Authors: Alexander McCall Smith
“We are gathered here,” the preacher went on, “to witness the coming together in holy matrimony of this man and this woman, as at that wedding in Cana of Galilee…”
She looked at Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni and remembered how, not all that many years ago, she had stood next to him not far from here, at their own wedding, and they had been addressed in similar terms, and how, when she had looked up, as she had done during that ceremony, she had seen a Cape dove watching them from a bough in the tree above their heads. And the dove had stayed there until, a few minutes later, it launched itself into the air and disappeared, and she realised she had not been paying attention to what was being said to her and had to be nudged to give the necessary response.
Now as those same questions were put to Seemo and Thato, and as each uttered the appropriate response, Mma Ramotswe noticed that Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni was nodding at each answer, as if he agreed with the proposition behind the question, or as if he were himself echoing the couple’s words. It occurred to her that he was thinking back to their own wedding, and was, in a sense, renewing the promises he had made on that occasion. And how faithfully he had carried out those vows—observing them to the letter, she thought, in a way that some husbands, perhaps even many husbands, found so difficult to do. So, yes, he had honoured and cherished her, just as he had promised to do at the altar; and yes, he had shared all his worldly goods with her, asking for very little for himself; and yes, he had forsaken all others for her, even though there were always husband-stealers on the prowl—people like Violet Sephotho—who were constantly circling round, looking for opportunities to take advantage of men in all their weakness.
She looked at Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni with pride—and gratitude that he had been delivered into her care, and thanked whatever, or whomever, it was that kept watch over her life. God, perhaps, or God acting in concert, so to speak, with a committee of ancestors—her mother, her grandmother, and ladies going back a long time to the early days of her people. And Africa, too, she was there somewhere in those protective forces; wise and nurturing, Mother Africa had arms wide enough to embrace all her children.
Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni nudged her gently. “You’re dreaming about something, Mma,” he whispered.
She brought herself back to reality. “I was remembering,” she whispered back. “I was remembering our own wedding, Rra. Not far away from where we are.”
He smiled. “You said yes,” he said. “You said yes, just like Thato’s just done.”
“Good. It would be too late to say no at the altar. Far too late.”
Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni looked concerned. “I hope that has never happened, Mma.”
“I’m afraid that it has,” said Mma Ramotswe. “There was a wedding in Gaborone a few years back when they both said no, apparently.”
“Ow!” exclaimed Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni. And then, “Ow!” once more.
“Yes, they said that they had both been persuaded by their families to get married, and they decided to refuse right at the last moment.”
Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni rolled his eyes. “Their poor families.”
“Yes. And I heard that they had already cooked the roasts and so the guests just went on and ate all the food.”
“It would not have helped anybody if they had wasted the food,” said Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni. “That never helps.”
Mma Ramotswe remembered another detail. “The groom didn’t go to the feast,” she said. “I think he felt too embarrassed.”
“I’m not surprised,” said Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni.
“But the bride—or the almost bride—wasn’t embarrassed. I heard that she stayed for the feast and met another man there—one she had not met before. He was a guest of the groom’s family. She married him, I was told.”
Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni’s eyes opened wide. “There and then? At the same wedding?”
“No, later, Rra. A few months later, I think.”
“Then something good came of it,” said Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni.
THE VOWS HAVING BEEN EXCHANGED,
the preacher pronounced the couple man and wife. There was applause from the congregation, and ululating cries, too. The couple turned around and smiled, and the applause became louder. Mma Ramotswe tried not to cry, but failed. She always cried at a wedding, no matter how hard she tried to remain dry-eyed. Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni passed her a handkerchief that he extracted from the top pocket of his suit. The man standing next to him caught his eye and smiled, as if the two of them were exchanging some secret man’s message: women cry. Mma Ramotswe intercepted this as she wiped her eyes, and thought, Yes, we may cry, but you should do so too.
She returned the handkerchief as the congregation rose to its feet to sing.
Shall we gather at the river, the beautiful river, the beautiful river…
It had been a favourite of hers as a girl, when she had thought that the river must be the Limpopo, that rose very near to Mochudi, and that would always be her river. As a young girl she had felt proud that her local river should have been referred to in this hymn, so clearly crafted somewhere else, as most things were. They wrote hymns in England, she thought, and then sent them out into the world for people to sing them in all sorts of places, even here, on the very edge of the Kalahari.
The bride and groom left. Friends stopped to talk. Clothes were admired. Children ran about, laughing, playing little games of their own devising.
“Mma Ramotswe, so there you are!”
She looked up and saw Mma Makutsi waiting outside the gate of the
. Behind her, Phuti Radiphuti, wearing a light grey suit and a bright red tie, smiled nervously.
“And you, Phuti,” said Mma Ramotswe. “There you are too.”
