Read In the Company of Cheerful Ladies Online

Authors: Alexander McCall Smith

Tags: #Fiction, #Mystery & Detective, #Women private investigators, #General, #Women Sleuths, #No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency (Imaginary organization), #Ramotswe; Precious (Fictitious character), #Women private investigators - Botswana, #Mystery Fiction, #Botswana, #Political

In the Company of Cheerful Ladies (10 page)

BOOK: In the Company of Cheerful Ladies

and she remembered how long the acrid, confusing taste had lingered in her mouth. But she would not have shouted at him like that if she had imagined that it would lead to this—the garage could ill afford the loss of one set of hands, particularly a trained set, if one could call Charlie’s hands that.

“I’m very sorry,” she said quietly. “I should not have been so cross with him. I’m sorry. I did not think that he would run away like that.”

Mma Ramotswe raised a hand to stop her. “You do not need to apologise, Mma,” she said firmly. “It was Charlie who called you a warthog. He had no right to say that. I shall not have the

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Assistant Detective at the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency called a warthog.”

She looked at Mr J.L.B. Matekoni, as if to challenge him to defend the indefensible. It was true that Mma Makutsi had initiated

the trade of insults, but that was only under the gravest provocation. Had Charlie apologised for ruining the tea-pot, then Mma Makutsi would surely not have spoken in the intemperate way in which she did speak.

Mr J.L.B. Matekoni, it transpired, was of much the same view.

“It is not Mma Makutsi’s fault at all,” he said simply. “It is just not her fault. That young man has been heading this way for some time. You told me only a little time ago about this woman of his. I was foolish and did not speak to him firmly. Now he has decided that he can give everything up just because his rich lady is running after him in her Mercedes-Benz. Oh dear! Those cars have a lot to answer for.”

Mma Ramotswe nodded her head in vigorous agreement. “They do, Rra. They certainly do. They turn people’s heads, I think. That is what they do.”

“And women turn heads too,” continued Mr J.L.B. Matekoni. “Women turn the heads of young men and make them do silly things.”

There was a short silence. Mma Makutsi was about to say something, but decided against it. It was arguable, she thought, whether women turned the heads of men any more than men turned the heads of women. She would have thought that responsibility

was shared in that respect. But this was not the time to engage in debate on this issue.

“So what do we do now?” asked Mr J.L.B. Matekoni. “Should I go and try to talk to him tonight? Should I see if I can persuade him to come back?”

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Mma Ramotswe thought about this suggestion. If Mr J.L.B. Matekoni were to try to persuade the apprentice to return, it might work, but at the same time it could have dire consequences

for his future behaviour. It was not right that an employer

should run after a subordinate like that; that would mean that the young man could throw his weight around in the future because he would know that ultimately he could get away with anything. It would also give him the impression that he was in the right and Mma Makutsi was in the wrong, and that was simply unfair. No, she thought, if Charlie were to come back, it would have to be at his own request, and preferably accompanied by a proper apology to Mma Makutsi, not only for calling her a warthog but also for spoiling her tea-pot. In fact, he should probably

be obliged to buy her a new tea-pot, but they would not press that aspect of the matter in these delicate circumstances. An apology, then, would suffice.

She looked directly at Mr J.L.B. Matekoni. “I don’t think that is a good idea,” she said. “You are the boss. He is a young man who has run away from work after being rude to a superior. It would not look good, would it, if the boss were to run after the young man and beg him to come back? No, he should be allowed to come back, but only when he has said sorry.”

Mr J.L.B. Matekoni looked resigned. “Yes,” he said. “You are right. But what are we to do here? What if he does not come back? There is work for three people here at the garage, even if his work has many faults. It will be hard without him.”

“I know that, Rra,” said Mma Ramotswe. “And that is why we need a plan with two parts. It is always a good idea to have a plan with two parts.”

Mma Makutsi and Mr J.L.B. Matekoni looked at her expectantly.

This was the Mma Ramotswe they appreciated: the woman with a clear idea of what to do. They had no doubt at all that she would solve this problem, and now all that they wanted was to

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hear how she was going to do it. A plan with two parts sounded very impressive.

