Meet Isabel Dalhousie, a female sleuth tackling murder, mayhem, and the mysteries of life among the cobblestones of Edinburgh.
In this latest installment of Alexander McCall Smith’s ever-delightful and perennially best-selling series, amateur sleuth and philosopher Isabel Dalhousie is called upon to help when a matchmaker begins to question her latest match.
A new baby brings an abundance of joy to Isabel Dalhousie and her husband, Jamie—but Isabel’s almost four-year-old son, Charlie, is none too keen on his newborn brother. In fact, Charlie refuses to acknowledge Magnus, and Isabel must find a way to impress upon her older son the patience and understanding that have served as guiding principles in her own life. These are, of course, the qualities that bring Bea Shandon, an old acquaintance of Isabel’s, to seek her help in a tricky situation. Bea is something of a matchmaker and has brought together a cosmetic surgeon and a successful banker at her most recent dinner party. But new information comes to light about the cosmetic surgeon that causes Bea to doubt the auspiciousness of the match. Isabel agrees to find out more, but her inquiries take an unexpected turn, and she starts to wonder which of the two she should be investigating after all. As ever, her intelligence, quick wit, and deep empathy for others will come to her aid as she grapples with the issues that are her bread and butter: friendship and its duties, the obligation of truthfulness, and the importance of perspective.
“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.
Meet Isabel Dalhousie, a female sleuth tackling the mysteries of life among the cobblestones of Edinburgh.
Isabel Dalhousie is an unusual combination of philosopher and amateur detective. Editor of the Review of Applied Ethics—which addresses such topics as ‘Truth telling in sexual relationships’—she also hosts The Sunday Philosophy Club at her home in Edinburgh. Behind the city’s glorious Georgian facades, its moral compasses are spinning with greed, dishonesty, and murderous intent. In the first book in this delightful series, instinct tells Isabel that the young man who tumbled to his death in front of her eyes at the Usher Hall didn’t fall. He was pushed.
One of fiction’s most original and richly written amateur detectives, Isabel Dalhousie is here to pursue the answers to all of life’s mysteries, large or small.
They went downstairs. A small crowd of people had gathered round the door into the stalls and there was a buzz of conversation. As Isabel and Jennifer drew near, a woman turned to them and said: “Somebody fell from the gods. He’s in there.”
Isabel nodded. “We saw it happen,” she said. “We were up there.”
“You saw it?” said the woman. “You actually saw it?”
“We saw him coming down,’ said Jennifer. “We were in the grand circle. He came down past us.”
“How dreadful,” said the woman. “To see it ... ”
The woman looked at Isabel with that sudden human intimacy that the witnessing of tragedy permitted.
“I don’t know if we should be standing here,” Isabel muttered, half to Jennifer, half to the other woman. “We’ll just get in the way.”
The other woman drew back. “One wants to do something,” she said lamely.
“I do hope that he’s all right,” said Jennifer. “Falling all that way. He hit the edge of the circle, you know. It might have broken the fall a bit.”
No, thought Isabel, it would have made it worse perhaps; there would be two sets of injuries, the blow from the edge of the circle and injuries on the ground. She looked behind her; there was activity at the front door and then, against the wall, the flashing blue light of the ambulance outside.
“We must let them get through,” said Jennifer, moving away from the knot of people at the door. “The ambulance men will need to get in.”
They stood back as two men in loose green fatigues hurried past, carrying a folded stretcher. They were not long in coming out—less than a minute, it seemed—and then they went past, the young man laid out on the stretcher, his arms folded over his chest. Isabel turned away, anxious not to intrude, but she saw his face before she averted her gaze. She saw the halo of tousled dark hair and the fine features, undamaged. To be so beautiful, she thought, and now the end. She closed her eyes. She felt raw inside, empty. This poor young man, loved by somebody somewhere, whose world would end this evening, she thought, when the cruel news was broached. All that love invested in a future that would not materialise, ended in a second, in a fall from the gods.
Friends, Lovers, Chocolate: Isabel’s niece, Cat (she of the unsuitable boyfriends), has been invited to a wedding in Italy. This means that Isabel is left in charge of Cat’s delicatessen—a task to which the redoubtable moral philosopher proves more than equal.
Left alone to steer the shop, Isabel becomes intrigued by the customers. One man in particular attracts her attention. He is recovering from a heart transplant, and wonders about the origins of his new heart.
Soon Isabel is drawn into an investigation of the facts behind the transplant, with fascinating results.
“Money,” said Cat. “That’s the problem. Money.” Isabel handed Cat a glass of wine. “It invariably is,” she said.
“Yes,” Cat went on. “I suppose that if I were prepared to offer enough I would be able to get somebody suitable to stand in for me. But I can’t. I have to run it as a business, and I can’t make a loss.”
Isabel nodded. Cat owned a delicatessen just a few streets away, in Bruntsfield, and although it was successful, she knew that the line between profitability and failure was a narrow one. As it was, she had one full-time employee to pay, Eddie, a young man who seemed to be on the verge of tears much of the time, haunted, thought Isabel, by something which Cat could not, or would not, speak about. Eddie could be left in control for short periods, but not for a week it seemed.
“He panics,” said Cat. “It gets too much for him and he panics.”
Cat explained to Isabel that she had been invited to a wedding in Italy and wanted to go with a party of friends. They would attend the wedding in Messina and then move north to a house which they had rented for a week in Umbria. The time of year was ideal; the weather would be perfect.
“I have to go,” said Cat. “I just have to.”
Isabel smiled. Cat would never ask outright for a favour, but her intention was transparent. “I suppose ... ” she began. “I suppose I could do it again. I rather enjoyed it last time. And if you remember, I made more than you usually do. The takings went up.”
This amused Cat. “You probably overcharged,” she said. And then a pause, before she continued: “I didn’t raise the issue to get you to ... I wouldn’t want to force you.”
“Of course not,” said Isabel.
“But it would make all the difference,” Cat went on quickly. “You know how everything works. And Eddie likes you.”
Isabel was surprised. Did Eddie have a view on her? He hardly ever spoke to her, and certainly never smiled. But the thought that he liked her made her warm towards him. Perhaps he might confide in her, as he had confided in Cat, and she would be able to help him in some way. Or she could put him in touch with somebody: there were people who could help in such circumstances; she could pay for it if necessary.