“It was a very good service,” said Mma Makutsi, “even if Phuti and I couldn’t see very well…”
“Oh, I don’t know,” said Phuti. “We were not too far away.”
Mma Makutsi gave him a discouraging glance. “That’s a matter of opinion, Rra,” she said. “Who would have thought in advance that this would be a wedding with inside people and outside people? Who would have thought that, Mma?”
Mma Ramotswe sighed. “Numbers are always a problem when you have a wedding, Mma. You can’t invite the whole world, I think.”
“Oh, I know that,” said Mma Makutsi. “I’m not saying that you should invite the whole world—or even all of Gaborone, for instance. I am not saying that.”
Phuti Radiphuti made a valiant effort to move the conversation on. “And the bride was very pretty,” he said loudly. “I sell furniture to her father, you know. He has a shop somewhere up north, and it stocks some of our furniture.”
“That is all very interesting, Rra,” said Mma Makutsi sharply. “Perhaps we can talk about sofas and dining-room tables later on. What I was talking about now-now was the idea of dividing your guests into inside people and outside people. That sometimes doesn’t make the outside people feel very happy. They may sit there—or stand there, shall I say—and ask themselves: Are we not good enough to be inside people? That is what they might think, Mma. I’m just reporting it. I’m just saying what I believe they might be thinking.”
“Oh well,” said Mma Ramotswe. “The important thing is that the bride and groom are happy. This is their day, after all, not ours.”
Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni shifted awkwardly on his feet. “There is a very fine smell of beef,” he said. “That is one way of being happy—having some beef to eat.”
Phuti seized the opportunity. “That is very funny, Rra. But it is also very true. If you have a good slice of beef on your plate, then you are happy. Many studies have shown that, I think.”
Mma Ramotswe pointed to the large tent on the other side of the garden. “That is where we will find some lunch,” she said. “And then we can talk more about some other things.”
While Phuti and Grace went off to greet other friends in the crowd, Mma Ramotswe and Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni made their way through the throng of guests towards the catering tent, where already the outside people, having enjoyed a head start, were making inroads on the meat. And it was on the way that Mma Ramotswe suddenly gripped Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni’s arm.
“I have seen a ghost, Rra,” she said, her voice filled with alarm.
He looked at her in astonishment, uncertain whether to laugh.
“There,” hissed Mma Ramotswe. “There, Rra—right over there.”
He looked where she was pointing. There was a group of four women and two men, each dressed in their wedding best. One of the women wore an elaborate, broad-brimmed hat—one of those hats that is more umbrella, perhaps, than headgear.
“Those are people, Mma,” he said. “They are not ghosts, as far as I can see.”
She shook her head. Lowering her voice, she said, “One of them is late, Rra. That one over there—she is late.”
R. J.L.B. MATEKONI WAITED
for an explanation as Mma Ramotswe stared intently at the small group of wedding guests. If her husband was confused, then she herself was wondering whether her eyesight was playing tricks on her. Yet the woman in the large hat, who had just turned her back on her, now turned around again, affording Mma Ramotswe an even better view of her face. And now there was no doubt.
“That is definitely her, Rra,” she said, her voice still uneven with shock. “That woman over there. That’s Calviniah. And she’s late. She’s definitely late.”
Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni frowned. “Who is this Calviniah, Mma Ramotswe? I really don’t know what you’re talking about. There are no late people here, Mma.” He shrugged helplessly. The sun was hot. At such times, if you weren’t careful, it could make you say nonsensical things. Heatstroke was a dangerous thing.
He reached out to shelter her head from the sun with a handkerchief. It gave scant protection, but it would have to do until he could get her back into the shade.
But Mma Ramotswe brushed the inadequate shelter away. “Calviniah Ramoroka,” she said. “That’s her, standing over there.”
“That lady with the big hat?” asked Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni. “That one, Mma? The one who is clearly not late?”
She said nothing for a moment. Then she turned to him. “I know you think it’s the sun. I know you think I’ve gone mad, Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni.”
He stuttered an apology. “I was not accusing you of that, Mma. I was just pointing out—”
She cut him short. “I have not taken leave of my senses, Rra. All that has happened is that I have seen a very old friend—somebody I knew a long time ago, from schooldays. She went off to live up in Francistown and I lost touch with her, and with her family too. Then…” She trailed off. The woman was coming towards them now, still talking to the group around her.
“Then?” asked Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni.
“Then I read in the papers that she had been killed in a road accident. There was a picture of her in the press. I couldn’t get to the funeral because it was up north and…well, something or other prevented me from going—work, I think…”
Mma Ramotswe put a hand to her mouth, in a gesture of profound shock. The woman in the hat had suddenly stopped, and was staring at her. Then, very quickly, she ran forwards towards Mma Ramotswe, stopping just short of her. Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni stood quite still. Things had happened so quickly, and he was uncertain what to do.
