To take an interest in the affairs of others is entirely natural; so natural, in fact, that even a cat, lying cat-napping on top of a wall, will watch with half an eye the people walking by below. But between such curiosity, which is permissible, and nosiness, which is not, there lies a dividing line that some people simply miss—even if it is a line that is painted red and marked by the very clearest of warning signs.
Isabel adjusted the position of her chair. She was sitting in the window of the Glass and Thompson café at the top of Dundas Street—where it descended sharply down the hill to Canonmills. From that point in the street, one could see in the distance the hills of Fife beyond: dark-green hills in that light, but at times an attenuated blue, softened by the sea—always changing. Isabel liked this café, where the display windows of the shop it had once been had now been made into sitting areas for customers. Edinburgh was normally too chilly to allow people to sit out while drinking their coffee, except for a few short weeks in the high summer when café life spilled out onto the pavement, tentatively, as if expecting a rebuff from the elements. This was a compromise—to sit in the window, protected by glass, and yet feel part of what was going on outside.
She edged her chair forwards in order to see a little more of what was happening on the other side of the road, at a slight angle. Dundas Street was a street of galleries. Some were well established, such as the Scottish Gallery and the Open Eye, others were struggling to make a living on the work of young artists who still believed that great things lay ahead. Most of them would be disappointed, of course, as they discovered that the world did not share their conviction, but they tried nonetheless, and continued to try. One of these smaller galleries was hosting an opening and Isabel could see the crowd milling about within. At the front door stood a small knot of smokers, drawing on cigarettes, bound together in their exclusion. She strained to make out the features of one of them, a tall man wearing a blue jacket, who was talking animatedly to a woman beside him, gesturing to emphasise some private point. He looked vaguely familiar, she decided, but it was difficult to tell from that distance and angle. Suddenly the man in the blue jacket stopped gesturing, reached forward and rested a hand on the woman’s shoulder. She moved sideways, as if to shrug him off, but he held on tight. Her hand went up in what seemed to be an attempt to prise off his fingers, but all the time she was smiling—Isabel could see that. Strange, she thought; an argument conducted in the language of smiles.
But more intriguing still: an expensive car, one of those discreet cars of uncertain make but with unambiguous presence, had drawn up on the café side of the street, just below the level of Isabel’s window. It had stopped and a man and a woman had emerged. They were in a no-parking zone, and Isabel watched as the man pressed the device on his key ring that would lock the doors automatically. You are allowed to drop things off, thought Isabel, but not park. Don’t you know that? And then she thought: People who drive cars like that consider themselves above the regulations, the rules that prevent those with humbler cars, and shallower pockets, from parking. And these people, of course, can afford the parking fines; small change for them. She found herself feeling irritated, and her irritation became, after a few moments, animosity. She found herself disliking them, this man and woman standing beside their expensive car, because of their arrogance.
She looked down into her coffee cup, and then up again. No, she thought. This is wrong. You should not dislike people you do not know. And she knew nothing about them, other than that they appeared to imagine that their wealth entitled them to ignore the regulations by which the rest of us had to abide. But then they might not know that one could not park there because they were from somewhere else; from a place where a double yellow line might be an invitation to park, for all she knew. And even as she thought this, she realised that of course they were not from Edinburgh. Their clothes were different, and their complexions too. These people had been in the sun somewhere, and their clothes had that cut, that freshly dry-cleaned look that Scottish clothes never seem to have. Scottish clothes are soft, a bit crumpled, lived-in, like Scottish people themselves really.
She craned her neck. The two of them, the man considerably older than the woman, were walking down the road, away from the car. They paused as the man pointed at a door, and the woman said something to him. Isabel saw her adjust the printed silk scarf around her neck and glance at the watch on her wrist, a small circle of gold that caught the sun as she moved her arm. The man nodded and they climbed the steps that led into the Scottish Gallery. Isabel sat back in her seat. It was not remarkable in any way; a wealthy couple from somewhere else, driving into town, leaving their car where they should not—but out of ignorance rather than arrogance—and then going into one of the galleries. There was nothing particularly interesting about all that, except for one thing. Isabel had seen the man’s face, which was drawn up on one side from Bell’s palsy, producing the condition’s characteristic grimace. And the woman’s face had been, by contrast, a beautiful one—if one’s standards of beauty are the regular features of the Renaissance Madonna: soft, composed, feminine.
They are none of my business, she thought. And yet she had nothing to do until twelve o’clock—it was then ten-thirty in the morning—and she had been half thinking of going into the Scottish Gallery anyway. She knew the staff there, and they usually showed her something interesting by the Scottish artists she liked, a Peploe sketch, a Philipson nude, something by William Crosbie if she was in luck. If she went in now, she would see the couple at closer quarters and reach a more considered view. She had been wrong to dislike them, and she owed it to them now to find out a little bit more about them. So it was not pure curiosity, even if it looked like it; this was really an exercise in rectifying a mistaken judgement.
