Unusual uses for olive o.., p.13
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       Unusual Uses for Olive Oil, p.13

           Alexander McCall Smith
 
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  ‘Me? I do that?’

  ‘Of course you do.’ She paused. ‘You know, I didn’t tell you this when we were up in the mountains, but all my life – all thirty-whatever years of it – I’ve wanted to meet somebody just like you. A nice man. A good-looking, exciting man. Somebody who would make me feel … well, the way I feel when I’m with you.’

  The Librarian said nothing. He looked down at the pattern of the tablecloth. Was he really a good-looking, exciting man? Would she say such things if she did not mean them? He thought not.

  ‘You’re so kind,’ he said eventually. ‘And I have also been looking for much the same thing, mutatis mutandis, of course. Now Fate has brought you to me.’

  ‘And you to me.’

  ‘Exactly.’

  There was a silence.

  ‘Yes?’

  ‘Yes?’

  Laughter. ‘We must try not to speak at the same time,’ he admonished. ‘We must wait. I’m afraid that that is a lesson that Professor Dr Unterholzer needs to learn. He’s always interrupting me when I’m telling a story.’

  ‘Nasty man.’

  ‘Not really nasty – it’s just that he does not think very highly of me. Professor von Igelfeld is different, you know. He has always been good to me. He’s a good man, you know. Not everyone realises what a good man he is.’

  She nodded. ‘They know about Portuguese Irregular Verbs and they’re … they’re blinded by his eminence. They don’t ask themselves what sort of man lies behind the book. How kind and understanding he is.’

  They were well-expressed sentiments, and Herr Huber entirely agreed with them. He entirely agreed with everything that Aalina said, in fact. He cleared his throat. ‘Aalina?’

  ‘Yes?’

  ‘I hardly know how to put this, but I was wondering whether it might be an idea for us to get married. I was just wondering.’

  ‘That would be very nice. I would love it. Seriously love it.’

  The waiter appeared with their first course and they were both silent while the plates were placed on the tables. Then, when he had gone, Herr Huber took her hand again and said, ‘My aunt will be very pleased with this news. She has often said to me, you know, that I should get married. I remember her saying something to this effect only a couple of weeks ago, just before the reading party. One of the nurses in the nursing home had recently got married – to a man who came from Düsseldorf, I think. I believe the nurse was from Düsseldorf too, because of the way she spoke. You can always tell, you know …’

  Von Igelfeld travelled to Hamburg by train and was met at the railway station by the secretary of the businessmen’s association he was due to address. A room had been reserved for him at the Hotel Vier Jahrezeiten and he was taken there directly from the station.

  ‘It is our finest hotel, Herr Professor,’ said the secretary. ‘And they have the Association’s instructions to attend to any needs that you have. We shall have our dinner in one of their dining rooms. They have very fine chefs.’

  Von Igelfeld nodded.

  ‘And your talk, Herr Professor? How long will it take, do you think? This is just so that we can make arrangements for the dinner. And I must say the title is very intriguing. “Going Up and Coming Down”. Very intriguing.’

  ‘Thank you,’ said von Igelfeld. ‘Two hours. Perhaps slightly longer.’

  The secretary froze. ‘Two hours, did you say, Herr Professor?’

  ‘Yes,’ said von Igelfeld. ‘It will be in four parts, you see. Two will deal with going up, one with coming down, and one will consist of a summary and conclusions.’

  The secretary looked about him furtively. ‘Is that not perhaps a little long, Herr Professor? This is a dinner, you see, and …’

  ‘I do not think it at all long,’ said von Igelfeld. ‘It is very difficult to deal adequately with a topic in a shorter time, in my view.’

  ‘But most of our speakers in the past have confined themselves to about twenty minutes,’ said the secretary desperately. ‘After a dinner our members tend to feel … somewhat replete. They are quite prepared to listen to longer addresses during the day, but in the evening, well … they are human.’

  Von Igelfeld looked at the secretary with disapproval. ‘Are you suggesting that I cut my talk? Is that what you’re suggesting? That I should perhaps just talk about going up and say nothing of coming down?’

  The secretary looked miserable. ‘I shall have to discuss this with the committee,’ he said. ‘But I fear that its view will be the same as mine: two hours is a very long after-dinner talk, I fear.’

