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The Unbearable Lightness of Scones

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The Unbearable Lightness of Scones

    PRAISE FOR THE 44 SCOTLAND STREET SERIES

    “Delightfully charming…. McCall Smith’s plots offer wit, charm and intrigue in equaldoses.”

    —Richmond Times Dispatch

    “[McCall Smith] is a pro, and he delivers sharp observation, gentle satire…as well as theexpected romantic complications. … [Readers will] relish McCall Smith’s depiction of thisplace…and enjoy his tolerant, good-humored company.”

    —The New York Times Book Review

    “McCall Smith’s assessments of fellow humans are piercing and profound. … [His] depictionsof Edinburgh are vivid and seamless.”

    —San Francisco Chronicle

    “Mr. McCall Smith, a fine writer, paints his hometown of Edinburgh as indelibly as he capturesthe sunniness of Africa. We can almost feel the mists as we tread the cobblestones.”

    —The Dallas Morning News

    “Alexander McCall Smith is the most genial of writers and the most gentle of satirists….[The]characters are great fun…[and] McCall Smith treats all of them with affection.”

    —Rocky Mountain News

    Alexander McCall Smith

THE UNBEARABLE

    LIGHTNESSOF SCONES

    Alexander McCall Smith is the author of the international phenomenon The No. 1 Ladies’Detective Agency series, the Isabel Dalhousie series, the Portuguese Irregular Verbs series,and the 44 Scotland Street series. He is Professor Emeritus of medical law at the University ofEdinburgh in Scotland and has served on many national and international bodies concerned withbioethics. He was born in what is now known as Zimbabwe, and he was a law professor at theUniversity of Botswana.

    Visit his website at www.alexandermccallsmith.com.

BOOKS BYALEXANDER McCALL SMITH

    IN THE 44 SCOTLAND STREET SERIES

44 Scotland Street

    Espresso Tales

    Love Over Scotland

    The World According to BertieThe Unbearable Lightness of Scones

    IN THE NO. 1 LADIES’ DETECTIVE AGENCY SERIES

    The No. 1

     Ladies’ Detective Agency

    Tears of the Giraffe

    Morality for Beautiful Girls

    The Kalahari Typing School for Men

    The Full Cupboard of Life In the Company of Cheerful Ladies Blue Shoes and Happiness

    The Good Husband of Zebra Drive The Miracle at Speedy MotorsTea Time for the Traditionally Built

    IN THE ISABEL DALHOUSIE SERIES

    The Sunday Philosophy Club Friends, Lovers, Chocolate The Right Attitude to Rain The Careful Use of Compliments The Comforts of a Muddy SaturdayThe Lost Art of Gratitude

    IN THE PORTUGUESE IRREGULAR VERBS SERIES

    Portuguese Irregular Verbs The Finer Points of Sausage DogsAt the Villa of Reduced Circumstances

The Girl Who Married a Lion and Other Tales from AfricaLa’s Orchestra Saves the World

This book is forJan Rutherford and Lesley Winton

    Preface

    For many years I wanted to capture the very particular romance of living in Edinburgh, one ofthe most beautiful and entrancing cities in the world. The offer to write a novel in a dailynewspaper gave me just such an opportunity – and I seized it with enthusiasm. That resulted in44 Scotland Street, a novel written in short chapters that were then published in The Scotsman

    and subsequently in book form. This book and the four volumes that followed it represent arevival of an old-fashioned literary form that had more or less died out in the twentiethcentury: the serial novel.

    I found the serial form to be a most agreeable one. The story has numerous plots; charactersdrift in and out; some matters are unresolved; strange things happen. In short, a serial novelis particularly well-suited to the depiction of the shape of real life, which does not unfoldin a strictly linear way. But even if there is a concern with real life and real locales, thatdoes not prevent, of course, the introduction of flights of fantasy. The arrival of acontemporary Jacobite pretender is fanciful stuff, although, lest anybody doubt the credibilityof that theme, there are still Jacobites in Edinburgh, pursuing a cause that was lost long ago.

