1. Love, Marriage and Other Surprises
The wedding took place underneath the Castle, beneath that towering, formidable rock, in a quiet church that was reached from King’s Stables Road. Matthew and Elspeth Harmony had made their way there together, in a marked departure from the normal routine in which the groom arrives first, to be followed by the bride, but only after a carefully timed delay, enough to make the more anxious members of her family look furtively at their watches – and wonder.
Customs exist to be departed from, declared Matthew. He had pointedly declined to have a stag party with his friends but had nonetheless asked to be included in the hen party that had been organised for Elspeth.
“Stag parties are dreadful,” he pronounced. “Everybody has too much to drink and the groom is subjected to all sorts of insults. Left without his trousers by the side of the canal and so on. I’ve seen it.”
“Not always,” said Elspeth. “But it’s up to you, Matthew.”
She was pleased that he was revealing himself not to be the type to enjoy a raucous male-only party. But this did not mean that Matthew should be allowed to come to her hen party, which was to consist of a dinner at Howie’s restaurant in Bruntsfield, a sober do by comparison with the Bacchanalian scenes which some groups of young women seemed to go in for.
No, new men might be new men, but they were still men, trapped in that role by simple biology. “I’m sorry, Matthew,” she said. “I don’t think that it’s a good idea at all. The whole point about a hen party is that it’s just for women. If a man were there it would change everything. The conversation would be different, for a start.”
Matthew wondered what it was that women talked about on such occasions. “Different in what way?” He did not intend to sound peevish, but he did.
“Just different,” said Elspeth airily. She looked at him with curiosity. “You do realise, Matthew, that men and women talk about rather different things? You do realise that, don’t you?”
Matthew thought of the conversations he had with his male friends. “I don’t know if there’s all that much difference,” he said. “I talk about the same things with my male and female friends. I don’t make a distinction.”
“Well, I’m sorry,” said Elspeth. “But the presence of a man would somehow interrupt the current. It’s hard to say why, but it would.”
So the subject had been left there and Elspeth in due course enjoyed her hen party with seven of her close female friends, while Matthew went off by himself to the Cumberland Bar. There he met Angus Lordie sitting alone with his dog, Cyril.
“I suppose that this is a sort of stag party for me,” Matthew remarked to Angus.
Underneath the table, Cyril, who had long wrestled with temptation to bite Matthew’s ankles, suddenly leaned forward and licked them instead.
“There, you see,” said Angus. “When a dog licks you, it confers a benediction. Cyril understands, you know. That’s his way of saying that he’s going to be sorry to lose you.”
“But he’s not going to lose me,” protested Matthew. “One doesn’t completely disappear when one gets married.”
Angus looked at Matthew with his slightly rheumy eyes. “Really? Well, we won’t be seeing much of you here after the event.”
“We’ll see,” said Matthew. He raised his glass of beer to his lips and looked at Angus. Angus was much older than he was and was unmarried, which meant either that there was some profound reason – lack of interest – or that he had been successful in evading commitment. Now, which of these was it?
“What about yourself, Angus?” Matthew asked. “Have you ever thought of . . . tying the knot with anybody?”
Angus smiled. “Nobody would have me, I fear. Nothing would give me greater pleasure, I suspect, but, well, I’ve never really got myself organised.”
“Of course, you’d need to find somebody capable of taking on Cyril,” said Matthew. “And that wouldn’t be easy.”
Angus shot Matthew an injured glance and Matthew immediately realised his tactlessness.
“Cyril is a slight problem,” said Angus. “It’s difficult being canine, you see. Lots of women turn their noses up at dogs. Particularly with Cyril being the sort of dog that he is. You know, a wandering eye and some unresolved personal freshness issues. But I wish people would see beyond that.”
Matthew nodded. Angus would be a task enough for any woman, and to add Cyril to the equation made it even more of a burden.
“What about Domenica?” he asked suddenly. “I’ve always thought that you and she might make a good couple.”
Angus looked wistfully at the ceiling. “I’ve thought that too,” he said. “But I don’t think there’s much of a chance there. She can’t abide Cyril, you see, and I can hardly get rid of him after all these years. His heart would break.”
“She’d get used to him,” said Matthew. “And dogs don’t last forever.”
Angus shook his head. “No prospect,” he said. “But let’s not talk about me and my problems. What about the wedding? I hear you’ve got Charlie Robertson to do it for you. I knew him when he was at the Canongate Kirk. He does a nice line in weddings, and Her Majesty used to enjoy his sermons, I gather, when she was in residence at Holyrood. She must have had to listen to an awful lot of wheezy lectures from various archbishops of Canterbury – it must have been so refreshing for her to get a good-going, no-nonsense sermon from somebody like Charlie. You know where you stand with the Church of Scotland, although as an Episcopalian, I must say there’s a certain folksiness . . .”
“We’re making certain changes,” said Matthew. “We’re walking up the aisle together. And we’re having a reading from Kahlil Gibran. You know, The Prophet. There’s a chapter there about love and commitment.”
Angus began to let out an involuntary groan, but stopped himself. “Sorry,” he said. “Yes. Kahlil Gibran. I see. And the honeymoon?”
Matthew leaned forward and whispered. “I haven’t told Elspeth. It’s going to be a surprise. Australia!”
Angus looked into his glass. For some inexplicable reason, he felt a sense of foreboding, as if a sinister angel had passed overhead and briefly looked down upon them, as one of those lumbering heavy bombers, laden with high explosive, may spot a target below – a quiet lane with lovers popular, the innocent going about their business, a farmer driving a truck along a winding lane; irresistible temptations for a sinister angel.
