The Perfect Passion Company

Author Alexander McCall Smith On Tour
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On sale Feb 13, 2024 | 400 Pages | 9780593688328
From the beloved author of the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency comes a fabulous new novel in three parts: The Perfect Passion Company, tender tales of love and companionship from Scotland’s most low-key dating agency.

As the new manager of the Perfect Passion Company, Katie’s mission is to help the lonely hearts of Edinburgh. With the assistance of her amiable and handsome office neighbor, William, she finds herself using a personal touch to find matches for the city’s lovelorn citizens. When an airline pilot comes to her looking for a woman to take care of him, Katie sends him to cooking school. The case of a hotelier with a particularly overbearing mother may require a delicate two-pronged approach. And for a client who has a habit of talking so much she does not even seem to draw breath—well, Katie doesn’t turn down a case just because it’s challenging.

Along the way, Katie learns that her work may be a little broader in scope than she had originally thought, and there may be something to learn about her own future happiness as well. With the tenderness of which only McCall Smith is capable, The Perfect Passion Company charmingly illuminates the psychology of matchmaking, the search for love and compassion, and the mysterious spark of attraction that can, at times, catch hold of us all.
Chapter One
No. 24 Mouse Lane

They were two young women, lingering over a cup of coffee in a slightly shabby Edinburgh bistro. Both were thirty, or thereabouts; both were dressed, unintentionally, in matching outfits: well-cut jeans and white linen blouses.

There were differences, though: Katie had dark hair, with that combination of green eyes and almost translucent skin that sometimes goes with Celtic ancestry; Ell was a blonde, or almost; Katie had a red scarf thrown casually around her shoulders; Ell wore pearl earrings—each a large, single pearl at the end of a delicate gold chain. Both had that particular confidence that suggests that somebody has a right to be there.

“You said, three husbands? Three?” That was Ell, who was busy wiping a thin line of latte foam from her lips.

A woman at a nearby table overheard this. A delicious snippet, she thought. Three husbands? She would tell her friends.

Katie nodded. “She’s my cousin—or second cousin, shall I say—and she’s had three husbands.” She raised three fingers. “Three. Seriatim, of course.”

Ell smiled. “Seriatim.” She rolled the word around her tongue.

“My father always called her his colorful cousin—mostly because of the men, you know. She’s fond of them.”

“Oh well,” said Ell. “It can happen to anyone, I suppose. Mind you, to have had three husbands sounds a bit greedy. Especially to those of us who’ve had none . . .”

Katie smiled. “You’ll find him. You’ve got plenty of time.” “Not that I’m looking,” said Ell, adding, “this week.”

“Ness is now just into her fifties,” Katie went on. “She’s my father’s first cousin. She acquired the first husband when she was twenty-one. Barely out of school. And he was only twenty. A mere boy.”

“Ness,” mused Ell. “I like that name.”

“It’s short for Inverness,” Katie explained. “Her father— my grandfather—came from the north of Scotland. He called her Inverness, and his son was called Aberdeen. Inverness Macpherson. Quite a name, don’t you think?”

Ell agreed.

“Of course, from the start her first marriage had no future,” Katie went on. “They were far too young.”

“Young lovers,” said Ell. “There are plenty of precedents. Tristan and Isolde.”

“Oh, yes.”

“And Pyramus and Thisbe. That’s even before we get to Romeo and Juliet.”

“Yes,” agreed Katie. “But who gets married at twenty these days? He hardly needed to shave.”

“And Daphnis and Chloe,” Ell added. “Two innocents who were brought up together and who fell in love.”

“I’ve heard of them vaguely,” said Katie. “Very vaguely.”

“I actually read the book,” said Ell. “I was on holiday in Cyprus, and I found it beside my bedside. They were young lovers, but eventually were able to marry. I thought it a touching story, in spite of everything that happened to Daphnis. Much of it somewhat unlikely.”


“Oh?”

“He was abducted by pirates—standard stuff for the times, perhaps. But do you know a single person who has been abducted by pirates? I don’t. Not one.”

Katie laughed. “That first husband lasted a few years and then said that he wanted his freedom. Ness told my mother all about it.”

“He left?” asked Ell.

“Yes. He went to Dublin, and was never heard of again. Did he find what he was looking for, I wonder? Possibly.”

“Oh well.”

“Ness was resilient. She’s never been put off by minor setbacks, such as discovering one’s husband has gone off to Dublin. Worse things have happened is what she says in such circumstances. And I suppose she’s right. There’s always something worse happening elsewhere. It’s worth reminding ourselves of that, I suppose.”

“Possibly.”

