Authors: Alexander McCall Smith
He briefly considered Herr Huber’s assistant, a woman in her early thirties, whom he believed to be unmarried. But when he got to know her better, through her occasional appearances in the coffee room, he realised that some of the Librarian’s worst traits had rubbed off on her and he did not think that he could tolerate for any length of time her rambling conversation on matters of very little interest. For the rest, there were few opportunities. There was the odd social occasion, including, now and then, dinner parties, but everybody at these functions appeared to be married or to have other existing arrangements. It sometimes seemed to von Igelfeld that he, alone, was alone.
The conversation about marriage – whoever started it – got on to the topic of the advantages of cooking for two.
‘It’s much cheaper,’ said Prinzel. ‘Indeed, we usually cater for six, and then freeze the remaining four portions for use at a later date. It is called an economy of scale, I believe.’
‘How very interesting,’ said Herr Huber. ‘The chef
at the nursing home – the one my aunt is in – was telling me that he has to cater for forty-two and—’
‘Yes, yes, Herr Huber,’ said Unterholzer. ‘The real point is that there is no difference – in labour terms – between making one portion or two. They both take exactly the same time. Another argument in favour of the married state!’
Unterholzer threw von Igelfeld a glance at this stage, which von Igelfeld returned icily.
‘How interesting,’ said von Igelfeld. ‘At the same time, one must not forget that cooking for two reduces one’s culinary choices by exactly fifty per cent.’
There was a silence while this remark was digested. Prinzel looked particularly puzzled. ‘Why?’ he asked. ‘I really don’t see …’
‘Nor do I,’ snapped Unterholzer.
Von Igelfeld smiled. ‘A moment’s thought will confirm the truth of what I’ve said. Any two people will naturally like different things. If, therefore, there are, shall we say, twenty available recipes, we may assume that person
will like ten and person
will like ten. These preferences will be different, because people have different tastes. So there will probably only be ten that will be accepted by both people. Some of these will not be the first choice of both. Each person will therefore probably only get five courses that he really likes. That restricts choice by fifty per cent.’
There was a further silence, eventually broken by the Librarian. ‘My aunt cannot abide spinach. If she has spinach—’
He did not finish. ‘I don’t see that at all,’ interjected Unterholzer.
‘Oh, I assure you, Herr Unterholzer, she has never been able to eat—’
Unterholzer ignored the Librarian and addressed von Igelfeld again. ‘A single person would like ten of the twenty, you say? Well then, if he is sharing with somebody else they’re surely going to find ten that they both like, or can eat. So in each case he’s having ten. That’s not less choice – it’s the same.’
Von Igelfeld smiled. Unterholzer was just not getting the point. Prinzel, who was also puzzled, now steered the conversation back to marriage. ‘There are many shared moments in a marriage,’ he said. ‘That is one thing you discover when you marry.’
‘But, forgive me, Herr Prinzel,’ said von Igelfeld. ‘Forgive me for pointing out that surely most people would know that
they get married. Spending time together, I would have thought, is a fundamental feature of marriage – something that everybody knows.’
‘There is knowledge and knowledge,’ interjected Unterholzer. ‘You may think that you know something and then you discover that you didn’t really know it – not in the full sense. So …’ and here he glanced at
von Igelfeld, ‘so unmarried people – those whom nobody has ever wanted to marry …’ and he looked at von Igelfeld again, ‘those people, with all due respect to them, may be ignorant of some of the more subtle implications of the married state. That is my view, for what it is worth.’
Von Igelfeld bit his lip. It was quite intolerable to have to sit and be condescended to by Unterholzer, of all people. He knew that he should have maintained a dignified silence, but he just could not let this pass. ‘Many unmarried people are unmarried by choice,’ he said. ‘They are often rather more discerning people: people who are not afraid of their own company. Not always, of course – but often.’
‘I’m not sure about that, Herr von Igelfeld,’ Unterholzer replied. He was about to continue, but the Librarian had something to add.
‘My aunt never married,’ he said.
