Alexander writes four or five new books every year. This page gives you an 'at-a-glance' view of the newest releases.
Precious Ramotswe learns valuable lessons about first impressions and forgiveness in this latest installment of the beloved and best-selling No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series.
Mma Ramotswe and Mma Makutsi are approached by their part-time colleague, Mr. Polopetsi, with a troubling story: a woman, accused of being rude to a valued customer, has been wrongly dismissed from her job at an office furniture store. Never one to let an act of injustice go unanswered, Mma Ramotswe begins to investigate, but soon discovers unexpected information that causes her to reluctantly change her views about the case.
Other surprises await our intrepid proprietress in the course of her inquiries. Mma Ramotswe is puzzled when she happens to hear of a local nurse named Mingie Ramotswe. She thought she knew everybody by the name of Ramotswe, and that they were all related. Who is this mystery lady? Then, she is alerted by Mma Potokwani that an unpleasant figure from her past has recently been spotted in town. Mma Ramotswe does her best to avoid the man, but it seems that he may have returned to Botswana specifically to seek her out. What could he want from her?
With the generosity and good humor that guide all her endeavors, Mma Ramotswe will untangle these questions for herself and for her loved ones, ultimately bringing to light important truths about friendship and family—both the one you’re born with and the one you choose.
THE CLOTHES OF OTHERS
MMA RAMOTSWE, owner of the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency (as featured in a two-page article in the Botswana Daily News, under the headline: A Lady Who Definitely Knows How to Find Things Out), had strong views on the things that she owned. Personal possessions, she thought, should be simple, well made and not too expensive. Mma Ramotswe was generous in all those circumstances where generosity was required—but she was never keen to pay one hundred pula for something that could be obtained elsewhere for eighty pula, or to get rid of any item that, although getting on a bit, still served its purpose well enough. And that, she thought, was the most important consideration of all—whether something worked. A possession did not have to be fashionable; it did not have to be the very latest thing; what mattered was that it did what it was supposed to do, and did this in the way expected of it. In that respect, there was not much difference between things and people: what she looked for in people was the quality of doing what they were meant to do, and doing it without too much fuss, noise or complaint. She also felt that if something was doing its job then you should hold on to it and cherish it, rather than discarding it in favour of something new. Her white van, for instance, was now rather old and inclined to rattle, but it never failed to start—except after a rain storm, which was rare enough in a dry country like Botswana—and it got her from place to place—except when she ran out of fuel, or when it broke down, which it did from time to time, but not too often.
She applied the same philosophy to her shoes and clothing. It was true that she was always trying to persuade her husband, Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni, to get rid of his old shirts and jackets, but that was because he, like all men, or certainly the majority of men, tended to hold on to his clothes for far too long. His shoes were an example of that failing: he usually extracted at least four years’ service out of his oil- stained working boots, his veldschoen. He recognised her distaste for these shoes by removing them when he came back from the garage each evening, but he was adamant that any other footwear, including the new waterproof oil- resistant work boots he had seen featured in a mail order catalogue, would be a pointless extravagance.
“There is no point in having fancy boots if you’re a mechanic,” he said. “What you need is boots that you know will always be there.”
“But new boots would also always be there,” she pointed out. “It’s not as if they would march off by themselves.”
Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni laughed. “Oh, I don’t think shoes would be that disobedient,” he said. “What I mean is that you want shoes that you know—that you trust. I have always liked those boots. They are the ones I’ve always worn. I know my way around them.”
Mma Ramotswe looked puzzled. “But surely there’s not much to know about shoes,” she argued. “All you have to know is which way round they go. You wouldn’t want to put them on back to front, nor put the left shoe on the right foot. But is there much to know beyond that?”
The conversation went nowhere, as it always did when this subject was raised, and Mma Ramotswe had come to accept that men’s clothing was a lost cause. There might be a small number of men who were conscious of their apparel and did not hold on to old shoes and clothes for too long, but if there were, then she certainly was not married to one of them. Her own clothes were a quite different matter, of course. She did not spend an excessive amount on dresses, or on shoes for that matter, but she believed in quality and would never buy cheap clothes for the sake of saving a few pula. What she wanted from her clothes was the ability to stand up to the normal demands of the working day, easy laundering, and, if at all possible, light ironing qualities. If clothes had that, then it did not matter if they were not of the latest style or were of a colour that had ceased to be fashionable. If Mma Ramotswe was comfortable in them, and if they responded to the structural challenges posed by the traditionally built figure, then she embraced them enthusiastically, and they, in their way, reciprocated—particularly with those parts of her figure that needed support.
Given this attitude to the functionality of clothes, it was no surprise that she and her erstwhile assistant, now her co- director, Mma Grace Makutsi, wife of Mr. Phuti Radiphuti of the Double Comfort Furniture Store, should not see eye to eye on fashion matters. When she had first started at the agency, Mma Makutsi had not been in a position to spend much money on clothing. In fact, she could spend no money on clothes, for the simple reason that she had none. What savings Mma Makutsi and her family had were committed almost entirely to the fees she had to pay the Botswana Secretarial College, leaving very little for anything else. Then, when she was given the job at the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, Mma Ramotswe had been unable to pay her much of a salary, as the truth of the matter was that the agency’s minuscule profits did not really justify the employment of any staff.
But Mma Makutsi had talked herself into the job and had been prepared to accept the tiny salary on the grounds that in the fullness of time things would surely look up. They did, and when she found she had a bit of money in her pocket—although not all that much—she spent at least some of it on replacements for her two increasingly worn dresses. She also splashed out on some new shoes—a handsome pair of court shoes with green leather on the outside and blue lining within. She had never seen anything more beautiful than that pair of shoes, and they had imparted a spring to her step that Mma Ramotswe, and all others dealing with Mma Makutsi, had noticed, even if they did not know to attribute it to new footwear.
Following her marriage to Phuti Radiphuti, Mma Makutsi’s wardrobe expanded. Phuti was well off, and although he did not believe in flaunting wealth, he was strongly of the view that the wife of a man of his standing, with his herd of over six hundred cattle, should be dressed in a way that was commensurate with her station in life.
Mma Ramotswe had helped Mma Makutsi on that first big spending spree, when they had gone to the Riverwalk shops and purchased a dozen dresses, several petticoats, a rail of blouses and, of course, several pairs of new shoes.
