Things are looking up for seven-year-old Bertie Pollock. The arrival of his spirited grandmother and the absence of his meddlesome mother who is currently running a book club in a Bedouin harem (don t ask) bring unforeseen blessings: no psychotherapy, no Italian lessons, and no yoga classes."
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Alexander McCall Smith is the author of the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series, the Isabel Dalhousie series, the Portuguese Irregular Verbs series, the 44 Scotland Street series, and the Corduroy Mansions series. He is professor emeritus of medical law at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland and has served with many national and international organizations concerned with bioethics.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
1. Moving Can Be Good For You
Matthew had read somewhere—in one of those hoary lists with which newspapers and magazines fill their columns on quiet days—that moving house was one of the most stressful of life’s experiences—even if not quite as disturbing as being the victim of an armed robbery or being elected president, nemine contradicente, of an unstable South American republic. Matthew faced no such threats, of course, but he nevertheless found the prospect of leaving India Street for the sylvan surroundings of Nine Mile Burn extremely worrying. And it made no difference that Nine Mile Burn was, as the name suggested, only nine miles from the centre of Edinburgh.
“What really worries me,” he confessed to Elspeth, “is the whole business of selling India Street. What if nobody wants to buy this flat? What then?”
He looked at her with unconcealed anxiety: he could imagine what it was like not to be able to sell one’s house. He had recently been at a party at which somebody had whispered pityingly of another guest: “He can’t sell his flat, you know.” He had looked across the room at the poor unfortunate of whom the remark was made and had seen a hodden-doon, depressed figure, visibly bent under the burden of unshiftable equity. That, he decided, was how people who couldn’t sell their house looked—shadowy figures, wraiths, as dejected and without hope as the damned in Dante’s Inferno, haunted by the absence of offers for an unmoveable property. He had shuddered at the thought and reflected on his good fortune at not being in that position himself. Yet here he was deliberately courting it . . .
Elspeth’s attitude was more sanguine. She had been unruffled by their previous moves—from India Street to Moray Place, and then back again to India Street. The prospect of another flit—a Scots word that implies an attempt to evade the clutches of creditors suggests, misleadingly, that moving is an airy, inconsequential thing—did not seem to trouble her, and she had no concerns about the sale of the flat. “But of course somebody will want to buy it,” she reassured him. “Why wouldn’t they? It’s one of the nicest flats in the street. It’s got plenty of room and bags of light. Who wouldn’t want to live in the middle of the Edinburgh New Town?”
Matthew frowned. “The New Town isn’t for everybody,” he said. “Not everybody finds the Georgian aesthetic pleasing.” He paused as he tried to think of a single person he knew of whom this was true. “There are plenty of people these days who are suburban rather than urban. People who like to have . . .” He paused for thought. He knew nobody like this, but they had to exist. “Who like to have garages. Homo suburbiensis. Morningside man, who is a bit like Essex man but just a touch . . .”
“You said it; I didn’t.”
Elspeth smiled. “You shouldn’t worry so much, Matt, darlingest. And so what if we don’t sell it? We can afford the other place anyway.”
Matthew winced. “If I dip into capital,” he said.
Elspeth shrugged. “But isn’t money for spending? And surely there’s enough there to be dipped into.”
Matthew knew that she was right; at the last valuation, his portfolio of shares in the astute care of the Adam Bank had shot up and he could have bought the new house several times over if necessary. But Matthew had been imbued by his father with exactly that sense of caution that had created the fund in the first place, and the idea of selling shares in any but the direst of emergencies was anathema to him.
In general, Elspeth did not look too closely at Matthew’s financial affairs. She had never been much interested in money, and very rarely spent any on anything but family essentials and the occasional outfit or pair of shoes. She was nonetheless aware of their good fortune and of the fact that thanks to the generosity of Matthew’s businessman father they were spared the financial anxieties that affected most people. Her capacity for moral imagination, though, was such that she could understand the distorting effect that poverty had on any life, and she had never been, nor ever would become, indifferent to the lot of those—perhaps a majority of the population of Scotland—who were left with relatively little disposable income after the payment of monthly bills. This attitude was shared by Matthew, with the result that they were tactful about their situation—and generous too, when generosity was required.
