Authors: Alexander McCall Smith
Those were the thoughts that crossed his mind, and yet this was a traditionally minded Botswana woman of well-kept appearance and respectful demeanour. And she had called him “Captain,” which was the rank that he should really have held if the diamond authorities had given proper thought to the matter. She clearly understood how demanding his job was, and how vital. He could not be severe with her; firm, yes, but not severe. She was a sort of auntie, really, and he would treat her with the courtesy with which an auntie should be treated.
The instruction to go away was rescinded. “I’m sorry, Mma, I didn’t mean that you should go away right now—I did not mean that.”
Mma Ramotswe was gracious. “I could tell that you didn’t, Rra. I could see that you were not the sort of officer to tell a lady to go away just like that when all she wanted to do was to speak to somebody.”
He had served for four years in the Botswana Defence Force and knew that the term
should not be used lightly. He had been promoted to corporal and had served honourably in that role in the days when that great man, General Khama, had been there, and the general had once singled him out for praise. He had said, “That NCO is doing good work,” and the reference had been to him; there was no doubt about that because the general had been pointing at him as he spoke the words. His platoon commander had heard them, and nodded in his direction—a nod of encouragement and congratulation. That was not the sort of thing one easily forgets.
That NCO is doing good work.
“No, Mma, I did not mean go away right now. I meant you cannot stay there, but you need not go immediately.”
“Thank you, Rra. And can I speak to the person I want to speak to?”
That was another matter—not one in which discretion could be exercised. “That is more difficult, Mma. They…” He cast his eyes up towards the top floor of the building, where dwelt the senior management. “They don’t allow that, Mma. This building, you see, is very secure. Even now they are watching us with their cameras. All the time, there are people watching, watching.”
“They have to be careful,” said Mma Ramotswe. “If nobody was watching, then what would happen? There would be people coming around all the time hoping to pick up a few diamonds.”
He nodded his agreement. “Exactly, Mma. That is why we have these rules.” He paused. “Could you tell me who this person is? Perhaps I could leave a note for him.”
“It is a her,” said Mma Ramotswe. “Her name is Nametso. She is one of the sorters. She is the daughter of an old friend of mine, Calviniah, from the old days in Mochudi.”
The guard relaxed even more. “Mochudi,” he said, savouring the word in his mouth, lingering over it, as one might a culinary treat. “I had an uncle who lived there. He was a porter in the hospital. He worked with Dr. Moffat back in those days.”
Mma Ramotswe clapped her hands together. “Dr. Moffat, Rra! My father knew Dr. Moffat—and I did too. Mrs. Moffat—I used to visit her when she lived in the Village here in Gaborone.”
The guard shook his head with pleasure at the memory, and at the connection this conversation had established.
“My uncle said that Dr. Moffat never lost his temper with anybody. Sometimes a doctor or a nurse could do that, you know. But he did not. He just said, ‘Please don’t do that,’ or, ‘That’s not a good thing to do.’ Something like that.”
Mma Ramotswe nodded. “That is often the best way of dealing with such things,” she said. “I have heard people say that you don’t change others by shouting at them.”
The security guard hesitated. In his days in the Botswana Defence Force he had done a great deal of shouting. Indeed, he had enjoyed a reputation of having one of the loudest voices in the entire army, but he was younger then, and you might change your views as you became older and more aware of the complexities of the world. And so he said, “That is very right, Mma. You do not change people in that way.”
It was a pity, he thought. There were so many who were crying out to be changed and who would benefit from a few pieces of advice delivered at maximum volume. It was a pity.
“This Nametso,” he said. “I think I know her. I know all the sorters because they are given permits to park in this car park. There is only one of them called Nametso.”
Mma Ramotswe listened. “So you know her, Rra?”
“Yes.” He turned around and gestured to a section of the car park immediately behind him. “That is where she used to park her car. Every day, she would park in the same place—right over there.”
