Unusual uses for olive o.., p.11
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       Unusual Uses for Olive Oil, p.11

           Alexander McCall Smith
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  Where was Herr Huber? Perhaps he should have a word with him and check up that the filing of the maps was in order. Herr Huber, for all his wittering on about all sorts of ephemera, was a highly conscientious librarian and would certainly have filed the maps by now, but seemed to be out of the room. Von Igelfeld rose to look out of the window. He spotted Herr Huber immediately, walking towards a cluster of pine trees with that same young woman. Von Igelfeld sighed; he could just imagine the conversation. ‘There are some pine trees remarkably like this in the grounds of my aunt’s nursing home, you know. I drew the attention of the matron to them and she explained that …’

  The next few days passed without incident. There were some very successful discussion sessions, and two lengthy book reports prepared by students chosen by von Igelfeld for this honour. There were also several most enjoyable hikes, in which the entire party participated, even Herr Huber, who was wearing, much to von Igelfeld’s amusement, traditional Bavarian lederhosen.

  ‘I fear your knees will feel somewhat cold,’ said von Igelfeld. ‘But it’s your choice, Herr Huber. I would never presume to comment on a colleague’s clothing, even if he were to look ridiculous.’

  ‘You are very kind,’ said Herr Huber, as they strode along. ‘I must say that I enjoy wearing this outfit, which belonged to my late uncle, you know. He has nothing to do with the aunt you may have heard me refer to; he is on the other side. He lived in Berlin for many years, you know, and …’

  ‘Yes, yes, that is all very interesting, Herr Huber, but I was wanting to speak to you about a more delicate matter. I don’t think that one should monopolise the time of any of the young people who are with us, don’t you agree?’

  ‘I most certainly agree,’ said the Librarian.

  ‘So you should perhaps give that young woman a bit of a break from your company,’ said von Igelfeld.

  Herr Huber’s tread faltered. His knees, visible below the edge of his lederhosen, seemed to tremble slightly. ‘But I cannot be unkind to her,’ he said. ‘She keeps seeking out my company and we get on very well.’

  ‘She seeks you out?’ asked von Igelfeld.

  Herr Huber nodded. ‘And her own company is very delightful. Look, here she is now.’

  Herr Huber’s friend came striding towards him. ‘Stoffi, come on. Let’s go and walk at the front. Come along.’

  Von Igelfeld looked on in astonishment as the Librarian’s arm was taken and he was led away to the front of the walking party. Stoffi! He had never before heard anybody call the Librarian by his first name, and he was appalled that a student should presume to do so. It was true that she was a postgraduate student, and clearly into her thirties already, but she was still technically a student and therefore of a distinctly lower academic rank even than that occupied by Herr Huber. And he was also astonished at the way she took Herr Huber’s arm; it was almost as if there was something between them – an intimacy even – which of course was frankly unbelievable and need not be thought about any further. Stoffi! Well, none of them would ever dare to call him Moritz-Maria – that was as firm as the very rocks on which they were now walking, high above the distant valley, high in an air that seemed so sweet and pure that to breathe it was to purge the lungs of all staleness and despair. He would rise above these petty matters, he decided, and enjoy the mountain air to the full. He breathed in; it was delightful, quite delightful. He felt content. The problems of the world are far away, he thought, and they need not worry me here. He paused. What exactly were the problems of the world? They were profound, he was sure, but he now realised that he had not exactly exercised himself over them during the past few years. Nor before that either. In fact, he had never really considered them at all, and he decided that now he should perhaps do so. Linguistic pollution? The decline of the subjunctive? The intrusion of English words into Romance languages? This was the sort of thing that the world needed to get to grips with, and he would not flinch in the face of such issues.