The farmhouse near Nine Mile Burn had not been cheap. Although it was far enough from Edinburgh to avoid the high prices of the capital, it was close enough to be more expensive than houses in West Linton, a village that lay only a few miles further down the road. Their house, which they had agreed to buy from no less a person than the Duke of Johannesburg, who lived at Single Malt House not far away, had been valued at seven hundred thousand pounds. For that they got six bedrooms in the main house—along with a study, a gun room (Matthew did not have a gun, of course), and a drawing room with a good view of both the Lammermuir and Moorfoot Hills to the south and east; a tractor shed, a byre, and six acres of ground.
The Duke had been pleased that Matthew was the purchaser; they had met on several occasions before, although the Duke seemed to have only the vaguest idea of who Matthew was. Matthew’s quiet demeanour, however, had been enough to endear him to the Duke.
“I must say,” the Duke had remarked to a friend, “it’s a great relief to have found somebody who’s not in the slightest bit shouty. You know what I mean? Those shouty people one meets these days—all very full of themselves and brash. We used to have very few of them in Scotland, you know; now they’re on the rise, it seems.”
The friend knew exactly what the Duke meant. “Nouveau riche,” he said. “They’re flashy—they throw their money around.”
The Duke nodded. “Whereas I’m nouveau pauvre. I’ve got barely a sou these days, you know—not that I ever had very much.”
“And you a duke,” said the friend. “Fancy that!”
“Well, a sort of duke,” conceded the Duke. “I’m not in any of the stud books, you know: Debrett’s and so on. Or I’m in one of them—just—but I gather it’s not a very reliable one. It was rather expensive to get in; you had to buy sixty copies, as I recall, and I think quite a number of people in it are a bit on the ropey side. In fact, all of them are, I believe.”
“People take you at your own evaluation, I’ve always thought,” said the friend. “Behave like a duke and they’ll swallow it.”
“True,” said the Duke. “But frankly, that’s a bit difficult for me, old man. I’m not quite sure what the form is when it comes to being a pukka duke.”
“Take a look at some of the people who are what they claim to be,” advised the friend. “Watch the way they stand; the way they walk. They’re very sure-footed, I’m told. And they look down at the ground a lot.”
“That’s because they own it,” said the Duke. “Doesn’t apply to me—or not very much. I’ve got fifty-eight acres in Midlothian and forty-one up in Lochaber, but most of it is pretty scrubby. Lots of broom and rhododendrons.”
The friend looked thoughtful. “No, you’re not quite the real thing, I suppose. And then there’s always the risk that the Lord Lyon will catch up with you.”
The mention of the Lord Lyon made the Duke blanch. This was the King of Arms, the official who supervised all matters of heraldry and succession in Scotland. He had extensive legal powers and could prosecute people for the unauthorised use of coats of arms and the like.
“Do you think Lyon would ever bother about me?” asked the Duke nervously.
His friend looked out of the window. “You never know,” he said. “But I shouldn’t like to be in your shoes if he did.”
It was not the sort of thing a friend should say—or at least not the sort of thing that a reassuring friend should say.
2. Distressed Furniture
The Duke of Johannesburg proved to be a most considerate seller, more than prepared to include all the contents of the house in the sale without adding anything to the purchase price.
“We haven’t lived in the place for years,” he said. “And recently we let it out, of course. But all the stuff is ours, and some of it is actually quite good, even if it’s a bit distressed, as the antique dealers say. Mind you, distressed is not quite strong enough for some of my furniture. My furniture has moved beyond being distressed. Terminal might be more accurate. I can just imagine the auction catalogues—can’t you?—‘a table in terminal condition’ and so on. Hah!”
Matthew was keen to keep as much of the Duke’s furniture as possible, but Elspeth had other ideas. “It’s terrible old rubbish,” she said. “Look at this.” She referred to the inventory that the Duke’s agent had prepared. “A charming William IV library table with only two legs, but otherwise sound.”
“Oh, I saw that one,” said Matthew. “It had a lovely green leather top.”
“That’s as may be,” Elspeth retorted, “but what’s the use of a table with two legs? Or . . .” And here she pointed to another inventory item. “A glass-fronted bookcase, circa 1860; no glass.”
She looked up at Matthew. “What is the point, may I ask, of having a glass-fronted bookcase with no glass in the front? In fact, one might even go so far as to say that it’s an impossibility. A glass-fronted bookcase with no glass is simply not a glass-fronted bookcase.”
