Authors: Alexander McCall Smith
“We were very close,” Calviniah continued. “And then…” She shrugged. “Suddenly she had no time for me.”
Mma Ramotswe frowned. Teenagers did that—they gave their parents the cold shoulder, sometimes even pretended not to have anything to do with them, out of embarrassment—that could be comic, but it was also normal enough. Had this happened here, and was Calviniah simply over-reacting? “I think that sort of thing can happen, Mma,” she said. “But they tend to grow out of it. Some people may just take a little longer than others.” She remembered just such a case—a teenage boy, the son of neighbours, who had been at pains to reject his parents, studiously ignoring them or, at best, listening to them with a pained expression. That had gone on for years, and then, suddenly, at the age of nineteen his behaviour had changed, and he had become helpful and protective. “He suddenly realised that we might die,” said his mother. “You don’t think of that when you are fourteen, fifteen, and then it occurs to you and you change. That is what happened, Mma Ramotswe.”
Mma Ramotswe told Calviniah about this boy, but her friend simply shook her head. “No, Mma Ramotswe, you don’t understand. This didn’t happen when she was a teenager. This happened just a few months ago. It was that recent.”
Mma Ramotswe looked pained. “I’m sorry, Mma.”
“I don’t know what I’ve done to deserve it,” sighed Calviniah. “I’ve tried to remember if it was something I said, but I can’t think of anything.” A look of anguish came over her face. “I would never have hurt her deliberately, Mma. She is my first-born, my own flesh and blood.”
Mma Ramotswe lowered her voice. “Of course, Mma. Of course she is.”
She asked Calviniah whether she had asked Nametso directly what was troubling her. She had always believed in asking direct questions, an approach which surprisingly often produced the answer one was looking for. If you wanted to know what people thought, ask them, and you might find out what you needed to know.
Calviniah assured her that she had done that. “I did ask her, Mma,” she said. “I said, ‘If there is something wrong, you should tell me.’ ”
“She looked away. She didn’t say anything. Then she told me that she was busy and I would have to go. Her own mother, Mma. She was too busy for her own mother.”
For a few moments they were both silent. Then Calviniah made an effort to pull herself together. “But we have heard enough of my troubles, Mma. Let’s talk about the old days. Let’s talk about the people we both knew.”
It was with some relief that Mma Ramotswe agreed to this suggestion. Her friend’s account of her alienation from her daughter had saddened her, but she suspected that many of these family tiffs proved to be just that—splits that would heal themselves in the course of time. And anyway, she was not sure if she could do much to help in that respect—what she could do, though, was to encourage Calviniah to think of something more positive. And so she reminded her of one of their teachers at school who had been known as Mma Forget-the-Words because of her habit of starting a song and then getting tied up in knots of confusion over what came next.
“There are some people who are not destined to sing,” said Calviniah, and they both laughed.
“Even if they know the words,” Mma Ramotswe added. She thought of Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni, who liked music, but who did not have a good ear for it. “I have a mechanic’s ear,” he said. “I’m sorry about that, because I would like to be able to sing.”
She had thought of a mechanic’s ear, and had decided that it would have its advantages in at least some situations. “But you can hear what an engine is saying to you,” she pointed out.
He had nodded. “Perhaps. Because they do talk to us, you know, Mma Ramotswe. Some engines have a lot to say.”
They talked about one or two other people. Mma Ramotswe remembered Calviniah’s cousin, who had gone to live in Maun, in the far north of the country, and had raised a brood of eight children. Then there was the woman who ran the small shop behind the hill at Mochudi, the woman whose husband had lost his sight and sat in a chair outside the store and felt the sun upon his face; he had smiled a great deal and had asked people who spoke to him whether they were happy—for he was, he said, and if he could be happy in his world of darkness, then they would have no excuse for not being happy themselves. “I don’t think I knew then what he meant,” said Calviniah, “but I think I do now.”
“So do I,” said Mma Ramotswe. “I hadn’t thought of that man for a long time, Mma. Perhaps we should think about him a bit more often.”
