Unusual uses for olive o.., p.7
Unusual Uses for Olive Oil, p.7Alexander McCall Smith
Then there were the words very casual to be considered. Did this mean that he was not expected to wear a tie? Or even a jacket? And if one did not wear a jacket, then should one roll one’s sleeves up – a very plebeian practice, von Igelfeld had always felt – or perhaps wear a shirt that had short sleeves. He asked Prinzel, who said, ‘Very casual means what it says. Certainly no tie. And yes, sleeves should be short, if the weather permits, which it looks as if it will.’
Von Igelfeld absorbed this advice. He did not think that he had any short-sleeved shirts, but it occurred to him that it would be a simple matter to cut the sleeves off a long-sleeved shirt. And the same could apply, he believed, if he was expected to wear short trousers, which again he did not possess: a quick snip of scissors to the legs of a pair of long trousers would quickly transform an unsuitable garment into a suitable one.
‘Should I wear short trousers?’ he asked Prinzel. ‘Is that very casual?’
Prinzel thought for a moment. He had never seen von Igelfeld’s legs, but he assumed that he had them, like everybody else. He smiled to himself as he pictured von Igelfeld in short trousers and a short-sleeved shirt. He would look very casual indeed.
‘If the weather permits it,’ he said. ‘Yes, if conditions are right there would be nothing wrong in wearing short trousers to a very casual occasion. Indeed, the rule today, Herr von Igelfeld, is simple. Anything goes. That is the rule, I believe.’
‘Schloss Dunkelberg, please,’ said von Igelfeld to the taxi driver.
The driver looked at him in his rear-view mirror. ‘Not possible,’ he said.
Von Igelfeld stared at the back of the man’s head. Was there something wrong with his car? ‘Why?’ he asked. ‘I believe this is a taxi, and you are a taxi driver, if I’m not mistaken.’
He rather surprised himself with his boldness, and even as he spoke he wondered whether the mistake was possibly his. A few years ago there had been an embarrassing incident in Munich when he had opened the door of a taxi, climbed in, and given his destination to the driver – only to discover that what he thought was a taxi was not one at all, but was the official car of the Land’s chief prosecutor. The prosecutor himself had arrived a few moments later, while his driver was still explaining to von Igelfeld that the car was not a taxi. It had been a deeply embarrassing incident, and von Igelfeld still remembered the looks of condescending amusement he had been given by both driver and prosecutor. It was their fault, of course: the car looked very much like a taxi, and they could hardly complain if innocent members of the public mistook it for one.
Now, as von Igelfeld glared at the back of his head, the driver turned round. ‘Yes, this is a taxi,’ he said. ‘And I’m very happy to take you to your destination. But it cannot be the Schloss Dunkelberg, I’m afraid. This is Sunday, as you may have noticed, and the Schloss is never open on Sundays. That is why I said it was not possible, because it isn’t. See?’
Von Igelfeld found the man’s manner somewhat irritating. ‘I know it’s Sunday,’ he said. ‘And of course I know that the Schloss is not open to the public on Sundays. I, however, am not a member of the public.’
He said this with a flourish. There! That would put this man in his place.
The driver stared at him. ‘You look like one to me,’ he said.
‘I look like what?’
‘Like a member of the public. We’re all members of the public, see. You, me, even the Chancellor. The Pope too, for that matter.’
Von Igelfeld pursed his lips. This was intolerable; one should be able to get into a taxi without becoming involved in a discussion of political and social philosophy.
‘Family,’ he said triumphantly. He did not think before he spoke, and it was perhaps not the best way of describing his role as a guest. But there was something so irritating about the driver that he felt he needed to convey very forcefully his special status in this visit. He was not quite family, of course, but he and Frau Benz had got on very well and there was every chance that in the fullness of time they might progress to first name terms.
‘Ah!’ said the driver. ‘Why didn’t you say so right at the beginning? I thought you were just an ordinary visitor, and I was trying to save you a wasted trip.’
‘Well, there you are,’ said von Igelfeld, sinking back into his seat. ‘That is all settled.’
