in time. Seconds later they heard the thud of a boat’s engine pass directly over them.

“You should have looked round you,” accused Ben. “You should have looked instead of watching that seagull.” Although he was very fond of his sister, Ben secretly liked it when she did something to remind her she was not perfect.

Fee looked crestfallen. “I’m sorry,” she said. But then she said, rather crossly, “We can all make mistakes, you know.”

“Is everything all right?” their mother called out from the galley. “I felt a bit of a lurch there.”

“Everything’s fine,” shouted Ben in reply. He could have said, Fee didn’t spot a boat coming straight at us! But he did not. He could have added, And I had to take over the controls to get us out of trouble! But again he did not. Instead of this he simply said, ‘We’re going up again,’ and left it at that.

They surfaced once more, and this time they were both able to have a good look through the periscope. Fee had been right—they were not far from the island—but they were also closer than she had thought to both Tobermorys. There was the town, a small harbour with brightly painted houses curving round the rim of the bay. There were the people walking down the street, off to buy their newspaper and their morning bread and milk. And there in the harbour, riding proudly on its great anchor chain, was the most remarkable sailing ship they had ever seen. And across its bow was the name painted in shining blue paint—SCHOOL SHIP TOBERMORY.

“I think it’s safe to go all the way up now,” said Ben.

Fee guided the submarine right up to the surface. Now they could open the hatches and step out onto the deck to gaze at the ship that was to be their new home. As Fee stared at the ship through the submarine’s binoculars, she felt no qualms about joining the school. She had always tried not to be frightened by new experiences—nor by the dark, nor bad dreams, nor the thought of what could go wrong. That’ll soon be me, she thought, as she studied the distant figures on the ship’s deck. Although she could not make out what they were doing, they all seemed busy.

It was a wonderful sight. The great ship was painted white from bow to stern. Along the side were lines of neat portholes—the windows of a ship. And, as he stood next to his sister, gazing over at the Tobermory, Ben thought about how one of the portholes would be his. That would be his to look out of.

It was a very exciting thought, even if it made him feel just a little bit anxious. He had never been away from family for any length of time, and although people told him that going away to school was fun he was not sure whether it would be fun for him. What would it be like sharing everything with a lot of people you didn’t know? Could you be sure they wouldn’t laugh at you if you did something stupid? What if you lost your toothbrush, or your pyjamas, or one of your socks? What if somebody came and pushed you around or stole your money?

He had wanted to ask Fee some of these questions, but she had seemed so confident about what lay ahead that he had been unable to do so.

“What will it be like?” was all he had managed.

And she replied, “It’s going to be great.” And then, after a short pause, “You’re not scared, are you?”

He shook his head. “No, I’m not scared. Of course I’m not scared.” That is what people who are scared often say.

“Good,” said Fee. “Because I’m not going to be able to look after you all the time, you know.”

She did not say that unkindly, but it did not really help Ben very much. He wondered why she had thought she would have to look after him. Did she know something he did not? Had she heard things about the Tobermory that he had missed? But this was not the time for such thoughts. They had the ship to look at, and now, as the submarine sailed a bit closer, they were able to make out more details.

Above the ship, towering to what seemed like an impossible height, were the masts. The Tobermory was a sailing ship, and it had masts from which sails were suspended. These sails would fill with wind when a breeze blew up, and it is this that would drive the ship through the water. The ship also had an engine, of course, that it could use to go in and out of harbour or to help it on its way if there was no wind, but for most of the time it would rely on its sails.

“Look at all those ropes,” marvelled Fee, pointing to what looked like an elaborate web spun by some giant spider.

Ben shielded his eyes from the sun to get a better view.“That’s the rigging. Those ropes keep the masts in place.”

“And you climb up them?” It all seemed very high to Fee.

“Yes,” said Ben, taking his turn with the binoculars. “I’ve seen pictures of people doing that.”

