The Uncommon Appeal of Clouds
‘Mozart,’ said Isabel Dalhousie. And then she added, ‘Srinivasa Ramanujan.’
From his side of the kitchen table, Jamie, her husband of one year, lover of more than four, looked up quizzically. ‘Mozart, of course, but Srini . . . ’ He attempted the name, but decided he could not manage it and trailed off into a liquid melt of vees and sibilants. Indian names, mellifluous sounding though so many of them may be, can defeat even those with a musical ear. Jamie was accustomed to the stocky sound of Scottish names, redolent as they were of an altogether more forbidding and windswept landscape – those Macdonalds and Macgregors, Macleans and Mackays.
‘Srinivasa Ramanujan,’ Isabel repeated. ‘He was, like Mozart, a child prodigy. A genius.’
‘I used to be so discouraged by Mozart,’ said Jamie. ‘I suspect he has that effect on any child who’s interested in music. You hear about how he was composing complicated pieces at the age of five, or whatever, and you think I’m already twelve – which is ancient by comparison – and I haven’t written anything. And it makes you ask yourself whether there’s much point in making all that effort.’ He paused. ‘But what about this Srinivasa?’
‘He was a brilliant mathematician back in his day,’ said Isabel. She made a gesture that indicated the earlier part of the twentieth century – or at least did so to her; to Jamie it was no more than a vague movement of the hand. ‘He died when he was barely into his forties.’
‘Like Mozart. What age was he when he died? Thirty-five, wasn’t he?’
Isabel nodded. ‘Which prompts the usual thoughts of what might have been.’
‘Of music lost,’ said Jamie. He had noticed that people invariably said something like that when the shortness of Mozart’s life was mentioned. What he could have done if he had lived another ten years, another twenty . . . the symphonies, the operas . . .
Isabel reached for her teacup. ‘Yes. And in the caseof Ramanujan, of problems unsolved. But that’s not what interests me. I’ve been thinking of the parents and of their role in their children’s lives. Mozart’s father spent a very large part of his time on his children’s musical education. Teaching him to compose, taking him on those long tours. A pushy father, if ever there was one.’
‘And Srinivasa . . . what about his parents?’
Isabel smiled. ‘He had a mother to contend with. She doted on him. She said that he was the special gift of the household’s private god. She was a mathematician too.’
‘So the best chance of being a prodigy is to have an obsessive parent?’
Isabel agreed, but only to an extent. She believed in nurture, but she gave more weight to nature. ‘You have to have the right genes in the first place. Mozart’s sister had the same upbringing as he did, with the same musical attention. She became a very
competent performer but she was not a musical genius.’
Jamie looked up at the ceiling. ‘Imagine being Mozart’s sister . . . ’
‘Yes, imagine. That bit – the genius bit – has to be there somewhere in the brain. It’s probably a matter of brain design, of neuro-anatomy. Mozart had it; his sister clearly didn’t.’
Jamie called that the wiring. Badness, he thought, was usually a question of faulty wiring; Isabel was not so sure. ‘I read about a rather interesting case of mathematical genius,’ she said.
‘The author? The one who wrote Lolita,?’
‘Yes,’ said Isabel. ‘Nabokov was a mathematical prodigy as a child. He could do elaborate calculations in his head, within seconds.’
Jamie was interested. Musicians were often competent or even more than competent mathematicians – the wiring, perhaps, was similar. At school his best subject, after music, had been mathematics, and yet he had always had to approach it slowly, even ploddingly. ‘How do they do it? I just can’t imagine how it’s possible. Do they have to think it through, or does the answer come to them automatically, just like that?’
Isabel said that she thought they had their tricks – systems that allowed them to make seemingly instantaneous calculations, just as people with exceptional memories had their mnemonics.
‘Some of it, though, comes to them instantly because they just know it.’ She took a sip of her iced tea, and looked at Jamie. ‘You wouldn’t have to think, would you, if I asked you what number multiplied by itself gives you nine.’ She smiled encouragingly. ‘Would you?’
‘You didn’t have to work that out?’
Jamie replied that the answer had simply been there. He had, in fact, seen the figure 3.
