Authors: Alexander McCall Smith
“If I had to choose between the two of them,” Queenie-Queenie continued, “what do you think I would choose, Charlie? You tell me. Think about it for a little while, and then you tell me what I would choose.”
Charlie sat back in his seat. Mr. Potso poked his head out from the kitchen to stare at Queenie-Queenie. Then he transferred his gaze to Charlie, curling an eyebrow as if to say,
Her! What’s she doing with somebody like you?
Charlie echoed her question. “Which one would you choose?”
“Yes, which one?”
Charlie made a hopeless gesture. “Oh, I know that. I know that you would choose love. That is what you’ve already said. You said that money is not the big thing…”
Queenie-Queenie raised a finger. “No. Wrong. Money.”
Charlie could not conceal his surprise. “But you said…”
“I didn’t. I was talking about both. I never said that I would prefer love to money. I said that if I had money, then I would also like to have love. Love is more important than money—I did say that—but you can’t live on love by itself. You need money. You have to eat. So what you do is you make sure that you have money in the first place, then love will come. You say, ‘I am ready now for love, because I have money,’ and love will come.”
Charlie listened to this in silence. When she had finished speaking, he simply said, “Oh.”
“So you agree with me?” asked Queenie-Queenie.
He did not answer immediately, and so she said, “I’m glad that we agree about this important thing.”
He opened his mouth to speak, not knowing what he intended to say, but feeling that he should at least express a view. But before he could say anything, Queenie-Queenie continued, “That is why you do not need to ask me to marry you. I know that this is what you would like to do because we both think the same way about this thing.”
He struggled to make sense of what she was saying. He did not need to ask her to marry him: What did that mean? That he should not ask? Or that he should? Or did it mean that they did not have to talk about the matter any longer?
He said, “Well, that is very interesting, Queenie. But are you going to order some fried chicken?”
She looked at him reproachfully. “This is no time for fried chicken.”
Mr. Potso was staring at them again, this time more intently. “Potso thinks it is. Look at him. He is always thinking that we should order something. All the time.”
She did not follow his gaze. Potso was nothing to her.
“No,” she said. “You do not need to ask me to marry you, Charlie. These days, women can ask men to marry them. So if anybody asks us when you asked me, you can just say, ‘It was not necessary—we decided to get married and that was it.’ No need for formalities—not these days.”
“Ha!” he said. “But we didn’t decide, did we?”
This brought a flat rebuttal. “Yes, we did.”
“Just a few moments ago. I said that we agreed, and you said nothing. You didn’t say, ‘I do not agree.’ You didn’t say anything like that.”
“I didn’t know that we had agreed. How could I tell, Queenie?”
She brushed this aside. “That doesn’t matter any longer. We don’t need to go over the past—unlike some people. They are always saying ‘You said this thing’ or ‘You said that thing’ and disagreeing with one another all the time.”
He looked away, summoning up the courage to tell her. He had no money. That was the issue. He could not pay what her family would be expecting. He could not even pay for two helpings of peri-peri chicken.
“I am very keen on you, Queenie,” he said at last. “Every time you look at me, I think—here inside me, right here—I think, You are so lucky to have this lady. But then I think, How can I ever marry somebody like her when I have no money? How can I go to her relatives—to her father, to her uncles—and say all I have is a couple of hundred pula. They would laugh at me and say, ‘
, you useless nothing man! Do not come around here unless you have at least thirty thousand pula, maybe forty.’ ”
Queenie-Queenie laughed. “But you don’t just have a couple of hundred pula. You must have more than that.”
Charlie shook his head. “That is the truth, Queenie. I have almost no money left.”
“What have you spent it on?”
“Then why do you say ‘left’? If you have no money left, that means you have had some and it is gone now.”
Charlie looked miserable. “It was never there. An apprentice detective does not get paid very much money.”
“But you will not be an apprentice forever, Charlie.”