It had been a very unsatisfactory conversation from von Igelfeld’s point of view. He could discount anything that the Librarian said, of course, as Herr Huber had very little knowledge of the world. He knew something about book classification and paper conservation, perhaps, and he appeared to have some arcane – and entirely useless – knowledge of the ins and outs of nursing homes, but when it came to any other topic,
including marriage, he was not to be taken at all seriously. Unterholzer could also be ignored most of the time, even if it was important to listen to what he had to say if only to refute it. He was married, of course, but von Igelfeld was very doubtful as to whether his colleague had learned very much from that experience. So he, too, could be safely discounted. But then it came to Prinzel, and here was a fish of an entirely different stripe. Von Igelfeld admired Prinzel, and had done so since their student days, when he had accorded to Prinzel that devotion that the scholar-poet classically gives the hero-athlete. Prinzel knew about women, who had flocked to him even in their student days, and if anybody were going to influence von Igelfeld’s view of marriage, it would be Prinzel.
It was significant, then, that Prinzel should have sauntered into von Igelfeld’s office later that day and taken up the theme of the coffee room conversation. ‘Interesting remarks were made this morning,’ he said, as he walked over to gaze out of von Igelfeld’s window. He often did this, and von Igelfeld tolerated it. Unterholzer, by contrast, was never allowed to look out of that window and was always sharply censured if he did so. ‘I do not mind your admiring my view, Herr Unterholzer,’ von Igelfeld had said. ‘But I would prefer you to ask permission before you do so. It is only common courtesy, I believe.’
Unterholzer had snorted. ‘I did not think that a view is a private thing, Professor von Igelfeld,’ he had said. ‘Perhaps you will feel the need to correct me, but I must point out that the trees and hills at which I am looking do not belong to you. And if they do not belong to you, then I fail to see why I should ask your permission to contemplate them.’ He threw a challenging glance at von Igelfeld, before adding, ‘Or perhaps I’m missing something?’
Von Igelfeld had been unable to answer this, and had been obliged to get up from his desk and draw the blind, so that Unterholzer could not continue to look at the view uninvited. ‘Forgive me, Herr Unterholzer,’ he said. ‘But I find the sunlight a little bit fierce, and, as I’m sure you will agree, it is disconcerting to be blinded by light
when one is trying to get on with one’s work
Prinzel, of course, needed no such direct reprimands. He could look at the view as much as he liked, as far as von Igelfeld was concerned. Indeed, he would happily provide him with a chair at the window so that he could enjoy the view in comfort, if that proved to be necessary.
‘Yes,’ mused Prinzel. ‘There is no doubt but that marriage is a fascinating subject.’ He paused. ‘Don’t you agree?’
‘Of course,’ said von Igelfeld. ‘I am aware of that.
I am proposing to read a bit more about it. I believe that Montaigne has something to say on it.’
Prinzel raised an eyebrow. ‘Montaigne was the sort who would have something to say on … the physical side of marriage. But that is not the issue. The real issue is the pleasure that marriage brings in the domestic sense. I cannot tell you how comfortable it is not to have to iron one’s shirts.’
Von Igelfeld glanced at Prinzel’s shirt, which was beautifully neat and smooth, with razor-like creases down the sleeves. Then he looked down at his own shirt, which was so badly looked after by his Polish housekeeper, who was becoming distinctly slipshod in her attention to his clothes.
‘You would perhaps benefit from that sort of attention,’ said Prinzel.
‘Perhaps,’ said von Igelfeld.
‘And then there are the delights of the table,’ went on Prinzel. ‘Did I tell you what I had for dinner last night? No? Coquilles St Jacques, followed by a very fine piece of Swiss beef. How about that?’
Von Igelfeld looked up at the ceiling. He had enjoyed a heated-up can of soup and a cellophane-wrapped sandwich that he had bought from a small shop round the corner. ‘Very tasty, no doubt,’ he said. ‘Of course, there is a restaurant nearby that does that sort of thing. I sometimes go there.’
‘But imagine having it in your own home,’ said Prinzel. ‘It always tastes so much better than in a restaurant. And restaurants are always full of rather lonely people, I find. It’s often very melancholy.’
Von Igelfeld said nothing. Prinzel did not intend to offend, but it was clear that von Igelfeld was one of these lonely people who could be encountered in restaurants. He was not lonely, of course; he had the
to keep him company and there were always new articles to read, but it was also undeniably true that when he went to restaurants he usually sat by himself. In fact, he always sat by himself, apart from one occasion when somebody had been put at his table because of a lack of a place elsewhere. That had been an interesting experience, with von Igelfeld snatching the opportunity to glance at his fellow diner from time to time and speculating mentally as to where he came from and what he did. He was a respectable-looking man with a pleasant, prosperous air to him, and von Igelfeld would have rather enjoyed a conversation with him – had they been introduced to one another, which they had not.
