The Perils of Morning Coffee, p.1Alexander McCall Smith
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
Copyright © 2011 by Alexander McCall Smith
All rights reserved. Published in the United States by Pantheon Books, a division of Random House, Inc., New York. Originally published in Great Britain by Little, Brown, an imprint of Little, Brown Book Group, a Hachette U.K. Company, London.
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
McCall Smith, Alexander, [date]
The perils of morning coffee : an Isabel Dalhousie ebook original story / Alexander McCall
Smith. — 1st U.S. ed.
1. Dalhousie, Isabel (Fictitious character)—Fiction. 2. Women philosophers—Fiction. 3.
Edinburgh (Scotland)—Fiction. I. Title.
Cover design by Linda Huang
The Perils of Morning Coffee
Other Books by This Author
Excerpt from The Forgotten Affairs of Youth
ISABEL DALHOUSIE SAW BROTHER FOX that morning at eleven minutes past four. She was not one to take much notice of such details—she felt it was usually a matter of little importance to know exactly what time it was, unless, of course, one was a railway company, or an airline, for whom concern about punctuality was entirely understandable and, on the whole, to be encouraged. She wore a watch—a small gold one that bore the reassuring message Entirely made in Switzerland, and had belonged to her mother—her sainted American mother, as she thought of her—but she only glanced at it a few times a day: when Charlie had to go to playgroup, for example, or when he had to be picked up again in the early afternoon. For the most part, she was content to have only a very rough idea of the time, and had considerable admiration for those who measured their lives against the seasons, as farmers do, or the tides, as fishermen must. Time, she felt, made quite enough claims on us, without our conniving in its relentless tyranny.
She knew that it was eleven minutes past four because that was what showed on the clock built into the cooker in her kitchen. This clock, which had a glowing display, was unfailingly precise, declaring the hour, the minute and the second in pulsing electric numerals. Like those disquieting clocks that remind us of the burgeoning of the national debt—thousands upon thousands being added with each passing second—this display could provoke uncomfortable thoughts. The number of seconds each of us has in this life is, after all, finite, and every one that ticks past brings us closer to the point where we shall have only a few moments left. Some dwell on such thoughts with the equanimity that comes from acceptance—from dust we come and to dust we return; others would prefer not to be reminded of mortality. There is no point, they feel, in thinking about the inevitable—precisely because it is inevitable. On the other hand, Isabel thought that carpe diem—seize the day—was probably one of the more helpful mottoes by which to lead one’s life, and if a glance at the time served to remind us of it, then that was no bad thing.
Isabel and Jamie rarely paid any attention to this cooker clock, and would not have been aware of its accuracy had Isabel’s housekeeper, Grace, not remarked that she had checked it against the time signal on BBC Radio and had discovered that it was absolutely accurate, down to the second.
“Then I certainly won’t argue with the cooker,” said Isabel. “Or indeed with any domestic appliances.”
Grace had glanced at her. Her employer’s remarks were often somewhat difficult to fathom, and this one, she thought, was typical. Why should anybody want to argue with a domestic appliance—with a vacuum cleaner, for instance? Grace would never argue with things like that; if they misbehaved, she kicked them.
Isabel had once observed this and had commented on it to Jamie. “I saw her kick the vacuum cleaner this morning. It was stuttering a bit—I think it was blocked—and she kicked it quite hard.”
“And?” asked Jamie.
“It started going again.”
“Well, there you are,” said Jamie.
“But one should be very careful about kicking things,” said Isabel. “One can’t go through life lashing out at things that don’t work.”
“Possibly not,” said Jamie, thinking of one of his pupils, who had hit his bassoon in frustration and broken one of the keys.
Eleven minutes past four: she noticed the red flashing display and immediately glanced out of the window. It was light outside—the summer solstice was only a matter of days away—and the sun was already on the tree-tops. She liked the light of morning, with its crispness and, well, its innocence. The light of afternoon and evening was a used light, a light that had no intentions of encouraging or revealing anything new; a light under which all sorts of minor sins could be practised without detection.
At first Brother Fox was not there, and then he was. He appeared at the top of the stone garden wall that ran along the edge of the garden, a highway for the cats of the neighbourhood and for Brother Fox himself. He took a few steps forward and stopped, sniffed at the air, and then continued his journey. Isabel, now standing at the kitchen window, was motionless. Brother Fox, she had decided, did not see her if she remained still, and there was glass between the two of them. Perhaps he saw his own reflection, or the sky mirrored in the window; perhaps he saw shapes and shadows that meant nothing to him. Certainly now he was looking at her directly, it seemed, and was unperturbed. Then, as if remembering some commitment, he continued along the top of the wall before leaping down into the next-door garden.
