‘Gossip?’ asked Isabel Dalhousie, philosopher, wife, mother, and editor of the Review of Applied Ethics
. With the first three of these roles she was unreservedly happy; the editorship, though, she would at times gladly have passed on to somebody else—at particularly stressful moments to anybody at all—except that there was nobody to take it on, or at least no one who would do it unpaid, without complaint, and with the enthusiasm and wit that Isabel devoted to it. All of which seemed to suggest that Isabel was the editor of the Review of Applied Ethics
She was sitting in the kitchen of her house in Edinburgh, a glass of chilled white wine on the table before her. It was a warm evening, at least by the standards applied in Scotland, where summer is sometimes no more than a promise, an aspiration. On the side of the glass small beads of condensation had appeared, some of which were now becoming tiny rivulets, hesitant at first but growing in confidence. Isabel had a tendency to get lost in her musings, and now the thought came to her that this was the way in which all rivers started: a single drop of water somewhere joined up with another and became something altogether more significant; as with the Ganges, for instance, from whose banks people still bathed in the hope of spiritual gain, indifferent to the coliform load of each drop of that lethal water. Or the Limpopo, the river so alliteratively described by Kipling as great, grey-green, and greasy, all set about with fever trees—though apparently it was not like that at all, she had been told by a friend who had actually seen it. ‘The Limpopo was somewhat sluggish,’ her friend had said. ‘There was no sign of grease, and it was more brown than green.’ But that was not the issue: what interested her was the observation that a large river starts with a tiny drop. There was a tipping point, it seemed, for everything: fame, fads, political careers—and water.
On the other side of the kitchen, paging through a recipe book, undecided as yet as to what to cook for dinner that night, was her husband, Jamie: bassoonist, father, occasional composer, incidental tennis player, and in the view of virtually every woman who ever met him, the perfect man. That last encomium was one Isabel herself readily would have bestowed, but only after a third or fourth meeting. When they’d first met, Isabel had been recovering from an uncomfortable divorce and was still wary of her ability to judge men. Some years earlier she had taken up with John Liamor, an Irishman she had met in Cambridge and whom she had then married, to the dismay of her father and just about all of her friends. They had seen what she had not, and over the next few years she learned what it was that she had missed.
There had been another reason why Isabel might have been cautious of Jamie on first meeting: at that time he happened to be the boyfriend of Isabel’s niece, Cat, owner of a delicatessen a short walk from Isabel’s house. They may have been aunt and niece, but the age gap between Isabel and Cat was small enough for them sometimes to be taken for sisters. But there were limits to such sisterhood as existed between them, as they were very different characters. Both were sociable, but Cat was rather inclined to fall for people—particularly men—before she had any real chance of getting to know them properly. This meant that her boyfriends—of whom there had been a steady succession—tended to be chosen without adequate attention to compatibility. She liked handsome men, and also seemed to cultivate men about whom there was a slight whiff of danger. Isabel was far more cautious in her friendships, and tended to show a certain reticence before she opened up to a new acquaintance. Cat could at times be a bit moody, whereas Isabel usually made an effort to keep bleak feelings to herself. Cat was decisive—a useful quality when running a small business—whereas Isabel was inclined to worry about the pros and cons of any particular action. Isabel reflected on things before she acted; Cat acted and then—sometimes, but not always—reflected on what she had done. Isabel took the view that if one made a mistake, one should be careful not to make it again. Cat’s view of any mistakes she made was to regard them as water under the bridge and to move on as cheerfully as possible. Sometimes, of course, that meant she moved on to the next mistake rather than anywhere else.
Cat’s life, then, was not an example of the examined life of which philosophers have long written; Isabel’s life, by contrast, was a life lived under a moral microscope. In their different ways, both these approaches worked for the two women. Both were happy with their lot; each felt that the other had the wrong approach to things, but tolerated the contrast. Sometimes, though, matters became fraught, and the relationship was tested in an uncomfortable way. That had happened with Jamie, Cat’s former boyfriend, and now Isabel’s husband.
When Isabel was introduced to Jamie, she imagined that he must be just one more of Cat’s unsuitable boyfriends—as unreliable as he was good-looking. She was wrong; Jamie was quite unlike any of Cat’s previous men and it was perhaps for this reason that she ended her affair with him after they had been together for little more than a few months. Jamie, it seemed, was not what Cat was looking for. He was simply too safe. Not that Jamie was ever dull—far from it—but if you were somebody like Cat, looking for a man who had just a touch of wildness
about him, then Jamie was not that. Jamie was decent—‘heart-meltingly decent’, as one of Isabel’s friends had once described him. ‘And dishy,’ the same friend had added, ‘knee-weakeningly dishy’.
After Cat had broken up with him, Isabel had continued to see Jamie, whom she had considered a friend. This friendship had in due course become something more, and Isabel and Jamie became lovers, and eventually spouses. Not surprisingly, Cat took this badly—with a complete lack of grace, in fact: no niece expects her cast-offs to be taken on by her aunt, and there ensued a period of chilled relations between the two women. The birth of Isabel’s son, Charlie, had made matters even worse, although eventually a thaw set in and Cat accepted the existence of Charlie—huffs can be demanding, even to the huffiest. What was more, Cat needed Isabel’s help in running her delicatessen and now Isabel regularly, and generously, provided cover over busy periods or when Cat was short-staffed.
As for Jamie, willingness to cook was one of the qualities that made him the perfect man. He was versatile in his approach, perhaps a bit more adventurous than Isabel, and he had a particular appetite for vintage cookery books of which he had built up quite a collection. That evening he had extracted a first edition of Julia Childs—signed by Julia herself to one of Isabel’s American aunts in Mobile, Alabama, and passed on years earlier as a special birthday present. He was planning a chicken dish, and was taking an inventory of ingredients before he embarked on the recipe.
They were by themselves, enjoying that blissful period of calm so familiar to parents when the children have been put to bed, the scattered toys rounded up and put away, and quiet reigns in the house. Both Charlie and his younger brother Magnus were now asleep, each broadcasting, from their separate monitors, a reassuring sound of breathing, punctuated by occasional snuffles, into the kitchen. Charlie had taken some time to settle, insisting on the re-reading of a book that Isabel had found in the Morningside Library. She rather wished she had left the book there on the library shelf; there was a tiger in this book, and he had no discernible redeeming qualities. He was fortunate, she felt, to avoid the fate of the tigers she remembered from her own childhood reading of a book now suppressed for reasons unconnected with tigers, but that had entailed the transformation of encircling tigers into ghee, Indian butter. As a small girl she had loved that ending, and had imagined that the fate of being turned into butter might be extended to other threatening creatures or even people. In fact, one might even have a ‘butter list’ of such persons who, even if they saw their names on it, would be unaware of what it entailed. Having an enemies list was too overt, as more than one politician has discovered: the existence of an enemies list could be embarrassing if it fell into the hands of the press—or a fortiori
into those of the enemies it listed; a butter list, by contrast, would attract no adverse attention.
Jamie looked up from his recipe book. ‘Gossip?
Copyright © 2018 by Alexander McCall Smith. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.