Unusual uses for olive o.., p.4
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       Unusual Uses for Olive Oil, p.4

           Alexander McCall Smith
 
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  ‘There is knowledge and knowledge,’ interjected Unterholzer. ‘You may think that you know something and then you discover that you didn’t really know it – not in the full sense. So …’ and here he glanced at von Igelfeld, ‘so unmarried people – those whom nobody has ever wanted to marry …’ and he looked at von Igelfeld again, ‘those people, with all due respect to them, may be ignorant of some of the more subtle implications of the married state. That is my view, for what it is worth.’

  Von Igelfeld bit his lip. It was quite intolerable to have to sit and be condescended to by Unterholzer, of all people. He knew that he should have maintained a dignified silence, but he just could not let this pass. ‘Many unmarried people are unmarried by choice,’ he said. ‘They are often rather more discerning people: people who are not afraid of their own company. Not always, of course – but often.’

  ‘I’m not sure about that, Herr von Igelfeld,’ Unterholzer replied. He was about to continue, but the Librarian had something to add.

  ‘My aunt never married,’ he said.

  It had been a very unsatisfactory conversation from von Igelfeld’s point of view. He could discount anything that the Librarian said, of course, as Herr Huber had very little knowledge of the world. He knew something about book classification and paper conservation, perhaps, and he appeared to have some arcane – and entirely useless – knowledge of the ins and outs of nursing homes, but when it came to any other topic, including marriage, he was not to be taken at all seriously. Unterholzer could also be ignored most of the time, even if it was important to listen to what he had to say if only to refute it. He was married, of course, but von Igelfeld was very doubtful as to whether his colleague had learned very much from that experience. So he, too, could be safely discounted. But then it came to Prinzel, and here was a fish of an entirely different stripe. Von Igelfeld admired Prinzel, and had done so since their student days, when he had accorded to Prinzel that devotion that the scholar-poet classically gives the hero-athlete. Prinzel knew about women, who had flocked to him even in their student days, and if anybody were going to influence von Igelfeld’s view of marriage, it would be Prinzel.

  It was significant, then, that Prinzel should have sauntered into von Igelfeld’s office later that day and taken up the theme of the coffee room conversation. ‘Interesting remarks were made this morning,’ he said, as he walked over to gaze out of von Igelfeld’s window. He often did this, and von Igelfeld tolerated it. Unterholzer, by contrast, was never allowed to look out of that window and was always sharply censured if he did so. ‘I do not mind your admiring my view, Herr Unterholzer,’ von Igelfeld had said. ‘But I would prefer you to ask permission before you do so. It is only common courtesy, I believe.’

  Unterholzer had snorted. ‘I did not think that a view is a private thing, Professor von Igelfeld,’ he had said. ‘Perhaps you will feel the need to correct me, but I must point out that the trees and hills at which I am looking do not belong to you. And if they do not belong to you, then I fail to see why I should ask your permission to contemplate them.’ He threw a challenging glance at von Igelfeld, before adding, ‘Or perhaps I’m missing something?’

  Von Igelfeld had been unable to answer this, and had been obliged to get up from his desk and draw the blind, so that Unterholzer could not continue to look at the view uninvited. ‘Forgive me, Herr Unterholzer,’ he said. ‘But I find the sunlight a little bit fierce, and, as I’m sure you will agree, it is disconcerting to be blinded by light when one is trying to get on with one’s work.’

  Prinzel, of course, needed no such direct reprimands. He could look at the view as much as he liked, as far as von Igelfeld was concerned. Indeed, he would happily provide him with a chair at the window so that he could enjoy the view in comfort, if that proved to be necessary.

  ‘Yes,’ mused Prinzel. ‘There is no doubt but that marriage is a fascinating subject.’ He paused. ‘Don’t you agree?’

  ‘Of course,’ said von Igelfeld. ‘I am aware of that. I am proposing to read a bit more about it. I believe that Montaigne has something to say on it.’

  Prinzel raised an eyebrow. ‘Montaigne was the sort who would have something to say on … the physical side of marriage. But that is not the issue. The real issue is the pleasure that marriage brings in the domestic sense. I cannot tell you how comfortable it is not to have to iron one’s shirts.’