    And that is one of the things that make Scotland such fertile ground for fiction: it is still aromantic country, and in spite of the best efforts of some to over-govern it, it is still fun.

    And finally, this book is entirely true, or almost. There really is a Scotland Street inEdinburgh, even if it does not quite reach 44. Bertie exists – I have seen him, and hismother, on numerous occasions, just as Cyril, and Angus Lordie, and all the rest can beobserved if one walks the streets of the Edinburgh New Town and looks about one. This allhappened, and continues to happen, perhaps.

    Alexander McCall Smith

    1.Love, Marriage and Other Surprises

    The wedding took place underneath the Castle, beneath that towering, formidable rock, in aquiet church that was reached from King’s Stables Road. Matthew and Elspeth Harmony had madetheir way there together, in a marked departure from the normal routine in which the groomarrives first, to be followed by the bride, but only after a carefully timed delay, enough tomake the more anxious members of her family look furtively at their watches – and wonder.

    Customs exist to be departed from, declared Matthew. He had pointedly declined to have a stagparty with his friends but had nonetheless asked to be included in the hen party that had beenorganised for Elspeth.

    “Stag parties are dreadful,” he pronounced. “Everybody has too much to drink and the groomis subjected to all sorts of insults. Left without his trousers by the side of the canal and soon. I’ve seen it.”

    “Not always,” said Elspeth. “But it’s up to you, Matthew.”

    She was pleased that he was revealing himself not to be the type to enjoy a raucous male-onlyparty. But this did not mean that Matthew should be allowed to come to her hen party, which wasto consist of a dinner at Howie’s restaurant in Bruntsfield, a sober do by comparison with theBacchanalian scenes which some groups of young women seemed to go in for.

    No, new men might be new men, but they were still men, trapped in that role by simple biology.“I’m sorry, Matthew,” she said. “I don’t think that it’s a good idea at all. The wholepoint about a hen party is that it’s just for women. If a man were there it would changeeverything. The conversation would be different, for a start.”

    Matthew wondered what it was that women talked about on such occasions. “Different in whatway?” He did not intend to sound peevish, but he did.

    “Just different,” said Elspeth airily. She looked at him with curiosity. “You do realise,Matthew, that men and women talk about rather different things? You do realise that, don’tyou?”

    Matthew thought of the conversations he had with his male friends. “I don’t know if there’sall that much difference,” he said. “I talk about the same things with my male and femalefriends. I don’t make a distinction.”

    “Well, I’m sorry,” said Elspeth. “But the presence of a man would somehow interrupt thecurrent. It’s hard to say why, but it would.”

    So the subject had been left there and Elspeth in due course enjoyed her hen party with sevenof her close female friends, while Matthew went off by himself to the Cumberland Bar. There hemet Angus Lordie sitting alone with his dog, Cyril.

    “I suppose that this is a sort of stag party for me,” Matthew remarked to Angus.

    Underneath the table, Cyril, who had long wrestled with temptation to bite Matthew’s ankles,suddenly leaned forward and licked them instead.

    “There, you see,” said Angus. “When a dog licks you, it confers a benediction. Cyrilunderstands, you know. That’s his way of saying that he’s going to be sorry to lose you.”

    “But he’s not going to lose me,” protested Matthew. “One doesn’t completely disappear whenone gets married.”

    Angus looked at Matthew with his slightly rheumy eyes. “Really? Well, we won’t be seeing muchof you here after the event.”

    “We’ll see,” said Matthew. He raised his glass of beer to his lips and looked at Angus.Angus was much older than he was and was unmarried, which meant either that there was someprofound reason – lack of interest – or that he had been successful in evading commitment.Now, which of these was it?

    “What about yourself, Angus?” Matthew asked. “Have you ever thought of … tying the knotwith anybody?”

    Angus smiled. “Nobody would have me, I fear. Nothing would give me greater pleasure, Isuspect, but, well, I’ve never really got myself organised.”

    “Of course, you’d need to find somebody capable of taking on Cyril,” said Matthew. “Andthat wouldn’t be easy.”