‘Then perhaps it’s the same for them,’ said Isabel. ‘The work is done at a subconscious level – the conscious mind doesn’t even know it’s being done.’ She returned to Nabokov. ‘He was capable of amazing calculations and then suddenly he became ill with a very high fever. When he recovered his mathematical ability had gone. Just like that.’
‘The fever affected the brain?’
‘Yes. Burned out the wiring, as you might say.’
They looked at one another wordlessly. Each knew that the other was thinking of their young son, Charlie, now an energetic three-and-three-quarter-year-old; energetic, but currently asleep in his bedroom on that summer morning that was already growing hot. An uncharacteristic heat wave had descended on Edinburgh and the east of Scotland. It brought with it not only a summer languor, but the scent of the country into the town – cut hay, baked hillsides, heather that was soon to flower purple, the sea at Cramond . . .
Isabel broke the silence. ‘So what exactly did he say?’
Jamie’s reply was hesitant. ‘I think it was something like this. You know those bricks of his – the yellow ones?’
Isabel did. They had on them bright pictures of ducks engaged in various pursuits – driving a train, drinking tea, flying in small biplanes – and Charlie adored them, even to the extent of secreting one of them under his pillow at night. One could love anything as a child, she thought; a teddy bear, a security blanket, a yellow brick . . .
‘There were twenty bricks,’ Jamie went on. ‘We counted them. And he counted with me, all the way up to twenty – which is impressive enough, if you ask me. But then I said, “Let’s take half of them away.” I don’t know why I said it – I hadn’t imagined that he’d be able to cope with the concept of halves. But you know what he said? He said, “Ten.” Just like that. He said, “Ten.”’
There was more. ‘Then I said, “All right, let’s put eight bricks here and take half of those away.” And he said, “Four.” He didn’t even seem to think about it.’
Isabel was listening intently. Had Charlie ever done anything similar for her? She did not think so. He had asked some perceptive questions, though, and one or two of them had startled her. The other day, apropos of nothing, he had suddenly said, ‘Brother Fox know something? Know not a dog?’ She had been momentarily taken aback but had replied, ‘I think he knows that.’ Then she had quizzed him as to why he had asked her this, but his attention had been caught by something else and he had simply said, ‘Foxes and dogs,’ before moving on to another, quite different subject. For Isabel’s part, she had been left with a question that had become increasingly intriguing the more she thought about it. Brother Fox presumably instinctively understood that dogs were not part of his world, but did that mean that he had some concept of foxdom? Probably not.
‘So then I tried something different,’ Jamie continued. ‘I took nine bricks and asked him to put them in three piles that were all the same. And you know what he said? He said, “Three.” He said, “Three bricks, here, here, here.”’
Isabel looked thoughtful. ‘Division. It sounds impressive, but is it all that unusual?’
Jamie shrugged. ‘I asked them at the nursery school. They said children of four should be able to add and count up to five. They said nothing about division, or multiplication. Just counting.’
‘Or the piano,’ added Isabel.
‘Or that. I told them that he can do a C major scale and they said something about his hands still being quite small and it must be difficult for that reason. They didn’t seem all that interested.’
Isabel imagined that there were numerous parents who believed their children to have prodigious skills and boasted to teachers about it. She did not want to be one of them; and yet if the child was really talented, then shouldn’t the nursery at least know?
From upstairs there came the sound of a high-pitched voice – something between a chuckle and a shout. Charlie was awake.
‘I’ll go,’ said Jamie.
Isabel nodded. ‘We’ll need to talk about it. About what we do – if anything.’
He gave her a searching look. ‘Do about what? About his being good at numbers? You think we should ignore it rather than encourage it?’
‘I’m just not sure that it’s in his interests. Would he be any happier if we encouraged him to be a mathematical prodigy?’
And there was something else that worried her: being a pushy mother. All mothers were pushy to an extent: one did not have to look far in the natural world to see mothers being pushy for their offspring – any self-respecting lioness would make sure her cubs got their fair share – but there were limits . . . ‘I don’t think we should push him too much.’
