Unusual uses for olive o.., p.5
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       Unusual Uses for Olive Oil, p.5

           Alexander McCall Smith
 
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  She had frequently spoken of her late husband, and his interests. ‘He was a very active man,’ she said. ‘He loved gardening, riding, flying, carpentry, painting … There were few things Herr Benz could not do.’

  ‘How useful,’ said Ophelia. ‘Such men are few and far between.’

  ‘Indeed. Do you know, we never needed to employ a workman to fix anything. My husband would roll up his sleeves and tackle any task that arose. He would not rest until whatever it was that needed to be fixed was fixed.’

  ‘There must have been many women,’ mused Ophelia, ‘who would have loved to marry Herr Benz. You were very fortunate.’

  This compliment was acknowledged with gratitude. ‘You would have liked Herr Benz, Frau Professor Prinzel. And I fear that I shall never find another man who is his equal.’

  ‘If one turned up, though,’ said Ophelia, ‘I take it that you would be pleased?’

  Frau Benz thought for a moment. Then she smiled coyly. ‘Such a man could be a delightful companion.’

  This exchange, and a number of others like it, planted the idea in Ophelia Prinzel’s head that were she to come across a suitable man, she should try to introduce that man to Frau Benz. And why not? There is a natural tendency on the part of those who are happily married to assume that those who are not should be similarly placed. And yet this tendency is usually confronted with a marked dearth of available men. In this case, a mental inventory of single men known to the Prinzels resulted in only two names: Herr Huber, the Librarian at the Institute, and Professor Dr Dr von Igelfeld. Herr Huber was impossible, of course, and could be completely ruled out in any circumstances, for any woman, no matter how desperate, and so attention shifted to von Igelfeld, who was also largely impossible, but perhaps not quite so much a lost cause as the unfortunate Herr Huber.

  The arrangement of the introduction proved easier than she had imagined. It transpired that neither von Igelfeld nor Frau Benz was occupied on a particular Friday evening two weeks hence. An invitation to dinner was extended, and accepted. Frau Benz, of course, was not told what the purpose of the evening was. ‘We are giving a very small dinner party,’ said Ophelia. ‘Our table, alas, is not large. There will be only two guests.’

  ‘A large table is no guarantee of a pleasant evening,’ said Frau Benz. ‘The most charming dinner parties I have been to have been very small affairs. Intime is best, I think.’

  Von Igelfeld was aware of the purpose of the evening, and felt a certain excitement in the prospect of meeting the new owner of the Schloss Dunkelberg. There was a large illustrated history of the house published by a local publisher, and he obtained a copy and made a point of reading it before the evening took place. It was a very badly written history, in his view, with a very small number of footnotes, but at least it would give him plenty to talk about with Frau Benz and he would be able to keep up with her should she mention – as he thought she well might – the extensions that were built in the late eighteenth century.

  He also took great care in the choosing of his clothes for the evening. Ophelia Prinzel had said that it would not be formal, but this did not mean, of course, that all formality would be thrown to the winds. Von Igelfeld was aware that there were those who did not wear a tie to dinner, having been shocked to see a picture in the newspaper of an important dinner in Berlin at which the male guests – or a considerable number of them – did not appear to be wearing ties. He had referred to this in the coffee room one morning and had been further shocked by the response of his colleagues.

  ‘Lots of people don’t wear ties any more,’ said Unterholzer. ‘It is thought to be more comfortable not to. And why not? Why should people make themselves uncomfortable?’

  Von Igelfeld had looked at him with icy disdain. ‘And shirts?’ he said. ‘Are they to be abandoned too? We would undoubtedly be more comfortable without having to bother with things like sleeves and collars, would we not?’

  It was an unanswerable objection, a devastating point, but Unterholzer had seemed unmoved. ‘That may be the way we’re going,’ he said. ‘Perhaps we shall eventually see through the need for clothing altogether – other than in the winter, of course. But in summer we can all be children of nature again.’

  The conversation had ended there. Von Igelfeld did not feel it wise to encourage Unterholzer in these anarchic, unsettling sentiments, lest his colleague be tempted to start divesting himself of his baggy and badly cut shirt there and then. Children of nature indeed!