He looked at Prinzel; he would have to allay his friend’s concerns. ‘I am quite satisfied with my domestic arrangements, Herr Prinzel,’ he began. ‘You will have observed, I think, that I am not wasting away. I do not think, therefore, that you need concern
yourself about whether I am getting enough to eat. But thank you, none the less, for your interest in this matter.’
Prinzel continued to look out of the window. ‘Yes, Herr von Igelfeld, that is clear. You are not in imminent danger of starvation. Nobody is suggesting that. However …’ He paused, turning round to face von Igelfeld. ‘However, it is true, is it not, that you are not exactly overweight. In fact, you are thin. And it is also true that your clothes …’
Von Igelfeld waited for Prinzel to continue. Prinzel, in his view, was in no position to criticise his clothes. He himself liked wearing a completely unsuitable fawn-coloured waistcoat that von Igelfeld had long wanted to discuss with him. Perhaps this would be his opportunity.
‘Yes, my clothes, Herr Prinzel? I am interested to hear about my clothes. It is always useful to get the advice of one whose own sartorial expertise is so clearly of such a high standard. Your waistcoat, for instance—’
He did not have the chance to finish. ‘There is nothing wrong with your clothes,’ Prinzel continued hurriedly. ‘When other people attack them, I never hesitate to defend your wardrobe.’
Von Igelfeld’s eyes narrowed. Why, he wondered, should others attack his clothes? It was not a comfortable
discovery to make – to find out that there were people, unnamed people, who were in the habit of singling out one’s clothes for adverse comment.
‘Who are these people?’ he asked.
Prinzel waved a hand towards the window, as if to take in the entire population of central and eastern Bavaria. ‘Oh, there are many of them. People of no consequence, no doubt. I cannot list them all at present; they are too numerous.’ He looked at von Igelfeld almost apologetically. ‘But it is not your clothes that I wish to discuss. That would be very rude. Nobody likes to hear their clothes described as fit only for a second-hand shop or for distribution to the less fortunate members of society. Nobody likes that sort of comment, do they? No, it is not your clothes I wish to talk about, it is rather a very direct question which my wife asked me to raise.’
Von Igelfeld waited. He liked Ophelia Prinzel. He liked Prinzel, too, and it was only for this reason that he was putting up with this increasingly trying personal conversation. Had it been Unterholzer raising such issues, the outcome would certainly have been quite different. The niceties would have been observed, of course – they always were – but Unterholzer would have been left in no doubt at all about the inappropriateness of what was being said.
‘This question, Herr Prinzel: I am most interested
to hear it. Has it anything to do, I wonder, with the work of the Institute?’
Prinzel shook his head. ‘Oh, no, it has nothing to do with that.’
Prinzel looked embarrassed. ‘It is not a question that I would normally ask of anybody. In my view, such matters are strictly private. But you know how women are.’
Von Igelfeld nodded, which surprised Prinzel. He does not know that, he thought. He knows nothing about that subject, poor Moritz-Maria.
‘Of course you do,’ said Prinzel. ‘Well, my wife, Frau Prinzel—’
‘I am well aware of her name,’ interjected von Igelfeld. ‘I would not expect your wife to be called Frau Unterholzer, would I?’
They both smiled at the joke, which went some way towards dissipating the tension that had grown up through this conversation.
‘Of course not,’ said Prinzel. ‘It would be very strange if I went round saying to people, “This is my wife, Frau Unterholzer.” That would be very strange indeed!’
Von Igelfeld laughed. It was a very good joke, and he felt proud of having made it in the first place. Prinzel had a good sense of humour, he thought, but rarely managed to originate a comment as amusing as this.
‘Or indeed if I introduced her as Frau von Igelfeld!’ continued Prinzel.
Von Igelfeld’s smile faded. ‘But there is no Frau von Igelfeld,’ he said. ‘I do not think, therefore, it would be at all amusing to make such a ridiculous mistake.’