We deserve it, don’t we?” said Isabel Dalhousie, half in jest—but only half.
On the other side of the kitchen table, her husband, Jamie— whom she still thought of as her lover, as he thought of her too—was engaged in feeding their younger son, Magnus, a mixture of boiled egg and yoghurt. It was an unlikely dish, not one to be found in any cookbook of children’s food, but one that Magnus clearly enjoyed, at least judging by the way he waved his arms with delight whenever it was offered to him. Magnus had developed a habit of waving his arms that Jamie, in particular, found endearing. “He’s destined to be a conductor,” he announced proudly. “That’s the first sign. Daniel Barenboim must have waved his arms exactly like that when he was a baby.”
“Be careful what you wish for,” Isabel had cautioned. “Would you want Magnus to grow into Toscanini?”
Jamie laughed. As a professional musician, he had experienced his fair share of difficult and irascible conductors. Conductors could be bullies and fly into rages. “Perhaps not,” he said. “Unless that’s what he wanted.” He looked intently at Magnus, who stared back at him. “Would you like to be like Arturo Toscanini, my wee darling?”
Magnus transferred his gaze to the bowl from which his father had been feeding him.
“I read that as a no,” he said.
“Grub first, then music,” said Isabel. “To parody Brecht.”
Jamie picked up a spoon. He had stumbled upon the combination by mistake, when he had inadvertently emptied a carton of yoghurt into a bowl already containing chopped-up boiled egg. “I discovered it in the same way in which Sir Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin,” he said. “He left a Petri dish on a windowsill, didn’t he? And in floated the mould. Serendipity, I think they call it.”
Now, as the last remnants of œuf au yaourt, as he called it, was scraped off the side of the bowl and offered to Magnus, Jamie thought about Isabel’s question. They had been talking about their planned evening out, and Isabel, who tended to engage in moral self-examination in circumstances in which others would not bother, was now wondering about how they might justify a night out at an expensive restaurant.
Jamie looked across the table and grinned. “Are you worried about spending the money?” he asked. “This place . . . what’s it called?”
“Casa Trimalchio . . . I think.” She hesitated. “It made me think of Trimalchio’s Feast, of course. Petronius, the Satyricon. Remember?”
Jamie shook his head. His classical education had stopped when he was sixteen, when the school’s Latin teacher had died unexpectedly and had been replaced by a teacher of geography. “I never did Petronius,” he said. “We did a bit of Ovid and Caesar’s De Bello Gallico, which was really boring. Gallia in tres partes divisa est . . . I remember that bit. Gaul is divided into three parts. God, Caesar was a bore.” He remembered something else. “And a bit of Horace. Not much, but a few of his Odes. I liked him. He would never have divided Gaul into three parts. And then that was that. No Greek at all. I don’t have a word of Greek, I’m afraid. Not one.”
“Neither do I,” said Isabel. “And yet does that stop me expressing views on Aristotle? Or Plato, while I’m about it? Not to mention the Stoics?” She laughed. “Aren’t we a pair? Completely Greek-less.” But then she thought: Ethos, logos, akrasia— she was full of Greek without knowing it, just like Molière’s M. Jourdain, who discovered that he had been speaking prose for forty years without knowing it.
Jamie said, “So it’s called Casa Trimalchio. I think I read a review in the Scotsman.”
Isabel had read it too. “They liked it. That’s why I chose it.”
He suddenly thought of Horace again. “Why did I like Horace?”
Isabel shrugged. “He was pleased with life. He liked to write about farms and bee-keeping and drinking wine with friends. He was that sort of poet.”
“Like your W. H. Auden?”
“A bit. Auden had his Horatian moments. I think of ‘In Praise of Limestone’ in that light.”
Jamie continued, “Horace wrote something that made our Latin teacher get hot under the collar. Blow a fuse.”
“And mix a metaphor,” muttered Isabel.
“I remember it distinctly,” said Jamie. “Horace writes somewhere Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori—it’s a sweet and noble thing to die for your country. And Mr. Henderson—he was the Latin teacher—shook his head and went red. He said, ‘That, boys, is perfect nonsense. It isn’t. It just isn’t. Die for a cause, but not for a country. And even then, it’s not sweet. It’s tragic.’ ”
“Wilfred Owen would have agreed with him.”