  And now, standing before his wardrobe, he reached inside and took out his best blue-fleck suit, a suit that he had bought in Cologne fifteen years previously and used only very occasionally – for major family gatherings, such as the seventy-fifth birthday of his uncle, when the entire extant von Igelfeld family – all forty-three members of it, including the Austrian branch – had gathered in Munich for a celebration. The suit had been expensive, made from Scottish tweed, and beautifully tailored. It would be just right, he considered, for an evening such as this; Frau Benz, as the proprietrix of the Schloss Dunkelberg, would undoubtedly appreciate good cloth, and would realise that … well – and he blushed at having to think in these terms – she would realise that he was from the same circle as she was. That was delicately put, he thought. The landed gentry, to whom she belonged thanks to the inheritance of the Schloss Dunkelberg, did not like crude terms such as class – he blushed further; they made the easy assumption that people were either possible or impossible. It was not a judgement based on anything one could put one’s finger on, and it certainly had nothing to do with wealth. A poor man – a man without so much as a bean – could be perfectly possible, while a man of substance might be completely impossible. It was impossible to say how possibility – and impossibility – came about. Impossible. But von Igelfeld was in no doubt that he could not possibly be considered impossible.

  He dressed with care and made his way to the Prinzels’ house, arriving at the front door at exactly the time stipulated by Ophelia in her invitation. He knew there were people who arrived for dinner five or ten minutes late, claiming that this was not only fashionable but also considerate towards one’s host or hostess, however von Igelfeld did not subscribe to that view. If people wanted one to arrive at seven thirty-five, he thought, then they would invite one to do so. If they wanted you to arrive at seven thirty, then they would invite you for seven thirty. And the same applied to railways, he reflected. If the railway authorities wanted their trains to leave five minutes late, then they would specify that in the timetable. But they did not.

  Prinzel welcomed him at the front door. ‘You’re early,’ he said.

  Von Igelfeld pointedly looked at his watch. ‘I don’t believe I am,’ he said. ‘My watch is very accurate, and it says seven thirty precisely. And that I believe is the time for which your wife invited me.’

  ‘Oh, well,’ said Prinzel. ‘You’re not early, then – you’re prompt. Like Immanuel Kant. He used to go for his walks in Königsberg at the same time each day and the people of the town used to set their watches by him.’

  ‘That was very good,’ said von Igelfeld. ‘Things appear to have deteriorated since then. I imagine that there are very few philosophers today who keep regular hours.’

  Ophelia appeared in the hall. ‘You’re early, Moritz-Maria,’ she exclaimed.

  Von Igelfeld bowed politely. ‘I am not,’ he said. ‘But if you would prefer it, I can go away and then return again. Some other day perhaps.’

  ‘No, please don’t do that,’ said Prinzel. ‘Come into the salon while Ophelia finishes with her preparations. Our other guest is yet to arrive. I expect she’ll be here in about ten minutes or so.’

  ‘About then,’ said Ophelia. ‘That would be normal.’

  Prinzel led the way through a corridor to the salon. In this corridor, opposite a coat rack, was a long, ebony-framed mirror, hung on the wall. It was positioned in such a way as to allow one to adjust one’s clothing before setting out, and von Igelfeld could not r
esist giving his blue-fleck Scottish suit an admiring glance as he walked past. He froze. Out of the corner of his eye, he noticed that the back of his jacket had a hole in it, and through this hole could be seen not only the shirt he was wearing but also the braces that he was using to keep his trousers up. And worse than that – a quick, discreet movement to the jacket revealed that the seat of the trousers was similarly afflicted. Moths, he thought.

  ‘Everything all right?’ asked Prinzel from the end of the corridor.

  Von Igelfeld dragged himself away from the mirror and walked briskly down to where his host was standing. ‘Perfectly all right,’ he said, adding, to cover his dismay, ‘I must say, Herr Prinzel, that you have made a very fine home of this house.’

  Prinzel beamed with pleasure. ‘Ophelia has a very good eye for decoration,’ he said. ‘She tells me that when she was a little girl she used to spend many hours decorating and redecorating a large doll’s house that she had. Perhaps her ability stems from those days.’