    Angus shot Matthew an injured glance and Matthew immediately realised his tactlessness.

    “Cyril is a slight problem,” said Angus. “It’s difficult being canine, you see. Lots ofwomen turn their noses up at dogs. Particularly with Cyril being the sort of dog that he is.You know, a wandering eye and some unresolved personal freshness issues. But I wish peoplewould see beyond that.”

    Matthew nodded. Angus would be a task enough for any woman, and to add Cyril to the equationmade it even more of a burden. “What about Domenica?” he asked suddenly. “I’ve alwaysthought that you and she might make a good couple.”

    Angus looked wistfully at the ceiling. “I’ve thought that too,” he said. “But I don’tthink there’s much of a chance there. She can’t abide Cyril, you see, and I can hardly getrid of him after all these years. His heart would break.”

    “She’d get used to him,” said Matthew. “And dogs don’t last forever.”

    Angus shook his head. “No prospect,” he said. “But let’s not talk about me and my problems.What about the wedding? I hear you’ve got Charlie Robertson to do it for you. I knew him whenhe was at the Canongate Kirk. He does a nice line in weddings, and Her Majesty used to enjoyhis sermons, I gather, when she was in residence at Holyrood. She must have had to listen to anawful lot of wheezy lectures from various archbishops of Canterbury – it must have been sorefreshing for her to get a good-going, no-nonsense sermon from somebody like Charlie. You knowwhere you stand with the Church of Scotland, although as an Episcopalian, I must say there’s acertain folksiness …”

    “We’re making certain changes,” said Matthew. “We’re walking up the aisle together. Andwe’re having a reading from Kahlil Gibran. You know, The Prophet. There’s a chapter there

about love and commitment.”

    Angus began to let out an involuntary groan, but stopped himself. “Sorry,” he said. “Yes.Kahlil Gibran. I see. And the honeymoon?”

    Matthew leaned forward and whispered. “I haven’t told Elspeth. It’s going to be a surprise.Australia!”

    Angus looked into his glass. For some inexplicable reason, he felt a sense of foreboding, as ifa sinister angel had passed overhead and briefly looked down upon them, as one of thoselumbering heavy bombers, laden with high explosive, may spot a target below – a quiet lanewith lovers popular, the innocent going about their business, a farmer driving a truck along awinding lane; irresistible temptations for a sinister angel.

    2.By the Side of the Bridal Path

    Inside the church, three hundred guests – and a handful of regular members of St. Cuthbert’s,entitled in that capacity to attend any service – sat waiting for the ceremony to begin.Matthew had told Elspeth that she should invite as many friends as she wished. His father waspaying for the wedding and had imposed no limits; his own list, Matthew felt, was at risk ofbeing embarrassingly small: a few old friends from school, his father and his new wife, acouple of distant cousins, Angus Lordie, Domenica Macdonald, Big Lou, James Holloway; that wasabout all.

    Pat, Matthew’s former girlfriend and occasional employee, had been invited too, and hadaccepted. Much to Matthew’s relief it appeared that she bore no ill-will towards the woman whohad supplanted her in Matthew’s affections; and for her part, Elspeth, by nature, was not oneto be jealous. Matthew had reassured her that although he had been serious about Pat, hisseriousness had been a mistake; misplaced seriousness, as he described it. “She was reallymore of a sister,” he said. “I don’t know why I …” He left the rest unsaid, and it was notreferred to again. So many men might say “I don’t know why I…”when talking about thecarnal, reflected Elspeth; all men might, in fact.

    Elspeth had invited everyone in her address book and many who were not. All her colleagues fromthe Steiner School were there, her suspension having been formally rescinded after the evidenceof the other children – prominent among them Tofu – that Olive’s account of the incident inwhich the teacher had pinched her ear was at the very least confused, and more likelymendacious. But by the time her reputation was cleared she had already resigned, becomeengaged, and decided not to go back to teaching.

