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Authors: Alexander Mccall Smith

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BOOK: Miracle at Speedy Motors
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He nodded, and then became silent. It was as if he was thinking about the grandchildren, and the rewards of hard work.

“So?” said Mma Ramotswe gently.

The verbal nudge seemed to focus him again. “Yes,” he said. “After I had got the car going, the doctor asked me whether I had a wife.”

Mma Ramotswe nodded encouragingly. “And you said?”

“I said, Yes, I have a wife.”

“I am relieved,” she said.

“And then he asked me whether I had any children. And I said there were no children of our own, but that we had the two foster children, and they were like a son and a daughter. I told him that Motholeli was in a wheelchair but that she was doing well. And then…”

She was watching him. Now his eyes seemed to light up with pleasure.

“And then?”

Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni leaned forward again. She noticed that the moisture from the rain had penetrated the cap of the pen which he had been carrying in his pocket so that the ink had run into the fabric of his shirt. That would be a difficult stain to remove; she would have to soak the shirt.

“And then he asked me what was wrong with her and I told him. I told him what they had said at the hospital, that there had been…”

He stumbled on the term, as if to utter it brought pain.
Transverse myelitis of the spinal cord, leading to paralysis.
She had looked at those words on the doctor’s letter so many times; she knew them so well. They were the words in which the sentence had been delivered; the sentence that meant that Motholeli would be in her wheelchair for the rest of her life.

Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni repeated the name of the condition slowly, forcing his tongue round the awkward syllables. Then he sat back. “And he said that he had seen cases of that before.”

Mma Ramotswe was non-committal. “I see. He knew about it.”

Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni nodded his head eagerly. “Then he said something very strange, Mma—something very exciting. He said, ‘I have dealt with cases like that. I have dealt with them satisfactorily.’ Those were his exact words. That is what he said.”

She did not move. “Satisfactorily?”

“Yes, satisfactorily. That very word.” He paused, watching the effect of what he was saying. Mma Ramotswe was quite still. “Then he said—remember he is a doctor, Mma—then he said, ‘You bring that child to me and I can get her to walk again.’ That is what he said, Mma Ramotswe. That is what he said. I am not making it up, I promise you.
I can get her to walk again.
I am telling the truth.”

Of course you are telling the truth, thought Mma Ramotswe. And then she muttered, “Oh,” and then, “Oh,” again, and closed her eyes. She wanted Motholeli to walk again—she would have given anything for that. But they had been told in the clearest terms by the doctors at the Princess Marina Hospital that this would never happen precisely because it
could
not happen. Dr. Moffat had explained it to them too, when she had raised it while having tea with his wife. He always spoke quietly, so quietly that people had to strain to catch what he was saying, but she had heard every word of what he had said on that occasion. “Once the infection has done its damage to the spinal cord, there is nothing that can be done. It is like a rope that has been cut in two. I’m sorry.”

And she had said, “But can you not tie a rope together again?” She had said, “A rope can be mended.”

“Then it is not like a rope,” he said. “It is different.”

Mrs. Moffat had taken her hand, for comfort, and they had sat there in silence for a while. Sometimes it seemed as if the world itself was broken, that there was something wrong with all of us, something broken in such a way that it might not be put together again; but the holding of hands, human hand in human hand, could help, could make the world seem less broken.

CHAPTER NINE

MMA RAMOTSWE GOES TO MOCHUDI, THAT PLACE SHE KNOWS SO WELL

T
HE NEXT MORNING
, when Mma Makutsi and Mma Ramotswe looked at one another across their desks, each felt herself to be the bearer of a heavy burden: each woman wanted to talk to the other, to seek advice and reassurance, but neither wanted to raise the subject of her distress. Mma Ramotswe thought of Mma Makutsi, She has not slept well, and now she is tired; something is preying on her mind; she can never hide it. And Mma Makutsi thought of Mma Ramotswe, Something is worrying her too. I can always tell. When Mma Ramotswe is worried, it is written on her face, in very big letters.

