Authors: Alexander McCall Smith
“So, he looked like a pumpkin?” Mma Ramotswe prompted.
“Yes, he did,” came the reply. But then Mma Makutsi frowned. “I don’t want to sound disrespectful, Mma. I would never be rude about my professors.”
“Of course not.” And Mma Ramotswe knew that Mma Makutsi meant that. That college, for all she went on about it, and for all Mma Ramotswe was fed up with hearing of it, had given Mma Makutsi everything. It meant the world to her, and there was nothing wrong with that. A good teacher could mean the world.
Mma Makutsi gazed out of the window. “I’m not saying that he was altogether like a pumpkin, Mma. If you saw him standing next to a pumpkin, you’d be able to tell the difference, of course.”
“Of course,” said Mma Ramotswe. “You wouldn’t make that mistake easily.”
“Anyway, that was his general shape, but when it came to his head…” Mma Makutsi brought her gaze back into the room. “Oh, Mma, it was very, very small. You really had to strain to see it at all.”
“Surely not. Surely…”
“No, Mma Ramotswe, I am not exaggerating. It was that small—it really was. The ears were quite big, though. You saw those easily enough. But the head…ow, it was tiny. Yet—and this is the amazing thing, Mma—and yet he knew just about everything. That tiny head was full of information about everything you wanted to know. It was all there. And not just book-keeping—there was a lot of book-keeping in his head, but other things too. History of Botswana—it was there. Geography—names of rivers, foreign places, North Pole, height of Kilimanjaro—it was all there. He could tell you.”
“Kilimanjaro,” mused Mma Ramotswe. “When I was a young girl I saw a picture of Kilimanjaro in a book. I wanted to go there. I said to my auntie who was looking after me at the time,
I want to go to a very high hill called Kilimanjaro,
and she said,
We cannot go today, I am too busy
. I remember my disappointment, because when you are a child you want to do everything immediately, don’t you? Now-now. You don’t want to wait because at that age you think that even tomorrow is a very long time away.”
“That is true, Mma,” said Mma Makutsi. “So if you asked this professor how high Kilimanjaro was, he’d say…” She trailed off.
“What would he say, Mma?”
“He would give you the height,” Mma Makutsi said quickly.
She doesn’t know, thought Mma Ramotswe. But then she thought, Neither do I.
Mma Makutsi returned to headaches. “That is why Phuti got a headache.” She paused. “The heat must have made his brain expand until it hit the side of his head. We didn’t have an awning, Mma. We were outside people, you see.”
She looked reproachfully at Mma Ramotswe, as if the lack of an awning had been her fault. Mma Ramotswe, impervious to this, rose to her feet. “I have made tea, Mma,” she said. “Let me pour you a cup.”
While they drank their tea, Mma Ramotswe told Mma Makutsi about the meeting with Calviniah, and the shock of recognition that had preceded it. Mma Makutsi listened intently. “Newspapers,” she muttered at the end, shaking her head. “They should be more careful.”
CHARLIE ARRIVED TEN MINUTES LATER,
while they were still drinking their tea and Mma Ramotswe was reminiscing about her early friendship with Calviniah. Charlie was now dividing his time between the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency and Tlokweng Road Speedy Motors, Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni’s business, which adjoined the agency office. Neither was in a position to pay him a full wage, but, put together, the two jobs came up with just enough. On Mma Ramotswe’s side of the arrangement, Charlie probably did not generate sufficient fee income to justify his being employed at all, but she had nonetheless taken him on out of sympathy when Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni had been obliged to retrench. Nothing specific had been said about his status: in her eyes, he was a general assistant, not quite an office helper, but close to it, one whose responsibilities included anything that needed doing at the time, from collecting the mail to taking part in the less skilled parts of an investigation. For all his impetuosity, Charlie was an observer, and noticed details that others might miss. On several occasions, too, he had shown a talent for surveillance, standing on street corners without being noticed, or following a suspected errant husband into a bar without attracting suspicion. That he would eventually make a competent detective she was in no doubt, although she was not sure when that would be. If Charlie was lacking anything, she felt, it was judgement, and that was something that only came with time.