Jamie frowned. He encountered pushy parents in his work, and one in particular came to mind. She had written to him recently asking whether her son’s innate musical ability was being adequately recognised and whether he was ready for a public performance. Jamie did not want the stage of the Usher Hall for Charlie, although if it came to that he and Isabel would of course be in the front row. And Charlie would come onstage and need a box to stand on to climb on to the piano stool; or perhaps have his teddy bear carefully seated on the stool next to him while the conductor raised his baton to bring the accompanying orchestra to order. The frown became a smile. ‘Can one ignore something like that? Wouldn’t that be to waste it?’
Isabel did not have time to answer. Another cry came from Charlie, more urgent now, followed by a rattling of the bars at the top of his bed. Jamie began to leave the kitchen but turned at the door and said, ‘Mozart was quite happy being Mozart, you know. He liked billiards. He kept a canary – and a horse. He enjoyed practical jokes.’
Isabel reflected on this while Jamie was upstairs. To play billiards, to keep a canary and a horse, and to enjoy practical jokes – were very ordinary things like that the recipe for an enjoyable life?
That conversation with Jamie about mathematical ability took place on one of Isabel’s working days. Jamie, who was a musician, kept irregular hours, and frequently had days when not only did he not have any rehearsal or performance commitments, but he also had no teaching. He taught bassoon at the Edinburgh Academy and had a number of private pupils too, but he managed to cram all his teaching into two mornings and one afternoon a week, which left three weekdays for other things. Those days might easily have filled up with session work or preparation for concerts but times were hard and there seemed less and less of that work around. ‘Perhaps the music’s stopped,’ he remarked to Isabel. She had assured him that music seemed to continue in the face of every difficulty, just as philosophy did. ‘We imagine our crises are unlike all other crises,’ she said. ‘But they aren’t. There’s always been uncertainty. There’s always been danger. It’s the human condition – the normal one, perhaps.’
On Jamie’s free days, he took over responsibility for Charlie, allowing Isabel to attend to her job as editor, and owner too, of the Review of Applied Ethics. Charlie now went to a small nur -
sery school round the corner, and Jamie would take him there at eight-thirty in the morning, deposit him in the classroom with his neatly packed tiffin box, and then return for him five hours later. After lunch, while Isabel worked in her study on the latest issue of the Review, Jamie would often supervise Charlie’s afternoon rest, read to him, play the piano with him, or take him for a walk by the canal or, as a special treat, to Blackford Pond. That pond, inhabited by a tribe of over-fed and demanding ducks, could keep Charlie amused for hours, and Jamie knew every inch of its muddy shore quite as well as an experienced mariner knows the bays and inlets of his native waters. He had also come to know the personality of the various ducks and could identify where each stood in order of precedence. Size, it seemed, was the sole determinant of that.
Even though she had made an early start while it was still comparatively cool, already the weather was making it difficult for Isabel to work. She had opened her study windows, but there was only an intermittent breeze and the air inside was heavy. Her study had a particular smell to it – the smell of paper, she had decided – and for some reason this oppressed her. Perhaps it was not a day on which to sequester oneself inside; perhaps it was simply not a day on which to do philosophy. Her friend, Julian Baggini, who, like her, edited a philosophical paper, seemed to be able to do his thinking in all sorts of circumstances – in the car, in a train, in the bath – but it was different for Isabel. It was true that thoughts came to her at the oddest of moments, but what she called organised thinking needed the time and place to be right; and the thinking she was trying to do that day – assessing submissions for a future issue of the Review – was definitely organised thinking.
She got up from her desk, putting aside the paper she had been trying to read. There was nothing wrong with the paper itself, which was a discussion of responsibility to future generations; there was no reason why it should not see the light of day. The author was a post-doctoral fellow at the University of Toronto and needed publications for the next stage of her career. Isabel knew just how competitive the academic world could be and just how easily people could fall at any of the fences that stood between them and a career as a philosopher.
She was aware that the author would be waiting anxiously for her verdict, and that a positive answer would lead to the popping of champagne corks, real or metaphorical, in some apartment in Toronto. All that was required was a one-word email: Yes. One word, three letters, that would bring such joy to somebody she had never met and probably never would. And by the same token, No would have the opposite effect.
She had found it difficult to concentrate on the author’s argument. We obviously can owe duties to people we do not know. Yes, of course we can. So what is the difference between people who do not yet exist (future generations) and people we do not know? Well, thought Isabel, one set of people exists and the other does not. So, the author continued, the essence of the problem is whether one can harm the non-existent. Or is it? Isabel asked herself. Surely the non-existence of the victim at the time of the harmful act is not the real issue: the real issue is future harm to people who will exist.
