Unusual uses for olive o.., p.9
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       Unusual Uses for Olive Oil, p.9

           Alexander McCall Smith
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  Von Igelfeld was not listening. He remembered his remarks about Mercedes-Benzes, and the way that what he said had seemed to impress Frau Benz into silence. Or perhaps impress was not the right word …

  ‘And then afterwards,’ continued the Librarian, ‘a number of us went for a walk. I pride myself on taking a reasonable amount of exercise, you know. People say that you should get about an hour or so every day. A lot of people find it difficult, and I can understand how they do. People in desk jobs, for example. Librarians, of course, get a lot of exercise – more than one might imagine. I find that. Putting books back on the shelves – that keeps me fit, even if I don’t manage to get out and walk in the country. Picking up books and taking them to the shelves involves a lot of …’

  ‘But you don’t have many books to put back each day,’ said Unterholzer. ‘Two or three perhaps, because we’re the only people who use the library, are we not? So if each of us takes a book once a day, this means that you have three books to put back. Forgive me for saying it, but I don’t call that exercise.’

  Von Igelfeld made his decision. These things happened, and occasionally one made a remark that was perhaps not quite as tactful as it might be. It was not his fault. How was he to have known that Herr Benz was something to do with cars? And, anyway, who wanted to live in a draughty Schloss halfway up a mountain? Flats were far more convenient.

  ‘Exercise?’ he said vaguely.

  ‘Yes,’ said the Librarian. ‘Of course, you get a lot of exercise, Professor von Igelfeld, with the student reading party that you take up to the mountains each summer. Will you be going again this year, as usual? The students so enjoy it, I believe …’

  Although von Igelfeld did not have a great deal of contact with the students who made up a large part of the population of Regensburg, the University encouraged the Institute to acknowledge – at least occasionally – its presence. After all, the University paid for the Institute, and von Igelfeld and his colleagues were appointed by it and were on the strength of its professoriat, even if the chief University officer, the Rector – whose official title was His Magnificence the Rector – was so rarely invited to Institute events that one of his predecessors had been actually unaware of the Institute’s existence.

  From the Institute’s point of view, the requirements of duty were more than satisfied by taking on postgraduate students and guiding them through the writing of their doctoral theses, and by giving occasional lectures as part of ordinary University courses. Prinzel, for example, had recently completed a course of twenty-five lectures on western orthography – and this had proved highly popular with the students who attended it. Unterholzer lectured on vowels – to a very small audience, von Igelfeld noted – and von Igelfeld himself gave a major lecture on the development of Brazilian Portuguese which had been very well received by the student body. His real contribution, though, came in his leading of a small reading party during the summer – restricted to twenty places – that he had run for the last ten years. This reading party, which was intended for postgraduate students across the humanities, went each year to a small Alpine village where a University benefactor had built a comfortable lodge for precisely this sort of purpose. The reading element of this outing was perhaps less prominent than von Igelfeld would have liked, but he enjoyed the open air and the admiring company of the students, many of whom hoped that he might later be prevailed upon to provide an academic reference.

  The popularity of this trip was a matter of pride to von Igelfeld, who had a tendency to claim the credit, even if what appealed to the students was the fact that the benefactor had established a trust that not only paid the expenses of every student attending but also gave each a token, but much appreciated, honorarium. Von Igelfeld, as presiding professor, received a considerably more generous honorarium that amounted to pure profit, as there was nothing to spend it on in the mountains and every conceivable expense was covered by the generous benefactor’s trust.

  Unterholzer, perhaps understandably, thought that the task of running the reading party should be shared. ‘I see no reason why our dear colleague should do it year after year,’ he complained to Prinzel. ‘I’m sure that he does it very well, of course, not that I think there’s much to do. All that it requires is making up a programme of discussions and then letting the students get on with it. Hardly onerous, if you ask me.’