“He will be late now,” said Calviniah. “So many of the people from those days are late.”
“But still with us,” said Mma Ramotswe, softly, thinking of her father, that great man, that fine judge of cattle. He was still with her, and no matter how many years passed, he would still be there.
“Yes,” agreed Calviniah. “They are.”
Neither said anything for a few moments. Their table was shaded by the spreading branches of a tree, a large umbrella thorn. In the foliage above them, a fluttering of wings gave away the presence of a pair of Cape doves, lovers of course, engaged in the flattery of courting birds, the puffed-up feathers, the soft cooing, the turning away of the female in the face of the male’s wanted-but-unwanted advances. A feather drifted down, dancing through the air, and Mma Ramotswe smiled. “They’re very happy up there,” she said.
“They don’t have our problems,” said Calviniah. “They don’t need to worry.”
“Do we?” asked Mma Ramotswe.
They took their time to finish their lunch. There was still much to talk about, and much to laugh over too. The waitress returned, casting a disapproving eye over the empty plate on which Mma Ramotswe’s chips had been.
Noticing the direction of the waitress’s gaze, Mma Ramotswe said, “They were very good, Mma. Thank you.”
Calviniah smiled. “I ate some of them,” she said to the waitress. “I wouldn’t want you to think that Mma Ramotswe ate them all herself.”
The waitress looked pained. “It is not my business to tell people what to eat,” she said. “If they wish to eat things that are not good for them, then that is their business, Mma, not mine.”
She took the plates away. Calviniah looked at Mma Ramotswe. “There are many people around telling us what is good for us,” she said. “Don’t do this, don’t do that. Who do they think they are, Mma? The government?”
“They mean well,” said Mma Ramotswe.
Calviniah snorted. “But what about them? Who tells them what to do?”
Mma Ramotswe shrugged. “I don’t know, Mma. But isn’t it a good sign, don’t you think? Isn’t it a good sign that people worry about other people? That they want other people to be careful?”
Calviniah agreed, but only reluctantly. “We are not children, Mma. We don’t like to be told: Don’t do this thing, don’t do that thing. Not all the time.”
“It would be better,” Calviniah continued, “if they said to us: here is some advice, but it is your life and you must decide yourself. They could even not tell us directly, but leave the advice lying about on tables, perhaps, Mma. Booklets and so on. With
Good Advice for You from the Government
printed on the front—so that we know. That might be better, I think, Mma Ramotswe.”
“Perhaps,” said Mma Ramotswe.
Calviniah looked thoughtful. “Sometimes it’s difficult to know what to do, isn’t it? How can we tell what is right? That’s the question, I think, Mma.”
Mma Ramotswe looked up into the branches of the tree.
How could we tell? How could we?
The sun filtered down through the canopy of acacia. Above its delicate, spreading branches was the sky, which went on forever, it seemed, into a thin, singing blue. Nothingness, just air. How could we tell what we had to do, because we were very small, really, and our feet were stuck on the ground, and we could not see very far? And then the answer came. It had been there all along, of course, and she had always known it: we knew what we had to do because there were all those people, our ancestors, who had faced exactly the same problems as confronted us, and who had worked out what was the right thing to do. We only had to listen. We only had to close our eyes and wait for their voices to come to us on the wind, perhaps, or in the stillness of the night. That was all we had to do.
“Oh,” Calviniah said suddenly. “There’s somebody else I’ve remembered.”
Mma Ramotswe waited.
“Poppy,” she said. “Remember her? She was in our class too. The one who went off to Francistown and became rich because she had that big store? Remember her?”
Mma Ramotswe did. She had forgotten about Poppy, but now she came back to her. They had all liked Poppy, and when they heard of her good fortune, people had been pleased rather than envious.
“Well,” said Calviniah. “She has no money any more. Gone.”
“Oh?” said Mma Ramotswe. “Where?”
“Who knows?” replied Calviniah. “I don’t, I’m afraid.” She shook her head sorrowfully. “Well, I have my suspicions. I don’t think she will be very happy.”