  They were standing in the hotel lobby. Von Igelfeld looked up at the ceiling in an attempt to master his irritation. ‘This is most vexing,’ he said. ‘It truly is. But the last thing I should like to do is to cause any ill-feeling. And therefore I shall speak for no more than one hour.’

  The secretary cleared his throat. ‘I would never wish to appear difficult,’ he said. ‘But we were thinking more in terms of … fifteen minutes. I am sure, Herr Professor, that you can be admirably concise. It’s a great art, don’t you think? Conciseness. In the days of telegrams people knew all about it. Now, with all this e-mail and what-not, people have lost all sense of economy when it comes to words, don’t you think?’

  Von Igelfeld stared at the secretary. He would not answer this question, he decided. One did not have to answer all the questions put to one in life, particularly ones so otiose as this was, posed by one who had just deliberately insulted him by suggesting that a carefully prepared speech be butchered. He remained tight-lipped: he would have no alternative but to teach these people a lesson.

  The dinner began with a reception in one of the hotel’s public rooms. Von Igelfeld, having been collected from his room by a nervous and now rather uncomfortable secretary, had been introduced to the chairman, Herr Lehmann-Wolf, and the five or six members of his committee. They had then taken him around to meet the members, of whom there seemed to be at least one hundred and fifty, all talking at the tops of their voices. He was warmly received.

  ‘We are very honoured indeed,’ said Herr Lehmann-Wolf. ‘We pride ourselves on getting the very best speakers. And you are certainly in that category, Herr von Igelfeld. And something of a celebrity, too, after your mountaineering achievements.’

  Von Igelfeld inclined his head. He was beginning to feel mollified, but he was still smarting at the discourtesy of having his prepared speech cut by such an amount. What could one say in fifteen minutes? Very little worth saying, in his view. But if that was the way they wanted it, then he would show them. They asked for brevity: they would get it.

  There was a great deal of champagne. White-jacketed waiters, unctuous in the way in which the staff of all great hotels are, appeared at the elbow of every guest to ensure that no glass remained unfilled for long. Von Igelfeld, who drank very little, sipped modestly at his glass and resisted attempts to refill it. Such restraint was not evident in the broader membership, who became rowdier and rowdier as the reception continued. By the time Herr Lehmann-Wolf announced that the company should go through for dinner, the volume of noise was such that von Igelfeld could barely hear anything that was said to him. Was this the way businessmen behaved at their associations? Imagine if this sort of thing happened at philological congresses, sedate affairs at which champagne had never been offered as far as von Igelfeld could recall.

  They sat down to dinner. The champagne was now replaced by white wine, which the same waiters, with the same persistence, poured into the members’ glasses. This seemed to increase the volume of conversational noise, augmented by the sound of knives and forks on china.

  ‘Our members rather enjoy these occasions,’ said Herr Lehmann-Wolf. ‘They perhaps rather let their hair down, you know. Hard work, I suppose, is often followed by hard play.’

  Von Igelfeld nodded. ‘Others work hard too,’ he said.

  Herr Lehmann-Wolf glanced at his guest with concern. ‘Of course, of course. I wasn’t suggesting …’
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  ‘They might work very hard on a speech, for example,’ went on von Igelfeld, ‘only to discover that it is to be truncated.’

  Herr Lehmann-Wolf did not hear this, as the remark coincided with his neighbour on the other side saying something about protective tariffs. ‘Of course,’ he said politely, to both. ‘How interesting.’

  The dinner continued. Over the dessert, an elaborate chocolate confection, Herr Lehmann-Wolf explained to von Igelfeld what his own firm did, which was to make guidance systems for small aircraft. Business was good, he said, as there seemed to be more and more small aircraft about.

  ‘They are very noisy,’ said von Igelfeld.

  Then came coffee. By this point the membership was in a thoroughly good mood, and there had even been a suggestion from one table that there should be a sing-song. This was politely rejected by the chairman, who tapped on his glass with a spoon to restore order and to introduce the evening’s speaker.

  ‘Our speaker this evening requires no introduction,’ he said. ‘Not only is he a distinguished mountaineer, but he is the author of a book in Portuguese. He is very well known in Regensburg, and places like that. He is, of course, Professor Moritz-Maria von Igel, and I now call upon him to speak to us.’