For a few minutes they both pretended that all was well. Mma Makutsi, who had collected the mail from the post box, slit open the letters before putting them on her employer’s desk. “There is nothing interesting,” she said. “These are all bills, I think, Mma. That one is the water bill. And that one is the telephone bill. It is a day of bills. It is not a day of cheques.”

Mma Ramotswe gazed at the envelopes. She always paid her bills promptly, but this morning she simply left them where they were, to be attended to later. Mma Makutsi, watching her, decided to speak. “I hope you don’t mind my saying it, Mma, but you are sad. There is something that is making your heart very heavy.”

Mma Ramotswe looked up. “And you too, Mma. We are both sad today.”

For a moment or two nothing further was said. Then Mma Ramotswe rose from her desk and shut the door into the garage. She turned and faced her assistant, who was looking at her expectantly.

“There is nobody out there to hear us, Mma Ramotswe,” Mma Makutsi said. “There is just Charlie and the other one—and Mr. Polopetsi, of course. Nobody else.”

Mma Ramotswe made a silencing gesture, raising a finger to her lips. How easily could Mr. Polopetsi be misread. “Mr. Polopetsi,” she whispered. “Mr. Polopetsi.”

Mma Makutsi glanced at the door, as if she half expected Mr. Polopetsi to be listening on the other side, his ear stuck to the keyhole.

“Mr. Polopetsi?”

Mma Ramotswe nodded. “Those letters,” she said, her voice still lowered. “Those threatening letters.” She paused. She had not intended to voice her suspicions to Mma Makutsi but now she felt that she had to. “He wrote them. It was Mr. Polopetsi.”

Mma Makutsi let out a cry of surprise. Immediately she put a hand to her mouth in a gesture that was halfway between incredulity and shock.

“Yes,” Mma Ramotswe continued, glancing over her shoulder in the direction of the garage. “When we were in the van I took his coat for him and another letter dropped out of his pocket. He said that he had picked it up and was going to give it to me, but he was very evasive. I could tell that what he said was not true.”

Mma Makutsi’s eyes showed her disbelief. “Surely not. Surely not him.”

Mma Ramotswe would have liked to agree. Surely it could not be the mild, inoffensive Mr. Polopetsi, but how could she ignore the evidence of her own eyes? “Well, the letter was in his pocket.”

Mma Makutsi shook her head. It was impossible, she argued. Mr. Polopetsi was simply not a man to write a threatening letter to anybody. “It would be like…be like being threatened by a…by a rabbit, Mma. Yes, by a rabbit. Rabbits do not write threatening letters.”

Mma Ramotswe had to smile at Mma Makutsi’s turn of phrase. Her assistant sometimes said extraordinary things, but every now and then she made some remark that described a situation beautifully. This was such a one. Mr. Polopetsi a rabbit…of course he was. But even if a rabbit were to write a threatening letter, might one not be frightened? After all, how was one to know that the letter came from a rabbit?

“I don’t know, Mma,” said Mma Ramotswe. “I think that it was him, but I can’t think why he should have done it. Why? What have we done to harm Mr. Polopetsi?”

Mma Makutsi shrugged, her initial surprise fading into indifference. She herself had not been frightened by that ridiculous letter, and if this was the problem that was worrying Mma Ramotswe, then Mma Ramotswe’s trouble was a minor one when compared with her own. “Ask him,” she said. “Just ask him whether he wrote them. See what he says.”

Of course Mma Ramotswe had thought of this, but she felt that she could not challenge Mr. Polopetsi directly, no matter how damning the evidence against him seemed. She explained this to Mma Makutsi, reminding her that Mr. Polopetsi had already been wrongly accused once in his life—and had suffered imprisonment for it—so that she could not take the risk of making a second, possibly false, accusation. It was likely, she thought, that he was the writer of the letters, but it was still far from certain, and there was a difference between the likely and the certain. “How would he feel, Mma? How would he feel if he was telling the truth and I came up to him and accused him? How would he feel?”