‘Which entrance?’ asked the driver.
Von Igelfeld thought quickly. He had previously entered the precincts of the Schloss by coach – with the Regensburg Local History Society party – and he had not paid much attention to entrances. Having claimed to be family, though, he could hardly confess ignorance as to how one got into the Schloss. ‘The usual,’ he said.
The driver nodded. ‘All right. I know the private drive well. I do a lot of driving for them, you know. Their own driver goes off on holiday from time to time and I step in for him. I know them all.’
He was looking in his mirror as he spoke, and he probably did not notice von Igelfeld’s sudden stiffening.
‘Oh yes,’ said von Igelfeld. ‘That is very good.’ He paused for a few moments. ‘Yes, very good.’
‘I sometimes take Frau Benz shopping,’ the driver continued. ‘Is she your sister? She sometimes spoke of a brother in Frankfurt. That you?’
Von Igelfeld shook his head. ‘No, that is not me.’
‘What was his name?’ asked the taxi driver. ‘He was a Graf too, wasn’t he?’
Von Igelfeld nodded, and looked out of the window. ‘It has been very dry,’ he observed. ‘I hope it rains. The farmers will need it.’
The taxi driver shook his head. ‘No, they won’t. They’ve had enough. They think it’s been very wet.’
‘I see,’ said von Igelfeld. ‘Then I hope that it doesn’t rain. I really hope so.’
‘So are you a cousin, then?’ asked the driver. ‘Are you on Frau Benz’s side or the other one?’
‘It’s very complicated,’ said von Igelfeld. ‘It is a very large family, and some of the members do not know one another, and have never met. That sometimes happens in very large, very formal families.’
‘I see,’ said the driver. ‘Actually, I’d heard that. It’s odd, though, isn’t it? It’s odd that members of the same family have never been introduced to one another.’
‘That is the way it is in some circles,’ said von Igelfeld. ‘That is the way it’s done.’ He paused, before saying with a finality that he hoped would bring the conversation to an end, ‘And it’s not for us to question these things.’
The driver took the hint, and the rest of the trip was passed in silence. Sitting in the back of the car, von Igelfeld allowed himself to reflect on what would happen when he was the master of the Schloss Dunkelberg. He and Frau Benz – Frau von Igelfeld by then, of course – would entertain frequently – and handsomely. They would have a string quartet on call, to play in the north drawing room, and they would dine in the state dining room. He was not sure if there was a state dining room, but if there was not, there shortly would be one. It would be a very impressive room, with pictures of early von Igelfelds lining the walls, interspersed with Flemish tapestry scenes of hunting dogs and the like. And if there were no pictures of early von Igelfelds, that could always be remedied by engaging a suitable portrait painter to imagine what they might have looked like.
The library, of course, would be his redoubt. He would spend the mornings there, perhaps taking coffee on the terrace with Frau von Igelfeld at eleven o’clock. Then he would return to his desk, where he would work on his learned papers, a library table on either side piled high with leather-bound tomes. How agreeable that would be! And he might even do a bit of hunting in the woods surrounding the Schloss, inviting friends from Regensburg to join him – even Herr Huber! That would be highly entertaining: poor Herr Huber dressed in some absurd, ill-fitting set of lederhosen, with one of those odd hunting hats perched on his head! What a priceless image! And he would invite the Unterholzers too – and give them directions to enter by
And there would be possibilities for the summer, too, when the Schloss was open to the public. Von Igelfeld would be magnanimous in this respect, and would increase the number of open rooms, allowing visitors to get a glimpse of his study and perhaps even to see him working there. He would get up from his chair and welcome them personally, giving rise to breathless praise afterwards. ‘And did you see how courteous the Graf was when we entered his study? Did you see how he allowed us to touch the leather bindings of those beautiful books? Such a kind man! Of course real aristocrats are like that, aren’t they? They’re not at all standoffish – it’s the jumped-up arrivistes who come over all pompous. Real breeding always shows, you know …’
When they arrived at the Schloss, having swept up the private driveway that circled the elegantly laid out gardens, von Igelfeld paid the driver and they bade each other farewell with the polite reserve of a none-too-successful brief encounter. Von Igelfeld found himself faced by a large doorway that was surmounted by a stone coat of arms. He peered up at the arms – there was an owl, he thought, which was always reassuring. Owls, as symbols of wisdom, were a wiser choice for heraldic purposes than the more usual eagles or other birds of prey. Germany, of course, had an eagle as its symbol, which was not a particularly good idea, in von Igelfeld’s view. A smaller, less aggressive bird might be more appropriate: a sparrow, perhaps, or a robin, neither of which seemed to feature very prominently in heraldry.
