Corduroy mansions, p.1
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       Corduroy Mansions, p.1

           Alexander McCall Smith
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Corduroy Mansions


  BOOKS BY ALEXANDER MCCALL SMITH

  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 Motors

  Tea Time for the Traditionally Built

  The Double Comfort Safari Club

  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 Saturday

  The Lost Art of Gratitude

  In the Portuguese Irregular Verb Series

  Portuguese Irregular Verbs

  The Finer Points of Sausage Dogs

  At the Villa of Reduced Circumstances

  In the 44 Scotland Street Series

  44 Scotland Street

  Espresso Tales

  Love over Scotland

  The World According to Bertie

  The Unbearable Lightness of Scones

  The Girl Who Married a Lion and Other Tales from Africa

  La’s Orchestra Saves the World

  Corduroy Mansions

  This book is for

  Andrew Sachs

  Contents

  Other Books by this Author

  Title Page

  Dedication

  Chapter 1 - In the Bathroom

  Chapter 2 - Corduroy Matters

  Chapter 3 - Dee Is Rude About Others

  Chapter 4 - A Generous Offer

  Chapter 5 - Unmarried Girls

  Chapter 6 - Tim Something Takes a Photo

  Chapter 7 - Proustian-Jungian Soup

  Chapter 8 - The Merits of Italian Wine (or Some of It)

  Chapter 9 - Marcia’s Idea

  Chapter 10 - Oedipus Snark, MP

  Chapter 11 - A Flexible Diary

  Chapter 12 - Berthea Snark

  Chapter 13 - Stevie Phones Eddie

  Chapter 14 - The Names of Dogs

  Chapter 15 - An Experiment

  Chapter 16 - An Invitation to Bake Is Misconstrued

  Chapter 17 - Brutalism in Architecture

  Chapter 18 - On the Sofa

  Chapter 19 - Unknown Boys

  Chapter 20 - Rare Tea

  Chapter 21 - In Mr. Wickramsinghe’s Kitchen

  Chapter 22 - Master of Wine (Failed)

  Chapter 23 - Nice Dog

  Chapter 24 - Lemon Gems

  Chapter 25 - Paris

  Chapter 26 - Applied Ethics

  Chapter 27 - On the Train

  Chapter 28 - Beings of Light

  Chapter 29 - Berthea’s Project

  Chapter 30 - Rye

  Chapter 31 - Dinner at the Mermaid

  Chapter 32 - The Yeti Writes

  Chapter 33 - “An hairy man” (sic)

  Chapter 34 - William Plans a Soufflé

  Chapter 35 - Eddie Is Cool

  Chapter 36 - I Find You Very Attractive

  Chapter 37 - Dee Meets Freddie de la Hay

  Chapter 38 - At Breakfast

  Chapter 39 - Barbara Ragg Acts

  Chapter 40 - Remember Mateus Rosé?

  Chapter 41 - Belgian Shoes

  Chapter 42 - The Morning Sun Was in Her Eyes

  Chapter 43 - Terence’s Battery Has a Near-Death Experience

  Chapter 44 - Don’t Try This at Home

  Chapter 45 - In the Ambulance

  Chapter 46 - Terence Moongrove Has a Near-Death Experience

  Chapter 47 - Your Shoes, Your Sad Shoes

  Chapter 48 - A Golden Parachute

  Chapter 49 - A Confession of Loneliness

  Chapter 50 - The Dignity of Distance

  Chapter 51 - A Very Good Risotto

  Chapter 52 - Eddie’s Wardrobe

  Chapter 53 - Freddie de la Hay Points to Something

  Chapter 54 - Polar Bears and Vitamin A

  Chapter 55 - The Late Isadora Duncan

  Chapter 56 - O Venus

  Chapter 57 - Barbara Ragg Writes a Letter

  Chapter 58 - Dee Makes Tea for Jenny

  Chapter 59 - Something to Do with Justice

  Chapter 60 - Going Home

  Chapter 61 - A Suitable Car

  Chapter 62 - Eddie Shows His True Colours

  Chapter 63 - My Door Is Always Open

  Chapter 64 - Requin Trouvé

  Chapter 65 - Caravaggio as a Role Model for Boys

  Chapter 66 - Tim Something Sits Down

  Chapter 67 - Where’s Freddie de la Hay?

