Alexander McCall Smith’s new online novel, Corduroy Mansions, runs from 13 September to 18 December, exclusive to Telegraph.co.uk. The latest chapter focuses on St. Lucia. Smith is the author, among other works, of the internationally known series The #1 Ladies’ Detective Agency.
Every weekday morning from 13 September to 18 December 2010 a new chapter will appear on the Telegraph.co.uk’s online novel page (shortcut: www.telegraph.co.uk/onlinenovel). The story will be available for anyone to read – or, if you prefer, you can listen to the accompanying audio read by the inimitable Andrew Sachs.
Here is today’s chapter: Windward Islands.
Merle’s house in the Windward Islands had been bought twenty years earlier by the childless uncle who had left it to her. The house, which overlooked a bay on the island of St Lucia, had been more isolated in the past than it was now. Twenty years ago it would have been possible to walk in its garden by night and see no other lights puncturing the velvety darkness. Now the hillside behind the house had a road snaking up it, with houses off, and these at night made pin-points of light.
The uncle adapted the house to his purposes, which were those of entertaining groups of friends who came out to stay with him, for weeks sometimes, occasionally for months. A swimming pool was created and an extension of bedrooms built to accommodate the guests at house parties. An additional shady veranda was added to the west side of the house to allow guests to enjoy sundowners while watching the sun sink into the sea. A gazebo, designed in no identifiable style by an eccentric architect whom the uncle had met in a bar, appeared in the corner of the grounds, surrounded by sea-grape trees, to be covered in an astonishingly short time by bougainvillea, and eventually to disappear, not to be missed because nobody had ever used it. With the house came a run-down marina and chandlery, which he put under the control of an enterprising local manager and which prospered greatly.
The uncle was a man of literary tastes, a voracious reader who expounded at length, to anybody who would listen, on the damp fate of books in the humid Caribbean climate. Merle was quite unlike him in this respect; she read virtually nothing other than the occasional beach novel, some breathless account of romantic yearnings or the racy couplings of hedonistic twenty-somethings. She wanted very little out of life except for one thing: a man. It did not particularly matter, she thought, what sort of man might be allocated to her by Fate; the only important thing was that he would be there, to be looked after and guarded from the depredations of other woman who were not in the fortunate position of having a man. It was a curious, somewhat limited view of life, but not without a trace of dim nobility. Merle did not envy what others had; she bore few resentments; she did not wish to despoil the world in any way. All she wanted was a nest.
Eddie suited her perfectly. She regarded him as uncomplicated, and had indeed described him as such to her friends. ‘With Eddie,’ she said, ‘what you get is what it says on the tin.’
‘That’s something,’ said her friend, before adding, enigmatically, ‘the trouble with my ex was that he didn’t have a tin.’
Merle was not sure what this meant but sympathised nonetheless. ‘Pity, that.’
Eddie was content for Merle to look after him, and this quickly became her main concern. In this she manifested a selflessness that, had it been applied to a worthier project, would have seemed positively virtuous. The energy she poured into making sure that Eddie was well turned-out, that his clothes were neatly folded and put away after he had tossed them down on the floor, was every bit as intense as that of the most devoted of nuns tending to the poor and sick. Her dedication was certainly as great even if its beneficiary was less meritorious. Not that Eddie himself regarded this as anything less than his due. He revelled in the attention shown him. It was, he thought, a stroke of the most extraordinary good fortune that he should find a woman like Merle, but it was nonetheless fortune that he had somehow always believed would come his way and he felt was, in some unexplained way, also his due.
Merle met Eddie shortly after he had moved out of Corduroy Mansions. She was then living in London, in the Primrose Hill flat that belonged to her uncle, which he had offered to her when he began to spend most of his time on St Lucia. Merle had a job helping a friend who ran a retro clothing shop on the Portobello Road. It was not well paid – in fact, the friend sometimes forgot to pay her at all – but it suited her very well as it enabled her to indulge her interest in clothing and at the same time to hone her quite exceptional skill at selling things.
This talent enabled her to persuade people that the clothing they were trying on was exactly the thing for which they had long been searching. Merle’s power to do this was almost hypnotic.
‘That is definitely you,’ she would say. ‘No, seriously, it looks just right. And you look fantastic in it – you really do. You owe it to yourself to buy it, you know.’
Flattered in this way, and compelled by the suggestion that the purchase was somehow a tribute to themselves, the customers would do as Merle prompted and purchase the item. Of course there were consequences, mostly in the shape of disappointment on the part of the customers over the fact that they had bought such manifestly unsuitable garments, but these came later, in the cold light of home.
After the death of her uncle and the receipt of the news of the legacy he had left her, Merle continued to work in the retro clothing store, but as owner. Her friend, who had tired of the musty odour of the old clothes, of the old jackets and sad dresses, had readily accepted the offer that Merle now able to make for the business, including the freehold of the shop itself.
Now that she was the owner, Merle decided to clear out the old clothing and rename the business Everything Olive. Where the racks once groaned under their weight of stoutly built old greatcoats and morning suits, newly installed shelves now bore bottles of exotic and expensive cold-pressed olive oil, alongside jars of olives with every conceivable stuffing. Then there were bars of olive oil soap, bottles of olive oil moisturiser, and tubes of olive oil hand cream. And all parts of the olive tree were used inventively, as captured whales were in the past, with displays of coasters, soprano recorders and desk sets made from olive wood.
Everything Olive proved to be a resounding success.
‘I can’t understand how retail places can fail,’ Merle remarked to Eddie one afternoon. ‘The business model is so easy. Buy something for one pound and sell it for two. Simple. You can’t go wrong.’
Eddie smiled. ‘Yeah, maybe. But sometimes people don’t want to buy. That’s the problem, I think.’
‘Then find out what they want to buy and sell them that,’ retorted Merle.
‘Yeah, whatever,’ said Eddie.
He was not really interested in discussing retail theory with Merle. As far as he was concerned, such matters could be left entirely to her. She had a head for business, he had decided, which suited him very well. Money worries, and the indignities they brought, were not what Eddie had in mind for himself. He was looking forward to a life in which he did not have to bother about such concerns, and now, thanks to Merle, it looked as if just such a life was beginning.
‘Marry me, doll?’ he asked.
Corduroy Mansions: A Conspiracy of Friends continues tomorrow.