The sixteenth book in the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series
Precious Ramotswe, the esteemed proprietor of the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, now faces her greatest challenge yet: a vacation!
Business is slow at the agency, so slow in fact that for the first time in her distinguished career Mma Ramotswe has reluctantly agreed to take a holiday. The week of uninterrupted peace is cut short, however, when she meets Samuel, a wayward young boy with a troubled past. She also discovers that Violet Sephotho, Mma Makutsi’s arch-enemy, has had the temerity to set up a new secretarial school—one that aims to rival that great institution, the Botswana Secretarial College. And, of course, Mma Ramotswe can’t help but wonder how the agency is faring in her absence. Her worries grow when she discovers that Mma Makutsi is handling a rather delicate case, involving a man whose reputation has been called into question.
Ultimately, the investigation will require Mma Ramotswe to draw upon her kindness, generosity, and good sense, and will serve to remind them all that ordinary human failings should be treated with a large helping of charity and compassion.
Mma Ramotswe remembered exactly how it was that the subject of taking a holiday arose. It was Mma Makutsi who started the discussion, with one of her inconsequential observations—those remarks she made à propos of nothing—remarks that had little to do with what had gone before. She often said such things, quite suddenly making a pronouncement that seemed to come from nowhere, her words dropping into the stillness of the afternoon air like stones tossed into a pool.
It was mid-afternoon in the offices of the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency in Gaborone, in late October, one of the hottest months in what was proving to be one of the warmest years in living memory.
“It is very hot, Mma Ramotswe,” observed Mma Makutsi, as she leaned back in her chair, fanning herself with a wilting copy of the Botswana Daily News. “When it is this hot, it is very difficult to work.”
From her side of the room, where, if anything, it was slightly hotter because of the pool of sunlight that penetrated the window and fell directly across her desk, the begetter and owner of Botswana’s only detective agency cast a glance in the direction of her erstwhile secretary, later assistant, and now, by dint of the latter’s sheer tenacity and perseverance, her colleague. In normal circumstances, if a member of staff said that it was too hot to work, an employer would interpret this as a strong hint that it was time to close the office and go home. When it came to Mma Makutsi’s utterances, though, one could quite easily be wrong, and so Mma Ramotswe merely said, “Yes, it is very hot, Mma—very hot indeed.” She knew that there was no reason for Mma Makutsi to stay at work if she felt inclined to go home. Following her marriage to Mr Phuti Radiphuti, proprietor of the Double Comfort Furniture Store and owner of a substantial herd of cattle, Mma Makutsi had no need of the modest salary Mma Ramotswe paid her; indeed, had that salary stopped for whatever reason, she probably would not even have noticed it. Nor was she technically obliged to keep certain hours: her contract of employment with the agency was a very informal one—so informal, in fact, that there was even some doubt as to whether it existed at all.
“People who trust one another do not need to put things in writing,” Mma Ramotswe had once said. “It is enough that they should have given their word.”
Mma Makutsi had been quick to agree. “That is very true, Mma,” she said. But then, as she began to think about the proposition, she started to discern the problems that might come from a failure to reduce understandings to writing, no matter how well understood they might have been. “Except sometimes,” she added cautiously. “You can rely on somebody’s word in many cases, but not in all. That is why it is safer to have everything in writing.”
“I’m not so sure ... ” began Mma Ramotswe.
But Mma Makutsi was just getting into her stride. “No, you must almost always put things in writing. This is because people forget what they said and then they start to rewrite history and end up blaming you for not doing something they think you said you’d do, but haven’t done. They never accept that they may be remembering things incorrectly.” She looked at Mma Ramotswe reproachfully, as if the other woman were widely known to be one of the very worst offenders in this respect. “That is why you should have everything in writing—preferably in duplicate, in case you lose the original.” She paused, still looking at Mma Ramotswe, as if now challenging her to disagree. “They always taught us at the Botswana Secretarial College to put everything in writing. That is what they said, Mma. They said: ‘What’s written down on paper is written down in stone.’”
Mma Ramotswe frowned. “Stone and paper are very different, Mma. I’m not sure—”
Mma Makutsi cut her off. “You see, Mma, when something is written in stone it means that it cannot be changed. They do not mean to say that you have to copy everything down from paper and then carve it in stone. That would take a very long time.”
“Very long,” muttered Mma Ramotswe. “And every business would have to have a secretary and a stonemason. That would not be practical.”
The joke passed unnoticed, and now, on that hot October afternoon, the conversation suddenly took an unexpected slant.
“I met Mr Polopetsi the other day,” Mma Makutsi remarked.
“He was walking along when I saw him. You remember how he used to walk? Those small steps of his—like an anteater. You remember how he walked, Mma?”
Mma Ramotswe looked up with interest. She had never thought of Mr Polopetsi as resembling an anteater, but now that Mma Makutsi had mentioned it ... “Mr Polopetsi? Now there’s a good man, Mma.”
