By the time she got back to the house, having been interrupted on the way back by bumping into a garrulous neighbour, the morning was already almost over. For Isabel, the watershed was always eleven-thirty; that was the point at which if nothing was achieved, then nothing would be, the point at which one had to think about lunch, now just an hour away.
Since Charlie had started going to his playgroup, the mornings had become even shorter, as he had to be fetched shortly after noon, and it took ten minutes to get him back and another ten minutes to get him changed out of his morning clothes; by this time, he would be covered in finger paint, crumbs, pieces of a curious modelling substance much approved of by the playgroup authorities, grains of sand from the sandpit and, very occasionally, what looked like specks of blood. Boys, it seemed to Isabel, were magnets for dirt and detritus, and the only solution, if one were wanted, was frequent changes of clothing. Or one could throw up one’s hands and allow them to get dirtier through the day and then hose them down—metaphorically, of course—in the early evening.
Isabel opted to change Charlie, and so his morning clothes, once abandoned, were replaced with afternoon clothes. She decided that she rather liked the idea of having afternoon clothes, even if one were not a two-year-old. Changing into one’s afternoon clothes could become something of a ritual, rather like changing for dinner—which so few people did any more. And the afternoon clothes themselves could be the subject of deliberation and chosen with care; they would be more loose-fitting than one’s morning clothes, more autumnal in shade, perhaps—clothes that would reflect the lengthening of shadows and sit well with the subtle change in light that comes after three; russet clothes, comfortable linen, loose-fitting collars and sleeves.
It was Isabel’s housekeeper, Grace. She had worked in the house when Isabel’s father was still alive, and had been kept on by Isabel. It would have been impossible to ask Grace to leave—even if Isabel had wanted to do so; she came with the house and had naturally assumed that the house could not be run without her. Isabel had felt vaguely apologetic about having a housekeeper—it seemed such an extravagant, privileged thing to do, but a discussion with her friend, Peter Stevenson, had helped.
“What good would it do if you were to stop that particular item of expenditure?” Peter said. “All it would mean was that Grace would be out of a job. What would it achieve?”
“But I feel embarrassed,” said Isabel. “Somebody of my age doesn’t need a housekeeper. People will think I’m lazy.”
Peter was too perceptive to swallow that. “That’s not it, is it? What’s worrying you is that people will think that you’re well-off, which you are. So why not just accept it? You use your money generously—I know that. Carry on like that and forget what you imagine people think about you. It’s not an actual sin to have money. The sin exists in using it selfishly, which you don’t.”
“Oh well,” said Isabel.
Now Grace stood in the doorway of Isabel’s workroom, a bucket in hand, on her way to performing the daily chore of washing down the Victorian encaustic-tile floor in the entrance hall. Isabel was not sure that this floor had to be washed every day, but Grace had always done it and would have resisted any suggestion that she change her routine.
Now Grace’s question hung in the air. She often asked Isabel whether she was thinking; it was almost an accusation.
“I suppose I am thinking. But not about work, I must admit.” Isabel, who was seated at her desk, gave a despairing glance at the piles of paper before her. “I’m afraid that I’ve accomplished very little this morning.”
“Me too,” said Grace. “I’ve done none of the ironing yet, I’m afraid. All those shirts of Jamie’s.”
“Leave them,” said Isabel. “Jamie can iron them himself. It’s very therapeutic for men to iron. Therapeutic for women, that is.”
Grace shook her head. “I’ll do them later this afternoon.” She put down the bucket. “Where does the time go? Do you ever ask yourself that?”
“Constantly,” said Isabel. “As most people do.” She smiled. “Mind you, how much of our time, do you think, is spent asking ourselves where the time goes?”
Isabel remembered that it was a Friday, which meant that Grace would have spent the previous evening at one of her spiritualist meetings. She enjoyed hearing about these, as Grace was always prepared to give a candid assessment of the visiting medium. The previous week the visiting medium had been from Glasgow and had made contact with spirits who voiced an interesting, if somewhat unusual, complaint.
“He said that there were a number of spirits trying to get through. He said that that they were all from Glasgow.”
Isabel had raised an eyebrow. “Do spirits live in particular places? I thought that the whole point about being disembodied is that you rose above constraints of place. Have I got it wrong?”
Grace shook her head. “Spirits often hang about the places that were special to them before they crossed over,” she said. “He said that these spirits wanted to get back to Glasgow because they weren’t happy in Edinburgh.”
“A likely story!” snorted Isabel.
