The Sunday Philosophy Club

The Sunday Philosophy Club

Date Published: 3rd February 2016

They went downstairs. A small crowd of people had gathered round the door into the stalls and there was a buzz of conversation. As Isabel and Jennifer drew near, a woman turned to them and said: “Somebody fell from the gods. He’s in there.”

Isabel nodded. “We saw it happen,” she said. “We were up there.”

“You saw it?” said the woman. “You actually saw it?”

“We saw him coming down,’ said Jennifer. “We were in the grand circle. He came down past us.”

“How dreadful,” said the woman. “To see it … ”


The woman looked at Isabel with that sudden human intimacy that the witnessing of tragedy permitted.

“I don’t know if we should be standing here,” Isabel muttered, half to Jennifer, half to the other woman. “We’ll just get in the way.”

The other woman drew back. “One wants to do something,” she said lamely.

“I do hope that he’s all right,” said Jennifer. “Falling all that way. He hit the edge of the circle, you know. It might have broken the fall a bit.”

No, thought Isabel, it would have made it worse perhaps; there would be two sets of injuries, the blow from the edge of the circle and injuries on the ground. She looked behind her; there was activity at the front door and then, against the wall, the flashing blue light of the ambulance outside.

“We must let them get through,” said Jennifer, moving away from the knot of people at the door. “The ambulance men will need to get in.”

They stood back as two men in loose green fatigues hurried past, carrying a folded stretcher. They were not long in coming out—less than a minute, it seemed—and then they went past, the young man laid out on the stretcher, his arms folded over his chest. Isabel turned away, anxious not to intrude, but she saw his face before she averted her gaze. She saw the halo of tousled dark hair and the fine features, undamaged. To be so beautiful, she thought, and now the end. She closed her eyes. She felt raw inside, empty. This poor young man, loved by somebody somewhere, whose world would end this evening, she thought, when the cruel news was broached. All that love invested in a future that would not materialise, ended in a second, in a fall from the gods.

44 Scotland Street

Date Published:

It was settled. Pat had agreed to move in, and would pay rent from the following Monday. The room was not cheap, in spite of the musty smell (which Bruce pointed out was temporary) and the general dinginess of the décor (which Bruce had ignored). After all, as he pointed out to Pat, she was staying in the New Town, and the New Town was expensive whether you lived in a basement in East Claremont Street (barely New Town, Bruce said) or in a drawing-room flat in Heriot Row. And he should know, he said. He was a surveyor.

“You have found a job, haven’t you?” he asked tentatively. “The rent … ”

She assured him that she would pay in advance, and he relaxed. Anna had left rent unpaid and he and the rest of them had been obliged to make up the shortfall. But it was worth it to get rid of her, he thought.

He showed Pat to the door and gave her a key. “For you. Now you can bring your things over any time.” He paused. “I think you’re going to like this place.”

Pat smiled, and she continued to smile as she made her way down the stair. After the disaster of last year, staying put was exactly what she wanted. And Bruce seemed fine. In fact, he reminded her of a cousin who had also been keen on rugby and who used to take her to pubs on international nights with all his friends, who sang raucously and kissed her beerily on the cheek. Men like that were very unthreatening; they tended not to be moody, or brood, or make emotional demands—they just were. Not that she ever envisaged herself becoming emotionally involved with one of them. Her man—when she found him—would be …

“Very distressing! Very, very distressing!”

Pat looked up. She had reached the bottom of the stair and had opened the front door to find a middle-aged woman standing before her, rummaging through a voluminous handbag.

“It’s very distressing,” continued the woman, looking at Pat over half-moon spectacles. “This is the second time this month that I have come out without my outside key. There are two keys, you see. One to the flat and one to the outside door. And if I come out without my outside key, then I have to disturb one of the other residents to let me in, and I don’t like doing that. That’s why I’m so pleased to see you.”

“Well-timed,” said Pat, moving to let the woman in.

“Oh yes. But Bruce will usually let me in, or one of his friends … ” She paused. “Are you one of Bruce’s friends?”

“I’ve just met him.”

The woman nodded. “One never knows. He has so many girlfriends that I lose track of them. Just when I’ve got used to one, a quite different girl turns up. Some men are like that, you know.”