There was a bell pull, which he pulled with a sharp tug. It would take a long time, he thought, for a bell to sound in the depths of this great building, and an even longer time, he imagined, before anybody would come to the door. But there was no great delay, and within a very short time he heard a key being turned in the lock and the door opened before him. A small, grey-haired woman greeted him politely.
‘Professor von Igelfeld?’
Von Igelfeld bowed. ‘Yes. I believe that Frau Benz …’
‘Oh, Frau Benz is certainly expecting you. She is very pleased about your visit. It is a great honour.’
Von Igelfeld beamed. The modern world was increasingly casual, and ill-mannered. People took others for granted and paid little attention to status. He did not consider himself immodest – far from it – but he was the author of Portuguese Irregular Verbs, and he was a respected professor of the University of Regensburg, and he did hold several honorary degrees, even if one was only from Belgium and another from an Italian university that had since closed down.
‘The honour,’ he said, ‘is entirely mine.’
The woman smiled as she led him into an entrance hall. It was a room on a comfortable scale, with hunting prints adorning the walls, and a large rack for coats and hats. The only thing singling it out as a room in a Schloss rather than a mere country house was the height of the ceiling, and the elaborate plasterwork cornice that bounded it. And perhaps the carpets too, which were those faded Persian rugs of indeterminate blue that von Igelfeld remembered from boyhood visits to his grandfather’s house; the von Igelfelds did not live on quite this scale, but they need never apologise for the quality of their rugs.
The woman – a housekeeper, von Igelfeld presumed – led him through the hall and into a large drawing room. There, at the other end of the room, was Frau Benz herself, putting the finishing touches to a flower arrangement on a table in the window. She greeted him warmly, beckoning him across the room to admire the floral display.
‘Every one of these flowers is from our own gardens, dear Professor von Igelfeld,’ she said. ‘My gardener has such a marvellous touch with flowers. He is perhaps less accomplished when it comes to vegetables – his heart, you see, is not in it; some gardeners are like that. But flowers are a different matter.’ She paused. ‘Is your own gardener good with flowers?’
Von Igelfeld shook his head. ‘He is not,’ he said.
He did not know why he said this. We sometimes speak without thinking, without meaning to mislead, and this was one such case. He should have admitted that he had no gardener – it is not a difficult thing to say: I have no gardener is not a statement of which anybody should have reason to feel ashamed. But he did not say this, and instead he heard himself say He is not.
‘Then you should send him to my Herr Gunter,’ said Frau Benz. ‘He could spend a day with Herr Gunter and Herr Gunter would tell your Herr … What is your gardener’s name?’
Von Igelfeld looked out of the window.
‘Herr von Igelfeld? What is your gardener’s name?’
‘Herr … Herr Unterholzer.’
‘Well then, you send your Herr Unterholzer to spend a day with Herr Gunter and he will come back to you knowing everything there is to know about flowers! What do you think of that idea?’
Von Igelfeld laughed nervously. ‘A very good idea! I am sure that they would get on very well.’
Frau Benz now drew him gently towards the door. ‘I know that you are interested in ceilings,’ she said. ‘So let’s go and look at the ceiling I mentioned to you. The ceiling that depicts the entry of my dear husband into heaven.’
