Authors: 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 was born in what is now known as Zimbabwe and was a law professor at the University of Botswana.
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 CafÃ©
The Great Cake Mystery
The Mystery of Meerkat Hill
The Mystery of the Missing Lion
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
The Uncommon Appeal of Clouds
44 Scotland Street
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 Dog Who Came in from the Cold
A Conspiracy of Friends
Portuguese Irregular Verbs
The Finer Points of Sausage Dogs
At the Villa of Reduced Circumstances
Unusual Uses for Olive Oil
La's Orchestra Saves the World
The Girl Who Married a Lion and Other Tales from Africa
Trains and Lovers
The Forever Girl
A Division of Penguin Random House LLC
Copyright Â© 2015 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 of Canada Ltd., 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 “At the Reunion Buffet” is available from the Library of Congress.
Vintage eShort ISBN:â9781101970461
“I never went to my class reunion,” said Jamie. “I thought about itâquite hard, actually, but at the end of the day decided no, I wouldn't.”
“Wouldn't, or couldn't?” asked Isabel Dalhousie, his wife, his lover, his friend, and, in addition to all that, editor of the
Review of Applied Ethics
. “There's a difference, you know.”
“I could have gone, I suppose, but somehow I couldn't face it. Class reunions, wellâ¦” He shrugged.
She allowed her gaze to dwell on him, making it possible for a rush of love to overwhelm her, as it often did when she was with him, unexpectedly for the most part, at odd momentsâon awakening and seeing that he was still there; while walking in the Pentland Hills with the light behind him and the wind in his hair; in the kitchen, when he was cooking, and might turn to her, holding out a spoon, and say:
Do you like this?
She had always understood that love could have an intense physical effect; could fill a space somewhere in the chest, could turn knees weak, could raise the pulse; could intoxicate, just as could a strong martini or a glass of champagne.
, she thought, and wouldâ¦but only if you allowed it, only if you opened whatever portals of the heart needed to be opened. And some people, of course, found it difficult to do that.
She loved Jamie with an intensity that had not diminished in any way since they had stood side by side in Canongate Kirk those few short years ago and exchanged their vows; if anything, she loved him even more now than she had loved him then. People said that marriage could change everything, could dull whatever initial excitement there had been, but that had not been her experienceânot at all. And yet, even as one loved somebody more and more, did one necessarily begin to know the other any better? She had heard of people who were married for forty years or moreâin some cases for the best part of a lifetimeâwho then discovered that their spouses were not the people they had thought them to be; it was possible: some spouses kept secrets from one another, and perhaps never even revealed themâtook them to the grave; and only then did the truth emergeâof a passion concealed, perhaps; of an old lover who had never really gone away; of a past of vice, or greed, or
was so much that could be hidden from others; so many ways for us to be other than what we wanted ourselves to be.
She realized that there were things about Jamie she did not know, and this conversation was straying into that difficult territory. Jamie never talked about his parents, which had struck her as odd. She had sensed, though, that it was something that he would not want her to probe. On one occasion she had said, almost jokingly,
You did have a mother, I assume,
and he had looked at her as if she were deliberately trying to wound him.
“Of course I had a mother.”
She laughed nervously. “I was only joking. It's just thatâ¦”
“Just that you never mention her. I know nothing about her. You never speak about her, do you?”
He had been silent for a while. Then he said, “It was a complicated relationship.”
“It often is.”
He inclined his head. “I wasn't very close to her latterly. I was when I was a little boy, but thenâ¦well, I suppose I wanted to be myself. Mothers canâ¦” He searched for the word; any accusation against a mother, however justified, could seem so harsh. “Can suffocate their sons.” He added quickly, “Not intentionally, of course.”
She had nodded. The relationship of mothers and sons was very different from that of mothers and daughters; she knew that because her mother had been more ambitious for Isabel's brother than for Isabel herself. She had resented this apparent favoritism, because all of us want the complete approval of our parents and cannot bear the thought of any preference for a sibling. But that feeling had passed, and her mother's memory had become unassailable.
My sainted American mother
she was fond of saying; and why not? Why should we not have a private cult of our parents when cults of real saintsâthe sort who wrought miracles or led lives of privation on barren islandsâhave been taken away from us, made risible, reduced to being private weaknesses for the superstitious and the gullible.
She had barely talked to Jamie about his school days, and she wondered whether this was another area of experience that was for some reason out of bounds. Had he been happy? Who had his school friends been? She had no idea. There must be a reason why he had decided not to attend his ten-year class reunion; normally Jamie's instincts were social. If invited to a party, he went, and usually enjoyed himself; perhaps this did not apply to reunions.
This conversation took place in the morning room of their house in Edinburgh, a room that looked out over the lawn, the line of shrubs at its edge, and the high stone wall that prescribed the boundary of their garden. This was her private realmâthe small scrap of land to which Isabelâand Jamie nowâhad title according to the law of Scotland; its owners, in as much as any of us can be said to own the ground we stand upon.
What we have, we all must loseâ
that applied to everything, even that to which we thought we had the greatest right. We were tenants of this earthânothing more.
He realized that she was waiting for an explanation. He gave one, although he seemed uncomfortable about it. “It's just that we never choose the people we're at school with, do we? We're thrown together.”