Jamie knew about that. “Ah, Britten’s War Requiem. That’s Owen, isn’t it? There are those utterly bleak lines, What passing-bells for these who die as cattle? Only the monstrous anger of the guns . . . I was fourteen when I heard that for the first time. I couldn’t believe it. It struck me as so sad. I was told that he was writing about eighteen-year-olds and that really struck me.”
“I can imagine.” She could; she had seen a photograph of him at about that age and it had tugged at her heart: she saw in him the fragile beauty that can flower in boys at that stage and then coarsens as they get older, although in his case it had not—it had persisted. There was something about that somewhere in Shakespeare’s Sonnets, but she would not embarrass Jamie by mentioning it. He was indifferent to the way he looked, which was half his charm. People who were aware of their good looks could be narcissistic and precious, and that, curiously enough, was a form of ugliness. Jamie never looked in the mirror and had to be told when it was time to go to the hairdresser.
He reminded her that she had asked about Casa Trimalchio and whether they deserved their reservation there. “You don’t have to worry all that much about money, Isabel,” he said. “I know you don’t throw it around—or talk about it. But it is there, isn’t it? We’re not exactly on the breadline.”
She liked it when he said we in this context. Isabel had said from the beginning of their marriage that everything she had was his too—and she meant it. He, however, had been reluctant to dip into their joint bank account in any way, preferring to rely on the much smaller balance he kept in an old-fashioned savings account. It was into this account that his earnings as a musician and music teacher were paid—not much, he cheerfully pointed out, but enough to provide him with sufficient pocket money. The big bills—the expenses of running the house, Grace’s salary, insurance payments, the garage bills for the green Swedish car and so on—all these were paid by Isabel.
“I know I don’t have to worry,” she conceded. “But I do. I don’t worry about not having enough—I worry about the whole idea of spending money I didn’t earn. You earn every penny of yours—I wish I could say the same.”
“You work hard,” he pointed out. “You edit the Review. You deal with all those prima donna authors. Lettuce and that creepy Christopher . . .”
“Dove.” He was creepy. It was an apt word for Dr. Christopher Dove. And Professor Lettuce, if not creepy in quite the same way as Christopher Dove, still seemed ridiculous. Isabel pictured him in all his self-importance. How might one describe Professor Lettuce? Perhaps no other word was necessary because his name—Lettuce—was ridiculous enough. Professor Robert Lettuce—how could one not smile at that? And yet making fun of another’s name was simply childish—she reminded herself of that—even if there were names that seemed to invite such a response. There were people in Scotland called Smellie, an old Scottish name and one that many Smellies still bore with pride—defiance, even. Or there were those English names, mostly originally from Lancashire, she understood, like Sidebottom and Winterbottom. People of that name must as children have become hardened to the smirks of others, although how many of them must have yearned to wake up one morning as simple Sides or unremarkable Winters? She put thoughts of names out of her mind and listened instead to what Jamie was about to say about the morality, or otherwise, of inherited assets.
“You work pretty hard,” Jamie continued, “and so, quite frankly, I don’t see why you should feel guilty. What you’re doing is using money from those investments—that trust over there—you’re using that money to pay yourself for the work that the Review could never pay you for.”
She looked doubtful. “I wish I could really see it that way.”
“You could,” he said. “Stop beating yourself up over being financially comfortable. That family of yours over in Alabama, or Louisiana, or wherever it was, worked hard for it. Now it’s passed on to you. And you’re using it well.”
“Going out to dinner at expensive restaurants?”
Jamie shook his head in frustration. “When did we last do that? Come on, tell me when we last went out to dinner somewhere expensive.”
“I can’t remember,” she replied, then hazarded a guess: “A couple of months ago?”
“Well, there you are.”
Grace had agreed to do the babysitting. She had been Isabel’s housekeeper, having more or less come with the house when Isabel had inherited it from her father. Grace had looked after him after the death of Isabel’s mother—her “sainted American mother” as Isabel called her—and she regarded it as part of the natural order of things that she should continue in her post when Isabel eventually took over. Isabel demurred, but Grace had quietly taken on everything from cleaning to ordering groceries. When the children had arrived, she had assumed the additional role of nurse and nanny, washing, changing and feeding Charlie and Magnus with brisk efficiency. The boys loved her, although they both knew that Grace was inherently more difficult to manipulate than either of their parents. “Children can sense a pushover,” Grace said, adding hurriedly, “not that I’m saying that either you or Jamie is that. Heavens, no. But they can tell who is going to let them get away with things, little devils.”