“It’s not that I’d buy all these things,” Mma Makutsi had observed apologetically. “You know that I am not one of these people who like to wear a different outfit every day—you know that, don’t you, Mma Ramotswe?”
It had seemed to Mma Ramotswe that Mma Makutsi needed reassurance, as we all do from time to time, and she gave it. “Nobody would accuse you of being that sort of lady, Mma,” she said, as they staggered through under the weight of numerous boxes and bags to Mma Ramotswe’s tiny white van. “I certainly wouldn’t.”
“It’s Phuti, you see,” explained Mma Makutsi. “He wants me to look smart.”
“That’s very good,” said Mma Ramotswe. “It is better to have a husband who knows what you are wearing than to have one who doesn’t even notice. Some men never notice, you know. They have no idea what women are wearing.”
“That is a great pity for their wives and girlfriends,” said Mma Makutsi. “It must be very discouraging to dress up all the time only to find that your husband doesn’t even see what you have on.”
The taste of the two women was similar in some respects—but different in others. Their views diverged on shoes, but they both agreed that women should dress modestly and should not wear skirts that were too short. This view was probably shared by the vast majority of women in Botswana, even if not by absolutely all of them. Some young women, they had noticed, seemed to have picked up the idea that the more leg a skirt displayed, the more fashionable it was.
“I do not understand that,” said Mma Makutsi. “Men know that women have legs—that is one of the things that they learn at an early age. So why do you have to show them that you have legs, when they are already well aware of that?”
Mma Ramotswe agreed. She might not have put it exactly that way herself, but she shared the general sentiment.
Mma Makutsi was warming to her theme. “Of course, I remember the first time I saw really short skirts,” she went on. “It was when I came down from Bobonong and I went to enrol at the Botswana Secretarial College. I remember that day very well, Mma.”
“I’m sure you do,” said Mma Ramotswe. “It must have been very different for you, coming from Bobonong and then finding yourself in Gaborone.”
Mma Makutsi stiffened. “Why, Mma? Why do you think that?”
Mma Ramotswe quickly corrected herself. Mma Makutsi was proud of Bobonong and she would not wish to offend her. One of the things she had learned about human nature was that people tended to be inordinately proud of the place they came from, and that any disparaging remark about that place was hurtful—even if it happened to be true. There were some towns—indeed some countries—that were, by all accounts, difficult places to live; and yet even if everything that was said about them was true, you could not say as much to people who came from such places. What they wanted to hear was that you had heard good reports of their home town or their country, and that one day you hoped you would be able to visit it. That brought smiles of satisfaction and assurances that half of what was said or written about the place in question being difficult—or downright dangerous—was exaggeration and lies.
“What I mean,” Mma Ramotswe said, “is that Bobonong is not as big as Gaborone. That is all. I was thinking of how it must feel to come from a small place to a big place. There is nothing wrong with Bobonong, Mma. It is a very fine place.”
Mollified by this explanation, Mma Makutsi pointed out that Mma Ramotswe had herself made a similar transition. “Of course, you came from Mochudi, Mma,” she said. “That is just a village, after all.”
“Well, there we are,” said Mma Ramotswe, relieved at the defusing of the discussion. “We are both village girls at heart.” She paused, and then added, “But coping very well in the city—both of us.”
They returned to Mma Makutsi’s first day at the Botswana Secretarial College and to the topic of short skirts.
“There I was,” Mma Makutsi continued. “I was, I admit it, a bit nervous about being at college. There were thirty- two girls in my year and they all seemed to be so much more confident than I was. They knew Gaborone well, and talked about places I had never even heard of—about which shop sold what, and where you could get your hair or nails done. These were things I’d never even thought about, let alone explored, and I was very much out of it, Mma. I had no idea what to say.”
“We’ve all had that sort of experience,” said Mma Ramotswe. “Every one of us, Mma. We’ve all had a first day at school, or a first day in a new job. We’ve all been unsure what to do.”
Mma Makutsi gazed out of the window. “I just sat there, Mma. I sat at the back of the class with all these other girls talking to one another as if they had been friends for many years. I knew nobody, Mma—not a single soul. And then . . .”
Mma Ramotswe waited. She could picture Mma Makutsi in those early days at the Botswana Secretarial College—earnest and attentive, desperate to make a success of this great chance she had been given, trying hard not to worry about where the next pula or thebe was coming from; hungry, no doubt, because she would have had to choose between food and textbooks, and would have chosen the latter.
Mma Makutsi took off her large round spectacles and began to polish them. Mma Ramotswe had noticed that this was an action that preceded the recollection of something painful, and so she was not too surprised by what followed.
“And then,” she continued, “at the end of that very first lecture—it was a lecture on the importance of high standards, Mma, and it was delivered by the principal herself—at the end of that first lecture we went outside for a short break. Because I was sitting at the back, I was the last out, and the others were all standing in groups, all chatting in the same way as they had been earlier on. I did not know where to go and so I was pleased when one of the girls called me over to join her group. She said, ‘Why don’t you come and talk to us?’ And I said, ‘Yes, I’ll come.’ ”
Mma Makutsi replaced her spectacles. “And do you know who that was, Mma Ramotswe? That was Violet Sephotho.”
“Ah,” said Mma Ramotswe.
“Yes,” Mma Makutsi said. “It was her.”
“And was that the first time you had seen her, Mma?” asked Mma Ramotswe.
Mma Makutsi nodded. “I must have seen her in the lecture room, but I had not really noticed her. Now I noticed her, because nobody could miss what she was wearing.”
“Oh, I can imagine it,” said Mma Ramotswe.
“Can you, Mma? I think it may have been even worse than what you think. A very short skirt, Mma.”
Mma Ramotswe did not find that surprising.
“The skirt was red, Mma, and then there was a blouse that was hardly a blouse. In fact, you might even have thought that her blouse was made from that stuff they make curtains out of—you know those curtains you can sort of see out of—not proper curtains. What do they call that material, Mma?”
“That’s it. Phuti’s aunt has curtains like that in her bathroom. I am sure people in the street can look right through them, and so when we go to visit her I always hang a towel over the window, just in case.”
“That is very wise, Mma,” said Mma Ramotswe. “People have no business looking into the bathrooms of other people.”
“They certainly do not, Mma. Or through any other windows for that matter.”
