Unusual uses for olive o.., p.8
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       Unusual Uses for Olive Oil, p.8

           Alexander McCall Smith
 
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  ‘Michelangelo must have had such a crick in his neck,’ said von Igelfeld.

  This witty observation was very well received by Frau Benz, who laughed appreciatively. ‘I never thought of that,’ she said.

  Von Igelfeld felt almost light-headed as he tossed out the next remark. ‘Well, I imagine that he did.’

  Again, the witticism made Frau Benz laugh. And this, thought von Igelfeld, was beyond any doubt a good thing: it did not do, he felt, to contemplate deceased husbands excessively. Once they had been safely admitted to heaven, as Herr Benz clearly was, then one should perhaps consider moving on. There was very little mischief that one could get up to in heaven, particularly with Goethe and Wagner, not to say God, looking on, and so Frau Benz might well leave him there, so to speak, and concentrate on more earthly matters. He could not say this, of course – he realised that – but at least he could bring her out of herself with light-hearted conversation of the sort that he had now so spontaneously embarked upon. No, it was going very well, he thought, and for a moment he imagined himself as the next male occupant of this charming Schloss, receiving some in one of the elegant drawing rooms, showing others the formal gardens with their playful fountains and elegant paths, so crunchy underfoot with their well-raked gravel. And at his side, supportive and admiring, would be Frau Benz herself, now – dare he entertain the delicious thought? – now Frau Professor Dr Dr (honoris causa) (mult.) von Igelfeld!

  There was, of course, the question of whether a wife should restrict herself to being Frau Professor or whether she should include her husband’s doctorates: opinion was divided on the matter, and there had been sharp exchanges in the German academic press. Von Igelfeld found himself uncertain, as he could see that each side of the dispute had something to be said for it. It could certainly be argued that to attribute doctorates to a person who did not have them was frankly misleading. Yet was this form actually doing that? If one thought about it carefully, to call a wife Frau Professor Dr was not actually suggesting that she had a doctorate; it was effectively denoting that she was the wife of a professor who himself had a doctorate. In that sense, there was no intention to deceive, and indeed no possible deception unless one were careless in one’s interpretation of what was said. Of course some people were careless, and could misunderstand matters, and that was a powerful argument for holding that it was safer not to include the doctorate and refer simply to Frau Professor.

  But then there was a further issue. What was the position if the wife of a professor had a doctorate in her own right? If one used the form Frau Professor Dr then there was a grave danger that people would think that the doctorate pertained to her husband and not to her. This situation could not be remedied by the simple inclusion of a further doctorate, as Frau Professor Dr Dr would surely normally be read as implying that her husband had, as was often the case, two doctorates. What, then?

  Of course there were even more appalling complications. What if a woman who was herself a professor, and the possessor of two doctorates, were to marry another professor, who had only one doctorate? Von Igelfeld knew of no such case, but the fact that something had not yet occurred was no guarantee that it would not. If it did, then perhaps the only solution would be to call such a person Professor Dr Dr Frau Professor Dr. It was cumbersome, yes, but the fact that a term of address was cumbersome did not mean that one should shy away from it: exactitude, von Igelfeld had always maintained, was far more important than mere linguistic convenience.

  He had put such thoughts behind him by the time they sat down for lunch on the west terrace. They were served by Ernst, a young manservant in a white linen jacket and black bow-tie. He brought them a consommé, followed by a concoction of fluffed white of eggs over which truffle-impregnated oil had been dribbled.

  ‘A light lunch is always best,’ said Frau Benz.

  ‘Yes,’ agreed von Igelfeld. ‘The best sort of lunch is the lunch one sees photographs of these astronauts eating. It’s so light it floats around the cabin.’

  Frau Benz thought this very amusing, and complimented von Igelfeld on his wit. ‘It must be wonderful to be able to make such funny remarks,’ she said. ‘What a great talent you have, Professor von Igelfeld. How you must make your colleagues laugh!’

  Across von Igelfeld’s mind there flashed a picture of morning coffee at the Institute, with Herr Huber going on about his aunt and the nursing home and Unterholzer rehearsing some grudge or other. It was not quite as Frau Benz imagined it; but then he felt different here, in her company: more vital, more appreciated, more capable of making diverting conversation.