  He slipped into a most agreeable routine that included an early morning stroll immediately after breakfast and a more ambitious hike in the afternoon. The morning stroll was usually a solitary affair, taken while the students had their morning discussion, in which he used the time by himself to think about the various scholarly projects that he had lined up for the autumn and winter. The possibility of a new edition of Portuguese Irregular Verbs had been raised by the chairman of the Max-Planck Foundation and von Igelfeld was now giving it serious consideration. The chairman’s letter had been persuasive: We are interested in funding the publication of a series that will include the twenty or so most significant works of scholarship in a widely varying range of disciplines. These will be books that are already in print, or that have been in print but are now out of print. They will be, quite simply, the crowning glories of German scholarship of the second half of the twentieth century and the first part of the twenty-first. They are books that will endure in the manner that Horace anticipated for his Odes.

  Von Igelfeld had taken considerable satisfaction from the terms of this letter. He knew what Horace had written about his Odes – ‘Exegi monumentum aere perennius: I have created a monument more lasting than bronze.’ It was not the most modest of comments on one’s own work, perhaps, but it was the chairman who had brought it up and not von Igelfeld, and it was hardly immodest to contemplate the compliments passed by others. The appropriate response to such a compliment was to acknowledge it with a slight bow of the head, which von Igelfeld had, in fact, done when he had first read the glowing sentence.

  Now, in the mountains, he was able to use the tranquillity of the winding paths to think about how he would tackle the writing of a second edition and of what new material he would incorporate. And there were other things, too, that needed to be thought about: a paper to be delivered in Sweden in November at an important conference of Romance philologists – this would have to be written by the middle of October as it was to be included in the published proceedings of the conference. Then there were several books for review in the Zeitschrift – not an unduly onerous task, but one that would none the less require weeks of work. Yes, he thought, the monumentum aere perennius was still a work in progress.

  It was towards the end of the week that von Igelfeld set off for a morning stroll rather earlier than usual. He had risen shortly after six, having left his blind slightly open and thus allowed the morning sun to stream directly into his room. This had woken him up and taken him to the window to gaze out on a morning of quite exceptional beauty. Opening the window, he stuck his head out and breathed in the champagne-like air. It was quite exhilarating and it inspired him to have his walk before breakfast rather than afterwards.

  Dressed in his mountain-walking clothes – plus-twos, green knitted socks, a pair of stout climbing boots, and a waterproof jacket – von Igelfeld strode out of the lodge and on to a path that he had not taken before. This path was considerably steeper than most of those that ran from the lodge and was generally thought to be a little too ambitious for those unused to Alpine conditions. Von Igelfeld, however, felt that the week’s practice he had already had equipped him perfectly well for a short walk along this path. If conditions became too difficult he could always turn back; there was no danger.

  He walked for fifteen minutes or so. The path rose sharply and there were several points at which he was obliged to clamber rather than walk. It was good exercise, though, and he felt pleased that the level of fitness he had already achieved made it relatively easy for him to cope with the exertions involved. Unterholzer would never manage this, he thought, not without some satisfaction.

  Coming to a point where his path converged with another, von Igelfeld decided to take a rest. He sat down on a smooth rock and looked out across the valley below. Then, turning round, he peered up at the mountain behind him. It seemed impossibly high, and he felt dizzy just from looking up at the needle-like crags so high above him.

  He was disturbed by the sound of voices. ‘Here, I think
. Perhaps a five-minute break …’

  He looked round. A party of mountaineers – ten in number – had arrived by the other path and were looking about for places to sit down and rest. Their leader, a tall man dressed entirely in green, smiled at von Igelfeld and came over to greet him.

  ‘Ah,’ said the leader. ‘We were expecting you.’

  Von Igelfeld inclined his head and introduced himself. ‘Von Igelfeld,’ he said. ‘Regensburg.’

  ‘Of course,’ said the leader. ‘We know several members of your club. We climbed in Spain last year.’

  Von Igelfeld was puzzled. Club? He was about to enquire what club was being referred to when the leader asked him, ‘Are you happy to join us today? We’re going up there.’ He tossed his head in the direction of the towering mountainside above them.