Grace arrived early that evening. Magnus was already asleep, but Charlie, being older, was on a half-hour extension, which would give him the chance to have his bedtime story read by Grace.
“You concentrate on getting into your finery,” she said to Jamie. “I’ll do the story.”
Jamie accepted her offer. “He’s been looking forward to that. There’s a new book from the Morningside Library. Isabel got it today. It’s about a boy who wants to wear a dress.”
Grace was unsurprised. “Little boys sometimes want to dress like girls. My older cousin’s son—the one who lived over in Lochgelly—he was like that. He was always putting on his sister’s dresses. And . . .”
Jamie waited. Grace, although single herself, had a wide extended family, and usually had a relative whose example could illustrate any proposition. “And?” he prompted. He was not sure that this story would end well; Lochgelly, once a coal-mining town, was no place for a sensitive boy to live.
“He joined the army. He did pretty well. He’s still in it.”
“A Highland regiment?” asked Jamie. “They wear kilts.”
Grace smiled. “No, the Royal Marines, actually.”
“He’s a sergeant now. He was based at Redford Barracks until a few months ago. Now he’s with the Gurkhas somewhere.”
Jamie raised an eyebrow.
“So you see, you can’t tell,” Grace concluded. “People should be able to do their thing, shouldn’t they?”
“Of course,” said Jamie. But he wondered about the cousin; he wondered whether he had been encouraged to make himself tough—and had overdone it. The Royal Marines did the job they had to do very well, but did they have to be quite so tough? Were the ranks of these regiments full of people who were trying to prove something to others, or even to themselves?
On impulse, Jamie said, “Do you think the army might try to be a little bit more in touch with its feminine side?”
Grace stared at him reproachfully. “Lots of women are in the army these days,” she said. “And why not?”
Jamie nodded. “And a good thing too. I was thinking about the men. All that shouting and bellowing and walking about in that rather stiff way. Why? Why not walk normally?”
“It’s called marching,” said Grace. “That’s what soldiers do.”
Grace went upstairs and relieved Isabel, who was trying to settle an excited Charlie in his room. Half an hour later she came downstairs, to find Jamie pouring a glass of New Zealand white wine for Isabel. They had both made an effort with their outfits, and Grace complimented them. She liked Jamie’s blazer, she said. “A double-breasted jacket always suits a man. Unless he’s too stout. Which you’re not, of course.”
Jamie thanked her and offered to pour her a glass of wine. Grace declined. “I’ve brought a book,” she said. “And if I have a glass of wine I’ll doze off in minutes. It always happens.”
Jamie glanced at the book that Grace had brought in a see-through plastic bag. He could just make out the title: Beyond the Beyond. “Good?” he asked.
“Better than that library book,” she answered, casting her eyes upstairs.
“Did he not enjoy it?” asked Isabel.
“No,” said Grace. “We got to the second page and he said, ‘Why does that boy want to wear a dress? He’s not a girl.’ ”
Isabel smiled. “And so?”
“He asked for something different,” said Grace. “He wanted that book about the dog who saves a train.”
Jamie burst out laughing. “He might not be ready for the message just yet.”
“Any boy would prefer to read about dogs who save trains,” said Grace. “It’s what boys like.”
“Oh well,” said Jamie. He pointed to Grace’s bag. “Beyond the Beyond? Beyond as in . . . the other side?”
They were used to Grace’s references to the other side. She was a regular attender at a spiritualist centre in the West End of Edinburgh and often told them about the seances and talks that took place there.
She nodded in answer to Jamie’s question. “It’s an interesting book,” she said. “The author came to give a talk last week. He sold copies afterwards. That one’s signed.”
“What’s it about?” asked Jamie.
“I’m not very far into it,” Grace replied. “It’s really his life story, I suppose. About how he became a medium and about some of the people he helped.” She paused. “He knew when he was only seven or eight, you know. He lived up on one of the Hebrides—Mull, in fact. His father was the skipper of a fishing boat. He said that he predicted when his father would get a good catch and when the fish would be somewhere else altogether. And the weather. He had a premonition of a storm and warned his father not to go out.”
“Perhaps he saw the weather report,” Isabel suggested. “Meteorologists can be quite fey.” She used the Scots word for one with clairvoyant powers.