  ‘Oh, it’s nothing, really,’ he said modestly, but then added, ‘Sometimes these things do slip out.’

  ‘As they do from those writers of aphorisms,’ said Frau Benz, dipping her fork into the egg. ‘I assume they wake up each morning and wonder what aphorism will occur that day. I imagine that Friedrich von Schlegel’s days began that way.’

  ‘Or Marcus Aurelius and his Meditations,’ said von Igelfeld. ‘He presumably halted his campaigning in those melancholy fens if he felt a meditation coming on.’

  Frau Benz rocked with laughter. ‘Marcus Aurelius …’ she giggled. ‘A meditation’s coming on …’

  Von Igelfeld basked in the appreciative laughter. He looked out over the edge of the terrace. The ground sloped sharply away from the Schloss, and down below, so far below as to be a world in miniature, was a tablecloth of ripe fields: golden hay, wheat, oats: the lands of the Schloss. Distance precluded detail, but he imagined that closer inspection would reveal the presence of broad-beamed Brueghelian peasants, busy with their scythes, bringing in the harvest that would be translated soon enough into rents for the Schloss’s coffers. How satisfactory, he thought, must the established order be when one is oneself well established within it.

  They rounded off their lunch with coffee and small squares of chocolate-covered marzipan.

  ‘I have so enjoyed myself,’ said von Igelfeld. ‘You have been most kind to me, Frau Benz.’

  She smiled demurely. ‘The pleasure has been mine, Professor von Igelfeld.’

  He suddenly felt emboldened. ‘And please, let’s set formality aside. I would be delighted were you to call me Moritz-Maria.’

  It was a bold, perhaps reckless step to take, even if the invitation was hedged with an entirely appropriate subjunctive. Frau Benz was a person of conventional views; she lived in a Schloss; she was a respectable widow; one would not normally move on to first-name terms with such a person after no more than two meetings. A year, perhaps, would be about right; a year of formality before venturing – cautiously – into the realms of first-name intimacy. And here am I, he thought; here am I suggesting this after our very first lunch together. And lying about having a gardener too. So much, he reflected ruefully, for the von Igelfeld family motto, Truth Always.

  Frau Benz hesitated, but only briefly. ‘Thank you, Moritz-Maria, thank you. And please, I should be delighted if you were to address me as Kitty.’

  ‘I shall be honoured to do so,’ said von Igelfeld, thinking how fitting the name seemed. ‘Kitty.’

  They talked for a few minutes more before he glanced at his watch and told his hostess that it was time for him to go. ‘Perhaps I could reciprocate by taking you to dinner,’ he said. ‘Would you by any chance be free tomorrow evening?’

  She would, she said. And so the arrangement was made; they would meet at a French restaurant that von Igelfeld had heard was very good and in line for the imminent award of a Michelin star. ‘Stars are best appreciated before they come out,’ he said.

  Frau Benz looked thoughtful. ‘That is a very engaging utterance,’ she said. ‘I shall have to think about its meaning. I suspect that it has many layers.’

  ‘Like some Viennese cakes,’ said von Igelfeld quickly.

  They both laughed. The conversation had been brilliant, and it was entirely fitting that it should end on such a sparkling note.

  He rose to leave. He had taken
his jacket off – for the heat – and Frau Benz noticed that the sleeves of his shirt were curiously jagged. Perhaps it is the fashion, she thought; one of her nephews had rips in the knees of his jeans and she had been astonished to learn that the trousers had been bought that way and were often more expensive than those that did not have such tears. And here was Professor von Igelfeld, although no teenager, with shirt sleeves that looked as if they had been roughly cut with a pair of blunt scissors. Strange, she thought; very strange.

  ‘Your driver will be waiting?’ she asked.

  Von Igelfeld was momentarily nonplussed. He had given no consideration to the question of how he would get home, having dismissed the taxi without making any arrangements for its return. ‘My driver …’ he muttered.

  ‘I can ask mine to run you back,’ said Frau Benz. ‘I think he’s still around somewhere. I’ll call him.’

  ‘That will not be necessary,’ said von Igelfeld hurriedly. ‘Mine will be parked outside the gate, I believe.’ He paused. ‘Under a tree.’

  ‘Very wise,’ said Frau Benz. ‘Cars get so hot in the summer, don’t they? Even good cars, like Mercedes-Benzes.’

