“I never went to my class reunion,” said Jamie. “I thought about it—quite 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, well…” 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 moments—on 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. Could, she thought, and would…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.
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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 experience—not 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 more—in some cases for the best part of a lifetime—who 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 them—took them to the grave; and only then did the truth emerge—of a passion concealed, perhaps; of an old lover who had never really gone away; of a past of vice, or greed, or foolishness—there 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 that…”
“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 then…well, I suppose I wanted to be myself. Mothers can…” 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 saints—the sort who wrought miracles or led lives of privation on barren islands—have 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 realm—the small scrap of land to which Isabel—and Jamie now—had 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 lose—that applied to everything, even that to which we thought we had the greatest right. We were tenants of this earth—nothing 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 like them, do we?”
No, she thought, we don’t. She herself tried to like people—and generally succeeded—but 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’ll…” He hesitated. “I know this sounds a bit—how shall I put it?—dismissive, 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 fifteen…Where were her childhood friends? “That may be accidental,” she said. “We lose touch with people for all sorts of reasons—not just because we become different people.”
Jamie smiled. This was a familiar topic—one 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 language—and the techniques, and now even read the Review with some interest.
“If 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.”
“Physically—yes. But it’s not just that. We aren’t just our bodies…” 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 him—in a way, in a foolish way—but 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 and…”
“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 same—I always imagine that we have pretty much the same skeleton that we started with, so to speak, at the beginning—a 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 night—right 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 her—unless 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 she—Isabel—would never find a man. Too brainy, you know—it 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 i and an e, 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 clichéd: Town Bicycle.
Claire Sutherland’s name was on the list the organizer had sent—misspelled, as it happened—and Isabel had imagined with some satisfaction how she might introduce Jamie to her and how her eyes—and she remembered that Claire had small, piggy eyes—would narrow with jealousy when she laid eyes on him. And Isabel would say, “Claire, this is my husband,” 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 contemporaries, now revealed in their emerging life histories; about reflecting on the ravages—and injustices—of 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.”
“Irresistible,” he said, smiling. “I can’t wait.”
Excerpted from At the Reunion Buffet by Alexander McCall Smith. . All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.