Authors: Alexander McCall Smith
Mma Ramotswe asked him whether he knew how she had lost her money.
“She met a man,” he said. “He was called Flat. That was his name; it was not a nickname. Flat Ponto. He used to work in the motor trade. He was quite a good mechanic, but he had a reputation for being lazy. You know how it is with some people—they’re good at what they do, but they don’t do enough of it.”
Mma Ramotswe laughed. “I’ve known people like that, Rra. If people had batteries, then you might think that theirs needed charging. Not enough energy.”
Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni looked down at his plate again. “Perhaps they’re not getting enough meat, you know. Sometimes that’s the explanation.”
There was silence.
“Meat has lots of iron in it,” Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni continued. “Iron makes your muscles strong. It gives you the energy you need to do things.” He paused. “I’m not saying that’s always the explanation, but I think that in some cases—some cases, Mma—that might be what’s happening.”
“Possibly,” said Mma Ramotswe, looking straight ahead. “But this man she met…the mechanic, the iron-deficient one…”
“He became very religious,” said Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni. “He joined one of those marching churches, but I think he found all that marching a bit too much.”
“Perhaps it required too much energy,” remarked Mma Ramotswe. “And this poor man, with his iron problem, couldn’t keep up.”
Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni nodded. “Something like that happened, I expect. Anyway, you know what he did? He started his own church. He called it the Church of Christ, Mechanic.”
Mma Ramotswe’s eyes opened wide with astonishment. “What a strange name, Rra. What did he mean?”
Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni shrugged. “He was not trying to be funny, Mma. He thought that it was a good name. He thought that Jesus would have been a mechanic if there had been cars. He was a carpenter, you see.”
“I know that,” said Mma Ramotswe. “And this church of his—did anybody join?”
“Oh, yes. There were many people who joined. Two hundred, I heard.”
Mma Ramotswe thought for a few moments. “Well, there’s nothing wrong with that, I suppose. I don’t think that God really cares what church you belong to. I think it’s much the same to him whether you are Christian or Jewish or Muslim. He listens to everybody, I think.”
Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni thought that she was right. He was not a man with a very sophisticated theology, and there were times when he had his serious doubts. But when all was said and done he thought that there was something beyond us, something other than the human, and that if you closed your eyes and thought about this thing long enough you could hear its voice within you. That was enough for him.
“One of my customers goes to his church,” he went on. “He is very pleased with it. He said that they have a big
every Sunday lunch time, with lots of sausages. They go to the Notwane River in the rainy season, otherwise they have their picnic near the dam. And they sing hymns while they eat the sausages. He says it is very spiritual. That’s the word he used, Mma—
They do the baptism in the river or the dam. They put them right under the water, still wearing their clothes.”
She pictured the scene. She saw a river and the sinners being led into the water and being submerged, and all the time the people on the banks would be singing and eating sausages. She smiled.
“There are worse things to do on a Sunday,” she said. “It is better to be doing those spiritual things than sitting idly at home or in some shebeen somewhere, drinking.”
He agreed. “You’re right, Mma. I was not criticising this man and his church. But I would say, though, that he seemed to do quite well out of it all.”
Mma Ramotswe’s antennae homed in on this. Africa was full of prophets who had done well out of their prophecy. Other places, too, had the same problem—not just Africa. She had discovered a wonderful English word for which there seemed to be no precise Setswana equivalent—
She savoured the sound of it—
It seemed to describe a certain sort of person very accurately, she thought. Was this man, this Flat, a charlatan?
“My customer told me that they were very happy in the church,” Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni said. “He said that the Reverend Flat Ponto had converted a very rich woman to the church and that she had given him a car for use in his ministry.”
Mma Ramotswe groaned. It was a familiar story. Rich women, it seemed, made the same mistake time and time again: whether they were ensnared by a natty dancer or a smart dresser or a minister who had invented his own church, the aim of the man was always the same—to part the rich woman from as large a proportion of her funds as possible before her family or friends were able to intervene. She had seen this happen on more than one occasion, and it never ended well. Oh, there were stories where the scheming man was exposed in time, but those were only stories. In real life it did not happen that way. The man got the money and the woman was left high and dry.
“And you’re sure this lady was Poppy?” she asked.
He nodded. “That’s what my customer said.”
Mma Ramotswe groaned again. “And the car? Was it…” She hesitated. You should not be prejudiced against one sort of car, because cars are innocent—they know no better. But it was no use beating about the bush. “Was it a Mercedes-Benz?”
Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni did not need to respond; she saw the answer in his eyes.
“It was,” he said. “A new one, too.”
Mma Ramotswe rolled her eyes. “Oh, the foolishness of women,” she muttered. “I mean, the foolishness of
“And men,” said Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni. “There are some very foolish men.”
She said that he was right. Foolishness was something that afflicted men and women equally. Neither sex had the monopoly of wisdom, she said, although on balance she thought that women might perhaps have just a little bit more sense than men. But only a little bit, and it was not a point that she would care to make, normally, as Mma Ramotswe liked men, just as she liked women, and did not think it helpful to put a wedge between them. People were people first and foremost, she felt, and it was only after you had judged them as
that you should notice whether they were wearing a skirt or trousers, not that that was grounds for distinction these days.
She looked up. “Have you ever seen a man wearing a skirt, Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni?” she asked.
His face registered his puzzlement. “I have not seen that, Mma. And why would a man want to wear a skirt? What’s the point of that?”
“I don’t know,” she said. “Men sometimes do strange things, of course.” She was certain of that, at least; the strangeness of human behaviour was something of which anybody following her calling would be only too well aware. Anything, it seemed, was possible, such was human ingenuity in the pursuit of its goals. Mma Potokwane had once expressed views on this, saying that nothing would ever surprise her when it came to human nature. She remembered her friend’s words. “People are very odd, Mma Ramotswe. They think odd thoughts and they do odd things. You can never be sure with people.” Mma Potokwane was right, as she almost always was. She knew these things because she had been a matron for so long and had looked after children in whose lives, in the background, was almost every conceivable human disappointment and tragedy.
He shrugged. “If they want to wear ladies’ clothes,” he said, “then I suppose they should be allowed to do so.” He shook his head. “Although I wouldn’t recommend it if you’re underneath a car fixing it. Overalls are the answer, Mma, for that sort of thing—for both men and women. Overalls.”
Overalls, thought Mma Ramotswe. Was that the answer to all these issues that people were worrying away at—issues of who was a man and who was a woman? If we all were to wear overalls, would that argument simply go away? It would be nice to think that it would, as Mma Ramotswe wanted people to be happy in whatever way they needed to be happy, but somehow she doubted whether the provision of overalls for everybody was really the answer.
HE DAYS THAT FOLLOWED
this conversation with Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni were unusually quiet ones in the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency.
“Something will turn up,” said Mma Makutsi, as she stared idly out of the office window. “It always does, I find.”
Seated at her desk, Mma Ramotswe looked at the empty pages of her diary.
Monday, nothing; Tuesday, nothing;
and so on, stretching out to an indeterminate future. “People often say that business is either famine or feast,” she said. “And I think that’s right, Mma Makutsi.”
“It definitely is,” said Mma Makutsi. “Phuti says that it’s the same in the furniture business. One moment everybody is desperate to buy beds and sofas and so forth. Then, the next day, nothing. No sales. It’s as if everybody who could possibly want a bed or a sofa has got one. And you think, Is this the end of the business?”
Mma Ramotswe did not like to say that this was exactly the question that had occurred to her. The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency did not make a great deal of money. Indeed, at the end of most months, when the books were examined and outgoings subtracted from sums received, the resulting profit, if any, was minuscule. That did not matter too much, of course, as long as salaries were covered; they had no rent to pay, the office being attached to the premises of Tlokweng Road Speedy Motors, which was owned by Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni. If one had to have a landlord, then there was a very good case for having one’s husband as one’s landlord.
“Somebody will knock on the door,” said Mma Ramotswe. “Somebody will come in and say that her husband is spending too much time in the office with his secretary, or the petty cash is disappearing in a mysterious way, or their daughter is seeing a suspicious boyfriend who won’t give anybody his real name and insists on simply being called Joe.”
Mma Makutsi laughed at that, remembering a case where that was exactly what had happened, and she and Mr. Polopetsi had discovered that Joe, as he called himself, was wanted by the police on several charges of handling stolen property. “I think you are right, Mma,” she said. “Any moment now a new client will turn up.”
But no new client arrived, and when they closed the office at five that evening, there had not been so much as a telephone enquiry. The only call, in fact, had been a wrong number. Mma Makutsi had answered that, and when it became apparent that the call was really intended for the office of a local refrigeration company, she had nonetheless tried to interest the caller in the agency’s services. After all, one never knew what might be going on in the private life of an unexpected and misdialling stranger.