They discussed the details. Cat would be leaving in ten days’ time. If Isabel came for a hand-over day before then, she could be shown the current stock and the order book. Consignments of wine and salamis were expected while Cat was away and these would have to be attended to. And then there was the whole issue of making sure that the surfaces were cleaned—a fussy procedure subject to an entire litany of regulations. Eddie knew all about that, but you had to watch him; he was funny about olives and often put them in containers marked down for coleslaw.
“It will be far more difficult than editing the Review of Applied Ethics,” said Cat, smiling. “Far more difficult.”
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.”
For philosophically minded Isabel, getting through life with a clear conscience requires careful thought. And with the arrival of baby Charlie, not to mention a passionate relationship with his father Jamie, fourteen years her junior, Isabel enters deeper and rougher waters.
Motherhood is not the only challenge she faces. Even as she negotiates a truce with her furious niece Cat, and struggles for authority over her son with her formidable housekeeper Grace, Isabel finds herself drawn into the story of a painter’s mysterious death off the Isle of Jura.
Perhaps most seriously of all, Isabel’s professional existence and that of her beloved Review of Applied Ethics come under attack from the Machiavellian and suspiciously handsome Professor Dove. She must fight to preserve her journal, all the while contending with the turmoil of her private life. Will this be more than she can handle?
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.
The fifth book in the Isabel Dalhousie / Sunday Philosophy Club series
A new mother and a philosophical specialist, Isabel would really rather not be a sleuth. But when a chance conversation at a dinner party draws her into the case of a doctor whose career has been ruined, she cannot ignore what might be a miscarriage of justice. For Isabel ethics are not theoretical at all, but an everyday matter of life and death.
As she attempts to unravel the truth behind Dr Thompson’s disgrace, Isabel is also required to deal with challenges in her own life. There is her newborn Charlie; Cat’s deli to look after; and a mysterious and unlikeable composer who has latched on to Jamie, making Isabel fear for the future of her new family.
It happened when she was walking with Jamie across the Meadows, the large, tree-lined park that divides South Edinburgh from the Old Town. Jamie was her . . . What was he? Her lover – her younger lover; her boyfriend; the father of her child. She was reluctant to use the word partner because it has associations of impermanence and business arrangements. Jamie was most definitely not a business arrangement; he was her north, her south, to quote Auden, whom she had recently decided she would quote less frequently. But even in the making of that resolution, she had found a line from Auden that seemed to express it all, and had given up on that ambition. And why, she asked herself, should one not quote those who saw the world more clearly than one did oneself?
Her north, her south; well, now they were walking north, on one of those prolonged Scottish summer evenings when it never really gets dark, and when one might forget just how far from south one really is. The fine weather had brought people out on to the grass: a group of young men, bare-chested in the unaccustomed warmth, were playing a game of football, discarded tee-shirts serving as the goal markers; a man was throwing a stick for a tireless border collie to fetch; a young couple lay stretched out, the girl’s head resting on the stomach of the bearded youth who was looking away, at something in the sky that only he could see. The air was heavy, and although it would soon be eight o’clock, there was still a good deal of sunlight about – soft, slanting sunlight, with the quality that goes with light that has been about for the whole day and is now comfortable, used.
The coincidence was that Jamie should suddenly broach the subject of what it must be like to feel thoroughly ashamed of oneself. Later on Isabel asked herself why he had suddenly decided to talk about that. Had he seen something on the Meadows to trigger such a line of thought? Strange things were no doubt done in parks by shameless people, but hardly in the early evening, in full view of passers-by, on an evening such as this. Had he seen some shameless piece of exhibitionism? She had read recently of a Catholic priest who went jogging in the nude, and explained that he did so on the grounds that he sweated profusely when he took exercise. Indeed, for such a person it might be more convenient not to be clad, but this was not Sparta, where athletes disported naked in the palaestra; this was Scotland, where it was simply too cold to do as in Sparta, no matter how classically minded one might be.
Whatever it was that prompted Jamie, he suddenly remarked: ‘What would it be like not to be able to go out in case people recognised you? What if you had done something so . . . so appalling that you couldn’t face people?’
Isabel glanced at him. ‘You haven’t, have you?’
He smiled. ‘Not yet.’
Isabel, philosopher and amateur solver of other people’s problems, meets an old foe, Minty Auchterlonie, at a birthday party attended by their young children. Ambitious Minty, now the head of a small investment bank, is in trouble with her shareholders. But when Isabel gets involved, the Edinburgh sleuth is drawn into a murky world of financial concealment.
Minty is not the only high-flier in Isabel’s life; her niece Cat has just become engaged to a tightrope-walking stuntman. Isabel fears his next job—and the engagement—could end in disaster. Meanwhile, her own boyfriend Jamie has marriage in mind too …
It was while she was lying in bed that Isabel Dalhousie, philosopher and editor of the Review of Applied Ethics, thought about the things we do. Isabel was a light sleeper; Charlie, her eighteen-month-old son, slept deeply and, she was sure, contentedly; Jamie was somewhere in between. Yet Isabel had little difficulty in getting to sleep. Once she made up her mind to sleep, all that she had to do was to shut her eyes, and, sure enough, she would drift off. The same could be done if she surfaced in the course of the night or in those melancholy small hours when both body and spirit could be at their lowest ebb. Then all she had to do was to tell herself that this was not the time to start thinking, and she would quickly return to sleep.
She had wondered about the causes of her light sleeping and had spoken about it to a friend, a specialist in sleep disorders. She had not consulted him professionally, but had brought the matter up over dinner; not before the whole table, of course, but in the intimacy of the one-to-one conversation that people have with those sitting beside them.
“I don’t like to ask about medical things,” she said.
“But ... ” he said.
“Well, yes. But. You see, you doctors must dread being buttonholed by people who want to talk about their symptoms. There you are at a party and somebody says: I’ve been having these twinges of pain in my stomach ... ”
“No, I haven’t.”
He smiled. “The old cliché, you know. Somebody comes and says, A friend of mine has this rash, you see, and I wondered what it was. That sometimes happens. Doctors understand all about embarrassment, you know.”
Isabel nodded. “But it must annoy you—being asked about medical matters.”
He thought for a moment. “Nihil humanum mihi alienum est, if I may lapse into Latin. I don’t set my mind against anything human. Doctors should subscribe to that, I think. Like priests.”
Isabel did not think the comparison quite fitting. “Priests do disapprove, don’t they? Doctors don’t—or shouldn’t. You don’t shake your head over your patients’ behaviour, do you?”
“If doctors see self-destructive behaviour, they might,” he said. “If somebody comes in with chronic vascular disease, for example, and you smell the nicotine on his fingers, of course you’re going to say something. Or a drinker comes in with liver problems. You’re going to make it clear what’s causing the problem.”
