IT WAS WHILE she was lying in bed that Isabel Dalhousie,
philosopher and editor of the Review of Applied Ethics, thought
about the things we do. Isabel was a light sleeper; Charlie, her
eighteen-month-old son, slept deeply and, she was sure,
contentedly; Jamie was somewhere in between. Yet Isabel had little
difficulty in getting to sleep. Once she made up her mind to sleep,
all that she had to do was to shut her eyes and, sure enough, she
would drift off. The same could be done if she surfaced in the
course of the night or in those melancholy small hours when both
body and spirit could be at their lowest ebb. Then all she had to
do was to tell herself that this was not the time to start
thinking, and she would quickly return to sleep.
She had wondered about the causes of her light sleeping and had
spoken about it to a friend, a specialist in sleep disorders. She
had not consulted him professionally, but had brought the matter up
over dinner; not before the whole table, of course, but in the
intimacy of the one-to-one conversation that people have with those
sitting beside them.
"I don't like to ask about medical things," she said.
"But . . . ," he said.
"Well, yes. But. You see, you doctors must dread being buttonholed
by people who want to talk about their symptoms. There you are at a
party and somebody says: I've been having these twinges of pain in
my stomach . . ."
"No, I haven't."
He smiled. "The old cliché, you know. Somebody comes and says,
A friend of mine has this rash, you see, and I wondered what it
was. That sometimes happens. Doctors understand all about
embarrassment, you know."
Isabel nodded. "But it must annoy you—being asked about
He thought for a moment. "Nihil humanum mihi alienum est,
if I may lapse into Latin. I don't set my mind against anything
human. Doctors should subscribe to that, I think. Like
Isabel did not think the comparison quite fitting. "Priests
do disapprove, don't they? Doctors don't—or
shouldn't. You don't shake your head over your patients' behaviour,
"If doctors see self-destructive behaviour, they might," he said.
"If somebody comes in with chronic vascular disease, for example,
and you smell the nicotine on his fingers, of course you're going
to say something. Or a drinker comes in with liver problems. You're
going to make it clear what's causing the problem."
"But you don't ladle on the blame, do you? You don't say things
like, This is all your own stupid fault. You don't say that, even
if it patently is his stupid fault."
He played with his fork. "No, I suppose not."
"Whereas a priest will. A priest will use the language of right and
wrong. I don't think doctors do that." She looked at him. He was
typical of a certain type of Edinburgh doctor; the old-fashioned,
gentle Scottish physician, unmoved by the considerations of profit
and personal gain that could so disfigure medicine. That doctors
should consider themselves businessmen was, Isabel had always felt,
a moral tragedy for medicine. Who was left to be altruistic?
Teachers, she thought, and people who worked for charities; and
public-interest lawyers, and . . . in fact, the list was quite
long; probably every bit as long as it ever had been. One should be
careful, she told herself, in commenting on the decline of society;
the elder Cato was the warning here—a frightful old prig, he
had warned that everything was in decline, forgetting that once we
reach forty we all believe that the world is on the slide. Only if
eighteen-year-olds started to say O tempora! O mores!
would the situation be really alarming; eighteen-year-olds did not
say that, though; they no longer had any Latin, of course, and
"You were going to ask me a question," he said. He knew Isabel, and
her digressions, her tendency to bring philosophical complications
into the simplest of matters.
"Why are some people light sleepers?" she began, and added
hurriedly, "I'm one, by the way."
"So am I, as it happens," he replied. "It's often
respiratory—sleep apnoea, where you keep waking up because
you're choking. If not, it may be an idiosyncrasy of the brain. Is
it a problem?"
"Not for me. Not really. I go back to sleep."
He nodded. "You could get yourself checked for sleep apnoea. It's
pretty easy to monitor sleep patterns. You don't look at risk to
me, though—it tends to affect heavier people."
