Authors: Alexander McCall Smith
Mma Ramotswe reached out to recover the piece of paper. “I’m glad you approve of it, Mma,” she said.
“But why is he studying mathematics?” asked Mma Makutsi.
“People do, Mma. They are always studying things. You can never tell what people will get up to.” People took up entirely innocent pursuits, she pointed out. She remembered a similar case, where a husband suspected of conducting an affair was in fact receiving instruction in the Roman Catholic faith. She now reminded Mma Makutsi of that case. “Remember that man who lived near the hospital, Mma? He was not having an affair at all but was thinking of becoming a Roman Catholic.”
Mma Makutsi remembered the case. “People are always joining churches,” she said. “This church, that church. They like the singing in one place and they go there. Then they hear there is better singing in another place, and off they go to that one. Or there is a better preacher—one with a louder voice—and they say, ‘He is the one now.’ And off they go to listen to him. That’s how it works, Mma.”
Mma Makutsi could see the wisdom of all that. Phuti had a cousin who was a good example of that, having been, in the space of a single year, a Baptist as well as an Anglican, and had now joined a small congregation of people who believed not that the end was coming—as some people did—but that it had actually come, and we had simply failed to notice it. But this situation had a particular
to it, she thought. It was the smell, and that was something that was sometimes difficult to put into words. “There’s one thing worrying me here, Mma,” she mused. “Why has he not told his wife? She obviously doesn’t know where he is going—he can’t have told her, Mma.”
“Perhaps he wants her to think he’s going somewhere else,” said Mma Ramotswe. “But does it matter? It’s nothing to do with us why he should want to study mathematics.”
“Oh, I know that,” said Mma Makutsi. “It’s just that I think there’s something odd going on, Mma Ramotswe. We’re not seeing everything there is to be seen. Something else is happening.”
Mma Ramotswe raised an eyebrow. “Possibly. But I don’t see what it has to do with us.”
Mma Makutsi went to her desk and sat down, and at that moment, from down at floor level, almost inaudible, but just to be made out, came a tiny voice.
Mathematics, Mma? Do you believe that?
Mma Makutsi looked up sharply.
“Did you say something, Mma Ramotswe?”
Mma Ramotswe shook her head. “No, Mma. I did not. I thought I heard something, though. I thought it was you.”
“It was not me,” said Mma Makutsi. She looked down at her shoes. There was silence. If there had been a voice, and if it had said something about mathematics, it had nothing more to say now. She transferred her gaze to Mma Ramotswe.
“Mma Ramotswe,” she said. “I have been thinking. Would you mind if I took over that case—if you’ve finished with it, of course.”
Mma Ramotswe was surprised. “I don’t think there’s much else to be done,” she said. “We’ve told her that her suspicions as to her husband—or her hopes, perhaps—are unfounded. What else is there to do?”
“I think that man is up to something,” said Mma Makutsi.
“But that’s got nothing to do with us. All we were asked to do was to find out whether he was having an affair. We have said that we do not think that he is.”
“I still think that man is up to something. And all I’m asking is to be allowed to do a bit more digging about.”
Mma Ramotswe was doubtful. “But we can’t bill the client any longer,” she said. “She paid for the answer to a single question. Now she has that, and there can’t be any more bills. The case is closed, Mma.”
Mma Makutsi shook her head. “This is nothing to do with billing anybody. This is just to find out for the sake of getting to the truth.” She paused, reaching for a small pile of papers on her desk. She shuffled these, putting the larger ones on the bottom of the pile and the smaller on the top. Mma Ramotswe wondered whether this was some system of filing that had yet to be explained to her—some system advocated, for all she knew, by the Botswana Secretarial College, and faithfully implemented by that college’s most faithful graduate and disciple. Or was it the simple desire for order that many of us had, in greater or smaller measure? Although there were some people, of course, who did not have it at all, and who lived their lives with small things and big things jumbled up and who were, when all was said and done, happy…She looked at Mma Makutsi across the room and smiled. We were all different, she thought, and it was important to remind oneself of that. It was important, too, to imagine what it must be like to be another person. That was a simple thing to do, and its effect could be salutary. Mma Makutsi came from Bobonong; she had battled to get where she had got; she saw things in a way that somebody who came from Bobonong and who had struggled against the odds would see them. And she did all of that rather well; she performed the task of being Mma Makutsi with considerable distinction—with ninety-seven per cent, really.
And now she was saying something, and Mma Ramotswe had to concentrate.
“Sometimes the truth can’t be put on anybody’s bill,” Mma Makutsi pronounced, and then continued, “but it’s still important to get to it, Mma—to get to the truth behind all the…all the things that cover up the truth.” She moved the papers again, and then put them to the side of her desk.
