A Story for January: The Perfect Passion Company

January 2024

In the following extract from The Perfect Passion Company, Katie has agreed to take over her cousin’s matchmaking bureau in Edinburgh while Ness goes travelling.

Katie made her way along the back lane with its neat progression of mews houses. It was not a street that she was familiar with, being tucked away at the edge of Edinburgh’s Georgian New Town, at a point where the city sloped away to the Firth of Forth below. The fortunes of the street would have fluctuated over the one hundred and fifty years of its existence: after providing cheap accommodation for domestic servants attached to larger establishments, the houses had been converted into private flats, and then into premises for architects, studios for commercial artists, offices for accountants. This mix of domestic and business use had continued into the present, with the result that at night the street still had a certain life to it. And here and there in the neighborhood, there were bars and restaurants, a delicatessen, shops selling stationery and office supplies, and, at No. 24 Mouse Lane, up a rickety stair entered through a shared front door, THE PERFECT PASSION COMPANY, its name announced in discreet black lettering on a brass plate.

Katie pressed a small button at the side of the door. A bell sounded inside, and then she heard a voice call out, “One moment.” She smiled: the voice was familiar, a slightly high-pitched voice, the vowels drawn out in the way in which genteel Edinburgh once spoke. Every city had its ancient accents, obscured over time by layers of accretion, but still heard now and then in odd surviving corners.

Ness stood before her at the door, her arms outstretched, her lips parted in a broad smile.

“I knew it was you,” she said. “Or rather, I hoped – and there’s a point, isn’t there, where hope becomes conviction.”

Katie was absorbed in her older cousin’s embrace. Hope becomes conviction: this was typical of Ness, who delighted in such observations.

“Well, I did say I would arrive round about now.”

Ness released her younger relative from her embrace. “Let me look at you,” she said. “It’s been . . . what, a year? Perhaps more. And you’ve only been in London, of all places. London! The horror, the horror, as Conrad put it. Still, you’re back in Scotland now, for which we must all be intensely grateful.”

Katie laughed. Ness overstated everything. “London’s all right,” she said.

Ness looked at her reproachfully. “But not for the whole weekend, my dear . . .”

Now they both laughed, and Ness led her visitor into the office that lay beyond the small entrance hall. She gestured to a comfortable-looking armchair while she herself returned to the office chair on the other side of an expanse of desk.

“Your desk is impressively neat, Ness,” Katie remarked.

“That, I should point out, is immensely important. People judge others by their desks – and their shoes. That’s all you need to know in the first impressions department.”

Katie smiled, and Ness gave her a discouraging look.

“I’m absolutely serious,” she said. “Desks reveal an attitude to order.” She paused. “Do you know that haunting Wallace Stevens poem? ‘The Idea of Order at Key West’? An impossible poem to get to grips with, but utterly fascinating nonetheless. I would have loved to have met Stevens and asked him outright: What on earth were you thinking about? But not to be. Mortality is such a spoilsport. As is morality, come to think of it . . .”

Katie laughed. “And shoes?”

“Shoes,” said Ness, “tell you about self-respect. And self-respect tells you everything you need to know.”

“I see.”

“When somebody comes in here and sits in that very chair on which you’re sitting, I discreetly look at their shoes. And it’s all there: not only self-respect – or its absence – but also aesthetic sense, attitude to tradition, boldness, bravado, timidity. The whole range of psychological possibilities are displayed in a person’s shoes.”

Katie thought about this. That Ness should say this was no surprise to her: her cousin was given to the extravagant statement, the grand theory. That was what she was like.

“But what about trainers?” she asked. “Or running shoes? Or sneakers? Or whatever you like to call them? Everybody wears those these days – or just about everybody.”

Ness made an airy, dismissive gesture. “Not the people who come here,” she said. “The online people wear trainers. Not our clients. We are supra-trainer here. Distinctly so.”

Katie looked at her cousin. It occurred to her that Ness might simply be a snob. Edinburgh had a reputation for being a bit haughty, and it was only one short step from haughtiness to disdain. And if that was the case, then what was she, who prided herself on her non-elitist views, doing getting involved in this strange enterprise?