“My feelings too,” Grace had replied.
Now, Isabel asked about the previous evening. Was the medium any good, or at least better than the man who contacted the unhappy Glaswegian spirits?
“Much better,” said Grace. “He was one of our regulars. We had him about four months ago and he was really good. He saw somebody’s husband—clear as day, he said. I was sitting next to the woman and I comforted her. It was very moving.”
Isabel said nothing. The fundamental premises of Grace’s spiritualist meetings might not have withstood rigorous, rational examination, but there was little doubt in her mind about the solace that they gave. And what was wrong with anything that gave comfort to lives bereft of it?
“Yes,” Grace continued. “This medium—he’s called Mr. Barr; I don’t know his ﬁrst name, I’m afraid—he works in a bank. In the back room, I think; he’s not a teller or anything like that. Anyway, he has a real talent for getting through to the other side. You can see it in his eyes; he just has that look to him—you know what I mean?”
Isabel did. “The light—”
“Exactly,” said Grace. “It’s the light that shines from the eyes. There’s no mistaking it and he had it. It was like . . .” She searched for an analogy, and then decided, “Like a lighthouse.”
Isabel struggled with the image. Lighthouse eyes would presumably send forth beams at intervals, which would create a rather odd impression, she felt, especially at night, and if such people lived by the sea . . .
“He said something very interesting,” Grace continued. “He said that he was getting a strong message from somebody who had been a stockbroker in Edinburgh in his lifetime. He was now on the other shore and wanted us to know that everything would be all right.”
“That’s reassuring,” said Isabel.
“I think he was talking about the country’s economy. He said that we shouldn’t worry—it was going to be all right.”
Isabel raised an eyebrow. “I wonder how he knows?”
Grace assumed a rather superior expression. “They know,” she said. “We may not understand how they know, but the important thing is that they know. It’s to do with time. Time has a different meaning in the spirit world.”
Isabel did not contradict this; she knew there was little point. If asked to justify her claims about the world beyond, Grace tended to shelter behind the idea that there were some forms of knowledge that somebody like Isabel simply could not grasp.
“Skepticism closes the mind,” she would say. “Like a trap.”
Grace continued with her report. “He became quite specific, you know. He mentioned a particular company that he said would do well. He said that all the conditions were right for this to happen.”
Isabel expressed her surprise. “A tip? An investment tip?”
“No,” said Grace. “It was not like that at all. The spirit was just sharing something with us. He was obviously happy that this company would do well and he wanted us to share his happiness.”
Isabel hesitated for a moment. Grace’s meeting must have been rich in comic possibilities, with the medium issuing what amounted to a stock-market prediction, and some of those attending, perhaps, discreetly writing down the details.
“What company?” she asked on impulse.
“West of Scotland Turbines,” said Grace. “You’ll see their shares in the paper. Look at the stock-market page.”
“So they exist?”
“Yes, of course they exist. I looked them up. They make turbines for hydroelectric schemes.”
Grace appeared to feel that they had spent long enough on turbines and went on to say something about needing new scouring liquid for the upstairs shower, which was becoming mildewed. She looked at Isabel slightly reproachfully, as if she were responsible for the mildew. Isabel thought: It’s not my fault, but Grace will always blame me.
Then Grace said, “Oh, somebody phoned while you were out. I asked for her name, but she just left a number for you to call back. It’s in the basket. Some people don’t give their names, which is odd, I think. It’s as if they’ve got something to hide . . .” She examined Isabel as if she were conniving in, or at least condoning, a whole series of anonymous calls. Then she continued, “She sounded Australian.”
It was the woman whom Cat had met. Isabel glanced at her watch: there was time to return the call before she went off to collect Charlie. That would mean, of course, that she would have done no work at all that morning, and would probably do very little that afternoon. Did it matter? Would the world be changed if the next edition of the Review of Applied Ethics did not come out on time? The answer, of course, was that it would make very little difference—a humbling thought.
Isabel rose from her desk and made her way into the kitchen. If Grace wanted to leave her a note, there was a small basket on top of the fridge in which notes were placed. There was one now, with a number scribbled on it in pencil. Underneath the number, Grace had written: woman. Isabel smiled; she was reminded of her father, who had once said to her, “Don’t write—or say—any more than you have to. Just don’t.”
Or think, perhaps?
Isabel took the note back to her study. There she wrote on it West of Scotland Turbines, and then picked up the telephone.
The Forgotten Affairs of Youth: An Isabel Dalhousie Novel