“But what if he thinks that you suspect him but aren’t saying anything? Won’t that be every bit as bad, Mma Ramotswe?”

“I don’t believe he thinks that.”

Mma Makutsi was not convinced. “If you like, Mma,” she said, “I can ask him for you. It won’t be so hard for him if he thinks that I am the one who suspects him. I am not his boss—I am just an associate detective.” She hesitated and Mma Ramotswe thought for a moment that she was going to raise the subject of promotion. It was bound to come up sooner or later and could easily occur in the midst of a discussion of something quite unconnected, such as the guilt, or innocence perhaps, of Mr. Polopetsi.

“No,” said Mma Ramotswe hurriedly. “I don’t think so, Mma.” She had been standing beside Mma Makutsi’s desk during this conversation, and now she went back to her own chair and sat down. Now that she had confessed what was troubling her, she felt concern for Mma Makutsi. Sometimes her assistant was moody for no particular reason, but she did not think that this was one of those occasions. “And you, Mma Makutsi,” she said. “What about you? There is something troubling you, isn’t there?”

         

MMA RAMOTSWE LISTENED
in silence to the tale of woe that came tumbling out. Mma Makutsi described the purchase of the bed—“such an unusual bed, Mma, with its heart-shaped headboard and its double-thickness mattress.” She listened as Mma Makutsi told her of the failed attempt to get the bed through the door and the realisation that it would have to be taken elsewhere, perhaps to Phuti’s house, which was altogether larger and more accommodating.

“If only I had phoned him and told him,” she said, her voice heavy with misery. “If only I had done that, Mma. He would have sent one of his trucks to pick it up and store it safely. But no, I didn’t do that. I just left it there, Mma, although I knew as well as anybody that it was the beginning of the rainy season. Oh, I am a very stupid woman, Mma.”

Mma Ramotswe raised a hand. “Stop, Mma Makutsi. You cannot say that. You are
not
a stupid woman. Would a stupid woman have got ninety-seven per cent? Would she?”

Mma Makutsi looked doubtful. Mma Ramotswe was right about ninety-seven per cent: it was not the mark of a stupid woman. “Well, I was thoughtless on that occasion—put it that way, Mma. I just didn’t think.”

“Anybody can forget something, Mma,” said Mma Ramotswe. “We are human, after all.”

That, thought Mma Makutsi, was true. We were all human, even Mma Ramotswe herself, who was so kind and understanding and so quick with her forgiveness; even Mma Ramotswe could forget things and make mistakes. Her marriage to Note Mokoti had been a mistake, a big mistake, and there was that time she hit the tree when she was trying to park her tiny white van, and the occasion when she had put the wrong piece of paper in an envelope and sent a letter intended for person A to person B. That had been an unfortunate mistake, as in the letter to person A she had said that she thought it was person B who was stealing from the petty cash in person A’s office; very unfortunate, but very effective, as person B, alarmed at the discovery of his misdeeds, had immediately run away. That had sorted out the problem, but it was a mistake nonetheless.

Remembering the mistakes, Mma Makutsi smiled.

“Why are you smiling?” asked Mma Ramotswe. “Do you not agree with what I said about mistakes?”

“Oh, I do agree,” said Mma Makutsi. “I agree with you, Mma. It’s just that I was thinking about…” She hesitated for a moment before continuing, “I was thinking about your mistakes.”

Mma Ramotswe was not offended. “I have made many of those,” she said. “I have made some very bad mistakes. I cannot hide that fact.”

“Do you remember that letter?” asked Mma Makutsi. “The one in which you said—”

Mma Ramotswe sank her head in her hands. “Oh no, Mma! Please do not remind me of that. I feel all hot and bothered when anybody reminds me of that.”

“But it had a good result anyway,” said Mma Makutsi.