He shook his head. “Sometimes I think I will. I was an apprentice mechanic for a long, long time. And I never became a fully qualified mechanic. Fanwell did, but I did not. And now I’m an apprentice detective but nobody can tell me how long that will last. Maybe forever, I think. I will be a very old man one day and still an apprentice. And then I will be dead and I will probably be an apprentice dead person too.”
Charlie had not expected Queenie-Queenie to laugh, but that is how she responded. And once her laughter died away, she said, “But Charlie—you do not have to worry about that. My brother, Hector, is always making money on deals that he does. You’ve met him. You like him. He buys things cheaply and then sells them on. He is very clever that way. He will make you a partner in one of his deals and that way you will have the money very soon. I will tell my father that you are just getting the money together and will soon be talking to my uncles about the
No problem, Charlie. No problem. We can get married soon.”
Charlie remained silent.
“You see?” said Queenie-Queenie after a few moments. “You see, Charlie? Simple.”
always fed the children early on school nights. This was to give them time to do their homework in their rooms before lights out at eight-thirty. Of course, both Puso and Motholeli protested that their bedtime was far earlier than that of any of their friends—indeed, earlier than any known bedtime of any child in all of southern Africa, but Mma Ramotswe was not one to be persuaded by such pleading. She knew it was true that some children stayed up until midnight, or even beyond, but she knew from a teacher friend what the consequences of that were.
“We have children coming to school in the morning half asleep, Mma,” said her friend. “Then they doze through their lessons and nothing goes into their heads.”
“And their parents?” asked Mma Ramotswe. “What are the parents doing?”
The teacher laughed. “They are drinking beer or dancing, maybe. I don’t know. One thing I do know is that they are not there making sure that their children go to bed at a reasonable time, as people did in the old days, Mma.”
“Because many of us didn’t have electricity,” said Mma Ramotswe. “We had paraffin lamps when I was young. Then we had electricity later on.”
“You went to bed when it got dark,” said the teacher. She paused. A look came to her face that is the look that sometimes comes to those who think of the past. “You cannot uninvent things, Mma. Electricity is a good thing, I suppose. And water that comes in a tap.”
“And pills for TB and other diseases.”
The teacher nodded. “All of that, Mma. That is all progress, and nobody would want to stop progress, would they, Mma?”
She looked at Mma Ramotswe. There was a note of wistfulness in her voice, a note suggesting that there were, perhaps, times when one might want to do just that—to stop progress. Not that one could admit it publicly, of course; progress was one of those things that everybody was expected to believe in, and if you did not, then you might be mocked and accused of living in the past. And yet, were there not things about the old Botswana that were good and valuable, just as there were things like that in every country? The habit of not being rude to people; the habit of treating old people with respect because they had seen so many things and had worked hard for so many years; the habit of keeping some things private that deserved to be kept private, and not living one’s life in a showy way, under the eyes of half the world; the habit of being charitable, and not laughing at others, or speaking ill of them. These were things that everybody respected in the old Botswana, in that time, still remembered by some, before people learned to be selfish.
The teacher sighed. Spilled milk was spilled milk. “But there is still a problem of children who are half asleep in the morning.”
At least that would not be a problem for Puso and Motholeli, Mma Ramotswe thought. And despite all their protests, when it came to eight-thirty they tended to be so tired anyway that they fell fast asleep within a few minutes of their light being switched off. That meant that she could busy herself with making dinner for Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni, who sometimes did not arrive home from the garage until just before eight.
That evening she had prepared a stew for him, served with a generous helping of pumpkin. That was his favourite meal, and she made sure that she served it at least twice a week. You could not give a man too much meat, she believed, although Mma Makutsi had recently drawn her attention to an article in the press that seemed to contradict that traditional Botswana wisdom.
“They’re saying that you should have red meat only once a week,” Mma Makutsi warned. “I have read about this, Mma. They say that you shouldn’t eat red meat more than once a week.”