  Chapter 68 - The Dog House

  Chapter 69 - Freddie de la Hay in Peril

  Chapter 70 - At the Ragg Porter Agency

  Chapter 71 - On the Nature of Friendship

  Chapter 72 - Rupert’s Insecurities

  Chapter 73 - Free at Last!

  Chapter 74 - Sparkle Skin

  Chapter 75 - Terence Moongrove Confesses

  Chapter 76 - Lennie Marchbanks Calls

  Chapter 77 - Terence Moongrove, Porsche Owner

  Chapter 78 - Whose Home?

  Chapter 79 - Marcia Understands

  Chapter 80 - In Touch with His Feminine Side

  Chapter 81 - A Country House Weekend

  Chapter 82 - Poisonous Snakes

  Chapter 83 - Freddie de la Hay Forgiven

  Chapter 84 - James Reveals His Good Eye

  Chapter 85 - A Poussin in Pimlico

  Chapter 86 - Terence and Berthea

  Chapter 87 - Sacred Dance

  Chapter 88 - Through the Letterbox

  Chapter 89 - Resolution

  Chapter 90 - A Major Surprise (of the Pleasant Variety)

  Chapter 91 - A Flower in the Air Between Two People

  Chapter 92 - Caroline Goes to Lunch Again

  Chapter 93 - Crop Circles

  Chapter 94 - A Cultural Disaster

  Chapter 95 - A Real Job

  Chapter 96 - Three Sorts of Man Trouble

  Chapter 97 - The Interview

  Chapter 98 - Martini Talk in Cheltenham

  Chapter 99 - Basil Buys a Blazer

  Chapter 100 - The End

  About the Author

  Copyright

  1. In the Bathroom

  PASSING OFF, thought William. Spanish sparkling wine—filthy stuff, he thought, filthy—passed itself off as champagne. Japanese whisky—Glen Yakomoto!—was served as Scotch. Inferior hard cheese—from Mafia-run factories in Catania—was sold to the unsuspecting as Parmesan.

  Lots of things were passed off in one way or another, and now, as he stood before the bathroom mirror, he wondered if he could be passed off too. He looked at himself, or such part of himself as the small mirror encompassed—just his face, really, and a bit of neck. It was a fifty-one-year-old face chronologically, but would it pass, he wondered, for a forty-something-year-old face?

  He looked more closely: there were lines around the eyes and at the edge of the mouth but the cheeks were smooth enough. He pulled at the skin around the eyes and the lines disappeared. There were doctors who could do that for you, of course: tighten things up; nip and tuck. But the results, he thought, were usually risible. He had a customer who had gone off to some clinic and come back with a face like a Noh-play mask—all smoothed out and flat. It was sad, really. And as for male wigs, with their stark, obvious hairlines, all one wanted to do was to reach forward and give them a tug. It was quite hard to resist, actually, and once, as a student—and when drunk—he had done
just that. He had tugged at the wig of a man in a bar and … the man had cried. He still felt ashamed of himself for that. Best not to think about it.

  No, he was weathering well enough and it was far more dignified to let nature take its course, to weather in a National Trust sort of way. He looked again at his face. Not bad. The sort of face, he thought, that would be hard to describe on the Wanted poster, if he were ever to do anything to merit the attention of the police—which he had not, of course. Apart from the usual sort of thing that made a criminal of everybody: “Wanted for illegal parking,” he muttered. “William Edward French (51). Average height, very slightly overweight (if you don’t mind our saying so), no distinguishing features. Not dangerous, but approach with caution.”

  He smiled. And if I were to describe myself in one of those lonely hearts ads? Wine dealer, widower, solvent, late forties-ish, GSOH, reasonable shape, interested in music, dining out etc., etc., WLTM presentable, lively woman with view to LTR.