“But you don’t ladle on the blame, do you? You don’t say things like, This is all your own stupid fault. You don’t say that, even if it patently is his stupid fault.”
He played with his fork. “No, I suppose not.”
“Whereas a priest will. A priest will use the language of right and wrong. I don’t think doctors do that.”
She looked at him. He was typical of a certain type of Edinburgh doctor; the old-fashioned, gentle Scottish physician, unmoved by the considerations of profit and personal gain that could so disfigure medicine. That doctors should consider themselves businessmen was, Isabel had always felt, a moral tragedy for medicine. Who was left to be altruistic? Teachers, she thought, and people who worked for charities; and public-interest lawyers, and ... in fact, the list was quite long; probably every bit as long as it ever had been. One should be careful, she told herself, in commenting on the decline of society; the elder Cato was the warning here—a frightful old prig, he had warned that everything was in decline, forgetting that once we reach forty we all believe that the world is on the slide. Only if eighteen-year-olds started to say O tempora! O mores! would the situation be really alarming; eighteen-year-olds did not say that, though; they no longer had any Latin, of course, and could not.
“You were going to ask me a question,” he said. He knew Isabel, and her digressions, her tendency to bring philosophical complications into the simplest of matters.
“Why are some people light sleepers?” she began, and added hurriedly, “I’m one, by the way.”
“So am I, as it happens,” he replied. “It’s often respiratory—sleep apnoea, where you keep waking up because you’re choking. If not, it may be an idiosyncrasy of the brain. Is it a problem?”
“Not for me. Not really. I go back to sleep.”
He nodded. “You could get yourself checked for sleep apnoea. It’s pretty easy to monitor sleep patterns. You don’t look at risk to me, though—it tends to affect heavier people.”
That had been the end of the conversation, as another guest had addressed the table at large and private conversations had trailed off. But now, lying in bed, in one of these brief periods of nocturnal wakefulness that she had decided were the product of brain idiosyncrasy rather than breathing problems, Isabel turned and looked at the sleeping form of Jamie beside her. She still experienced a sense of novelty, even if they had been together for a couple of years now; a sense of having been given a precious gift. And he felt it too; he had expressed it that way, too, when he told her that he was grateful for her. “I feel that I’ve been given something,” he said.
“Somebody has given me you. Isn’t that odd? Because it doesn’t happen that way, does it?” She watched him breathing. The sheet that he had drawn up to his chest and that lay crumpled about him like a Roman toga moved almost imperceptibly, but still moved. The act of breathing was not really an act at all, as the will played no part. We did not tell ourselves to breathe—except sometimes, in yoga classes and the like—and when we were asleep, as Jamie was now, the system itself remembered to do what was required. And how many of the other things we did fell into that category?
Isabel wondered what a detailed record of our day’s activities would look like—not a record of the sort that might appear in a diary: Went into town. Had lunch. That kind of thing gave a broad-brush account of what we did but did not list the really particular, the hundreds—tens of thousands probably—of little actions in a person’s day. We did such things all the time: tiny movements of the limbs as we sat in a chair or lay in bed, as she did now; little twitches, the flickering of the eyelids, the touching of the fingers, the inclining of the head. Those were nothing really—background noise, one might say—but they would all be religiously entered in this record of the day. And then there were the things we said—the speech acts, as philosophers called them—which ranged from the ums and ers, the muttered phrases of apology on bumping into somebody in a crowd, the meaningless expressions that lubricated our social dealings with one another. A transcript of our speech over the space of a day would make sobering reading, Isabel thought; and over a lifetime? What would we have said? What would it amount to? How much energy would we have wasted on the smallest of small talk; how many months would be filled with sheer nonsense?
And then, as often as not, when the time came to talk, really to talk, we were tongue-tied, as could happen to people at the bedsides of the dying, when there was an urgency that cried out for big things to be said, and we found that we could say very little, or that tears made it impossible to speak. Isabel remembered once visiting an aunt on her father’s side who did not have long to live; she had wanted to thank her for her generosity to her as a girl, and although she had managed to say the words that expressed her gratitude, the aunt, known for her coruscating wit, had simply said, ‘Flattery will get you everywhere,’ and later that afternoon had died. But at least she had been thanked. ‘Flattery will get you everywhere’ were memorable last words, if indeed the aunt had said nothing more after Isabel left her bedside, which she thought was probably the case. It would be a perfectly presentable final sentence, although not as witty, perhaps, as Oscar Wilde’s gazing in dismay at the decoration surrounding his deathbed and saying, by way of farewell, “Either that wallpaper goes or I do.”
If a transcription of our day’s speech would make uncomfortable reading, how much more dismaying, perhaps, would be a record of our thoughts. For a moment she imagined how it would look. A mixture of memories, fleeting and prolonged, what-if speculations, idle observations, regrets—that would be its shape for most of us, and for most of us, too, the leitmotiv would be ... Isabel paused, unwilling to reach a conclusion so solipsistic, but unable to avoid it; the leitmotiv would be me. It was that simple. Most of us, most of the time, were thinking about ourselves.
But was that really bleak, or just human? We were, after all, ourselves; that was all we really knew, and the only point from which we could act. We could think of others, of course, and did, but such thoughts were often about others in the context of ourselves—what they had said to us, what they had done to us.
She looked at Jamie, who stirred.
“Jamie,” she whispered. She had not intended to, but did. She uttered his name, as if to confirm the fact that he was there; we named things and they became more real.
He stirred again. A person’s name is the one thing he hears even in sleep.
“So ... ” he muttered drowsily.
“Are you awake?” Isabel whispered.
“Am now ... ” although his eyes were still shut.
“Sorry,” she said. “I won’t talk to you any more.”
He reached out a hand. There was a three-quarters moon outside and an elongated rectangle of light came in through the chink in the curtains. She would have to replace those curtains; Grace, her housekeeper, had been going on about that for years now. “Those curtains, they’re ancient, Isabel, and the lining has rotted, you know.”
She gazed at Jamie’s forearm in the moonlight; flesh made silver. She took his hand in hers and held it lightly. She wanted to cry, from sheer happiness, but he would really wake up if he heard her crying those tears of joy and think that something was wrong. Men, on the whole, did not understand crying for happiness, as women did. There were so many different sorts of tears.