Grace frowned. “I know you don’t believe—”
“Isabel’s only joking,” Jamie said quickly. And to Isabel he said, “Remember what Hamlet said: ‘There are more things in Heaven and Earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy . . .’ ”
“Yes,” said Grace, slightly disapprovingly. “People should remember that.” She looked at her watch. “Hadn’t you better go? You said you were booked for eight.”
“Yes, we are,” said Jamie. “I’ll call a cab.”
The cab arrived within a few minutes and they set off. It was mid-summer, and at Edinburgh’s latitude there would be light until at least eleven. Even now, the slanting sun was still shining on the tops of the trees and the slate roofs of the crescent that led to Bruntsfield. They passed a group of teenagers on their way to the tennis courts at the bottom of the road. They passed a woman cajoling a reluctant West Highland terrier on its evening walk. They saw a man washing a car with a bucket of soapy water, his expression one of distaste at the task he was being obliged to perform.
“That’s a very dirty car, that one,” said Jamie. “I walked past it the other day. It was covered in dust and bird droppings.”
“I need to wash my car,” said Isabel. “I haven’t washed it for . . . oh goodness, a year . . . or two.”
Jamie suddenly leaned over and kissed her. “You have better things to do,” he whispered. “I’ll wash your car. I promise you.”
The Casa Trimalchio was in St. Mary Street, in the Old Town, a few doors down from the World’s End pub. It was an area of cobbled streets and old tenements, not far from the Palace of Holyroodhouse and the Scottish Parliament. Because of its position, it was popular with politicians, and the civil servants who advised them. It was also used by journalists covering the Parliament or working in the BBC studios not far away. It was not a place for a quiet dinner for those who didn’t want to be seen, although the proprietor, Lucca Bompiani, had a way of keeping political opponents from being seated in close proximity to one another. He also had a rule, enforced firmly but tactfully, to the effect that those who wished to discuss politics should do so in a way that could not be heard at any neighbouring table.
The restaurant was not busy when Isabel and Jamie arrived, and they were shown to their table straightaway. They looked at the menu, an elaborate, hand-written list of Italian specialities. Jamie looked at the wine list, muttering about the prices.
“Don’t,” said Isabel. “You told me not to worry. You yourself said that. You told me not to worry about money.”
Jamie pointed to one of the wines on the list. Leaning forward, he explained his objection in a low voice. “I know for a fact what that costs in the supermarket. They have that exact wine—same vintage, the lot—in Morningside. It’s eleven pounds there. Eleven. And here? Fifty-six.”
“It’s always more expensive in a restaurant,” said Isabel. “That’s a fact of life. They have to make a profit.”
“But that’s a mark-up of over four hundred per cent,” said Jamie. “More, perhaps, given that they won’t have paid eleven pounds for it. More like seven, or even six.”
“They have to pay their waiters,” said Isabel. “But let’s not quibble, Jamie.”
Jamie lowered the wine list. “Sorry, you’re right. Let’s look at the menu itself.”
The waiter appeared, notebook in hand, ready to take their order. He reeled off a list of specials that were not on the printed menu. Isabel asked about the monkfish and Jamie enquired about the Tuscan bean stew.
“It’s very simple,” the waiter replied. “I wouldn’t recommend it. Beans are, well, beans. Of course, if that’s what you like . . .”
They settled on a plate of antipasti each, to be followed by monkfish. Wine was ordered too, and a bottle of mineral water. Isabel looked across the table at Jamie. She reached out to take his hand.
“This is so nice,” she said. “If this is what you like.”
He glanced at the retreating figure of the waiter. “Very odd,” he said. “Waiters aren’t meant to warn you off things.”
“He said a very Edinburgh thing,” said Isabel. “Remember the wonderful line from Jean Brodie? For those who like that sort of thing, that is the sort of thing they like. Bone-deep disapproval disguised as tolerance.”
“But Edinburgh’s only slightly disapproving,” said Jamie. “And anyway, it’s loosened up.”
A new group of diners entered the restaurant—two men and two women. They were somewhere in their early forties and smartly dressed. The men both wore suits, although one was sporting an open-necked shirt; the other man had a striped tie. One of the women was in a black trouser suit, while the other had a green Indian print dress with what looked like a silk shawl. The woman in the trouser suit had a double string of pearls around her neck. One of the men had large horn-rimmed spectacles of the sort that might be described as a fashion statement.
As the new arrivals were shown to their table by Lucca himself, Jamie whispered to Isabel, “See him? The one in the specs? See him?”