Pat said nothing. Perhaps wholesome, the word which she had previously alighted upon to describe Bruce, was not the right choice.

The Department of Sensitive Crimes

Date Published: 12th March 2019

The Department of Sensitive Crimes is a Scandinavian Blanc novel. Scandinavian Blanc is different from Scandinavian Noir: there is nothing noir about the world of Ulf Varg, a detective in the Sensitive Crimes Department in the Swedish city of Malmo. Ulf is concerned with very odd, but not too threatening crimes – injuries to the back […]

In A Time of Distance & Other Poems

Date Published: 16th May 2022

What really counts in this life? For the writer, Alexander McCall Smith, it is friendship and love – themes that crop up time and again in his novels. And it is these themes that he explores in this collection of poems. In this book, divided into nine sections, the author takes you on a journey […]

The Talented Mr. Varg

Date Published: 19th February 2021

Spring is coming slowly to Sweden – though not quite as slowly as Detective Ulf Varg’s promised promotion at the Department of Sensitive Crimes. For Varg, referred by his psychoanalyst to group therapy at Malmö’s Wholeness Centre, life now seems mostly a circle of self-examination, something which may or may not be useful when it […]

Morality for Beautiful Girls

Date Published: 26th January 2016

Mma Ramotswe cleared her throat.

“Mma Makutsi,” she began. “I have been thinking about the future.”

Mma Makutsi, who had finished her rearranging of the filing cabinet, had made them both a cup of bush tea and was settling down to the half-hour break that she usually took at eleven in the morning. She had started to read a magazine—an old copy of the National Geographic—which her cousin, a teacher, had lent her.

‘The future? Yes, that is always interesting. But not as interesting as the past, I think. There is a very good article in this magazine, Mma Ramotswe,’ she said. ‘I will lend it to you after I have finished reading it. It is all about our ancestors up in East Africa. There is a Dr Leakey there. He is a very famous doctor of bones.’

“Doctor of bones?” Mma Ramotswe was puzzled. Mma Makutsi expressed herself very well—both in English and Setswana—but occasionally she used rather unusual expressions. What was a doctor of bones? It sounded rather like a witchdoctor, but surely one could not describe Dr Leakey as a witchdoctor?

“Yes,” said Mma Makutsi. “He knows all about very old bones. He digs them up and tells us about our past. Here, look at this one.”

She held up a picture, printed across two pages. Mma Ramotswe squinted to make it out. Her eyes were not what they once were, she had noticed, and she feared that sooner or later she would end up like Mma Makutsi, with her extraordinary, large glasses.

“Is that Dr Leakey?”

Mma Makutsi nodded. “Yes, Mma,” she said, “that is him. He is holding a skull which belonged to a very early person. This person lived a long time ago and is very late.”

Mma Ramotswe found herself being drawn in. “And this very late person,” she said. “Who was he?”

“The magazine says that he was a person when there were very few people about,” explained Mma Makutsi. “We all lived in East Africa then.”


“Yes. Everybody. My people. Your people. All people. We all come from the same small group of ancestors. Dr Leakey has proved that.”

Mma Ramotswe was thoughtful. “So we are all brothers and sisters, in a sense?”

“We are,” said Mma Makutsi. “We are all the same people. Eskimos, Russians, Nigerians. They are the same as us. Same blood. Same DNA.”

“DNA?” asked Mma Ramotswe. “What is that?”

“It is something which God used to make people,” explained Mma Makutsi. “We are all made up of DNA and water.”

Mma Ramotswe considered the implications of these revelations for a moment. She had no views on Eskimos and Russians, but Nigerians were a different matter. But Mma Makutsi was right, she reflected: if universal brotherhood—and sisterhood—meant anything, it would have to embrace the Nigerians as well.

“If people knew this,” she said, “if they knew that we were all from the same family, they be kinder to one another, do you think?”

Mma Makutsi put down the magazine. “I’m sure they would,” she said. “If they knew that, then they would find it very difficult to do unkind things to others. They might even want to help them a bit more.”