“And then, in her mid-twenties, with her first divorce out of the way, she met Max.”

“Husband number two?”

“Yes. He was stunningly good-looking, and that, it turned out, was a problem. He was a complete narcissist.”

Ell rolled her eyes. “We’ve all met him, haven’t we?”

“He was a model for men’s clothing catalogues. You’d recognize him: purposeful chin, eyes focused somewhere in the middle distance. Very discreet designer stubble. He went off with a photographer called Mae, eventually.”

“Oh well. These things happen. As long as they found what they wanted. Narcissists like photographers.”

“Yes. And photographers like narcissists. It worked for everybody, I think.” Katie took a sip of her coffee. “Mae published a book—Max in Sepia. You know those old-fashioned photographs. Ness showed me a copy. She was actually quite proud of it. She was pleased that Max was happy. She said: ‘Max used to be mine, you know. Isn’t he beautiful?’ And he was— particularly in sepia.”

Katie took a sip of her coffee. “Ness’s story gets better. There were plenty of boyfriends, and then eventually she ended up with husband number three. He was a parachutist called Sidney. If I were called Sidney, I’d jump out of a plane, I suppose. Anyway, he did free fall jumps. I actually met that one when I was a student. I rather liked him.”

Ell’s eyes widened. “But I don’t think I’m going to like the ending.”

“No, it was one of those worse things she talked about, I’m afraid. He was doing a charity jump—a fundraising event. He did the jump wearing his kilt. His sponsors loved the idea, but unfortunately, the kilt blew up over his head the moment he entered the slipstream, and he couldn’t see what he was doing. He couldn’t find the ripcord. Or that’s what they think happened. It was very sad.” Katie sighed. The lives of others often seemed so susceptible to derailment. “And so, Ness found her- self a widowed double-divorcée in her early forties, with noth- ing much to do. Sid had been heavily insured—a wise move for a parachutist—and, as the icing on the cake, he had owned a dry-cleaning business. He left her the lot. So, that’s how she started her business.”

“Which was?”

“The Perfect Passion Company. A sort of dating agency, or introduction bureau, as Ness likes to call it. I suppose she wanted to make the most of her experience with men.”

“You should play to your strengths.” Ell frowned. “But isn’t an introduction bureau a bit old-fashioned these days? Anyone can go to one of those apps . . .”

Katie interrupted her friend. “No, not everybody wants to meet online. There are people who prefer to be match-made, so to speak. They like the personal approach. They want a bespoke service.”

“And that’s what she’s giving to you?”

Katie hesitated. “Not exactly giving outright. She’s been running it for ten years now, and she wants a break. She’s keen to take a grown-up gap year. She’s off to Canada.”

“And asked you to be in charge?”

“Temporary owner was how she put it. She said that I can have the business on a trial basis. If I like it, she’ll pass it on to me. She says I need to see if I like bringing people together.”

Ell shuddered. “Matchmaking? Some of these people will be . . .” She searched for the word as a series of images of defeated-looking people came to mind—a shuffling line of the unsuccessful in love. The word came to her. “Tragic?”

“Aren’t we all?” asked Katie. “In our way? Aren’t we all a bit tragic? But . . .” She thought for a moment. She had already accepted, and it was now too late. She was due to meet her cousin in town the following day to pick up the keys and get her instructions about running the business. It was too late for doubts.

“Actually,” she said, “I’m looking forward to it. This is charitable work, Ell. It’s like working for some sort of relief agency. It’s a calling.”

Ell stared at her friend. She had always known that Katie was an idealist, but there were limits. This, she thought, is not a good idea, whichever way one looked at it. “Be careful,” she said. “Dates don’t always work out.”

Katie nodded. “Of course. But some do.”

“I’ll worry about you,” said Ell. “Taking over a business you . . . well, to be frank, a business that you know nothing about.”

Katie reassured her. “No need for you to worry,” she said. “What can possibly go wrong?”

“Everything,” said Ell. “Defeatist,” said Katie. Ell laughed. “We’ll see.”

The woman at the nearby table finished her coffee and rose to leave. She shot a glance at Katie and Ell, and then looked away. She had managed to hear most of it, and she disapproved. “That’s what I like about this city,” whispered Ell. “It can still actually look disapproving. Where else does anybody actually bother?”

Chapter Two
Hope becomes conviction

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 con- verted 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 none- theless. 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 state- ment, 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 tochange 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.”
© Michael Lionstar

ALEXANDER McCALL SMITH is the author of the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency novels and a number of other series and stand-alone books. His works have been translated into more than forty languages and have been best sellers throughout the world. He lives in Scotland.