The encounter with Brother Fox was brief, but it meant that Isabel would now be unable to go directly back to bed. Sleep might return after a brief period of wakefulness but tended to be elusive after a few minutes, and particularly so after a few minutes in which something had happened. Her mind was now active, engaged with thoughts of what Brother Fox might be up to. He led a life to which she was only fleetingly admitted—those times when she saw him emerging cautiously from beneath the rhododendron bushes, sniffing at the air for signs of danger, trotting across an expanse of lawn, disappearing as quickly and mysteriously as he had appeared. He had his plans, of course, but what they were was his business and remained quite opaque to Isabel. He was concerned with survival, she thought, as were we all, but somehow she felt that to reduce his life to that and that alone was to demean it, to undervalue it. If he felt fear, as he clearly did, then might he not feel other emotions too? Did he experience love and tenderness when he slept at night with his mate and their brood of cubs?
She had woken up feeling hungry—a light dinner the previous evening was responsible for that—and now, with a glass of milk in her hand, she made her way into her study. She knew that if she started to work she would not get back to sleep at all and would feel the consequences for the rest of the day. There was plenty for her to do: a pile of manuscripts sat on one corner of her desk, while on another corner there perched a tower of books sent in for review. She decided that she would attend to neither of these. She switched on her computer and watched the screen resolve; there were several new emails—patient electronic sorting rooms somewhere dispatched these while their senders and recipients slumbered. Two were routine, but a third announced: You have been invited … She was about to dismiss this as an unsolicited advertisement of some sort, but something made her pause and open it.
“You have been invited to coffee,” the message said. Where? At the Elephant House. When? A time and date were given: it was to be at eleven the following morning. And then there was the name of the person who had issued the invitation, Dr. George MacLeod. And he would be accompanied, the message went on, by Dr. Mark Robertson. Nothing else was said.
Isabel frowned. The name George MacLeod meant nothing to her. There had been a famous Scottish theologian of that name, a radical figure who had been a thorn in the side of the establishment, but he was long dead, and his son, whom Isabel knew vaguely, did not bear the name George. It was a common enough name anyway, and there would be scores of George MacLeods in Edinburgh and that part of Scotland. Was he somebody whom she had encountered professionally? Perhaps he had sent in a manuscript for the Review; she could not remember everybody who wrote to her in her capacity as editor.
She decided to do a quick Internet search, typing in the name George MacLeod followed by “philosophy.” Her intuition was correct. Dr. George MacLeod taught philosophy at the university, and a further search revealed that Dr. Mark Robertson was a colleague of his. That settled it. She must have met them at some meeting and perhaps suggested that they should meet again. People made such suggestions freely—the words “We must meet for lunch or coffee one day” were an expression of interest in pursuing an acquaintanceship even if they were not to be taken literally.
She looked at her diary; there was nothing to stop her accepting the invitation. She wrote a quick reply. She would be happy to meet them and looked forward to it.
She left her desk and walked across the room to the window. The glass of milk had dealt with her hunger and was beginning to make her feel sleepy. She would slip back into bed, trying not to wake Jamie as she did so. He was usually a sound sleeper but registered her comings and goings. She did not want him to be tired later that day as he had a recording session with a conductor with whom he had not worked before and who had a reputation for irritability. “He can be as rude as a television chef,” Jamie had said. Isabel had wondered why chefs should get away with rudeness. “Because they control our food,” he replied. “It’s something very basic. And they’re celebrities. People forgive stars like that.”
It was not much of an explanation, she felt, but she had said nothing. They had different tolerance levels for rudeness. She was appalled by it, while Jamie seemed to accept it as something that happened and was inevitable. “There are people like that,” he said. “There just are.”
This was a difference between them—an important one—but she did not want to explore it, or at least not at that moment.
“Complete strangers!” Jamie exclaimed over breakfast. “Should you go off and meet people who are … utterly unknown?”
Isabel defended her decision to accept the invitation. “But they’re hardly utterly unknown, as you put it,” she said. “They’re both members of the philosophy department at the university. I looked them up.”
“I meant unknown to you,” said Jamie.
“That doesn’t matter. Besides, I must have met them in passing, somewhere or other,” she said.
“You get all sorts of rubbish on the Internet,” Jamie mumbled. “And you shouldn’t go off and meet people you don’t know …” He did not finish the sentence, but looked at Isabel with concern.
She reassured him that the meeting was to take place in broad daylight in a crowded café. “Even if they weren’t two philosophers,” she said. “Even if they were …” She searched for the right word. People talked about predators, and perhaps that was the right term, though it was less colourful than desperadoes, for instance, or even dacoits, as they were called in India—not that real dacoits operated in the ether; they holed up in the mountains and remote valleys and carried out their depredations from there. “Even if they were undesirables.” It was a weak compromise, and she sounded, she feared, like someone of her mother’s generation. They had talked about undesirables, who were never specifically defined but were referred to as people one should avoid, especially if one were a teenage girl. And such warnings, of course, made undesirables sound all the more exciting; in fact, it made them sound like just the sort of people one might hope to meet at the Dominion Cinema when one went there at the age of twelve for the matinee performance.