Mma Ramotswe followed his gaze. “Used to, Rra? Is she no longer working here?”
“Oh, yes, she is still working here. If you have a job as a diamond sorter, you don’t give that up too readily, I can tell you.”
“I don’t suppose you do,” said Mma Ramotswe. “But now she’s parking somewhere else? Or is she coming into work by bus, maybe?”
He turned back to face her. “No, nothing like that. She’s still driving in. You mentioned the Village earlier on. That is where she lives. You know those flats near the university?”
She did. “They aren’t too far from my business.” She bit her tongue. She had not intended to reveal what she did; it could only complicate matters.
It was too late. “Your business, Mma? What business is that?”
“I work in an office,” Mma Ramotswe said vaguely. “Not a big office—just a couple of people. But tell me, Rra: Why is Nametso not parking here any longer?” She assumed that it was a shade issue, and felt that here at least was something on which she and Nametso would agree—too much concrete and too little respect for trees. Our natural umbrellas, she thought. That’s what trees were: our natural umbrellas.
But this was not the reason. The security guard thought for a moment, and then, with what Mma Ramotswe thought was a rather condescending smile, gave his answer: “Envy, Mma. You know what envy is. It is our big problem here, although we don’t like to talk about it. Envy.”
Mma Ramotswe looked at him in surprise. “Envy, Rra?” She could not work out what he meant. Envy? Of what, and on whose part? Were there some people who did not have a parking place who would be envious of those who did? That was possible, she thought—just. But there did not seem to be a shortage of parking places attached to the building—in fact, judging from the many empty spaces, there seemed to be rather too many. And that’s what happens, she thought grimly, if you cut down all your trees.
The security guard spoke patiently, as if explaining something elementary to a person who might not be expected to grasp a simple enough matter. This made Mma Ramotswe feel momentarily annoyed: there was a certain sort of man—usually an older man—who still harboured an old-fashioned attitude towards women. Women, they thought, had to have things explained to them by men. It was hard to believe that there were still men who took that view, even when women had fought back so successfully and exploded the nonsense behind it. Yet such men still existed, as Mma Makutsi had once said, because they were weak within themselves.
“If you know that you’re not very good at something,” she had said. “If, for example—and I am just giving an example here, Mma; I am not talking about any particular man—if you are a bit unintelligent in the head…” That was an expression that Mma Makutsi used from time to time; an odd expression, thought Mma Ramotswe, because where else could one be unintelligent but in the head? And yet it had a certain charm to it, and she had found herself using it once when hearing from Mma Potokwane of a man who had decided to clear a patch of land by fire and had succeeded in burning down his neighbour’s house. “That man is a bit unintelligent in the head,” she had said to Mma Potokwane, who had vigorously agreed. “And in other places too,” the matron had said. “Unintelligent all over the place, Mma, but yes, certainly very unintelligent in the head.”
“If you are unintelligent in the head,” Mma Makutsi continued, “and you are a man—and I am not saying that
men are unintelligent in the head, Mma Ramotswe…”
“I know that, Mma Makutsi. I didn’t think you were saying that.”
“Because there are some women who talk like that, Mma. Some of them—you know, these ladies who are fed up with men and are saying to us that men are finished—those ladies who, incidentally, Mma, often do not have husbands, I might point out…”
Mma Ramotswe was not sure of the relevance of that. It was possible to have a husband, she thought, and at the same time be able to identify and criticise bad male attitudes and behaviour. “I do not think that is always true, Mma…,” she suggested mildly.
“Oh, it is, Mma Ramotswe. You and I are not unkind to men, are we?”
Mma Ramotswe agreed. “I would hope that we are not unkind to anybody,” she said. “Why be unkind?”
