Any further conversation about Portuguese shoes was forestalled by George’s return to the room with three newly-arrived guests. These were two women and a man, all of whom looked slightly older than Katie.
he women were called Tina and Vicki, and the man was Graeme. “With an e,” he said. “Graeme with an e.” It was unusual, Stuart thought, to spell your name when you met somebody for the first time – unless it was to be written down for some reason. I could say Stuart with a u rather than an ew, he thought, but why should I?
The introductions made, they looked at one another discreetly. Stuart decided that Tina and Graeme were together; she brushed a hair off his jacket shortly after they entered the room, which was as reliable a sign of intimacy as one might find. It was also proprietorial; although sisters might groom brothers, and wives might groom husbands, beyond those close relationships the act of brushing another’s shoulders was to be undertaken only with caution.
Stuart wondered where Vicki fitted in. If Katie intended to balance numbers, then she must be intended as a female counterpart to him, and that, of course, was suggestive of match-making. People insisted on match-making – they did so in spite of all the evidence that it often led to unhappiness. All sorts of things could go wrong: in extreme cases, people introduced their friends to their polar opposites – unwittingly, of course; they brought women together with men who would make their lives a misery; they matched the musical with the tone-deaf, the selfless with the selfish, meekness with braggadocio. And even if the result was not disaster, it could at least end in embarrassment.
His thoughts were interrupted by Katie. “Since we’re all here,” she said, “we might as well go straight to the table.”
Graeme laughed. “Why not? I didn’t have lunch.”
Tina contradicted him. “You did,” she said. “It’s just that you don’t call it lunch. A sandwich is lunch.” She spotted another hair on his jacket, and reached forward to brush it off. Stuart glanced at his own shoulders. He did not suffer from dandruff, but there had been somebody at work who did and whose career, Stuart felt, had been blighted as a result. He was a talented economist who had never had the promotions he deserved, and Stuart had been sure that had something to do with his dandruff-covered shoulders. That was so unfair, and perhaps there should be protection against that sort of discrimination – specifically, by name, along with other conditions that already enjoyed protection.
“I had lunch in Henderson’s,” said Katie, looking at Stuart as she spoke. That was where she and Stuart had met, and now he wondered whether there was any significance in this remark. Was it a veiled invitation to go to Henderson’s again, he wondered. And if it was, then why should she ask him? He looked at George. Was he good-looking? He was, and perhaps that was what attracted Katie to him. I can’t compete, thought Stuart. It’s too late.
He wondered what George did. Something to do with money, he decided. He had that look about him; there were plenty of people in Edinburgh just like George who made their living in handling money. They had a good conceit of themselves, for the most part, and paid themselves what they themselves felt they deserved – which was far more than the earnings of those who actually made things. Listen to me, Stuart thought. Am I a socialist? Yes, I am, and I shouldn’t apologise for believing that we should share what we have and help our fellow-man; nor for not believing that life was a struggle in which we should strive to come out on top of everybody else. And yet, and yet … Life was a struggle, and people had to be encouraged to pull their weight, and clever and resourceful people had to be rewarded so that they would do what they did and allow us all to benefit from their endeavours. So, he thought, am I a what? A non-socialist? A liberal? A conservative?
Perhaps I’m a bit of everything, he thought. I have some socialism in me, and yet I believe in individual endeavour. Am I am centrist then? How dull that sounds, and how uninteresting it must be to women. Women were attracted to men who had about them a slight air of danger, and centrists were not like that at all. Centrists were sensible, balanced people, who said, On the one hand, and on the other, who saw both sides of the argument, and who rarely spoke with passion. The centrist philosophy, for all its merits, was simply not sexy.
They filed into Katie’s dining room, where a table had been laid for six. The table-cloth was a bright Indian print, and there were candles at either end of the table. A couple of bottles of Italian wine had been opened had been placed at one end of the table, with a large bottle of Highland Spring mineral water at the other.
George told people where to sit. Katie held back – once the guests were settled she was ready to fetch the first course – but when George placed Stuart at the other end of the table from the end she was about to occupy, she threw a glance at him – not a friendly one, thought Stuart. Katie sat next to Graeme, and Stuart had Vicki on one side of him and Tina on the other.
As soon as they were seated, George reached for one of the bottles of wine and began to fill people’s glasses. He started with Vicki, but she put a hand over her glass to indicate that she did not want any wine. “I don’t drink,” she began. “So please …”
The gesture, the universally recognised way of conveying abstinence, came too late. A thin stream of wine was already on its way, and it spilled across her fingers.
“Look out,” exclaimed Katie. “Oh, George …”
He uttered an expletive. Katie looked at him sharply. Vicki drew her hand away and grimaced. Katie passed her a napkin to wipe the wine off her fingers.
“You could say sorry,” muttered Katie. “Rather than swearing.”
George turned his head to glare at her. “Not my fault,” he snapped. “She put her hand in the way.”
“You might at least have asked her,” said Katie. She blushed, obviously embarrassed by this public spat between the two of them. She rose to her feet. “I’m going to fetch the first course.”
George continued to pour wine. He looked angry. “She’s made momos,” he said.
“What?” asked Tina. “Mo-whats?”
“They’re a Nepalese speciality,” answered George. “Katie went to Nepal last year. She volunteered for a project and they had cooking lessons. Momos are seriously delicious. They’re little dumplings that the Nepalis like to eat.”
“My brother went to Nepal for his honeymoon,” said Tina.
“He married somebody he met on-line,” said Graeme. “She imports cashmere scarves.”
“Just about everybody meets on-line,” said Vicki. She looked at Stuart as she spoke, as if encouraging him to take part in the discussion. Stuart looked away. He had decided that he did not like Vicki. If Katie had been intent on match-making, then her efforts were going to be a failure. I want you, he thought. I don’t want her, I want you. Can’t you see it? Can’t you?