Mma Makutsi agreed. Mr Polopetsi had worked in the agency a few years ago and had been as popular with clients as he had been with those with whom he worked. He had been recruited by chance after Mma Ramotswe had knocked him off his bicycle while driving her white van. When she heard the story he had to tell, she had been moved to offer him a temporary job to make up for what she saw as the shocking injustice of his undeserved conviction for an offence of negligence. Mr Polopetsi had been a hospital pharmacist who had been sentenced to a term of imprisonment for a dispensing mistake made by somebody else—a grossly disproportionate punishment, thought Mma Ramotswe, even if he were to have been negligent.
He had survived the unwarranted sojourn in prison, and although his dispensing licence had been taken from him, after he left the agency he had been able to find work in a chemist’s shop. That job had not lasted long, as the business had run into financial difficulties. Fortunately his wife had recently been promoted in her civil service post and her increased salary meant that the family was comfortably enough off. Mr Polopetsi, Mma Makutsi revealed, had found a part-time position that suited him very well—teaching chemistry in a high school. The regular chemistry teacher there, a man of great indolence, was only too pleased to have an energetic and popular assistant to take over on those afternoons when he wanted to watch football matches on television. The full-time teacher never bothered to enquire as to the reasons for Mr Polopetsi’s popularity with his pupils; had he done so, he would have discovered that there was nothing Mr Polopetsi liked more than to end a chemistry lesson with as loud and as spectacular an explosion as he could get away with, given the resources—and fragility—of the school laboratory. The inner pyromaniac that lurks in most boys was present in him as much as it was in the male pupils, just as it was, perhaps to a slightly lesser degree, in the girls, who enjoyed any experiment that generated coloured smoke in any quantity.
“He was very happy,” said Mma Makutsi. “You remember how he liked to smile? Just like a nervous rabbit? Well, he was smiling like that when I saw him the other day. He was walking along with that strange walk of his, smiling just like a rabbit.”
“I’m glad that he’s happy,” said Mma Ramotswe. “He deserves to be happy after what happened to him, poor man.”
Mma Makutsi looked thoughtful. “I’m not sure if we get the happiness we actually deserve,” she said. “There are some people who look very happy but certainly do not deserve it. Look at that woman ... ”
Mma Ramotswe knew exactly whom Mma Makutsi meant.
Mma Makutsi nodded. As she did so, a small ray of sunshine caught the lens of her large round glasses, sending a ﬂash of dancing light across the ceiling. “Yes, that is the lady I was thinking of,” she said. “If you look at her, she seems to be very happy. She is always smiling and ... ”
“ ... and looking at men,” supplied Mma Ramotswe. “You know that look that some ladies give men. You know that look, Mma?”
Mma Makutsi did. “It is a very encouraging look,” she said. “It is a look that says, If you are thinking of doing anything, then do not hesitate to do it. It is that sort of look.” She paused. “And yet she’s happy. All that smiling and laughing looks very happy, I would have thought.”
They both fell into silence as they contemplated the sheer injustice of Violet Sephotho’s apparent happiness. Mma Makutsi opened her mouth to speak, but thought better of it, and closed it again. She had been about to say, “But God will surely punish her, Mma,” but had decided that this was not the sort of thing that people said any more, even if it was what they were thinking. The trouble was, she thought, that God had so many people to punish these days that he might just not find the time to get round to dealing with Violet Sephotho. It was a disappointing thought—a lost opportunity, in a sense: she would very willingly have volunteered her ser vices to assist in divine punishment, perhaps through something she would call Mma Makutsi’s League of Justice that would, strictly but fairly, punish people like Violet.
Mma Ramotswe’s own thoughts were far from retribution, divine or otherwise. She returned to the subject of Mr Polopetsi.
“So what did our friend have to say for himself?”
Mma Makutsi shrugged. “He said that he likes being a part-time teacher. He works three afternoons a week, at the most. He said that he was teaching the children how to make a battery and they were enjoying it.”
“That is a very useful skill,” said Mma Ramotswe. “It is important for children to learn about electricity.”
“Yes, Mma, it is. But then he said that he had just been on a week’s holiday. He said that he was still feeling the benefit of that.”
Mma Ramotswe was interested to hear this. But even as she pictured Mr Polopetsi on holiday—she had no idea what he would do—she began to ask herself whether she knew anybody else who had been on a holiday. Had anybody she knew been away, or even stopped working and stayed at home? Mr J. L. B. Matekoni had certainly never had a holiday, at least not as long as she had known him. She was certain, too, that Mma Potokwani, the indefatigable matron of the Orphan Farm, had never taken a break from her post, with the exception of the few days when she had gone away following a dispute with the Orphan Farm’s management board. That had not been a holiday, of course—it was more of a retirement, even if a very short-lived one.
“What did Mr Polopetsi do on this holiday of his?” she asked.
“He said that he did nothing,” answered Mma Makutsi. “He said that he just stayed at home and lay down on his bed for much of the day. He said that it slowed his heart down and that was a good thing because it had been beating too fast for many years. He said that you cannot make a truck go at sixty miles an hour for too long. Eventually, he said, it gets tired and stops.”