    As well as Elspeth’s former colleagues, an invitation had been given to all the children inthe class she had taught. They were to attend under the supervision of their new teacher, whohad led them into the church as a group and taken them to the pews reserved for them up at thetop on the left. Here they sat – Merlin, Pansy, Lakshmi, Tofu, Hiawatha and the rest, hairneatly combed, their legs swinging freely, not quite touching the floor, whispering to eachother, awed by the solemnity of the occasion and the significance of what was about to happento their beloved Miss Harmony.

    “She’ll probably have a baby in a couple of weeks,” said Olive knowingly. “I hope it’s agirl. It’ll be a big tragedy if it’s a boy.”

    Tofu turned and sneered at her from the pew in front. “Babies take time,” he said, adding,“stupid.”

    “What do you know about it?” hissed Olive. “And anyway, no girl would ever marry you. Not ina hundred years.”

    “You mean that nobody would ever marry you,” retorted Tofu. “They’d take one look at youand be sick.”

    “I’m going to marry Bertie,” said Olive smugly. “He’s already asked me. We’re going toget married when we’re twenty. It’s all settled.”

    Bertie, who was sitting a couple of places away from Olive heard this remark and froze. “No,Olive, I didn’t say I would,” he protested. “I didn’t.”

    Olive glared at him. “You did!” she said. “You promised! Don’t think you can break yourpromises like that.” She snapped her fingers to demonstrate the speed of Bertie’s brokenpromises, then looked at him and added, “Especially in a church. God’s really going to hateyou, Bertie!”

    This conversation was interrupted by the organist, who began to play a Bach prelude. Althoughthe congregation was unaware of their presence, Matthew and Elspeth had already arrived andwere sitting with Charlie Robertson in the chapel at the back of the church, a small, tucked-away room on the walls of which the names of the fallen were inscribed in lead, equal in death,with no distinction of rank, just men. Matthew, feeling awkward, gazed at the lists of namesand thought: they were my age, or younger. Some were seventeen or eighteen, and were only inFrance or wherever it was for a week or two, days in some cases, before they died in thatlandscape of explosion and whistling metal. They didn’t have a chance, and now here am I,whose life has been so easy, reading about them and their sacrifice.

    It was as if Charlie Robertson had read Matthew’s thoughts. “We’ve been very fortunate,haven’t we?” he said. “Being born at the time we were.”

    Matthew glanced at Elspeth. He reached for her hand.

    “On a more cheerful note,” said Charlie. “Did you know that it was in this chapel thatAgatha Christie got married?”

    Matthew showed his surprise. “I would have thought that she would have been married in asleepy little English village somewhere,” he said. “In one of those places with anextraordinarily high murder rate.”

    Charlie laughed. “I see what you mean,” he said. “But no. She got married here in Edinburgh.To her archaeologist husband. She said that an archaeologist was an ideal husband, as the olderthe wife became, the more interested he would be in her.”

    Matthew smiled. It was difficult to imagine Agatha Christie as being young; some people wereremembered as how they became, rather than how they were; it was something to with names, hethought. Agatha was not a young name. “But didn’t she run away?”

    “That was earlier,” said Elspeth, who knew something about Agatha Christie. “Her first,dashing husband fell in love with somebody else. So she disappeared, and was eventually foundstaying at a hotel in Harrogate.”

    Charlie Robertson looked at his watch. “Well,” he said. “We should be thinking of starting.Are you two ready?”

    Matthew rose to his feet. Their conversation, innocent enough, had nevertheless made him think.In getting married, he realised, he was giving a hostage to fortune. By taking Elspeth into hislife, the chances that the world would hurt him were doubled. She might leave him; she mightrun away, like Agatha Christie. There was so much that could go wrong in life if you took onsomebody else, and then there were children and all the worries and anxiety they brought. Therewere so many reasons, he thought, for remaining single.

    He looked at Elspeth, who was adjusting the veil she had pinned to her hair. I don’t want tohurt you, thought Matthew; that’s the last thing I want. But should I really go through withthis? Is it wise?