That had been the end of the conversation, as another guest had
addressed the table at large and private conversations had trailed
off. But now, lying in bed, in one of these brief periods of
nocturnal wakefulness that she had decided were the product of
brain idiosyncrasy rather than breathing problems, Isabel turned
and looked at the sleeping form of Jamie beside her. She still
experienced a sense of novelty, even if they had been together for
a couple of years now; a sense of having been given a precious
gift. And he felt it too; he had expressed it that way, too, when
he told her that he was grateful for her. "I feel that I've been
given something," he said. "Somebody has given me you. Isn't that
odd? Because it doesn't happen that way, does it?" She watched him
breathing. The sheet that he had drawn up to his chest and that lay
crumpled about him like a Roman toga moved almost imperceptibly,
but still moved. The act of breathing was not really an act at all,
as the will played no part. We did not tell ourselves to
breathe—except sometimes, in yoga classes and the
like—and when we were asleep, as Jamie was now, the system
itself remembered to do what was required. And how many of the
other things we did fell into that category?
Isabel wondered what a detailed record of our day's activities
would look like—not a record of the sort that might appear in
a diary: Went into town. Had lunch. That kind of thing
gave a broad-brush account of what we did but did not list the
really particular, the hundreds—tens of thousands
probably—of little actions in a person's day. We did such
things all the time: tiny movements of the limbs as we sat in a
chair or lay in bed, as she did now; little twitches, the
flickering of the eyelids, the touching of the fingers, the
inclining of the head. Those were nothing really—background
noise, one might say—but they would all be religiously
entered in this record of the day. And then there were the things
we said—the speech acts, as philosophers called
them—which ranged from the ums and ers, the
muttered phrases of apology on bumping into somebody in a crowd,
the meaningless expressions that lubricated our social dealings
with one another. A transcript of our speech over the space of a
day would make sobering reading, Isabel thought; and over a
lifetime? What would we have said? What would it amount to? How
much energy would we have wasted on the smallest of small talk; how
many months would be filled with sheer nonsense?
And then, as often as not, when the time came to talk, really to
talk, we were tongue-tied, as could happen to people at the
bedsides of the dying, when there was an urgency that cried out for
big things to be said, and we found that we could say very little,
or that tears made it impossible to speak. Isabel remembered once
visiting an aunt on her father's side who did not have long to
live; she had wanted to thank her for her generosity to her as a
girl, and although she had managed to say the words that expressed
her gratitude, the aunt, known for her coruscating wit, had simply
said, "Flattery will get you everywhere," and later that afternoon
had died. But at least she had been thanked. "Flattery will get you
everywhere" were memorable last words, if indeed the aunt had said
nothing more after Isabel left her bedside, which she thought was
probably the case. It would be a perfectly presentable final
sentence, although not as witty, perhaps, as Oscar Wilde's gazing
in dismay at the decoration surrounding his deathbed and saying, by
way of farewell, "Either that wallpaper goes or I do."
If a transcription of our day's speech would make uncomfortable
reading, how much more dismaying, perhaps, would be a record of our
thoughts. For a moment she imagined how it would look. A mixture of
memories, fleeting and prolonged, what-if speculations, idle
observations, regrets—that would be its shape for most of us,
and for most of us, too, the leitmotiv would be . . . Isabel
paused, unwilling to reach a conclusion so solipsistic, but unable
to avoid it: the leitmotiv would be me. It was that simple. Most of
us, most of the time, were thinking about ourselves.
But was that really bleak, or just human? We were, after all,
ourselves; that was all we really knew, and the only point from
which we could act. We could think of others, of course, and did,
but such thoughts were often about others in the context of
ourselves—what they had said to us, what they had done to
She looked at Jamie, who stirred.
"Jamie," she whispered. She had not intended to, but did. She
uttered his name, as if to confirm the fact that he was there; we
named things and they became more real.
He stirred again. A person's name is the one thing he hears even in
"So . . . ," he muttered drowsily.
"Are you awake?" Isabel whispered.
"Am now . . . ," although his eyes were still shut.
"Sorry," she said. "I won't talk to you any more."
He reached out a hand. There was a three-quarters moon outside and
an elongated rectangle of light came in through the chink in the
curtains. She would have to replace those curtains; Grace, her
housekeeper, had been going on about that for years now. "Those
curtains, they're ancient, Isabel, and the lining has rotted, you
She gazed at Jamie's forearm in the moonlight; flesh made silver.
She took his hand in hers and held it lightly. She wanted to cry,
from sheer happiness, but he would really wake up if he heard her
crying those tears of joy and think that something was wrong. Men,
on the whole, did not understand crying for happiness, as women
did. There were so many different sorts of tears.