Mma Ramotswe lowered her eyes. She hated hearing about the unhappiness of others. There was so little time in life, so little, and yet there were so many who were obliged to spend those precious few years we had on this earth in unhappiness.
“Not that she
to be unhappy,” Calviniah continued. “You can lose all your money and still be happy.”
“And you might not have any in the first place,” observed Mma Ramotswe. “There are many people who do not have any money at all, Mma, and yet are happy with the world.”
Calviniah agreed. “That’s true enough, Mma Ramotswe.”
Mma Ramotswe looked up. “You have your suspicions? You said you have your suspicions? Tell me about them, Mma.”
Charlie met Queenie-Queenie at the Happy Chicken Caf. This was a small restaurant in a cluster of shops not far from the old Standard Bank; its sign had suffered the loss of a final
and the accidentally shortened name had stuck. It had been a favourite haunt of Charlie’s for some months, although its prices were, he thought, a bit on the steep side. In fact, Charlie was rarely in a position to buy a piece of chicken, restricting himself to the occasional free meal, given to him by Pearly, the restaurant’s owner, a woman who was vaguely related to his mother. Pearly had a soft spot for Charlie, and recognised that according to the rules of the old Botswana morality, as an older relative she had at least some responsibility for him. That was how it was: nobody was left alone, unrelated, and uncared for—somewhere, in the vast tangle of human relationships, everybody could say to at least someone:
I am one of your people.
Of course, the operation of this system of solidarity was not always simple. While there might be one person who recognised your claim, there might equally be another—sometimes in a position of authority—for whom the claim meant little or nothing. In this case, the doubter was Mr. Potso, the chef who fried the chicken, a thick-set man with only one eye, who was Pearly’s lover, and who resented Charlie’s claims on her.
“This boy,” Mr. Potso complained to Pearly. “This boy who hangs about sometimes: Who exactly is he?”
“He’s my cousin’s son. Not my close cousin, you know, but one of my mother’s people from way back. I forget exactly where and when, but way, way back.”
Mr. Potso was not impressed with the credentials of this kinship. “There are many people,” he said. “There are so many people who were related a long time ago. We all go back to Adam, remember. We are all his cousins.”
Pearly laughed. “That was a long time ago, Potso.”
“That is what I’m saying,” countered Mr. Potso. “I’m saying if you start looking for relatives, then there are relatives under every stone.” He paused. You have to be careful, he thought; you have to be careful not to push women too far, because sometimes they can turn around and say, I’ve had enough of you. They could do that, and then they turn you out and where are you then? That was why you had to be careful, especially if you had only one eye. You could miss things if you had only one eye.
“All I’m saying,” he continued, “is that once you start picking up relatives, then you can end up with a lot of them. That is all I’m saying.”
“That is true enough, I suppose,” said Pearly. It was not a matter that she had given much thought to, but she was often impressed with Potso’s observations of the world. He might only have one eye, she had once said to a friend, but he sees a lot with that eye of his.
Mr. Potso was emboldened. “And then, if you’re not careful, you end up with one hundred relatives on your doorstep—all of them hungry. All wanting something from you. And then along will come the baboons. They’ll say, ‘Don’t forget about us! We are your cousins too—a long way back. What about us? What have you got for us to eat?’ ”
Pearly laughed. “I don’t think so, Potso. If baboons come to your place, you chase them back into the bush. You say, ‘Get back where you belong.’ That’s what you say, Potso.”
Potso smiled. “They’re clever creatures, Mma. Don’t underestimate them.”
“I don’t. They understand a stick waved at them. I think they are clever enough to understand that.”
Mr. Potso was a keen reader. He had borrowed a book from the library and was reading his way through it, slowly, because of his eyesight problem. “The baboons will say something to you, Mma,” he began. “They’ll say, ‘Have you not heard of this fellow called Darwin?’ That’s what they will say, Mma. Those clever baboons—that’s what they will say.”
“Who is this Darwin, Rra?”