Mma Ramotswe pursed her lips. She was about to agree, but realised that she herself occasionally—and only very occasionally—glanced through the windows of others if she was passing by. She would never go up to the window and peer inside—that was very wrong—but if you were walking along a street and you walked past a window, then surely it was permissible to have a quick glance, just to see the sort of furniture that they liked, or the pictures on the wall, or possibly to see who was sitting in the room. If people did not want anybody to see what was going on in the room, then they should pull down a blind or something of that sort—an open window was an indication, surely, that they did not mind if passers- by looked in.
And, of course, as a private detective you had to know what was going on. If you kept your eyes fixed straight ahead of you, then you would be unable to gather the sort of everyday intelligence that was part and parcel of your job, and without that intelligence your ability to help others would be limited. So, looking through an open window was not so much an act of idle curiosity, it was an act of consideration for others . . . But this was not the time to have that debate with Mma Makutsi, and so she waited to hear more about this early encounter with Violet Sephotho.
“So, she called you over, Mma?” prompted Mma Ramotswe.
“Yes, she called me over. And then she said, in a loud voice, ‘Mma, tell me: are you going to a funeral today?’ ”
Mma Ramotswe drew in her breath; she thought she could tell what was coming.
“She asked me that, Mma Ramotswe,” Mma Makutsi continued. “And I did not know why she should say that. So I told her that I was not going to a funeral, and why did she think I was? She did not reply immediately, but looked at the others and then said, ‘Because you’re dressed as if you are.’ ”
Mma Ramotswe expelled air through her teeth. It was the most dismissive, disapproving gesture she knew, and this was precisely the sort of situation that called for it.
“The other girls all burst out laughing,” Mma Makutsi said. “And Violet was very pleased with herself. She smiled and said that she hoped I had not taken offence, but being a secretary was different from being an undertaker, and so were the clothes you should wear for the job.
“The others thought this very funny, and they all laughed. Have you noticed, Mma Ramotswe, how people love to join in when one person is laughing at another? We like to do things together, it seems, even if the thing everybody is doing is cruel or unkind.”
Mma Ramotswe thought about this. Mma Makutsi was right. “Especially if the thing is cruel or unkind,” she said. But then she added, “But that is only a certain sort of person we’re talking about there, Mma. And I think that most people are not like that. Most people do not want others to suffer. Most people are kind enough right deep down in their hearts.”
“Not Violet Sephotho,” said Mma Makutsi.
“Perhaps not,” said Mma Ramotswe. “Although even Violet might change one day, Mma. Nobody is so bad that there is no chance of change.”
Mma Makutsi looked doubtful. “You’re too kind sometimes, Mma,” she said.
“Perhaps,” said Mma Ramotswe. “But you’d think the college would have told her to dress more modestly.”
“I think they did,” said Mma Makutsi. “Not directly, of course—they gave us all a lecture on the importance of high standards in the way in which we presented ourselves. They told us that when we dressed for the office each day we should dress as if we believed that the President was going to call in and inspect us.”
“And what did Violet Sephotho make of that?”
“She just smiled,” said Mma Makutsi. “She smiled and then later on she said to the others that she knew what the President would like to see if he came to inspect an office. It would not be formal clothes but rather the sort of clothes that she wore—bright and optimistic clothes, she called them.”
“Nonsense,” said Mma Ramotswe. “The President does not want to see that sort of thing. Look at what he wears himself. He wears sober dark suits. He wears khaki when he has to go out into the country.”
“That is for camouflage,” said Mma Makutsi. “It is so that he cannot be seen by lions and wildebeest and such things.”
Mma Ramotswe looked doubtful. “I’m not sure about that, Mma. But anyway, I don’t think we shall ever get a visit from the President.”
The mention of camouflage made her think. It could be unnerving if a very important visitor were to come into the office wearing camouflage. He might be there for some time before anybody noticed him, lurking by the filing cabinet, perhaps, or in a corner, watching, waiting.
“Stranger things have happened,” said Mma Makutsi. “You never know.”
That, thought Mma Ramotswe, was true: you never knew.
Excerpted from The House of Unexpected Sisters by Alexander McCall Smith. Copyright © 2017 by Alexander McCall Smith. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
When writer Paul Stewart heads to the idyllic Italian town of Montalcino to finish his already overdue cookbook, he expects it to be the perfect escape from stressful city life. But when he arrives, things quickly take a turn for the worse. His hired car is nowhere to be found, and with no record of a reservation at the car-rental counter and no other cars are available, it appears that Paul will be stuck at the airport—that is, until an enterprising stranger offers him an unexpected alternative: a bulldozer. With little choice in the matter, Paul accepts, and so begins a series of laugh-out-loud adventures as he trundles through the Tuscan countryside. A story of unexpected circumstances and making the best of what you have, My Italian Bulldozer is a warm and witty read guaranteed to put a smile on your face.
Scotland fell away beneath him, a stretch of green pasture, of hills, of swirling mist. Suddenly they were bathed in sunlight; fields of cloud, topped with crenulations of white, now lay beneath them as their plane pointed towards south. In his window seat he closed his eyes against the glare, imagining for a few moments their destination, as much an idea, a feeling, as a place. He saw a small tower that he had never seen before, a tower of warm red brick with a pattern of holes for doves. Down below, a man was pulling at a bell rope; as the bell rang the doves launched themselves from their holes in the brick and fluttered skywards.
He opened his eyes, and noticed that the passenger in the seat beside him, a man in perhaps his early fifties, dressed in a lightweight linen suit, was looking at him. The man smiled at him, and he returned the smile.
“What takes you to Pisa?” the man asked. His accent revealed him as Italian.
Paul hesitated, unsure as to whether he wanted to strike up a conversation that went beyond the niceties. He had brought with him a book that was just beginning to engage him and he was looking forward to getting back to it. But the man smiled at him again, and his natural politeness decided the matter.
“So parlare Italiano,” he began. “Sono ... ”
The man did not allow him to finish. “Ah!” he said, and then, continuing in Italian. “What a pleasure it is for us Italians to discover somebody who speaks our language.”
“I’m sure there are many. Such a beautiful language ... ”
“Yes, but what use is a beautiful language spoken just by oneself? It’s all very well for the Spaniards, because there are so many Spanish speakers—all over the world. Even Portuguese has Brazil, but we have just us—just Italy—and after a while we get fed up with speaking only to ourselves. We have heard everything there is to say in Italian.”