Isabel glanced across the restaurant. The man had looked vaguely familiar to her, but she had not been able to place him. “That’s . . .” She shook her head. “Who is he?”
“He’s called Hugh Maclean,” said Jamie. “You see him on television. He has a column in the paper, and he runs that think tank—you know, the one that comes up with those predictions. The one that tells everybody else that they’re doing everything wrong.”
“Which they often are,” said Isabel. “We ignore think tanks at our peril.”
Jamie smiled. “It’s an odd expression, isn’t it? What do you imagine when somebody says think tank? Do you see them all sitting about in a tank of some sort—perhaps half submerged—thinking about things?”
Isabel was enjoying this. “Not quite, but that’s a nice image. I think more of . . . well, I suppose I think of an ivory tower. A tall, ivory-coloured building with a room at the top, which is the think tank.”
Jamie leaned forward. “And then every so often somebody emerges—some rather wild-looking type with untidy hair and professorial glasses—and announces what the think tank has thought. And it’s duly noted down, and then they move on to thinking about the next thing they have to think about.” He paused, and then, looking across the restaurant again, he added, “And that woman. The one with the pearls . . .”
Isabel followed his gaze. “The pearls are on the wrong woman. The one in the dress should be wearing them.”
“Possibly,” said Jamie. “But that’s not what I was going to say. I recognise her.”
Isabel asked him who she was.
“She’s a member of the Scottish Parliament. She’s in the Lib Dems, I think. She had a big run-in with the Catholic Church over that guardianship business. She and the Catholic archbishop had a spectacular bust-up on television. A real stushie.” Jamie used the Scots word to describe a brawl; like many Scots words, it was highly suggestive. A stramash in Scots was a chaotic argument or mix-up; a stushie was something that, although possibly verbal, could also involve an exchange of blows.
Isabel recalled the debate. “I think I remember her now. She doesn’t mince her words.”
“No,” said Jamie. “She sautés them and they come out pretty hot.”
An antipasti trolley arrived at their table, and they busied themselves with making their selections. The waiter who had warned against the bean stew now expressed reservations about the asparagus. “It’s not in its first flush of youth,” he said. “The artichokes are nice, though. And this salami here, this one, is seriously good. I’d eat it myself.”
They made their choices, and the waiter wheeled the trolley away.
“Curiouser and curiouser,” said Isabel. “Do you think he likes his job?”
“Probably not,” said Jamie.
The waiter was now talking to the political table. And at this point the door opened, and another party of diners arrived. This was a smaller group of just two men—one a man in his mid-fifties, slightly corpulent and with that sleek, well-groomed look of the financier; the other an earnest-looking younger man in a sharply tailored chalk-stripe suit.
Jamie’s interest was immediately aroused. He reached across the table and tapped Isabel’s wrist.
“Central casting’s being kind to us,” he whispered. “Everybody’s here, it seems.”
Isabel followed his gaze across the room. “I’m hopelessly out of touch,” she said. “I don’t know who anybody is.”
“Don’t stare,” said Jamie.
“I’m not,” she protested. “You’re the one who’s staring.”
Jamie put a finger to his lips. The two newcomers were waiting to be seated and were looking about the restaurant.
“They can’t hear us,” said Isabel. “There’s too much noise from Hugh Maclean’s table.”
Jamie spoke above a whisper, but still in subdued tones. “That’s Mark Throsby, the asset-stripper.”
Isabel shot another glance across the restaurant. “The man who—”
“Yes,” interjected Jamie. “The man who bought Macdonald Shipbuilding. And then threw it to the wolves—although he, actually, was the main wolf, as it turned out.”
“Remind me,” said Isabel. “I saw it in the papers, but I didn’t really follow it.”
Jamie took a bite of artichoke. “He bought Macdonald. He promised the workforce that everything would be all right. He accepted a big government grant to keep the yard going. Then he split the company up and sold its assets, including its own shipyard, which he sold to a property development company—owned by himself—and turned into expensive flats with a view of the Clyde.” He paused, glancing in Throsby’s direction. “Something like four hundred men lost their jobs.”
Isabel looked down at her plate. That was the problem, she thought; that was why she felt uncomfortable about that fund of hers, managed for her by investment advisers who swore blind they would invest only in ethical companies. But how did one know who was ethical and who was not? The whole system seemed to be infected, top to bottom, with the suppurating corruption of greed.
