Authors: Alexander McCall Smith
She had slit open the letter addressed to
The Detective Woman on the Tlokweng Road
a few minutes before the return of Mma Makutsi and Charlie, and had absorbed the contents.
Dear Detective Lady,
the letter had begun.
I am sorry I do not know your name and do not have your post-box number. I believe, though, that you were recently engaged by my wife to investigate my behaviour. I have heard that you have now written to my wife and told her that I am not having an affair. I do not like to be rude, Mma, but may I ask you: How can you be so sure? You discovered that I was visiting a lady, and yet you tell my wife that I am an innocent man and that she should not divorce me. How do you know I’m innocent, Mma? Do you really think that I go to that lady to learn about mathematics? If you think that, Mma, then you are very foolish. Yours truly, L.D.M. Mogorosi, BA
University of Botswana
Mma Ramotswe had read through the letter twice, and then sighed, and it was while she was trying to work out its implications that Mma Makutsi returned. She picked up the letter and began to pass it to Mma Makutsi.
“Well, Mma Makutsi, everything is becoming more complicated. I have received a letter—”
She got no further. Breathlessly, Mma Makutsi brushed the letter aside. “Oh, there are always letters, Mma. Every day there are letters. We can deal with the mail later on. I have some very important information to tell you about.”
“Very important,” said Charlie. “We have found a very important piece of evidence.”
“But this letter,” Mma Ramotswe said. “This letter is—”
Once again she got no further. “I’m going to make some tea,” said Mma Makutsi. “And while I’m making tea, I shall tell you what happened.”
Mma Ramotswe made a gesture of resignation. When Mma Makutsi had the bit between her teeth, as she did now, there was no point in trying to deflect her to another agenda. “All right, Mma,” she said. “I am listening.”
“Well,” began Mma Makutsi, “I went to the house of the mathematics teacher—”
Charlie corrected her. “
went, Mma. I was there too. It was a joint investigation.”
“Very well, Charlie,
went to this house and we knocked on the door.”
Mma Ramotswe waited politely. These preliminaries were not really necessary, but Mma Makutsi always insisted on them, quoting Clovis Andersen as the authority for the need to make a report as full as possible.
It’s the small details,
At the time they may not seem important, but later on you may regret not writing them down. You never know what will be relevant at a later stage. Therefore, list everything—all steps taken, all people interviewed—even the weather may be worth saying something about.
Remembering that now, Mma Makutsi added, “I knocked three times.”
“And she was not in?” asked Mma Ramotswe.
“I knocked once as well,” Charlie chipped in. “That made a total of four, Mma. Three knocks from Mma Makutsi, and one from me.”
“Very interesting,” said Mma Ramotswe. “And then?”
“Then I told Charlie to go and take a look round the back,” said Mma Makutsi.
“You didn’t tell me,” said Charlie. “I said: I’ll go around the back. I said that, Mma.”
Mma Ramotswe suggested that it did not matter. The important thing was that Charlie went around the back. “And what did you find, Charlie?”
“Nothing,” said Charlie.
Mma Ramotswe raised an eyebrow. She was unsure what the denouement of this account would be, but it was obviously something sufficiently dramatic to have produced Mma Makutsi’s state of heightened excitement. “Then?” she prompted.
“Then I went to the gate,” said Mma Makutsi. “I went to the gate and found a note, Mma. It was an envelope that said
Charlie traced the words in the air with his index finger. “Those were the exact words, Mma Ramotswe:
Mma Makutsi resumed the narrative. “I have the letter right here, Mma. It is a threat. It is a very serious threat to that lady from some unnamed party.” She stressed the last two words to give them an almost melodramatic effect. Charlie was impressed; the phrase
would be noted down and would recur.
She had put the letter in the small bag in which she carried her spare glasses and keys. Now she took it out, unfolded it, and handed it to Mma Ramotswe. “Read that, Mma,” she said. “Just read that.”
“ ‘I can add just as well as anybody,’ ” read Mma Ramotswe. “ ‘So I know that two plus two makes four, you bad rubbish woman!’ ”
She looked up, and saw Mma Makutsi and Charlie watching her expectantly. Then Charlie said, “You will see that it is not signed, Mma. It is an anonymous letter.”
Mma Ramotswe nodded. “That is not all that unusual. Most threats are anonymous.”
