Isabel Dalhousie is one of Edinburgh’s most generous and discreet philanthropists—but should she be more charitable? She wonders, sometimes, if she is too judgmental about her niece’s amorous exploits, too sharp about her housekeeper’s spiritual beliefs, too ready to bristle in battle against her enemies.
As the editor of the Review of Applied Ethics, she doesn’t, of course, allow herself actual enemies, but she does feel enmity—especially towards two academics who have just arrived in the city. Isabel feels they’re a highly destabilising influence; little tremors in the volcanic rock upon which an enlightened Edinburgh perches. Equally troubling is the situation of the little boy who is convinced he had a previous life. When Isabel is called upon to help, she finds herself questioning her views on reincarnation. And the nature of grief. And—crucially—the positioning of lighthouses.
The only questions Isabel doesn’t have to address concern her personal life. With her young son and devoted husband, her home life is blissfully content. Which is the best possible launching pad for the next issue of the Review—the Happiness issue. As Isabel is beginning to appreciate, happiness, for most people, is not quite what it seems.
“Give it back,” muttered Isabel Dalhousie.
“Won’t,” said Charlie.
“What?” asked Jamie.
It was one of those conversations in which two people are talking about different things—unknowingly—and a third tries to make sense of what is said. The setting of this exchange was Edinburgh, in a Victorian house surrounded by rhododendrons and a few leafy trees: an oak, several copper beeches, and a single specimen tree known variously as the dove tree or ghost tree. “Popular with doves,” said Isabel, adding, “and, I assume, with ghosts.”
If looked at from above, as from an intrusive, snap-happy satellite, the garden would be seen to be bounded on one side by a tree-lined avenue and on its three other sides by a high stone wall. This wall was a highway for cats and for Brother Fox, the fox who lived somewhere near by and with whom Isabel from time to time communed—to the extent that foxes, in their reserve, will allow anybody to commune with them. The wall was also a parcelling-out, in neat rectangular shapes, of contested suburban territory—mine here, yours there, this shared. Beyond that wall were further gardens; then came roads and buildings of grey or honey-coloured stone, spreading out like skirts until they reached hills on one side and sea on the other. This was the North Sea, cold, blue, lapping at the jagged edge of the country, a reminder of where Scotland lay in the true nature of things; a place that was mostly water and wind and high empty sky; a place where the land itself seemed to be an afterthought, a farewell gesture from Europe.
Isabel was seated in a chair and her young son, Charlie, now almost four years old, was at her feet, under the table, a place that he described as his office and where he did his office work. Jamie, her husband—although she still thought of him as her lover—was standing near the large window overlooking the garden. The whole family was present and had been thinking, from their various perspectives, about lunch.
And thinking of other things too. In Isabel’s case, she had been paging through a current affairs magazine in which she had come across an article on the return of cultural treasures. Unsurprisingly, this article touched on the Elgin Marbles: we want them back, said Greece—everybody knew their position on that—while the British Museum, with typical British skill at changing the subject, seemed to be talking about other things altogether. But it was not these much-discussed Marbles that concerned Isabel—rather it was a paragraph about a Maori wood carving that long ago had been taken from a meeting house and had ended up in a museum in Berlin. This carving was of spiritual significance for the Maori and a request had been made for it to be returned to New Zealand. The holding museum said that it was considering the matter, but was still doing so two years after the request had first been made. That was the point at which Isabel, reading about it before she got up to heat the soup for their lunch, said, aloud, “Give it back.”
She had not addressed anybody in particular, although the advice appeared directed to the museum in Germany. It was one of those comments that we may utter to express strong views and that we do not expect to be overheard or reacted to. But Charlie heard it, and thought that his mother was telling him to give back the roller-ball pen that he had found and with which he was now beginning to draw small lines, tiny tattoos, across his kneecaps. He saw no reason to return the pen as it was his knees on which he was drawing; he understood that there was a general prohibition against graffiti, but this was himself he was decorating and that, he thought, was his business. It was for this reason that he said, “Won’t.” Not knowing any of this, Jamie had interjected with his “What?”
Isabel glanced under the table and saw what Charlie was doing. “Not on your knees, darling,” she said, slipping him a piece of paper. “We don’t draw on our knees, do we? Draw on that. Draw a fox.”