Mma Makutsi did not address that more general question. “No, I’m telling you, Mma. Those ladies who are always saying men are rubbish, are saying that because they have not found a man for themselves, Mma—not even a rubbish man. So they say that all men are no good and it makes them feel a bit better.” She drew a deep breath before continuing. Her large round spectacles caught a shaft of light and glinted. “If all men are no good, then who would want a man, Mma? Nobody, I think. Then they feel better about not having a man. I’m telling you, Mma, that is how the human mind works. It is psychology, you see. Psychology lies underneath everything. Under every table.”
It had been a long statement from Mma Makutsi. It was wrong, Mma Ramotswe felt, but it had some basic insights that were probably true. Mma Makutsi was right in saying that those who criticised something often did so because they wanted that very thing and did not have it. That was surely true. But she was not certain that one should look at all criticism in that light.
“If you are unintelligent in the head,” Mma Makutsi continued, “then you are going to boost yourself, Mma Ramotswe. And how do you do that? You belittle other people—you say that
are unintelligent in the head. Do you see that?”
Mma Ramotswe did, and Mma Makutsi went on, “And so if you are a man and you are worried about how small your brain is—and some men, Mma, have
small brains. Big bodies, maybe, Mma. Lots of muscle and whatnot, but their brains?” She shook her head, and Mma Ramotswe for a moment pictured Mma Makutsi’s brain inside it: the same brain that had guided her to that famous ninety-seven per cent in the final examinations of the Botswana Secretarial College. “Their brains, Mma Ramotswe, not much, I’m afraid. And so those men—it is those men I’m talking about, Mma—they are the ones who say that women are not very good at certain things and that men should be left to do them. They say that because they know that women are actually better than them at doing whatever it is they are talking about.”
“Very possibly,” said Mma Ramotswe. “In many cases I think that is probably what’s going on, Mma.”
Mma Makutsi lowered her voice. “And here’s another thing, Mma—just between you and me. There are men who are always talking about how good they are with ladies. You know, in paying attention to ladies in that way, Mma. In doing the sort of thing that men like to do with ladies. You know what I’m talking about, Mma?”
“I think I do, Mma,” said Mma Ramotswe, looking away.
“Well, here’s something, Mma,” Mma Makutsi continued. “Those men who keep boasting about that, they are the ones who, I’m sorry to say, Mma, are unfortunate in that department, Mma, and who do not have many lady friends. You know what I mean?”
“I think I do, Mma. But look, we must get on with the letters—they are building up and we have answered none of them…”
That had been the end of that conversation, but the memory of it came back as she stood in the car park with the security guard who was looking at her in that way which might have been condescension; which might, just might, have stemmed from the fact that he felt that life had not brought him what he wanted, and so he needed to boost himself in the way identified by Mma Makutsi. Just possibly.
And he had referred to envy, which certainly was a factor in village life in Botswana. Everybody has some little failing, and Mma Ramotswe knew that a failing of her countrymen was an occasional tendency to be envious of the possessions of others.
“It’s her car, you see, Mma,” the security guard explained. “She is worried that others will be envious of her car.”
Mma Ramotswe smiled. “Ah! I was wondering, Rra. So there are junior people in the building who have no car and would be envious. I can see how that might be so.”
The security guard shook his head, with elaborate patience. “No, Mma. Not that. It is the sort of car that is the problem. She has a Mercedes-Benz, you see.”
“And not just an ordinary one,” the security guard continued. “It is a new one—very smart. Everything included. Special tyres and so on. All made by Germans.”
“By Germans,” Mma Ramotswe muttered. She was thinking…Where did Nametso get a Mercedes-Benz?
“A wealthy daddy,” said the security guard. “She must have a wealthy daddy. That is how a young woman like her gets hold of a Mercedes-Benz.” He paused. “Would you like me to take a note inside for her?” he asked.
Mma Ramotswe hesitated. “That’s kind of you, Rra, but I think I need to go away and think about something.”
“About what, Mma?”
“About things I need to think about, Rra. There are so many of them, I find.”
“That’s very true,” he said. “Very true, Mma—make no mistake.”
“But thank you anyway, Captain.”