“He is the one who said that people and baboons are cousins, Mma. All people come from baboons in the old days, right at the beginning. They are our ancestors, way back, I think. That is what he said—I’m not saying that, Mma. Not me.”
“Just as well,” said Pearly, and laughed. “You’re reading too much, Potso. There is limited space in our heads, you know. You can’t put more and more stuff in there.”
Charlie knew that Mr. Potso was resentful of him. Like so many young men, it did not readily occur to him that anybody could dislike him; a young man is like a puppy in that regard, assuming without any doubt the approbation of others. Puzzled by the cool disregard of Pearly’s lover, he had tried to ingratiate himself, but without success. He had even tried to win him over with humour, telling Mr. Potso a joke that he had heard and that he thought might appeal to the older man. He had expected laughter and male conspiracy, but had been greeted with a fixed stare.
“And then what happened?” Mr. Potso said eventually.
“Nothing more happened, Rra,” explained Charlie. “That is the end of the story, you see.” He paused. “It is a very amusing story, Rra, I think.”
“So the man put the cattle-brand on the seat of the other man’s trousers,” said Mr. Potso. “What’s so amusing about that?”
“Well, he hadn’t been expecting it—that other man,” said Charlie. “He was a bit surprised, you see.”
“Of course he would be,” said Mr. Potso. “And it must have been very painful for him. I do not think it funny. And he shouldn’t have been seeing that man’s wife, should he?”
Charlie did not try humour again. Nor did he succeed with compliments directed towards Mr. Potso’s fried chicken. When Charlie praised him for the crispness of his chicken wings, Mr. Potso simply sighed and said that anybody could fry chicken and that there was no great art to getting crisp results. And when Charlie agreed with a view that Mr. Potso had expressed as to the competence of a local politician, Mr. Potso had pointed out that he was not at all serious in his earlier comments and that in reality he believed the opposite of what he said. “Sometimes people mean the opposite of what they say, Charlie,” he had said. “You should be able to work that out by now.”
After that, Charlie had given up, concluding that for some inexplicable reason Mr. Potso was determined to thwart him. From then on, although he remained polite to the chef, he warily kept his distance.
And now, as Charlie sat in the Happy Chicken Caf, waiting for Queenie-Queenie to arrive, he glanced surreptitiously at Mr. Potso through the open kitchen hatch. After a few minutes, the chef appeared from the kitchen, wiping his hands on a scrap of kitchen towel.
“Have you ordered?” Mr. Potso demanded.
Charlie shook his head. “I am waiting for company,” he said.
“Yes, company, Rra.”
The chef rolled his eyes. “And if everyone came in here and waited for company? What then? There would be the whole of Botswana sitting here, just in case any company dropped by. And all the people wanting to buy fried chicken, where would they be? Standing outside, I think.”
Charlie bit his lip. “I will be ordering chicken when my girlfriend comes.”
The chef rolled his eyes again, and Charlie’s gaze was drawn to the mucus-white of the eyeballs. He did not like Mr. Potso, and, in particular, he did not like his eyes.
“So, you have a girlfriend. It seems that anybody can get a girlfriend these days.”
Charlie said nothing.
“Even people you never thought would find a girlfriend,” Mr. Potso continued. “Even those people seem to be able to find somebody.” He shook his head in mock wonderment.
Pearly appeared from the kitchen. Mr. Potso looked in her direction and left Charlie.
“That is the number one useless man in the country,” Charlie muttered to himself, and felt all the better for the observation, however private and unheard it may have been. He might have dwelt on his humiliation had it not been for the arrival a minute or so later of Queenie-Queenie.
“You’ve been waiting for hours,” she said. “My fault. All my fault.”
“I have not been waiting long,” said Charlie. “Just ten minutes, maybe. Listening to that useless chef.”
Queenie-Queenie glanced towards the kitchen door. “You do not need to listen to that man,” she said. “My father says he’s a rubbish man. No good. That’s what my father says.”
Charlie brightened. “I don’t pay any attention to what he says. I never have.”
Queenie-Queenie smiled. “He’s jealous of you, I think. He’s jealous because you are so handsome and clever. That is why he’s rude to you, Charlie.”