Friends, Lovers, Chocolate

Date Published: 3rd February 2016

“Money,” said Cat. “That’s the problem. Money.” Isabel handed Cat a glass of wine. “It invariably is,” she said.

“Yes,” Cat went on. “I suppose that if I were prepared to offer enough I would be able to get somebody suitable to stand in for me. But I can’t. I have to run it as a business, and I can’t make a loss.”

Isabel nodded. Cat owned a delicatessen just a few streets away, in Bruntsfield, and although it was successful, she knew that the line between profitability and failure was a narrow one. As it was, she had one full-time employee to pay, Eddie, a young man who seemed to be on the verge of tears much of the time, haunted, thought Isabel, by something which Cat could not, or would not, speak about. Eddie could be left in control for short periods, but not for a week it seemed.

“He panics,” said Cat. “It gets too much for him and he panics.”

Cat explained to Isabel that she had been invited to a wedding in Italy and wanted to go with a party of friends. They would attend the wedding in Messina and then move north to a house which they had rented for a week in Umbria. The time of year was ideal; the weather would be perfect.

“I have to go,” said Cat. “I just have to.”

Isabel smiled. Cat would never ask outright for a favour, but her intention was transparent. “I suppose … ” she began. “I suppose I could do it again. I rather enjoyed it last time. And if you remember, I made more than you usually do. The takings went up.”

This amused Cat. “You probably overcharged,” she said. And then a pause, before she continued: “I didn’t raise the issue to get you to … I wouldn’t want to force you.”

“Of course not,” said Isabel.

“But it would make all the difference,” Cat went on quickly. “You know how everything works. And Eddie likes you.”

Isabel was surprised. Did Eddie have a view on her? He hardly ever spoke to her, and certainly never smiled. But the thought that he liked her made her warm towards him. Perhaps he might confide in her, as he had confided in Cat, and she would be able to help him in some way. Or she could put him in touch with somebody: there were people who could help in such circumstances; she could pay for it if necessary.

They discussed the details. Cat would be leaving in ten days’ time. If Isabel came for a hand-over day before then, she could be shown the current stock and the order book. Consignments of wine and salamis were expected while Cat was away and these would have to be attended to. And then there was the whole issue of making sure that the surfaces were cleaned—a fussy procedure subject to an entire litany of regulations. Eddie knew all about that, but you had to watch him; he was funny about olives and often put them in containers marked down for coleslaw.

“It will be far more difficult than editing the Review of Applied Ethics,” said Cat, smiling. “Far more difficult.”

The Pavilion in the Clouds (eBook original)

Date Published: 23rd February 2022

  The Pavilion in the Clouds is a new stand-alone novel from the master storyteller. It is 1938 and the final days of the British Empire. In a bungalow high up in the green hills above the plains of Ceylon, under a vast blue sky, live the Ferguson family: Bella, a precocious eight-year-old; her father Henry […]

The Man with the Silver Saab

Date Published: 24th March 2021

  The Man with Silver Saab is the third book in the Detective Varg series. Perplexing, unfathomable, and perhaps unimportant, the cases that Malmo’s Department of Sensitive Crimes take on will test them to their limits. Life – and crime – is not always as it seems for Ulf Varg and the other fearless detectives in Malmo’s […]

Portuguese Irregular Verbs

Date Published: 3rd February 2016

Professor Dr Moritz-Maria von Igelfeld often reflected on how fortunate he was to be exactly who he was, and nobody else. When one paused to think of who one might have been had the accident of birth not happened precisely as it did, then, well, one could be quite frankly appalled. Take his colleague Professor Dr Detlev Amadeus Unterholzer, for instance. Firstly, there was the name: to be called Detlev was a misfortune, but to add that ridiculous Mozartian pretension to it, and then to culminate in Unterholzer was to gild a turnip. But if one then considered Unterholzer’s general circumstances, then Pelion was surely piled upon Ossa. Unterholzer had the double misfortune of coming from an obscure potato-growing area somewhere, a place completely without consequence, and of being burdened in this life with a large and inelegant nose. This, of course, was not something for which he could be blamed, but one might certainly criticise him, thought von Igelfeld, for carrying his nose in the way he did. A difficult nose, which can afflict anybody, may be kept in the background by a modest disposition of the head; Unterholzer, by contrast, thrust his nose forward shamelessly, as might an ant-eater, with the result that it was the first thing one saw when he appeared anywhere. It was exactly the wrong thing to do if one had a nose like that.