“Surely not ... ”
“I am not entirely serious. A bit serious, perhaps, but not entirely.” Turning in his seat, he extended a hand towards Paul. “But I must introduce myself. I am Palumbieri—Silvio Palumbieri.”
“I’m Paul Stuart.”
Silvio loosened his tie. “Stuart is the name of Scottish kings, is it not? Mary Stuart ... ” He made a chopping gesture across his throat. “She was most unfortunate. Queens cannot choose their neighbours, and if they find they have one who has an axe, then it is most regrettable.” He sighed, as if the execution of Mary Queen of Scots had been a recent outrage.
“It was a long time ago,” Paul said.
Silvio raised an eyebrow. “But I am an historian,” he said. “What happened in the past remains rather vivid for me and ... ” He paused, and now removed the tie altogether. “That’s better. Yes I find that the past has a much bigger shadow than people believe. It’s still with us in so many ways. At our side all the time, whispering into our ear.”
“Warning us not to repeat our mistakes?”
Silvio smiled. “We repeat some. Others we’re sensible enough to avoid making more than once. But that’s not what I was thinking about. What I was thinking about was the way in which the past determines our character, not just as individuals, but as nations. A child who is treated badly grows up damaged. A people who are subjected to bad treatment will be suspicious. They will be bad allies.”
Paul, who had been holding his book, slipped it into the seat pocket in front of him. He had endured worse conversations on flights, including an attempt at religious conversion, a confession of adultery, and detailed advice on the attractions of Panama as a tax shelter. “You’re thinking of?”
Silvio waved a hand airily. “Oh, there are many examples. Russia, for one. Russia is a peasant country. It has a past of serfdom that ended only in the nineteenth century. That made for a vast, stubborn, ignorant population—one that was also very resentful. And they are resentful today—particularly of the west.”
“They view the west in the same light as they viewed their feudal masters. Authority.” He paused. “So western politicians who lecture Russia about human rights or their tendency to invade their neighbours will never change them. Not one bit. You’re dealing with a particular sort of bear, you see. One with a history. An abused bear with a short temper.”
Paul savoured the metaphor. He was right. “And Italy?”
“Well, that’s an interesting case. With us, the important thing to remember is that we are very young. We have lots of history, of course, but Italy itself is a teenager. The Risorgimento was really just yesterday, you’ll know. It ended in 1871. That’s yesterday. And that means that as a state, we are still very far from maturity. That’s why half the population doesn’t really believe that the Italian state exists—or, if it does, feel that they owe it nothing. We’re very disloyal to Rome, you know. We look after ourselves—our family, our city—and we don’t like paying taxes to Rome.”
“Nobody likes taxes.”
“Some like them less than others. Take the Greeks. They have a particular aversion to taxes, and this is because they haven’t forgotten that they were once part of the Ottoman Empire and they saw no reason to pay taxes to the Ottomans.”
“So you’re saying that people don’t change?”
Silvio sighed. “They don’t. Or if they do, it takes a long time. A very long time.”
The plane gave a slight jolt as it encountered a pocket of turbulent air. Paul glanced out of the window, and then returned to the conversation. “May I ask you something?” he said. “Is this what you actually do?”
Silvio shook his head. “I’m an economic historian,” he replied. “That’s something quite different, but it doesn’t stop me having views on these more general matters.”
“Economic history,” muttered Paul.
“A sobering science. That’s why I’ve been in Scotland. I’ve been at a conference.” He paused. “You didn’t tell me why you’re going to Pisa.”
“To taste food and wine,” said Paul.
Silvio looked surprised. “So that’s what you do?”
“Yes. I write about it.”
“There is a great deal to be said about Italian food.”
“Yes, I’m discovering that.”
Paul reached for his book.
“I mustn’t keep you from your reading.”
Paul had not intended to be rude. “Forgive me. I was enjoying our conversation.”
“But you must read your book, and I have some papers to attend to.” Silvio reached into his pocket. “Let me give you my card. I’m at the University of Pisa. It has all the details there. If you need help while you’re in Italy, please get in touch with me. My door is always open.”
Paul thanked him and took the card. Professor Silvio Palumbieri, it appeared, was not only Professor of Economic History at the University of Pisa, but a member of the Italian Academy of Economic Science and a cavaliere of the Republic. He slipped the card into the pocket of his jacket and opened his book.
They arrived in Pisa shortly before eleven in the morning. Paul said goodbye to Silvio in the plane, and once again as they were waiting for their luggage at the baggage carousel.
“Don’t forget,” said Silvio. “You have my card. I am at your disposal while you’re in my country.”
Paul thanked him. The first of his two suitcases had now been disgorged and he struggled to retrieve it. A few minutes later the second case appeared, and in that mood of relief and gratitude that always follows a safe reunion with luggage, he began to make his way to the a of the car hire firm with which Gloria had made the reservation of a small saloon car.
And that was the point at which the journey, so smooth until then, began to go badly wrong.
“Your name?” said the reservation clerk.
Paul handed him the booking confirmation Gloria had printed out for him. “It’s all there,” he said.
The clerk took the piece of paper. There was an air of suspicion in the way in which he held it—as if this might be a forgery of some sort. He looked down at his computer and typed in a few digits. Then he scrutinised the form again, glanced at Paul, and then looked back at his screen.
“I am afraid there is no such reservation,” he said.
Paul leant forward, trying to get a glimpse of the computer screen. The clerk shifted it slightly, to ensure that it was even less visible.
“I’m sorry, dottore, but there is nothing. This reservation has been made by one of our overseas offices, and they have not confirmed it with us. This has happened before. It is not our fault.”
Paul felt the back of his neck becoming warm. “But it says very clearly ... ”
The clerk cut him short. “There is nothing here on my screen.” He gave Paul a look of reproach. “Nothing. There is no car.”
“But that print-out ... ” Paul pointed at his pieced of paper, now seemingly so much more valuable than before.
“That piece of paper has the name of your firm at the top and below that it has the words Reservation Confirmed. Look. Right here. Reservation confirmed.”
The clerk shook his head. “That document is no longer valid.”
“What do you mean by that?” challenged Paul. He was being polite, but was unable to prevent a testy note from creeping into his voice.
“I mean that if a document of that type is not confirmed by an entry in the main computer, then it ceases to have any validity. That is the way these things are.” It was the voice of the patient bureaucrat, explaining how, by immutable custom, the working world ordered its affairs. But even the strictest system has room for humanity. “However, we have a spare car. It is our very last car in hand; it is a very busy time of year, you’ll understand. We can allocate that to you instead of this non-existent car you have been promised.”