The idea appealed, and the knee tattoos were forgotten. She looked at Jamie. “I was reading about a carving in a museum that people want returned.”
Jamie nodded. “Oh yes. But wouldn’t it empty all the museums if we started to hand things back?”
“It would diminish them, perhaps—not empty them. Most museums have more things than they can show. The big ones have vast warehouses packed with treasures.”
Jamie peered at a thin rime of dirt on the window glass. An unusual wind had brought dust all the way up from the Sahara and dropped it across Western Europe, even as far as Scotland. He would have to wash the windows soon, as that was his job.
Isabel was in charge of the garden, while Jamie did the windows and put the bins out on the street on collection days.
“Oh yes?” he said.
Isabel laid aside her magazine. “It’s interesting,” she said.
“People like the Maori, and the Aboriginal people in Australia too, I suppose, see so many things about them as sacred. The land, the trees, river, carvings ... And yet we don’t have any of that ourselves, do we?”
Jamie peered even more closely at the glass. He had washed that particular window two or three weeks ago; winds from the Sahara had no business coming this far north. Who bids the mighty ocean deep / Its own appointed limits keep ... The words came back to him unexpectedly; he had been a choirboy in his time and choirboys remembered what they were obliged to sing, or some of it. Winds had their appointed limits too, he thought, not just oceans.
“Maybe we had lots of sacred places,” he said. “And then we just forgot about them.”
Isabel looked thoughtful. “Stonehenge? Iona? Those odd stone circles that you sometimes more or less trip over?”
“Yes. All of those.” He paused.“It’s not just people like the Maori who have ancestors. What do they call the other New Zealanders—the rest? People like Jenny?”
It happened that Isabel knew. She had a New Zealand cousin who had visited her several times and they had shared a memorable conversation about belonging.
“Pakeha,” said Isabel. “That’s the Maori word for ... for us.”
“Pakeha have ancestors too ... ”
Jamie remembered Jenny’s visit. “I wonder what she’s up to,” he said.
“She’s writing a cookery book,” said Isabel. “And she still has that television show. The Creative Kitchen. She says that it’s very popular in Spain, for some reason. She’s dubbed into Spanish.” But it was not Jenny she wanted to talk about; it was what Jamie had said about ancestors. “I suppose you’re right,” she said.
“We all have the same number of ancestors, don’t we? We don’t go on about them, but we have them, surely. I mean, there’s no monopoly on ancestors. One can’t be ancestor-rich, so to speak.” He left the window and came to sit down at the table, opposite Isabel. “It depends on whether you think they exist. If you think that they’re not there any more—because they’ve died—as ancestors tend to do—then ... well, then you can’t really have them in your life, can you?”
“So what counts, then,” said Isabel, “is whether you have an eschatological dimension to your Weltanschauung.”
For the second time in those few minutes, Jamie said, “What?”
She laughed. “Sorry, I couldn’t resist it. You can get your revenge by saying something utterly opaque about Wagner, if you like. Or, perhaps more likely, somebody like Schoenberg.”
“Escha ... ”
“Eschatological,” supplied Isabel. “And I use it loosely, and just to keep you on your toes. It’s more about last things, but I suppose the ancestors come into that.”
“Put it simply,” said Jamie.
“Well, if you think that we survive in some way ... ”
“After we’ve kicked the bucket?”
Isabel hesitated, momentarily brought up sharp by the thought that there was a bucket waiting to be kicked by all of them—including Jamie and Charlie; morbid thought, she told herself—we’re young, or sort of young. She decided to laugh, both at his use of the expression and as an act of defiance of mortality. “To use a philosophical term of art,” she said. “Yes. If you think we survive death in some way, then you may well be concerned with ancestors. But that depends on whether you think they continue to have any interest in us. That’s the important thing, I think.”
“You mean they may say, That’s it, goodbye?”
“Yes. And if they did, then there’s no point in talking about the ancestors. Yet a lot of people don’t think that way—they feel there’s some connection between their ancestors and themselves. They still feel somehow involved with them.”
“Watching over us?”
She thought so. “Or still occupying the places where they lived,” she said. “Hence the spiritual significance of place. Holy mountains—that sort of thing.”
Jamie nodded. “Some of my friends who play rugby talk about Murrayfield Stadium as sacred turf.”