Although they had spent a lot of time on their parents’ submarine—sometimes weeks and weeks at a stretch—Fee and Ben had never been on a sailing ship. That had not stopped them, though, from applying for a place at the school ship, encouraged by their parents who had decided that the Tobermory was just the right school for them. They had needed to think about boarding school for Ben and Fee, as they were often away on research expeditions. Up to then, the twins had stayed with an aunt, who looked after them while their parents were away, but this was going to be much more difficult, as the aunt had found a job that involved travel.

They had looked at various schools, but had not really liked what they saw. One was in a remote place on a mountainside and appeared dark and uncomfortable. The dormitory floors, they noticed, were all at an angle, with the result that the beds followed the slope of the mountainside. Sleeping in such a bed, thought Fee, would be most peculiar, as one’s toes would be much lower than one’s head, and all one’s blood would end up in one’s feet. And the blankets would gradually slip down to the end of the bed, which would mean that one’s top half would be too cold and one’s lower half too warm. “Not for you, I think,” said their mother—much to their relief.

Then there was the school that made everyone take a cold shower every morning. “It’s very character-building,” explained the principal.

“And very freezing,” said their mother—to suppressed giggles from Fee and Ben.

That same principal believed in lots of physical activity—all the time. So, as people moved from classroom to classroom they all ran, and meals were eaten standing up, so that people could do press-ups and other exercises between courses.

“It all helps to build people up,” said the principal proudly.

Then somebody suggested the Tobermory, and their parents had remembered once meeting the captain when he berthed his ship near their submarine. “He’s a very kind man,” remarked their mother, who wanted the best for her twins. “You’ll be happy there. I’ve heard good things about that ship.”

“Such as?” asked Ben. The idea of going away to school was still new to him.

“Just good things in general,” his mother replied. “Good things like making friends, which you’ve always wanted. And other things too …” She did not explain further, but just waved her hand and said, “You’ll find out.”

His mother was trying to reassure him, thought Ben, but did she really know what life would be like on the Tobermory?

“That’s right,” said Fee, who had overheard this conversation. “You’ll find out.”

But she, too, did not know, thought Ben.

Their father nosed the submarine in as close to the Tobermory as he thought safe.

“You’ll have to paddle the rest of the way in your rubber boat,” he explained. “We’ll wave goodbye from here.”

Ben and Fee began to blow up the inflatable boat that had been a present for their last birthday. It was not very big, but it would have just enough room to carry them both, together with their kitbags. They had been told not to bring a suitcase, but rather to bring soft luggage that could be folded and put into a locker. Now their two full kitbags, both labelled with their names, Ben and Fee MacTavish, stood at the ready on top of the submarine.

Once the boat was inflated, Ben pushed it gently from the submarine deck and into the water. Their mother, coming up from below, pressed two packets of sandwiches into their hands. “You might feel hungry before lunch,” she said. “I’ve heard the school food’s very good on the Tobermory, but just in case … ”

They thanked her, and she gave them each a goodbye kiss, as did their father.

“I know you’re going to be all right,” said their mother. “But I’ll be thinking of you. Will you think of me too? Every day?”

They both reassured her that they would.

“And you will write, won’t you?” she said. “It doesn’t have to be a long letter—even a postcard will do.”

“Of course we will,” said Fee.

“We’ll be back to collect you at the end of term,” he said.

“Work hard,” said their mother. “And remember to clean your teeth after every meal—every meal, please. And don’t forget to floss!”

“Yes, yes,” said Ben. He was eager to make the short crossing to their new home and he had decided to be brave. He could see that already there were other people on the deck of the sailing ship—people in smart blue uniforms swabbing the decks from buckets of sea water, polishing brass fittings, and generally looking very busy. These would be his new schoolmates—his new friends, he hoped. He was eager to meet them.

They climbed down into the boat and set off.

“Goodbye!” shouted their mother, waving a handkerchief.

“Goodbye!” they both shouted, as they started to paddle their way across the short stretch of water.