Mma Ramotswe nodded. “Yes, sometimes mistakes can be a good thing. You might be in town and you mean to go into one shop and you go into another. And then you find a very old friend in that other shop. Or you meet the person you’re going to marry—something like that.”

Mma Makutsi thought about this. There were so many decisions we made that at the time seemed very minor matters, but that could change the whole shape of our lives. “Yes, Mma, you are right. In my case, if I had not forgotten my pencil box at school and gone back for it one afternoon, we would not be sitting here today. That little decision to go back and fetch it changed my life.”

Mma Ramotswe was interested. The gloom that had descended on the office seemed to have lifted now, and it seemed that they were getting back to normal; this meandering conversation had restored their spirits, and a cup of red bush tea would do the rest. “Tell me about it, Mma. Tell me what happened, while you are putting on the kettle.”

Mma Makutsi rose from her desk and filled the kettle at the sink in the corner of the room. It was a story that she had told others countless times, but had not related to Mma Ramotswe. “I had left my pencil box behind and could not do my homework. I was sixteen then and I was just about to sit my Cambridge, so it was very important that I did lots of work. So I turned round and began to walk back towards the school. It was a hot day, Mma, I remember that. It was really hot.

“It took me about half an hour. When I reached the school, it was quiet. You know how schools are when everybody has gone home. There is a smell of chalk and just that silence, silence, nothing.”

Mma Ramotswe nodded.
Silence, silence, nothing.
Yes, that was it.

“I was worried that the classroom doors would be locked, but they were not. In those days we didn’t worry about locking, did we, Mma? Nobody locked anything in Botswana. The whole country had no locks on it.”

Again Mma Ramotswe nodded.
The whole country had no locks on it.
Mma Makutsi was right; she often expressed herself in an unusual way, but she was right.
The whole country had no locks on it;
yes, that was true, and we loved one another then. We still do, of course, Mma Ramotswe thought, but it is different. Perhaps there was not so much love as there was in those days. Perhaps our love was running out.

Mma Makutsi stood beside the kettle, watching it.
A watched kettle…
thought Mma Ramotswe, but did not give voice to the proverb. Mma Makutsi liked to question proverbs and would point out that of course watched kettles did boil—eventually.

They were back in Bobonong. “I went into the classroom,” Mma Makutsi continued, “and I found my pencil box. Then, as I was leaving, one of the teachers came in. She was surprised to see me, and at first I think that she thought I was stealing something. But when I told her that I had just come in to fetch my pencil box she understood. She was a nice teacher, that one; I had always liked her.

“She had an envelope in her hand and she took a leaflet out of it. ‘I have just received this,’ she said. ‘It is from the Botswana Secretarial College. They are writing to us about a scholarship they have set up—for half the fees. The principal is from up here, from Bobonong, and she wants a bright girl from this school to apply, somebody whose work is very neat.’

“It took me a few moments to realise that she was suggesting me. Nobody had ever thought before that I could win something, and now this teacher was saying that I could be the girl who got that scholarship. My heart was like this, Mma, big like this. I was very happy.”

Mma Ramotswe was touched by this story. “You must have been very happy, Mma. And you won that scholarship?”

Mma Makutsi nodded. “Yes, I won it. And my family paid the other half of the fees. They sold some animals to do it. They sold some goats.”

Mma Ramotswe knew what that meant. The sale of cattle, of goats, inevitably took a family closer to the edge of survival; it was a serious matter. “They must have been very proud of you, Mma. And they must be proud too, now that you are engaged to a man like Phuti Radiphuti…”

She had meant to be reassuring, but it was the wrong thing to say; one had to be so careful with Mma Makutsi, who could so readily take things the wrong way. The younger woman’s face crumpled. “But what are we going to do, Mma Ramotswe?” she wailed. “Phuti is coming back from Serowe in a couple of days. He has been up there on business. What am I to do when he comes back? I cannot face him and tell him that I have destroyed our expensive new bed. I cannot face him, Mma Ramotswe. What will he think of me?”

BOOK: Miracle at Speedy Motors
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