  That would be about it. Of course one had to be careful about the choice of words in these things; there were codes, and one might not be aware of them. “Solvent” was clear enough: it meant that one had sufficient money to be comfortable, and that was true enough. He would not describe himself as well off, but he was certainly solvent. “Well off,” he had read somewhere, now meant disposable assets of over … how much? More than he had, he suspected.

  And “reasonable shape”? Well, if that was not strictly speaking true at present, it would be shortly. William had joined a gym and been allocated a personal trainer. If his shape at present was not ideal, it soon would be, once the personal trainer had worked on him. It would take a month or two, he thought, not much more than that. So perhaps one might say, shortly to be in reasonable shape.

  Now, what about: would like to meet presentable, lively woman. Well, presentable was a pretty low requirement. Virtually anybody could be presentable if they made at least some effort. Lively was another matter. One would have to be careful about lively because it could possibly be code for insatiable, and that would not do. Who would want to meet an insatiable woman? My son, thought William suddenly. That’s exactly the sort of woman Eddie would want to meet. The thought depressed him.

  William lived with his son. There had been several broad hints dropped that Eddie might care to move out and share with other twenty-somethings, and recently a friend of Eddie’s had even asked him if he wanted to move into a shared flat, but these hints had apparently fallen on unreceptive ground. “It’s quite an adventure, Eddie,” William said. “Everybody at your stage of life shares a flat. Like those girls downstairs. Look at the fun they have. Most people do it.”

  “You didn’t.”

  William sighed. “My circumstances, Eddie, were a bit different.”

  “You lived with Grandpa until he snuffed it.”

  “Precisely. But I had to, don’t you see? I couldn’t leave him to look after himself.”

  “But I could live with you until you snuff it.”

  “That’s very kind of you. But I’m not planning to snuff it just yet.”

  Then there had been an offer to help with a mortgage—to pay the deposit on a flat in Kentish Town. William had even gone so far as to contact an agent and find a place that sounded suitable. He had looked at it without telling Eddie, meeting the agent one afternoon and being shown round while a litany of the flat’s—and the area’s—advantages was recited.

  William had been puzzled. “But it doesn’t appear to have a kitchen,” he pointed out.

  The agent was silent for a moment. “Not as such,” he conceded. “No. That’s correct. But there’s a place for a sink and you can see where the cooker used to be. So that’s the kitchen space. Nowadays people think in terms of a kitchen space. The old concept of a separate kitchen is not so important. People see past a kitchen.”

  In spite of the drawbacks, William had suggested that Eddie should look at the place and had then made his proposition. He would give him the deposit and guarantee the mortgage.

  “Your own place,” he said. “It’s ideal.”

  Eddie looked doubtful. “But it hasn’t got a kitchen, Dad. You said so. No kitchen.”

  William took this in his stride. “It has a kitchen space, Eddie. People see past an actual kitchen these days. Didn’t you know that?”

  But Eddie was not to be moved. “It’s kind of you, Dad. I appreciate the offer, but I think it’s premature. I’m actually quite comfortable living at home. And it’s greener, isn’t it? Sharing. It makes our carbon footprint much smaller.”

  And so William found himself living with his twenty-four-year-old son. Wine dealer, he thought, would like his son to meet a lively woman with view to his moving in with her. Permanently. Any area.

  He turned away from the bathroom mirror and stooped down to run his morning bath. It was a Friday, which meant that he would open the business half an hour late, at ten-thirty rather than ten. This meant that he could have his bath and then his breakfast in a more leisurely way, lingering over his boiled egg and newspaper before setting off; a small treat, but a valued one.

  There was a knocking on the door, soft at first and then more insistent.

  “You’re taking ages, Dad. What are you doing in there?”

  He did not reply.

  “Dad? Would you mind hurrying up? Or do you want me to be late?”

  William turned and faced the door. He stuck out his tongue.

  “Don’t be so childish,” came the voice from the other side of the door.

  Childish? thought William. Well, you’ve got a little surprise coming your way, Eddie, my boy.