  Von Igelfeld nodded. He was thinking of what he could possibly do to deal with the embarrassing holes that he had discovered. He wondered if he should simply confide in his hosts and ask Ophelia whether she had needle and thread to pull the gaping fabric together. But if he did that, he would have to remove his trousers and hand them over to her to carry out the emergency repairs. And what if Frau Benz arrived and discovered that the other guest had already removed his trousers? She would wonder, surely, what sort of dinner party she had been invited to and, as a respectable widow, would surely leave immediately; unless, of course, Ophelia drew her aside and explained to her the real reason for the removal of the trousers. But then she would think, no doubt, that it was very odd that a guest should come to a dinner party in such a state in the first place. She moved in circles, no doubt, where people did not have holes in their clothes, at least not in Germany; British gentry, of course, regarded it as entirely appropriate and indeed a mark of distinction to have shabby clothing, but then the British were very notably odd about this and most other matters.

  ‘You’ll have an aperitif, Herr von Igelfeld?’ Prinzel asked. ‘A vermouth perhaps? Or should I offer you a choice between French or German wine? Both are available.’

  ‘Then I shall have German,’ said von Igelfeld. ‘Rhenish, if you have it. The French need no encouragement.’

  ‘Indeed not,’ agreed Prinzel. ‘There are many people who need no encouragement, and the French are certainly among them.’

  Prinzel left the room to fetch the glasses, leaving his guest alone. Looking about him, von Igelfeld searched the room for a possible solution to the problem of the holes in his clothes. He could not expect to find a needle and thread – not in a salon – and anyway, if he did, he had no idea how to use them. Perhaps there would be some sort of paper clip that would do the trick; there was a writing bureau in one corner of the room and that would be an obvious place for such a thing. Moving quickly, he crossed the room, opened the top drawer of the bureau, and rifled through the contents. There were envelopes, letters, a stick of sealing wax – the typical paraphernalia of a writing bureau drawer. There were no paper clips.

  ‘Are you looking for anything in particular, Herr von Igelfeld?’

  Von Igelfeld froze. Then slowly he turned round to see Prinzel standing in the doorway, a glass of wine in each hand. His eyes were fixed on the open drawer.

  ‘I was looking for a piece of paper,’ said von Igelfeld, slamming the drawer shut as he spoke.

  It was clear that Prinzel did not believe him. ‘But why would you need paper, Herr von Igelfeld? Were you thinking of beginning an article for the Zeitschrift perhaps?’

  Von Igelfeld laughed nervously. ‘That would be very unusual!’ he joked. ‘One does not normally write an article at a social occasion!’

  ‘Exactly,’ said Prinzel. ‘So why would one need paper?’

  ‘I wanted to make a few notes,’ said von Igelfeld. He tried to sound careless, as if taking notes in such circumstances was a matter of the slightest consequence.

  Prinzel approached him with his glass of wine. ‘On what?’ he asked.

  ‘A few lines occurred to me,’ said von Igelfeld. ‘One does not want to let these things escape. Pascal must have had a similar approach with his Pensées, don’t you think? He must have jotted down the pensées as they occurred to him, otherwise he would have forgotten.’

  Prinzel passed von Igelfeld his glass. ‘Very commendable,’ he said. ‘So please allow me to find you some paper myself. It’s easier, I think, for me to do it, as I know my way around my own bureau. And I would not want to put you to the trouble of searching through my private papers.’

  Von Igelfeld felt himself blushing. ‘I would never wish to read anything private,’ he said. ‘I hope that you didn’t imagine that I …’

  ‘Of course not,’ said Prinzel. ‘Look, here’s a piece of paper. Please note down your thoughts before our other guest arrives.’

  With a certain stiffness, von Igelfeld took the piece of paper that Prinzel offered him.

  ‘And here’s something to write with,’ added Prinzel, passing a silver propelling pencil to his guest. ‘Please go ahead. We can resume our conversation when you have finished … unless you’re planning to write a whole chapter of notes, that is.’

  ‘A few lines,’ said von Igelfeld, scribbling casually on the piece of paper. ‘There, that I think will suffice. I find that so many useful thoughts can be lost if one doesn’t jot them down almost immediately.’

  ‘Or if one is interrupted,’ said Prinzel. ‘Was there not an English poet who was composing an important poem when somebody knocked on the door? Did he not lose his train of thought?’