Now Mma Ramotswe did not hesitate. “If that’s what you want to do, Mma, I can’t see any harm in it, although I must say I don’t think you are going to find anything. I don’t want to discourage you, but…”
“I shall find what I shall find,” said Mma Makutsi. “Clovis Andersen says that, you know. He says:
You will find what you will find
. I can show it to you, if you like, Mma. It’s in chapter eight, if my memory serves me correctly.”
Mma Ramotswe did not argue. There was no reason why Mma Makutsi should not spend her time pursuing any issue she chose. Since her marriage to Phuti Radiphuti, she had been financially independent and drew only a very small salary, no more than a nominal one, from the agency. This meant that her time was effectively at her own disposal, and if she wanted to spend it pursuing a private investigation, even one that would probably lead nowhere, then that was her prerogative.
“It will be interesting,” Mma Ramotswe said. “We shall see.”
Mma Makutsi nodded. “Most men are up to something, Mma. That is something I have learned as a woman. Most men are up to something—and it is the job of us women to find out what that is.”
Mma Ramotswe’s eyes widened. Could that possibly be true? Was Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni up to something? Was Phuti Radiphuti? And what about Mr. Polopetsi—the most unassuming and innocent of men, whose demeanour reminded her so much of a frightened rabbit’s—was he up to something? And rabbits—were they up to something too?
THE HEAD OF STEAM
that Mma Ramotswe had built up with her early and productive start lasted all morning, and was still there when the telephone call came from Calviniah. They had exchanged telephone numbers at the wedding, and had agreed to meet at some point, but Mma Ramotswe had not expected her long lost friend to contact her quite so quickly.
“I know that this is not much notice,” Calviniah said. “But I’m going for lunch at that Sanitas place—you know, the garden place—and I wondered if you’d join me.”
Mma Ramotswe accepted immediately. She had earned lunch, she felt, having started at seven, and it was now almost twelve. That was five hours, of which a good four had been spent working, once one deducted tea time and conversations with Mma Makutsi and Charlie.
“That was that old friend,” she explained to Mma Makutsi. “The one I told you about.”
Mma Makutsi looked up from her desk. “The one you thought was late?”
“Yes, that one.”
Mma Makutsi looked thoughtful. “It must be very strange to be thought to be late, and then not to be late,” she said. “But very interesting, of course. You’d hear what people had to say about you.”
Mma Ramotswe reflected on that. Mma Makutsi was right: it would be extremely interesting, she thought. In fact, for some, it might even be a revelation. And, of course, for those who said things, it could be very embarrassing. Late people don’t talk back, but those who were never
late might take issue with what was said about them. That could be awkward. You could gladly say, as an excuse, “But I thought you were late,” but that would not be a real justification. No, on the whole it was better to say kind things of late people, even if they did not fully deserve them. Kindness, after all, did not distinguish between those who merited it and those who did not. It was like rain, she thought. It fell everywhere and made everything green and new and alive once more. That is what it did.
ALVINIAH HAD ALREADY ARRIVED
when Mma Ramotswe drove into the car park at the Sanitas Garden. Sanitas was an oasis of green in the dryness that reached into Gaborone from the Kalahari beyond. The car park benefited from the shade of the trees that had been planted and nurtured through seasons of drought. Now these trees, leafy African hardwoods, provided pools of shade for the cars of those who came to the garden to lunch or buy plants. Cars in Botswana, Mma Ramotswe had often thought, had an inbuilt sense as to where the most sheltered parking spots would be, requiring, it seemed, very little steering to guide them to such places. Her own van, she thought, understood these things, as it did now, turning sharply, almost with no guidance from her, between two larger vehicles into a space protected by a large jacaranda tree. When she came back after lunch, the van would not be an oven, as it would be were no shade to be available. That meant she would be able to grasp the steering wheel without wincing, and position herself to drive without a message of pain from the hot surface of the seat beneath her thighs.
She loved the Sanitas Garden, as anybody would who lived in a dry land. Here was proof that the earth was never too parched to respond to the encouragement of a few drops of carefully husbanded water. This water, sucked up from deep boreholes, would have started its journey in the north of the country, or even beyond, having fallen as rain in the Angola Highlands aeons ago and gradually seeped down through fissures and channels deep below the country’s dry heart. That journey ended here, where the water was claimed, and carefully parcelled out to the thirsty plants in their growing troughs, allocated cup by cup to ferns, to seedlings, to vegetables—to everything that people would want to buy for their garden plots. That nurturing of plants, that desire to cultivate, to sow and reap, lay at the heart of the culture, along with the deep-seated desire to tend cattle. This was what marked people out as being from this culture, from this place.
