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The Comforts of a Muddy Saturday: An Isabel Dalhousie Novel

What made Isabel Dalhousie think about chance? It was one of
those curious coincidences --- an inconsequential one --- as when
we turn the corner and find ourselves face-to-face with the person
we’ve just been thinking about. Or when we answer the
telephone and hear at the other end the voice of the friend we had
been about to call. These things make us believe either in
telepathy --- for which there is as little hard evidence as there
is, alas, for the existence of Santa Claus --- or in pure chance,
which we flatter ourselves into thinking plays a small role in our
lives. Yet chance, Isabel thought, determines much of what happens
to us, from the original birth lottery onwards. We like to think
that we plan what happens to us, but it is chance, surely, that
lies behind so many of the great events of our lives --- the
meeting with the person with whom we are destined to spend the rest
of our days, the receiving of a piece of advice which influences
our choice of career, the spotting of a particular house for sale;
all of these may be down to pure chance, and yet they govern how
our lives work out and how happy --- or unhappy --- we are going to

It happened when she was walking with Jamie across the Meadows, the
large, tree-lined park that divides South Edinburgh from the Old
Town. Jamie was her . . . What was he? Her lover --- her younger
lover --- her boyfriend; the father of her child. She was reluctant
to use the word partner because it has associations of
impermanence and business arrangements. Jamie was most definitely
not a business arrangement; he was her north, her south, to quote
Auden, whom she had recently decided she would quote less
frequently. But even in the making of that resolution, she had
found a line from Auden that seemed to express it all, and had
given up on that ambition. And why, she asked herself, should one
not quote those who saw the world more clearly than one did

Her north, her south; well, now they were walking north, on one of
those prolonged Scottish summer evenings when it never really gets
dark, and when one might forget just how far from south one really
is. The fine weather had brought people out onto the grass; a group
of young men, bare-chested in the unaccustomed warmth, were playing
a game of football, discarded tee-shirts serving as the goal
markers; a man was throwing a stick for a tireless border collie to
fetch; a young couple lay stretched out, the girl’s head
resting on the stomach of a bearded youth who was looking away, at
something in the sky that only he could see. The air was heavy, and
although it would soon be eight o’clock, there was still a
good deal of sunlight about --- soft, slanting sunlight, with the
quality that goes with light that has been about for the whole day
and is now comfortable, used.

The coincidence was that Jamie should suddenly broach the subject
of what it must be like to feel thoroughly ashamed of oneself.
Later on she asked herself why he had suddenly decided to talk
about that. Had he seen something on the Meadows to trigger such a
line of thought? Strange things were no doubt done in parks by
shameless people, but hardly in the early evening, in full view of
passersby, on an evening such as this. Had he seen some shameless
piece of exhibitionism? She had read recently of a Catholic priest
who went jogging in the nude, and explained that he did so on the
grounds that he sweated profusely when he took exercise. Indeed,
for such a person it might be more convenient not to be clad, but
this was not Sparta, where athletes disported naked in the
palaestra; this was Scotland, where it was simply too cold
to do as in Sparta, no matter how classically minded one might

Whatever it was that prompted Jamie, he suddenly remarked:
“What would it be like not to be able to go out in case
people recognised you? What if you had done something so . . . so
appalling that you couldn’t face people?”

Isabel glanced at him. “You haven’t, have

He smiled. “Not yet.”

She looked up at the skyline, at the conical towers of the old
Infirmary, at the crouching lion of Arthur’s Seat in the
distance, beyond a line of trees. “Some who have done
dreadful things don’t feel it at all,” she said.
“They have no sense of shame. And maybe that’s why they
did it in the first place. They don’t care what others think
of them.”

Jamie thought about this for a moment. “But there are plenty
of others, aren’t there? People who have done something out
of character. People who have a conscience and who yet suddenly
have given in to passing temptation. Some dark urge. They must feel
ashamed of themselves, don’t you think?”

Isabel agreed. “Yes, they must. And I feel so sorry for
them.” It had always struck her as wrong that we should judge
ourselves --- or, more usually, others --- by single acts, as if a
single snapshot said anything about what a person had been like
over the whole course of his life. It could say something, of
course, but only if it was typical of how that person behaved;
otherwise, no, all it said was that at that moment, in those
particular circumstances, temptation won a local victory.

