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 (4 page)

BOOK: In the Company of Cheerful Ladies

“A pumpkin!” shouted Puso. “A very big pumpkin!”

Mr J.L.B. Matekoni raised an eyebrow. “You have been to the shops already, Mma Ramotswe?”

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“No,” said Mma Ramotswe. “Somebody left this pumpkin for us. I found it out at the front. It is a very fine present.” That, at least, was true. Somebody had left the pumpkin outside

the house, and it was quite reasonable to assume that it was a present.

“Who was the kind person?” asked Mr J.L.B. Matekoni. “Mrs Moffat said that she would give me a present for fixing the doc-tor’s car. Do you think that she has left us a pumpkin?”

“It may be her,” said Mma Ramotswe. “But I am not sure.” She looked at Mr J.L.B. Matekoni, trying to signal to him that there was more to this pumpkin than met the eye, but that it was not something that should be discussed in front of the children. He caught her eye, and realised.

“Well, I shall put that pumpkin away in the cupboard,” he said, “then we shall be able to take it out later today and cook it. Do you not think that a good idea?”

“I do,” said Mma Ramotswe. “You put the pumpkin away and I can make some porridge for the children’s breakfast. Then we can all go to church before it gets too hot.”

THEY DROVE the short distance to the Anglican Cathedral, parking

Mr J.L.B. Matekoni’s van round the side, near the Dean’s house. Mma Ramotswe helped Motholeli into her wheelchair and Puso pushed it round to the front, where a ramp allowed for entrance. Mma Ramotswe and Mr J.L.B. Matekoni made their way in through the side door, collected their hymn books from the table near the door, and walked to their favourite pew. A few minutes later the children arrived. Motholeli’s wheelchair was parked at the end of the pew, and Puso sat between Mma Ramotswe and Mr J.L.B. Matekoni, where he could be watched. He had a tendency to fidget, and would usually be sent out, after fifteen minutes or so, to play on the Cathedral swing.

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Mma Ramotswe read through the service sheet. She did not approve of the day’s choice of hymns, none of which was known to her, and she quickly moved on to read the parish notes. There was a list of the sick, and she ran her eye down this, noting, with sorrow, that many of those who had been on the list last week were still named. It was a time of sickness, and charity was sorely tested. There were mothers here, mothers who would leave children

behind them if they were called. There were poor people and rich people too, all equal in their human vulnerability. Remember these brothers and sisters it said at the bottom of the list. Yes, she would. She would remember these brothers and sisters.

How could one forget?

The choir entered and the service began. As she stood there, unenthusiastically mouthing the words of the unfamiliar hymns chosen for that day, Mma Ramotswe’s thoughts kept returning to the extraordinary finding of the pumpkin. One possible explanation

of the mystery, she thought, was that the intruder had come back for some reason—perhaps to break in again—and had discovered

his trousers hung out on the verandah. He had been carrying

a pumpkin, which he had probably stolen from somewhere else, and had put this down on the ground while he put the trousers back on. Then perhaps he had been disturbed—again— and had run away without picking up the pumpkin.

That was certainly possible, but was it at all likely? Mma Ramotswe looked up to the ceiling of the Cathedral, watching the blades of the great white fans as they cut slowly at the air. No, it was unlikely that the intruder would have returned, and even if he had, would he have had the time to steal a pumpkin from somewhere else? Surely his most pressing concern, without his trousers, would have been to get home or to find some other trousers.

What seemed much more likely was that the disappearance of the trousers and the appearance of the pumpkin were com2


pletely unconnected. The garment had been removed by a passerby,

who had spotted the opportunity to acquire a perfectly good pair of khaki trousers. Then, earlier that morning, a friend had dropped off a pumpkin as a present and had merely left it there, not wishing to wake people too early on a Sunday. That was much more probable, and indeed was the solution that Clovis Andersen himself would have identified. Never go for the excessively complicated

solution, he had written. Always assume that the simplest explanation is the most likely one. Nine times out of ten, you’ll be right.

