"Is it possible, do you think, to be too good?”
Isabel Dalhousie asked her husband, Jamie, this question while he was standing in the shower, washing his hair. It was typical of the unexpected questions that Isabel sometimes posed, without warning, and on any subject that happened to come to mind. “Was Wittgenstein really as brilliant as people thought him to be?” she had asked a few days earlier. “Or were people simply wrong-footed by his insistence that all the questions that had preoccupied them were, in fact, meaningless?” This question, addressed to nobody in particular, being more of an utterance, a soliloquy perhaps, than an actual question, was intercepted by her housekeeper, Grace, who had thought for no more than a few moments before replying, “Who knows? But don’t forget to buy butter, please—we’ve almost run out.”
When this question about good was asked, Jamie was using a new shampoo Isabel had purchased on impulse, swayed by the sheer effrontery of its packaging. Hair care for the thinking man, the label announced, before claiming, The shampoo Einstein would have used. That made her laugh out loud, causing the assistant behind the counter, and a woman browsing the vitamin shelves, to look up with surprise. Isabel had become aware of their glances, and had felt obliged to explain. Those who erupt in sudden, private laughter often feel they must say why.
“It’s just that one is not always struck by what one reads on shampoo bottles,” she said, flourishing the bottle. And then added, “In fact, shampoo bottles make rather dull reading . . . usually.”
The woman behind her had a sense of humour. “This one,” she said, “is obviously a rather better read.”
Isabel laughed again, although this brief exchange was lost on the young assistant, who was busying herself with keying the details of a refund into the card reader. That was the problem with being nineteen, thought Isabel: Nineteen-year-olds take themselves—and the world—far too seriously, and have yet to discover how unintentionally funny both can be.
She had shown the bottle to the woman behind her and they had both shaken their heads over the hyperbolic language of the label. The manufacturers’ pitch was clear enough: This was a shampoo aimed at men rather than women, and was intended to imply that if you were intelligent—as most people like to think they are—then this was the shampoo for you. There might also have been an additional, subliminal promise: that the use of this particular shampoo was of some benefit to the brain; a message that could not be spelled out, of course, given truth in advertising considerations, but it could be implied. And so, in the same way as eating fish is said to improve brain function, using the right shampoo might have the effect of improving mental acuity. Perhaps this entirely meretricious marketing strategy actually had women in mind—on the assumption that even a shampoo aimed at men would in most cases be bought by women, for their men. And there must be many women, perhaps the majority, who secretly—or not so secretly in some cases—wished that the man in their lives might be just a little bit brighter. “Not that I wish I’d married Einstein,” such a woman might say, “but sometimes . . .” And there would then follow a brief, wistful sigh; not enough to express real dissatisfaction, but sufficiently pointed to remind us that inequality of intelligence can be one of the rocks just below the surface of an otherwise untroubled relationship.
She had bought the shampoo and had meant to point out to Jamie its peculiar claims. He, though, had used it without comment, probably without reading the label. He was unfussy about these things: Soap was soap, toothpaste was toothpaste, and shampoo, for all its braggadocio, was simply something you put on your hair, left there for a moment or two, and then rinsed off.
Now he was doing just that, standing under the shower in the bathroom just off the main bedroom in their Edinburgh house, while a speaker he had placed on the bathroom cabinet played the spring movement from Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. She watched him fondly. He had few faults, but one of them, perhaps, was a propensity to spend far too long in the shower. This had prompted, on one occasion, a warning from Isabel that he could wash away all the natural oils that stand between the skin and its enemies—harsh sunlight, unfriendly microbes, and the gradual wear and tear of the elements.
“Are you suggesting I might dissolve?” replied Jamie.
“You know what I mean,” Isabel retorted.
“It would be rather a pleasant way of leaving this world,” Jamie said. “To dissolve. It has a slightly Buddhist ring to it. You’d dissolve into the air about you. Your molecules would float off like . . . like Chinese lanterns. That, I think, is how Buddhists think about the way we end our lives. We dissolve.”
Isabel pictured one of those small paper lanterns, its little fire heating the trapped air, rising gracefully against a night sky. That would be the soul—feather light at last, freed of its worldly burdens.
“Dissolve?” she mused. “Yes, possibly. But people think, rather, of ascending—if they’re lucky . . .”
“Or descending, if they’re not quite so lucky.”
“Precisely.” She reminded herself, though, that the Greeks believed that everybody descended into the underworld, even if bound for the Elysian Fields. And then they must pay the ferryman: Would plastic be acceptable to Charon?