She thought: I shall not think. And that thought, a prompting that denied itself, worked as it always did—she drifted off to sleep, holding Jamie’s hand. When she awoke to the sound of Charlie gurgling in his cot in the next-door room, she found that miraculously Jamie’s hand was still in hers, as lovers will sometimes find that through the night they have cleaved together and are still thus arranged in the innocent light of morning. That day was a Friday, a day that Isabel always enjoyed very much, although Saturday was her absolute favourite. She had the usual feelings about Monday, a day that she had never heard anybody speak up for, although it must have had its defenders; workaholics, perhaps, found Monday intoxicating in its promise of a whole week of work ahead, but for others, in her experience, it was more commonly Fridays or Saturdays that were favoured. In her case, Friday had been further boosted by Jamie’s usually being free on that day, which meant that they could do things together, taking Charlie off on an outing somewhere, or she could use part of the day to catch up on Review affairs while Jamie entertained their son. Whichever of these she chose, there was a very satisfactory feeling of making a choice that was unconstrained by necessity. If she worked on a Friday, she did so because she wanted to, not because she had to; and if she went off somewhere with Charlie, it was similarly a matter of doing what she wished.
Occasionally Jamie had to work on a Friday evening, if he was summoned to play with the chamber orchestra that relied on him when a bassoon was called for. Sometimes he would also be needed on a Friday for session work—a recording of music for a film, perhaps—but that rarely happened, and Fridays had remained more or less free ever since he had given up taking pupils on that day. These pupils were his bread and butter; he taught some of them at the Edinburgh Academy, the school on the north side of the city where he gave music lessons part-time, and others had their lessons in his flat in Saxe-Coburg Street, round the corner from the Academy. At the moment, he had told Isabel, they were not very good, although one or two of them could be competent players if they tried. But they did not practise, in spite of the exhortations he wrote in their notebooks about scales and exercises.
“Of course, Charlie will practise diligently,” Isabel had said.
“When he starts playing his ... ” She looked at Jamie. He had said something once about miniature bassoons—something called a tenoroon. Somehow she could not picture a reduced bassoon, with miniature levers and shrunken key-work, being played by Charlie in his Macpherson tartan rompers.
Jamie understood her hesitation as a sign that it would be for him to decide the shape of Charlie’s musical education.
“Violin,” he said. “Let’s start him on strings. And anyway, they can’t blow wind instruments until they’re much older. Nine is probably the earliest. Before that their lungs aren’t strong enough and they can easily damage their lips. The muscles around the lips are still forming, you see.”
She smiled at the thought of Charlie with his unformed lips and a violin. He would attempt to eat it if she gave him one now, but they could start when he was three, which would come soon enough. And then, after the violin, when he was old enough, ten or so, he could learn the Highland bagpipes, starting on a practice chanter before proceeding to a real set, ebony drones and all, to the full, primeval wail that sent shivers down the spine. He would wear the kilt—Macpherson tartan again—and play the pipes; oh, Charlie, dear little Charlie.
That Friday, Jamie had no commitments and Isabel decided that, although she might take advantage of his presence to do some work in the earlier part of the morning, she would suggest that they should all go into town for lunch together. She had promised to see her accountant, but she had been putting it off; he had telephoned with an offer to come and see her if she would not come to him. She felt guilty about that, as he was a mild man with the air of one who was long-suffering, as no doubt he was.
“I can only do so much with the figures I’m given, Isabel,” he had told her. “I can’t make things up, you know; we don’t work that way.” She wondered whether this implied that she worked that way—making things up.
She had assured him she would give him what he wanted, and had dutifully put printing bills and postage receipts for the Review into a folder ... until she had somehow forgotten. She had scrambled around and a few missing receipts had turned up, but not everything, she suspected.
“I have to see Ronnie,” she said to Jamie. “I have to give him some papers. It shouldn’t take too long. Then we can go to Glass and Thompson for lunch. Charlie likes their quiche.” And he had indeed liked it on their last visit, even if most of it had ended up on the floor around the table. Charlie had sophisticated likes, his parents were finding out to their surprise; he enjoyed olives, and would wave his hands at the sight of quail eggs. It was almost a parody of the tastes of the privileged baby and Isabel felt slightly embarrassed at the thought of it. She did not remember giving him his first olive—it would never have occurred to her to do so; had Jamie done that? And quail eggs? Would it be oysters next? It was Jamie, she decided; he tended to feed Charlie with whatever they were eating, and Charlie never refused anything from his father.
Jamie was happy with the suggestion. Isabel could make an early start in her study while he took Charlie down to the canal in the jogging pushchair, the one that allowed him to run while pushing. Then Charlie could have his mid-morning sleep and be bright and ready for the outing into town.
They breakfasted together. Jamie, who did not like to eat anything very much before a run, had a cup of milky coffee and a slice of toast spread with Marmite. Charlie had rather more: a small carton of strawberry yoghurt, mashed-up boiled egg on fingers of toast, and an olive, stoned, of course, and cut into four minute parts.
Grace arrived before they had left the table. She fussed over Charlie, who waved his arms enthusiastically, his unambiguous signal of pleasure.
“Pleased to see me?” cooed Grace, hanging her hemp shopping bag on the hook on the back of the kitchen door. “Of course you are, you wee champion! And what’s that they’re giving you to eat? An olive. Surely not? Bairns don’t like olives, so they don’t.”
Isabel glanced at Jamie, who smiled, and looked away; disagreements between Isabel and Grace were not his affair and he tried to keep out of them. Privately he sided with Isabel and she knew that she had his support, but they were both aware that it did not help to declare it.
“Some bairns do,” said Isabel. “This one, for example.”
Grace ignored this. Still addressing Charlie, she continued,
“It’ll be quail eggs next, my goodness! And caviar after that.”
“Small children like all sorts of things,” said Isabel. “They’re people, after all, and people have peculiar tastes and beliefs.” The reference to beliefs slipped in; she had not really intended it, but it rounded off the observation nicely, and was tossed in rather like a depth-charge, thought Jamie. He looked at Isabel with concern. There had been a discussion between the two women the previous week about feng shui, in which Grace had enthused about chi forces and Isabel had expressed the view that they simply did not exist. If they did, she said, then surely we could detect them with some sort of electronic apparatus. This reference to peculiar beliefs was about that, Jamie thought. The debates about olives and chi forces were minutely intertwined.
Grace had stood her ground during that discussion. “There are plenty of things nobody can see,” she said. “What about that particle thingy that they’re trying to find. That Higgs bison, or whatever.”