The von Igelfeld nose, by contrast, was entirely appropriate. It was not small, but then a small nose is perhaps as much of a misfortune as a large nose, lending the wearer an appearance of pettiness or even irrelevance. Von Igelfeld’s nose tended slightly to the aquiline, which was completely becoming for the scion of so distinguished a family. The von Igelfeld name was an honourable one: Igel meant hedgehog in German, and von Igelfeld, therefore, was hedgehogfield, an irreproachable territorial reference that was reflected in the family coat of arms—a hedgehog recumbent upon a background of vert. Unterholzer, of course, might snigger at the hedgehog, but what could he do but snigger, given that he had no armorial claims, whatever his pretensions in that direction might be.

But even if von Igelfeld was relieved that he was not Unterholzer, then he had to admit to himself that he would have been perfectly happy to have been Professor Dr Dr (honoris causa) Florianus Prinzel, another colleague at the Institute of Romance Philology. Prinzel was a fine man and a considerable scholar, whom von Igelfeld had met when they were both students, and whom he had long unconditionally admired. Prinzel was the athlete-poet; von Igelfeld the scholar—well, scholar-scholar one would probably have to say. If von Igelfeld had been asked to stipulate a Platonic von Igelfeld, an ideal template for all von Igelfelds, then he would have chosen Prinzel for this without the slightest hesitation.

Of the three professors, von Igelfeld was undoubtedly the most distinguished. He was the author of a seminal work on Romance philology, Portuguese Irregular Verbs, a work of such majesty that it dwarfed all other books in the field. It was a lengthy book of almost twelve hundred pages, and was the result of years of research into the etymology and vagaries of Portuguese verbs. It had been well-received—not that there had ever been the slightest doubt about that—and indeed one reviewer had simply written, “There is nothing more to be said on this subject. Nothing.” Von Igelfeld had taken this compliment in the spirit in which it had been intended, but there was in his view a great deal more to be said, largely by way of exposition of some of the more obscure or controversial points touched upon in the book, and for many years he continued to say it. This was mostly done at conferences, where von Igelfeld’s papers on Portuguese irregular verbs were often the highlight of proceedings. Not that this eminence always bore the fruit that might be expected: unfortunately it was Prinzel, not von Igelfeld, who had received the honorary doctorate from the University of Palermo, and many people, including von Igelfeld, thought that this might be a case of mistaken identity. After all, from the viewpoint of the fairly diminutive Sicilian professors who bestowed the honour, three tall Germans might have been difficult to tell apart. These doubts, however, were never aired, as that would have been a breach of civility and a threat to the friendship. But just as the doubts were never mentioned, neither was the honorary doctorate.

At the Annual Congress of Romance Philology in Zürich, the three professors decided to stay in a small village on the edge of the lake. There was an excellent train which took them into the city each morning for the meeting, and in the evening they could even return by the regular boat, which called at the jetty no more than five minutes from the hotel. It was altogether a much more satisfactory arrangement than staying in Zürich itself, surrounded by banks and expensive watch shops. As von Igelfeld remarked to the others: “Have you noticed how Zürich ticks? Klummit, klummit, ding! I could never sleep in such a town.”

The Hotel Carl-Gustav, in which the three professors stayed, was a large old-fashioned establishment, much favoured by families from Zürich who wanted to get away, but not too far away. Anxious bankers, into whose very bones the Swiss work ethic had penetrated, stayed there for their holidays. It was highly convenient for them, as they could tell their wives they were going for a walk in the hotel grounds and then slip off to the railway station and be in their offices in Zürich within twenty minutes. They could then return two hours later, to pretend that they had been in the woods or at the lakeside; whereas in reality they had been accepting deposits and discounting bills of exchange. In this way, certain Zürich financiers had acquired the reputation of never going on holiday at all, which filled their rivals with feelings of dread and guilt.