“I have a very low opinion of people who write anonymous letters,” said Mma Makutsi disapprovingly. “Only a coward threatens another person without coming into the open.”
Mma Ramotswe said that she thought it wrong to threaten people in any circumstances. Threats were no more than the verbal expression of the violence that she had always disliked so much. As was swearing, which was another form of violence, even when it was directed against the world in general rather than an individual target. She did not like that, and yet it seemed to her that people now resorted to it so casually, as if it was nothing exceptional. What were they like
she asked herself, these people who used such language all the time; what were they like inside?
“You should talk to people rather than threaten them,” she said.
“Talk first, then threaten,” said Charlie.
Mma Ramotswe exchanged a glance with Mma Makutsi. “No, Charlie,” she began, but then thought that this was not the time to correct Charlie once again. It sometimes seemed to her that if they kept a list of the occasions each day on which they upbraided Charlie for one thing or another, it would be a lengthy one. It was so easy to fall into a critical way of addressing somebody like Charlie, who appeared to require constant rebuke. Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni had noticed this when Charlie and Fanwell had been apprentices—“I am like a tape or a record stuck in one place,” he said. “Don’t do this, don’t do that; use that wrench, not this one; don’t tighten that too much, and so on and so on…”
The kettle had now boiled and Mma Makutsi made the tea.
“Red bush for you, Mma,” she said, handing a mug to Mma Ramotswe.
“Not for me,” said Charlie. “I don’t drink that stuff.”
“That stuff is very good for you, Charlie,” said Mma Ramotswe, nursing the mug in her hands, blowing across the top to cool the steaming liquid. “You should pay more attention to what you put down your throat…” She stopped herself. There she went again: more advice, more criticism. The young man needed to be left alone.
But Mma Makutsi was not thinking along those lines. “Mma Ramotswe is right, Charlie,” she scolded. “You eat such rubbish. All the time. I’ve seen you. Chips, chips, chips. What is in that stuff? Do you even know?”
“Potatoes,” said Charlie. “Chips are potatoes and they are good for you. They make you strong.”
He flexed the muscles of his arms. “See? Big, strong. Powerful.” He paused. “Not weak and flabby like those people who eat lettuce all the time. A big storm comes up and what happens to them, Mma Makutsi? I’ll tell you—they are blown away. Woosh! Goodbye, lettuce-people!”
Mma Makutsi bristled. “You are very stupid, Charlie. Your head is full of chips, maybe. You eat too much potato and your brain begins to look like a potato, you know.”
Mma Ramotswe intervened. “Please! Please! We do not need to talk about lettuce and potatoes and such things. We need to talk about this letter you have found.”
“Yes,” said Mma Makutsi, giving Charlie a look that suggested it was his fault that these topics had been broached. “This letter, Mma—who does it come from? Who is this unnamed party, do you think?”
Mma Ramotswe took a sip of her red bush tea. “Somebody who doesn’t like the teacher woman.”
Charlie raised a finger. “
it was for that teacher woman,” he said. “
…We don’t know, do we? Clovis Andersen…” He paused, smiling with satisfaction at the reference. “Clovis Andersen would say: What do you know? Do you know anything?”
Mma Makutsi looked scornful. “You’re quoting Clovis Andersen, Charlie? Have you actually read that book? You have not. So how do you know what he says?”
Charlie laughed. “He is always saying the same thing. Clovis Andersen says blah, blah, blah! I have heard it all—all the time, you go on about Clovis Andersen and what he says. It is always the same, Mma Makutsi—every time. Exactly the same. So now I know what that guy says without needing to read his book.”
This was heresy, and for a few moments Mma Makutsi was almost too shocked to respond. Yes, it was heresy, and a gross slur against a trusted authority. It was almost as bad—almost—as if somebody were to question the reputation of the Botswana Secretarial College.
Mma Ramotswe sought to reduce the temperature of the conversation. “Let’s not argue about Clovis Andersen,” she said. “But I might just say that Mr. Andersen would always say—and he did, you know, although I forget on which page—that there is often a clue under your nose, right there. And I think there might be one here that settles the question as to whom this letter was addressed.”