The word hung in the air like a shining, benevolent sun, imparting to those below a glow of warmth and pride.
One word, one small word, could bring such pleasure, just as one word, one equally small word, might cause such distress.
those words were, in the circumstances, thought Mma Ramotswe, deeply significant.
HILE MMA RAMOTSWE
was engaged in conversation with her new friend, the informally promoted security consultant, Mma Makutsi was on her way to the home address of the teacher from whom Mr. Mogorosi, the husband until recently under suspicion, was receiving instruction in mathematics. This was a small house near the Mechanical Trades College, the sort of house which she might expect to be favoured by a government official on the cusp of promotion but unable yet to afford something in one of the more expensive suburbs. Such a person would be just outside the zone of comfort enjoyed by the next rung down on the social and economic ladder—a comfort that, paradoxically, came from not having to compete with those around you. Where everybody is poor, or on a tight budget, then there is little or no pressure to flaunt your possessions—everybody is in it together. Once you haul yourself up to the next level, though, life can become competitive. And one had to worry, too, about falling. The nearer the bottom, the less devastating is the prospect of a fall.
Mma Makutsi had driven to this house with Charlie, who had been briefed on the story that they would come up with if they found the teacher in.
“We are going to enquire about mathematics lessons,” said Mma Makutsi. “I shall be your auntie. I shall be enquiring about lessons for my nephew—you.”
Charlie giggled. “But I am not your nephew, Mma.”
“Of course you aren’t,” said Mma Makutsi. “This is to get information, Charlie.” She paused. “Haven’t you heard of cover stories?”
“Oh, I know all about those,” said Charlie. “You don’t have to tell me about all that, Mma.”
She glanced at him. Charlie had so much to learn, she thought; so much that it made it almost impossible to know where to start. That was the problem with ignorance: it tended to be so vast and so all-encompassing that tackling it became rather like struggling with a weed that had established itself in all parts of the garden. If you plucked the weed in one corner, then its offshoots might simply proliferate elsewhere behind your back.
“So,” said Mma Makutsi, “you let me do the talking, Charlie. Understand? I’ll do the talking.”
Charlie nodded. “You’re the boss, Mma.”
She liked that. Young men like that could be difficult when it came to accepting female direction. They still thought—or some of them did—that being men gave them the right to give orders to women, even when the women were older and more qualified than they. They had to be disabused of that belief, even if some pockets of society continued to believe in this unwarranted male assumption.
They parked the car directly outside the gate. The house had an unusually large garden for a place of its size—it was, thought Mma Makutsi, a double plot. With the city continuing to grow, that would mean it was now worth a fair amount—one could sell it and move out to a much bigger place on the outskirts of the city, or in a neighbouring village, such as Tlokweng. That’s what she would do, thought Mma Makutsi, if she lived in a place like that.
She opened the gate. “There’s a car, Charlie,” she said.
She pointed to the side of the house. Just visible behind a creeper-covered water butt was the rear section of a pick-up truck.
“Somebody’s in,” said Charlie as they began to walk up the path that led to the front door.
Mma Makutsi shook her head. “No, Charlie,” she admonished, “you cannot draw that conclusion.” She sighed. “Have you read that book we lent you?”
“The one by that man—”
She cut him short. “Not
Now he interrupted. “Clovis Andersen?”
. Andersen to you, Charlie,” she admonished him. “Yes, that book—have you read it?”
Charlie was defensive. “I’ve looked at it,” he said. “I’ve been very busy, Mma.”
She sighed again; they were almost at the door. “If you bothered to read it, you would know what he says about not jumping to conclusions.” She pointed to the side of the house. “All we know is that there is a car parked there. That does not mean the person who normally drives that car is inside the house. She—”
“Or he,” muttered Charlie. “We don’t know whether the car belongs to a man or a woman, Mma—do we?”
She did not reply. They were at the door now. She had noticed that the paint was scuffed and that a general air of neglect seemed to hang about the building. She glanced at Charlie and pointed to the unmaintained paintwork. “See that?” she whispered.