  Frau Benz smiled as she spoke, and von Igelfeld felt puzzled. There was something humorous, almost teasing, in what she said; but what was it?

  ‘I do not particularly care for Mercedes-Benzes,’ he said offhandedly. ‘There are many other German cars that are every bit as good – and less flashy, if I might say so.’

  Frau Benz stood quite still. For a few moments she said nothing. Then she opened her mouth and said, ‘Oh?’

  ‘Yes,’ said von Igelfeld, searching his mind for something witty to say. ‘I prefer a car that is less overstated. A Mercedes-Benz is fine for nouveau riche people, but for others, well, something less … less shiny is more appropriate. Or to have no car at all. That is the most fashionable choice, I believe.’

  Frau Benz was silent, but had von Igelfeld looked at her, he would have noticed a slight quivering of the chin.

  ‘No,’ he continued expansively. ‘I have no time for Mercedes-Benzes. None at all.’

  Frau Benz moved very slowly towards the door. ‘It was so kind of you to come, Professor von Igelfeld,’ she said.

  ‘Please: Moritz-Maria, Kitty.’

  She appeared not to have heard. ‘And I much appreciated your kind remarks about the ceiling, Professor von Igelfeld.’

  Von Igelfeld felt his neck becoming warm. He wondered whether he had done something to offend his hostess; he must have – but what could it be? He looked down at his arms, at the shirt he had converted to short sleeves. Could it be that this amounted to some awful social solecism?

  Frau Benz was opening the door.

  ‘I look forward to our dinner,’ said von Igelfeld, a note of anxiety creeping into his voice. ‘I have read some very promising reviews of that restaurant.’

  Frau Benz looked at him. ‘Dinner? Oh, yes. I’m terribly sorry but I’ve just remembered that I have a dental appointment. We shall have to have dinner some other time. I’m so sorry.’

  Von Igelfeld frowned. ‘A dental appointment? But dentists don’t work at night.’

  Frau Benz looked away. ‘We should never be too dogmatic,’ she said quietly. ‘About the hours that dentists work, or … or about other things.’

  He stepped out. Behind him the door clanged shut, a sound so final as to drive away all thoughts of living in a Schloss; of having a wife; of pursuing a life of quiet scholarship in a private library; of not having to listen to Herr Huber going on and on; of being somehow free in a world where freedom was a prize that most of us would never achieve, given that we were ourselves, and usually, if not always, had to remain ourselves for all our days, such as they were.

  He frowned once again. Had he spoken out of turn about something? Women were unfathomable beings – even somebody as charming and pleasant as Frau Benz. She had seemed to be very taken with his witticisms – which had flowed quickly and easily for the entire visit – and then it was as if she had suddenly developed a headache. That was it: a headache. He would telephone her the next day and he was sure that he would discover that her good humour had completely returned. They would go out for dinner and then he would come back here for lunch, and all would be back to normal again. There was no need to worry.

  He walked down the driveway towards the gate. It was not far from the nearest village and he could ask the people at the local inn to call a car for him. The exercise would do him good, he thought, after that excellent lunch.

  There was a path off to the right – a short path that culminated in a paved stone circle on which a sundial had been erected. It was a most unusual sundial, von Igelfeld thought – a metal circle trisected into triangles: a strangely familiar symbol, but quite unexpected in such a setting.

  Odd, he thought. Very odd.

  Reading Party

  A lesser man – one who, unlike von Igelfeld, had not written a twelve-hundred-page treatise on Portuguese irregular verbs – might have been cast down by such a rebuff as he received at the hands of Frau Benz. A lesser man, not having the history of the von Igelfeld family behind him – a history of insouciance in the face of adversity – might have become dispirited and might have thought that perhaps this social failure was his own doing. Not von Igelfeld: it was true that he felt a momentary disappointment at the frustration of his plans to marry Frau Benz and become the owner of the Schloss Dunkelberg, but this disappointment was moderated by the conviction that what the entire experience demonstrated was the unpredictability and inconstancy of women. And if that was the way that Frau Benz behaved, then he decided that he had had a narrow escape from marriage to such a difficult woman. It would have been all very well having the library at the Schloss Dunkelberg at his disposal, but what pleasure would it have been had he had to worry about what his wife would think and do next? There would be no peace in that, he thought; how much better to remain a bachelor and live in what was, after all, a perfectly comfortable flat with a view that, even if it was not of fertile acres of land which pertained to it, none the less encompassed a perfectly respectable public park. Frau Benz! Who had heard of the Benzes, whoever they were? Where were they in the sixteenth century? And as for the owl in their escutcheon – what a ridiculous device when compared with the hedgehog, whose role as an embodiment of wisdom was well known to anybody with even the slightest knowledge of iconography. And as for the apotheosis of Herr Benz – what an assumption to make that such a person, a mere manufacturer of whatever it was that he made, would be welcomed by luminaries of the voltage of Goethe and Wagner! It was quite preposterous, really, and he felt that he had shown considerable forbearance in not pointing this out to his hostess.