Mma Makutsi had a different view of the situation. Her relationship with Charlie had not been easy, at least to begin with, although it had improved greatly in recent times. The two were fond of one another—in an odd sort of way, observed Mma Ramotswe; Charlie had recently come across the word
and had decided that Mma Makutsi was the embodiment of that particular quality. If only she would stop boasting about her ninety-seven per cent, he thought. That was achieved ages ago, and you’d think she would have something else to talk about. And if only she would stop challenging the views he expressed on just about any subject. If that happened, then there would be nothing to take exception to in her. Indeed, he would go further, and say that he could imagine rather enjoying her feisty company.
Mma Makutsi was happy enough to have Charlie working in the office—provided he remembered that he was not to describe himself as an assistant detective. She had heard him doing that over the telephone one day, and she had shouted out from the other side of the room, “Excuse me,
assistant detective, if you don’t mind. Office assistant, please.” She accepted that he might one day be able to shoulder wider responsibilities, but that day, she emphasised, was yet to come.
“Charlie is still just a boy,” she said to Mma Ramotswe. “He may be twenty-whatever, but there are many men who are still boys until they are in the early thirties, and beyond. In some cases, they remain boys until they are very old. They become old boys. I’m not saying that Charlie is that sort of man, all I am saying is that he has a bit more growing up to do.”
Now, coming into the office on a day that would see him working with Mma Ramotswe and Mma Makutsi rather than with Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni and Fanwell, the junior mechanic, Charlie poured himself a mug of tea and perched on one of Mma Makutsi’s filing cabinets while he drank it.
“So, you ladies went to a wedding on Saturday. How did it go?”
“Very well, thank you, Charlie,” Mma Ramotswe replied. “There were many people there.”
“There always are at weddings,” said Charlie. “Not that I go to many myself.”
“Are your friends not settling down yet?” asked Mma Makutsi. “Maybe you should set them an example. Maybe you should marry that girlfriend of yours. What’s she called? Queenie-Queenie?”
Charlie nodded. “That’s her name, Mma.”
“Strange name,” mused Mma Makutsi. “Why would anybody want to be called Queenie-Queenie?, I ask myself. Still, there’s no accounting for taste.”
“It’s a very nice name,” said Charlie loyally.
“There is nothing wrong with it,” said Mma Ramotswe. “The important thing about a name is that the person who has that name should like it.”
“Well, she does like it, Mma,” said Charlie. “And so do I.” He paused. “And you say I should marry her, Mma Makutsi. Well, maybe I will. What if I told you we are unofficially engaged.”
This was greeted with complete silence. Mma Makutsi and Mma Ramotswe glanced at one another. Then Mma Ramotswe said, “And if you did tell us that, Charlie, would it be true?”
Charlie, sipping on his tea, seemed to bask in their attention. “You could say so, Mma.”
For a moment the two women were silent. Charlie smiled with all the satisfaction of one who has dropped a bombshell. Then Mma Ramotswe clapped her hands together. “That is very good news, Charlie,” she said. “You will both be very happy, I’m sure.”
Charlie acknowledged the sentiments with a small bow. He looked across the room at Mma Makutsi, clearly waiting for her to follow Mma Ramotswe’s lead.
“Yes,” said Mma Makutsi, a note of reluctance in her voice. “This is very good news.” She paused before continuing, “But what is the difference between being officially engaged and being unofficially engaged? Can you tell me, Rra?”
Charlie finished his tea and placed his mug down on the filing cabinet. “There are many differences,” he began. “If you are unofficially engaged—”
Mma Makutsi interrupted him. “There is no ring?”
“That is one difference,” said Charlie. “If you have a ring, then everybody will know. Most people don’t know if it’s unofficial.”
“Does she know?” asked Mma Makutsi. “Does Queenie-Queenie know?”