Ask anybody what their idea of heaven is, and the answer will reveal that person’s soul. Mma Ramotswe had always thought that, and if that question were to be put to her, she knew exactly how she would respond. Heaven, to her, was not unlike this place, this peaceful garden. There would be trees very much like these ones and there would be shade, not just when the sun was at a particular point in the sky, but all day. On the other side of the shade there would be warmth, and light, and the colours of the sun, and there would be land where cattle would graze, great herds of them, sleek and contented, beyond the reach of those trials that mar the life of cattle on earth, and try them so sorely: persistent flies, brittle, sparse grazing, depleted water troughs that sent cattle away unwatered and ready to die. There would be none of that in heaven—just greenery and concord between those who walked amidst the greenery, all acrimoniousness forgotten, all human arguments put away, seen for the pettiness that they were; all wrongs forgiven. She wanted it to be like that; she so wanted that, and part of her believed that it would be—the larger part, as it happened, while the smaller part told her that such things could not be and that people would always need them, if only to make up for the emptiness they would otherwise feel. She did not agree with that view, of course, because she could not see where it led you. To unhappiness, she suspected; to a feeling of horror at the grubbiness of it all; to a paralysis of will and intent that she had occasionally seen in others and that she would never want for herself. There were flowers, she said to herself; there were flowers that covered the land in the spring, tiny flowers that you might not notice unless you got down on your hands and knees and looked for them; and these flowers were in themselves a sign of the goodness that was still in the world, and in people’s hearts, no matter what was happening on the outside.
She stepped out of the van and made her way towards the cluster of buildings in the centre of the large gardens. One of these was the kitchen; it was surrounded by an awning of shade netting, its mesh calculated to provide protection from the sun while allowing some light to penetrate. Calviniah was at one of these tables, and waved to Mma Ramotswe when she saw her. A waitress with whom she had been in conversation stood behind her and drew up a chair for Mma Ramotswe as she approached.
“Here, Mma,” said the waitress. “This one is a strong chair.”
Mma Ramotswe thanked her, but gave her a sideways look at the same time. It was not polite, she thought, for a waitress to suggest to a customer that she might need a chair that was stronger than normal, just because she was traditionally built. That was rude, she began to say to herself, but then stopped. Was it really rude, or was it no more than caution? It was the duty, surely, of a waitress to warn of the weakness of the furniture and fittings when a generously sized person was about to put them under an excessive load. A failure to warn, in such cases, might even be culpable, particularly these days, when it seemed that we were all responsible for the safety of those around us. It was better to warn than to remain silent, although there were discreet and not-so-discreet ways of issuing a warning.
There had been several occasions when Mma Ramotswe’s traditional build had led to difficulty. Perhaps the most embarrassing of these had occurred when she had been visiting Mma Potokwane at the Orphan Farm and had found it necessary to use the small bathroom off the matron’s office. Mma Potokwane was inordinately proud of this bathroom, which had recently been completely refitted and redecorated, and which now boasted a modern toilet in avocado green. Mma Ramotswe had broken the seat of this, although she could not see how it had happened. She had just sat down when the seat had given a loud report, as of cracking plastic, and she had jumped up, frightened and then appalled to see what damage she had done.
Mma Potokwane had been as understanding as one would expect of an experienced matron who had, in her job, seen all the indignities to which humanity was subject. “That is nothing, Mma,” she had reassured her. “The important thing is that you are not hurt.” But then she had added, “I thought they made those things stronger than that. If they still used wood, as they used to, then people would be able to sit down in confidence. Even an elephant wouldn’t break some of those old wooden seats, Mma—even an elephant!”
Mma Ramotswe had taken this well, but had remembered the embarrassment she felt, compounded when, weeks later, on a subsequent visit to her friend, she had seen an
Out of Order
sign still displayed on the bathroom door.
Now she was seated on a strong chair and the waitress was showing her the menu of that day’s specials. Three main courses were on offer—the Bombay Curry, listed as such but then with
scored out and
substituted, only to be scored out again by another hand and restored to
Then there was a vegetable lasagne, offered with green salad, and battered fish accompanied by French fries. Once again, an anonymous hand had amended the menu, the word
being struck through and
written in neatly above.
Mma Ramotswe pointed to the fish. “Botswana fries come with that one, Mma?” she said to the waitress.
The waitress smiled. “All chips are the same, Mma. It does not matter what you call them—they are just potato. Potato, potato, potato—that is all they are.”
“You are right, Mma,” said Mma Ramotswe.
“Although I think maybe you’d be better having salad,” said the waitress. “I don’t want to tell you what to eat, but maybe salad would be best, Mma.”
Mma Ramotswe frowned. “Is there something wrong with the chips, Mma?”