“Well, it is a special place for them, isn’t it?” said Isabel. “Rugby is such a tribal game. All those men getting physical with one another. Painting their faces with the Saltire. Singing ‘Flower of Scotland’. Bagpipes. Pure tribalism, surely.”
They were both silenced, perhaps by the realisation that anthropological observation applies as much to us as to them. From under the table there came a faint humming. They both recognised it at the same time as ‘Pop Goes the Weasel’.
“He loves that tune,” said Jamie. “Half a pound of tuppenny rice, Charlie.”
A small voice responded tunefully, “Half a pound of treacle.” Jamie continued the nursery rhyme: “That’s the way the money goes.” And Isabel said, “That means nothing to him. He has no idea of money yet—lucky him.”
“Expensive,” said Charlie.
They looked at one another in astonishment.
“Prodigy,” whispered Jamie.
“Porridge,” came the small voice from below.
Isabel winked at Jamie. “His ancestors—his Scottish ancestors—ate an awful lot of porridge. Porridge links us to them.” She paused. “Porridge binds.”
Jamie remembered something. “Who’s that person you keep quoting—the one who wrote that book? The Art of Living?”
“Yes, him. You once told me something that he said about patriotism and food. What was it again?”
Isabel smiled at the recollection. She had not read Lin Yutang for some time, but she knew where he was on her bookshelf. That, she felt, meant that he had not been forgotten. “He said: What is patriotism but love of the food one ate as a child?”
He thought about that. “Very good. Yes, spot on.”
But she was not so sure; Isabel was a philosopher, and philosophers were distrustful of broad propositions. “Well ... ”
“No, he’s right,” said Jamie. “You love your country because it’s your country, because it’s familiar and it’s full of things you’ve always known. That includes childhood food.”
Isabel was prepared to concede that this came into it, but was it enough to explain why people—or some of them, at least—were prepared to sacrifice everything for their country, even their lives? But food was just a shorthand expression for the familiar. Was patriotism, when boiled down, merely a love of one’s own familiar things ... above the familiar things of others? The familiar things of others, of course, counted for less, it seemed: people were usually patriotic in the face of the assertions of others—who also loved what they ate in their own, foreign childhood.
But even that, she suspected, was a reduction too far. What about people who were patriotic because they loved the values their country espoused? She remembered, as she asked the question, a conversation she had had years earlier with an elderly man in the Scottish Arts Club. They had got on to the subject of national characteristics and he had revealed that as a refugee from Central Europe he appreciated the kindness and tolerance he had found in Britain. “That is why I have become a British patriot,” he had said. People had forgotten that there had been many who thought that way.
She expressed her doubts to Jamie. “I think the food of childhood is probably just a metaphor for one’s people and place. I think that lies at the heart of patriotism. Our own people, our own place—that’s what stirs patriotism.”
Jamie looked thoughtful. “Maybe. But it sounds so neat and tidy, doesn’t it? It sounds so apt.”
“All aphorisms do. They must have a kernel of truth in them—somewhere—but they often don’t provide the full picture.” She paused. “I can imagine somebody like Lin Yutang getting up in the morning and thinking: What aphorisms shall I come up with today?”
Jamie laughed. “Like Oscar Wilde, perhaps? Can’t you imagine him getting out of bed in the morning and asking himself what witticisms he should let slip by breakfast.”
“I can,” she said. “Although I somehow doubt that Wilde got out of bed in the morning. These people tended to get up in the afternoon, I think. Look at Proust—also a rather louche character. He got out of bed in the evening, if at all.”
“All right—afternoon, then.”
“Yes, I can picture it. Oscar Wilde’s last words, of course, were very well chosen. I can see him lying there in Paris, contemplating the wallpaper with distaste, and thinking It’s almost time, I’d better come up with something good. And then saying, ‘Either that wallpaper goes, or I do.’ And then he went.” She sighed. “Except for one thing.”
Jamie grinned. He would have liked Oscar Wilde, he thought—in small doses. But it would have been exhausting to listen to him for too long. That was the trouble with very witty people—they tire the rest of us. Boswell, he had always imagined, must have found it rather wearying to be in Dr Johnson’s company day after day on their trip through Scotland. Oh just shut up, will you, we’ve got miles to go and you keep coming up with these wise observations ...
He frowned. “One thing?”
“They weren’t his actual last words. Apparently he said that a few weeks before he died.”
Jamie shook his head. “Nice try, though.”