Charlie looked hurt. “Of course she knows, Mma. She is my fiancée. How could a fiancée
know that she was engaged?”
Mma Makutsi laughed. “Oh, I can think of many cases of that. I can think of cases where a man
that the woman has said that she will marry him, but she hasn’t agreed at all. Maybe she said yes when he asked her to go to the cinema with him or something like that. And then he thinks, She’s said yes! She’s going to marry me. Such a man can be very stupid.”
Charlie looked defiant. “And women too, Mma Makutsi? What about women? You’re always going on about men being stupid and thinking all sorts of things, but what about women? There are many stupid women too, you know—not just stupid men. There are stupid men and stupid women. Lots of them, if you ask me, all over the place, even Bobonong…”
Mma Ramotswe knew at once that sensitive territory was being entered. Mma Makutsi came from Bobonong, and would not hear a word against it. She gave Charlie a look of discouragement, hoping that he would not say anything more about Bobonong, or indeed about anything very much.
But it was too late. “Bobonong?” Mma Makutsi challenged. “Are you saying that people from Bobonong are stupid? Is that what you’re saying, Charlie?”
Charlie was a picture of injured innocence. “Certainly not, Mma. I would never say that. I am just saying that there are stupid people everywhere. That’s all. But I was also saying that people shouldn’t pick just on men. There are many ladies who do that, Mma Makutsi. They think that they can be rude about men, but when a man is rude about women, then big trouble for him. Big, big trouble these days. Too much. Bang! That man’s finished. End of story. Gone. Big-time.”
Mma Ramotswe decided to steer the conversation away from these difficult waters. “I am very happy for you, Charlie. It is very good news that you and Queenie-Queenie will be getting married. You will be a very good husband, I think.”
She looked pointedly at Mma Makutsi, who knew what the look meant. Yet it took a few moments before Mma Makutsi said, “Yes, congratulations, Charlie. This is a very good bit of news—just as Mma Ramotswe has said.”
“Thank you,” said Charlie, beaming with pleasure.
“When will you get married?” asked Mma Ramotswe.
Charlie’s face fell. “Not very soon. I’d like to get married tomorrow, if I could. But Queenie-Queenie’s uncle…”
Mma Ramotswe gave an involuntary groan. Uncles. This was the bride-price negotiations, often carried out by an uncle or other relative. Queenie-Queenie came from a well-off family—Mma Ramotswe had already heard about her father’s fleet of trucks—and that meant Charlie would be expected to come up with a considerable sum for the
the bridal payment. Sometimes, in modern circles, that was unnecessary, but when it was necessary, then, as Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni sometimes said of a crucial engine part, it was three hundred per cent necessary.
Mma Ramotswe would have been tactful in what was said next; not so, Mma Makutsi. “You’ve got no money, then. They’ll have worked that out, you know. People like that uncle of hers—whoever he is—he won’t be stupid, you know, unlike some men.”
Charlie looked miserable. “I’ve been saving. I’ve been trying. But you know how hard it is. I have to give money to my own uncle, because I am staying in his house, and there are many children…”
Mma Ramotswe felt a pang of sympathy for the young man. She knew how hard it was for him: sharing a room in that shack in Old Naledi, struggling to get by, counting every pula, walking long distances in the heat in order to save the minibus fare—all the humiliations of penury. “Have you managed to save anything?” she asked.
He looked up. “I have been saving, yes. I have, Mma.”
“How much?” asked Mma Makutsi. “How much have you got, Charlie?”
“I have got almost six hundred pula, Mma.”
Mma Ramotswe and Mma Makutsi exchanged glances. That would get him nowhere. Queenie-Queenie’s uncles would be expecting a substantial amount, reckoned in head of cattle. One head of cattle cost over five thousand pula. They would be thinking of ten to twelve cattle, at the least.
Mma Makutsi brought the discussion to a close. “I’m very sorry, Charlie, but it sounds as if your engagement is
unofficial. Maybe you should wait.”