View titles by Alexander McCall Smith

About

From the beloved author of the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency comes a fabulous new novel in three parts: The Perfect Passion Company, tender tales of love and companionship from Scotland’s most low-key dating agency.

As the new manager of the Perfect Passion Company, Katie’s mission is to help the lonely hearts of Edinburgh. With the assistance of her amiable and handsome office neighbor, William, she finds herself using a personal touch to find matches for the city’s lovelorn citizens. When an airline pilot comes to her looking for a woman to take care of him, Katie sends him to cooking school. The case of a hotelier with a particularly overbearing mother may require a delicate two-pronged approach. And for a client who has a habit of talking so much she does not even seem to draw breath—well, Katie doesn’t turn down a case just because it’s challenging.

Along the way, Katie learns that her work may be a little broader in scope than she had originally thought, and there may be something to learn about her own future happiness as well. With the tenderness of which only McCall Smith is capable, The Perfect Passion Company charmingly illuminates the psychology of matchmaking, the search for love and compassion, and the mysterious spark of attraction that can, at times, catch hold of us all.

Excerpt

Chapter One
No. 24 Mouse Lane

They were two young women, lingering over a cup of coffee in a slightly shabby Edinburgh bistro. Both were thirty, or thereabouts; both were dressed, unintentionally, in matching outfits: well-cut jeans and white linen blouses.

There were differences, though: Katie had dark hair, with that combination of green eyes and almost translucent skin that sometimes goes with Celtic ancestry; Ell was a blonde, or almost; Katie had a red scarf thrown casually around her shoulders; Ell wore pearl earrings—each a large, single pearl at the end of a delicate gold chain. Both had that particular confidence that suggests that somebody has a right to be there.

“You said, three husbands? Three?” That was Ell, who was busy wiping a thin line of latte foam from her lips.

A woman at a nearby table overheard this. A delicious snippet, she thought. Three husbands? She would tell her friends.

Katie nodded. “She’s my cousin—or second cousin, shall I say—and she’s had three husbands.” She raised three fingers. “Three. Seriatim, of course.”

Ell smiled. “Seriatim.” She rolled the word around her tongue.

“My father always called her his colorful cousin—mostly because of the men, you know. She’s fond of them.”

“Oh well,” said Ell. “It can happen to anyone, I suppose. Mind you, to have had three husbands sounds a bit greedy. Especially to those of us who’ve had none . . .”

Katie smiled. “You’ll find him. You’ve got plenty of time.” “Not that I’m looking,” said Ell, adding, “this week.”

“Ness is now just into her fifties,” Katie went on. “She’s my father’s first cousin. She acquired the first husband when she was twenty-one. Barely out of school. And he was only twenty. A mere boy.”

“Ness,” mused Ell. “I like that name.”

“It’s short for Inverness,” Katie explained. “Her father— my grandfather—came from the north of Scotland. He called her Inverness, and his son was called Aberdeen. Inverness Macpherson. Quite a name, don’t you think?”

Ell agreed.

“Of course, from the start her first marriage had no future,” Katie went on. “They were far too young.”

“Young lovers,” said Ell. “There are plenty of precedents. Tristan and Isolde.”

“Oh, yes.”

“And Pyramus and Thisbe. That’s even before we get to Romeo and Juliet.”

“Yes,” agreed Katie. “But who gets married at twenty these days? He hardly needed to shave.”

“And Daphnis and Chloe,” Ell added. “Two innocents who were brought up together and who fell in love.”

“I’ve heard of them vaguely,” said Katie. “Very vaguely.”

“I actually read the book,” said Ell. “I was on holiday in Cyprus, and I found it beside my bedside. They were young lovers, but eventually were able to marry. I thought it a touching story, in spite of everything that happened to Daphnis. Much of it somewhat unlikely.”


“Oh?”

“He was abducted by pirates—standard stuff for the times, perhaps. But do you know a single person who has been abducted by pirates? I don’t. Not one.”

Katie laughed. “That first husband lasted a few years and then said that he wanted his freedom. Ness told my mother all about it.”

“He left?” asked Ell.

“Yes. He went to Dublin, and was never heard of again. Did he find what he was looking for, I wonder? Possibly.”

“Oh well.”

“Ness was resilient. She’s never been put off by minor setbacks, such as discovering one’s husband has gone off to Dublin. Worse things have happened is what she says in such circumstances. And I suppose she’s right. There’s always something worse happening elsewhere. It’s worth reminding ourselves of that, I suppose.”

“Possibly.”