  Prinzel shrugged. He was not a jealous man by nature, and he did not see why the good fortune of a colleague should be so clearly resented. ‘Moritz-Maria enjoys it,’ he observed mildly. ‘And he has so little else in his life, wouldn’t you say? Don’t you think it’s nice that he gets at least one little treat like this?’

  Unterholzer shook his head. ‘I do not think that we should look upon this reading party as a treat,’ he said. ‘It is one of the few opportunities that the Institute has to influence the minds of the next generation of scholars. And that, I would have thought, is a most sacred task. No, this is not a holiday.’

  ‘Then we should be grateful to him for shouldering the burden so willingly,’ said Prinzel.

  ‘But I am prepared to assist in that respect,’ said Unterholzer. ‘And what about you? Why can’t you have a chance to lead the party for a change?’

  Prinzel shrugged again. ‘I’m afraid that I have no desire to disturb these arrangements,’ he said. ‘The students seem to enjoy themselves and there’s always a waiting list for places. I think we should congratulate our colleague, rather than seek to replace him.’

  The matter had been left at that, at least between Unterholzer and Prinzel. But that did not prevent its being raised in the coffee room shortly before the party was due to set off.

  ‘Off again to the mountains soon, Herr von Igelfeld,’ said Unterholzer. ‘My, you must know the way blindfold! You’ve been there so often.’

  Von Igelfeld took a sip of his coffee. ‘Yes, indeed, I am leaving in a day or two. But as for travelling blindfold, that is not something I would recommend, Herr Unterholzer, mountain roads being what they are. You must keep your wits about you at all times in the mountains, and keep a sharp eye open.’

  ‘I was speaking metaphorically, Herr von Igelfeld,’ Unterholzer retorted. ‘However, I would also make the observation that familiarity has been known to breed contempt. So, for instance – and just as an example – if somebody were, say, to make a habit of taking every chance to go into the mountains, rather than sharing such opportunities with colleagues, such a person might perhaps become a bit careless. I’m not saying that he necessarily would, but there is the safety issue to be addressed. You know how aware people are of risk these days – especially when it comes to situations where one is in charge of young persons.’

  Von Igelfeld considered this carefully before he replied. ‘You are undoubtedly right, Herr Unterholzer. Such a person could become a bit blasé – that is perfectly possible; unless, of course, such a person were to be of a background that accustomed him to mountains. If a person came from a family with long roots in a mountainous region – such as my own family, for example – it would mean that he would be unlikely to fall into careless habits. One could not perhaps say the same thing for people who come from very low-lying areas …’

  He left the last sentence unfinished, as the reference could not have been clearer. Unterholzer came from a low, potato-producing part of the country; one that was about as far as it was possible to be from any mountains.

  Unterholzer bristled, but said nothing. It was clear that von Igelfeld was not going to share this perk and there was very little that could be done to dislodge him. Unless, of course, something went badly wrong, and one of the students was lost … No, he told himself; one should not even think of such a possibility. If it happened, though, it would teach von Igelfeld a lesson and surely it would be very difficult for him to continue to monopolise the reading party after that.

  ‘There is a long waiting list for the reading party this year,’ von Igelfeld continued. ‘I have had a telephone
call from somebody in the trust administration. She told me that there are eighty-seven students who wish to go to the Alps this summer. Eighty-seven!’

  ‘That is far too many,’ said the Librarian. ‘You cannot take eighty-seven students anywhere. You would need a special train.’

  ‘I am not proposing to take eighty-seven, Herr Huber,’ von Igelfeld explained patiently. ‘I shall take twenty. The rest will have to wait.’

  The Librarian digested this information. ‘Do you think it might be possible for me to come with you this year? The mountain air would do me good, I think, and it would be helpful for you to have an assistant.’

  Von Igelfeld opened his mouth to speak, but found that no words came. How could he possibly take Herr Huber, of all people? He was a complete liability even at the best of times, on the valley floor so to speak, and he simply could not imagine the Librarian at higher altitudes. No, it was impossible.