  2. Corduroy Matters

  THE FLAT OCCUPIED by William and Eddie was on the top floor of the four-storey building in Pimlico known as Corduroy Mansions. It was not a typical London mansion block. The name had been coined—in jest, yet with a considerable measure of condescension—by a previous tenant, but Corduroy Mansions had stuck, and a disparaging nickname had become a fond one. There was something safe about corduroy, something reassuring, and while corduroy might be an ideological near neighbour of tweed, it was not quite as … well, tweedy. So while William would have been appalled to hear himself described as tweedy, he would not have resented being called corduroy. There was something slightly bohemian about corduroy; it was a sign, perhaps, of liberality of outlook, of openness to alternatives—of a slightly artistic temperament.

  Corduroy Mansions had been built in the early twentieth century, in a fit of Arts and Crafts enthusiasm. It was an era when people still talked to one another, in sentences; that had since become unusual, but at least the occupants of all the Corduroy flats still conversed—at least sometimes—with their neighbours, and even appeared to enjoy doing so. “It’s got a lived-in feel,” one of the residents remarked, and that was certainly true. Whereas in more fashionable blocks down the road in Eaton Square, or the like, there would be flats that lay unoccupied for most of the year, or flats occupied by exotic, virtually invisible people, wealthy wraiths who slipped in and out of their front doors without a word to neighbours, everyone with a flat in Corduroy Mansions actually lived there. They had no other place. Corduroy Mansions was home.

  The staircase was the setting for most of these personal encounters, although every so often there would be a meeting at which all the tenants got together to discuss matters of mutual interest. There were the meetings that took place in William’s flat over the new carpet for the stairs—an issue that took six months of delicate negotiation to resolve—and there was also a meeting over what colour to paint the front door. On these occasions it was inevitably William who took the chair, being not only the oldest resident, but also the one most endowed with the gravitas necessary to deal with the landlord, a faceless company in Victoria that appeared to ignore any letters it received.

  “They’re in denial,” said William. “We’ve got them for the next one hundred and twenty years and they’re in denial.”

  But t
he landlord eventually did what was required, and although Corduroy Mansions could not be described as being in good order, at least it did not appear to be falling down.

  “This old place suits me,” remarked William to his friend Marcia. “It’s like an old glove, familiar and comfortable.”

  “Or an old sock, even,” said Marcia, sniffing the air. Marcia was always ready to detect a smell, and she had often remarked on a slight odour on the staircase.

  Marcia was a caterer. Ten years previously she had set up Marcia’s Table, a firm that specialised in catering for small weddings, board lunches and the like. Actually, to call Marcia’s Table a firm was to dignify it beyond what it deserved. Marcia’s Table consisted of Marcia and nobody else, other than the helpers she engaged to serve and clear up: young Australians, Poles, Romanians, eager all of them—to a fault—and totally free of the casual surliness that plagued their British contemporaries. It was Marcia who planned the menus, bought the supplies and cooked. And it was Marcia who frequently brought leftovers to Corduroy Mansions and left them in William’s flat. He had provided her with a key—in an impulsive gesture of friendship—and would sometimes come home to discover a pot of goulash sitting on the cooker, or half a plate of only-the-tiniest-bit-soggy chicken vol-au-vents, or cocktail sausages impaled on little sticks, like pupae in a butterfly collection.

  It was thoughtfulness on her part, touched, perhaps, by the slightest hint of ambitious self-interest. Marcia liked William; she liked him a great deal. It was a tragedy, she thought, that he was on his own; what a waste of a perfectly good man! For his part, he had never shown any interest in her beyond that which one has in a comfortable friend—the sort of interest that stops well short of any gestures of physical affection. She understood: a woman can tell these things, especially one as sympathetic and emotionally sensitive as Marcia believed herself to be. No, William had shown no signs of wanting closeness, but that did not mean that he might not do so in the future. So she continued with her culinary overtures and he, replete on vol-au-vents, reflected on his good fortune to have such a friend as Marcia. But in his mind she was just a friend, firmly on that side of the line.

  The stumbling block, Marcia thought, was Eddie. If William were truly on his own, and not sharing with his son, then she felt it likely that he would be more receptive to the idea of a relationship with a woman. Having his son there distracted him and took the edge off his loneliness. If only Eddie were to go—and it was surely time for him to fly the nest—then her own prospects would be better.

 

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