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Sweet, Thoughtful Valentine, page 1


Sweet, Thoughtful Valentine

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Sweet, Thoughtful Valentine

  Alexander McCall Smith

  Alexander McCall Smith is the author of the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series, the Isabel Dalhousie series, the Portuguese Irregular Verbs series, the 44 Scotland Street series, and the Corduroy Mansions series. He is professor emeritus of medical law at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland and has served with many national and international organizations concerned with bioethics. He lives in Scotland.


  In the Isabel Dalhousie Series

  The Sunday Philosophy Club

  Friends, Lovers, Chocolate

  The Right Attitude to Rain

  The Careful Use of Compliments

  The Comforts of a Muddy Saturday

  The Lost Art of Gratitude

  The Charming Quirks of Others

  The Forgotten Affairs of Youth

  The Perils of Morning Coffee (eBook only)

  The Uncommon Appeal of Clouds

  At the Reunion Buffet (eBook only)

  The Novel Habits of Happiness

  Sweet, Thoughtful Valentine (eBook only)

  In the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency Series

  The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency

  Tears of the Giraffe

  Morality for Beautiful Girls

  The Kalahari Typing School for Men

  The Full Cupboard of Life

  In the Company of Cheerful Ladies

  Blue Shoes and Happiness

  The Good Husband of Zebra Drive

  The Miracle at Speedy Motors

  Tea Time for the Traditionally Built

  The Double Comfort Safari Club

  The Saturday Big Tent Wedding Party

  The Limpopo Academy of Private Detection

  The Minor Adjustment Beauty Salon

  The Handsome Man’s De Luxe Café

  The Woman Who Walked in Sunshine

  In the 44 Scotland Street Series

  44 Scotland Street

  Espresso Tales

  Love Over Scotland

  The World According to Bertie

  The Unbearable Lightness of Scones

  The Importance of Being Seven

  Bertie Plays the Blues

  Sunshine on Scotland Street

  Bertie’s Guide to Life and Mothers

  The Revolving Door of Life

  For Young Readers

  The Great Cake Mystery

  The Mystery of Meerkat Hill

  The Mystery of the Missing Lion

  In the Corduroy Mansions Series

  Corduroy Mansions

  The Dog Who Came in from the Cold

  A Conspiracy of Friends

  In the Portuguese Irregular Verbs Series

  Portuguese Irregular Verbs

  The Finer Points of Sausage Dogs

  At the Villa of Reduced Circumstances

  Unusual Uses for Olive Oil

  Other Works

  La’s Orchestra Saves the World

  The Girl Who Married a Lion and Other Tales from Africa

  Trains and Lovers

  The Forever Girl

  Fatty O’Leary’s Dinner Party (eBook only)

  Emma: A Modern Retelling

  Chance Developments

  Sweet, Thoughtful Valentine

  Alexander McCall Smith

  A Vintage Short

  Vintage Books

  A Division of Penguin Random House LLC

  New York

  Copyright © 2016 by Alexander McCall Smith

  All rights reserved. Published in the United States by Vintage Books, a division of Penguin Random House LLC, New York, and in Canada by Random House of Canada, a division of Penguin Random House Canada Limited, Toronto.

  Vintage and colophon are registered trademarks of Penguin Random House LLC.

  This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.

  The Cataloging-in-Publication Data for “Sweet, Thoughtful Valentine” is available from the Library of Congress.

  Vintage eShort ISBN 9780525431916





  About the Author

  Books by Alexander McCall Smith

  Title Page


  Chapter One

  Chapter Two

  Chapter Three

  Chapter Four

  Chapter Five

  Chapter Six

  Chapter Seven

  Chapter One

  “All right, then, you tell me: what exactly do you buy for men?”

  When Isabel had been asked this apparently simple question by a friend she had at first been unable to provide an answer. Of course one bought men…She stopped; it was not as straightforward as she had imagined. What did one buy for men?

  “The things they want,” she said at last. “That’s better than buying them things they don’t want.”

  For a philosopher, such as Isabel Dalhousie, owner and editor of the Review of Applied Ethics, it was a lame response, even with its explanatory addition, and so she added, “Perhaps we should ask them what they want.”

  Her friend considered this, but then pointed out that her own husband, when asked what he wanted for his next birthday, invariably said that he needed nothing.

  Isabel understood. Men were always happy to receive presents, but were not much good at providing any guidance; it was almost as if they thought that women should be able to divine their needs.

  “If I press him,” said her friend, “he tends to say something like, You know I can always do with more socks. Socks! You should see his sock drawer—it’s full to the brim with socks. And the same goes for handkerchiefs and shirts, come to think of it.”

  Isabel smiled. Jamie was the same—he had at least thirty pairs of socks, she thought, although she knew that some of these were what she called divorced socks, no longer being a pair. Somewhere, in a vast, cosmic washtub, were those things that disappeared in washing machines, unclaimed, forgotten about, a Bermuda Triangle for men’s socks.