  This brought prolonged and enthusiastic applause, and even one or two hooting sounds from a table at the back of the room. Von Igelfeld stared down at the table. This was quite intolerable. A book in Portuguese! Places like that! And then, of course, the final insult: von Igel simpliciter. Professor Hedgehog. There was no excuse for such rudeness, even from a man whose name, when translated, meant Serf-Wolf. Hah! Not even a land-owning wolf, but a serf-wolf! He would show them.

  He stood up. ‘I am most grateful for this invitation,’ he said, ‘and for the opportunity to speak to such a distinguished group.’

  Distinguished by their noisiness, he thought. Hah!

  ‘I have been asked to be brief, and I believe that brevity is indeed a great virtue. The title of my talk is “Going Up and Coming Down”. Now what does this mean? That which goes up, can go down. That is the meaning we can extract from the title. That which is long can become short. That which is brief, can become even briefer. So be careful in your dealings. Remember that those of you who are up – or high, in your case this evening – can also go down. Don’t forget that. That is all I have to say.’

  He sat down, tight-lipped. He had taught them a lesson; it had to be done. But then, no sooner had he resumed his seat than a wave of sound, of wild applause, surging like the currents of an incoming tide, reached him. The members were delighted. They clapped and clapped. Then they started to rise to their feet to give him a standing ovation. There were cheers ringing in the air.

  ‘A very good speech indeed,’ said Herr Lehmann-Wolf. ‘As you can see, the members are quite delighted.’

  Von Igelfeld did not know what to say. The secretary, who came up from the end of the table to congratulate him, said, ‘I must say, Professor von Igelfeld, that you have charmed the membership with your speech tonight. You have very cleverly assessed our needs. So kind of you.’

  Von Igelfeld nodded graciously. His hand was being seized by members seated nearby and, as he rose to leave, a further round of applause broke out.

  ‘A triumph,’ shouted one of the members.

  ‘Brilliant,’ called out another.

  ‘They like you,’ said Herr Lehmann-Wolf, smiling broadly. ‘Ever thought of being a Hamburg businessman, alter Schwede?’

  Von Igelfeld was too shocked to say anything. Herr Lehmann-Wolf had addressed him as old Swede, a very familiar mode of address indeed, and quite uncalled for in this context.

  ‘No?’ said Herr Lehmann-Wolf in answer to his own question. ‘Oh, well …’

  Herr Huber looked at von Igelfeld from behind his desk in the Institute’s library. There was nobody else in the room, but the Librarian made it a rule to talk in a muted voice in the library, even if nobody else was there.

  ‘Hamburg,’ he whispered. ‘How did it go?’

  Von Igelfeld made a casual gesture with his hands. ‘You know how they are up there. Very good hosts. Nice people.’

  The Librarian nodded. ‘I knew a man from Hamburg,’ he said. ‘He was a librarian too. We studied together …’

  ‘Yes,’ said von Igelfeld. ‘Yes indeed.’

  ‘And Professor Zimmermann?’ asked the Librarian. ‘Did you see him?’

  Von Igelfeld shook his head. ‘He was away,’ he said. ‘But he left a note for me saying that we should meet soon. Those were his words: meet soon.’

  ‘Very satisfactory,’ said Herr Huber. ‘And they liked your talk? I knew they would. Will they invite you back, do you think?’

  Von Igelfeld smiled. Poor, unworldly Herr Huber; he clearly did not know that guest speakers were usually invited only once. ‘I don’t think so,’ he said. ‘They have different speakers each year, you see.’

  Herr Huber looked disappointed. ‘Oh, well. There will be many other invitations stemming from this one, when word gets out.’ He paused. ‘And in fact one has already come in. Have you looked in your in-tray yet?’

  Von Igelfeld had not. He was busy working on the final draft of a piece for the Zeitschrift and had found no time so far for correspondence.

  The Librarian explained. ‘Professor Unterholzer and Frau Professor Unterholzer have invited everybody for dinner – as they did last year. That’s you and Professor Prinzel and Frau Professor Prinzel and me and …’ He hesitated, smiling shyly.

  ‘Is there anybody else?’ asked von Igelfeld.

