Read Unusual Uses for Olive Oil Online

Authors: Alexander McCall Smith

Unusual Uses for Olive Oil (4 page)

‘Your cousin,’ interjected von Igelfeld.

The effect of these words was instant. The director’s jaw dropped, and he moved back in his chair, as if pushed by an unseen hand. ‘You do not imagine …’ His voice was wavering and he did not finish the sentence.

‘I assumed that you and Professor Dr Unterholzer were cousins,’ said von Igelfeld. ‘There is, after all, a certain family resemblance.’

‘In what way?’ stuttered the director.

‘In the …’ Von Igelfeld was about to say
in the nose
, but stopped himself. This meeting was not going well.

The director had now recovered his composure and leaned forward in his chair. ‘I must assure you, Herr von Igelfeld, that we are not related in any way. He is Unterholzer and I am Unterholzer too. But it is a very common name, you know. I can understand how if you are called von Igelfeld you may assume that all other von Igelfelds are relatives, but you are fortunate in that respect. We Unterholzers do not make the same assumption.’

Von Igelfeld was beginning to feel embarrassed. His moral outrage had been replaced by the realisation that he had been wrong after all. And he regretted barging in with his accusation; it must be bad enough to be called Unterholzer in the first place without then being accused, groundlessly, of nepotism to other Unterholzers. ‘I am very sorry, Herr Direktor,’ he said. ‘I have spoken out of turn. I assumed – quite wrongly – that you were some relative of our Professor Dr Unterholzer just because of the name and your no— and other factors. Please forgive me.’

The director smiled indulgently. ‘There is nothing to forgive, Herr von Igelfeld. It would make no difference if I were related to this Unterholzer of yours. I would never let such a factor sway me in any decision.’ He paused. ‘I take it that this is what you came to see me about? You were concerned about the possibility that ill-informed people might think that the presence of the name Unterholzer on that list was indicative of some sort of improper favouritism? Well, I suppose there is nothing that one can do to stop base-minded people thinking that. But it does not make it true, does it?’

‘Not at all,’ said von Igelfeld. ‘But that was not really the aspect of the prize that concerned me. I came to see you because I thought that the committee had perhaps made a mistake and confused one person for another.’

The director raised an eyebrow. ‘In what way?’ he asked. ‘In what way can we have been mistaken?’

Von Igelfeld did not find it easy. ‘It occurred to others – not necessarily to me, of course – but to others that when the committee wished to honour Romance Philology in Regensburg, then they might have been thinking of my own work,
Portuguese Irregular Verbs
, rather than Professor Unterholzer’s somewhat less well-known work. That is what some people thought, and they brought their doubts to me. I, of course, dismissed these concerns, but thought it politic to raise the issue with you. That is all.’

The director sat quite still. ‘You say you are the author of
Portuguese Irregular Verbs
, and not Professor Unterholzer?’

Von Igelfeld caught his breath. There had been a mistake after all. ‘I am,’ he said. ‘It is my work that you are talking of.’

The director put a hand to his brow. ‘Oh dear,’ he said. ‘This really is most unfortunate. The committee received reports on a number of meritorious works. For some reason, the members were under the impression that
Portuguese Irregular Verbs
, which I must say is very highly regarded, was the work of Professor Unterholzer. That is why he was shortlisted.’

I knew it, thought von Igelfeld. I was right all along.
There has been a terrible mistake. Then he thought: fifty thousand euros.

‘However,’ said the director, ‘as it happens no damage has been done. The judges met again yesterday and reached their final decision. The prize has been awarded to Professor Capobianco. So it really makes no difference. Had it been awarded to Professor Unterholzer, then it would have been very complicated. But the jury has come up with its verdict and the matter has gone the other way. We have yet to announce the outcome, of course.’

Von Igelfeld bit his lip. ‘You mean that the judges decided that Professor Capobianco’s book was more worthy than
Portuguese Irregular Verbs
? Is that what you’re suggesting? That they preferred
ephemera
?’

The director winced. ‘I wouldn’t have put it that way,’ he said. ‘Not in the presence of the author of
Portuguese Irregular Verbs
, your good self. But I suppose that is an inevitable inference from the outcome.’

The two men stared at each other for a few moments. Von Igelfeld found his eyes drawn to the director’s nose. It is the same nose, he said to himself. It is definitely the same nose. And that is just too much of a coincidence to be discounted. There was something not quite right about this situation, but he could not put his finger on it. It seemed very unlikely that the members of the prize committee
could have laboured under the mistaken view that Unterholzer had written
Portuguese Irregular Verbs
unless … unless they had been deliberately misled by the director of the Stiftung, who no doubt had been charged with the duty of preparing a précis of each nominee’s achievements. If this Unterholzer were a nepotistically inclined cousin, as von Igelfeld now once again suspected, it would not have been difficult for him to effect such a deception.

Von Igelfeld rose to his feet and took his leave of the director. There would be plenty of time to think about this matter on the train back to Regensburg; back to Regensburg and away from scheming, duplicitous Berlin, full, as it was, of Unterholzers and their equivalent. And during this time of reflection he could ponder his next move. He could confront Unterholzer, revealing that he knew that this was a case of an Unterholzer awarding a favour to another Unterholzer; or he could remain silent, rising above the whole sordid matter. He decided on the latter. There was, after all, an element of doubt, no matter how suspicious it all looked. And a man was innocent until proved guilty in a court of law, and that presumption should be extended to Unterholzer, even if he did not deserve it.