“For the same rate?” asked Paul.
The clerk looked at him lugubriously, as if disappointed that Paul could even suspect that they would even consider a higher rate. “At exactly the same rate,” he confirmed. “It is much bigger than the car you claim to have booked ... ”
“That I did book,” corrected Paul.
“It is bigger than that car,” repeated the clerk. “It is a Mercedes Benz. I can prepare the documents for you.”
Paul relaxed. He was not yet in Montalcino, but the prospect of arriving there before dinner was beginning to seem more real. “You’re very kind,” he said to the clerk.
The clerk bowed his head. Tapping out details on his keyboard, he printed two sheets of paper for Paul to sign before reaching for a set of keys.
“You’ll find the car outside,” he said, and told him the row in the car park where it would be parked. “Show your copy to the woman at the barrier, and she will let you through.”
It was now midday, and the sun was at its zenith. When he left the cool of the car rental office, with its sharp, air-conditioned air, Paul felt it press down on him like a warm hand; it was humid, and his shirt clung to him uncomfortably, the damp patches showing dark through the fabric. He wiped his brow. It would be cooler in Montalcino, several hundred feet higher than Pisa.
He looked about him. The form gave the colour of the car and the number, and he started to make his way slowly along the lines of vehicles in the relevant row. By the time he reached the end, he had failed to find it. He looked along the line of vehicles in the neighbouring row; perhaps they had made a mistake and parked it in the wrong place. Slowly he worked his way along that row too, checking the number of each Mercedes Benz. It was not there—nor was it in the row beyond that. That left only one possible line of cars, and he now checked this carefully, with the same lack of result.
He felt hot and frustrated. He had heard that car hire in Italy could be an arcane, rather trying process, but he had hoped that Gloria’s arrangements would somehow avoid any difficulties. Obviously not, he said to himself.
The relatively short time he had spent in the sun was enough to make him thirsty. Looking around, he saw on the far side of the car park, separated from it by only a modest fence, a small café. He would find himself something to drink there—something cool and refreshing—before going back to the car rental office. There must be other car parks, he decided; perhaps an employee had put it in the wrong car park altogether; airports were complicated places, with all their roads and buildings, and that sort of mistake could be made only too easily.
He sat in the café for fifteen minutes or so, enjoying the air-conditioning and the bottle of chilled mineral water he had ordered. Then he returned to the terminal building, where the office of Personal-Drive Italia was located. The clerk for some reason pretended not to recognize him, and solemnly noted down his details afresh.
“So you say the car isn’t there,” he said once Paul had finished with his story.
“That’s so,” said Paul. “I have looked very carefully and it isn’t there.”
The clerk stared at him. “Yet you signed for it.”
Paul frowned. “I signed the rental agreement.”
The clerk shook his head. “No, you signed for the car itself. Look ... ” He took the form from Paul. “Here—you see—here and here. That says, I have received the above-mentioned car in good condition. That is your signature, I take it.”
“Of course it is. You were here when I signed it. You gave it to me. You.”
The clerk looked away. “Under this agreement,” he intoned, “you are liable for the car once it comes into your possession.”
“But it never did!” exploded Paul. “I never found the car. I’ve just tried to tell you that.”
“That is not what the document says,” retorted the clerk.
For a few moments Paul was speechless. Then he spoke coldly and decisively. “I must speak to the manager,” he said. “Please call him.”
The clerk’s eyes narrowed. “The manager is away.”
“He is at the funeral of his mother. In Ravenna.”
Paul tried to decide whether this was a lie. It was difficult to tell.
“In that case I want to see the assistant manager,” he said.
The clerk replied quickly. “I am the assistant manager.”
Paul looked up at the ceiling. “I suggest we shall forget the whole business, then.”
The clerk shrugged. “When are you going to bring the car back? I can’t cancel the contract until the car has been returned.”
Paul gasped. “I have never seen this car,” he said, chiselling out each word for emphasis. “How can I return something I’ve never had?”
“Then you will be liable for the whole cost of the car.”
Paul closed his eyes. “I’m going to call the police,” he said.
The clerk shrugged again. “There is a policeman standing over there,” he said. “You see him? You can call him if you like.”
Paul strode across the arrivals hall and approached the policeman. The officer was talking to a woman running a small luggage stall, but he broke away when Paul addressed him.
“I am having a bit of trouble over there,” said Paul, nodding in the direction of the car rental desk. “I am being falsely accused of taking a car that I have never so much as seen. I believe this is an attempt at extorting money from me.”
The policeman adjusted his belt. “I shall accompany you, sir,” he said. “Let’s see what’s going on.”
Paul felt relieved that here was somebody who might penetrate the fog of obfuscation into which it seemed he had wandered. But once at the desk, his relief proved to be short-lived.
“This gentleman,” said the clerk, rising to greet the policeman, “has disposed of one of our vehicles. He refuses to return it, and I have simply informed him of the consequences.”
The policeman frowned, and turned to face Paul. “This is a very serious matter,” he said. “Where is this car?”
Paul drew in his breath. “There is no car,” he said. “I have never touched it.”
This was the signal for the clerk to pass a copy of the rental document to the policeman. “Here is the proof that he took it,” he said. “You’ll see his signature down at the bottom there. That establishes that he took possession of the car—the same car that he now refuses to hand back.”
The policeman studied the piece of paper. “Is this your signature, sir? Is your name ... ” He stumbled over the pronunciation. “Paul Stuart?”
“That’s me,” said Paul. “And that’s my signature too.”
“In that case,” said the policeman, “you must accompany me to the police station.”
“Oh, this is absurd,” said Paul, his voice rising markedly.
The policeman reached out to touch him on the arm. “You must control yourself, sir. It doesn’t help to shout.”
“But I have never even seen this car,” Paul protested. “I have had nothing to do with it. Nothing.”
The policeman looked at him guardedly. “But you have signed this document.”
“I signed it before I went to look for the car,” said Paul.
“But that’s not what it says here,” said the policeman.
Paul glared at the clerk, who simply stared at his screen, as if waiting for a troublesome client to go away so as to allow him to get back to his work. He looked at his watch. If he had to go to the police station he would do it, so that he could get on with the task of finding another car. And at the police station, he imagined that he might find somebody who would be able to take a more intelligent view of the situation than this junior officer.