As they walked along a corridor that led off the drawing room, Frau Benz gave a further explanation of the ceiling. ‘The concept, I must confess, is not original,’ she said. ‘Rubens painted a very similar scene, you know, in London. The Banqueting Hall in Whitehall has a ceiling depicting the apotheosis of King James I of England and VI of Scotland. It is a very fine painting which I have myself inspected on a trip to London.’
‘It is better to see these things in person,’ said von Igelfeld.
Frau Benz was in strong agreement with this. ‘Exactly,’ she said. ‘There is nothing to equal the direct experience of being in the presence of great art. One can look at a photograph of a great painting and be moved, but one is never moved to the same extent as one is when one stands in front of the real thing. That is quite different.
‘It was when I was in London, standing directly underneath Rubens’ painting, that the idea occurred to me of portraying my dear late husband in a similar situation. That was the moment of insight; that was the moment at which I knew it was the right thing to do.’
‘And it undoubtedly is,’ said von Igelfeld.
She stopped when he said this and placed a hand gently on his forearm. ‘Thank you, dear Professor von Igelfeld. You clearly understand about these things.’
‘He was a great man,’ said von Igelfeld. Again he had no idea why he should say such a thing; he had never met the late Herr Benz and knew nothing about him, other than that he was a manufacturer of some sort. But it seemed to him that to describe him in this way was the right thing to do, at least from the point of view of providing comfort to Frau Benz. She clearly missed her husband keenly, and to hear one whom one misses described as a great man must be a consolation, even if the tribute comes from one who might not have known much about the person so described, or might not have known anything about him, for that matter.
Frau Benz appeared to consider von Igelfeld’s remark for a moment. First looking down at the floor, she raised her eyes slowly, and he saw her gratitude. ‘He was,’ she said quietly. ‘None greater than he. Not one.’
‘No,’ said von Igelfeld. ‘That is surely true.’
They were nearing the end of the corridor. A door led off to the right, and Frau Benz now pushed this open gently, with the air of one anxious not to disturb unduly what lay beyond. Momentarily awed, as if entering a newly decorated Sistine Chapel, von Igelfeld peered into the room beyond the door. The shutters were partly closed, which made the room dim, but there was enough light to make out the shape of a tower, of the sort used by painters and decorators, with a ladder strapped against its side.
Abandoning her guest for the moment, Frau Benz moved purposefully across the room and opened the shutters. In the flood of light that resulted, a long dining room was revealed, with walls covered with elaborate chinois
‘There it is,’ said Frau Benz in hushed tones. ‘Herr Benz being admitted to the heavenly realms – just as I imagine it took place in real life.’
Von Igelfeld stared at the picture. It was undoubtedly skilfully executed, in colours and tones reminiscent of the French Baroque. There was God himself, taking something of a back seat in proceedings, but emitting a divine glow that very satisfactorily illuminated the ranks of those angels hovering closest to him; and there were some of the figures from Germany’s past: Goethe, still wearing his earthly clothes, von Igelfeld noted, and flourishing the very pen that must have written The Sorrows of the Young Werther, and Wagner too, flanked in his case by Rhine maidens. These buxom young women were pictured as beaming with relief; a relief that stemmed, von Igelfeld imagined, from having been translated from the murky realms of early German myth into these more luminescent, less riverine surroundings.
And finally, there was Herr Benz himself. He was unmistakable, being dressed in modern clothes – presumably the suit that he wore on his daily trip to his factories. Because of the angle from which he was viewed – an apotheosis being inevitably seen from below – it was possible to make out the soles of his shoes and the wine-red socks he was wearing. These details, von Igelfeld noted, were very finely caught by the painter, and he said as much to Frau Benz.
‘Ah yes,’ she said. ‘His red socks. They were so important to him.’
They spent a few more minutes in the dining room before Frau Benz suggested that they move elsewhere. ‘One cannot look at ceilings for too long,’ she said. ‘One’s neck will not allow it.’
Unusual Uses for Olive Oil by Alexander McCall Smith / Humor have rating 3.6 out of 5 / Based on25 votes