Authors: Alexander McCall Smith
“And then?” asked Charlie.
Mma Makutsi took off her spectacles and gave them a cursory wipe. “Then you say, ‘Oh, I think I know her. Is she the one from Molepolole?’ ”
Mma Ramotswe joined in. “Mma Makutsi is right,” she reassured Charlie. “It is what Clovis Andersen calls routine arm-work.”
Mma Makutsi corrected her: “Leg-work, Mma. He calls it leg-work.”
“It is all the same,” said Mma Ramotswe. “Arm-work, leg-work—it is all the same thing. It is what we do, Charlie, and I think you are getting better and better at it.”
He beamed with pleasure. It was so easy to make Charlie happy, thought Mma Ramotswe. Indeed, it was so easy to make anybody happy. All that was required was a kind word or two—a kind word that cost nothing, and yet could have such a profound effect.
“Yes,” she said. “You are doing very well, Charlie.”
His smile broadened. “You are like my mother, Mma Ramotswe,” he said. And then, becoming aware of Mma Makutsi’s gaze upon him, he added, “And you, Mma Makutsi, you are like my auntie.”
“Thank you, Charlie,” said Mma Makutsi—a bit primly, thought Mma Ramotswe, but then he had described her as his aunt, and aunts, of all people, could be allowed to be prim.
But Mma Ramotswe thought: this young man is not yet there. She was not quite sure where
was, but it was the place that he wanted to get to, a place where he would not be poor, where he would be able to feel proud of himself, a place where he would be something. He might get there, but it would be something of a miracle if he did, given the odds stacked against him.
MA BOKO LOOKED
at Mma Ramotswe over a pair of tortoiseshell half-moon glasses.
“I like your glasses, Mma,” said Mma Ramotswe.
Mma Boko removed them self-consciously. She giggled. “They are just for reading, Mma. You know how it is? They are printing everything much smaller these days. All the time they are making it smaller.”
Mma Ramotswe smiled. “Or our eyes are changing, Mma. They are becoming tired and they think, This is much smaller now.”
Mma Boko replaced her glasses. “There are many things I am happy
she said. “When I look around town these days, I see many things that I think should not be there—many things that I do not like.”
Mma Ramotswe knew what she meant. “Oh, you are right, Mma—you are very right. There are things that you would never have seen in the past.” And there were things that you would have seen in the past that you would never see today—and thank heavens for that. There had been cruelties and injustices that would never be tolerated today.
But that was not what interested Mma Boko; disapproval is less effort than approval, and, for those who disapprove, twice as satisfying.
“I’ll give you an example, Mma,” said Mma Boko. “I’ll give you an example of something that will shock you.”
Mma Ramotswe said nothing. She wanted to tell Mma Boko that nothing would shock her, as in her profession she had seen just about everything. But then she realised that she had not; the bad behaviour with which the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency was concerned was not really all that bad. They saw selfishness and greed; they saw infidelity and other forms of disloyalty; they saw vanity, and its cousin, insecurity. They did not see the major cruelties, nor the great frauds and dishonesties.
“Tell me, Mma,” she said.
Mma Boko drew in her breath. “You know that place?” she began.
Mma Ramotswe frowned. “What place, Mma? There are many places.”
Mma Boko waved her hand vaguely in the direction of the Tlokweng Road. “That place they call River-something. That place where there are shops.”
Mma Ramotswe nodded. “I know the shops. I go there for groceries. That supermarket—”
Mma Boko raised a finger. “That supermarket, Mma—yes, right there. I was there with my friend Mma Magadi—you’ll know her, I think.”
Again, Mma Ramotswe frowned. Mma Magadi? Somewhere in the back of her memory, the name chimed with something. But that was the problem: so many names chimed with something, and yet it was impossible to establish what that something was. “I’m not sure, Mma,” she replied. “The name is a bit familiar, but…but, I’m not sure.”
was in part occasioned by a concern that denying knowledge of somebody might give offence. Mma Ramotswe was reasonably well known in Gaborone—not because she had courted prominence in any way, but because people drove past her business sign on the Tlokweng Road (one could hardly miss it) and they were naturally curious as to who these No. 1 detective ladies might be. And then there had been the occasional article in the paper, including one entitled
THE ONE HUNDRED AND FIFTY MOST INFLUENTIAL WOMEN IN BOTSWANA (PART ONE).
When Mma Makutsi had spotted that one morning as they were drinking tea in the office, she had let out a whoop of delight. “Look, Mma!” she exclaimed. “Look! We are in the list of…” She consulted the article. “The one hundred and fifty most influential women in the world.”