Charlie shrugged. “Paint costs money, Mma.”
Mma Makutsi knocked on the door, calling out the greeting
as she did so. She knocked again. Charlie looked at her expectantly. “Nobody here, Mma.”
Mma Makutsi knocked a third time. “People sometimes take time to answer, Charlie. You never know.”
Charlie reached forward and hammered loudly on the door. “They might be deaf, Mma Makutsi,” he explained.
Mma Makutsi remonstrated with him. “You don’t need to knock the door down.”
It now seemed clear that nobody was in.
“We’ll come back some other time,” said Mma Makutsi.
Charlie frowned. “What about the back, Mma? Should I take a look round the back?”
She asked him why, and he replied, “There might be something suspicious.”
Mma Makutsi laughed. “Something suspicious? Don’t let your imagination run away with you, Charlie. You think you’ll find a big clue?”
“There might be one,” he said resentfully. “Sometimes you don’t know what you’re looking for until you find it. Your Clovis Andersen—”
“Your Mr. Andersen probably says that in his book. It’s the sort of thing you’re always quoting to me. You and Mma Ramotswe—you’d think that was the only book in the world, the way you go on about it.”
She gave him a discouraging look. “All right, go and take a quick look. I’ll see you back at the car.”
She made her way back down the path. At the gate she hesitated; somebody had taped a note to the gatepost—a small brown envelope. She bent down to examine it. On the front of the envelope she could just make out the words
She stood up straight and looked about her. Had the envelope been there when they arrived? She did not think so, but she could not be sure. She looked down the road. There was no sign of anybody.
She saw Charlie emerge from behind the building. He spotted her and gave a cheerful wave.
“Anything?” she asked him when he reached the gate.
The young man shook his head. “I didn’t think I’d find anything, but it always pays to be thorough.”
Mma Makutsi inclined her head in agreement. “So, no clues, then?”
“I told you, Mma. Nothing.”
She waited a moment and then pointed to the envelope. “Perhaps you were looking in the wrong place, Charlie,” she said, a hint of satisfaction creeping into her voice. “What do you think this is?”
Charlie reached out, and before Mma Makutsi could stop him, he had detached the envelope from the gatepost.
“You shouldn’t have touched it,” hissed Mma Makutsi. “That could be evidence.”
Charlie looked at the envelope. “Evidence of what, Mma? Has a crime been committed?”
“I did not say anything about crime, Charlie. It could be evidence of something else.” She paused. “And that note is not addressed to us. We must always remember that our powers of investigation are limited. We are
detectives, Charlie; we are not the Botswana Police. We can’t go round doing this, that, and the next thing.”
Charlie looked again at the envelope. “It says
Mma. It is addressed to the general public; it is not addressed to anybody in particular.”
“It is on that lady’s gate,” said Mma Makutsi, pointing to the house they had just visited. “It must be for that mathematics lady.”
Charlie held the envelope up to the sun. “Then why did they put it on her gate, Mma? If it was for that lady, then why not put it on her door, or even under her door? That would be the normal thing to do, wouldn’t it?”
She had to admit that he had a point. And yet, she was still reluctant to open a sealed envelope that had been intended for somebody else, even if the identity of that person remained unclear.
“I think I should open it, Mma,” said Charlie.
She was about to say no, but she did not speak quickly enough. Charlie had now inserted a finger under the corner of the flap and torn it open. There was a folded piece of paper inside. He extracted this and began to read, silently.
“What does it say, Charlie?”
He looked up. “It is very odd, Mma,” he said, handing the note to her.
She read out the message, which was written in capital letters, as with the invitation on the envelope.
I CAN ADD JUST AS WELL AS ANYBODY,
the message ran.
SO I KNOW THAT TWO PLUS TWO MAKES FOUR, YOU BAD RUBBISH WOMAN!