“Boson,” Jamie had interjected. “Higgs boson. It’s a sort of ... ”
“Boson,” said Isabel. “I saw Professor Higgs the other day, you know. He was walking along Heriot Row looking down at the pavement.”
“He won’t find his boson down there,” said Grace.
“He wouldn’t have been looking for it,” said Jamie. “It exists only in the mathematics he did. It’s a theory.”
The argument about unseen forces had continued for some minutes and remained unresolved; both sides were sure of their position and both were sure that they had won. This reference now to peculiar beliefs threatened to reopen the issue, which Jamie did not think was a good idea. Fortunately, Grace paid no attention to it and changed the subject. There was a load of washing to be put in the machine and did Isabel want Charlie’s clothes dealt with now or later? And there was the question of the vacuum cleaner, which had stopped working the previous day; had Isabel phoned, as she had promised, about that?
“I shall,” said Isabel. “Today. Definitely. I’ll put it on my list.” Grace had nodded, and gone off to begin her tasks.
“Quail eggs,” whispered Jamie. “She really disapproves.”
Isabel nodded. “Mind you, it is outrageous,” she said. “What sort of child have we produced, Jamie? Quail eggs!”
He smiled. He loved her. He loved Charlie. He even loved Grace, in a way. It was a perfect morning, the best sort of early summer morning, and all he felt was love.
There are drawbacks to residing in the enlightened city that is twenty-first-century Edinburgh, where every Saturday night ears burn at dinner parties across the city, and anyone requiring the investigative abilities of a philosophical soul knows where to find her.
Jillian McKinlay—wife of a trustee of an illustrious school—is the latest petitioner; she asks Isabel to look into a poison-pen letter that makes insinuations about applicants for the position of principal.
Meanwhile Isabel’s niece Cat has another new boyfriend who seems too good to be true. And when a pretty cellist with a tragic story takes a fancy to her husband-to-be, Isabel finds herself contemplating an act of heroic and alarming self-sacrifice.
Summer in Edinburgh is a season of delicate sunshine and showers, picnics with loved ones in blossoming gardens and genteel celebrations of art and music. But Isabel Dalhousie’s peaceful idyll is broken when a single meeting over coffee with fellow philosopher Dr George McLeod brings an irate phone call from his wife, Roz, who implacably accuses Isabel of conducting an affair with her husband.
Wounded by the injustice of Roz’s wild allegation and concerned both for her standing among the gossipy group of her scholarly peers and for Roz’s apparent state of hysteria, Isabel is minded to discover more about the McLeods and set the record straight. She turns to Millie, an old acquaintance and a university colleague of George’s, for insight. Once again Isabel is reminded to avoid jumping to hasty conclusions about the lives of others, and to value friendship wherever it’s found.
Happy in her Edinburgh kitchen with her husband-to-be and beloved son, Isabel finds herself having increasingly tender feelings about parenthood. So when Jane, a visiting academic adopted and sent to Australia as a baby, asks for help in tracing her Scottish origins, Isabel cannot refuse.
However, Isabel finds herself beset by the perennial temptation to suspicion of the iniquitous Professor Lettuce’s latest subterfuge, and of her niece Cat’s weakness for the wrong man when a new assistant begins work at the delicatessen. Meanwhile, the search for Jane’s parents becomes troubling, and Isabel can hardly prevent herself from interfering a little too forcefully in family secrets.
Isabel Dalhousie, a philosopher, lowered her copy of the Scotsman newspaper and smiled. On the other side of the breakfast table, buttering a slice of bread for their young son, Charlie, who was now two and a half, and hungry, was her lover and fiancé, Jamie. She loved them both so much, so much. They were her world—a tousle-headed little boy and a bassoonist; more important to her than anything else—more than the complete works of Kant and Aristotle, more than the city she lived in, more than Scotland itself.
“Something amusing?” Jamie asked.
There was normally little to laugh at in the papers. Political scandals, economic disaster, suffering in all its familiar forms—these were the daily staple of a disaster-prone, uneasy planet. Add to that the seeming inability of the Scottish rugby team to defend itself against the predations of a group of hefty New Zealanders on a summer tour, and the newspaper’s offering for that day was bleak.
Isabel had read out to Jamie the opening paragraph of the rugby report, in which the Scottish side’s performance had been described in less than glowing terms. Jamie, however, had listened with only half an ear; he liked tennis and golf, and found that games involving a ball any larger than those used in these two games held little attraction for him. For her part, although she did not follow sport at all closely, Isabel enjoyed reading about rugby, a game that struck her as being one of the few remaining tribal rituals on offer to males in modern societies. An anthropologist might have a field-day in pursuing this interpretation; might note with some interest the famous rugby haka of the New Zealanders, as their players lined up and challenged the other team with thumbed noses and intimidating grunts; might listen to the Scottish supporters singing ‘Flower of Scotland’, with its fourteenth-century military references (fourteenth century!); might remark upon the wailing bagpipes at the beginning of the game and the painted faces and ...
And there was another, more personal reason for her interest: as a schoolgirl she had been in love, at a safe distance, with a boy who had seemed impossibly handsome, even when covered in mud and in a heaving scrummage. Some men were like that, she mused: they were much improved by mud.
But it was not the rugby news that made her laugh; it was a small item in the paper’s political diary.
‘Very amusing,’ she said to Jamie. ‘There’s a story here about a Glasgow politician who held a surgery. You know those consultation sessions they hold—they call them surgeries; constituents can drop in and tackle them about local problems.’
Jamie nodded. “I went to see my local Member of Parliament once. He was actually very helpful.”
“Yes. That’s what an MP’s surgery is for. But this one apparently had a constituent coming in to complain about a sore nose. Can you believe it? A sore nose.”
Jamie smiled. “Well, I suppose if you call it a surgery ... ”
“Yes,” said Isabel. “But surely people understand that it’s a politician they’re seeing—not a doctor.” She paused. “Or are there people who really think that their Member of Parliament should be able to do something about their aches and pains?”
She thought there were; once the state in its benignity embraced us, then the routes by which it dispensed its succour could easily be confused.
She picked up the newspaper. “People are pretty strange, aren’t they? They can be so ... well, I suppose there’s no other word for it but misinformed.”
“Yes,” said Jamie. “They can. I was reading somewhere or other about a woman who wrote to an advice column asking whether a baby adopted from Korea would speak Korean when he grew up, even if raised elsewhere.”