“I’m ready to accompany you to the police station,” Paul said. “Although I shall have to come in your car, as I don’t have one myself.”
The policeman smiled. “You mustn’t make light of these things,” he said in a not unfriendly tone. “Car theft is a serious charge, you know.”
Paul opened his mouth to say something, but found that he had no words. His Italian, his English, his French all seemed to have deserted him. Kafka, he thought, and then, more appropriately he felt, Lewis Carroll.
Imagine going to school on a boat! The rip-roaring excitement continues in the second volume of this adventure-mystery series set on the high seas.
Ben and Fee MacTavish and their schoolmates on board the School Ship Tobermory are headed thousands of miles from their base in Mull to a small island in the Caribbean. They will learn extraordinary details about Captain Macbeth’s past and come face to face with modern-day pirates. The students and crew aboard the Tobermory will have to band together and use their wits to escape harm and overcome the evil pirates.
Our beloved cast of characters are back in The Bertie Project, as are the joys and trials of life at 44 Scotland Street.
Bertie’s mother, Irene, returns from the Middle East to discover that, in her absence, her son has been exposed to the worst of evils—television shows, ice cream parlors, and even unsanctioned art at the National Portrait Gallery. Her wrath descends on Bertie’s long-suffering father, Stuart. But Stuart has found a reason to spend more time outside of the house and seems to have a new spring in his step. What does this mean for the residents of 44 Scotland Street?
The winds of change have come to the others as well. Angus undergoes a spiritual transformation after falling victim to an unexpected defenestration. Bruce has fallen in a rather different sense for a young woman who is determined to share with him her enthusiasm for extreme sports. Matthew and Elspeth have a falling out with their triplets’ au pair, while Big Lou continues to fall in love with her new role as a mother. And as Irene resumes work on what she calls her Bertie Project, reinstating Bertie’s Italian lessons, yoga classes, and psychotherapy, Bertie begins to hatch a project of his own—one that promises freedom.
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.
The first book in the School Ship Tobermory series
There is a great deal of fun to be had aboard the School Ship Tobermory. Weigh anchor with Alexander McCall Smith and set sail on a series of amazing adventures.
Follow the exploits of the children who go to a most unusual school—the sail-powered training ship Tobermory. When a film crew arrives in Tobermory Bay, Ben and Fee are invited to be extras. But their suspicions are soon aroused—is the film crew genuine, or are they up to something sinister? Ben and Fee soon discover the truth when they uncover a dastardly plan masterminded by a South American businessman.
“Ready?” asked Fee’s father. “Are you ready to bring us up?”
Fee nodded. She had sat at the controls of the family submarine many times before this, but you know how it is when somebody asks you to take over a submarine—you always feel just a little bit nervous.
“Yes,” she said, trying her best to sound brave. “I’m ... I’m sort of ready.”
Both Fee and her twin brother, Ben, had been taught from a very early age to help sail the submarine belonging to their parents, who were well-known marine scientists. Now, at twelve, almost thirteen, Fee had enough experience to bring the vessel up to the surface all by herself. But it was a very big responsibility, and it always brought to mind the things that could go wrong.
What if you made a mistake and dived instead of surfacing? What if you surfaced too quickly, so that the submarine popped up out of the sea like a cork out of water? What if you came up right underneath a large ship—a massive oil tanker, perhaps—broke the glass observation window, and then went straight down again? There were so many things that could go wrong in a submarine.
“Right,” said her father. “Take her up, Fee! You’ll do fine, of course, but I’ll be in the engine room if you need me.”
Once her father had left the control room she was quite alone. Her brother was doing his packing in his cabin, and her mother was busy in the galley—the submarine’s tiny kitchen—making sandwiches for the twins. Fee was by herself. Entirely.
Slowly she pulled the control column towards her. She could not see exactly where she was going—that’s never easy in a submarine—but she hoped there was nothing ahead of them, or above. The last thing a submarine wants to meet is a whale or a rock—or a whale and a rock, for that matter. You have to hope, too, that there isn’t another submarine coming up for air in exactly the same place as you.
A few minutes later, when they were just below the surface, Ben entered the control room.
“I’ve finished my packing,” he announced. “What about you?”
She glanced at her brother. She could see that he was excited, but she had far more important things to do than talk about packing.
“You mustn’t disturb me,” she said. “I’m just about to look through the periscope.”
He became quiet. It is always a special moment when you raise a submarine’s periscope, because that is when you find out where you are. You hope that you have come up in the right place, but you can never be absolutely sure. So if your hands shake a little as the periscope rises above the waves, and if you feel your heart thump a bit more loudly, then that is entirely normal.
Fee peered into the periscope as she pushed it upwards. There was water, just water, swirling round in every direction, and then, with no warning at all, she saw sunlight. The periscope was above the surface.
“What can you see?” Ben asked.
She blinked. The light was very intense and it would take a moment for her eyes to adjust.
You can turn a periscope round, so that it gives you a view in every direction. She would do that—just to check that nothing was coming—but first she would have a good look at the land.
“I can see an island in the distance,” she said. “I can see the shore.”
Ben caught his breath. “That’ll be Mull,” he said. Mull was the island they were heading for.
“It’s sunny,” said Fee. “It’s morning.”
“And Tobermory?” asked Ben. “Can you see Tobermory?”
“Which Tobermory?” asked Fee. “Tobermory the town or Tobermory the ship?”
She was right to ask: there were two Tobermorys. Tobermory, the town, was where the Tobermory, the ship, was based. They were going to the Tobermory the ship, but Tobermory, the place, was the harbour in which she (and ships are always called she) was normally anchored. The Tobermory was a sailing ship and a school at the same time. It was a boarding school on the sea, and while most schools stay in exactly the same place all the time, this one did not. This one sailed about, teaching everybody not only subjects like history and science – the things that normal schools teach—but also everything that you needed to know if you were going to be a sailor.
“I can’t see either of them,” said Fee. “I think we might be a little way away. But we can’t be too far.”
“Let me have a look,” said Ben, sounding rather impatient. Although they were twins, Fee had been born two minutes before her brother, and that made her older. It was only two minutes, but she often said that those two minutes were very important. “When you’ve been alive two minutes longer than somebody else,” she was fond of saying, “it shows. You’re just a bit more grown-up, you see.”