Charlie demurred. “I do not think that I—” He broke off. He could not believe what she had just said. She had said that he was handsome and clever. Nobody, let alone a girl, had said that to him before.
“Anyway,” said Queenie-Queenie. “We have better things to do than think about that man.”
“I know,” said Charlie.
Queenie-Queenie sat down opposite him. “Are you going to have chicken?”
Charlie affected nonchalance. He could say that he had already eaten, and that he did not want anything more. That was not true, of course; he had not eaten, and the smell of the fried chicken wafting in from the kitchen was impossibly tempting. But the truth of the matter was that he could not afford two helpings of chicken—one for him and one for her.
“I’m not all that hungry,” he said. “You have some chicken.”
She looked at him with concern. “If you don’t eat meat, then you’ll get thin. You’ll get knocked over. You should not be too thin.”
“If you eat too much fried chicken,” said Charlie, “then your arteries get clogged up with chicken fat. I have read all about that.”
Queenie-Queenie was not impressed. “Then why are chickens not all dead?” she demanded. “If chicken fat was so dangerous, then chickens would be dying all the time. But they are healthy, Charlie. You see them all over the place. They are very healthy.”
“They are different,” said Charlie. “We have these arteries, you see; chickens do not have arteries.” He paused. “Or I don’t think they do.”
Queenie-Queenie made an insouciant gesture. “I don’t think we should talk about all that. There are so many things they say we should not do. Don’t eat this, don’t eat that. Don’t cross the road in case you get run down. Don’t get out of bed in the morning in case you slip on the mat and break your ankle. We’re warned about these things all the time.”
“We could talk about other things,” agreed Charlie. “There are many things to talk about.”
“Such as marriage,” said Queenie-Queenie. “That is one of the things that people can talk about.”
Charlie had not expected this. Their relationship had been an on-off affair, and they had separated before this. He was hesitant. “Maybe,” he said. “That is one thing, I think, but there are many others, of course.”
“But none of them as important as marriage,” persisted Queenie-Queenie.
“I never said it was not important,” said Charlie.
Queenie-Queenie was studying him, and he found it slightly disconcerting. “It has been very hot,” he said, in an attempt to change the subject. “The rain will have to come soon, I think.”
Queenie-Queenie ignored this comment about rain. People were always talking about it—rain, rain, rain—and none of that talk, she felt, would make the rain come any sooner. If anything, it could tempt the rain to stay away, just to spite those rain-obsessed people. But no, she should not think that way: everything depended on rain, and if the weather spirits—not that they existed, of course—should ever know that she was thinking along these seditious lines, then it might make matters worse. So she put such thoughts out of her mind, and looked again at Charlie.
“Marriage is the number one thing,” she said to Charlie. “If you can think of a more important question than that of who you spend your life with, then I’d like to know what that question is.” She stared at him expectantly, and then added, “No? No suggestions?”
Charlie looked up at the ceiling. “Some people say that money is more important,” he said, and added, hurriedly, “I am not saying that. That’s not me. But there are people who say that. Money—everything is about money.”
Queenie-Queenie wrinkled her nose. “Money is nothing, Charlie. Love is everything. That is the difference between the two: money, nothing; love, everything.”
Charlie frowned. Queenie-Queenie came from a family that had money—money and trucks. If you had money and trucks behind you, then it was easy to say that money was nothing—and trucks, for that matter. It was only too easy. But if you came from where he came from, which was nowhere, really, and you had no money at all, you would never say that.
Queenie-Queenie expanded on her theme. “If I had a choice, Charlie, between money, here on this hand, and love, here on this hand…” She held her hands out towards him, and Charlie saw how soft the skin was, and the carefully tended nails. He swallowed hard. These were not hands that had been obliged to do the laundry or mix the mortar for the wall of the
the low mud-wall that bounded the traditional Botswana household. These were not even hands that had needed to do the kitchen work that most women had to do, and in the more progressive households, was even expected of men. These hands had done nothing.