Mma Ramotswe jolted herself back from these realms of speculation. The service was proceeding, and now the Reverend Trevor Mwamba was ascending the pulpit. She put from her mind all thoughts of pumpkins and listened to what Trevor Mwamba had to say. He had married them, under that tree at the orphan farm, barely six months ago, on that day of which every minute was etched into her memory: the voices of the children, who sang; the canopy of leaves above their heads; the smiles of those present; and those echoing words which had marked the beginning of her married life to that kind man, Mr J.L.B. Matekoni, that great mechanic, who was now her husband.

The Reverend Trevor Mwamba now looked out over the congregation,

and smiled. “We have visitors,” he said, smiling. “Please stand up and tell us who you are.”

They looked about them. Five people stood up, scattered amongst the regular congregation. One by one, to a turning of heads, they announced who they were.

“I am John Ngwenya, from Mbabane in Swaziland,” said a stout man in a pearl-grey suit. He bowed slightly, and this was acknowledged by a burst of applause from the congregation, who then turned to look at the next visitor. In turn the others revealed who they were—a man from Francistown, a man from Brisbane,

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a woman from Concord, Massachusetts, and a woman from Johannesburg. Each was welcomed, solemnly but warmly. No distinction was made between those who were from Africa and those who were not. The American woman, Mma Ramotswe observed, was wearing a pumpkin-coloured dress. She noted that, but immediately corrected herself. This was a time of fellowship,

and not a time to be thinking of pumpkins.

Trevor Mwamba adjusted his glasses. “My brothers and sisters,”

he began, “you are welcome here with us. Wherever you may come from, you are welcome.”

He looked at his notes before him. “I am sometimes asked,” he said, “why there is so much suffering in this world and how we can reconcile it with the faith which we have in a benevolent creator.

This is not a new objection. Many people have made this point to those who hold to a faith, and they have often rejected the answers they have received. It is not good enough, they say. Your answers do not convince. Yet why should they imagine that we can explain every mystery? There are some mysteries that lie beyond our understanding. Such mysteries reveal themselves every day.”

Yes, thought Mma Ramotswe. There is one such mystery which has revealed itself in Zebra Drive this very morning. How does one explain a missing pair of trousers and a pumpkin that comes from nowhere? She stopped herself. This was not the way to listen to Trevor Mwamba.

“There are many other mysteries in this world that we cannot explain and which we must accept. I think of the mystery of life, for instance. The scientists know a great deal about life, but they do not know how to make that spark that is the difference between life and no-life. That bit, that current, is a mystery to them, however much they know about how life works and perpetuates

itself. And so we have to accept, do we not, that there

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are some mysteries in this world that we simply cannot understand?

These things are simply there. They are beyond us.”

The mystery of life! thought Mma Ramotswe. The mystery of pumpkins. Why are pumpkins the shape they are? Why is the flesh of the pumpkin the colour it is? Can anybody explain that, or is it just something that is? Again she struggled to stop her train of thought and concentrated on what Trevor Mwamba was saying.

“And so it is with suffering. It may seem a mystery to us that there can be suffering in a world in which we claim to see a divine purpose. But the more we think about that mystery, the more an answer eludes us. We could, then, shrug our shoulders and fall into despair, or we could accept the mystery for what it is, as being something that we simply cannot understand. And that does not mean that we lapse into nihilism, into the philosophy that says that we can do nothing about the suffering and pain of the world. We can do something about it, and all of us in this place today have the chance to do something, even if only a small thing, to diminish the volume of suffering in the world. We can do that by acts of kindness to others; we can do that by relieving their pain.

“If we look about our world today, if we look about this dear home of ours, Africa, then what do we see but tears and sorrow? Yes, we see those. We see those even in Botswana, where we are so fortunate in many ways. We see those in the faces of those who are ill, in their fear and their sorrow at the thought that their lives will be so shortened. This is real suffering, but it is not suffering

that we as Christians walk away from. Every day, every moment of every day, there are people who are working to alleviate

this suffering. They are working at this task right now as I speak, right across the road in the Princess Marina Hospital. There are doctors and nurses working. There are our own people and generous-hearted people from far away, from America, for

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example, who are working there to bring relief to those who are very sick from this cruel illness that stalks Africa. Do those people talk about such suffering as proof that there can be no divine presence in this world? They do not. They do not ask that question. And many are sustained by that very faith at which some clever people like to sneer. And that, my friends, is the true mystery at which we should marvel. That is what we should think about in silence for a moment, as we remember the names of those who are ill, those members of this body, this Anglican church, our brothers and sisters. And I read them out now.”