“You’ve come through to the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency,” she announced. “I know that this is not the number you wanted, but since you’re on the line, are you sure that you do not have a problem that we can help you with?”
This had not been well received by the woman at the other end, who took umbrage at the suggestion that she might be in need of a private detective. “I am not that sort of person,” she said, slamming down the receiver in a way that suggested to Mma Makutsi that she was precisely the sort of person who might need the agency’s help.
“People can be very rude,” said Mma Makutsi. “If you dial the wrong number, the least you should do is listen politely to the person who answers.”
That was a Tuesday, and the Wednesday seemed to be heading in much the same direction. By the time mid-morning tea was served, Mma Ramotswe had decided that if nothing came up within the next half an hour she would yield to the promptings of her conscience to do something for Calviniah. She would find Nametso and have a word with her about her mother’s feelings. It was possible that she would get nowhere, but there was no harm in trying. It was possible that Nametso might simply not realise the hurt she was causing her mother and respond accordingly; alternatively, she might resent and rebuff any outside attempt to broach the subject. Either way, Mma Ramotswe felt that there was nothing to lose.
She mentioned her intention to Mma Makutsi, who agreed that helping an old friend in this way was the right thing to do. “If you go out, Mma,” she said, “then I shall go out too and investigate this husband case—the one who appears to be so keen on studying mathematics.”
Mma Ramotswe smiled. “By all means, Mma. It will be better than sitting in the office twiddling our thumbs.” She paused. “Mind you, I think you’re barking up the wrong tree, Mma, if I may say so.”
“We shall see, Mma,” said Mma Makutsi. “Sometimes, you know, it’s a question of finding the right tree by barking up a whole lot of trees, some of which may be the wrong ones. You never know. The tree knows, of course, but you don’t.”
Mma Ramotswe looked at her assistant as she tried to make sense of this remark. She was not quite sure what Mma Makutsi meant, but then that was not all that unusual. There were many occasions on which Mma Makutsi made a pronouncement that seemed to be full of meaning and yet, on close examination, meant nothing at all. This might be one of those, she thought; or it might not be, which left her none the wiser about anything, and so she rose from her chair without further ado and proceeded, as Mma Makutsi might put it, to her tiny white van. She had a plan—not much of a plan, but then investigations had to start somewhere, and shaky grounds were better than no grounds at all. She would go to the diamond-sorting building and speak to the receptionist—if there was one. Receptionists usually knew more about what was going on than anybody else, including general managers, deputy general managers, and managers of any description. From the point of view of a private detective, indiscreet receptionists were gold mines of information, provided, of course, they could be persuaded to reveal what they knew. In general, Mma Ramotswe had found that people wanted to confide, and that all that was necessary was the provision of a sympathetic ear.
NOW SHE STOOD OUTSIDE
the discreet building that was the headquarters of the Botswana Diamond Sorting Consortium. Into this building, with its modest four floors, were delivered the gems wrested from the great open-cast mines of the Kalahari, the end result of the reduction of millions of tons of ore into pellets, and the extraction from those pellets of the diamonds themselves. These arrived in sealed safe-boxes, packed by machine and unexposed to any human hand. Only once they were in the diamond-sorting building would they be opened and the stones within spread out on large sorting tables. At that point, the sorters began their work, expertly flicking stones into piles according to size and brilliance.
Mma Ramotswe had read about the process in an article in the
Botswana Daily News
. This had explained the training of the sorters, and the strict security measures surrounding the diamonds. Botswana’s diamonds were clean, the paper pronounced, and elaborate steps were taken to keep them that way. Temptation, of course, was the enemy, and everything possible was done to remove the occasions for that. Mma Ramotswe had stared at the photograph in the paper of a pile of diamonds on a sorting table. A
of diamonds—and to think that these were handled by ordinary people whose lives could be changed beyond recognition by just one of these glittering stones. Such a small thing, a diamond, and yet a thing of such power.
The sorters were allocated parcels of raw stones. These were weighed to the last fraction of an ounce, and signed for on the basis of weight. The slightest discrepancy, the smallest whisker of difference between weight signed for and weight later returned to a supervisor, would set in motion a process of rigorous searches and revealing X-rays. It was no use trying to swallow a diamond; an X-ray would show exactly where in the human body the stone was concealed. Nobody, it was said, had ever succeeded in smuggling so much as a single carat out of the high-security sorting area.