  Von Igelfeld glanced at Prinzel’s shirt, which was beautifully neat and smooth, with razor-like creases down the sleeves. Then he looked down at his own shirt, which was so badly looked after by his Polish housekeeper, who was becoming distinctly slipshod in her attention to his clothes.

  ‘You would perhaps benefit from that sort of attention,’ said Prinzel.

  ‘Perhaps,’ said von Igelfeld.

  ‘And then there are the delights of the table,’ went on Prinzel. ‘Did I tell you what I had for dinner last night? No? Coquilles St Jacques, followed by a very fine piece of Swiss beef. How about that?’

  Von Igelfeld looked up at the ceiling. He had enjoyed a heated-up can of soup and a cellophane-wrapped sandwich that he had bought from a small shop round the corner. ‘Very tasty, no doubt,’ he said. ‘Of course, there is a restaurant nearby that does that sort of thing. I sometimes go there.’

  ‘But imagine having it in your own home,’ said Prinzel. ‘It always tastes so much better than in a restaurant. And restaurants are always full of rather lonely people, I find. It’s often very melancholy.’

  Von Igelfeld said nothing. Prinzel did not intend to offend, but it was clear that von Igelfeld was one of these lonely people who could be encountered in restaurants. He was not lonely, of course; he had the Zeitschrift to keep him company and there were always new articles to read, but it was also undeniably true that when he went to restaurants he usually sat by himself. In fact, he always sat by himself, apart from one occasion when somebody had been put at his table because of a lack of a place elsewhere. That had been an interesting experience, with von Igelfeld snatching the opportunity to glance at his fellow diner from time to time and speculating mentally as to where he came from and what he did. He was a respectable-looking man with a pleasant, prosperous air to him, and von Igelfeld would have rather enjoyed a conversation with him – had they been introduced to one another, which they had not.

  He looked at Prinzel; he would have to allay his friend’s concerns. ‘I am quite satisfied with my domestic arrangements, Herr Prinzel,’ he began. ‘You will have observed, I think, that I am not wasting away. I do not think, therefore, that you need concern yourself about whether I am getting enough to eat. But thank you, none the less, for your interest in this matter.’

  Prinzel continued to look out of the window. ‘Yes, Herr von Igelfeld, that is clear. You are not in imminent danger of starvation. Nobody is suggesting that. However …’ He paused, turning round to face von Igelfeld. ‘However, it is true, is it not, that you are not exactly overweight. In fact, you are thin. And it is also true that your clothes …’

  Von Igelfeld waited for Prinzel to continue. Prinzel, in his view, was in no position to criticise his clothes. He himself liked wearing a completely unsuitable fawn-coloured waistcoat that von Igelfeld had long wanted to discuss with him. Perhaps this would be his opportunity.

  ‘Yes, my clothes, Herr Prinzel? I am interested to hear about my clothes. It is always useful to get the advice of one whose own sartorial expertise is so clearly of such a high standard. Your waistcoat, for instance—’

  He did not have the chance to finish. ‘There is nothing wrong with your clothes,’ Prinzel continued hurriedly. ‘When other people attack them, I never hesitate to defend your wardrobe.’

  Von Igelfeld’s eyes narrowed. Why, he wondered, should others attack his clothes? It was not a comfortable discovery to make – to find out that there were people, unnamed people, who were in the habit of singling out one’s clothes for adverse comment.

  ‘Who are these people?’ he asked.

/>   Prinzel waved a hand towards the window, as if to take in the entire population of central and eastern Bavaria. ‘Oh, there are many of them. People of no consequence, no doubt. I cannot list them all at present; they are too numerous.’ He looked at von Igelfeld almost apologetically. ‘But it is not your clothes that I wish to discuss. That would be very rude. Nobody likes to hear their clothes described as fit only for a second-hand shop or for distribution to the less fortunate members of society. Nobody likes that sort of comment, do they? No, it is not your clothes I wish to talk about, it is rather a very direct question which my wife asked me to raise.’

  Von Igelfeld waited. He liked Ophelia Prinzel. He liked Prinzel, too, and it was only for this reason that he was putting up with this increasingly trying personal conversation. Had it been Unterholzer raising such issues, the outcome would certainly have been quite different. The niceties would have been observed, of course – they always were – but Unterholzer would have been left in no doubt at all about the inappropriateness of what was being said.