“And then, in her mid-twenties, with her first divorce out of the way, she met Max.”

“Husband number two?”

“Yes. He was stunningly good-looking, and that, it turned out, was a problem. He was a complete narcissist.”

Ell rolled her eyes. “We’ve all met him, haven’t we?”

“He was a model for men’s clothing catalogues. You’d recognize him: purposeful chin, eyes focused somewhere in the middle distance. Very discreet designer stubble. He went off with a photographer called Mae, eventually.”

“Oh well. These things happen. As long as they found what they wanted. Narcissists like photographers.”

“Yes. And photographers like narcissists. It worked for everybody, I think.” Katie took a sip of her coffee. “Mae published a book—Max in Sepia. You know those old-fashioned photographs. Ness showed me a copy. She was actually quite proud of it. She was pleased that Max was happy. She said: ‘Max used to be mine, you know. Isn’t he beautiful?’ And he was— particularly in sepia.”

Katie took a sip of her coffee. “Ness’s story gets better. There were plenty of boyfriends, and then eventually she ended up with husband number three. He was a parachutist called Sidney. If I were called Sidney, I’d jump out of a plane, I suppose. Anyway, he did free fall jumps. I actually met that one when I was a student. I rather liked him.”

Ell’s eyes widened. “But I don’t think I’m going to like the ending.”

“No, it was one of those worse things she talked about, I’m afraid. He was doing a charity jump—a fundraising event. He did the jump wearing his kilt. His sponsors loved the idea, but unfortunately, the kilt blew up over his head the moment he entered the slipstream, and he couldn’t see what he was doing. He couldn’t find the ripcord. Or that’s what they think happened. It was very sad.” Katie sighed. The lives of others often seemed so susceptible to derailment. “And so, Ness found her- self a widowed double-divorcée in her early forties, with noth- ing much to do. Sid had been heavily insured—a wise move for a parachutist—and, as the icing on the cake, he had owned a dry-cleaning business. He left her the lot. So, that’s how she started her business.”

“Which was?”

“The Perfect Passion Company. A sort of dating agency, or introduction bureau, as Ness likes to call it. I suppose she wanted to make the most of her experience with men.”

“You should play to your strengths.” Ell frowned. “But isn’t an introduction bureau a bit old-fashioned these days? Anyone can go to one of those apps . . .”

Katie interrupted her friend. “No, not everybody wants to meet online. There are people who prefer to be match-made, so to speak. They like the personal approach. They want a bespoke service.”

“And that’s what she’s giving to you?”

Katie hesitated. “Not exactly giving outright. She’s been running it for ten years now, and she wants a break. She’s keen to take a grown-up gap year. She’s off to Canada.”

“And asked you to be in charge?”

“Temporary owner was how she put it. She said that I can have the business on a trial basis. If I like it, she’ll pass it on to me. She says I need to see if I like bringing people together.”

Ell shuddered. “Matchmaking? Some of these people will be . . .” She searched for the word as a series of images of defeated-looking people came to mind—a shuffling line of the unsuccessful in love. The word came to her. “Tragic?”

“Aren’t we all?” asked Katie. “In our way? Aren’t we all a bit tragic? But . . .” She thought for a moment. She had already accepted, and it was now too late. She was due to meet her cousin in town the following day to pick up the keys and get her instructions about running the business. It was too late for doubts.

“Actually,” she said, “I’m looking forward to it. This is charitable work, Ell. It’s like working for some sort of relief agency. It’s a calling.”

Ell stared at her friend. She had always known that Katie was an idealist, but there were limits. This, she thought, is not a good idea, whichever way one looked at it. “Be careful,” she said. “Dates don’t always work out.”

Katie nodded. “Of course. But some do.”

“I’ll worry about you,” said Ell. “Taking over a business you . . . well, to be frank, a business that you know nothing about.”

Katie reassured her. “No need for you to worry,” she said. “What can possibly go wrong?”

“Everything,” said Ell. “Defeatist,” said Katie. Ell laughed. “We’ll see.”

The woman at the nearby table finished her coffee and rose to leave. She shot a glance at Katie and Ell, and then looked away. She had managed to hear most of it, and she disapproved. “That’s what I like about this city,” whispered Ell. “It can still actually look disapproving. Where else does anybody actually bother?”

Chapter Two
Hope becomes conviction

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 con- verted 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 none- theless. 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 state- ment, 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 tochange 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.”

Author

© Michael Lionstar

ALEXANDER McCALL SMITH is the author of the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency novels and a number of other series and stand-alone books. His works have been translated into more than forty languages and have been best sellers throughout the world. He lives in Scotland.

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