“Don’t smile like that,” Ness scolded her. “If you think my views peculiar, please laugh outright. It’s better to be laughed at than smiled at.” She thought of something, and paused. “Have you ever heard of a man called Maurice Bowra? I suppose there’s no reason that you should have. These great figures fade, as is only to be expected. He was a translator of ancient Greek poetry and famous for his conviviality and mots justes. He’s the one who said, I’m a man more dined against than dining. Isn’t that just superb?”

“I’ve never heard of him,” said Katie.

“Ah well, but trainers . . . I know what you mean: everybody wants casual footwear these days – or almost everybody. But it’s so characterless, isn’t it? It’s all the same. Men’s and women’s shoes are becoming interchangeable pieces of moulded rubber. All made in remote sweatshops, I believe.” She sighed, before continuing, “Even the Italians are wearing them now – even the Italians, who always believed so deeply in elegant shoes. The Italy of Bellini and Botticelli in trainers . . .” Ness faltered, her expression becoming slightly wistful. “But enough of that. Down to business, as they say. You’re staying with a friend, you said?”

“Yes, Ell. She and I were at school together. I don’t think you ever met her. We lost touch for a while, as you do with school friends, but we’re catching up.”

“But you’re still happy to move into my flat? The day after tomorrow perhaps? Just before I leave for Toronto.”

“Of course. If that’s all right with you.”

“More than all right – a great relief. I didn’t fancy tenants – one has to put everything away, or they break it – and you can’t leave a place unlived in for long. So . . .”

“I’m really looking forward to it. To everything.” She tried to convince herself that this was really so. It was too late to change her mind, after all, and she felt a certain obligation to her cousin.

Ness seemed pleased. “There are some arrangements that seem just perfect. I wanted to go away; you wanted to return to Edinburgh.” She paused, and looked at Katie quizzically. “Why did you want to come back? I don’t think I ever asked.”

Katie hesitated. People came home – they just did – and sometimes they were not at all sure why they did so. Was she tired of London, even after only a few years? Had she had enough of crowds and rush and the sixth-hand air? Edinburgh, after all, was so beautiful, so close to a hinterland of hills and water, surrounded by one of the most romantic landscapes in the world. Or was it just home, and a place to return to because that was where, for her, it had all started?

Her answer was brief. “I missed home.”

Ness understood. “Of course you would. Anyway, my wanting to go away for a while and you wanting to come back made us a perfect match – and perfect matches are, as you know, what this business is about.”

Katie swallowed. The idea had seemed so attractive, but now she was not so sure. This was a real business, with paying clients who expected something for their money. And she would shortly be sitting behind that desk interfering in their private lives, because that, ultimately, was what this business was all about. It was full, she thought, of psychological risk.

Ness sensed the unexpressed reservations. “No need for cold feet,” she said. “When I started this business, I, like you, knew absolutely nothing about it. But that’s how everything starts, don’t you think? Everybody starts from a position of complete ignorance and proceeds to one of slightly attenuated ignorance.”

“But . . .”

“Believe me,” Ness interrupted. “Believe me, Katie, you’re going to thrive in this business. You’ve got everything it takes – everything.”

Katie said nothing.

“And I am a good judge of these things,” Ness went on.

Katie saw her cousin’s gaze move to her shoes: they were made of supple dark blue leather and had white rubber soles.

“Formal trainers?” she said.

She looked up, and their eyes met. They both laughed.

Ness became serious. “But tell me, Katie, do you have any current emotional entanglements?”

Katie shook her head. “I’ve decided that I don’t need men.”

Ness clapped her hands in delight. “My dear, who does?”

“I used to,” Katie added. “But not any longer.”

Ness looked at her. “Am I meant to believe that?”

“Not really. And I suppose I don’t either.”

Ness nodded. “Aspirational,” she said.


This extract is taken from The Perfect Passion Company, a brand new novel from Alexander McCall Smith that will be published in the US in February. Find out more here.