Mma Ramotswe had peered over Mma Makutsi’s shoulder. “In Botswana, Mma,” she had corrected her.
“Yes, that’s what I said, Mma. The one hundred and fifty most influential women in Botswana.”
Mma Ramotswe had not pressed the point, but as her eye ran down the columns in the double-page spread, she realised that there were several reasons why Mma Makutsi’s delight might soon turn sour.
Mma Makutsi pointed to a line in the article. “There it is, Mma. Number ninety-seven. The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency…” She trailed off.
“They always get these things wrong, Mma,” Mma Ramotswe said hurriedly. “I’m sure that they meant to mention you too.”
“Ninety-seven,” muttered Mma Makutsi.
Mma Ramotswe swallowed hard. That was doubly unfortunate. If anybody had the right to the number ninety-seven, then it was Mma Makutsi, with her unassailable claim to have climbed to the heights of ninety-seven in the final examinations of the Botswana Secretarial College. And yet here it was on the printed page:
Number Ninety-Seven, The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency is the creation of Precious Ramotswe, Mochudi-born private investigator and solver of those oh-so-difficult mysteries! Move over, Mr. Sherlock Holmes, and let the lady from the Tlokweng Road get to the bottom of things!
Mma Ramotswe was immediately apologetic. “These journalists,” she expostulated. “They are always getting things wrong! Making things up! Writing such nonsense about things they know nothing about.” She paused, dismayed at the only-too-apparent failure of her words to pour the necessary oil on these troubled waters. “And here they are—forgetting to write about you, when they must have meant to include you.”
No, Mma Makutsi was not to be that easily pacified. “There is no mention of me,” she said. “I am clearly a person with no influence.”
“Oh, you mustn’t say that, Mma. This is a ridiculous piece of nonsense. They make these things up to fill the pages when there is no news—when the politicians have all gone back to their villages and nobody is saying anything for the newspapers to write about.” She watched Mma Makutsi, who remained unconvinced.
“Look,” Mma Ramotswe continued. “This list is no use at all, Mma. Who is one of the most influential ladies we know? It is Mma Potokwane, without any doubt at all. But is she in this list? Do we see her name here? No, we do not.”
Mma Makutsi snatched the paper from Mma Ramotswe, peering at the list of names. Suddenly she pointed indignantly at the now-crumpled sheet. “Oh yes, Mma? Oh yes? What is this here, then? Number eighty-one: Mma Silvia Potokwane. See? And just in case they are talking about another Mma Potokwane altogether, what does it say? It says,
Mma Silvia Potokwane is the well-known matron who has looked after hundreds of children over the years. She does not live in a shoe, this lady, and she certainly knows what to do!
Mma Makutsi lowered the paper and fixed Mma Ramotswe with an accusing stare. “I think that is definitely our Mma Potokwane, Mma. I think there is no mistake about that.”
Mma Ramotswe was silent. The situation was irretrievable, she decided. But there was more to come, and this was heralded by a sharp intake of breath from Mma Makutsi as she glanced once more at the newspaper. For a moment she appeared to struggle, and then, wordlessly, she thrust the paper at Mma Ramotswe, her finger jabbing at a place on the list where, with utter shamelessness, was to be seen the name of Violet Sephotho, at number fourteen—
—with the following encomium:
A lady whose fingers are in every pie, Violet Sephotho B.A. is the mover and shaker who puts Gaborone on the map! Onward and upward goes this lady of the future.
Mma Ramotswe’s jaw sagged. Mma Makutsi had every right to feel outraged. This was an abomination.
“B.A.?” shouted Mma Makutsi. “Since when is Violet a B.A.? What did she get in the final examinations of the Botswana Secretarial College? I can tell you, Mma. Barely fifty per cent. And now she calls herself a B.A.”
“Mover and shaker,” groaned Mma Ramotswe. “I have never liked that expression, Mma. Now I like it even less.”
“This country is finished,” Mma Makutsi wailed. “If this sort of thing can appear in the papers, then this country is finished, Mma. Over. Finished.”
here was Mma Boko starting some story about a Mma Magadi and the supermarket.
“No, perhaps you don’t know her,” said Mma Boko. “But you might recognise her, because she is, like you, a large lady, Mma. She is larger, perhaps, and her children are all quite large too. Not tall, you understand, but large this way—out to the side and to the front. And at the back too. She has five of them, and I was in the supermarket when she came in with them. All five.”
“That cannot be easy,” said Mma Ramotswe. “Feeding five children will be a full-time job, I think.”