Charlie put down his mug. “Wait, Mma? You’re telling me to wait? So that I’m an old man by the time I get married? Fifty, maybe?”
Mma Makutsi shook her head. “Fifty is not old, Charlie.”
Charlie slipped off the filing cabinet and onto his feet. “Fifty is finished, Mma. Even when you’re forty, you’re finished.” He paused, and looked apologetically at Mma Ramotswe. “Except you, Mma Ramotswe. I didn’t mean you, Mma. You’re not finished.”
“That’s good of you to say that, Charlie,” said Mma Ramotswe. “It is a great relief to hear that.”
The comment reminded Mma Makutsi of something. “You know, there was a man in Bobonong once. He was quite an old man—not too old, but quite old. One day he said to his daughter, ‘I am finished now,’ and then he lay down on his bed and became late. He had not been ill or anything—he just decided that he was finished, and that was that.”
Mma Ramotswe and Charlie listened to this in silence. Then Mma Ramotswe said, “One should always be careful about what one says. I think that is very well known.”
Mma Ramotswe sometimes remarked, “is very good at getting the children up and sending them off to school. Many men are not so good at that, but he is.”
She was the least boastful of women, but she felt it important to proclaim the merits of Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni, a man of great modesty who would never draw attention to any of his domestic achievements. She was proud of his helpfulness around the house—of his willingness to tackle the washing-up and of his diligent, if rudimentary, attempts to cook. Some men, she realised, were just not suited to cooking, and Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni was one of them. The main problem was salt, which he added in excessive quantities to any dish he prepared, but there were other culinary shortcomings, including a tendency to fry everything, including the desserts to which he was inordinately attached. She was not sure where that came from, whether it was a widespread male failing or whether some misguided person had taught him that in the past—it was difficult to say. But there was no doubt that it was what she had once seen tactfully referred to as a “kitchen shortcoming.”
On that morning, she was relieved when Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni offered her the chance to get into the office early. The previous day had been a frustrating one, beginning with that rather bleak conversation with Charlie over his seemingly ill-fated engagement, and then continuing with a series of interruptions and setbacks. There had been a difficult letter from a vexatious client who was refusing to pay a bill in spite of Mma Makutsi’s having sent four reminders; there had been a circular from the city authorities warning of an increase in the level of property tax to be paid by businesses; and there had been a lost file that contained important documents, the birth and marriage certificates of a woman in Mozambique who was claiming inheritance rights to a deceased estate in Botswana. The file had eventually turned up—having been inserted, back to front, in the wrong drawer. That had been the occasion of considerable relief, as a registry fire in Maputo had made the birth certificate irreplaceable, but for the most part the day seemed to have been one of damage limitation rather than achievement.
Mma Ramotswe hoped that making an early start that morning would stamp a different tone on the day, and, as she sat at her desk at seven o’clock that morning, listening to a cock still crowing outside, it seemed to her that the day was getting off to a much better start. Everything was going smoothly. The children had been well behaved and uncomplaining of their father’s chivvying. They had got out of bed without the usual complaints of missing clothes and last-minute deadlines with homework. The bath she had taken had been just the right temperature, and when she came to clean her teeth, there was still a good amount of toothpaste in the tube, and she was not obliged to do what she seemed to have to do so often—to squeeze the last morsel out of a tube that was clearly empty. That was a good sign, as was the absence of traffic on the journey from the house to the office. She had the road more or less to herself, although there were already a few cars coming in from Tlokweng as she made her way to the office. It would get so much worse later on, with overloaded minibuses crawling their way into town, bringing people in for their day’s work.
How different was the traffic from what it used to be, she said to herself. And then she thought: Everybody must think that, wherever they live, because gradually we are drowning ourselves in cars. That was happening everywhere. People were drowning themselves in machinery, to the point that there would be no room left for anything else. The world would be covered in cars and there would be nowhere left to go in those cars because there would already be too many vehicles at your destination.