But now it was not issues of eschatology that concerned her, but a question of morality. She was, after all, a philosopher, the editor of the Review of Applied Ethics, and Jamie was used to her asking questions of this sort at odd and unexpected times.
Now he repeated her question. “Is it possible to be too good?”
“Yes,” said Isabel.
“Why do you ask?” Jamie enquired from beneath the shower rose.
“I’ve been wondering why we dislike people who are just too good.”
She was sure we did. “People like that make us feel uncomfortable.”
She paused. Jamie had turned off the shower and was reaching out for his towel. She passed it to him. Not an ounce of spare flesh, she thought. My Apollo. And, like Apollo, for a moment he seemed to glow in her eyes.
“Do you mean people who are a bit pi?” said Jamie, using the abbreviation of pious that Isabel found so expressive. Pi was a wonderful, almost onomatopoeic word, reflecting the sound that she imagined might be made by the pursing of the lips in moral self-satisfaction.
Isabel nodded. “Yes, people who are annoyingly good. They can be so smug.”
Jamie towelled himself roughly. “That could be Annie in the orchestra,” he said. “She adopts a pained expression when anybody mentions having a good time. She plays the oboe. She’s pretty good—musically, that is—but, oh, her holier than thou attitude gets on our nerves. It really does.”
Isabel said that she, too, had known somebody like that in her student days. “He was such a pain,” she said. “Always disapproving of others—telling them what to do. And then he was caught driving while intoxicated and had to appear in court. We all went to his trial—everybody who knew him—and we sat in the public benches and grinned. Somebody sent out an invitation, properly printed, reading, You are cordially invited to the trial of Roger Mason on a charge of drunken driving. Suit or cocktail dress.”
“Pure Schadenfreude,” said Jamie. “But he’d asked for it, I suppose.”
“He was so ashamed,” Isabel said. “We should have felt guilty, enjoying his discomfort like that, but we didn’t. I regret it now.” She paused. “Is it easier to be cruel when you’re young? Or is it harder?”
Jamie did not answer. Instead, he asked, “What happened to him? Later? After university?”
“He disappeared into obscurity,” Isabel replied. “But I did hear that he married an actress. She had parts in radio plays. Then she started appearing in pantomime at the King’s Theatre.”
“The trajectory,” mused Jamie. “And him?”
“He ran a garden centre that belonged to his parents. It sold plants and lawn fertiliser and things like that. I saw him there once, showing a watering can to a customer. I don’t think he recognised me.” It occurred to her that it was only too predictable that someone who had always told others what to do should end up showing them how to use a watering can.
Jamie started to dress. “Oh well, he brought it upon himself. And we’ve all done things we regret. We’re all thoughtless at that stage in our lives.”
“Yes, we are. But it still makes me ashamed just to think about it. We made a joke of his shame—sitting there struggling not to laugh while he had his driving licence suspended and was fined whatever sum it was.”
“Drinking and driving is an offence,” said Jamie. “He can’t complain.”
“No, but we shouldn’t have done what we did.”
Jamie thought for a moment. “Couldn’t we all say that about ourselves? As nations, too? We shouldn’t have done what we did. Isn’t that what we all now feel about our past?”
“You mean Britain shouldn’t have done what it did? Or America? Or Spain?”
“Yes,” said Jamie. “But not just them. Not just the obvious targets. Pretty much everybody. Russia. Turkey. China. The past is pretty shameful once you start to look at it more closely.”
Isabel reflected on this as she watched Jamie slip into his clothes. He slipped into them, she thought. Others struggled to fit into their clothes, breathed in, pushed and pulled. Jamie slipped.
“I think that we have to be careful,” she said. “It ties in with what I was saying about being too good. Being too aware of your past can paralyse you.”
This was familiar territory—the drawing of the boundaries of our duty to others—the describing of the circle of our moral concern. We could not assume the full burden of the past: A certain measure of discernment was necessary in distinguishing what we needed to answer for from what could be consigned to history. At some point, thought Isabel, we needed to be able to say, That was them, not me. That was then, not now.
Jamie was now combing his hair. “That new shampoo,” he said.
“I rather like it. What’s it called?”
Isabel told him, and mentioned its risible claims.
“Good choice,” said Jamie, only half seriously. On impulse, he took a few steps—Isabel had been sitting on the edge of the bath—and kissed her. He smelled of the thinking man’s shampoo, which had sandalwood in it, she thought—or the chemicals that imitated sandalwood, for so much now was the chemical signature, not the real thing. She thought of truffle flavouring and how the chemists had replaced the dogs used to hunt the wild fungus.