Ben did not look at it that way. He thought he was every bit as mature as his sister, and felt entitled to do everything she did. Right then he felt that he should have a turn on the periscope. “Let me look,” he repeated.
“No,” she said. “I’ve spotted a seagull. Oh, it’s come down lower. I think it’s going to land on top of the periscope!”
Fee laughed as she watched the seagull land. She had a good view of its yellow feet and of the underneath of its wings, that were white. As she watched, it flapped these wings, sending little droplets of water splashing against the outer lens of the periscope.
Slowly she moved the periscope round, so that she could look in other directions. The seagull did not like this, and he flapped his wings again in protest. Then she saw it.
‘There’s a boat coming straight towards us!” she cried out.
“Dive!” shouted Ben.
Because his sister was busy pulling down the periscope, he decided to take the controls himself. Pushing the column forwards, he opened the throttle as far as he could. The submarine responded immediately, giving a lurch downwards.
It was just in time. Seconds later they heard the thud of a boat’s engine pass directly over them.
“You should have looked round you,” accused Ben. “You should have looked instead of watching that seagull.” Although he was very fond of his sister, Ben secretly liked it when she did something to remind her she was not perfect.
Fee looked crestfallen. “I’m sorry,” she said. But then she said, rather crossly, “We can all make mistakes, you know.”
“Is everything all right?” their mother called out from the galley. “I felt a bit of a lurch there.”
“Everything’s fine,” shouted Ben in reply. He could have said, Fee didn’t spot a boat coming straight at us! But he did not. He could have added, And I had to take over the controls to get us out of trouble! But again he did not. Instead of this he simply said, ‘We’re going up again,’ and left it at that.
They surfaced once more, and this time they were both able to have a good look through the periscope. Fee had been right—they were not far from the island—but they were also closer than she had thought to both Tobermorys. There was the town, a small harbour with brightly painted houses curving round the rim of the bay. There were the people walking down the street, off to buy their newspaper and their morning bread and milk. And there in the harbour, riding proudly on its great anchor chain, was the most remarkable sailing ship they had ever seen. And across its bow was the name painted in shining blue paint—SCHOOL SHIP TOBERMORY.
“I think it’s safe to go all the way up now,” said Ben.
Fee guided the submarine right up to the surface. Now they could open the hatches and step out onto the deck to gaze at the ship that was to be their new home. As Fee stared at the ship through the submarine’s binoculars, she felt no qualms about joining the school. She had always tried not to be frightened by new experiences—nor by the dark, nor bad dreams, nor the thought of what could go wrong. That’ll soon be me, she thought, as she studied the distant figures on the ship’s deck. Although she could not make out what they were doing, they all seemed busy.
It was a wonderful sight. The great ship was painted white from bow to stern. Along the side were lines of neat portholes—the windows of a ship. And, as he stood next to his sister, gazing over at the Tobermory, Ben thought about how one of the portholes would be his. That would be his to look out of.
It was a very exciting thought, even if it made him feel just a little bit anxious. He had never been away from family for any length of time, and although people told him that going away to school was fun he was not sure whether it would be fun for him. What would it be like sharing everything with a lot of people you didn’t know? Could you be sure they wouldn’t laugh at you if you did something stupid? What if you lost your toothbrush, or your pyjamas, or one of your socks? What if somebody came and pushed you around or stole your money?
He had wanted to ask Fee some of these questions, but she had seemed so confident about what lay ahead that he had been unable to do so.
“What will it be like?” was all he had managed.
And she replied, “It’s going to be great.” And then, after a short pause, “You’re not scared, are you?”
He shook his head. “No, I’m not scared. Of course I’m not scared.” That is what people who are scared often say.
“Good,” said Fee. “Because I’m not going to be able to look after you all the time, you know.”
She did not say that unkindly, but it did not really help Ben very much. He wondered why she had thought she would have to look after him. Did she know something he did not? Had she heard things about the Tobermory that he had missed? But this was not the time for such thoughts. They had the ship to look at, and now, as the submarine sailed a bit closer, they were able to make out more details.
Above the ship, towering to what seemed like an impossible height, were the masts. The Tobermory was a sailing ship, and it had masts from which sails were suspended. These sails would fill with wind when a breeze blew up, and it is this that would drive the ship through the water. The ship also had an engine, of course, that it could use to go in and out of harbour or to help it on its way if there was no wind, but for most of the time it would rely on its sails.
“Look at all those ropes,” marvelled Fee, pointing to what looked like an elaborate web spun by some giant spider.
Ben shielded his eyes from the sun to get a better view.“That’s the rigging. Those ropes keep the masts in place.”
“And you climb up them?” It all seemed very high to Fee.
“Yes,” said Ben, taking his turn with the binoculars. “I’ve seen pictures of people doing that.”
Although they had spent a lot of time on their parents’ submarine—sometimes weeks and weeks at a stretch—Fee and Ben had never been on a sailing ship. That had not stopped them, though, from applying for a place at the school ship, encouraged by their parents who had decided that the Tobermory was just the right school for them. They had needed to think about boarding school for Ben and Fee, as they were often away on research expeditions. Up to then, the twins had stayed with an aunt, who looked after them while their parents were away, but this was going to be much more difficult, as the aunt had found a job that involved travel.
They had looked at various schools, but had not really liked what they saw. One was in a remote place on a mountainside and appeared dark and uncomfortable. The dormitory floors, they noticed, were all at an angle, with the result that the beds followed the slope of the mountainside. Sleeping in such a bed, thought Fee, would be most peculiar, as one’s toes would be much lower than one’s head, and all one’s blood would end up in one’s feet. And the blankets would gradually slip down to the end of the bed, which would mean that one’s top half would be too cold and one’s lower half too warm. “Not for you, I think,” said their mother—much to their relief.
Then there was the school that made everyone take a cold shower every morning. “It’s very character-building,” explained the principal.
“And very freezing,” said their mother—to suppressed giggles from Fee and Ben.
That same principal believed in lots of physical activity—all the time. So, as people moved from classroom to classroom they all ran, and meals were eaten standing up, so that people could do press-ups and other exercises between courses.
“It all helps to build people up,” said the principal proudly.
Then somebody suggested the Tobermory, and their parents had remembered once meeting the captain when he berthed his ship near their submarine. “He’s a very kind man,” remarked their mother, who wanted the best for her twins. “You’ll be happy there. I’ve heard good things about that ship.”
“Such as?” asked Ben. The idea of going away to school was still new to him.