Eating fish, the author wrote, is a good example. We know that if we eat fish now, fish stocks will be depleted and there will not be enough for the people who follow us. So does our current hunger – or current taste for fish – justify using up fish stocks that would otherwise be enjoyed by people as yet unborn? Do we owe any fish to those who follow us? the paper asked.
Do we owe any fish to those who follow us? The sentence struck Isabel as vaguely comic, as if it might have been lifted from some musichall song; it was redolent, perhaps, of ‘Yes, we have no bananas’.
She put the paper down and moved across the room to the open window. From where she was standing, she could see her neighbour’s contract gardener digging in a flower-bed. He was a hard-working man who had once told her that he looked after twenty gardens and was thinking of taking on several more. He had been a coal miner before the mines closed – digging, in one form or another, had been his life. And thinking of that made Isabel wonder whether the work she did – thinking about responsibility to future generations and such problems – could really be described as work. Work usually made something happen in the world, and she was not sure whether she did that at all. There was a physical product – several hundred copies of a journal once every three months – but did that actually change anything?
She looked at her watch. She was due to relieve Jamie of Charlie duties in two hours’ time but if she stopped work now she would have time to go to her niece Cat’s delicatessen and buy something for lunch. Cat had a supplier who delivered freshly made onion tarts in the morning, which people picked up during their lunchbreak or on their way home from work. If she left now, she would be able to have her choice of the tarts, and still have time to finish reading the responsibility-to-futuregenerations paper – and make a decision too. It would be yes, of course; she already felt that.
She closed her study windows, collected her shopping bag from the kitchen cupboard and let herself out of the house. It was even warmer outside than indoors, though tucked inside the shopping bag was her light jacket; the weather in Edinburgh was notoriously fickle, and even a day like this could suddenly turn hostile. There would be room for the onion tart too, and for some salad things – the bag was copious.
She made her way into Bruntsfield. Halfway along the road, she saw a large For Sale notice on the railings of one of the houses. She stopped and looked up at the windows of the property. It was a large Victorian house that had been divided into flats, and it was one of these that was now on the market. She paused; she had been expecting its sale, as the owner, a quiet man whom people rarely saw, had died six months before. He had lived by himself and it was thought that he had met somebody one evening who had stabbed him to death in his own hallway.
Isabel stared up at the windows. Places where unhappy events have taken place are no different from anywhere else. The physical world – the world of stone and brick – is indifferent to our suffering, to our dramas, she thought. Even a battlefield can be peaceful, can be a place for flowers to grow, for children to play; the memories, the sadness, are within us, not part of the world about us. And yet this house, as she gazed at it, seemed bereft, seemed tragic and loveless, a reminder of the dark thing that had happened there.
She gave a start.
‘Sorry to give you a fright.’
She turned and saw Martha Drummond. In Isabel’s life, Martha was one of those people who occupied that awkwardterritory between acquaintanceship and friendship; she saw her relatively infrequently and they were not on dropping-in terms. If she had been pressed, Isabel would probably have confessed that she found Martha slightly irritating, and felt bad about this feeling. It was hard to put her finger on it: Martha meant well – whatever that meant – but had the habit of making intrusive remarks. There were some people, in Isabel’s view, who lacked social judgement, not picking up quite the same social cues as others did. The expression ‘They don’t quite get it’ expressed the notion exactly. They didn’t.
Martha lived several streets away, in a house surrounded by a large rhododendron-filled garden. And the rhododendrons were a case in point: a few months ago, when Isabel had bumped into Martha in the supermarket, there had been an exchange that had left Isabel thinking distinctly uncharitable thoughts. Martha had let drop the fact that she had recently walked past Isabel’s garden and noticed her rhododendrons. ‘They don’t seem to be doing all that well,’ she said casually. ‘My own rhododendrons are much more – how shall I put it? – luxuriant.’
Isabel had stared at her mutely. ‘There’s nothing wrong with my rhododendrons,’ she had eventually said. It was extremely tactless, she thought, to criticise another person’s rhododendronsand, anyway, such criticism in this context was objectively wrong.