So when von Igelfeld saw Unterholzer in the coffee room at the Institute the next day, he congratulated him warmly on being shortlisted.

‘I have heard that I have not won it,’ said Unterholzer. ‘And I did tell them, you know, that if anybody should be on the list it should be you. I told them that
Portuguese Irregular Verbs
was the book that really put this place on the map.’

‘You did?’

‘Of course.’

There was no doubt that Unterholzer was telling the truth, decided von Igelfeld, as he looked down into his cup of coffee. How complex this world is, he thought; how easily may things appear to be one thing and then prove to be another. And how easy it was to see the worst in humanity when what we should really be looking for is the best.

‘That was very kind of Professor Dr Unterholzer,’ said the Librarian. ‘Do you not think so, Herr von Igelfeld?’

An Intriguing Meeting

It was only a few days after von Igelfeld’s return from Berlin that the issue of marriage was raised in the Institute’s coffee room. At the end of the discussion nobody was quite sure who had been first to mention the matter; it might have been Professor Dr Dr Florianus Prinzel, or it might have been Unterholzer – von Igelfeld was later unable to recall exactly who had started the debate. He did know, however, that it was not the Librarian, Herr Huber, whose wandering conversation was entirely reactive, and never introduced a new or challenging topic.

And marriage was a challenging topic as far as von Igelfeld was concerned. As a young man, still a student, he had had the occasional girlfriend, but these
relationships had never got anywhere very much, as the young women in question rapidly tired of von Igelfeld’s single-minded devotion to scholarship, his tendency to divert any conversation to linguistics, and his utter lack of any sense of romance.
You’re a very nice boy, Moritz-Maria,
one of these girlfriends had written in her parting letter,
but do you really think that girls are interested in hearing about Portuguese verbs, or whatever it is you spend all your time thinking about? If you do, then for your own sake I must tell you that you really don’t understand how we think. Sorry to be so frank, but you really need to know: Portuguese verbs are
not romantic
!

Von Igelfeld had been puzzled by this letter. He did not mind the rejection so much – his feelings towards the writer of the letter had been barely lukewarm – but he wondered why she should at one and the same time be terminating the relationship as well as describing him as very nice. If she liked him, then why was she ending things? And how could she speak for all girls and say that they were not interested in philology? How did she know that? Then, finally, there was the terrible howler at the end:
Portuguese verbs are not romantic
. That was terribly funny, unintentionally, of course. Portuguese was a Romance language, everybody knew, which meant if there was one thing that Portuguese verbs were, it was romantic! Silly girl!

Much later, it had occurred to him that marriage
would be a desirable state, and he had decided to make an effort to get to know better his dentist, the charming and attractive Dr Lisbetta von Brautheim. To this end he had presented her with a copy of
Portuguese Irregular Verbs
, which he subsequently discovered she was using to stand on while operating her dental drill, as the bulky book was just the right height in relation to her supine patients. His feelings might have been hurt by this, had not a far greater cause for offence soon presented itself. This arose after he had recommended her to Unterholzer, who needed to see a dentist about a worrisome crown. The encounter had been both professionally and socially productive, as Unterholzer later revealed that he had seen Dr von Brautheim for lunch. It was by then hardly appropriate for von Igelfeld to renew his own invitation for lunch, for Unterholzer had proposed and,
mirabile dictu
, been accepted.

Von Igelfeld tried to put a brave face on this disappointment, but it was hard. With both Florianus Prinzel and Detlev Amadeus Unterholzer married, he was the only one of the three professors of the Institute who was single. Herr Huber, of course, had never been married and von Igelfeld considered it inconceivable that anybody would ever wish to marry him, but the Librarian was a special case, and was not really counted for most Institute purposes. The difficulty for von Igelfeld was that marriage, it seemed to him, was an impossibly
complicated matter. If it were a simple process – on a par with, say, obtaining a passport or answering a call to a university chair – then he would have felt quite up to it. But there was the whole business of asking somebody to marry one, and how on earth was that done?
Will you marry me
, although an unambiguous enough question, none the less seemed rather abrupt and could always elicit the simple answer
no
, which would be devastating. And when exactly did one make the proposal? He had read that this could be done over dinner, but it was not specified at what stage of the dinner it was appropriate to pop the question. Did one have to do it before coffee, or was it better to get round to the subject at the coffee stage of the meal? What if the restaurant were noisy, as so many restaurants were, and the question was not heard at all?

But most daunting of all was the task of meeting somebody suitable. Von Igelfeld’s life, revolving as it did around the Institute and its affairs, rarely brought him into contact with suitable, unmarried women. It was true that some of the women staff were single, but they tended to be rather younger than von Igelfeld and he was realistic enough to understand that these young women would hardly be attracted by a man in his late forties, even if he prided himself on carrying no extra flesh and being attractively tall. He had heard that women liked tall men, and in that respect at least he
would be a good catch, but height alone would never carry the day with these young secretaries, with all their giggling and their fascination with the glittery world of popular magazines. And of course they had very little in common in terms of intellectual interests, of which, he believed, they had none at all.

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