Isabel brought the conversation back to Lin Yutang. She would look for his book that evening, she decided. “There’s something else Lin said that I must look up. He wrote an essay on flowers, I seem to recall, and he lists the conditions that displease flowers. Isn’t that a marvellous notion—that flowers should be displeased by certain things?”
“Flowers with attitude,” said Jamie. “Sure. But what?”
“I don’t remember everything on the list—in fact, I can only remember one thing he said flowers definitely don’t like.”
“Monks talking noisily,” said Isabel. “Apparently that displeases flowers.”
“And oysters,” said Jamie. “What annoys them?”
Isabel thought for a moment, but only a moment. “A noisy noise,” she said. “A noisy noise annoys an oyster. Or so the tongue twister would have us believe.”
She glanced at her watch. She would have been happy to talk for ever about ancestors and rugby and Lin Yutang but she had to put on the leek and potato soup for lunch and then, at two o’clock, she was expected to help in Cat’s delicatessen. Her niece, whose delicatessen had recently become increasingly popular, had chosen a busy summer weekend to go off to Paris. She had not explained what took her there—or who, thought Isabel—and Isabel did not like to pry—or wish to pry, perhaps, as she enjoyed prying a great deal. Cat had arranged cover for Saturday morning, but was short of a hand for Saturday afternoon. Eddie, her long-standing assistant, was generally competent but was subject to panic attacks if there were too many people waiting for service at the counter. He was always reassured by Isabel’s presence and never felt his panicky symptoms if she was there.
She rose to her feet, and so did Jamie. He came round to her side of the table, took her hand, and squeezed it.
“What’s that for?” she asked.
He looked down at her; he was four inches taller than she was, which Isabel found just right. But everything about Jamie was just right, in her view. His eyes, the nape of his neck, his chin, his laugh, his gentleness. And she liked, too, the way he was filled with music; it was there in his mind, and it came out so effortlessly when he sat at the piano or played his bassoon, or when he sang. It was as if there were wells within him, deep wells of music waiting to be drawn upon.
“It’s for you,” he said. “Just a random thank-you. And because I really ... well, because I actually rather love you.”
He leaned forward and kissed her upon the lips. He had been eating mint chocolate and she loved mint chocolate at that moment.
“Let’s have a special dinner tonight,” he said. “I’ll cook. I’ll do something from that Israeli chef. The one who does Near Eastern cuisine. You like his things, don’t you?”
“I do. But be careful with the cous cous. Watch the quantity. They love their cous cous and one can only take a certain amount of cous.”
He nodded in mock solemnity. “And New Zealand white wine? Before they ask us to send it back?”
She laughed. “Yes. Yes to everything.” And then she added, “He’s called Ottolenghi, that chef. And he deserves a tongue twister of his own. Lo, Ottolenghi lengthens leeks laterally. How about that? Or, Competent chefs count cous cous cautiously?”
There was a noise from under the table. “Silly,” said Charlie. Isabel and Jamie looked at one another. Isabel mouthed a question. “Is he talking about our conversation?”
They looked under the table at Charlie. He had finished drawing and now he thrust the piece of paper at them. Isabel took the crumpled sheet and examined it.
“You,” said Charlie. “You and Daddy.”
Two people, stick figures both, were surrounded by what looked like flowers. Behind them was the typical childish, stylised rendition of a house—all windows and doors and chimneys. There was a benevolent sun in the sky, smiling, as the sun in children’s art inevitably is, and birds. The taller of the two figures held the hand of the shorter.
Jamie noticed something else. Behind the birds, what looked like an aeroplane crossed the sky. There were lines drawn around it—wavy lines suggestive of movement, of chaos.
“And a plane,” said Jamie. “Charlie, you’ve drawn us a plane as well. Clever boy!”
Charlie was standing now. His knees showed the tattoos; his fingers were blackened by ink from the pen. “Plane crashing,” he said. “Bang.”
Jamie affected dismay. “But it was so nice, Charlie. Look—those pretty flowers and the birds and even the sun smiling on it all. So nice.”
Charlie peered at his own drawing. “Nice before,” he said.
Nice before. Isabel wondered how Jamie was going to handle this. And then she thought, But what Charlie has said is exactly what Lin Yutang meant. She would talk to Jamie about that later—over the Ottolenghi dinner and the New Zealand white wine.