Mma Ramotswe had listened carefully, but this went against everything she, and a whole generation of Botswana women, had had instilled in them by their mothers. “I don’t think they can be talking about Botswana,” she said, once Mma Makutsi had finished. “I think that advice is for Americans. Over there I think they should not eat too much meat—it’s different here, Mma. We have always liked meat.”
“The Americans like meat too,” said Mma Makutsi. “They are always eating hamburgers, Mma. All the time.”
“Well, that must be the reason for those articles, Mma. It is because the Americans are eating too many hamburgers. They are being told not to eat so many. We do not eat hamburgers—we like steak. That is different, Mma. That is well known.”
Mma Makutsi shook her head. “No, Mma, you are wrong there. This is advice from the United Nations. It is for all people, not just Americans. They are saying: do not eat too much red meat. That is what they are saying.”
Mma Ramotswe sighed. “But we cannot stop feeding men meat. They will be very angry if we do that. They will say, ‘Where is our meat, then?’ ” She paused. “And there is another thing I can tell you, Mma Makutsi. If you stop giving your husband good Botswana beef, you know what happens? Men are weak, Mma. They will go to some other lady who will say, ‘I will cook you lots of meat.’ That is what will happen. Even a very mild man is capable of doing that, Mma.”
The discussion with Mma Makutsi had not changed her view that if a man liked to eat meat, then you would have to be gentle in getting him to change his views. You should not say, “No more meat!” as some people argued you should do. Rather, you should work at it slowly, showing him that there were many other delicious meals he might enjoy. There were all sorts of pasta—the supermarket where she did her shopping was full of these things, and there were any number of sauces you could add. And then, when you served meat you might cut down on the size of the servings in such a way that the man might not notice—until it was too late. Then, when only a sliver of beef appeared on his plate, you might say, “Is it worth bothering with such a thin piece of meat?” and answer your own question firmly, saying, “No, it would be simpler if we had just the vegetables,” and then change the subject quickly so that he would have no time to argue the point. And the next day would be a day for pasta, with no sign of beef in the sauce, but with plenty of tomatoes, which, being red, were of a colour that men tended to like.
That night, though, dinner was composed of beef and pumpkin, even if there was less beef than usual, and rather more pumpkin. As they sat down to the meal, Mma Ramotswe said grace, which she sometimes missed when the children were not at the table.
“We think of our brothers and sisters who have nothing,” she said. “We think of people who have lost what little they have. We think of those who go to bed hungry tonight. Let us not forget those brothers and sisters as we sit down to our meal.”
She had been looking down at her plate as she spoke the grace, and now she looked up as Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni raised his eyes and muttered, “Amen.” Then he said, “Those are good words, Mma. It is good to think of those who are not as fortunate as we are.”
“It is, Rra,” she said. “We need to remind ourselves from time to time of our good fortune.”
“And think of the many men who do not get much meat,” said Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni, looking down at his plate.
Mma Ramotswe was silent at first, but then she said, “This is very good pumpkin, Rra. It was the best they had in the supermarket. The biggest, I think. There was enough for three days.”
“It’s these agricultural scientists,” said Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni. “They’re developing new varieties of pumpkins all the time.”
Normally, she might have replied to that. Pumpkins were a subject of some interest to her, but that evening her own words, the words of the grace she had uttered just a few moments ago, came back to her.
We think of our brothers and sisters…
She thought of Calviniah, and of their conversation over lunch, under that tree, with the doves in its branches.
Our brothers and sisters…
There were some people who laughed at religion, who said it was all about nothing, a nonsense dreamed up by the superstitious and the fearful, but that, really, was what it was about. It was about love and friendship rather than about selfishness and suffering. Calviniah, an old friend, was her sister; just as much as her half-sister down in Lobatse, or Mma Makutsi, or the woman who sold oranges on the roadside outside Tlokweng, or the woman who read the news on Botswana television, the woman who was far too thin by traditional Botswana standards, but who had a very pretty face that made men get up close to the television to see more of it. All of these people, known and unknown, obscure and renowned, were her sisters. And their brothers were her brothers too: the man you saw outside the Princess Marina Hospital, who had pustules all over his skin, the man who stood guard in the supermarket to stop people from sampling the food as they pushed their trolleys down the aisles, the prisoner she had seen staring despondently out of the police truck as he was taken to the magistrates’ court for sentencing—all of these were her brothers, with all that brotherhood entailed.