  Von Igelfeld nodded. ‘I believe that was Coleridge. I cannot imagine that the poem was of much value, of course – it would have been a different matter if somebody had knocked on Goethe’s door. Then the world would truly have lost something.’

  Prinzel agreed with this sentiment. ‘Indeed, and now is that not the door bell? How fortunate that it should ring only after you have finished writing down your thoughts.’

  Von Igelfeld smiled weakly. ‘Indeed. Very fortunate, and fortuitous.’

  Left alone for a moment while Prinzel went to join his wife in greeting Frau Benz, von Igelfeld folded the piece of paper and put it in his jacket pocket. Then, after nervously touching the hole in his trousers – it was not all that large, he decided – he chose a position near the fireplace where he could greet Frau Benz without sartorial compromise. It was a good place to stand because if invited to sit, he would be able to walk sideways to a nearby chair and lower himself on to it without displaying either of the holes.

  A few minutes later, the new guest was ushered into the salon. Introductions were made, and von Igelfeld bowed formally to Frau Benz.

  ‘I am most delighted to meet you, Herr von Igelfeld,’ she said. ‘I have heard so much about you from so many people.’

  Von Igelfeld smiled. It was no great surprise, of course, that people should know about him; after all, he was the author of Portuguese Irregular Verbs, the definitive treatment of the subject. ‘Ah!’ he said. ‘You have read my book, perhaps.’

  Frau Benz looked blank. ‘What book?’

  Prinzel came to the rescue. ‘Professor Dr Dr von Igelfeld has written a very important book, Frau Benz. It is called Portuguese Irregular Verbs.’

  Frau Benz looked interested. ‘Ah yes, I have seen that in the airport.’

  ‘I do not think so,’ said von Igelfeld.

  ‘But I have, Herr von Igelfeld,’ protested Frau Benz. ‘They have all those language books for people going off on holiday to places like Portugal. Your book is among them … I’m sure.’

  Prinzel laughed politely. ‘Frau Benz is having her little joke,’ he said. ‘They would never sell Professor von Igelfeld’s book at an airport, I’m afraid. It is not what you would call a bestseller.’

  Von Igelfeld frowned. ‘There are many libraries that bough
t it,’ he said defensively.

  ‘But Florianus is right,’ interjected Ophelia Prinzel. ‘Nobody buys your book, Moritz-Maria. That is not to say that they should not buy it. It’s just that they don’t.’

  Frau Benz now made another contribution. ‘There are many good books – very fine books, indeed – that are read by nobody at all. Perhaps Herr von Igelfeld’s book is one of those. They can be very important books, but they are none the less completely ignored. It is undoubtedly very unfair.’

  ‘But many people—’ von Igelfeld began, only to be interrupted by Prinzel, who reached for a bottle on the table beside him and offered to refresh everybody’s glass.

  ‘Let us not worry about books, and who’s reading them, or not, as the case may be. I, for one, have read Professor von Igelfeld’s book and greatly enjoyed it.’

  ‘And I shall read it too,’ added Frau Benz, enthusiastically. ‘When I next go to Portugal, I shall read it before I get on the plane and I’m sure that I shall speak perfect Portuguese by the time we arrive.’

  ‘You would only be able to say things that required irregular verbs,’ said Ophelia. ‘And that might be difficult. One cannot claim to be really fluent in a language if one knows only the irregular verbs.’

  The conversation moved on. Von Igelfeld gave Ophelia Prinzel a couple of reproachful looks for her unwarranted remarks on his book, but she did not appear to notice. It was all very well for her to talk about small sales, he thought, but what book had she ever written? And even to sell one or two copies was better than selling no copies at all – of a non-existent book. Hah! He would tell her that later, if the opportunity arose and the conversation returned to Portuguese Irregular Verbs.

  He threw a glance at Frau Benz. She was a large woman, with what his mother had always described as a generous front. She was not tall, and indeed it crossed his mind that close measurement might reveal that she was as wide as she was high – perfectly square, in fact. Her hair, which was blonde, although a curiously faded shade of blonde, had been subjected to waving, and gave her a slightly sporting look, as if she might have spent some time gazing out to sea from the deck of a ship. Her eyes, which seemed somewhat small for her face, were none the less bright – interested eyes, thought von Igelfeld.

 
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