She looked at him. Her hand went to his, and for a moment she held it. Oddly, and for no particular reason, she pictured the mountains of Moidart, a remote and rugged part of the Scottish Highlands. She remembered they had cycled up there once, shortly after they had married, and had stopped by one of those tumbling waterfalls that descend those mountainsides, and are blown by the wind. Jamie had suddenly kissed her—just as he had done a few moments ago—and she’d wondered whether, years later, she might remember the moment; and now she had, two small children later, in a world that was so different from the world of that time, and so much more cynical, too, she thought. Yet Jamie had not changed. He looked exactly the way he looked then; he said the same things; comforted her with the same endearments; thought the same things; loved her, she hoped, in the same way and with exactly the same passion. In all of that, she had been so blessed that she hardly dared contemplate her good fortune. Nemesis lurked—she knew that—scanning her radar screen for those who wandered onto it when she felt in vindictive mood. Only by never manifesting pride in any form could one hope to avoid the unwelcome attention of the goddess. That was clear enough, thought Isabel, even if not always very easy.
Jamie had taken his shower at six-thirty in the evening— a time at which he would normally be involved in the bedtime routine planned for their two small sons, Charlie and Magnus. On this occasion, he and Isabel were preparing to go out to the opening of an exhibition at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery, Isabel’s housekeeper, Grace, having been engaged to babysit for the evening. Grace was uncomplaining about this, as she liked watching television from the sofa in the study, where she enjoyed the consumption of salted cashew nuts, smoked oysters on small buttered oatcakes, and quantities of slimline tonic flavoured with slices of lime. There was no reason why such indulgences might not be available in her own flat—other than that she would not buy them.
In addition to the snacks, Jamie always cooked supper for Grace when she was babysitting and left this in the warming oven for her to have whenever she wished. On this particular evening, he had cooked a dish of cauliflower cheese, and had made a mixed salad to accompany it. He knew that this was one of Grace’s favourites, and that if a bottle of Chianti were left on the table, Grace would feel that she wanted for nothing. Babysitting was simply an extension of the daycare she provided for Charlie and Magnus on those occasions when Isabel had an editorial task to perform or when she was suddenly called away to a meeting. Grace did not mind any of this and could spend hours with the boys, on whom she appeared to have a particular calming effect. She regularly read to them, affecting a variety of accents to bring out the dramatic quality of whatever book they were enjoying. Isabel had noticed that inevitably, when she read out the villains’ dialogue, Grace had them speaking with a Glaswegian accent. She had thought of asking Grace about this, and implying, gently of course, that it might be a bit unfair to stereotype people in this way, but she had refrained from doing so. Grace was sensitive, and might resent any suggestion that she had some sort of prejudice against Glasgow.
Grace arrived in time to give the boys their bath. This was an occasion for shipping accidents, as the boys’ fleet of brightly coloured boats, tugs and tankers and fishing vessels, collided with one another in the bathwater or ploughed, like tiny Titanics, into icebergs of floating soap. Grace tolerated all this until, precisely ten minutes after bath time had begun, she announced its end and would pull out the plug to forestall any appeal for an extension.
Then it was story time, which that evening was a story set on a Scottish island, the home of a colony of helpful talking seals. The seals were in peril, though, from a visiting shark, whose lines were rendered by Grace in the exaggerated tones of working-class Glasgow. Isabel and Jamie were on the point of leaving at that stage, and exchanged amused glances as they overheard Grace’s rendition of the shark’s unfriendly threats.
“It’s interesting,” said Isabel, as they closed the front door behind them. “Grace doesn’t think of herself as prejudiced, but . . .”
Jamie nodded. “Prejudiced people never do.”
And yet, even as she said this, Isabel thought that to describe Grace as prejudiced might be a bit unfair. Grace was not intolerant, but she certainly had firm views, and none of the reticence of the middle classes about giving vent to her opinions. If somebody was lazy, Grace would say so, whereas another might be reluctant to use that label. Similarly, if a criminal were sent to prison, Grace might say, “Well, he asked for that, didn’t he?” It might not be that simple for Isabel, who understood how much crime was the product of things over which one had no control.
“A young man who’s sent to prison for assault or robbery or whatever it is, ends up there because of what happened before he was born,” she said now, adding, “at least in part.”
Jamie looked puzzled. He was not sure what had prompted Isabel to make this remark.
“I was just thinking of Grace’s views on crime,” she said. “And that made me think about how crimes are caused by background factors.”
Jamie looked dubious. “That’s a bit determinist, don’t you think?”