  ‘There is no call for a librarian in the mountains,’ he said firmly. ‘I’m so sorry, Herr Huber. Perhaps there is some other trip that you could go on.’

  Unterholzer, who had begun to read a copy of the Frankfurter Allgemeine, now lowered his paper. ‘I would have thought that there is no call for a professor of Romance philology in the Alps either,’ he observed tartly. ‘And yet you go, Herr von Igelfeld.’

  Von Igelfeld pursed his lips. ‘I lead the reading,’ he said. ‘There is every call for a professor to do that.’

  ‘Or a librarian,’ said Unterholzer. ‘Reading, if I’m not mistaken, involves books. And librarians have a certain expertise in that area, do they not?’

  The Librarian, although grateful for Unterholzer’s support, had no wish to provoke conflict. ‘Perhaps I shall do something else,’ he said. ‘Although it would have been nice. Perhaps another year, if you are unable to go, Herr von Igelfeld, then I might be permitted to go. Perhaps as assistant to Professor Unterholzer.’

  Von Igelfeld looked out of the window. He was not an ungenerous man, and he realised that he had a great number of things in his life that poor Herr Huber would never have. He had his book; he had his scholarly reputation; he had invitations to go to conferences; he had so much … The memory came to him of his great-uncle, a tall figure with piercing blue eyes, who always dressed in a dark green country suit that smelled of woodsmoke for some reason; who had taken him aside one evening when von Igelfeld was sixteen and had spoken to him about the duties of being a man. Do not deny to others, he said. Remember that as a von Igelfeld, much is given to you. Give what you can to others who are not von Igelfelds.

  Herr Huber was decidedly not a von Igelfeld. Nobody was quite sure where he came from, as nobody had ever bothered to ask him. There was the nursing home that he spoke about, but that was hardly a Heimat, except to the unfortunates who resided there. There was no Frau Huber, and no other relatives apart from his aunt, as far as anybody knew. And nobody knew where he lived, although Prinzel had once reported seeing Herr Huber entering a very small house on the edge of the woods.

  ‘It was very strange,’ he said. ‘We were driving back one evening and just before you get into town proper there’s an extremely small house, rather like the sort of house that you see Hansel and Gretel occupying in the opera. I had never noticed it before. Anyway, there was Herr Huber, no less, going in the front door. He must live there.’

  Von Igelfeld remembered this as he looked back from the window. He thought of the librarian in his small house on the edge of the woods; he thought of him sitting in a small room in that small house. The memory of the words came back to him: Give what you can to others who are not von Igelfelds. Herr Huber was certainly not a von Igelfeld; he was just a Huber, and there were so many of them; as the grains of sand are upon the beach, countless and without number. ‘Would you really like to come with us, Herr Huber?’

  Herr Huber’s eyes opened wide. ‘Oh, I would,’ he said. ‘It would be so exciting.’ His eyes returned to normal. ‘But I understand that I cannot come and I shall be content to hear about it when you return.’

  ‘No,’ said von Igelfeld. ‘You must accompany us. Your presence would be a great help in so many respects. You could, for example …’ He stopped. The Librarian looked at him expectantly, as did Unterholzer. ‘You could look after the maps we use for our walks.’

  ‘Of course I could,’ said Herr Huber enthusiastically. ‘I could file them away at the end of each day and get them out in the morning.’

  Von Igelfeld nodded. ‘That would be very useful.’

  ‘And I could set up a system for storing the students’ books,’ Herr Huber continued. ‘I’ve seen a picture of the common room at the lodge. I couldn’t help but notice that the shelves were very badly arranged, with books all over the place.’

  ‘There you are,’ said von Igelfeld. ‘You’re already proving yourself indispensable.’