  Charlie, by contrast, was very specific about his needs. He was coming up to a birthday and had recited a long list of wants. “I want a car,” he intoned. “A car with a battery and a light. And I want a fire engine and a new train with some carriages. And I want a helicopter and a plane and a garage. And I want some chocolates and a torch and a fishing rod and…”

  That would change, of course, and a time would come when, like so many in a materially sated society, he would find it difficult to come up with anything he really wanted. But now her problem was not Charlie and his overambitious requests, but the imminent arrival of Jamie’s birthday. She had asked him for a birthday list—just for guidance—and he had given her a scrap of paper on which he had simply written Some nice stuff—you choose! To which he had added, romantically, And lots of hugs and kisses from you!

  That had touched her, and she had kept the note, folded and tucked away in the same drawer in which she kept Charlie’s drawings, letters from her aunt in Alabama, and a few other family mementos. These included her maternal grandfather’s citation for bravery in the US Navy, and, on her paternal side, the note sent out in Field Marshal Montgomery’s name to her grandfather, Colonel Roderick Dalhousie, thanking him for his service in the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders in Malaya during the Second World War. But touching though his response had been, she still had the task of finding Jamie a present, and that was what was in her mind as she sip
ped at a cup of coffee in Glass and Thompson, the café she frequented at the top of Dundas Street.

  It was a favourite retreat of hers, a place where she could call in on those occasions on which she ventured over to the other side of Edinburgh. In the brief Scottish summer, it was possible to sit outside, at one of the two tables flanking the café’s front door, and, by craning one’s neck, look down the length of the street to the Firth of Forth and the hills of Fife beyond. Now both of those tables were occupied, and Isabel was at her usual place just within the doorway, her coffee before her and an unread copy of The Scotsman newspaper awaiting her attention. She had glanced at the headlines and sighed. A politician had been caught out in a lie and was digging a deeper and deeper hole for himself with every evasive denial. She found the story depressing—especially when it came to his triumphant denunciations of his political enemies, each of whom, she suspected, were only too relieved that it was him rather than they who had been caught.

  She tried to put politicians—and their posturing—out of her mind altogether. There was a time and place for most thoughts, and those that did not belong to the moment should be put aside for consideration at a later, more appropriate time. Sitting in Glass and Thompson on a late morning in May, when it was at last apparent that spring had arrived, was not the time to think of politicians and their promises. Yet she allowed her eye to alight on the paper again, drawn to the accusations of deliberately false promises based on the intentional manipulation of figures…How obvious, she thought; how can they imagine that people will believe these extravagant untruths.

  The thought made the back of her neck feel warm, as it always did when she encountered an example of human mendacity. It was a deep-rooted reaction; even as a young girl, when she heard a friend telling a lie of the sort that children bandy about with impunity, she had blushed on behalf of the liar. And that still happened.

  She shook her head and looked away from the paper. Random thoughts could be controlled, she felt, but one had to practise the technique. Most of us, she suspected, allowed our thoughts to wander, making life an unruly, stream of consciousness affair in which things came into our mind, stayed for a while, but then faded, sometimes to disappear without a trace.

  She tore herself away from The Scotsman. Jamie’s present, she said to herself, and stared out into the street. And then, unbidden but still welcome, came an idea. A short distance down Dundas Street was a small antique shop, The Third Shop, that always had a selection of surprising and tempting objects. If Jamie did not need socks; if he had more than enough books stacked up on his to-read pile; if he had more CDs than he could ever listen to; if he had a relatively new and, of course, lightly used exercise bike (twelve miles, one careful owner), then the only answer was to get him something small and beautiful—something he could put on his desk and appreciate in a way in which he could never appreciate his socks, or his exercise bike, or any of his other material possessions. It would be something entirely personal, something that he could remember she bought him, one particular May, when he was rehearsing for a particular concert; when Charlie had reached a particular state of his development; when she had written on the accompanying card This comes with hugs and kisses and when he had misread her handwriting and asked, “What exactly are higs?”

  She left The Scotsman in the café, by arrangement with Russell, the proprietor.

  “I can’t bring myself to read the paper,” she said. “Not on a morning like this.”

  Russell had glanced out of the window. “Not a day for reality,” he said. “Leave it for the next person.”

  “I haven’t even started the crossword,” said Isabel. “Although I did look at one clue. He conquers all, a nubile tram.” It was a classic, and she had seen it before, in a poem by Auden, who relished crosswords. Clues reoccurred—just as they did in real life.

  Russell smiled. “An anagram?” he asked.

  “Tamburlaine the Great,” she said. And continued, “Such an unpleasant man—he richly deserved to end up as an anagram.”

  Russell looked at the ceiling. “He was a…What was he again?”

  “He was an alpha male.”

  “Big-time,” suggested Russell.