  It was unfortunate, though, that Prinzel forgot all about von Igelfeld’s request not to make much of the Benz episode and asked a question that could only lead to embarrassment.

  ‘How did your visit go?’ he asked over coffee the following day. ‘Plenty to talk about? Good look round – the Schloss that is?’

  Herr Huber, who had just sat down, looked up sharply. ‘Oh yes! Yesterday, wasn’t it? And it was such a nice day for it. I said to myself: look at the sun, and just think that Professor von Igelfeld will be walking around the gardens at the Schloss, and will have them all to himself because the Schloss is closed on Sundays, to ordinary members of the public, that is. I thought that, you know, and then I thought that perhaps …’

  Prinzel glanced at the Librarian. ‘Very interesting, Herr Huber. But perhaps we should allow Professor von Igelfeld to tell us himself how his visit went.’

  They looked at von Igelfeld, who was studying the rim of his coffee cup with sudden intensity.

  ‘I had lunch at the Schloss,’ he said. ‘It was very pleasant being there without … without the public traipsing about.’ He looked up as he mentioned the public and the implication could not have been clearer: Unterholzer, the Librarian, and even Prinzel were the very public whose absence was so welcome.<
br />
  ‘Oh, I see,’ said Unterholzer. ‘A return to the days of exclusiveness. Perhaps there are those who believe that the public is best excluded from … from the Louvre, for example.’

  ‘It would be a matter of great regret if that were to happen,’ said Herr Huber. ‘And I’m sure Professor von Igelfeld would not want people like us to be barred from the Louvre. But there is all the difference in the world, surely, between the Louvre and the Schloss Dunkelberg.’

  ‘I don’t see that at all,’ snapped Unterholzer. ‘Both are part of our artistic patrimony. They should not be just for the privileged. It’s a matter of principle, no less.’

  ‘Excuse me, Herr Unterholzer,’ said the Librarian. ‘But would you have turned down such an invitation?’

  It was an unusually bold remark for Herr Huber, and for a few moments nobody said anything. Then Prinzel spoke. ‘I don’t think we should criticise Herr von Igelfeld unduly. What I’m interested in is the details of the visit. Was the conversation good? What did he see? What about the ceiling depicting the apotheosis of the late Herr Benz? These are the things that interest me.’

  ‘I was shown the painted ceilings,’ said von Igelfeld. ‘Then we sat out on the terrace.’

  Prinzel smiled. ‘How very agreeable, I must say.’ He paused. ‘And will you be seeing Frau Benz again in the near future?’

  Before von Igelfeld had the chance to answer, the Librarian chipped in brightly. ‘I wonder if she drove you back in one of her cars,’ he said. ‘She must have a large fleet of them, I’d say.’

  Von Igelfeld seized the opportunity to divert the conversation. ‘Why on earth would she have a large fleet of cars, Herr Huber?’

  ‘Mercedes-Benz,’ said Unterholzer slowly. ‘Benz.’

  Von Igelfeld was silent. ‘With a z?’ he asked at last, his voice so quiet as to be virtually inaudible. ‘I thought …’

  ‘You thought it was spelled with an s?’ asked the Librarian. ‘Bens? That is unusual, but there was a nurse in my aunt’s nursing home who married a Herr Bens. He came from Leipzig, I think. Yes he did, come to think of it, because I met him when they had a party for the staff and the nurse brought him along. He told me about Leipzig. They didn’t invite everybody, of course, but they had a few relatives of patients, and they very kindly included me. People are so kind, you know, in these little ways …’

 
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