“She’s not alone,” said Isabel. “Natural language. Scottish kings have believed in that—James IV, I think, even conducted an experiment. He had a couple of children taken off to Inchkeith Island and looked after by a nurse who was dumb. He wanted to find out what language children would speak naturally if they weren’t exposed to English—or, rather, to Scots. He thought it would be Hebrew.”
“And it turned out to be Korean?”
Isabel smiled. “It was nothing, I imagine. Just sounds. Or, as Walter Scott suggested, they might have sounded like birds. There are lots of birds on Inchkeith Island.”
Jamie wondered whether the children might have invented a language.
“Not from scratch,” said Isabel. “Or only a rudimentary one.” Jamie passed a piece of buttered bread to Charlie, who seized it, examining it intently before putting it into his mouth.
“Rudimentary? So they’d have no grammar—just nouns for the various objects? Not that they’d need many. The sea. Birds’ eggs. Food. Fish.”
“Yes,” said Isabel. “And a word for Scotland too, perhaps. They’d look across the firth and see the mainland, and they might give it a name.”
He shook his head. “I find that story rather sad,” he said. Isabel put the newspaper down on the table. She thought about the children on the island, imagining them huddled together in the winter, with no words to describe their misery. A familiar question occurred to her: if you had no language, then what form did your thoughts take—if you thought at all? Of course you thought—she had never had any difficulty with accepting that—but how limited would your thoughts be in the absence of any words to express them?
She looked at Charlie and smiled. He returned the smile. He had no words for what had just passed between them, she told herself; they had engaged with one another, and affection and amusement, tinged with a note of conspiracy, had been in the mind of each. These were feelings, though; not articulated intentions or thoughts as such. Or had Charlie thought, She’s smiling at me, even if he as yet had no word for smile? It was, she decided, rather like looking at an unfamiliar stretch of landscape; one might not know its name but one could still be said to know it, and knowledge of the geographical name would make no difference to how one thought about what one saw. And people still felt hungry, even if they had no name for hunger.
Jamie reached for the newspaper, found the diary item and read it. Then he looked up. “But he’s a doctor,” he said.
He pointed to the column in the newspaper. “Him. The Member of Parliament who was asked about the sore nose. He’s a doctor. I’ve seen him on television. He’s the health spokesman for his party.”
“So that constituent who asked about his nose wasn’t so stupid after all.”
Isabel made an apologetic gesture. “I suppose I jumped to a conclusion,” she said. “But so did the newspaper. Mea culpa, or rather, nostra culpa.”
Jamie looked at her with mock disapproval. “Maybe we shouldn’t judge others too quickly.” He tried to make it sound as if he was joking, but the comment came across as censorious.
“All right,” she said. “It’s very easy to get things wrong when we aren’t in possession of all the facts.”
“And I suspect that we hardly ever know everything we should,” said Jamie.
He might as well admit to a serious point: he wanted her to think about it; he wanted Isabel to be less certain; he wanted her to know that there were times when she might not be right.
But she was not thinking chastening thoughts: Isabel was a philosopher and she could not help but follow a challenging train of thought once it had been mooted. Jamie had suggested that we had to make do with imperfect knowledge, and he was right, she thought. Yet not knowing everything might be preferable to having all the facts set out before one. For example, did any of us really want to know the exact day, the hour even, when we were to die? She considered not. Nor did we necessarily want to know what would happen after we were gone.
That, of course, raised a whole range of issues about confidence and belief. Civilisations arose because people believed in them and in the values they represented. People built cathedrals and palaces, painted masterpieces— or paid other people to paint them—because they felt that what they were doing would last. If they thought that everything was just for next year, then they would hardly bother. It would be rather like living in a campsite, or like being a passing tenant of a patch of earth. So when a lover said, “I want to be with you always,” he had to mean it, even if he knew that it could not be true.
Charlie had finished with the piece of bread Jamie had fed him and was now waving his arms in the air—his signal for more.
“I adore the way he does that,” said Isabel. “Imagine if one could go through life waving one’s arms in the air whenever one wanted something.”
“Some do,” said Jamie. “Conductors, in particular. They wave their arms at you if they want you to play with more expression.” He remembered something that made him smile. “And sometimes they forget that they’re not in the concert hall. I saw Giorgio—remember the conductor I introduced you to last year? Well, I once saw him buying pistachio nuts at a delicatessen in Glasgow. The assistant was measuring them out and he urged her to put in more by waving his arms in just the same way as he gets us to play fortissimo. I imagine he had no idea he was doing it.”
Isabel took over the feeding of Charlie, glancing at her watch as she did so.
“Time,” she said.
It could have been a comment on the matters she had been pondering—on permanence and our sense of the future—but it was more prosaic than that.
“Yes,” sighed Jamie. “I know. I must go.”
He had a rehearsal that morning in Glasgow and would have to catch the train from Haymarket Station in an hour or so. The journey was so familiar, a meandering ride across the waist-belt of Scotland, the hills of Stirlingshire off to the right, gentle, soft; past small towns in which nothing happened; past the grey barracks of Glasgow’s outskirts, and culminating in the echoing halls of Queen Street Station: a trip that lasted not much more than forty-five minutes, but which took one out of one culture and into another; from a clear Eastern light to a diffuse Western glow; from cold to warmth, some might say.
He now rose from the table, planted a kiss on Charlie’s forehead and went off to get ready.
Isabel prepared another piece of buttered bread for Charlie, this time spreading it with a thin layer of Marmite. Charlie was an unusual child, at least in his taste for savoury foods. His first word had been ‘olive’, and this had presaged a taste for anchovy paste and horseradish sauce, even for mild curries. His contemporaries from the playgroup he now attended each morning would not have understood; they had eyes only for brightly iced cupcakes and they would have spat out the pickled gherkins to be found neatly packed in Charlie’s plastic lunch box.
Isabel called the lunch box a tiffin box, a word she had picked up from her paternal grandfather, who had been in India. She had been five when he died, and her memory of him was hazy. In fact, all that she remembered was his moustache, which was an elaborate salt-and-pepper affair, and the ancient brass-bound tiffin box that sat on a table in his hall.
“Tiffin,” Charlie suddenly announced. “Charlie want tiffin now.”
Isabel gave him the piece of bread, which he examined briefly before throwing on the floor.
“Tiffin,” he said.
Isabel picked up the bread. “Don’t throw food, Charlie. That’s not nice.”
