Scotland Street Volume 17, Chapter 11: Kitchen Talk
“Remember,” she said, “how we used to have people round for dinner? Remember? And then they would have us round to their place, where we would meet some of the people who had been at our original dinner party for them … And so it continued, in ever-widening circles. But people seem to have stopped doing that.”
Matthew did remember. In the earlier days of their marriage, that had happened every Saturday night, and sometimes on Fridays too. That was how they kept in touch with people, and how they added to the ranks of their friends and acquaintances. But not any longer, he thought, because … He wondered why social habits had changed – if, indeed, they had changed. He voiced his doubts.
“It’s possible that there still are dinner parties being held,” he said. “It’s just that we may not be invited to them.”
Elspeth looked up from her task of preparing a smoked trout mousse.
“Do you mean that we’re missing out?” she asked.
Matthew smiled. “There’s a German word for that, I think. Ausbremsungsangst. The fear of not being included in some event or other.”
She was doubtful. “You can add Angst to anything, can’t you, and end up with a new word. German has infinite possibilities.”
“There’s a Ben Schott book in which he does just that,” said Matthew, sneaking a taste of the mousse and deftly missing Elspeth’s defensive swat. “Kraftfahrzeugsinnenausstattungs-neugeruchsgenuss. That’s one of his. How’s that for a word?”
Elspeth said that she thought such a word unlikely. “People will have lost interest by the time you get to the end of it.”
“But that’s the problem with German,” Matthew remarked. “If you put the verb at the end, you’re asking for people to lose interest and wander away before you’ve finished your sentence. That’s what so many German people look a bit anxious. There’s probably even a German noun for their condition – fear of people losing interest before you’ve finished what you have to say. Something-or-other-angst.”
“What did that other one mean?” asked Elspeth. “The one that began with Kraft?
“The pleasure you get from the smell of a new car,” Matthew replied. “Which does exist, you know. I love getting into a new car and taking a deep breath.”
“Fear of one’s husband coming into the kitchen and sticking his finger in the trout mousse before you’ve finished making it,” muttered Elspeth.
“I shall try to resist the impulse,” he assured her. “Sampling is a form of compliment, of course. With some cooks one might wish not to sneak a quick preview. You should be flattered.”
She finished her preparation of the mousse and stood back to admire it. Now there was a carrot purée, to which cream needed to be added. After that, small slices of garlic had to be stuck into the lamb joint.
“Anna gave this to me,” she said, pointing to the lamb. “She said this will be seriously delicious.” Anna was Elspeth’s friend from Baddinsgill Farm, her adviser on all things culinary. “I wish I could cook like her.”
“You do wonderfully,” said Matthew. “I love everything you make.” He paused. “I love everything you do, you know. I love … I love your entire Weltanschauung.”
He stepped forward and planted a kiss on her forehead. “I’m so lucky to have you, you know. I really am.”
She looked at him tenderly. “I’m the one who’s lucky.”
“No, I am.”
She kissed him back. “Perhaps we both are.”
Matthew looked thoughtful. “Are Scotsmen demonstrative enough?” he asked. “Do we kiss those we love enough, do you think?”
Elspeth shrugged. It was hard enough for women as it was – coping with children, running households, working the same hours as men worked, picking up the pieces here and there: none of that was easy. And to have to cope with being kissed by one’s husband in the middle of all that could just be the straw that broke the camel’s back.
“Probably not,” she said. “But then we women have so many other things on our plate. It’s not just that we would discourage such things, it’s more a case of having the time, so to speak.” And then she added, “And the energy.”
“Do you need energy to be kissed?”
She thought that you did – and remembered the look that her mother would adopt when her husband kissed her. “My mother used to scrunch her face up,” she said. “Like this. All her facial muscles went tense.”
Elspeth nodded. “Dad gave up in the end. He used to give her little waves with his hand. That was how they got along.”
She thought of the bungalow in Comrie, where her parents had lived. She thought of the hills, and of how, in the late summer, some of them turned from green to purple with the heather; and the winding road to St Fillans, and the deep waters of Loch Earn. She thought of her parents, and of the disappointments of their lives, and she wondered whether she had loved them enough.
“People get along,” said Matthew. “Somehow.”
Elspeth looked at the clock. It was almost eight o’clock. She would need to put the lamb in the oven so that it was ready by the time they sat down to dinner. The carrot purée would just need to be heated up. The peas weren’t fresh, but were frozen and were ready in the pot. One should not overcook peas, or they became mushy. She did not want her life to become mushy – it could so easily, what with having triplets and a house to run and … Where was life going? she asked herself. Where? She sighed.
“A sigh?” asked Matthew.
“Of anticipation,” she said quickly. “I haven’t seen Ben for ages and I hardly know his wife.”
“She’s called Catriona,” said Matthew. “She wears glasses with blue frames.”
She sighed again. Was this what life was about? Having people to dinner – people who wore blue-framed glasses – and talking about – what would they talk about at the table – German composite nouns? The local nursery school? House prices?
Then she remembered. “Bruce is coming too, of course.” That merited a sigh – at the very least.
“He was at school with Ben – the same year, I think,” said Matthew.
“Poor Bruce,” said Elspeth.
“You mean poor Ben.”
“No, I don’t,” said Elspeth. “I meant poor Bruce. He used to be so confident, and now. . .”
“. . . and now he’s just normal,” suggested Matthew.
“Ben was keen for us to invite him,” said Elspeth. “He’s trying to involve him in some sort of business project he’s dreamed up.”
“Are those alarm bells I hear ringing?” said Matthew. “I’ve never trusted Ben.”
“Then why did you invite him?”
Matthew frowned. “I thought you did,” he replied.
© Alexander McCall Smith, 2023. The Stellar Debut of Galactica MacFee will be published by Polygon in November, price £17.99. The author welcomes comments from readers and can be contacted on [email protected]