They walked on in silence. Then Isabel said, “And what about
being made to feel ashamed of what you are? About being
who you are.”

“But do people feel that?”

Isabel thought that they did. “Plenty of people feel ashamed
of being poor,” she said. “They shouldn’t, but
many do. Then some feel ashamed of being a different colour from
those around them. Again, they shouldn’t. And others feel
ashamed of not being beautiful, of having the wrong sort of chin.
Of having the wrong number of chins. All of these

“It’s ridiculous.”

“Of course it is.” Jamie, she realised, could say that;
the blessed do not care from what angle they are regarded, as Auden
. . . She stopped herself, and thought instead of moral progress,
of how much worse it had been only a few decades ago. Things had
changed for the better: now people asserted their identities with
pride; they would not be cowed into shame. Yet so many lives had
been wasted, had been ruined, because of unnecessary shame.

She remembered a friend’s mother who had discovered, at the
age of twelve, that she was illegitimate, that the father who had
been said to have been killed in an accident was simply not there,
a passing, regretted dalliance that had resulted in her birth.
Today that meant very little, when vast cohorts of children sprang
forth from maternity hospitals without fathers who had signed up to
anything, but for that woman, Isabel had been told, the rest of her
life, from twelve onwards, was to be spent in shame. And with that
shame there came the fear that others would find out about her
illegitimacy, would stumble upon her secret. Stolen lives, Isabel
thought, lives from which the joy had been extracted; and yet we
could not banish shame altogether --- she herself had written that
in one of her editorials in the Review of Applied Ethics,
in a special issue on the emotions. Without shame, guilt became a
toothless thing, a prosecutor with no penalties up his

They were on their way to a dinner party, and had decided to walk
rather than call a taxi, since the evening was so inviting. Their
host lived in Ramsay Garden, a cluster of flats clinging to the
edge of the Castle Rock like an impossible set constructed by some
operatic visionary and then left for real people to move into. From
the shared courtyard below, several cream-harled buildings, with
tagged-on staircases and balconies, grew higgledy-piggledy
skywards, their scale and style an odd mixture of Arts and Crafts
and Scottish baronial. It was an expensive place to live, much
sought-after for the views which the flats commanded over Princes
Street and the Georgian New Town beyond.

She had told Jamie who their hosts were, but he had forgotten, and
he asked her again as they climbed the winding stairway to the
topmost flat. She found herself thinking: Like all men, he does not
listen. Men switch off and let you talk, but all the time something
else is going on in their minds.

“Fleurs-de-lis,” said Isabel, running her hand along
the raised plaster motifs on the wall of the stairway. “Who
are they? People I don’t know very well. And I think that I
owe them, anyway. I was here for dinner three years ago, if I
remember correctly. And I never invited them back. I meant to, but
didn’t. You know how it is.”

She smiled at herself for using the excuse You know how it
. It was such a convenient, all-purpose excuse that one
could tag it on to just about anything. And what did it say? That
one was human, and that one should be forgiven on those grounds? Or
that the sheer weight of circumstances sometimes made it difficult
to live up to what one expected of oneself? It was such a flexible
excuse, and one might use it for the trivial or the not so trivial.
Napoleon, for instance, might say, Yes, I did invade Russia;
I’m so sorry, but you know how it is.

Jamie ended her reverie. “They’ve forgiven you,”
he said. “Or they weren’t counting.”

“Do you have to invite people back?” Isabel asked.
“Is it wrong to accept an invitation if you know that you
won’t reciprocate?”

Jamie ran his finger across the fleurs-de-lis. “But you
haven’t told me who they are.”

“I was at school with her,” said Isabel. “She was
very quiet. People laughed at her a bit --- you know how children
are. She had an unfortunate nickname.”

“Which was?”

Isabel shook her head. “I’m sorry, Jamie, I
shouldn’t tell you.” That was how nicknames were
perpetuated; how her friend, Sloppy Duncan, was still Sloppy Duncan
thirty years after the name was first minted.

Dalhousie Novel © Copyright 2010 by Alexander McCall Smith.
Reprinted with permission by Pantheon. All rights reserved.

The Comforts of a Muddy Saturday: An Isabel Dalhousie Novel
by by Alexander McCall Smith

  • Genres: Fiction, Mystery
  • paperback: 272 pages
  • Publisher: Anchor
  • ISBN-10: 0307387070
  • ISBN-13: 9780307387073