“Just good things in general,” his mother replied. “Good things like making friends, which you’ve always wanted. And other things too …” She did not explain further, but just waved her hand and said, “You’ll find out.”
His mother was trying to reassure him, thought Ben, but did she really know what life would be like on the Tobermory?
“That’s right,” said Fee, who had overheard this conversation. “You’ll find out.”
But she, too, did not know, thought Ben.
Their father nosed the submarine in as close to the Tobermory as he thought safe.
“You’ll have to paddle the rest of the way in your rubber boat,” he explained. “We’ll wave goodbye from here.”
Ben and Fee began to blow up the inflatable boat that had been a present for their last birthday. It was not very big, but it would have just enough room to carry them both, together with their kitbags. They had been told not to bring a suitcase, but rather to bring soft luggage that could be folded and put into a locker. Now their two full kitbags, both labelled with their names, Ben and Fee MacTavish, stood at the ready on top of the submarine.
Once the boat was inflated, Ben pushed it gently from the submarine deck and into the water. Their mother, coming up from below, pressed two packets of sandwiches into their hands. “You might feel hungry before lunch,” she said. “I’ve heard the school food’s very good on the Tobermory, but just in case ... ”
They thanked her, and she gave them each a goodbye kiss, as did their father.
“I know you’re going to be all right,” said their mother. “But I’ll be thinking of you. Will you think of me too? Every day?”
They both reassured her that they would.
“And you will write, won’t you?” she said. “It doesn’t have to be a long letter—even a postcard will do.”
“Of course we will,” said Fee.
“We’ll be back to collect you at the end of term,” he said.
“Work hard,” said their mother. “And remember to clean your teeth after every meal—every meal, please. And don’t forget to floss!”
“Yes, yes,” said Ben. He was eager to make the short crossing to their new home and he had decided to be brave. He could see that already there were other people on the deck of the sailing ship—people in smart blue uniforms swabbing the decks from buckets of sea water, polishing brass fittings, and generally looking very busy. These would be his new schoolmates—his new friends, he hoped. He was eager to meet them.
They climbed down into the boat and set off.
“Goodbye!” shouted their mother, waving a handkerchief.
“Goodbye!” they both shouted, as they started to paddle their way across the short stretch of water.
As they reached the side of great sailing ship, they both turned round to have one last look at their parents. But their mother and father had disappeared back into the submarine, and now the dark tube of the vessel was beginning to sink below the surface of the sea. They waved, although they knew that their parents would not be able to see them. They felt sad to be saying goodbye, and both of them—and that included Fee—now felt a bit anxious, but when you are starting at a new boarding school there is no time to think too much about the family you have left behind. This is especially true when your new school is towering above you and somebody is lowering a rope ladder for you to climb up. Not everybody starts school that way, but Ben and Fee did.
“Tie your dinghy to this rope,” shouted somebody from above them. “Then, once, you’ve climbed up the rope ladder, we’ll pull your boat up too.”
A rope came snaking down from above. Fee tied this to the rubber boat, stowed the paddles safely, and then she and Ben began to inch their way up the rope ladder.
“Ben,” whispered Fee as they began the climb. “Are you just a little bit ... scared?”
Ben, who had started first, looked down at his sister beneath him. His decision to be brave was working. “Don’t be scared, Fee,” he said. “I’m not.”
But she was. And so would anybody be. The water seemed a long way down below now, and the Tobermory was rocking in the swell of the sea, making the rope ladder swing out from the side of the ship.
“I didn’t hear you,” said Fee. “What did you say?”
“I said I’m not scared,” repeated Ben.
And oddly enough, simply saying that he was not scared seemed to help.
They were nearly at the top of the ladder now, and he even managed to smile as he saw a pair of hands stretch out over the railings to help him clamber onto the deck. He looked up and saw that the hands belonged to a boy of about his own age, dressed in a smart blue uniform and grinning at him in a friendly way. The boy had a cheerful look to him—the sort of look that makes you think, I hope he’ll be my friend.
“I’m Badger Tomkins,” said the boy as he gripped Ben’s wrists and pulled him onto the deck. “Who are you?”
“I’m Ben,” said Ben.
“I was told to look out for you,” said Badger. “Welcome aboard the Tobermory!”
Badger now turned to help Fee. “You must be Fee,” he said. “I saw your name on the list of new students. Welcome, Fee!”
“What do we do now?” asked Ben.
“We haul up your rubber boat,” said Badger. “Then we let the air out of it and stow it away. Everything has to be stowed away neatly on the ship. It’s one of the rules.”
“Are there lots of rules?” asked Ben.
Badger laughed. “Plenty,” he said. “Maybe five or six hundred. But don’t worry. You probably only need to know ten. Those are called the big rules. All the others are called small rules, and we don’t pay much attention to them.”
Fee stared at Badger. “Do you like it here?” she asked.
Badger thought this a rather odd question. “But of course I like it,” he answered. “This is the most amazing, fantastic, exciting, superb, ace school in ... in the entire world.”
“Are you joking?” asked Ben.
“Not at all,” said Badger. “You’ll see soon enough.” He paused. “Mind you, I won’t pretend that there aren’t some things that aren’t so great.”
“What are those?” asked Ben.
“You’ll see,” said Badger again. He looked at his watch. “We’d better get your boat up. Breakfast is in half an hour and if you’re late all the sausages will be taken.” He made a face “Some people always try to take more than their fair share.”
“Who are they?” asked Fee.
“You’ll see,” said Badger once again. “But let’s not stand about talking. Let’s get the boat up and then I can take you to the Captain before breakfast. We always have to take new people to the Captain when they arrive.”
“Is he the principal?” asked Ben.
“He is,” said Badger. “But you never call him that. He’s called the Captain because he’s the captain of the ship. His full name is Captain Macbeth. He’s also a teacher, of course, but his main job is running the ship.”
They began to haul up their rubber boat. Once it was up on deck, they took out the plug, deflated it, and stowed it away in a nearby locker. The locker was full of other rubber boats, all folded up just as theirs was. ‘This is where we keep our personal boats,” explained Badger. “Mine is that red one over there. It has a bit of a leak, I’m afraid, but I don’t use it often now. We have a class in the care and maintenance of rubber boats. They teach you how to stick a plaster over any holes.”
Badger looked at his watch again. “Right,” he said. “Ready for the Captain? Yes? Well, in that case follow me!”