  ‘This question, Herr Prinzel: I am most interested to hear it. Has it anything to do, I wonder, with the work of the Institute?’

  Prinzel shook his head. ‘Oh, no, it has nothing to do with that.’

  ‘Well then?’

  Prinzel looked embarrassed. ‘It is not a question that I would normally ask of anybody. In my view, such matters are strictly private. But you know how women are.’

  Von Igelfeld nodded, which surprised Prinzel. He does not know that, he thought. He knows nothing about that subject, poor Moritz-Maria.

  ‘Of course you do,’ said Prinzel. ‘Well, my wife, Frau Prinzel—’

  ‘I am well aware of her name,’ interjected von Igelfeld. ‘I would not expect your wife to be called Frau Unterholzer, would I?’

  They both smiled at the joke, which went some way towards dissipating the tension that had grown up through this conversation.

  ‘Of course not,’ said Prinzel. ‘It would be very strange if I went round saying to people, “This is my wife, Frau Unterholzer.” That would be very strange indeed!’

  Von Igelfeld laughed. It was a very good joke, and he felt proud of having made it in the first place. Prinzel had a good sense of humour, he thought, but rarely managed to originate a comment as amusing as this.

  ‘Or indeed if I introduced her as Frau von Igelfeld!’ continued Prinzel.

  Von Igelfeld’s smile faded. ‘But there is no Frau von Igelfeld,’ he said. ‘I do not think, therefore, it would be at all amusing to make such a ridiculous mistake.’

  Prinzel agreed. ‘No, you are right. I was merely thinking of another example of the same thing.’

  ‘An impossible example,’ said von Igelfeld.

  Prinzel nodded. ‘Quite.’ He drew himself up. He was every bit as tall as von Igelfeld and his bearing was still almost as impressive as it had been when they were students in Heidelberg and he had cut a dashing figure in the Korps. ‘Quite,’ he repeated. ‘Now, this question that my wife suggested I should ask. It is quite a simple question, but please, do not feel under any compulsion to answer it. You are perfectly free to claim what our American cousins call the Fifth Amendment and to say nothing.’

  ‘I have no cousins in America,’ said von Igelfeld. ‘Do you, Herr Prinzel?’

  Prinzel shook his head. ‘Not as far as I am aware. It is a figure of speech.’

  ‘And a very misleading one,’ snapped von Igelfeld. ‘It could cause considerable confusion if people thought that there were all these cousins in America, when in reality there are not.’

  ‘Of course; of course. But this question … What my wife wished to know is whether she could possibly introduce you to a lady of her acquaintance. That is what she wanted to know.’

  Von Igelfeld frowned. ‘Why?’ he asked.

  Prinzel looked at his friend. He was not making it easy. ‘This lady has only recently come to Regensburg,’ he explained. ‘She is from Stuttgart, I believe, and she does not know many people here in Regensburg.’

  ‘Then why did she come?’ asked von Igelfeld. ‘If you are from Stuttgart, where you know many people, is it wise to come to Regensburg, where you know nobody?’

  ‘She was left a house here,’ said Prinzel. ‘Her cousin was a bachelor and she is his heir. He was the Graf Hauptdorf. Hauptdorf und Praxis, to give him his full title.’

  Von Igelfeld sat quite still. He had seen the Graf’s obituary in the newspapers, and had been reminded of a visit he had paid to the house itself, which was often open to the public. ‘The Schloss Dunkelberg? He left that to her?’

  Prinzel nodded. ‘It is a very fine house, as you know. And so she thought that it would be best to leave Stuttgart and come over here to look after the place. It has extensive grounds, as you are no doubt aware.’

  ‘They are very fine,’ said von Igelfeld. ‘And the house itself is of more than mere passing architectural interest.’ He paused. ‘How did Frau Prinzel meet this lady?’

  ‘They found themselves seated next to one another at a bridge class,’ said Prinzel. ‘It is a class for complete beginners that my wife has joined.’

  Von Igelfeld nodded. ‘Bridge is a very suitable game for ladies,’ he said. ‘One would not want one’s wife to be taking up some more dangerous sport – such as motor-racing, Herr Prinzel.’

  ‘There is no danger of that,’ said Prinzel. ‘My wife cannot drive, you see.’