When she was a girl in Mochudi there had been very few local cars, and there was a boy in her class who knew every one of them, and their numbers too. She herself recognised the cars of all the teachers, as well as that of the doctor at the hospital, and of the hospital matron, and of the man from the Department of Water Affairs. Now such familiarity would be impossible, and cars would all be strangers to her.
She sighed. The old world was slipping away, it seemed…or…or, a disturbing thought occurred. Was
slipping away? Perhaps the world was just carrying on as usual and we, all the people thinking about how it had changed, were really just changing ourselves. No, surely not. The world
changed—you only had to look about you to see that. And yet, many of those changes were good ones, and not things to fret over, or lament, or bemoan in the way in which people who are slipping away often complain about everything going past them.
She rose from her desk. She had already had a cup of tea at home, before she left for the office, but that was no reason not to have one now. A cup of tea usually restored perspective on things, and that was what she needed now, rather than to sit and think about the ways in which the modern world was ordered. And she was right: a steaming cup of red bush tea was sufficient to banish thoughts of change and decay and to restore the spirits. This was going to be a good day—she was determined to make that so—and she was going to work steadily and efficiently through the list of tasks she had written out for herself.
By the time that Mma Makutsi arrived, she had already achieved a considerable amount. Three items on the list were neatly ticked off, and she had made a good start on the fourth, a particularly sensitive letter in which she had to inform a client who was hoping to expose—and leave—her husband that the husband under suspicion was
meeting a lover, but was actually having mathematics lessons. The secret meetings she suspected him of having were indeed meetings, but were far from the assignations she suspected. They were visits to the teacher’s house, where he was being prepared for a forthcoming public examination in advanced mathematics.
The letter took a long time to write, and was still unfinished by the time Mma Makutsi arrived in the office.
“Well, Mma Ramotswe,” said Mma Makutsi. “I didn’t expect to find you hard at work so early.”
It was an innocent remark, but Mma Ramotswe felt slightly annoyed at the inference that she was not the type to arrive early. Did Mma Makutsi think that she just sat around in the mornings?
“I am often up very early, Mma Makutsi,” she said. “You should try it, perhaps.”
The retort came quickly. “But I am also up early, Mma. Every day. When you have a baby, as I do, then you cannot lie about in bed. You are up early because the baby wants his breakfast. You are also up early because you have a husband to get going. There are many things for women to do in the morning.”
Mma Makutsi peered at Mma Ramotswe’s desk. “You’re writing a letter, Mma?”
Mma Ramotswe sat back in her chair. “It’s not an easy letter, this one. You remember that woman who came to see us about her husband?”
Mma Makutsi frowned. There were so many women who came to see them about their husbands—husbands, it seemed, were the main reason why women went to private detectives.
“The one we had followed by Charlie,” Mma Ramotswe prompted.
Mma Makutsi smiled. “Of course. And Charlie saw him going to the house of that teacher. That one?”
Mma Ramotswe nodded. “I have to tell her that her husband is not seeing another woman,” said Mma Ramotswe. “But I think that she will not like to hear that news, Mma. When she spoke to me about it at the beginning, she said she was looking forward to divorcing him. I think she has her own lover, you see.”
“Ha!” said Mma Makutsi. “She will be very disappointed then. But tell me, Mma, how can you be sure about that—about her having a lover?”
“Because I saw her,” said Mma Ramotswe. “I saw her in the supermarket with another man. They were buying food together.”
Mma Makutsi looked thoughtful. “But he could have been a relative, Mma. A brother, perhaps. Or a cousin. You know how many cousins there are about the place. The whole city is full of cousins. Everywhere there are cousins.” She paused. “I think there are far more cousins than lovers, Mma.”
“That’s true enough,” said Mma Ramotswe. “But I saw him pinch her, Mma. That lady is very large from the back view, Mma. And that man pinched her there. I saw it.”
Mma Makutsi absorbed this information. “That is not the sort of thing a cousin does,” she said at last. “Nor a brother.”
“Except when you are very cross with somebody,” Mma Makutsi went on. “If you are very cross, you may pinch somebody. But you do not pinch them there. That is not the place for such a pinch.”