Lucca now detached himself from Hugh Maclean and made his way over to Throsby and his companion. He shook hands with them and then invited them to follow him to the table next to the Maclean table.
Jamie watched. “He’s putting them right next to his sworn enemies,” he said under his breath. “Hugh Maclean spent a lot of time on television denouncing Throsby and all his works.”
They watched as the two newcomers sat down. They did not appear to have noticed their nearby company, but Hugh Maclean had. He stared intensely at them, and then turned to his fellow diners and said something to them. They turned and looked in the direction of Throsby’s table. One of them, the woman in the Indian print dress, threw up her hands in a gesture of undisguised horror.
What happened next took place quickly. As if conducted by an unseen hand, all of Hugh Maclean’s party rose to their feet, pushing their chairs back noisily. Then, their table napkins discarded on the table and the floor, they pointedly walked out. Hugh Maclean shouted something to Lucca, who seemed to be paralysed. The waiter, looking confused, opened the door for them to depart.
There were four other tables occupied at the time. All of those seated at these tables saw what happened, and were reduced to silence. Lucca dithered for a few moments, and then strode over to Throsby and whispered something in his ear, patting him on the shoulder as he did so. Throsby nodded, and then, turning to his dining companion, shrugged.
Lucca clapped his hands to signal to the waiters to attend to the diners. Isabel and Jamie’s waiter came to their table and grinned at them. “Our very first walk-out,” he said. He lowered his voice. “Not that I blame them.”
“He’s not a popular man,” Jamie said.
The waiter cast a glance in the direction of the two shunned diners. “That,” he said, “is probably his only friend.” He smiled wickedly. “You know all those stories about waiters spitting in the soup behind the scenes? You’ve heard those? Well, everything they say is true. We do, but only in the case of those who really deserve it.”
“I can understand the temptation,” Isabel muttered. “But—”
The waiter did not give her the time to finish her qualification. “Yes,” he said, “it’s very tempting, I can tell you. I won’t do it this time because . . . well, they haven’t ordered soup. Wise, perhaps. They might know the danger—people like that could know, I think. You go and mess up people’s lives and you think: Are they going to spit in my soup now? And the answer you might just come up with is yes.”
He threw a final glance over towards Throsby, and then professionalism reasserted itself. Changing the subject, he pointed to their plates. “Everything okay? Wise move not to have the asparagus, by the way.”
Jamie nodded, and the waiter returned to the kitchen. Isabel sat back in her chair. She was thinking.
“Are you all right?” asked Jamie.
Isabel gave a cursory nod. “Yes, I’m fine. But I can’t say I approve of what we’ve just seen.”
“It was hardly surprising,” said Jamie. “And frankly, that man deserves everything he gets.”
Isabel ignored this. “Do you know, I’m doing a special issue of the Review on the ethics of food. I’ve got Julian to do a major piece for me.” Julian was Julian Bagnini, a friend of Isabel’s, who had written on the subject of food and its ethics.
“And we have an article on commensality lined up,” Isabel continued. “It’s about the moral bond between those who eat together. But it also deals with the issue of when you can refuse to eat with somebody.”
“Whenever you want, surely,” said Jamie. “I don’t have to have breakfast with somebody I don’t like.”
“In the privacy of your own home,” said Isabel. “You can choose your company there. But you can’t choose it in public places—like restaurants.”
“Because everyone is entitled to eat in public eating places.”
Jamie was looking over to the Throsby table.
“Even people like that?”
Isabel inclined her head. “Even people like that.”
Jamie thought about this. Isabel was right, he felt: you had no right to require your fellow diners to be acceptable to you. And yet Isabel’s position was susceptible to counter-arguments. He immediately thought of an extreme case: What if you found yourself in a restaurant full of members of the Ku Klux Klan enjoying an annual dinner? Would you feel obliged to stay and finish your meal? He did not think he would, and nor, he imagined, would Isabel.
He was thinking about this when Isabel suddenly stood up. He looked up at her. Was she going to walk out too, even after what she had just said? “You aren’t going to—”
She cut him short with a shake of her head. “I’ll be back in a moment.”
He watched as she crossed the room to the table where Throsby and the young man were seated. Because of the peculiar acoustic of the room, he heard every word of what was said.
“Mr. Throsby,” Isabel began. “I’m sorry that you were subjected to that. It was discourteous. It was wrong.”
It took Throsby a few moments to react. Then, he rose to his feet, inclining his head as he did so. “Thank you. I . . . I . . .” He spread his hands in a gesture that signified that he was at a loss for words.