  ‘Then she is unlikely to take up motor-racing,’ agreed von Igelfeld. ‘But to return to this lady – I would be perfectly happy to meet her, if Frau Prinzel would care to arrange an introduction. I will be able to show her round Regensburg, perhaps.’

  ‘That is precisely what my wife thought you might do,’ said Prinzel.

  Von Igelfeld hesitated. ‘And her husband too, if he would care to come.’

  Prinzel shook his head. ‘But there is no husband, Herr von Igelfeld. This unfortunate lady lost her husband at least ten years ago, I’m told. He was an industrialist. Herr Benz. The late Herr Friedrich-Martin Benz.’

  ‘Oh yes?’ said von Igelfeld. ‘And what did this Herr Benz make?’

  ‘I have no idea,’ said Prinzel.

  ‘They are very energetic people, these industrialists. They are always making something. I have never heard of the late Herr Benz, but no doubt he made many things.’

  Prinzel laughed. ‘He must have been very busy.’

  The conversation concluded at that. Prinzel said that they would give von Igelfeld several dates for a possible dinner and he could choose one that fitted with his social commitments. Von Igelfeld thought about this for a moment: he had no social commitments, as far as he knew, but it would not do to make Prinzel aware of that. ‘I’m sure that we shall find a suitable date,’ he said. ‘We might have to wait a few weeks, but we shall certainly find one.’

  ‘Good,’ said Prinzel. ‘And my wife will no doubt make us all a very tasty meal. Do you know, by the way, what we are having tonight? Venison stew. I have always liked venison, Herr von Igelfeld. Do you like it?’

  Von Igelfeld shrugged. He could not remember when he had last eaten venison. It had tasted good, though; he was sure of that. ‘Who doesn’t? But I find that one doesn’t want too much of it.’

  ‘Of course not.’

  Prinzel returned to his own office, leaving von Igelfeld to his thoughts. The Schloss Dunkelberg? Interesting. He had gone there with a small group from the local historical society and he had seen that it had a very interesting library. He had thought at the time: the people who own this place obviously never open any of these books – what a waste! Well, what if a place like the Schloss Dunkelberg were to come into the hands of somebody who really appreciated a library of that size and magnificence: what then?

  Nothing more was said of the matter over the next few days, and it might have resulted in nothing had it been left to Prinzel and von Igelfeld themselves. But Ophelia Prinzel, once enthused, was not one to lose interest in something quite
as entertaining as matchmaking. She had grave doubts as to the suitability of von Igelfeld for anybody, but she was aware that sheer demographic reality meant that there were many women, particularly those, like Frau Benz, in their late forties, who would never find a husband unless they were prepared to scrape the bottom of the barrel. As a result of this, many otherwise unmarriageable men came under scrutiny by women who would be none too fussy in their assessments. She had a close friend who had, in fact, recently settled for a man who had lost several limbs and an ear in a series of accidents. ‘He is admittedly not complete,’ the friend had said. ‘But when there are so few men available, what choice do we women have? Half a man is surely better than no man at all, would you not say?’ Although this argument might at first have appeared less than compelling, sober reflection revealed it to be a good one, and such reflection, Ophelia felt, might also boost the case for Moritz-Maria von Igelfeld. Granted that he was an impossibly dusty scholar; granted that he was completely set in his ways; granted that he had not the slightest idea of how women thought and behaved; in spite of all of that, he was none the less a man, and a tall and rather distinguished-looking one into the bargain. With a little attention to his clothing, he might pass muster as a very suitable escort for an outing to the opera or a trip on the Rhine. And the rest, surely, could be worked upon; for von Igelfeld could be considered a project, in the same way as one considered an old house or a dilapidated vintage car as a project.

  As for Frau Benz, Ophelia thought that there was very little wrong with her. She was a fairly large woman, it had to be admitted, but this gave her an undoubted presence. She was clearly generous, too, as she had on more than one occasion met Ophelia for coffee and cakes in the Café Florian and insisted on paying the bill.

  ‘Herr Benz left me very comfortably provided for,’ she said. ‘Dear man! He remarked once, “My own memory may fade when I am no longer here, but I shall do all I can to ensure that the memory of my money lingers on.” Coffee and cakes are well within the budget!’

 
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