When Pat accepts her narcissistic ex-boyfriend Bruce's invitation for coffee, she has no idea of the complications in her romantic and professional life that will follow. Meanwhile, Matthew, her boss at the art gallery, attracts the attention of the police after a misunderstanding at the local bookstore.
Whether caused by small things such as a cup of coffee and a book, or major events such as Stuart's application for promotion and his wife Irene's decision to pursue a PhD in Aberdeen, change is coming to Scotland Street. But for three seven-year-old boysBertie Pollock, Ranald, and Big Lou's foster son, Finlayit also means getting a glimpse of perfect happiness.
Alexander McCall Smith's delightfully witty, wise and sometimes surreal comedy spirals out in surprising ways in this new installment, but its heart remains where it has always been, at the center of life in Edinburgh's New Town.
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About the Author
Date of Birth:August 24, 1948
Place of Birth:Zimbabwe
Read an Excerpt
An Invitation to the Elephant House
When Pat Macgregor received an invitation from Bruce Anderson to meet him for coffee at the Elephant House on George IV Bridge, her first reaction was to delete it. That is one of the great advantages of electronic communications – one can simply delete them. And one can do the same to people – in their electronic incarnation, of course; at the press of a button, or the equivalent, one can send them off into some vast soup of disassembled digital data, reducing them to floating ones and zeroes, consigned to a Dantean world of echoes, a shadowy underworld of fading impulses.
And that, thought Pat, was the fate that Bruce so richly deserved. A few years earlier he had played with her affections, as he had toyed with those of so many other young women, believing that to pay attention to this rather shy young student of art history was to confer on her a benison for which, if she knew anything about the world, she should be profoundly grateful. The expression God’s gift to women came into all this – somewhere. It was usually uttered sarcastically, as in He thinks he’s God’s gift to women, but in Bruce’s case this was exactly what he did think of himself. In his view he was one of those people who existed to give pleasure to others – not through anything he actually did – although that, of course, entered into it – but simply by being.
Auden said that the blessed had no reason to care from what angle they were regarded, having nothing to hide. This was true of Bruce: whether you looked at him from the front, the back, or from either side, the inescapable conclusion was that he was egregiously good-looking. As he pointed out to Catriona, a young woman with whom he once visited Florence, “There’s a statue of my double in this city, you know.”
She had looked puzzled. “Your double, Bruce? Here in Florence?”
Bruce smirked. “Yes, right here. Would you like to see it?”
She nodded. This was some sort of game, she suspected; but then Bruce was so playful. That was one of the things that attracted her to him – his playfulness. That and, of course, the way he made a girl feel special; now that was a very considerable talent. And then there was his hair gel, that strange, clove-scented potion that tickled her nose when she smelled it, and added, in such a curious way, an erotic charge to the most mundane of situations.
Bruce and Catriona had already visited the Uffizi and had stood for some minutes before Botticelli’s Birth of Venus before Bruce said, “That’s Venus, you know. That’s her standing in the shell.”
Catriona nodded. “She’s very beautiful, isn’t she?”
Bruce thought about this for a few moments before he replied. “Her neck’s a bit long, but, yes, she’s beautiful all right.” Then, after a short pause, he had observed, “Beauty’s an interesting thing, isn’t it? You either have it, or you don’t. And that’s all there is to it.”
Catriona looked at Bruce. He returned her gaze with all the confidence of one who knew that he stood on the right side of the divide he had just described.
That was in the Uffizi; now they found themselves in the Galleria dell’Accademia, looking up at Michelangelo’s great masterpiece, the towering statue of David.
“There,” said Bruce. “Feast your eyes on that.”
The contemplation of Michelangelo’s David is not easy for everybody, but Catriona looked.
“Lookalike?” whispered Bruce.
She stared at the line of David’s nose and brow: it was undoubtedly Bruce. Her eye followed the sweep of his arms and the musculature of his torso. And she had to admit it:
Bruce could have been Michelangelo’s young model.
“I don’t tell everybody about this,” confided Bruce. “But I remember when I first saw a photograph of David, I thought: ‘Jeez, that’s me.’ I was about sixteen at the time. In Crieff. I was at Morrison’s, you know, and one of the girls in the class stuck a picture of David up in a corridor and wrote underneath it Bruce Anderson. It was so immature, but somehow …”
Pat, of course, had soon detected Bruce’s narcissism. But in her state of infatuation – for that, she acknowledged, was what it was – she had persuaded herself that his self-obsession was a harmless quirk, a hangover from adolescence, a passing phase. After all, there were plenty of young females who were just as fascinated by their appearance, spending hours in front of the mirror. It was more unusual amongst males, perhaps, but what was sauce for the goose should surely be sauce for the gander. If women were to indulge themselves in the contemplation of their own beauty, then why should men not do the same?
For a few months, she had circled Bruce, caught in his gravitational field as a moon might be in that of a planet, until at last she managed to extricate herself. When that happened, her father’s relief at her escape had been palpable. “Men like that are very dangerous,” he said to her. “The only thing to do is to tear yourself away. Believe me – I’ve seen it in so many of my patients.”
Pat’s father, Dr Macgregor, a self-deprecating and scholarly man, was a psychiatrist, and was particularly close to his daughter. He and Pat’s mother had divorced after she had gone off to restore a walled garden in Perthshire and had never returned. He had done nothing to deserve the desertion, but had been generous in his response. “Your mother has found herself elsewhere,” he explained to Pat. “Il faut cultiver notre jardin, as Candide (I think) pointed out. The important thing is her self-fulfillment – that’s all that counts.”
But there was something else that counted for him, and that was Pat’s own happiness. He doted on his daughter and when he realized that she had taken up with Bruce, he had been tipped into depression. At the end of Pat’s affair with Bruce – an end that he, at least, had realized was inevitable – he had tried to explain to her that however low she might feel after the break-up, it was as nothing when compared with the risk she would take in staying with him.
And that was why, when she received this invitation to meet Bruce in the Elephant House, Pat said nothing about it to her father. And it was also why she almost deleted it from her e-mail in-box without a reply. Almost, but not quite: she moved the cursor to hover over the delete symbol, hesitated, and then moved it to Reply.
“See you there,” she wrote. She added no emoticon – for what emoticon is there to express anticipation of the sort she was feeling?