  The day of departure arrived. Von Igelfeld travelled up to the lodge in a car provided by the trust, and since Herr Huber was now officially involved the Librarian travelled with him. The journey usually took four hours, and von Igelfeld had not been looking forward to spending that time as a captive audience of his colleague. Could anybody talk for four hours without disturbance on the subject of nursing homes and aunts, he wondered. The answer came to him immediately: Herr Huber undoubtedly could.

  ‘I think that it might be best for you to sit in the front, Herr Huber,’ he said when they picked the Librarian up from his small house on the edge of town. ‘I may need to do some work on the way up to the lodge, and that means I can spread papers out on the back seat. I hope you don’t mind.’

  The Librarian, who was brimming with excitement over the trip, indicated that this would not be the slightest inconvenience. ‘And I can perhaps help with the navigation if the driver wishes me to,’ he said.

  ‘Of course,’ said von Igelfeld. He should have warned the driver, he thought, but it was now too late and he would have to let events take their course; which they did, as the driver was subjected to a lengthy discourse on the relative merits of nursing homes in the Regensburg area. Poor man, thought von Igelfeld, closing his eyes in the back of the car; poor man to have to listen to Herr Huber. But no: the driver, it seemed, was interested.

  ‘This is all very useful information, Herr Librarian,’ he said as he negotiated his way through the traffic. ‘May I tell you about my own experiences with my aged father? We kept him at home until it became really too difficult for my wife, try as she might.’

  ‘A common experience, Herr Driver,’ said the Librarian. ‘I was talking to the son-in-law of one of the residents at my aunt’s place only the other day, and he said that they—’

  The driver cut him short. ‘My wife has the patience of a saint,’ he went on. ‘She trained as a nurse, you know, and although she has been busy with the children and has not nursed for twenty years – no, let me work it out – we came to Regensburg from Mannheim when our youngest was three, and he’s now twenty-seven, so that’s twenty-four years, close enough. Mind you, as she herself says, “Looking after children – and a husband too – is a sort of nursing …” ’

  ‘Of course it is,’ said the Librarian. ‘I was talking the other day to a doctor – I think he came from Bielefeld originally – who said that we should not be making all these technical demands of nurses and should instead be trying to get good farm girls who have experience of looking after their younger siblings – they’re the ones who know how to nurse. I said to him …’

  And so it continued, for slightly more than four hours, until the car wound its way slowly up the last few yards of the steep driveway in front of the lodge.

  ‘How quickly a journey passes when one is having an interesting conversation,’ said the Librarian, as he got out of the car.

  ‘How right you are, Herr Librarian,’ said the driver. ‘I do so look forward to our return drive.’

  That evening, with the participants in the reading group all assembled in the lodge’s common room, von
Igelfeld made a short speech of welcome. Looking out over the faces of the twenty students, the Librarian and the couple of helpers from the trust staff, he drew attention to the challenges of the week ahead. ‘This is a rare opportunity to spend time with those who share your intellectual interests,’ he said, avoiding, as he said this, Herr Huber’s enthusiastic stare. ‘The whole point of going away on a reading party such as this, is to explore the minds of others. So make sure that you listen, as well as contribute, so that at the end of the week you can say to yourself: I have learned something truly important.’

  There were nods of agreement from a number of students, while others expressed their approval of this sentiment by exchanging glances with their fellows. Moving on to deal with one or two administrative points, von Igelfeld then sketched out the shape of the week ahead. They would meet, he said, for two hours each morning to discuss their reading, and then the rest of the day would be free for private reflection and for walking along the paths that ran out in a number of directions from the lodge. These paths crossed Alpine meadow before becoming mountain tracks, not yet the preserve of actual climbers, but becoming so after a short while. ‘Be careful,’ said von Igelfeld. ‘The mountains are a reminder to all of us that what goes up usually has to come down again!’

  This amusing line, which von Igelfeld delivered slowly in order to allow the humour to be savoured, met each year with the same response, which came now: smiles from some of the students and open laughter from others. Von Igelfeld beamed: there was a unique pleasure, he felt, in finding oneself in contact with receptive young minds.

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