2. By the Side of the Bridal Path
Inside the church, three hundred guests – and a handful of regular members of St. Cuthbert’s, entitled in that capacity to attend any service – sat waiting for the ceremony to begin. Matthew had told Elspeth that she should invite as many friends as she wished. His father was paying for the wedding and had imposed no limits; his own list, Matthew felt, was at risk of being embarrassingly small: a few old friends from school, his father and his new wife, a couple of distant cousins, Angus Lordie, Domenica Macdonald, Big Lou, James Holloway; that was about all.
Pat, Matthew’s former girlfriend and occasional employee, had been invited too, and had accepted. Much to Matthew’s relief it appeared that she bore no ill-will towards the woman who had supplanted her in Matthew’s affections; and for her part, Elspeth, by nature, was not one to be jealous. Matthew had reassured her that although he had been serious about Pat, his seriousness had been a mistake; misplaced seriousness, as he described it. “She was really more of a sister,” he said. “I don’t know why I . . .” He left the rest unsaid, and it was not referred to again. So many men might say “I don’t know why I . . .” when talking about the carnal, reflected Elspeth; all men might, in fact.
Elspeth had invited everyone in her address book and many who were not. All her colleagues from the Steiner School were there, her suspension having been formally rescinded after the evidence of the other children – prominent among them Tofu – that Olive’s account of the incident in which the teacher had pinched her ear was at the very least confused, and more likely mendacious. But by the time her reputation was cleared she had already resigned, become engaged, and decided not to go back to teaching.
As well as Elspeth’s former colleagues, an invitation had been given to all the children in the class she had taught. They were to attend under the supervision of their new teacher, who had led them into the church as a group and taken them to the pews reserved for them up at the top on the left. Here they sat – Merlin, Pansy, Lakshmi, Tofu, Hiawatha and the rest, hair neatly combed, their legs swinging freely, not quite touching the floor, whispering to each other, awed by the solemnity of the occasion and the significance of what was about to happen to their beloved Miss Harmony.
“She’ll probably have a baby in a couple of weeks,” said Olive knowingly. “I hope it’s a girl. It’ll be a big tragedy if it’s a boy.”
Tofu turned and sneered at her from the pew in front. “Babies take time,” he said, adding, “stupid.”
“What do you know about it?” hissed Olive. “And anyway, no girl would ever marry you. Not in a hundred years.”
“You mean that nobody would ever marry you,” retorted Tofu. “They’d take one look at you and be sick.”
“I’m going to marry Bertie,” said Olive smugly. “He’s already asked me. We’re going to get married when we’re twenty. It’s all settled.”
Bertie, who was sitting a couple of places away from Olive heard this remark and froze. “No, Olive, I didn’t say I would,” he protested. “I didn’t.”
Olive glared at him. “You did!” she said. “You promised! Don’t think you can break your promises like that.” She snapped her fingers to demonstrate the speed of Bertie’s broken promises, then looked at him and added, “Especially in a church. God’s really going to hate you, Bertie!”
This conversation was interrupted by the organist, who began to play a Bach prelude. Although the congregation was unaware of their presence, Matthew and Elspeth had already arrived and were sitting with Charlie Robertson in the chapel at the back of the church, a small, tucked-away room on the walls of which the names of the fallen were inscribed in lead, equal in death, with no distinction of rank, just men. Matthew, feeling awkward, gazed at the lists of names and thought: they were my age, or younger. Some were seventeen or eighteen, and were only in France or wherever it was for a week or two, days in some cases, before they died in that landscape of explosion and whistling metal. They didn’t have a chance, and now here am I, whose life has been so easy, reading about them and their sacrifice.
It was as if Charlie Robertson had read Matthew’s thoughts. “We’ve been very fortunate, haven’t we?” he said. “Being born at the time we were.”
Matthew glanced at Elspeth. He reached for her hand.
“On a more cheerful note,” said Charlie. “Did you know that it was in this chapel that Agatha Christie got married?”
Matthew showed his surprise. “I would have thought that she would have been married in a sleepy little English village somewhere,” he said. “In one of those places with an extraordinarily high murder rate.”
Charlie laughed. “I see what you mean,” he said. “But no. She got married here in Edinburgh. To her archaeologist husband. She said that an archaeologist was an ideal husband, as the older the wife became, the more interested he would be in her.”
Matthew smiled. It was difficult to imagine Agatha Christie as being young; some people were remembered as how they became, rather than how they were; it was something to with names, he thought. Agatha was not a young name. “But didn’t she run away?”
“That was earlier,” said Elspeth, who knew something about Agatha Christie. “Her first, dashing husband fell in love with somebody else. So she disappeared, and was eventually found staying at a hotel in Harrogate.”
Charlie Robertson looked at his watch. “Well,” he said. “We should be thinking of starting. Are you two ready?”
Matthew rose to his feet. Their conversation, innocent enough, had nevertheless made him think. In getting married, he realised, he was giving a hostage to fortune. By taking Elspeth into his life, the chances that the world would hurt him were doubled. She might leave him; she might run away, like Agatha Christie. There was so much that could go wrong in life if you took on somebody else, and then there were children and all the worries and anxiety they brought. There were so many reasons, he thought, for remaining single.
He looked at Elspeth, who was adjusting the veil she had pinned to her hair. I don’t want to hurt you, thought Matthew; that’s the last thing I want. But should I really go through with this? Is it wise?
Copyright © 2010 by Alexander McCall Smith. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.