Prinzel had arrived first, and taken the best room, the one with the uninterrupted view of the lake. He had felt slightly uneasy about this, as it was a room which should really have gone to von Igelfeld, who always got the best of everything on the strength of Portuguese Irregular Verbs. For this reason Prinzel was careful not to mention the view and contrived to keep von Igelfeld out of his room so he could not see it for himself.
Unterholzer, who always got the worst of what was on offer, had a slightly gloomy room at the side of the hotel, above the dining room, and his view was that of the hotel tennis court.

“I look out onto the tennis court,” he announced one evening as the three gathered for a glass of mineral water on the hotel terrace.

“Ah!” said von Igelfeld. “And have you seen people playing on this tennis court?”

“I saw four Italian guests using it,” said Prinzel. “They played a very energetic game until one of them appeared to have a heart attack and they stopped.”

The three professors contemplated this remarkable story for a few moments. Even here, in these perfect surroundings, where everything was so safe, so assured, mortality could not be kept at bay. The Swiss could guarantee everything, could co-ordinate anything—but ultimately mortality was no respecter of time-tables.
Then Prinzel had an idea. Tennis did not look too difficult; the long summer evening stretched out before them, and the court, since the sudden departure of the Italians, was empty.

“We could, perhaps, have a game of tennis ourselves,” he suggested.

The others looked at him.

“I’ve never played,” said von Igelfeld.

“Nor I,” said Unterholzer. “Chess, yes. Tennis, no.”

“But that’s no reason not to play,” von Igelfeld added quickly. “Tennis, like any activity, can be mastered if one knows the principles behind it. In that respect it must be like language. The understanding of simple rules produces an understanding of a language. What could be simpler?”

Unterholzer and Prinzel agreed, and Prinzel was dispatched to speak to the manager of the hotel to find out whether tennis equipment, and a book of the rules of tennis, could be borrowed. The manager was somewhat surprised at the request for the book, but in an old hotel most things can be found and he eventually came up with an ancient dog-eared handbook from the games cupboard. This was The Rules of Lawn Tennis by Captain Geoffrey Pembleton BA (Cantab.), tennis Blue, sometime county champion of Cambridgeshire; and published in 1923, before the tie-breaker was invented.

Armed with Pembleton’s treatise, described by von Igelfeld, to the amusement of the others, as “this great work of Cambridge scholarship”, the three professors strode confidently onto the court. Captain Pembleton had thoughtfully included several chapters describing tennis technique, and here all the major strokes were illustrated with little dotted diagrams showing the movement of the arms and the disposition of the body.
It took no more than ten minutes for von Igelfeld and Prinzel to feel sufficiently confident to begin a game. Unterholzer sat on a chair at the end of the net, and declared himself the umpire. The first service, naturally, was taken by von Igelfeld, who raised his racquet in the air as recommended by Captain Pembleton, and hit the ball in the direction of Prinzel.

The tennis service is not a simple matter, and unfortunately von Igelfeld did not manage to get any of his serves over the net. Everything was a double fault.

“Love, 15; Love 30; Love 40; Game to Professor Dr Prinzel!” called out Unterholzer. “Professor Dr Prinzel to serve!”

Prinzel, who had been waiting patiently to return von Igelfeld’s serve, his feet positioned in exactly the way advised by Captain Pembleton, now quickly consulted the book to refresh his memory. Then, throwing the tennis ball high into the air, he brought his racquet down with convincing force and drove the ball into the net. Undeterred, he tried again, and again after that, but the score remained obstinately one-sided.

“Love, 15; Love 30; Love 40; Game to Professor Dr von Igelfeld!” Unterholzer intoned. “Professor Dr von Igelfeld to serve!”

And so it continued, as the number of games mounted up. Neither player ever succeeded in winning a game other than by the default of the server. At several points the ball managed to get across the net, and on one or two occasions it was even returned; but this was never enough to result in the server’s winning a game. Unterholzer continued to call out the score and attracted an occasional sharp glance from von Igelfeld, who eventually suggested that the Rules of Tennis be consulted to see who should win in such circumstances.