“Precious Ramotswe?” The woman spoke loudly.
Mma Ramotswe nodded. “Calviniah…”
Calviniah took a step forward, her arms wide. “I thought it was you,” she said. “And it is you, isn’t it?” She glanced at Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni. “And this is…?”
“This is my husband,” said Mma Ramotswe, her voice still faltering. “This is Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni.”
They exchanged the polite, traditional greetings. Then Calviniah turned back to Mma Ramotswe and embraced her friend. “It is so long,” she said. “It is so very long.”
“I thought you were late,” Mma Ramotswe struggled to say. “I couldn’t believe my eyes.”
Calviniah drew back and laughed. “Oh, that? That was very unfortunate.”
Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni’s eyes widened. That was one way of putting it, he thought.
“But you are not,” concluded Mma Ramotswe.
Calviniah let out an amused shriek. “No! I am definitely not late, as I hope you can see. No, that was a big mistake by the newspaper. There was another Calviniah Ramoroka, you see. She lived up in Francistown too. You knew I went to Francistown?”
Mma Ramotswe nodded. “I’d heard that.”
“Well, this other Calviniah Ramoroka had a very bad road accident. There was a truck driver who was drunk, and her car was very small when this big, big truck came over onto her side of the road. It was very sad, Mma.”
Mma Ramotswe nodded. It happened only too often. Whatever the authorities tried to do, there were still people who would drink and drive.
“Anyway,” Calviniah continued, “the newspaper printed the right facts about the accident, but they somehow got hold of a photograph of me, rather than the other Calviniah, the late one. Many people were misled, I think, Mma. For ages afterwards they came up to me and told me that they thought I was late. Some people even came up and said, ‘We’re sorry to hear about your death, Mma—our condolences.’ And they meant it, Mma. Can you believe that people would be so…”
“So stupid?” suggested Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni.
“Yes, Rra,” Calviniah agreed. “One doesn’t like to say it, but people can be really stupid at times.” She paused. “They can be very nice, of course, Mma. I’m not saying they can’t be nice. It’s just that while they’re being nice, they’re also being stupid.”
“You must have been very embarrassed,” said Mma Ramotswe.
Calviniah laughed. “Yes, it can be embarrassing to be late,” she said. “Or to be late and not late at the same time, if you see what I mean, Mma. Anyway, they printed a correction, and an apology. But these were on the back page near the sporting news, and many people did not see them. Who wants to read about football, Mma? Only men want to read that sort of thing.”
Mma Ramotswe relaxed. “I was thinking exactly the same thing, Mma. When I saw you, I had a big shock. But…but it is such good news, Mma, that you are alive after all.”
“And we should go and have something to eat,” Calviniah said, steering Mma Ramotswe towards the food tent. “People think that late people don’t feel hungry…”
Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni smiled. “That is very funny, Mma.”
Calviniah smiled at him, and to Mma Ramotswe she said, “You have a very nice husband, Mma. I have some friends who are keen to get married. Can you tell me about the place where you found him so that they can have a look too?”
They both laughed. “This is a very happy day in so many ways,” said Mma Ramotswe.
THAT WAS ON A SATURDAY.
On the Monday after the wedding, Mma Ramotswe was at her desk early, catching up with correspondence. Mma Makutsi was slightly late in coming in, and when she did, Mma Ramotswe had already made the first cup of tea.
“I am sorry I’m a bit behind this morning, Mma,” Mma Makutsi said. “Phuti lost his car keys and we had to search every corner of the house before he found them.”
“Men,” sighed Mma Ramotswe. And then, realising how unfair this was, she said, “Well, I suppose women lose their keys too.” It was wrong to speak like that of men, she thought. It was very tempting sometimes to do so—to blame men for everything—but there were too many women doing it and it was not right. Men could take the blame for many things, but not
Mma Makutsi sat down at her desk and polished her large round spectacles. “You know what they taught us at the Botswana Secretarial College, Mma? You know what? They said: Make a key board. Put your office keys on hooks. A key that is on a hook is never lost, Mma. I have never forgotten that. A key that is on a hook is never lost.”
Mma Ramotswe agreed. “I’m sure that is right, Mma.”
“And the same goes for other things,” went on Mma Makutsi. “Hooks are the answer.”
Mma Ramotswe had a momentary vision of Mma Makutsi’s house covered in hooks. Even her baby, Itumelang, would be suspended in a basket from a hook; and Phuti would have a hook too, a large, solid one, from which he would dangle by his collar, awaiting instructions from his wife.
Unware of this vision, of course, Mma Makutsi continued to expound on the merits of hooks. “It’s a good idea to have hooks for men’s clothes, in my view. You know how untidy they are, Mma. You know how they leave their things lying around on the floor.”