She parked her van in the parking place beside the building. There were no trees there, she noted—this was too grand a place, too modern for such things. She disapproved: some people thought that progress was synonymous with the cutting down of trees and the planting, instead, of concrete. They were wrong, she felt: concrete cut you off from the land and stopped the earth from breathing. Concrete was hardness and silence; it had no voice, as other building materials had. Wood brought a memory of trees, thatch of reed bed, mud of the place from which the earth had been taken. The people who commissioned and built large buildings thought nothing of that, but ordinary people, people who did not think always of money, had always turned to trees for shade, and she saw no reason for that to change. If that was progress, then she would have none of it. And yet, she thought, I am a modern lady and have no desire to go backwards rather than forwards. It all depended, she felt, on where you thought forwards was.
She sighed as she left her tiny white van out in the full glare of the sun. She knew that when she came back to it—even only a few minutes later—the burning rays would have heated the interior to the point of discomfort. She would have to open both doors and wait for the seats and the steering wheel to cool. If only they had kept a few trees…
A man was walking towards her—a man in a blue uniform with a badge on each shoulder. This badge, the same on each side, said
and now, reaching Mma Ramotswe, he looked at her over the rim of a pair of rectangle-framed glasses.
His greeting was polite, in spite of his stern expression. Following the old Botswana custom, he enquired about her health and whether she had slept well. On both of these matters, she gave a positive report.
“So, Mma, what are you doing with your van?”
He gestured to the van, which looked distinctly out of place among the opulent vehicles on either side of it.
“I am parking it, Rra,” Mma Ramotswe replied. She hesitated. She did not want a confrontation with somebody described as a
but in her experience a firm response to officialdom could set a more positive tone for any subsequent encounter. This was a parking place—there was a notice that made that clear—and she had availed herself of it. There was nothing to say that only important people, or expensive modern cars, could use this space. This was a small square of Botswana, and she was a citizen of Botswana. Her van, although old and small, was a duly licensed Botswana car that had the same rights as any vehicle.
The security consultant continued to look at her over the top of his spectacles. “I can see that you have parked, Mma. I can see that.”
Mma Ramotswe waited.
“Why have you parked here?” he asked.
“I have come to speak to somebody in the sorting office,” she said, nodding in the direction of the building’s front door.
He frowned. “Who is this person, Mma? And what is it about?”
“It is a personal matter,” she replied, and knew immediately that this, although the truthful answer, was the wrong one to have given.
The guard’s frown deepened. “It is not possible to talk to people here about personal matters,” he said. “It is not allowed. You must go away.”
Mma Ramotswe studied his uniform. The buttons, which were cast in brass, had the symbol of a diamond incised on them. The shirt, buttoned down at the collar, had been impeccably starched.
“I must say that your uniform is very smart, Captain.”
The effect of this was instantaneous, just as she thought it would be. It was her practice, developed over years of experience of dealing with people who occupied junior rungs in any hierarchy, to promote the holder with a rank above that which they held or were ever likely to have held. Thus a sergeant of police, immediately and unambiguously distinguishable by the chevrons of his office, became a sub-inspector or even a full inspector, while an inspector became a superintendent. Even those at heady levels—those who were real superintendents—were susceptible to the tactic, and could be seen to swell visibly when addressed as Deputy Commissioner. Flattery, perhaps, but there was a wrong sort of flattery and a right sort, and this was the latter because it gave somebody a boost and it was always deployed for a good reason—not to curry favour, but to help a good cause. And the good cause in this case was clear enough: a mother wanted her daughter back from a puzzling and needless estrangement that had sprung up between them; what could be more defensible than that?
Captain! A smile played about the security guard’s lips—a smile of pleasure rather than bemusement. Here was one who might be to the outside world a mere
but who, in his inner heart, was on the frontline of a worldwide battle against the forces of disorder and chaos. Those forces were ubiquitous and cunning; they took no hostages and struck in a way that was as underhand as they were ruthless. Ranged against them were men and women in a rainbow array of uniforms, each battling in his or her particular way a common enemy: people who challenged the accepted order in ways small and large. Here was one of them—a person who thought she could park in a dedicated parking place as casually as if she were by some roadside in a dusty village in the back of beyond, and who then explained that she wanted to talk to some employee about a purely personal matter. And what would that be?, he wondered. An arrangement for a wedding, perhaps, or for a church bazaar—something as petty and inconsequential as that. Really! That was the trouble with some people: they loved talking at great length about these small things, and all the while, elsewhere, people were working hard without any of these silly discussions. How could people complain if all the strides that were being taken in so many fields were being taken in places where wasting time like this was not permitted, where nobody parked where they shouldn’t?