Now it was as if Mma Ramotswe had herself become imbued with the confidence that they had in her. She sat back in her chair and smiled as she laid out the contours of her plan.

“The first part,” she said, “is to go immediately to Tlokweng and get the man whose bicycle has been broken. We can offer him work here, as I have discussed with you, Mr J.L.B. Matekoni.

This man can then do all the unskilled work in the garage, as if he were an apprentice on the first day of his apprenticeship. I think that he will be a good worker. He will not be a proper apprentice, of course, but Charlie’s young friend will imagine that this is just what he is. That means that the news will get back to Charlie straightaway that we have found somebody to replace him. That will give him a big shock, I am sure of it.”

On hearing this, Mma Makutsi let out an exclamation of delight. “That will teach him to take off his overalls and throw them in a puddle of oil,” she said gleefully.

Mma Ramotswe looked at her disapprovingly and she lowered

her eyes.

“The second part of the plan,” Mma Ramotswe continued, “is to find out more about this woman of Charlie’s and then to see if there is anything we can do to help him come to his senses. I am sure that she is a married lady. Now, if that is so, then there will be a husband somewhere, and it may be that he is paying for that expensive silver Mercedes-Benz. Do you think that men like to pay for cars like that to be driven around in by young men who are seeing their wives? I do not think they do. So all we have to do is to find out where this man is and see to it that he finds out what is going on. Then we let things sort themselves out, and I think that we shall soon have Charlie back, knocking on the door, asking

for us to forget what he said about the garage.”

“And about me,” added Mma Makutsi.

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“Yes,” said Mma Ramotswe. “About you too.” Mma Makutsi was emboldened. “And would it not help if Mr

J.L.B. Matekoni beat him?” she asked. “Just a bit. Would that not help him to behave better in the future?” They both looked at her, Mma Ramotswe in astonishment, Mr J.L.B. Matekoni in alarm. “Those days are past,” said Mma Ramotswe. “That is no

longer possible, Mma.” “Pity,” said Mma Makutsi.




EVERYBODY’S SPIRITS were considerably lifted by the way in which a credible plan of action had emerged from a shocking and disagreeable row. Mma Makutsi was particularly pleased that she could go home that evening without a burden of worry and guilt over what had happened. For that evening she was due to embark on a new and exciting project—the most important thing that she had done since the founding of the Kalahari Typing School for Men. Unlike the typing school, however, this did not involve work for her, which would be a pleasant change. For as long as she could remember, her life had been a matter of work: as a girl she had worked at home in all the usual tasks of the household, unremittingly; she had walked six miles to school each morning and six miles back to acquire an education; and then, when her great opportunity had presented itself and she had taken up that place at the Botswana Secretarial College, paid for by the scrimping and saving of her entire family, she had worked harder than ever before. Of course she had been rewarded—with that glorious result of ninety-seven per cent— but it had all been such hard work. Now it was time to dance. She had seen the advertisement in the newspaper and had been immediately intrigued by the name of the person who had

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placed the advertisement. Who was this Mr Fano Fanope? It was an unusual name, but its musical qualities seemed very suitable for one who offered classes in “dance and movement, and the social skills that go with those things.” As to the name, Fano Fanope was a bit like Spokes Spokesi, the famous radio disc jockey. These names had a forward lilt to them; they were the names of people who were going somewhere. She reflected on her own name: Grace Makutsi. There was nothing wrong with a name like that—she had certainly encountered stranger names in Botswana, where people seemed to like naming their children in an individual and sometimes

rather strange way—but it was not a name which suggested much movement or ambition. Indeed, one might even describe it as a safe name, a rather stodgy name, the sort of name that might well be held by the leader of a knitting circle or a Sunday School teacher. Of course, it could have been much worse, and she could have been burdened with one of those names which children then spend the rest of their days in living down. At least she was not called, as one of the teachers at the Botswana Secretarial College had been called, a name which, when translated from Setswana, meant: This one makes a lot of noise. That was not a good name to give a child, but her parents still did it.