  ‘My fiancée,’ whispered Herr Huber. ‘She is invited as well. Specifically. By name. The future Frau Huber.’

  It took von Igelfeld a few moments to absorb what had been said. ‘Your fiancée, Herr Huber? You have a fiancée?’

  Herr Huber beamed with pleasure. ‘Yes,’ he whispered. ‘And you’ve met her …’

  Again a few moments were required for von Igelfeld to order his thoughts. Then the memory came back of the sight of Herr Huber walking in the mountains with that young woman whose name he could not quite recall; of the comment that she sought out the Librarian’s company. So that was it …

  ‘I must congratulate you, Herr Huber,’ he said. ‘I never thought it possible …’ He paused. No, he could not say what he was thinking. ‘That is, I never thought it possible that you would find somebody who met your high standards. I am delighted that you have.’

  Herr Huber accepted the compliment gravely. ‘I have been very lucky,’ he said.

  ‘And she has been lucky too!’ said von Igelfeld. ‘She has been lucky to get you!’

  ‘Do you really think so?’ asked the Librarian.

  Von Igelfeld wanted to say no, but could not. ‘Of course I do,’ he lied. ‘You will both be very happy.’

  ‘Well that’s very kind, Herr von Igelfeld. And you’ll all have the chance to get to know her better when we meet at Herr Unterholzer’s house next week.’

  Von Igelfeld looked down at his colleague’s left hand. Yes, the Librarian was wearing a ring – a large gold band on which, even at this distance, could be made out an incised pair of entwined hearts. He glanced down at his own, discreet signet ring with its tiny hedgehog motif, drawn from the crest of the von Igelfeld family. He could never wear a ring with entwined hearts, but somehow, now, it seemed less lonely, less demanding than a single figure of a hedgehog rampant.

  After his experience of arriving too early at the Prinzel house, von Igelfeld was careful to arrive somewhat later at the Unterholzers’. This meant he was last, everybody else having arrived at exactly the time stipulated by Frau Professor Unterholzer.

  ‘Ah, there you are, Herr von Igelfeld,’ said Unterholzer, adding, ‘at last.’

  Von Igelfeld looked at his watch. It was ten minutes after the appointed time.

  ‘I have always believed that it is polite to arrive a few minutes after the time on an invitation,’ he said. ‘This gives one’s hosts the oppor
tunity to make last-minute preparations.’

  ‘Not necessary in this household,’ said Unterholzer. ‘This meal has been ready since yesterday. And the table was laid two days before that.’

  They went into the sitting room where the other guests were already seated. Herr Huber sprang to his feet and introduced Aalina. ‘You’ve met my fiancée, of course,’ he said proudly.

  Von Igelfeld shook hands with Aalina and proceeded to greet Frau Unterholzer and the Prinzels.

  ‘What a happy gathering,’ said Prinzel. ‘And how opportune it is to be able to wish every happiness to our newly engaged friends.’

  ‘A very good development,’ said Unterholzer. ‘May you have many happy years together, Herr Huber and … and the future Frau Huber.’

  Von Igelfeld raised the glass that had been pressed into his hands by Frau Unterholzer. He thought, even as he drank the toast, how bleak was the prospect of many years with Herr Huber. Could such years really be happy? How many hours of sheer boredom lay before the unfortunate Aalina – hours of tedium stretching out like the great German plain itself. And yet women were funny about that sort of thing. So many of them appeared to be perfectly satisfied with the most unlikely men, failing to see their manifest drawbacks, failing to object to their monotonous conversation, their wretched hobbies: fishing, motor-sport, beer – that sort of thing. Not that Herr Huber was interested in those pursuits; he was more focused on nursing homes and the issue of where people came from and how long they had lived there. Poor woman! Did she know that, he wondered. Was she aware of what she was doing?

  ‘Herr Huber tells us that you had a very successful visit to Hamburg, Herr von Igelfeld,’ said Prinzel. ‘A standing ovation, no less!’

  Unterholzer’s eyes flashed. ‘Sometimes people are very keen to get out,’ he said. ‘That may look like a standing ovation, but it is just getting up to go. Not that this was the case with Herr von Igelfeld. I’m sure that his standing ovation was quite genuine.’

 
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