‘They don’t look very healthy to me,’ Martha persisted. ‘Perhaps you’ve got the wrong sort of soil.’
Isabel smarted. That was another serious accusation: to suggest to somebody that they have the wrong sort of soil. ‘There’s nothing wrong with my soil,’ she said coolly. ‘Or with my rhododendrons, for that matter.’
It had been a ridiculous exchange but it was typical of the direction in which a conversation with Martha could go. And it was for that reason that Isabel found it difficult to consider Martha as a friend, although she knew that friendship did not depend on seeing eye-to-eye.
Martha, who was in her early forties and divorced, shared her rhododendron-surrounded house with her elderly mother who, in her heyday, had been one of Scotland’s best-known artists. Isabel liked her work, and had one of her smaller paintings in a corner of her study.
‘Not the best of Mother’s works,’ Martha had said when Isabel had shown it to her. ‘In fact, barely recognisable as one of her works at all.’
That had led to another pointless exchange. ‘Others might not agree with you,’ Isabel suggested through clenched teeth.
‘But others are not the painter’s own daughter,’ retorted Martha. ‘I imagine that people don’t dismiss too readily the opinions of Paloma Picasso.’
Isabel had quickly planned her reply to that. A painter’s family, she would suggest, were probably the last people to be asked for a judgement on their relative’s work – they were simply too close to it, too emotionally involved to be able to give an objective view. But she stopped herself, mainly because it would not be true. Members of the family were often the best of judges, just as her friend, Guy Peploe – to think of only one example – was the best judge of the paintings of his grandfather, S. J. Peploe. So she had said nothing.
Now, standing in front of the For Sale notice, Martha asked after Charlie. ‘Where’s your little boy?’
‘Jamie’s taken him to nursery,’ Isabel explained. She pointed to the notice. ‘I was thinking about this . . . ’
Martha sighed. ‘Very sad. Did you know him?’
‘I think I saw him,’ said Isabel. ‘But no, I didn’t know him.’
They were both silent for a few moments. Then Martha asked Isabel whether she was going to Cat’s delicatessen. ‘I thought you might be,’ she said. ‘Something easy for lunch?’
Isabel smiled, and nodded.
‘I’m headed there too,’ said Martha. ‘I can’t be bothered to cook in this heat. And Mother eats like a bird. A couple of lettuce leaves and a slice – a very thin slice – of smoked salmon, and she’ll be complaining about being bloated.’
‘How convenient for you,’ said Isabel.
‘I’m very lucky with my aged parent,’ said Martha cheerfully. ‘But listen, I need to talk to you about something. About somebody I know who’s in difficulty.’
Isabel looked up at the sky. People asked her to do things for them. She had no idea why they did, but they did. What did they think she was? A private detective? An agony aunt? Or simply a friend? And because of her particular sense of moral obligation, she felt that she had to do something, and that led to Jamie’s accusing her of not minding her own business. But I cannot do otherwise, she thought. I am no saint; I am no heroine; but how can anybody say no to a request for help?
‘Do you mind?’ asked Martha. ‘We could have a cup of coffee and I could tell you about it.’ She looked at Isabel enquiringly. ‘But only if you don’t mind.’
Isabel shook her head. ‘I don’t mind,’ she said.
‘Good,’ said Martha. ‘Because I promised my friend I would speak to you and he was very relieved. He said “Thank God”.’
They began to make their way together down the road. As they walked, Martha told Isabel about her latest letter from her former husband. ‘Do you know, he said that if he could turn the clock back, he would. Can you credit it?’
‘He wants to come back to you?’ asked Isabel.
‘So it would seem.’
‘And how do you feel about that?’
‘It’s the last thing I want,’ she said. ‘I’ve gone right off men.’
‘Yes.’ She paused. ‘Except for your Jamie. I would willingly have him on my mantelpiece. Just to look at him, of course.’
Isabel smiled. ‘Not possible,’ she said. ‘Sorry.’
‘If I had somebody who looked like that,’ mused Martha, ‘I would spend all day just gazing at him, drinking it in. Do you do that sometimes, Isabel? Do you just sit there looking at Jamie and . . . and purring?’