She thought: I shall not think. And that thought, a prompting that
denied itself, worked as it always did—she drifted off to
sleep, holding Jamie's hand. When she awoke to the sound of Charlie
gurgling in his cot in the next-door room, she found that
miraculously Jamie's hand was still in hers, as lovers will
sometimes find that through the night they have cleaved together
and are still thus arranged in the innocent light of morning.
THAT DAY WAS A FRIDAY, a day that Isabel always enjoyed very much,
although Saturday was her absolute favourite. She had the usual
feelings about Monday, a day that she had never heard anybody speak
up for, although it must have had its defenders; workaholics,
perhaps, found Monday intoxicating in its promise of a whole week
of work ahead, but for others, in her experience, it was more
commonly Fridays or Saturdays that were favoured. In her case,
Friday had been further boosted by Jamie's usually being free on
that day, which meant that they could do things together, taking
Charlie off on an outing somewhere, or she could use part of the
day to catch up on Review affairs while Jamie entertained their
son. Whichever of these she chose, there was a very satisfactory
feeling of making a choice that was unconstrained by necessity. If
she worked on a Friday, she did so because she wanted to, not
because she had to; and if she went off somewhere with Charlie, it
was similarly a matter of doing what she wished.
Occasionally Jamie had to work on a Friday evening, if he was
summoned to play with the chamber orchestra that relied on him when
a bassoon was called for. Sometimes he would also be needed on a
Friday for session work—a recording of music for a film,
perhaps—but that rarely happened, and Fridays had remained
more or less free ever since he had given up taking pupils on that
day. These pupils were his bread and butter; he taught some of them
at the Edinburgh Academy, the school on the north side of the city
where he gave music lessons part-time, and others had their lessons
in his flat in Saxe-Coburg Street, round the corner from the
Academy. At the moment, he had told Isabel, they were not very
good, although one or two of them could be competent players if
they tried. But they did not practise, in spite of the exhortations
he wrote in their notebooks about scales and exercises.
"Of course, Charlie will practise diligently," Isabel had said.
"When he starts playing his . . ." She looked at Jamie. He had said
something once about miniature bassoons—something called a
tenoroon. Somehow she could not picture a reduced bassoon, with
miniature levers and shrunken key-work, being played by Charlie in
his Macpherson tartan rompers.
Jamie understood her hesitation as a sign that it would be for him
to decide the shape of Charlie's musical education.
"Violin," he said. "Let's start him on strings. And anyway, they
can't blow wind instruments until they're much older. Nine is
probably the earliest. Before that their lungs aren't strong enough
and they can easily damage their lips. The muscles around the lips
are still forming, you see."
She smiled at the thought of Charlie with his unformed lips and a
violin. He would attempt to eat it if she gave him one now, but
they could start when he was three, which would come soon enough.
And then, after the violin, when he was old enough, ten or so, he
could learn the Highland bagpipes, starting on a practice chanter
before proceeding to a real set, ebony drones and all, to the full,
primeval wail that sent shivers down the spine. He would wear the
kilt—Macpherson tartan again—and play the pipes; oh,
Charlie, dear little Charlie.
That Friday, Jamie had no commitments and Isabel decided that,
although she might take advantage of his presence to do some work
in the earlier part of the morning, she would suggest that they
should all go into town for lunch together. She had promised to see
her accountant, but she had been putting it off; he had telephoned
with an offer to come and see her if she would not come to him. She
felt guilty about that, as he was a mild man with the air of one
who was long-suffering, as no doubt he was.
"I can only do so much with the figures I'm given, Isabel," he had
told her. "I can't make things up, you know; we don't work that
way." She wondered whether this implied that she worked that
way—making things up.
She had assured him she would give him what he wanted, and had
dutifully put printing bills and postage receipts for the
Review into a folder . . . until she had somehow
forgotten. She had scrambled around and a few missing receipts had
turned up, but not everything, she suspected.