The entrance to the Scottish Gallery was a glass door, behind which a short set of open stairs led to the upper gallery, while a slightly longer set led down into a warren of basement exhibition spaces. These lower spaces were not dark, as basements could be, but brightly lit by strategically placed display lights, and brightened, too, by the splashes of colour on the walls. Isabel went up and passed the desk of her friend Robin McClure to her right. He sat there with his list of prices and his catalogues, ready to answer questions. What impressed her about Robin was that although he could tell who bought paintings and who did not, he was civil to both. So those who wandered into the gallery because it was wet outside, or because they just wanted to look at art, would receive from him as courteous a welcome as those who wandered in with the intention of buying a painting or, in the case of those who were weaker, a readiness to be tempted to buy. That, thought Isabel, was what distinguished Dundas Street galleries from many of the expensive galleries in London and Paris, where bells had to be rung before the door was opened. And even then, once the door had been unlocked, the welcome, if it was a welcome, was grudging and suspicious.
Robin was not at his desk. She glanced around her. It was a general exhibition, one where a hotchpotch of works were displayed. The effect, thought Isabel, was pleasing, and her eye was drawn immediately to a large picture dominating one of the walls. Two figures were before a window, a man and a woman. The man was staring out at a rural landscape, the woman looked in towards the room. Her face was composed, but there was a wistful sadness about it. She would like to be elsewhere, thought Isabel; as so many people would. How many of us are happy to be exactly where we are at any moment? Auden said something about that, she remembered, in his mountains poem. He had said that the child unhappy on one side of the Alps might wish himself on the other. Well, he was right; only the completely happy think that they are in the correct place.
She glanced about her. There were several people on the main floor of the gallery: a man in a blue overcoat, a scarf around his neck, peering at a small painting near the window; a couple of middle-aged women wearing those green padded jackets that marked them immediately as leading, or at least aspiring to, the country life. They were sisters, Isabel decided, because they had the same prominent brow; sisters living together, thoroughly accustomed to each other, acting—almost thinking—in unison. But where were the man and the woman she had seen? She took a few steps forwards, away from the top of the stairs, and saw that they were standing in the small inner gallery that led off from the main floor. He was standing in front of a painting, consulting a catalogue; she was by the window staring out. It was the reverse of the large painting that she had spotted when she came in. She was looking out; he was looking in. But then it occurred to Isabel that in other respects the scene before her echoed the painting. This woman wanted to be elsewhere.
She turned round sharply. Robin McClure stood behind her, looking at her enquiringly. He reached out and put a hand lightly on her arm in a gesture of greeting.
“Don’t tell me,” he said. “You’re standing in awe before our offering. Overwhelmed by the beauty of it all.”
Isabel laughed. “Overcome.”
Robin, his hand still on her arm, guided her towards a small picture at the edge of the room. Isabel glanced over her shoulder into the smaller room; they were still there, although the man had now joined the woman at the window, where they seemed absorbed in conversation.
“Here’s something that will appeal to you,” said Robin. “Look at that.”
Isabel knew immediately. “Alberto Morrocco?” she asked.
Robin nodded. “You can see the influence, can’t you?”
It was not apparent to Isabel. She leaned forward to look more closely at the painting. A girl sat in a chair, one arm resting on a table, the other holding a book. The girl looked straight ahead; not at the viewer, but through him, beyond him. She was wearing a tunic of the sort worn by schoolgirls in the past, a grey garment, with thick folds in the cloth. Behind her, a curtain was blown by the wind from an open window.
“Remember Falling Leaves?” Robin prompted. “That painting by James Cowie?”
Isabel looked again at the painting. Yes. Schoolgirls. Cowie had painted schoolgirls, over and over, innocently, but the paintings had contained a hint of the anxious transition to adolescence.
“Morrocco studied under Cowie in Aberdeen,” Robin continued. “He later discovered his own palette and the bright colours came in. And the liveliness. But every so often he remembered who taught him.”
“Morrocco was a friend of your father’s, wasn’t he?” Isabel said. Scotland was like that; there were bonds and connections everywhere, sinews of association, and they were remembered. Isabel had a painting by Robin’s father, David McClure; it was one of her favourites.
“Yes,” said Robin. “They were great friends. And I have known Morrocco ever since I can remember.”
Isabel reached out, as if to touch the surface of the painting. “That awful cloth,” she said. “The stuff that schoolgirls had to wear.”
“Most uncomfortable,” said Robin. “Or so I imagine.”
Isabel pointed to the painting beside it, a small still life of a white-and-blue Glasgow jug. There was something familiar about the style, but she could not decide what it was. Perhaps it was the jug itself; there were so many paintings of Glasgow jugs—to paint one, it seemed, had been a rite of passage, like going to Paris. Artists, she thought, were enthusiastic imitators, a thought that immediately struck her as unfair, she conceded to herself, because everyone was an enthusiastic imitator.