“I’m not saying that I sympathise with what you do—your financial dealings, shall I say—but I do not think you deserve to be publicly shunned like that.”
Again, Throsby inclined his head. “It’s very good of you. Thank you. I appreciate your gesture—I really do.”
Isabel nodded and turned on her heels to get back to her table. At neighbouring tables there was complete silence: everyone in the restaurant had followed the exchange. At one table in particular, an elderly man, seated in a party of four, watched open-mouthed. He stared at Isabel. A few minutes later, he called Lucca over and whispered something to him. Lucca replied. Isabel and Jamie saw none of this.
Jamie said to Isabel, “I’m really rather proud of you, you know.”
She smiled. “I’m proud of you too.”
Jamie took a sip of wine. “I would never have done that. It wouldn’t have occurred to me. I’m not that brave.”
“Really?” said Isabel. “I think you are, you know. I think you’re as brave as William Wallace himself.”
Jamie laughed. “Braveheart? I don’t think so.” He paused. “But it’s good of you to say that. Nobody else ever has.”
“Because the occasion has never arisen,” said Isabel. “You never know how brave you’re going to be—until the occasion arises.”
“I’m not brave,” Jamie insisted. “I could never have flown a Spitfire in the Battle of Britain.”
Isabel disagreed. “You can’t say that. And I suspect you would. I suspect you’d have been there, with the rest of them, doing what had to be done.”
Jamie shook his head. “Some of them had only—what was it—twelve hours of training before they went up. Something like that.”
“And they saved everything,” said Isabel. “Europe. The world, perhaps. It was close, wasn’t it?”
Jamie nodded. “It was.”
Isabel realised that she had never asked Jamie about his views on pacifism: the subject had never come up. And yet it was something very basic, a fundamental question—and you should know, shouldn’t you, what your own husband thought about that? Now she asked him.
“You said you wouldn’t have been brave enough to fly a Spitfire,” she began, “but would you have flown it, if you had been a bit braver? Not that I think you wouldn’t be brave enough, but . . .”
“Would I if I could?”
He hesitated, but not for long. “Of course.”
She was relieved by the answer. “So, you’d fight for a just cause?”
He nodded. “Wouldn’t you?” He looked at her. “If somebody came along and threatened Charlie and Magnus—you’d . . . you’d kill them if necessary? If there was no other way of saving them?”
She replied without thinking. “Yes. If there was no alternative. Yes, I’d do whatever needed to be done.” She returned his gaze. “You’d do the same, wouldn’t you?”
“Without a moment’s hesitation.”
She looked down at her hands. Hands were capable of that, and more. It was a hand that must have pulled the lever that released the bomb on Hiroshima. One human hand. But even that was not simple; had that hand not gone through that motion, then Japan might not have surrendered and there could have been millions more deaths in the invasion that followed. It was far from simple. There was a calculus of life and death with which politicians and generals had to wrestle, and whatever they did there were human costs.
“It’s very complex,” said Isabel, but then added, “That antipasti was delicious, wasn’t it? It’s made me . . .” She hesitated. Suddenly she felt strangely, overwhelmingly happy. She was with the man she loved more than she had loved anybody ever before, and he was hers. At that moment, nothing else mattered to her—nothing. Was this what love really was? she wondered— a feeling of pure delight in the object of one’s love; the desire that the other person should just be, and that you, the smitten one, the faithful one, should in some indefinable way enhance that state of being. That that’s what was meant by the idea of loving another for himself alone.
Jamie was the man she loved, she told herself—this is the person whom I love, although I could easily, I suppose, have ended up loving somebody else, or even loving an idea, a place, even something distant and unattainable. What was it that Auden said? Love requires an object—anything will do. Then he went on to say, When I was a child I loved a pumping engine, thought it every bit as beautiful as you . . .
Those were beautiful lines, she thought, and they emphasised, quite rightly, what one might call the accident of love. There was a lot of chance in love—a lot of luck—but there was not too much point in thinking about that, other than to thank whatever gods one believed in, or blind fate if one believed in none, for the way things had worked out. And for her, they had worked out as well as she could possibly have hoped for.
“What about the antipasti?” asked Jamie. “It’s made you what?”
“Happy,” said Isabel. “Just happy. You and the antipasti, that is, have made me happy.”
Copyright © 2020 by Alexander McCall Smith. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.