“A clue?” asked Charlie. “But there is no name. All I’m saying is that this note might have been for somebody else—who knows? Maybe the person dropped it…” He thought for a moment before continuing, “Yes, what if somebody had dropped it? Somebody walking along the street drops it, and then some other person—some other party—comes along and picks it up and thinks, Oh, some party has dropped a letter he was taking to another party, and then that party—the party who picks up the letter—thinks, I should put it somewhere where that first party will find it. And so he sticks it to the nearest gatepost.” He paused. “So that would mean that this unnamed party is somebody else altogether—somebody who has nothing at all to do with this teacher woman.”
Mma Makutsi looked confused, but Mma Ramotswe simply sighed. “I don’t think so, Charlie.”
Charlie looked reproachfully at Mma Ramotswe. “Why not, Mma?”
“Because,” she explained, “this note is clearly directed at a mathematics person. That is why it talks about being able to add. That is how you might speak to a person who knows all about mathematics. You would say, Yes, but I can add two and two—if you wanted to be rude, of course, which this person clearly wants to be.”
The logic of this was irrefutable; Charlie looked deflated.
“But it is a good idea nonetheless, Charlie,” Mma Ramotswe added hurriedly. “It is exactly what we should be doing in our job—exploring possibilities.” She turned to Mma Makutsi. “Don’t you agree, Mma?”
She did agree. Furthermore, she was now of the opinion that the letter confirmed her earlier view—that the client’s suspicions about her husband were well founded. “This letter is clearly from a woman who has discovered that this lady is having an affair with her husband.” She paused, watching, with some pride, her deduction sink in. “So that, Mma Ramotswe, amounts to corroboration. That is what Clovis Andersen calls it—corroboration. It is evidence that points in the same direction.” She paused again. “Corroboration is very important, Mma.”
Mma Ramotswe took a sip of her tea. “Possibly, Mma Makutsi. Possibly.”
Mma Makutsi’s spectacles caught a beam of sunlight and flashed it back across the room. “Not just possibly, Mma. Definitely.”
Charlie nodded. This conclusion may have been reached by Mma Makutsi, but he had played a vital part in the discovery of the evidence, and he should by rights get at least some of the credit. “That is my view too,” he said gravely. “That lady—that mathematics lady—is interested in other things than equations and stuff. Oh yes, I can tell you that! She is interested in men too, I’d say. Lots of men. Two men plus two men makes four men. That’s what ladies like that think. The more men the better. A man for Monday and then another one for Tuesday. And when Wednesday comes along, well, there’s a man for Wednesday…”
Mma Ramotswe held up a hand. “Excuse me,” she said. “I don’t like to throw cold water—except where some cold water is needed. So I must point out that the note could have been written by our client herself. Had you thought of that, Mma Makutsi? Charlie?”
For a while, the question hung in the air unanswered. But then Mma Makutsi shook her head. “No, Mma. I don’t think that is likely. That lady—our client—knows that her husband is not having an affair. You told her that. You said that he was having mathematics lessons.”
“That is true,” Mma Ramotswe conceded. “But what if she didn’t believe me? What if she thinks that the mathematics lessons are just cover for an affair?”
Charlie saw the force of this interpretation. “Yes, that’s quite possible, I think. There are plenty of mathematics teachers who just pretend to give lessons, but are really carrying on with other women’s husbands. It’s happening all the time, I think.”
Mma Makutsi gave him a withering glance. “That’s complete nonsense, Charlie. Where are these mathematics teachers? Name one. No, you can’t, can you? You think you can say things with no evidence to back them up, but you can’t, you know.”
“I don’t think we should bicker,” said Mma Ramotswe mildly. “It never helps to bicker.”
Mma Makutsi shrugged. Mma Ramotswe might not require facts and figures for her assertions, but she was not going to fall into that trap. Mma Ramotswe, of course, was only too ready to attribute sayings to the late Seretse Khama, first President of Botswana, and a great man in so many respects. If there was a point she wanted to make, then she would say that Seretse Khama said something along those lines. But Mma Makutsi did not believe that Seretse Khama had said half the things that Mma Ramotswe insisted he had said. Why, one lifetime would hardly be enough to pronounce on as many subjects as that. You would have to get out of bed early every morning in order to start saying wise things before breakfast, and then you would spend much of the rest of the day making observations about the world and its workings, about human nature, even about the best way of taking mud off a pair of boots or cleaning a kitchen window. Much as she admired Seretse Khama, she did not think that he had given an opinion on everything.