Jamie did not pursue the issue of undesirables, and the matter was left there. But when Isabel returned to her study after taking Charlie to playgroup, she saw that a further email had arrived with the simple title: Coffee invitation cancelled.
The message this time was more personal. “Dear Isabel Dalhousie,” it began. “I’m so sorry. We have not met before, but my computer has taken it upon itself to invite you to coffee. There is some sort of glitch in a program I have called Invite Me. It suddenly took upon itself to invite people who appear in email copy lists I have received; your name must have been on the circulation list of a message I received and it picked you up there. Please disregard the invitation. I apologise for any inconvenience this has caused. Yours sincerely, George MacLeod.”
Isabel read it with a smile. If technology separated people—as it clearly did, isolating them behind their computer screens, destroying real contact—then it could clearly repent and bring them together, as it had done here. So the invitation to coffee had been a mistake, though not a mistake of much consequence. Presumably computers made much greater errors, and told people that they had been fired, or transferred to some distant posting, or awarded a medal; inviting them to coffee was nothing really.
She sat down at her keyboard and prepared her response. The erroneous invitation had been no inconvenience at all, and she would still be very happy to meet in the Elephant House if Dr. MacLeod was free. “You may be interested in hearing about plans for the Review of Applied Ethics,” she wrote. And thought of adding: “Or, of course, you may not be interested in that at all,” but did not.
She sent the message. A few minutes later, the reply came. “I would be delighted to stick to our arrangement, although I’m afraid that I will be by myself—Mark cannot make it.” There then came an observation on the serendipity of mistakes. “Things done in error are often best left not undone—if you see what I mean!” She did: double negatives had their place, as in being not unhappy, or not unclear. Triple and other multiple negatives were more difficult; there was no case, she felt, for saying that the day was turning out to be not unlike that which she had not expected.
When she entered the Elephant House the following morning, it was as bustling as ever. Having ordered a cup of coffee at the counter, she made her way through to the back, where the café opened out into a large, airy room filled with old pine tables. She was ten minutes early, and she doubted whether George MacLeod would be there yet, but she nonetheless scanned the faces of the people at the tables to see if there was anyone who fitted her image of George MacLeod. Everybody, it seemed, was either too young or too old. George MacLeod, she had ascertained from his profile on the departmental page, was forty-two, and there was nobody who looked that age in the room. Except me, she said to herself, in a moment of self-appraisal. I am about that …
She seated herself at the only free table, under one of the large windows, and looked out. The view was of Candlemaker Row, a narrow street that descended sharply towards the Grassmarket. There were angled slate roofs, chimney pots, stone gables and, towering above them, like the set of some improbable opera, the Castle. For a few moments she stared at the scene. The fragility of the city touched her, as it always did; made her catch her breath. And she lived in this: that was what never failed to astonish her. I live in the midst of this beauty.
She turned round to see a man in a light brown linen suit smiling at her. He had extended his hand, and she shook it.
“I was looking out of the window,” she said, gesturing behind her. “I love that view of the rooftops.”
He looked out over her shoulder. “Of course. The other day, you know
He sat down, placing his cup of coffee carefully before him. “I’m glad that you agreed to meet,” he said. “Sometimes when I go to meetings abroad and they hear I’m from Edinburgh, they say, ‘Oh you must know Isabel Dalhousie, who edits that journal.’ And I have to say, ‘Actually, I don’t.’ And that makes them think that I can’t be very important.”
Isabel laughed. “People imagine that everybody in Scotland knows everybody else in Scotland.
George MacLeod smiled. “Don’t they?”
The conversation moved on to philosophy and to philosophers whom they both knew. Professor Lettuce’s name cropped up, but only briefly. “I’ve heard that his Hume book is going to be really rather good,” George said. “Worth waiting for.”
Isabel wondered whether there was sarcasm in the reference to waiting for the book, but decided that there was not. There was something appealingly open, even benevolent, about George MacLeod, something that was apparent even on this brief acquaintance, and it did not seem likely to her that he would make a snide remark. A nice man, she thought.
“I’m sure that his views will be …” She floundered. She disliked Lettuce so much that it was difficult for her to find the words to compliment him. “Insightful,” she said at last, conscious of the hollowness of her words.
George MacLeod was smiling. “Indeed,” he said. “Insightful. Perhaps rather …”
He did not finish his sentence. It was a cue, thought Isabel. “Perhaps not to everybody’s taste,” she said quietly. “Like poor Professor Lettuce himself.”
“Exactly,” said George MacLeod in low tones. “I’m sure that Lettuce has his many good points, but …”
It was turning into a conversation studded with ellipses, Isabel observed, but it confirmed her feeling that George MacLeod was a kindred spirit. If two people disliked Lettuce, then it was probable that they saw the world in much the same way.
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