As they reached the side of great sailing ship, they both turned round to have one last look at their parents. But their mother and father had disappeared back into the submarine, and now the dark tube of the vessel was beginning to sink below the surface of the sea. They waved, although they knew that their parents would not be able to see them. They felt sad to be saying goodbye, and both of them—and that included Fee—now felt a bit anxious, but when you are starting at a new boarding school there is no time to think too much about the family you have left behind. This is especially true when your new school is towering above you and somebody is lowering a rope ladder for you to climb up. Not everybody starts school that way, but Ben and Fee did.

“Tie your dinghy to this rope,” shouted somebody from above them. “Then, once, you’ve climbed up the rope ladder, we’ll pull your boat up too.”

A rope came snaking down from above. Fee tied this to the rubber boat, stowed the paddles safely, and then she and Ben began to inch their way up the rope ladder.

“Ben,” whispered Fee as they began the climb. “Are you just a little bit … scared?”

Ben, who had started first, looked down at his sister beneath him. His decision to be brave was working. “Don’t be scared, Fee,” he said. “I’m not.”

But she was. And so would anybody be. The water seemed a long way down below now, and the Tobermory was rocking in the swell of the sea, making the rope ladder swing out from the side of the ship.

“I didn’t hear you,” said Fee. “What did you say?”

“I said I’m not scared,” repeated Ben.

And oddly enough, simply saying that he was not scared seemed to help.

They were nearly at the top of the ladder now, and he even managed to smile as he saw a pair of hands stretch out over the railings to help him clamber onto the deck. He looked up and saw that the hands belonged to a boy of about his own age, dressed in a smart blue uniform and grinning at him in a friendly way. The boy had a cheerful look to him—the sort of look that makes you think, I hope he’ll be my friend.

“I’m Badger Tomkins,” said the boy as he gripped Ben’s wrists and pulled him onto the deck. “Who are you?”

“I’m Ben,” said Ben.

“I was told to look out for you,” said Badger. “Welcome aboard the Tobermory!”

Badger now turned to help Fee. “You must be Fee,” he said. “I saw your name on the list of new students. Welcome, Fee!”

“What do we do now?” asked Ben.

“We haul up your rubber boat,” said Badger. “Then we let the air out of it and stow it away. Everything has to be stowed away neatly on the ship. It’s one of the rules.”

“Are there lots of rules?” asked Ben.

Badger laughed. “Plenty,” he said. “Maybe five or six hundred. But don’t worry. You probably only need to know ten. Those are called the big rules. All the others are called small rules, and we don’t pay much attention to them.”

Fee stared at Badger. “Do you like it here?” she asked.

Badger thought this a rather odd question. “But of course I like it,” he answered. “This is the most amazing, fantastic, exciting, superb, ace school in … in the entire world.”

“Are you joking?” asked Ben.

“Not at all,” said Badger. “You’ll see soon enough.” He paused. “Mind you, I won’t pretend that there aren’t some things that aren’t so great.”

“What are those?” asked Ben.

“You’ll see,” said Badger again. He looked at his watch. “We’d better get your boat up. Breakfast is in half an hour and if you’re late all the sausages will be taken.” He made a face “Some people always try to take more than their fair share.”

“Who are they?” asked Fee.

“You’ll see,” said Badger once again. “But let’s not stand about talking. Let’s get the boat up and then I can take you to the Captain before breakfast. We always have to take new people to the Captain when they arrive.”

“Is he the principal?” asked Ben.

“He is,” said Badger. “But you never call him that. He’s called the Captain because he’s the captain of the ship. His full name is Captain Macbeth. He’s also a teacher, of course, but his main job is running the ship.”

They began to haul up their rubber boat. Once it was up on deck, they took out the plug, deflated it, and stowed it away in a nearby locker. The locker was full of other rubber boats, all folded up just as theirs was. ‘This is where we keep our personal boats,” explained Badger. “Mine is that red one over there. It has a bit of a leak, I’m afraid, but I don’t use it often now. We have a class in the care and maintenance of rubber boats. They teach you how to stick a plaster over any holes.”

Badger looked at his watch again. “Right,” he said. “Ready for the Captain? Yes? Well, in that case follow me!”

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 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.

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.