Mma Boko agreed. She had had three children, she said, and although they were all grown up and away from home now, she still felt exhausted. Just think about the effort that had been required to get meals on the table, day in, day out, year after year. “People don’t always know what it’s like,” she said. “They forget how hard it is to be a mother.”
“And a wife,” said Mma Ramotswe.
“Yes, and a wife, because a husband is just like a child in many cases, Mma. Not all the time, of course, but often. People forget that.”
Mma Ramotswe waited for the conversation to continue. Sympathy had been expressed for this mother of five, but was that the point of her having been mentioned? Had she been the victim of some outrage that Mma Boko was now to report, or was there another reason for her appearance in this discussion?
It now became clear. “Having five children is no excuse,” said Mma Boko. She spoke firmly. “No, Mma, even if you have five children, you are not entitled to take them into the supermarket and feed them there.”
Mma Ramotswe sighed. “Ah, Mma. I have seen that sort of thing happen. I have seen people sneaking a bite of something in the supermarket—and then not buying it.” She paused. “Of course, sometimes it is very tempting. They put this food in front of you, and sometimes temptation is very strong.”
Mma Boko was staring at her, and Mma Ramotswe quickly qualified her remark. “Not that you should give in to it, of course. I would never say that you should give in to temptation.”
And yet, and yet…There were occasions on which she gave in to temptation, in spite of every resolution she might make not to yield. Doughnuts were such an occasion—and fat cakes too. And Mma Potokwane’s fruit cake, come to think of it. And those chocolate bars with coconut in the middle. There were many, many temptations in one’s way on the road through life, and one would not be human if one
“You are right, Mma,” said Mma Boko. “When I am faced with temptation, I am happy to say that I do not yield. Not one inch, Mma.”
Mma Ramotswe sighed again. “You are fortunate, Mma. You must be very strong. Sometimes I think that I am one of the weaker sisters. In fact, I know I am. Fat cakes, you see…”
“Then you must get the Lord to help you,” said Mma Boko. “He is well aware of fat cakes.”
There had been the feeding of the five thousand, Mma Ramotswe remembered. Had fat cakes been involved in that? She stopped herself. That was disrespectful. She glanced at Mma Boko. She suspected that she was as weak as the next person, in spite of all this talk of being above temptation.
“There is a very good reverend,” Mma Boko said. “He is the one who helps people overcome temptation. I am lucky that I have met him.”
Something chimed, but Mma Ramotswe was not sure what it was.
A very good reverend
…But she wanted to get on with her conversation with Mma Boko, and it seemed that they would have to dispose of Mma Magadi first. “So this lady allowed her children to eat in the supermarket,” she said. “That is not right. It is stealing.”
“Not only that,” Mma Boko continued. “That was shocking enough, Mma, to see this mother telling her children to eat things while she kept a look-out for the supermarket staff. That’s a very bad example to a child. But there was something else. I had to go and inform the cashier, Mma. I went and told her that there were five children all eating things.”
Mma Ramotswe nodded. “That was the right thing to do, Mma.”
Mma Boko shook her head. “You would think they would be pleased. You would think that she would have said, ‘Thank you for this information—we shall attend to it immediately.’ You would think she would have said that, and instead, what did she say? She said, ‘Mind your own business.’ That is what she said—her exact words.
Mind your own business.
“But that is terrible, Mma. She should have done something.”
“Exactly,” said Mma Boko. “But that is what we are coming to these days, Mma. People don’t care.”
Mma Ramotswe allowed a few moments to pass, and then she said, “Next door, Mma. When I knocked on your door a little while ago and told you that I am a private detective wanting to find out about something, that was about next door actually.”
Mma Boko said that this did not surprise her. “When you said you were a private detective, I assumed that. I thought you would be acting for that man’s wife. And that is why I have been happy to speak to you.”
“What man, Mma?”
“That man next door. He has a wife, you see, and he also has that young woman—that shameless young woman.”
Mma Ramotswe coaxed out the facts slowly and skilfully. The flat was rented, Mma Boko told her, by a wealthy businessman—“He has many shops, Mma, and they say that he even owns a small mine somewhere up north.” The businessman was married, and had three children, she believed. “Three innocent children, Mma, and the wife is innocent too—all innocent. But this businessman—I have never actually seen him, Mma, but I have been told all these things about him—this businessman likes young women. Men, you know, Mma, they are all like that. He has set this young woman up in this flat, and he lets her use that silver car too. A young woman—driving around in a car like that, Mma. That is very bad.”