Mma Ramotswe, in spite of her commitment to fairness, had to agree. Men were very untidy, for the most part. They could not help it, she knew, and one could not blame them for it, as neither could they help being men. It was just the way things were.
“You’re right about clothes on the floor, Mma Makutsi,” she said, a tinge of resignation in her voice. “I’m always picking up clothes. Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni does it, and so does Puso. They just leave them on the floor. And then…” She remembered something with a shudder. “It can be dangerous too. Puso left his trousers on the floor one night and the next morning, when he put them on, a scorpion was hiding in one of the legs.”
Mma Makutsi winced. “That would have been very sore, Mma.”
“It was,” said Mma Ramotswe. “Those creatures give a very bad sting. Very bad.”
Mma Makutsi winced again. “Ow!”
“He yelled and yelled,” Mma Ramotswe continued. “Poor little boy.”
“If he had put the trousers up on a hook, then it would not have happened.”
Mma Ramotswe nodded. “No, it would not.” She decided to change the subject. Hooks were useful, but there was a limit to what one could say about them. “That was a good wedding, I think, Mma. We enjoyed it.”
“A very good wedding,” Mma Makutsi agreed. “Unfortunately, Phuti developed a headache and we didn’t stay all that long. It was being out in the sun, you see. He doesn’t like that very much and it gives him a headache sometimes. The sun makes the brain swell and then it presses on the skull, which cannot expand very much, if at all.”
She looked at Mma Ramotswe while she continued to polish the lenses of her spectacles. “The skull is the same size all the time,” she said. “Once you’re fully grown, your head doesn’t get any bigger. Even if you become quite fat, Mma—even then. Your body gets bigger, but your head stays the same size.”
“I think I know that, Mma,” said Mma Ramotswe. “You don’t hear many people say, ‘Oh, my head is getting so big, I must go on a diet.’ ”
Mma Makutsi put on her spectacles. “That’s true. And there’s another thing I’ve thought about, Mma, and that is the relationship between the size of the head and intelligence. You’d think there’d be a connection, wouldn’t you?”
Mma Ramotswe was doubtful. Any such connection would be far too obvious, she thought, and one thing she had learned in her profession was that that which is obvious frequently turns out to be false. Except sometimes, of course, as Clovis Andersen himself pointed out in
The Principles of Private Detection
. He advised his readers to look at the most likely possibilities first because a cunning malefactor might assume—incorrectly, it was to be hoped—that the obvious solution would be discounted in any search or enquiry.
If I were a thief trying to conceal the things I had stolen,
I would put them behind a door marked “Storeroom for Stolen Items.” That would be the safest place, as everybody would think that was far too obvious. People would look everywhere but behind that door. It is all a question of psychology.
Mma Makutsi recalled one of the instructors at the Botswana Secretarial College. “I remember one of my professors…,” she began.
Mma Ramotswe raised an eyebrow. She had heard Mma Makutsi refer to her teachers as professors, but it was completely unjustified. Whatever the merits of the Botswana Secretarial College might be, it was still just that—a secretarial college. It was not a branch of the University of Botswana, as were places like the Botswana College of Agriculture. It did not award degrees, and its staff were definitely not professors.
When she first heard mention of these so-called professors, she had felt inclined to stop Mma Makutsi and say, “But who are these professors, Mma? I didn’t know that the Botswana Secretarial College was part of the University of Botswana, where all the professors work. This is very interesting news, Mma.” She had not said this, though; kindness prevented her, as it always did. If Mma Makutsi wanted to promote her teachers in this way, then there was no real reason why she should not do so. It evidently gave her pleasure to think of her instructors in these terms, and it was a harmless enough promotion. The real professors, those erudite men and women at the University of Botswana who knew so much about such a wide range of subjects, might perhaps object if they heard of it, but even they would turn a blind eye, she imagined, to this innocent piece of wishful thinking.
“This professor,” Mma Makutsi continued, “taught us book-keeping. He was not very tall—normal height, I think, for a man—but he was very well built. In fact, Mma, he was a bit round in shape, a bit like a pumpkin, you know.”
Mma Ramotswe listened. Mma Makutsi had a habit of referring to fruit and vegetables when describing people. She had recently referred to a man as being “banana-shaped,” and indeed, when Mma Ramotswe saw the person in question, she could see what she meant. The man in question did have a curve to his back, with the result that the tip of his nose lined up with his toes; but the front of his stomach was some inches behind both of those points. And then there had been a man she referred to as having a face “a bit like a cauliflower,” a description that, once again, seemed strikingly accurate, even if it was, Mma Ramotswe felt, somewhat unkind. Of course, such terms could not be used publicly, for fear of giving offence: the police, for example, could not issue them in their descriptions of wanted persons—
We are looking for a tall, string-bean-shaped man—
helpful though such descriptions might be.