  ‘Oh, I’m not sure,’ said von Igelfeld. ‘I’m not all that experienced.’

  The leader laughed. ‘You’re very modest,’ he said.

  ‘Perhaps,’ said von Igelfeld. ‘But I’d be happy to come part of the way.’

  The leader nodded. ‘That’s fine. You can come down again whenever you like. There are some fixed ropes on that face over there – I used them a few months ago. You’ll be all right with those.’

  Von Igelfeld looked in the direction in which the leader was pointing. The rock seemed almost vertical there, but he could turn back well before they reached that point. And it would be good to walk with these agreeable-sounding people, even if only for half an hour or so.

  They rested for a few minutes more before setting off again. They were roping together now, and a kind woman in a red jersey helped von Igelfeld to clip up. ‘I’m not surprised you find these clips difficult,’ she said. ‘Stefan introduced them. They’re a new design. Very tricky, but very safe.’

  ‘It’s best to be safe,’ said von Igelfeld. ‘There can be no doubt about that.’

  ‘Exactly,’ said the woman. ‘Ever since we lost Martin we’ve been ultra-careful.’

  ‘I’m sorry to hear about that,’ said von Igelfeld. ‘He had an accident?’

  The woman looked down at the ground. ‘He was a little bit foolhardy,’ she said. ‘I know that nobody likes to say that now – not after what happened – but the truth of the matter is that if he hadn’t climbed beyond his competence he’d be with us still.’

  Von Igelfeld absorbed this information as they began to make their way up the mountain. The path had all but disappeared and they were advancing across an alarmingly steep field of scree. Small rocks, dislodged by the boots of the climbers, rolled down the hill, gathering others as they did so. The noise made by these tiny landslides, although a danger to nobody, seemed ominously loud to von Igelfeld. He wondered whether that was the sound that a person would make if he were to fall. Was that the sound that poor Martin made when he tumbled? Or would a person fall more soundlessly, at least during the fall itself, until there came a dull thud at the end?

  He made a conscious effort to stop these morbid thoughts and instead to enjoy the fact that he was now engaged in what appeared to be real climbing, with real mountaineers. He would be able to report this to the students when he returned to the lodge. He would not be boastful, of course, but he would certainly mention that they had been roped together. That would definitely impress.

  After traversing the scree, the lead climbers turned and began to make their way up a steep face of rock. Von Igelfeld, roped to the woman in the red jersey who was directly in front of him, watched what she did and followed suit slavishly. It was not too difficult, he found, and he simply had to use the cracks in the rock that she used to place her hands and her feet. If this was mountaineering, then even if it was not exactly easy, it was not as difficult as it looked. The important thing, he decided, was not to look down. He had snatched the occasional glance earlier on, but had rapidly looked away; now, as they made their way up the face, he stared resolutely ahead.

  There were further faces, and each of them he negotiated successfully, following the lead of the woman in front of him. She proved to be a safe and methodical climber, and a good tutor too. ‘You’re doing very well,’ she encouraged him. ‘If you continue like this, then you’ll make the summit with no difficulty.’

  Von Igelfeld looked at his watch and frowned. They had been climbing for almost two hours now, and they were high above the point at which he had met the group. If he turned back now, how would he be able to get back by himself? He decided to ask his tutor.

  ‘Impossible,’ she said. ‘You couldn’t do it by yourself. Out of the question. You’ll have to continue.’

  Their progress was slower now, as there were points of real difficulty in that part of the ascent. At one stage he slipped, but did not lose his footing and was immediately caught by his climbing companion. They were now on ice, with large patches of snow on either side of them.

  ‘Be careful here,’ she said. ‘Ice can be so treacherous.’

  Von Igelfeld swallowed hard. ‘Treacherous,’ he muttered.

  ‘That’s what got poor Martin,’ said the woman.


  ‘Yes. Ice. Just like this.’

  Von Igelfeld laughed. ‘Ice holds no fears for me,’ he said. ‘I have dealt with ice on many occasions.’