Isabel defended herself. “I said in part. He—the young man— is in trouble because his father wasn’t there when he was a boy. Or his mother was on drugs. Or because of a hundred other things in his background. Of course not everyone who has a bad start like that ends up behaving badly. Obviously, many don’t.” She paused. “There’s nothing earth-shattering in that. It’s simply moral luck.”
Jamie remembered Isabel talking about this before. “Of course. Bernard . . .” Isabel’s philosophers had a tendency to merge into one in Jamie’s mind.
“Bernard Williams. Yes, it was his term. And then Thomas Nagel wrote about it. They pointed out what was, I suppose, pretty obvious: that luck plays a major role in determining our fate. They gave the idea a broader intellectual framework.”
Jamie thought about this, and realised that it was hard to argue against the basic premise. It was true: Our fate was very largely decided by factors over which we had no real control—parentage and schooling being examples. And yet, that could never be a complete excuse, because if it were, any system of blame and punishment would be defeated. So he simply said, “Oh well, it’s complicated, isn’t it?” That was his way of ending a discussion with Isabel—a sort of code—which would result in her saying, “Yes, very complicated,” and they would move on to another subject altogether. Such codes and shortcuts exist in every marriage—a few words, a gesture, even a slight change in expression, may forfend disagreement and dispute. One friend of theirs simply said ibi sumus, Latin for “there we are,” when he felt a matter had been adequately aired. And then, of course, there was “I rest my cake,” which was an expression Isabel had been delighted to hear being used by a teenager, unconscious of the malapropism involved. She had then used it herself, as had Jamie, to their private amusement. That, she thought, was the joy of private jokes: They never stopped being funny.
Now they were at the gate and started to walk towards Bruntsfield, where they knew they could pick up a taxi. As they made their way along Merchiston Crescent, Jamie slipped his hand into Isabel’s. She took it and pressed it gently—in a gesture of complicity.
“I feel almost irresponsible,” he said. “Leaving Grace with the boys and going out—just the two of us.”
“Parents have to have some sort of life,” Isabel reassured him. “And it’s not as if we’re going out to a nightclub. Or even a bar.”
Jamie laughed. “I can’t remember when I last went to a bar.”
“It was last week, actually,” Isabel pointed out. “You said that you had a drink with that quartet you were playing with. Remember? You said you went to the bar in the Queen’s Hall after the rehearsal.”
“Oh, that. That’s not really a bar. Well, it is, I suppose, but it’s not a pub, if you see what I mean. It’s a sort of . . . well, it’s a place where musicians . . .”
“Where musicians have a drink,” said Isabel. “It’s a bar, I think.”
Jamie conceded the point. “And you?”
“I’ve never been a great enthusiast for bars,” said Isabel. “As you know. But I did go to the Café Royal a few months ago. You were in Glasgow that day, I seem to recall. The book group I belong to met for its annual lunch there. They invited me, although I’ve missed four of the last eight meetings. They’re very understanding.” She paused, feeling she had to explain. “The boys, you see. The Review. Life . . .”
“The Café Royal doesn’t really count,” said Jamie. “It’s like going to a museum or the Vatican Library, or something. Those ornate surroundings.”
“Do you think anybody—a visitor to Rome, a tourist—has ever gone by mistake into the Vatican Library and ordered a drink—or a pizza?”
Jamie smiled. This was typical: Isabel had a tendency to engage in flights of fantasy. “What?”
“People make mistakes. I just thought that people must wander into the wrong place from time to time. Or get people wrong. They might think that the person they’re talking to is somebody else altogether.” She smiled as she remembered a story her mother had told her. “A cousin of my mother’s once mistook General Curtis LeMay for the lift attendant. It was a long time ago. Her husband was a junior economist with the World Bank and she came upon him in the elevator, as they call it in America, and she asked him to take her to the sixth floor.”
Jamie smiled. “And?”
“And he did. He was very charming about it. And of course he would have been wearing a uniform with a lot of gold braid—exactly the sort of thing a lift attendant might wear.” She remembered something else. “And what about the current Dutch king? He used to be a qualified airline captain and liked to fly KLM passenger planes. He would sometimes walk down the aisle to greet the passengers and they’d look up and see the Crown Prince. A business-class passenger once asked him to make her a cup of tea. Once again, he was very charming about it—just like General LeMay.”
Jamie said he thought that people who had nothing to prove were usually charming in their dealings with others. “Only the insecure are nasty,” he said.
“True,” said Isabel, and pressed his hand again, not meaning to do so, but in a moment of pride that she was married to a man who was so completely secure. Jamie never said anything snide or dismissive about anybody else because he had no need to. It was as simple as that.
Copyright © 2022 by Alexander McCall Smith. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.