“No,” said the waitress. “There is nothing wrong with them. They are very fresh. We fry them every day, and then we dry them on paper towels so that there is not too much fat. They are very delicious—but they are not for everybody, Mma. That is all I am saying.”
Calviniah intervened. She appeared to know the waitress, and told her that she thought Mma Ramotswe would like fish and chips and that should be what was fetched for her. “I do not think we need to discuss it any further,” she said. “And I will have the same thing—to keep my friend company.”
The two old friends settled down to lunch. There was much ground to cover and they were obliged to compress the years into a few sentences, skating over the details of family events, of work, of home, of parents and siblings and husbands, to give each other a broad picture of what had happened to them since those early years of girlhood in Mochudi. Calviniah had heard about Mma Ramotswe’s marriage to Note Mokoti, although she had never met him. She remembered what people had said about his cruelty. “Men like that, Mma,” she sighed, “are not made for being husbands.”
Mma Ramotswe agreed. “That is very true, Mma. They are not.”
“And yet,” Calviniah continued, “we still marry them because we think we are going to be the one who will change them. We think that other women may have failed, but we will succeed because…well, because we do not think straight at such times—we do not think straight, Mma, when it comes to the heart.” She put a hand on her chest, above her heart, and said, “The heart thinks differently, Mma. That is the problem.”
The waitress arrived with their order. “Here are your chips, Mma,” she said to Mma Ramotswe. “Do not feel that you have to finish them. If you would like to leave some, that will be all right.”
Calviniah gave the waitress a discouraging look. “You are very kind, Mma. We shall see about that.” And then to Mma Ramotswe she said, “As you were saying, Mma, after that man, Note…”
“I learned my lesson,” Mma Ramotswe supplied. “I learned to tell the difference between a good man and a…not-so-good man. I met a man called Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni, a mechanic.”
Calviniah brightened. “A mechanic, Mma? They make very fine husbands. They are famous for that. If a lady can find a mechanic, then she should not hesitate.”
“I did not,” said Mma Ramotswe. “But I must tell you, Mma, I had to wait some time before he asked me to marry him. I thought he’d never get around to it, but then eventually he did. And then, after we had become engaged, he took a long, long time to talk about a wedding.”
Calviniah nodded at the familiar story. “We are going to have to change everything,” she said. “In future, it is the women who are going to ask the men to marry them. It is the women who will decide the date and make all the arrangements. In that way, valuable time will not be lost.”
They began their meal. The chips were perfectly cooked, as was the fish.
“And you?” asked Mma Ramotswe. “What about your husband, Mma?”
“He is a very good man,” said Calviniah. “He is called Ernest. Sometimes people call him by the nickname Shiny, but I do not like that. He doesn’t seem to mind, but I do.”
“Why have a nickname when you have a perfectly good name already?” asked Mma Ramotswe.
“Those are my thoughts too,” said Calviniah. “It is a male thing, I think. Men are always giving one another these names. Ernest has a friend who is called Trousers. I don’t know why they use that name, but that is what they call him. His real name is Thomas, but they call him Trousers. None of them knows why.”
“And family, Mma? Do you and Ernest have children?”
Calviniah nodded and then averted her eyes briefly. “I had heard about you, Mma. I heard that…”
“Yes,” said Mma Ramotswe quietly. “My baby is late.”
Reaching across the table, Calviniah placed a hand gently on Mma Ramotswe’s arm. “I’m so sorry, Mma. I’m so sorry about that.”
Mma Ramotswe inclined her head. “It was a long time ago now.”
“I know. But your heart must still be broken, Mma.”
Was it? Mma Ramotswe thought about her friend’s words. There were so many things in this life that we had to regret that we sometimes forgot those things that belonged to the distant past. Or the pain was dulled, which was a different thing, of course.
“We have two foster children,” she said. “We love them very much.”
For a few moments Calviniah was silent, before continuing, “Yes, we love our children so much, don’t we? And we expect them to love us back, but—” She broke off, as if she felt she had already said too much.
Mma Ramotswe waited.
“Then they go off,” said Calviniah. “They go off and find their own friends. They start living their own lives and there is no place for you in those lives. That is what hurts.”
“That has happened to you, Mma?”
Their eyes met, and Mma Ramotswe had her answer.
“My first-born is a girl,” Calviniah said. “Nametso. She is twenty-four now. She has a job in Gaborone—a good job in the diamond-sorting office. You know that place out near the airport?”
Mma Ramotswe knew it. It was in that building that Botswana collected the diamonds from its open-pit diamond mines—a trickle of brilliance wrested from thousands of tons of raw rock. A job at the sorting tables was highly valued, and any parent would be proud of a daughter who worked there.