Bruised in love by her faithless Irish husband, Isabel Dalhousie, a connoisseur of intimate moral issues, spends a great deal of her time considering how to improve the lives of those around her. There is her housekeeper Grace, whose future she must secure; her niece Cat, who is embarking on a new relationship with a dubious workaholic mummy’s boy; and even an American couple newly arrived in Edinburgh on a tour. And then there is Jamie, Cat’s ex-boyfriend, a handsome, gifted musician fourteen years younger than her, with whom she is slowly and hopelessly falling in love.
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could sit and be served coffee and a small selection of food, and Isabel took a seat at one of these, picking up an out-of-date copy of Corriere della Sera from the table of newspapers and magazines beside the cheese counter.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.”