Moral philosophy for two-year-olds, she thought. Don’t throw food. It was as good a starting point as any to begin the teaching of responsibility towards the world around us. And it was helpful to back it up with some justification too: that’s not nice. Again, a simple expression said it all. Philosophers might tie themselves in knots over the question of conduct that was morally wrong—that debate, after all, was what Isabel’s job was about—but perhaps the ultimate answer was so much simpler: that’s not nice. Did one have to go further than that? She sighed. Of course one did; morality was not about what you liked or disliked; it had to be justified, to have some reasoning behind it.
“Tiffin is for later,” she said. “You can have tiffin at playgroup.”
“Tiffin now,” said Charlie.
“No,” she said. “Tiffin comes later—at tiffin-time, darling. Eleven-thirty.”
She reflected on this short exchange. Charlie had given voice to a desire: he wanted tiffin now. She had refused him—tiffin came with conditions: it could be enjoyed only at a certain time. Charlie might well think: why? If one can eat tiffin at eleven-thirty, one can surely eat it now. It was an arbitrary rule perhaps, but it offered a more general lesson besides: that we cannot always have what we want. The age of two and a half, Isabel thought, was as good a time as any to learn this most difficult and disappointing of lessons about life.
But there could at least be an explanation, although she doubted whether an explanation was what a child would want.
“Tiffin is for later, you see, darling. Tiffin is for when you’re hungry. See?”
“Hungry now,” said Charlie.
With Charlie dropped off at his playgroup, and his tiffin box entrusted to the supervisor for safe keeping, Isabel walked along Merchiston Crescent to Bruntsfield. Conscience dictated that she should have returned to her desk and tackled the pile of unedited manuscripts awaiting inclusion in the next issue of the Review of Applied Ethics, but one of the few faults from which Isabel suffered was a slight tendency to prevarication, which became more evident in good weather. And the day was a fine one, luminescent and warm, with the wind, such as it was, coming from the south-west, from Dumfries and Galloway, and from the Atlantic before that. Scotland’s weather was rarely second-hand, blowing in, as it did, from the west and south-west. So while cities on the continent had to contend with hand-me-down winds from elsewhere, from Italy and North Africa—if they were lucky—or from the Steppes and Siberia if they were not, Scotland’s weather was usually entirely its own, freshly minted above the wide plains of empty ocean. Isabel had always thought of it as white weather: the white of clouds, of shifting veils of rain, of air that was attenuated to fine mist, of pale light from a hazy sun.
She took a deep breath. There were times when life’s problems were convincingly outweighed by its possibilities, and this, she felt, was one. Here she was, in her forties, with a child at a time when many might have felt it was too late for children; blessed, too, with a fiancé whom she would shortly marry; solvent—though she was discreet about that, and generous beyond measure; working for herself—the list of good things, on any view, was a long one. She stopped herself: the making of such an inventory could attract the attention of a Nemesis always sensitive to hubristic thoughts, whose concern it had always been to cut down to size those who got above themselves. But I am not proud of any of this, Isabel said to herself; I am grateful, and that is something quite different. Nemesis, she hoped, had no axe to grind with those who were simply thankful for good fortune; her objection was to those who thought that they deserved what they had and boasted about it.
She had no real reason to go to Bruntsfield: the store cupboard at home was copiously stocked with everything they needed for the coming week; she had nothing to put in the post, or nothing that could not wait until tomorrow; and she did not need to go to a cash machine. But she was in the mood for a walk and for a cup of coffee in Cat’s delicatessen. Cat, her niece, had run her food business for several years now and had recently expanded into a small adjoining shop that she had been able to buy at a tempting price. Isabel had offered to lend her the money to make the purchase, but Cat had declined.
“Don’t think I’m being ungrateful,” she said. “But I really want to do this by myself.”
Isabel had explained that there would be no strings attached to the loan and that it would be interest-free; in fact, how about an outright gift? Cat, though, had been adamant.
“It’s pride, I suppose,” said Cat. “I want to prove that I can do this on my own. I hope you don’t mind.”
Isabel did not mind at all. Her relationship with her niece was far from simple, and she did not wish to imperil the delicate understanding that they had recently reached. The awkwardness between them had two causes.
First, Isabel was Cat’s aunt—even if only fifteen years separated them. Cat’s father, Isabel’s brother, had distanced himself from the family and had little contact with his own daughter; not for reasons of antipathy, but from a curious, almost absent- minded indifference. Isabel had always felt that Cat blamed her for this; that insofar as she wanted to punish her father, but could not, Isabel would have to do as the focus of her anger.
The second reason for awkwardness was even more understandable. Jamie had been Cat’s boyfriend and had eventually been rejected by her. But then Isabel had taken up with him. She had not planned this turn of events; she had merely continued what had started as a friendship and this had blossomed, very much to her surprise—and delight, it must be said—into something more. Isabel understood why Cat should have been taken aback by this, but had not anticipated that she would be quite so resentful. She had not stolen Jamie, and there was, she felt, something of the dog in the manger about Cat’s attitude. She might not have wanted Jamie, but did that mean that nobody else could have him? The answer, from Cat’s point of view, was probably yes.
The situation had been made worse by Cat’s abysmal taste in men. Jamie had been the exception in a rather too long line of flawed boyfriends, ranging from Toby, with his crushed-strawberry cords and his irritating manner, to Bruno, a boastful tightrope-walker who had been revealed to be a wearer of elevator shoes. There was a great deal wrong with Bruno, but the elevator shoes had seemed to point to the presence of something deeply untrustworthy. Isabel had wrestled with herself over this: she was quite prepared to accept that elevator shoes need not say anything negative about the wearer—there were, presumably, entirely meritorious people who resorted to them to gain a few extra inches—and so one could not condemn such shoes out of hand. But there would also be those whose elevator shoes were symptomatic of a chip on the shoulder, an aggressive personality—and Bruno, she felt, was one such.
Bruno had effectively dismissed himself as a boyfriend when he publicly upbraided Cat for causing him to fall off his tightrope—not exactly a high wire, as it had been only three or four feet off the ground at the time. But that was enough to end the relationship, much to Isabel’s carefully concealed relief. He had then been followed by a teacher, who had seemed suitable enough, but who had, perhaps for that very reason, also been dismissed.
Now there was nobody—as far as Isabel knew—and that, she hoped, was how it might be, for a while at least. She did not think of Cat as promiscuous, but at what point, Isabel wondered, might eyebrows be raised as to the frequency of boyfriends? Was a new one each year too many? If one carried on in that way from the age of twenty, by the time one was forty-five one would have had twenty-five boyfriends, which surely was rather too many.