Unfortunately there appeared to be no answer. Captain Pembleton merely said that after six games had been won by one player this was a victory—provided that such a player was at least two games ahead of his opponent. If he was not in such a position, then the match must continue until such a lead was established. The problem with this, though, was that von Igelfeld and Prinzel, never winning a service, could never be more than one game ahead of each other.

This awkward, seemingly irresoluble difficulty seemed to all of them to be a gross flaw in the theoretical structure of the game.

“This is quite ridiculous,” snorted von Igelfeld. “A game must have a winner—everybody knows that—and yet this … this stupid book makes no provision for moderate players like ourselves!”

“I agree,” said Prinzel, tossing down his racquet. “Unterholzer what about you?”

“I’m not interested in playing such a flawed game,” said Unterholzer, with a dismissive gesture towards The Rules of Lawn Tennis. “So much for Cambridge!”

They trooped off the tennis court, not noticing the faces draw back rapidly from the windows. Rarely had the Hotel Carl-Gustav provided such entertainment for its guests.

“Well,” said Prinzel. “I’m rather hot after all that sport. I could do with a swim.”

“A good idea,” said von Igelfeld. “Perhaps we should do that.”

“Do you swim?” asked Unterholzer, rather surprised by the sudden burst of physical activity.

“Not in practice,” said von Igelfeld. “But it has never looked difficult to me. One merely extends the arms in the appropriate motion and then retracts them, thereby propelling the body through the water.”

“That’s quite correct,” said Prinzel. “I’ve seen it done many times. In fact, this morning some of the other guests were doing it from the hotel jetty. We could borrow swimming costumes from the manager.”

“Then let’s all go and swim,” said von Igelfeld, enthusiastically. “Dinner’s not for another hour or so, and it would refresh us all,” adding, with a glance at Unterholzer, “players and otherwise.”

The waters were cool and inviting. Out on the lake, the elegant white yachts dipped their tall sails in the breeze from the mountains. From where they stood on the jetty, the three professors could, by craning their necks, see the point where Jung in his study had pondered our collective dreams. As von Igelfeld had pointed out, swimming was simple, in theory.

Inside the Hotel Carl-Gustav, the watching guests waited, breathless in their anticipation.

Espresso Tales

Date Published:

Pat saw nothing in her father’s face of the hollow dread he felt. He was accomplished at concealing his feelings, of course, as all psychiatrists must be. He had heard such a range of human confessions that very little would cause him so much as to raise an eyebrow or to betray, with so much as a transitory frown, disapproval over what people did, or thought, or perhaps thought about doing. And even now, as he sat like a convicted man awaiting his sentence, he showed nothing of his emotion.

“Yes,” said Pat. “I’ve written to St Andrews and told them that I don’t want the place next month. They’ve said that’s fine.”

“Fine,” echoed Dr Macgregor faintly. But how could it be fine? How could she turn down the offer from that marvellous place, with all that fun and all that student nonsense, and Raisin Week and Kate Kennedy and all those things? To turn that down before one had even sampled it was surely to turn your back on happiness.

“I’ve decided to go to Edinburgh University instead,” went on Pat. “I’ve been in touch with the people in George Square and they say I can transfer my St Andrews place to them. So that’s what I’m going to do. Philosophy and English.”

For a moment Dr Macgregor said nothing. He looked down at his shoes and saw, as if for the first time, the pattern of the brogue. And then he looked up and glanced at his daughter, who was watching him, as if waiting for his reaction.

“You’re not cross with me, are you?” said Pat. “I know I’ve messed you around with the two gap years and now this change of plans. You aren’t cross with me?”

He reached out and placed his hand briefly on hers, and then moved his hand back.

“Cross is the last thing I am,” he said, and then burst out laughing. “Does that sound odd to you? Rather like the word order of a German or Yiddish speaker speaking English? They say things like, ‘Happy I’m not,’ don’t they? Remember the Katzenjammer Kids?”

Of course she didn’t. Nor did she know about Max und Moritz nor Dagwood and Blondie, he suspected—those strange denizens of that curious nowhere world of the cartoon strips—although she did know about Oor Wullie and the Broons. Where exactly was that world, he wondered? Dundee and Glasgow respectively, perhaps, but not exactly.