“Yes,” said Robin. “Well, there you are . . .” He turned his head. The man whom Isabel had seen had left the inner gallery and was standing a few steps away from Robin, wanting to speak, but reluctant to interrupt.
“Sir . . . ,” began Robin, then faltered. Isabel saw his expression, the slight air of being taken aback and the quick recovery. And she thought: This is what this man must experience every time he meets somebody; the shock as the distorted face is registered and then follows the attempt to cover the reaction. She remembered how she had once had lunch with a young man, the nephew of a friend of hers, who had come to seek her advice about studying philosophy at university. She had met him for the first time in a restaurant. He had come in, a self-possessed, good-looking young man, and when they had moved to the table she had seen the scar which ran down the side of his cheek. He had said immediately: “I was bitten by a dog when I was a boy. I was thirteen.” He had said that because he had known what she was thinking—how did it happen? Presumably everybody thought that and he supplied the answer right at the beginning, just to get it out of the way.
The man fingered his tie nervously. “I didn’t want to interrupt,” he said. Then, turning to Isabel, he repeated, “I’m sorry. I didn’t wish to interrupt.”
“We were just blethering,” said Robin, using the Scots word. “Don’t worry.”
He’s American, thought Isabel, from somewhere in the South. But it was difficult to tell these days because peo- ple moved about so much and accents had changed. And she thought of her late mother, suddenly, inconsequentially, her sainted American mother as she called her, who had spoken in the accent of Louisiana, and whose voice had faded in her memory, though it was still there, just.
She looked at the man and then quickly turned away. She was curious about him, of course, but if she held him in her gaze he would think that she was staring at his face. She moved away slightly, to indicate that he should talk to Robin.
“Isabel,” said Robin. “Would you mind?”
“Of course not,” said Isabel. “Of course not.”
She left Robin talking to the man while she went off to examine more paintings. She noticed that the woman had also come out of the smaller gallery and was now standing in front of an Elizabeth Blackadder oil of the Customs Building in Venice.
“Elizabeth Blackadder. She’s a very popular artist,” said Isabel casually. “Or at least on this side of the Atlantic. I’m not sure whether people know about her on your side.”
The woman was surprised. She turned to face Isabel. “Oh?” she said. “Black what?”
“Blackadder,” said Isabel. “She lives here in Edinburgh.”
The woman looked back at the painting. “I like it,” she said. “You know where you are with a painting like that.”
“Venice,” said Isabel. “That’s where you are.”
The woman was silent for a moment. She had been bending to look more closely at the painting; now she straightened up. “How did you know that I was American?” she asked. Her tone was even, but it seemed to Isabel that there was an edge to her voice.
“I was over there when your . . . your husband spoke,” she said quickly. “I assumed.”
“And assumed correctly,” said the woman. There was no warmth in her voice.
“You see,” continued Isabel, “I’m half-American myself. Half-American, half-Scottish, although I’ve hardly ever spent any time in the States. My mother was from—”
“Will you excuse me?” said the woman suddenly. “My friend was asking about a painting. I’m interested to hear the answer.”
Isabel watched her as she walked across the gallery. Not married, she thought. Friend. It had been abrupt, but it had been said with a smile. Although Isabel felt rebuffed, she told herself that one does not have to continue a conversation with a stranger. A minimum level of politeness is required, a response to a casual remark, but beyond that one can disengage. She was interested in this couple, as to who they were and what they were doing in Edinburgh, but she thought: I mean nothing to them. And why should I?
She went to look at another painting—three boys in a boat on a loch somewhere, absorbed in the mastery of the oars, the youngest looking up at the sky at something he had seen there. The artist had caught the expression of wonderment on the young boy’s face and the look of concentration on the faces of his companions; that was how artists responded to the world—they gaze and then re-create it in paint. Artists were allowed to do that—to look, to gaze at others and try to find out what it was that they were feeling—but we, who were not artists, were not. If one looked too hard that would be considered voyeurism, or nosiness, which is what Cat, her niece, had accused her of more than once. Jamie—the boyfriend rejected by Cat but kept on by Isabel as a friend—had done the same, although more tactfully. He had said that she needed to draw a line in the world with me written on one side and you on the other. Me would be her business; you would be the business of others, and an invitation would be required to cross the line.
She had said to Jamie: “Not a good idea, Jamie. What if people on the other side of the line are in trouble?”
“That’s different,” he said. “You help them.”
“By stretching a hand across this line of yours?”
“Of course. Helping people is different.”
She had said: “But then we have to know what they need, don’t we? We have to be aware of others. If we went about concerned with only our own little world, how would we know when there was trouble brewing on the other side of the line?”
Jamie had shrugged. He had only just thought of the line and he did not think that he would be able to defend it against Isabel in Socratic mood. So he said, “What do you think of Arvo Pärt, Isabel? Have I ever asked you that?”
Copyright © 2006 by Alexander McCall Smith. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.