So what was a respectable number of boyfriends over a lifetime? Five? Isabel herself had had ... For a moment she stopped in her tracks, halfway along Merchiston Crescent, and thought. There had been the rugby player, but he did not count as they had spoken only two or three times and he never knew that she had fallen for him. The first real boyfriend had come a little bit later, just before she left school; a shy boy with that—for her—fatal combination of dark hair and blue eyes, who had kissed her in the darkness of the Dominion Cinema one Saturday afternoon, and had written her the most extraordinary love letter that she still kept, tucked away with her birth certificate. Then there had been John Liamor, her former husband, who had been disastrous, who had broken her heart again and again, and of whom it was still uncomfortable to think, even if she had come to terms with what had happened. Then Jamie. And that was all. Was that typical, she wondered, or might it be considered thin rations?
The important thing, she told herself, was to try to see it from Cat’s point of view—and she could certainly do that. Like all of us, she thought, Cat was searching for the company of one who would make her happy. Some of us did not have to look long for that person, some of us found him or her with little difficulty; others had longer to look, and had less luck. They deserved our sympathy rather than our disapproval.
Passers-by, of whom there were one or two, paid no attention to the sight of a rather handsome-looking woman suddenly stopping and appearing to be lost in thought. Had they done so, they might have concluded that Isabel was trying to remember what she had failed to put on her shopping list; they would not have guessed that she was thinking about the problem of boyfriends. And these passers-by, anyway, were students, making their way to lectures at Napier University near by. And there was never any doubt as to what students—at least the male ones, as these happened to be—thought about on their way to lectures. Sex.
She continued her walk, and five minutes later was standing in front of the delicatessen. Looking inside, through the large display window, she saw that Cat was pointing out something to a customer, while Eddie, her young assistant, was standing behind the counter. He caught Isabel’s eye and waved enthusiastically, beckoning her in, in the manner of one who had important news to convey. Eddie was normally shy, but not now; now he had something to tell her.
As a mother, wife, employer and editor, Isabel Dalhousie is aware that to be human is to be responsible. So when a neighbour brings her a new and potentially dangerous puzzle to solve, once again she feels she has no option but to shoulder the burden.
A masterpiece painting has been stolen from Duncan Munrowe, old-fashioned philanthropist, father to two discontented children, and a very wealthy man. As Isabel enters into negotiations with the shadowy figures in search of a ransom, a case where heroes and villains should be clearly defined turns murky.
That conversation with Jamie about mathematical ability took place on one of Isabel’s working days. Jamie, who was a musician, kept irregular hours, and frequently had days when not only did he not have any rehearsal or performance commitments, but he also had no teaching. He taught bassoon at the Edinburgh Academy and had a number of private pupils too, but he managed to cram all his teaching into two mornings and one afternoon a week, which left three weekdays for other things. Those days might easily have filled up with session work or preparation for concerts but times were hard and there seemed less and less of that work around. “Perhaps the music’s stopped,” he remarked to Isabel. She had assured him that music seemed to continue in the face of every difficulty, just as philosophy did. “We imagine our crises are unlike all other crises,” she said. “But they aren’t. There’s always been uncertainty. There’s always been danger. It’s the human condition—the normal one, perhaps.”
On Jamie’s free days, he took over responsibility for Charlie, allowing Isabel to attend to her job as editor, and owner too, of the Review of Applied Ethics. Charlie now went to a small nursery school round the corner, and Jamie would take him there at eight-thirty in the morning, deposit him in the classroom with his neatly packed tiffin box, and then return for him five hours later. After lunch, while Isabel worked in her study on the latest issue of the Review, Jamie would often supervise Charlie’s afternoon rest, read to him, play the piano with him, or take him for a walk by the canal or, as a special treat, to Blackford Pond. That pond, inhabited by a tribe of over-fed and demanding ducks, could keep Charlie amused for hours, and Jamie knew every inch of its muddy shore quite as well as an experienced mariner knows the bays and inlets of his native waters. He had also come to know the personality of the various ducks and could identify where each stood in order of precedence. Size, it seemed, was the sole determinant of that.
Even though she had made an early start while it was still comparatively cool, already the weather was making it difficult for Isabel to work. She had opened her study windows, but there was only an intermittent breeze and the air inside was heavy. Her study had a particular smell to it—the smell of paper, she had decided—and for some reason this oppressed her. Perhaps it was not a day on which to sequester oneself inside; perhaps it was simply not a day on which to do philosophy. Her friend, Julian Baggini, who, like her, edited a philosophical paper, seemed to be able to do his thinking in all sorts of circumstances—in the car, in a train, in the bath—but it was different for Isabel. It was true that thoughts came to her at the oddest of moments, but what she called organised thinking needed the time and place to be right; and the thinking she was trying to do that day—assessing submissions for a future issue of the Review—was definitely organised thinking.
She got up from her desk, putting aside the paper she had been trying to read. There was nothing wrong with the paper itself, which was a discussion of responsibility to future generations; there was no reason why it should not see the light of day. The author was a post-doctoral fellow at the University of Toronto and needed publications for the next stage of her career. Isabel knew just how competitive the academic world could be and just how easily people could fall at any of the fences that stood between them and a career as a philosopher.
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.
In this warm, intelligently observed novella, Isabel Dalhousie, Alexander McCall Smith’s wonderful heroine, learns valuable lessons about inviting the past (and everyone in it) back into your life.
Isabel Dalhousie—philosopher, mother and friend—has generously agreed to host the opening dinner for her school reunion weekend. Twenty-five former classmates will descend upon her home, bringing with them new names, new looks, and old reputations. While some will see the reunion as an opportunity to forge new friendships and reaffirm old ones, others aren’t interested in changing their minds about the past. One particular classmate, Barbara Grant, was known as an especially mean girl who bullied the others relentlessly. As hostess, Isabel feels compelled to help her guests on the path toward reconciliation and forgiveness, but bitter feelings and long-held secrets threaten to derail her efforts entirely. With her trademark insight and compassion, Isabel Dalhousie may find a way to navigate these treacherous waters.
Philosopher and amateur sleuth Isabel Dalhousie has an unstinting commitment to her principles. Sticking to her promises has always been one of them. Then Isabel runs into an old classmate facing marital and financial troubles, who reveals a secret that becomes more and more difficult for Isabel to keep.
Thankfully, Isabel’s devoted husband, Jamie, is there to help our heroine navigate her competing moral obligations. Beautifully perceptive and witty, this original short story by Alexander McCall Smith shows Isabel calling upon all of her intelligence, charm, and tact.