Charlie waited for her response, but Mma Makutsi was examining the note again. “Well, Mma,” he said after a few moments. “That looks like a clue to me.”
She looked up from the note. “A clue to what, Charlie?”
He shrugged. “It tells us that she’s a bad woman. That’s what it says, doesn’t it? A bad woman.”
“And what does that mean?”
“It means that…” His voice trailed off. What did it mean? He was not sure.
It was for Mma Makutsi to provide the answer. “It means that this lady—whoever she is—has at least one enemy.”
She folded the note and took the envelope from Charlie. “I’m going to take this away,” she said.
“Why?” he asked. “Why not put it back where we found it?”
“Because it is a threat, Charlie. It is an anonymous letter, and I don’t think it right that the lady who lives in this house should be threatened like that.”
“Even if she is bad? Even if what the note says is true?”
“Even then,” said Mma Makutsi.
She tucked the note into a pocket.
“We need to get back to the office,” she said. “We can talk to Mma Ramotswe about it there.”
Charlie shrugged again. “I’m just the assistant,” he said. “Obviously nobody pays any attention to what I think…”
“That’s right,” said Mma Makutsi. “They don’t.”
Charlie kicked at the dust out of sheer frustration. “Why do you think I’m so stupid, Mma Makutsi?”
She felt a sudden pang of guilt. She did not think Charlie stupid. She did not dislike him. In fact, she found that she liked him more and more as time went by.
“I was only joking, Charlie. I listen to you, you know. It’s just that sometimes…”
“Sometimes what, Mma?”
“Sometimes I forget that you still have a lot to learn and I judge you by standards that are too high. That is my fault—and I’m sorry about it. I shall try to avoid doing that in the future.”
They began to walk the short distance to the car. As she walked, Mma Makutsi thought she heard a small voice from down below, down at the level of the rough ground and stones.
Change of tone there, Boss!,
said the shoes.
She looked at her shoes. It was absurd. Even now, after years of interventions on the part of her shoes, she found that they surprised her. Nobody’s shoes ever talked to them—they just didn’t. But then Charlie said, “Did you say something, Mma?”
Mma Makutsi shook her head. “Sometimes one hears things when nobody’s talking,” she said. “But you shouldn’t pay attention to such things, you know. It’s just imagination.” She tapped her forehead. “That’s where these things come from, Charlie.”
MMA RAMOTSWE LOOKED UP
from her desk when Mma Makutsi and Charlie returned. She had picked up the mail on her way back to the office and had just finished sorting it. There were several items for the garage—bills, by the look of them—and two letters for the agency, one addressed to her personally, as Mma Ramotswe, and the other indirectly as
The Detective Woman on the Tlokweng Road (please place in relevant post-box, thank you).
It was a tribute to the conscientious staff of the sorting office as much as to Mma Ramotswe’s reputation in the wider community that the letter had been delivered appropriately. It was not the first time, though, that a vaguely addressed letter had found its way to its proper destination. On another occasion she had received a small parcel addressed to
woman who drives a white van, comes from Mochudi, and is married to a mechanic of some sort, Gaborone (I think).
That was a gift from a woman to whom she had given a lift on the road to Lobatse. The woman’s car had broken down, and Mma Ramotswe had driven out of her way to deliver her safely to her home some twelve miles outside Lobatse. The woman had wanted to thank her but had not noted down her name and address. She had enough information, though, from their conversation to come up with that description and trust to the good will and knowledge of the Post Office to do the rest. They had had little difficulty in identifying Mma Ramotswe and had in due course placed the parcel in the agency’s post-box. It was an embroidered handkerchief, lovingly worked with small representations of creatures of the bush: a dik-dik, that tiny, timid antelope; a long-snouted anteater; a guinea fowl with minute white spots. Mma Ramotswe had expected no thanks for what she had done. You helped other people—you just did. Had her van broken down, then she would have hoped that somebody would have done the same for her, and she thought that they would.