  ‘You never know with ice …’ the woman began.

  ‘Courage,’ said von Igelfeld firmly. ‘Courage is what counts. If you have that, then a climb like this is nothing to worry about.’

  The woman looked doubtful. ‘Even the best—’ she said.

  ‘And determination,’ interjected von Igelfeld. ‘I’ve always said that the most important thing in mountaineering is attitude. If you have the right attitude, then you can deal with everything the mountain confronts you with.’

  The woman was silent.

  ‘So, I suggest we press on,’ said von Igelfeld. ‘I am enjoying this climb immensely and am confident that we shall reach the summit in no time at all. Attitude – as I have said – is what counts.’

  They reached the summit shortly after two in the afternoon. Von Igelfeld by that stage was utterly exhausted, but felt an immense surge of pride as he shook hands with his companions. He had climbed a high and important mountain; he had not just been for a mountain hike as all the others were doing; he had actually climbed. And it had not been difficult at all: one simply watched the person in front of one and did what that person did. One might even ascend Everest in this way; he had heard that there were guides who would take you up even if you were not particularly experienced. Perhaps he could do that next. This mountain, which he had been told by the woman in the red jersey was called the Devil’s Needles, could be the preparation for Everest itself, or perhaps that other one, K2, or whatever it was called. This could be K1, in the same way as Mozart’s first work must have been K1. He smiled. Did Köchel number mountains as well as symphonies? That was a splendid joke, and he was about to tell it to the woman in the red jersey when he slipped and fell, right at the edge of the flat landing that made up the summit.

  It happened very quickly. He sensed that his legs were going from under him – a sheet of ice, of course – and then he felt himself sliding. He heard shouts and he saw a blur of red. He slid and seemed to gather momentum; they had unroped at the top and there was nothing to stop him. He started to fall now, and suddenly was airborne, even if only briefly. He came down, landing on snow that felt much harder than it looked. He tumbled, head over heels now, and was airborne again. Beneath him, nothing, an abyss; trees flashed past, sky, flat expanses of rock, more snow.

  For von Igelfeld it was a curiously passive experience. This awful thing that was happening to him was, he realised, death. This was the end, and he felt curiously calm. It did not matter; there was nothing that could be done about it. And he thought: I failed to say thank you to the woman in the red jersey. She helped me so much and I did not thank her. But she will understand; I shall write her a letter and explain. No, I shall not be able to do that for I shall be dea
d. Well, my lawyer can write to her and say that Professor von Igelfeld would certainly have written to thank you for your kindness were it not for the fact of his untimely death. That was a consolation. And the second edition of Portuguese Irregular Verbs? The lawyer would contact the chairman of the Max-Planck Foundation and explain what had happened. He would understand too. Snow. More trees. He was travelling very fast now and there was a sharp pain in his side. This was most inconvenient. So very … He was airborne again, but the sky was dark and he could see nothing. Perhaps night had come. He saw a face. Herr Huber. And Herr Huber was looking at him in a way that presaged some remark about his aunt, but instead he said: You have been so kind to me.

  Von Igelfeld was found not by the Librarian but by a passing mountain guide who was escorting two visiting Japanese climbers. The guide’s heart gave a lurch when he saw the inert form spreadeagled in the snowdrift; he had witnessed a climbing accident a few months ago and the memory was still distressing; for it to happen to him again so soon was surely bad luck. But as he and his clients approached the snowdrift, there was a sudden movement and then, to their astonishment and relief, the figure stood up and began to dust himself down.

  It was obvious from the deep indentation in the snow that the fall had been from some height, but the guide was not prepared for the information that von Igelfeld, now quite conscious and suffering from no more than a bruised rib, proceeded to give him.

  ‘It was very challenging,’ he said. ‘I was at the top of the Devil’s Needles and I began a rapid descent. It was most uncomfortable, and potentially extremely dangerous for a less experienced person.’

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