“No, I wouldn’t have thought it was.”
“The place to pinch another person when you are cross with them is on the arm,” pronounced Mma Makutsi. She tapped her upper arm. “There, Mma. That is where you pinch people.”
Mma Ramotswe went on to tell Mma Makutsi how the woman had seen her and had pretended not to have anything to do with the man. “She walked away, leaving him there,” she said. “He looked very puzzled. That made it even clearer to me that he was her boyfriend. That—and the pinch. These were two pieces of evidence.”
“Well,” said Mma Makutsi. “She will not be able to claim that she’s the wronged party.” She leaned further over Mma Ramotswe’s desk. “May I see the letter, Mma?”
Mma Ramotswe handed it over.
“Dear Mma Mogorosi,” Mma Makutsi began. “In the matter of your husband, I am pleased to inform you that we have now completed our investigations and have come to a preliminary conclusion.”
Mma Makutsi looked over her spectacles at Mma Ramotswe. “I wouldn’t write
Mma. You are not pleased about this, and nor will be, if what you say is correct. And as for calling the conclusion
that suggests that you might change your mind. But I do not think you will. You have decided, and so you should call it a
conclusion.” She paused, fixing Mma Ramotswe with a slightly reproachful stare. The inference, thought Mma Ramotswe, was that if she, like Mma Makutsi, had been to the Botswana Secretarial College then she would have understood these things and not misused the word
and been altogether more decisive and concise.
Mma Ramotswe said nothing. Mma Makutsi had firm views on the wording of letters.
“I would say something like this,” Mma Makutsi continued. “I would say: I am sorry to say that we have come to a firm conclusion about your husband.”
“But I am not sorry, Mma Makutsi.”
“Yet you haven’t found out what the client wants you to find out,” countered Mma Makutsi. “So she will hope that you are feeling sorry.”
“Just continue,” said Mma Ramotswe. “These small things about which word to use are not always that important.”
“We have had one of our detectives observe your husband over time…”
Mma Makutsi stared again at Mma Ramotswe. “Detective?” she said. “Charlie is not a qualified detective, Mma. It is wrong to mislead the client like that.”
“Oh, really, Mma Makutsi. Does it matter what we call Charlie?”
“It does matter, Mma,” said Mma Makutsi, her voice now full of reproach. “All over the place, people are falsely claiming to be something they aren’t. All over the place there are people telling lies about this, that and the next thing. It is very important to be accurate.”
This was not a battle that Mma Ramotswe chose to fight. “Very well, Mma. Change that. Say
if you think that better.”
“It’s more accurate,” said Mma Makutsi.
Mma Ramotswe waited while Mma Makutsi scribbled her correction on the page, uttering the words as she wrote. “This
has now filed his report.”
Mma Makutsi stopped again. “I do not wish to be obstructive, Mma.”
“No, of course not, Mma Makutsi.”
“It’s just that
do the filing. All the filing—that’s me, not this…this mysterious assistant we mention.” Mma Ramotswe sighed. “Filing a report just means putting a report in. It doesn’t mean actually filing it in the filing cabinet.”
would be better, Mma.”
There were some battles simply not worth fighting, thought Mma Ramotswe. And then there were battles that should not be battles anyway; this, she thought, was one of those.
“Submitting, then, Mma Makutsi.”
“Good,” said Mma Makutsi. “Now then. Let’s see.” She returned to the letter. “The report indicates…That’s very good wording, Mma. It is very professional. The report indicates that your husband is not seeing a lover but is seeing another woman—” She broke off. “No, Mma, you cannot say that. That will give quite the wrong impression.”
“Read on, Mma Makutsi.”
“Seeing another woman who is a teacher. Oh, I see, Mma. I see what you’re saying. We could investigate further, but we think that any man who is studying for a mathematics examination is unlikely to be having an affair at the same time. For this reason, we do not recommend further surveillance.”
Mma Makutsi put down the letter. “That is a very good letter, Mma.”