IN THE MORNINGS everybody arrived at Tlokweng Road Speedy Motors at different times, and there was no telling who would be in first. It used to be Mr J.L.B. Matekoni, in the days when the offices of the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency were housed separately, but since the two businesses began to share the same premises it was sometimes Mma Ramotswe or Mma Makutsi, or, very rarely, one of the apprentices. In general, the apprentices arrived late, as they liked to stay in bed until the last possible moment before they bolted down a quick breakfast and rushed to catch the overloaded minibus that would drop them off at the roundabout at the end of the Tlokweng Road.

After their marriage, of course, Mma Ramotswe and Mr

J.L.B. Matekoni tended to arrive at exactly the same time, even ifthey drove in two vehicles, as in a convoy, with Mr J.L.B. Matekoni’s truck leading the way and the tiny white van, at the wheel of which sat Mma Ramotswe, following valiantly behind.

On that particular morning it was Mma Makutsi, carrying a brown paper parcel, who was first to arrive. She unlocked the office of the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, placed the parcel on her desk, and opened the window to let in some air. It was barely seven o’clock, and it would be half an hour or so before Mma

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Ramotswe and Mr J.L.B. Matekoni arrived. This would give her time to organise her desk, to telephone her cousin’s sister-in-law about a family matter, and to write a quick letter to her father in Bobonong. Her father was seventy-one, and he had nothing very much to do, other than to walk to the small post office in the village

and check for mail. Usually there was nothing, but at least once a week there would be a letter from Mma Makutsi, containing

a few snippets of news from Gaborone and sometimes a fifty-pula note. Her father could not read English very well, and so Mma Makutsi always wrote to him in Kalanga, which gave her pleasure, as she liked to keep her grasp of the language alive.

There was much to tell him that day. She had had a busy weekend, with an invitation to a meal at the house of one of her new neighbours, who was a Malawian lady teaching at one of the schools. This lady had lived in London for a year and knew all about places that Mma Makutsi had only seen in the pages of the National Geographic magazine. Yet she carried her experience lightly, and did not make Mma Makutsi feel at all provincial or untravelled. Quite the opposite, in fact. The neighbour had asked probing questions about Bobonong and had listened attentively while Mma Makutsi had told her of Francistown and Maun, and places like that.

“You are lucky to live in this country,” said the neighbour. “You have everything. Lots of land, as far as the eye can see, and further.

And all those diamonds. And the cattle. There is everything here.”

“We are very fortunate,” said Mma Makutsi. “We know that.”

“And you now have that nice new house,” the neighbour went on, “and that interesting job of yours. People must ask you all the time: What is it like to be a private detective?”

Mma Makutsi smiled modestly. “They think it is a very exciting

job,” she said. “But it is not really. Most of the time we are just helping people to find out things they already know.”

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“And this Mma Ramotswe people talk about?” asked the neighbour. “What is she like? I have seen her at the shops. She has a very kind face. You would not think she was a detective, just to look at her.”

“She is a very kind lady,” agreed Mma Makutsi. “But she is also very clever. She can tell when people are lying, just by looking

at them. And she also knows how to deal with men.”

The neighbour sighed. “That is a very great talent,” she said. “I would like to be able to do that.”

Mma Makutsi agreed with this. That would be very good; and indeed it would be good to have just one man to deal with. Mma Ramotswe now had Mr J.L.B. Matekoni, and this Malawian woman had a boyfriend, whom Mma Makutsi had seen coming to the house in the evenings. She herself had not yet found a man, apart from that one she had met at the Kalahari Typing School for Men and who had not lasted very long for some reason.

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