He was right, she thought. Yet being thrown together was a universal, unavoidable fact of life. It started with birth, really, which was a form of being tossed into something we had not chosen. “But that's what life is like, surely,” she ventured. “We don't choose our neighbors. We don't pick the people we work with. We take what we're given.”
“Exactly,” he said. “But we can choose whether we want to socialize with the people we come into contact with. They don't have to be our intimate friends. We don't have to
them, do we?”
No, she thought, we don't. She herself tried to like peopleâand generally succeededâbut Jamie was choosier when it came to his friends, and as a result had fewer than she did. She had noticed that, because she had seen how keen people were to become close to him; they seemed drawn to him, even those who met him casually; and she had seen, too, how reserved he could be when he became aware of their interest. It was something to do with his appearance, she imagined: the beautiful were never short of people eager to befriend them.
“But even if one isn't going to end up liking everybody,” she said, “at least one can like some of them.”
“Yes, but are you going to continue to like them?”
She considered this. “Over the years?”
“Yes. We change as we get older. And that means, surely, that we'llâ¦” He hesitated. “I know this sounds a bitâhow shall I put
but the people you like when you're fourteen or fifteen may not be the same sort of people you'll like when you're thirty.” He looked at her inquiringly. “Are you still in close touch with any friends you had at that age? You aren't, are you?”
Isabel thought for a moment. There must be somebody, and yet she could not think of a name. She still saw people she had met at twenty, but fourteen or fifteenâ¦Where were her childhood friends? “That may be accidental,” she said. “We lose touch with people for all sorts of reasonsânot just because we become different people.”
Jamie smiled. This was a familiar topicâone that he and Isabel had discussed at length before. Are we the same person at forty as we are at fourteen? It was Isabel who had introduced him to the philosophical debate on personal identity, and he had enjoyed the abstruse articles on the subject that she had given him. He had learned the philosophical languageâand the techniques, and now even read the
with some interest.
we become different people,” he said.
She held her ground. “We do,” she said. “I'm not the same person I was at eighteen. I'm just not.”
“But you are,” he insisted. “I've seen a photograph.”
But it's not just that. We aren't just our bodiesâ¦” She paused. “I have different tastes in music; I think about things differently; the people I liked when I was eighteen are not the sort of people I like today. I'm very, very different.” She thought of John Liamor; she had been in love with himâin a way, in a foolish wayâbut she could never love him, or anybody at all like him, now.
He shook his head. “That means your tastes have changed. It doesn't mean that you're a different person.”
“Doesn't it? What if I were to say to you that personhood is really a matter of attitudes and emotions andâ¦”
“And memories,” he interjected.
“Yes, and memories too. And if all those things are different, then the person's different. Oh, there may be some physical elements that are the sameâI always imagine that we have pretty much the same skeleton that we started with, so to speak, at the beginningâa bit bigger, maybe, but the same bones.” She paused. “But I wasn't going to get into a discussion of personal identity; we were talking about class reunions.”
He nodded. “So you're going to yours?”
“Yes, or rather, it's coming to me. I've agreed to host one of the parties. It'll be on the Friday nightâright at the beginning.”
She had meant to ascertain whether he had any objection, but had forgotten to mention it to him. She hoped that he did not mind twenty-five women, or whatever number it was, coming to the house. The others would not have their partners with them, and Jamie, if he attended, would be the only man. They would love him, of course, and at least some of them would feel envy towards herâunless they had grown up, and could cope with the sight of one of their number with a much younger man, even if all those years ago they had whispered amongst themselves that
never find a man.
Too brainy, you knowâit puts men off. I swear it does. That's not what men are looking for
. She had overheard one such conversation, and the laughter that had followed it, and she had smarted over it. Who had said it? Even now she remembered: it was Claire Sutherland, whom she had disliked on that account; Claire, who always spelled out her name when introduced.
Claire with an
, please, not the other stupid ways of spelling it;
Claire, whose uncle had married a minor film star, whose name she dropped into almost every conversation; Claire, who had had no shortage of boyfriends but had them, Isabel remembered thinking, because she had lived up to the nickname some sniggering boys had coined for her, as vulgar and unkind as it was clichÃ©d:
Claire Sutherland's name was on the list the organizer had
as it happenedâand Isabel had imagined with some satisfaction how she might introduce Jamie to her and how her eyesâand she remembered that Claire had small, piggy eyesâwould narrow with jealousy when she laid eyes on him. And Isabel would say, “Claire, this is my
” which would cause a further narrowing of the eyes.
She had stopped herself. This was not the way in which we should allow our thoughts to run, she reminded herself; class reunions should not be marred by feelings of jealousy or triumph; should not be, yes, but she suspected that they often were. Class reunions were about curiosity; about satisfaction at the avoidance of the mistakes of one's
now revealed in their emerging life histories; about reflecting on the ravagesâand injusticesâof time; and of realizing, perhaps, how strange and random are the twists and turns of fate.
“Yes,” she said. “The inaugural party's going to be here. I hope you don't mind.”
He seemed surprised. “Why should I mind?”
She shrugged. “All those girls together, talking about times past.”
he said, smiling. “I can't wait.”