Now this well-named Fano Fanope was proposing to offer dancing classes (with other skills included) every Friday night. These would take place in a room at the President Hotel, and there would be a small band provided. The advertisement also revealed that instruction would be given in a wide range of ballroom

dances, and that Fano Fanope, who had achieved recognition

in dancing circles in four countries, would personally instruct all those who registered for the class. It would be wise not to wait, the advertisement went on, as there were many people who were keen to improve their social skills in this way and demand would be high.

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Mma Makutsi read the advertisement with close interest. There was no doubt in her mind that it would be good to be able to do some of those obscure dances that she had read about—the tango, for one, looked interesting—and there was also no doubt that dancing classes were a good place to meet people. She met people at work, of course, and there were her new neighbours, who were perfectly friendly, but she was looking forward to a rather different sort of meeting. She wanted to meet people who had been places, people who could talk about fascinating things, people whose lives encompassed rather more than the daily round of work and home and children.

And there was no reason why she should not enter into such a world, thought Mma Makutsi. After all, she was an independent

woman with a position. She was an assistant detective at the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency; she had her own small business in the shape of the part-time Kalahari Typing School for Men; and she had a new house, or part of a house, in a good area of town. She had something behind her now, and it did not matter if she wore very large round glasses and had a difficult complexion;

it was her turn to enjoy life a bit more.

She prepared for the evening with care. Mma Makutsi did not have many dresses, but there was one, at least, a red dress with a line of small bows along the hem, that would be ideal for a dancing class. She took this dress out of the cupboard and ironed it carefully. Then she showered, under cold water, as there was no hot water in the house, and spent some time in the other tasks of making herself ready to go out. There was nail varnish to be applied, a very fine pink one that she had bought at ridiculous expense the previous week; there was lipstick; there was powder; there was something to put on her hair. All this took the best part of an hour, and then she had to walk off to the end of the road to catch the minibus into town.

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“You’re looking smart, Mma,” said an older woman in the crowded vehicle. “You must be meeting a man tonight. Be careful!

Men are dangerous.”

Mma Makutsi smiled. “I am going to a dancing class. It is the first time that I have gone to it.”

The woman laughed. “Oh, there will be plenty of men at a dancing class,” she said, offering Mma Makutsi a peppermint from a small bag she had extracted from a pocket. “That’s why men go to dancing classes. They go to meet pretty girls like you.”

Mma Makutsi said nothing, but as she sucked on the peppermint

she thought about the prospect of meeting a man. She had not been strictly honest with herself, and she was prepared to admit it, even if only to herself. She would like to learn to dance, and she would like to meet interesting people in general, but what she really wanted to do was to meet an interesting man, and she hoped that this would be her chance. So if what her neighbour in the minibus said was true, then perhaps this was the night that it would happen.

She alighted from the bus at the top of the mall. There were no lights on in the Government buildings behind her, as it was Friday evening and no civil servant would ever work late on a Friday

evening, but the mall itself was lit and there were people strolling about, enjoying the cool night air and chatting with friends. There was always so much to talk about, even if nothing much had happened, and now people were going over the events, or non-events perhaps, of the day, catching up on gossip, hearing about things that were happening, or might just happen if one waited long enough.

Outside the President Hotel there was a small knot of young people, mostly in their teens. They were standing about the open staircase that went up to the verandah where Mma Ramotswe liked to have lunch on special occasions. They fell silent as Mma Makutsi approached the stairs.

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“Going to learn to dance, Mma?” muttered one of the young men. “I’ll teach you how to dance!”

There were titters of laughter.

“I don’t dance with little boys,” said Mma Makutsi as she went past.

There was silence for a moment, and she added, “When you’re big, come and ask me then.”

This brought laughter from the rest of the young people, and she turned and smiled at them as she went up the stairs. Her success

in this good-natured repartee gave her confidence as she entered the hotel and asked for directions to the room in which the class was to be held. She had felt some trepidation about the outing—what if she failed to remember the steps of the tango, or whatever it was they were going to learn? Would she look stupid? Would she possibly even trip and fall over? And who would be there? Would the people who went to classes like this be much more sophisticated than she was, much richer? It was all very well being the most distinguished graduate of her year from the Botswana Secretarial College, but would that count for much here, in the world of music and elegant dancing and mirrors?

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