  “Yes, you could say that. Not content with conquering the Persian emperor, he went on to victory over the Turkish sultan, a rather unfortunate man called Bazajeth, whom he then kept in a cage.” She paused, and thought of anagrams for Sultan Bazajeth. Blazes hat junta…The revolt of the hatless against the hatted?

  “No respecter of human rights,” mused Russell.

  “Certainly not. And he fed this poor man scraps from his table and would let him out occasionally only to use him as a footstool—if we are to believe Christopher Marlowe.”

  For a moment both were silent. It had happened a long time ago, and yet, thought Isabel, there were still people who put others in cages.

  “I’m glad I don’t live in the…What century was it?” said Russell.

  Isabel could not remember. “Not the twentieth,” she said eventually. That century had seen three Tamburlaines: Hitler, Stalin and Mao, and there would be more no doubt—the wells of human evil were deep enough. Some child, somewhere, some playground bully, already had the mark upon him.

  She looked at her watch. She had had a further idea about Jamie’s present should she fail to find something in The Third Shop.

  Chapter Two

  She did not have long to look in The Third Shop.

  “Something for Jamie?” said George Dunbar, the proprietor. “He’s a musician, isn’t he?”

  “He is, but anything will do…within reason.”

  George laughed. “I have several unreasonable items,” he said. “A frieze from a Buddhist Temple, for instance.” He pointed to a ceramic plaque on which painted monkeys cavorted. “No? A collection of Victorian glass rolling pins?”

  “They’re lovely,” said Isabel, touching one of the delicate blown glassware pins. “But a rolling pin carries luggage with it, doesn’t it? Isn’t it symbolic?”

  George thought for a moment. “I suppose a rolling pin used to be symbolic of female ire. The long-suffering wife was always portrayed with her rolling pin tucked under her arm, face like thunder.”

  “Ready to wield it,” mused Isabel. “Should it become necessary.”

  “But very few people would get that reference today,” said George. “In fact, I suspect that an awful lot of people won’t recognise a rolling pin. Ready-made pastry means that rolling pins won’t be used that much.”

  Isabel thought about the death of metaphor, which depended so much on what we did and how we did it: flying by the seat of one’s pants made no sense in a world of large planes and automatic pilots; Thomas Edison had done for burning the candle at both ends; too many cooks spoil the broth was meaningless when the broth came in powdered form, sealed in vacuum-packed envelopes, like space rations; and so language retreated, lost its colour.

  “Here’s something of musical interest,” said George, reaching up to a shelf for a rectangular, glass-fronted box. “The rats’ quartet.”

  He placed the box on his desk so that Isabel might examine it. Bending down, she looked through the glass at the tableau inside. Four large rats, preserved by the taxidermist, were seated in a semicircle; behind them, exquisitely painted, was a backdrop of a Victorian salon. The rats were dressed in dolls’ clothing—corduroy britches, fancy waistcoats, jackets—and they sat on tiny bentwood chairs. Each was playing a musical instrument, lovingly modelled: a bassoon, with key-work made of twisted silver wire; a small violin, with what looked like horsehair strings; a viola, and finally a cello, all to scale.

  She caught her breath. “I don’t believe it,” she said.

  George smiled. “These were quite common, you know,” he said. “The Victorians loved them. They often made country house tableaux with stuffed kittens. Kittens playing croquet for example. Formal balls. Kittens on the tennis court, and so on.”

  Isabel straightened up an
d looked at George. “Macabre,” she said.

  “To our eye, yes. Not to theirs.” He paused. “I suppose they didn’t bother to ask how the kittens met their end.”

  Isabel looked again at the rat tableau. She did not like taxidermy, and could never understand why anyone should wish to have a stuffed lion’s head or a moose on the wall. Such things, of course, glorified hunting, which she found distasteful: why anybody should enjoy the killing of another creature was beyond her comprehension. People ate meat and fish, and that involved the taking of life, but this was done out of need rather than blood lust. She paused, aware that she was on the border of uncomfortable territory; she was not a vegetarian and sensed that there was more than a mote of inconsistency in the position of one who ate meat and yet talked of the rights of animals or balked at animal suffering.

  Or was there? Any system of human morality had to be feasible; it had to take into account what we could realistically manage. Could we realistically be expected to foreswear the use of animals for our own ends when the clear pattern of all life on earth was the consumption of one life form by another higher up on the food chain? No other creatures felt sympathy for their prey, but we did—and that, in a sense, justified our drawing a sharp distinction between human and animal life. We were special precisely because we were capable of reason, and precisely because we could feel a sympathy of which other creatures were incapable. And if we were special, then that was justification for treating human life as having greater value than the lives of other creatures; or so the argument might run; not that she was happy with that—in fact, there were strong counterarguments to be made. Professor Singer had made these forcefully, and had to be admired for practising what he preached; but this was not the time to go into all that—not when there was a birthday present to be bought.

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