“Perhaps,” said Matthew. “If you’re intent on being pedantic.”
They normally did not argue with one another, but even the most equable of couples may be expected to fall out over a move. And so Matthew decided at a very early stage that he would leave everything up to Elspeth and not dispute any of her decisions. Armed with this authority, Elspeth made all the arrangements, chose the date of departure, and did most of the packing herself. He helped, of course, mostly by taking the triplets around the Botanic Gardens in their three-seated pushchair. This inevitably brought a response from passersby—looks that ranged from amusement to sympathy and sometimes on to disapproval.
“Three!” remarked one elderly woman as Matthew and the triplets passed her on the way to the greenhouse. “My, you must have been insatiable!”
Matthew was ready to let this remark pass with a polite nod of his head, but then its implications dawned on him. Did she really think that? he asked himself.
“Excuse me,” he said, “but I wonder what you mean by what you’ve just said.”
The woman blushed. “Oh . . . oh, I don’t really know. It’s just that it must take a lot of energy to create triplets. Not every man . . . Oh dear, I’m not sure that I know what I meant.”
And then there was the visiting American woman who asked the triplets’ names when they were waiting together for a pedestrian light in Stockbridge. “Dear little things,” she said. “They’re all boys, aren’t they? What are they called?”
“Tobermory, Rognvald and Fergus,” answered the proud father.
“What wonderful Scottish names!” enthused the visitor. “Which is Tobermory?”
Matthew hesitated. The truth was that he did not know, as although Elspeth claimed to be able to differentiate between the three boys, he had no idea. But a father could hardly confess to being uncertain as to the identity of his own sons, and so he pointed at random to one of the boys. “Him,” he said.
The woman bent forward to look more closely. “We went to Tobermory last week,” she said. “We were visiting Iona and afterwards we called in at Tobermory—a lovely place . . .” Her voice trailed away. “He’s wearing his brother’s jumper, I see. It has Fergus knitted across the front.”
Matthew waved airily. “They share their clothes,” he said airily. “And of course they’re far too young to dress themselves, or to care what they’re wearing, for that matter.”
In the last few days before the move, the boys were left in the care of Anna, their Danish au pair, while Matthew and Elspeth made final preparations. A couple of weeks before they were due to move in, the Duke agreed to meet them at the house to hand over the keys—they had already paid the purchase price—and to answer any final queries they might have.
“I shall miss the old place,” he said, as he stood with them in the doorway of the large ground-floor drawing room. “We used to have such marvellous parties here back in the old days. White-tie affairs, you know. The men in Highland dress, of course, and the women in long dresses with tartan sashes. Interminable affairs, some thought, but I always enjoyed them. We used to give breakfast to anybody who was still there at six in the morning, and standing. Sometimes we even had to give them lunch. Frightful, but there we are—it’s very hard to ask guests to leave, you know. Some stayed for weeks.” He paused. “I never really knew how to do it until I read about what Willie Maugham said to Paddy Leigh Fermor after Paddy had for some reason been terribly rude to the old boy when he was staying as a guest at the Villa Mauresque. For some reason Paddy imitated Maugham’s stutter at the dinner table—causing dreadful offence. One doesn’t imitate the host’s stutter in any circumstances. Anyway, Paddy did and so Maugham said to him over coffee that night, ‘I shall have to say goodbye to you at this stage as when I get up tomorrow morning you will already have left.’ ”
The Duke laughed.
“How very tactful,” said Matthew.
“I never met Maugham, of course,” continued the Duke. “He was more my father’s generation. In fact, Pa met him once or twice in Antibes. He said he was an ill-tempered old cove, but there we are. Leigh Fermor shouldn’t have done what he did.”
The Duke gazed fondly over the drawing room. “Yes, those white-tie parties were grand evenings, and people paid attention to what they wore. You can’t just add a white tie to Highland Dress, you know. It all depends where you are. If you’re in Perthshire, for example, you can only wear a white tie with Highland Dress if you were born in the county. In Argyll, if the invitation says white tie—and it does for occasions like the Oban gathering—you wear a jabot, as I’m sure you know.”
Matthew was silent. He knew nothing about any of this and he wondered why nobody had ever taught him about these things that were so important even while being utterly unimportant.
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