    3.Wedding Daze, and a Hint of Doubt

    Suddenly, though, there was the sound of bells, and Matthew found himself outside the church,with Elspeth beside him, arm linked in arm. There were people in the churchyard – people whomhe did not recognise, but who were smiling at him. One woman, a visitor, had a small disposablecamera, which she raised and pointed at them. Matthew smiled for the camera automatically,although he felt dazed. He turned to Elspeth, who was looking behind her now; the children had

    emerged from the front door and were jostling one another for her attention. She bent down andplaced a kiss on the forehead of one of them, a small boy in a curious, rainbow-coloured coat.Matthew saw the boy’s sandals, one of those little details one notices, and smiled again; hewas proud of Elspeth. He was proud.

    There were other guests now, stepping out into the light. The late afternoon sun was blockedfrom the church by the towering bulk of the Caledonian Hotel over the road, but it reached theCastle now, up above them, touching the walls with gold; and the sky was so empty, just blue.Somewhere behind them, a train moved through Princes Street Gardens, a clattering sound, andthere were pigeons in the air, a sudden burst of them. The children pressed around Elspeth;Matthew found himself beside Gordon, his father, bekilted like Matthew himself. This unites us,he thought, father and son; this shared garb, this same tartan; and he reached out and took hisfather’s hand in a handshake that became a semi-embrace and then reverted to a handshake.

    “Well,” said Gordon, “that’s that then. You’ve done it, Matt. Well done, son.”

    Matthew looked at his father. The little paternal speech, so apparently trite, seemed justright, so pre-ordained, just like the words he himself had uttered in the church, although hecould hardly remember what he had said. Presumably he had done all that was expected of him, asCharlie had smiled throughout and had not corrected him. And what else could his father say?That he was relieved that Matthew had at last done something decisive? That he hoped that atleast he would get marriage right, even if he had never got anything right with all thebusinesses he had been set up in? The gallery, though, was not a failure, and he wondered ifhis father knew that. But this was not the time.

    Gordon leaned forward and whispered into his son’s ear. “When you walked up the aisletogether, you know, I thought by the look on your face … I thought that you were having secondthoughts! I was mighty worried!”

    Matthew’s smile was fixed. “Me? Second thoughts?”

    “Well, obviously not,” said Gordon. He glanced at Elspeth, who was surrounded by a group ofwomen in elaborate hats who were having their photograph taken with her. “You’ll rememberthose people we knew in Kilmacolm? Well, she called it off at the very last moment, you know,and everybody had to traipse back to the hotel. It was over in Largs. And then she changed hermind and they sneaked into the registry office two weeks later and did it. You were too youngto know about it.”

    Matthew listened to his father’s story patiently, but he was really thinking of what hisfather had said about his expression as he had made his way up the aisle. Had it been thatobvious? If it had, then he wondered if anybody else had noticed it. Of course nobody looked atthe bridegroom; all eyes would have been on the bride, as was always the case at weddings.

    His father was, of course, right. As he walked behind Charlie Robertson, he had been thinkingof the consequences that would ensue if he were to decide not to go ahead with the wedding. Itwould be heartless in the extreme to let the bride down before the altar, but presumably thathad been done before, on the very brink of the exchange of vows. And perhaps there werecircumstances in which it would be the right thing to do – not an act of selfishness, orcowardice, but an act intended to prevent the other person from making the mistake of marryingsomebody whose heart was not in it.

    Well, he had not done it, and they had gone ahead with the ceremony. And now, he thought, I’mmarried! He looked down at his hand and turned the ring around on his finger. How strange itfelt; how grown-up.

    He glanced at Elspeth. She had moved away from the women in hats, and the children, and wastalking to an elderly man wearing a soft brown hat and a pair of large sun-glasses. That, hethought, was the Uncle Harald of whom she had spoken, her half-Norwegian uncle who had moved toPortugal with his friend of thirty years, a man who wrote books on china. The friend haddrowned when their yacht had been swept onto rocks. Harald had remained in Portugal, alone; howmany of us lead lives of quiet desperation, thought Matthew; we hope to be saved by one person,

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