She sighed. It was hard sometimes, because some of the people who were meant to be your brothers and sisters were difficult people, dirty in some cases, selfish and calculating in others, even smelly, but they were still your brothers and had to be treated as such. There were no exceptions; you were not told,
You must love your neighbour—provided, of course, that he is presentable and not too noisy and does not drink or smell or wipe his nose on his sleeve…
You were told,
You must love your neighbour
. And then, just as you managed that, you were given the even more difficult instruction,
You must love your enemies.
That was a hurdle at which many people fell, because one thing was always abundantly clear: your enemies did not love
. But you had to grit your teeth and love them, even if your enemy was somebody like Violet Sephotho, with her husband-stealing and her nakedly self-centred ambitions. If she were to go to Trevor Mwamba himself, who had been the Bishop of Botswana, and say to him, “Do I really have to love Violet Sephotho?” he would incline his head and say, “I’m afraid you must, Precious.” And she would do it for Bishop Mwamba, she would try to love even Violet, although she would not pretend it would be easy. At the same time, of course, that might be just too much of a request to make of Mma Makutsi. Mma Ramotswe would not like to have to say to her, “Violet Sephotho is your sister, Mma,” because the reaction she should expect would not be a positive one.
Calviniah…Calviniah was her sister, and at lunch she had made a request of her. It was not uttered as a request—not in words that were normally used for asking—but the intention behind it was as clear as if it had been spelled out.
She looked at Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni. “Calviniah,” she said. “The woman who was at the wedding.”
“The one you thought was late?”
“Yes. That lady. I had lunch with her.”
Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni nodded. “What did you have?” He looked at his plate again. “Meat?”
Mma Ramotswe did not answer the question. “She’s unhappy.”
Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni waited. If a woman was unhappy, in his experience this could mean that there was a badly behaved man in the background. That was not always the case, but it was often so.
“She has a daughter,” Mma Ramotswe continued. “She works as a diamond sorter.”
“She won’t be unhappy about that,” said Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni. “That’s a very good job. Lots of people would give anything for that job.”
“I know that,” said Mma Ramotswe. “The daughter must be pleased. But I don’t think it’s anything to do with the job.”
“Illness?” asked Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni. “Is she sick?”
“No, I don’t think it’s that. The daughter has become very unfriendly towards her. Calviniah cannot understand why.”
Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni finished the last piece of meat on his plate. “Children can break your heart,” he said. “I knew a man whose son did not speak to him for ten years. Then he came home and expected his father to give him money. After ten years of silence.”
“Why?” asked Mma Ramotswe. “Why would you not speak to your father for ten years?”
“An argument over cattle,” replied Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni. He smiled. “Cattle never argue over people, but people always argue over cattle.”
“I think Calviniah was asking for help,” she said. “I think she wants me to do something.”
“You could speak to her, I suppose,” said Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni.
“I could. But she might just tell me to mind my own business. People don’t like outsiders to interfere in their private family business.”
Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni said that he understood that.
“But I still have to do something,” said Mma Ramotswe. “And there’s another thing…” She mentioned Poppy, the woman who had lost all her money.
“Money lost is money lost,” said Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni. Then he said, “Poppy?”
“Yes. She was at school with us in Mochudi. She went to Francistown.”
Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni pushed his empty plate across the table. “I know about that woman.”
Mma Ramotswe frowned. “There will be many Poppies. It is a popular name.”
“No, it is the same one,” said Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni. “She had a big store up in Francistown. There would not be two Poppies who had a store.”