Pat smiled. “I’m glad,” she said. “I just decided that I’m enjoying myself so much in Edinburgh that I should stay. Moving to St Andrews seemed to me to be an interruption in my life. I’ve got friends here now … ”

“And friends are so important,” interrupted her father, trying to think of which friends she had in mind, and trying all the time to control his wild, exuberant joy. There were school friends, of course; the people she had been with at the Academy during the last two years of her high school education. He knew that she kept in touch with them, but were those particular friendships strong enough to keep her in Edinburgh? Many of them had themselves gone off to university elsewhere, to Cambridge in one or two cases, or to Aberdeen or Glasgow. Was there a boy, perhaps? There was that young man in the flat in Scotland Street, Bruce Anderson; she had obviously been keen on him but had thought better of it. What about Matthew, for whom she worked at the gallery? Was he the attraction? He might speculate, but any results of his speculation would not matter in the slightest. The important thing was that she was not going to Australia.

The Kalahari Typing School for Men

Date Published: 4th February 2016

During Mr J. L. B. Matekoni’s illness they had moved the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency into the back office at Tlokweng Road Speedy Motors. It had proved to be a successful arrangement: the affairs of the garage could be easily supervised from the back of the building and there was a separate entrance for agency clients. Each business benefited in other ways. Those who brought their cars in for repair sometimes realised that there was a matter which might benefit from investigation—an errant husband, for example, or a missing relative—while others who came with a matter for the agency would arrange at the same time for their cars to be serviced or their brakes to be checked.

Mma Ramotswe and Mma Makutsi had arranged their desks in such a way that they could engage in conversation if they wished, without staring at one another all the time. If Mma Ramotswe turned in her chair, she could address Mma Makutsi on the other side of the room without having to twist her neck or talk over her shoulder, and Mma Makutsi could do the same if she needed to ask Mma Ramotswe for anything.

Now, with the day’s post of four letters attended to and filed, Mma Ramotswe suggested to her assistant that it was time for a cup of bush tea. This was a little earlier than normal, but it was a warm day and she always found that the best way of dealing with the heat was a cup of tea, accompanied by an Ouma’s rusk dipped into the liquid until it was soft enough to be eaten without hurting the teeth.

“Mma Makutsi,” Mma Ramotswe began after her assistant had delivered the cup of freshly made tea to her desk, “are you happy?”

Mma Makutsi, who was halfway back to her desk, stopped where she stood. “Why do you ask, Mma?” she said. “Why do you ask me if I’m happy?” The question had stopped her heart, as she lived in fear of losing her job and this question, she thought, could only be a preliminary to suggesting that she move on to another job. But there would be no other job, or at least no other job remotely like this one. Here she was an assistant detective and previously, and possibly still, an acting garage manager. If she had to go somewhere else, then she would revert to being a junior clerk, at best, or a junior secretary at somebody else’s beck and call. And she would never be as well paid as she was here, with the extra money that came to her for her garage work.

“Why don’t you sit down, Mma?” went on Mma Ramotswe. “Then we can drink our tea together and you can tell me if you are happy.”

Mma Makutsi made her way back to her desk. She picked up her cup, but her hand shook and she put it down again. Why was life so unfair? Why did all the best jobs go to the beautiful girls, even if they barely got fifty per cent in the examinations at the Botswana Secretarial College while she, with her results, had experienced such difficulty in finding a job at all? There was no obvious answer to that question. Unfairness seemed to be an inescapable feature of life, at least if you were Mma Makutsi from Bobonong in Northern Botswana, daughter of a man whose cattle had always been thin. Everything, it seemed, was unfair.

“I am very happy,” said Mma Makutsi miserably. “I am happy with this job. I do not want to go anywhere else.”

Mma Ramotswe laughed. “Oh, the job. Of course you’re happy with that. We know that. And we’re very happy with you. Mr J. L. B. Matekoni and I are very happy. You are our right-hand woman. Everybody knows that.”

It took Mma Makutsi a few moments to absorb this compliment, but, when she did, she felt relief flood through her. She picked up her tea cup, with a steady hand now, and took a deep draught of the hot red liquid.