"I have to see Ronnie," she said to Jamie. "I have to give him some
papers. It shouldn't take too long. Then we can go to Glass and
Thompson for lunch. Charlie likes their quiche." And he had indeed
liked it on their last visit, even if most of it had ended up on
the floor around the table. Charlie had sophisticated likes, his
parents were finding out to their surprise; he enjoyed olives, and
would wave his hands at the sight of quail eggs. It was almost a
parody of the tastes of the privileged baby and Isabel felt
slightly embarrassed at the thought of it. She did not remember
giving him his first olive—it would never have occurred to
her to do so; had Jamie done that? And quail eggs? Would it be
oysters next? It was Jamie, she decided; he tended to feed Charlie
with whatever they were eating, and Charlie never refused anything
from his father.
Jamie was happy with the suggestion. Isabel could make an early
start in her study while he took Charlie down to the canal in the
jogging pushchair, the one that allowed him to run while pushing.
Then Charlie could have his mid-morning sleep and be bright and
ready for the outing into town.
They breakfasted together. Jamie, who did not like to eat anything
very much before a run, had a cup of milky coffee and a slice of
toast spread with Marmite. Charlie had rather more: a small carton
of strawberry yoghurt, mashed-up boiled egg on fingers of toast,
and an olive, stoned, of course, and cut into four minute
Grace arrived before they had left the table. She fussed over
Charlie, who waved his arms enthusiastically, his unambiguous
signal of pleasure.
"Pleased to see me?" cooed Grace, hanging her hemp shopping bag on
the hook on the back of the kitchen door. "Of course you are, you
wee champion! And what's that they're giving you to eat? An olive.
Surely not? Bairns don't like olives, no they don't."
Isabel glanced at Jamie, who smiled, and looked away; disagreements
between Isabel and Grace were not his affair, and he tried to keep
out of them. Privately he sided with Isabel and she knew that she
had his support, but they were both aware that it did not help to
"Some bairns do," said Isabel. "This one, for example."
Grace ignored this. Still addressing Charlie, she continued, "It'll
be quail eggs next, my goodness! And caviar after that."
"Small children like all sorts of things," said Isabel. "They're
people, after all, and people have peculiar tastes and beliefs."
The reference to beliefs slipped in; she had not really intended
it, but it rounded off the observation nicely, and was tossed in
rather like a depth-charge, thought Jamie. He looked at Isabel with
concern. There had been a discussion between the two women the
previous week about feng shui, in which Grace had enthused about
chi forces and Isabel had expressed the view that they simply did
not exist. If they did, she said, then surely we could detect them
with some sort of electronic apparatus. This reference to peculiar
beliefs was about that, Jamie thought. The debates about olives and
chi forces were minutely intertwined.
Grace had stood her ground during that discussion. "There are
plenty of things nobody can see," she said. "What about that
particle thingy that they're trying to find. That Higgs bison, or
"Boson," Jamie had interjected. "Higgs boson. It's a sort of . .
"Boson," said Isabel. "I saw Professor Higgs the other day, you
know. He was walking along Heriot Row looking down at the
"He won't find his boson down there," said Grace.
"He wouldn't have been looking for it," said Jamie. "It exists only
in the mathematics he did. It's a theory."
The argument about unseen forces had continued for some minutes and
remained unresolved; both sides were sure of their position and
both were sure that they had won. This reference now to peculiar
beliefs threatened to reopen the issue, which Jamie did not think
was a good idea. Fortunately, Grace paid no attention to it and
changed the subject. There was a load of washing to be put in the
machine, and did Isabel want Charlie's clothes dealt with now or
later? And there was the question of the vacuum cleaner, which had
stopped working the previous day; had Isabel phoned, as she had
promised, about that?
"I shall," said Isabel. "Today. Definitely. I'll put it on my
Grace had nodded, and gone off to begin her tasks.
"Quail eggs," whispered Jamie. "She really disapproves."
Isabel nodded. "Mind you, it is outrageous," she said.
"What sort of child have we produced, Jamie? Quail eggs!"
He smiled. He loved her. He loved Charlie. He even loved Grace, in
a way. It was a perfect morning, the best sort of early summer
morning, and all he felt was love.
Excerpted from THE LOST ART OF GRATITUDE: An Isabel Dalhousie
Novel © Copyright 2011 by Alexander McCall Smith. Reprinted
with permission by Anchor. All rights reserved.