That was very true, observed Mma Ramotswe. “But was that all he did? Stay at home and lie down on his bed?”
Mma Makutsi did not answer the question. “He also said to me that people who take holidays live much longer than people who do not.”
“Well, that sounds very interesting,” said Mma Ramotswe. “But what about people who are running their own business? What do they do about holidays?”
There was a brief silence as Mma Makutsi considered the question. Then, rather tentatively, she gave her reply. “Somebody else in the office takes over,” she said. “Most businesses have more than one person working in them, you know, and so when the owner goes off on holiday, one of the others takes over.”
“I see,” said Mma Ramotswe.
“So,” Mma Makutsi continued, “if there is, say, a manager at the top and he—or she, of course—needs to go off on holiday, then it will be the deputy manager who takes over. It is usually a very smooth process—no bumps or hiccups—and the customers never know that it is the deputy manager in charge.”
Mma Ramotswe looked up at the ceiling, her occasional resort when Mma Makutsi was in full ﬂow. “I am sure they don’t,” she muttered.
Mma Makutsi’s spectacles ﬂashed again—a shard of steely light. “And I believe that this is sometimes how deputy managers become managers.” There was a long, meaning-laden pause at this point, and then she continued, “It is because they do the job so well when they are given the chance. Then somebody says, ‘Oh, that person—that deputy manager—could just as well be a full manager.’ That sometimes happens, I believe.”
“Really?” said Mma Ramotswe.
Mr J. L. B. Matekoni was late home that evening, having had to attend a meeting of the Motor Trades Benevolent Association, on the committee of which he served as treasurer. Mma Ramotswe had fed Motholeli and Puso early, and had then run them both to their cub scout and guide meetings in the hall of the Anglican Cathedral; they would not be ready to be collected until nine, by which time she would have served dinner for her husband and herself, washed the dishes, ironed Puso’s shirt for the following day, and performed a number of the other chores that went with running a household and that never seemed to be finished no matter how methodical and hard-working one was. She did not resent these tasks, of course—to iron the shirt of a little boy like Puso, or to make a packed lunch for one’s good husband whom one loved so much, was no great hardship; she merely wished that there would be some break between them, some brief moment when one might recover one’s breath and one’s energy before embarking on the next round of domestic duties.
Mr J. L. B. Matekoni’s meeting had not been an easy one. “The members of the Benevolent Association are always complaining,” he said as he sat down at the kitchen table. “They expect the committee to deal with all their problems—not just one or two problems, but all of them.”
“Some people can be like that,” said Mma Ramotswe, as she mashed the potatoes for their shepherd’s pie. “Perhaps it is because we have become spoiled. We have so much these days that we think it is our due.”
“And I am just the treasurer,” said Mr J. L. B. Matekoni. “I have about twenty-seven thousand pula in the common good fund at the moment, and so I can’t do everything. But they are always asking me to pay for their grandfather’s funeral, or to cover the school fees of the children of a late mechanic, or even to fund people’s weddings. They expect all that, Mma! That is what they ask for.”
“You cannot do it, Rra,” said Mma Ramotswe. “There is not enough money in Botswana to pay for half the things people want paid for. It just isn’t possible.”
Mr J. L. B. Matekoni sighed. “Sometimes I feel like throwing everything in, you know. I feel like getting all the papers together—all the accounts and receipts and so on—and passing it over to the members and saying: ‘Here you are. You do it now.’”
Mma Ramotswe laughed. “Maybe you should do just that, Rra. That would show them.” She paused. “Maybe ... maybe you could take a break.”
“From being treasurer?”
“From everything,” she said. “You could take a break from being treasurer and ... ” She turned round from the stove to look directly at her husband. “And you could take a break from the garage too. A holiday, in fact.”
He stared at her, puzzled. “Me?” he said. “Me?”
“Yes, why not? Everybody needs a holiday at some time. We’re not meant to go on working until ... until we drop.”
She uttered the words ‘until we drop’ with her heart in her mouth. Men did drop—they dropped rather often and with very little notice—and no woman with a husband should tempt Providence by talking lightly about such things. She knew many men who had dropped, often without the chance to say goodbye to their wives; they just dropped, more or less where they stood.
“But some of us have to go on working,” said Mr J. L. B. Matekoni. “Some of us have to carry on because if we did not, then everything would come to a stop. What would happen at Tlokweng Road Speedy Motors if I said that I had had enough and was going to stop working? It would come to a grinding halt, Mma, and that would be that. It would be Tlokweng Road Speedy Motors (Now Late), Mma, that is what it would be.”
She took a moment to think about this. What Mr J. L. B. Matekoni said was probably true. There was Fanwell, of course, who was now a qualified mechanic even if she—and others—still called him an apprentice. And there was Charlie, who had recently been seconded to the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency because there was not enough work for him in the garage. But could either of these—or indeed both together—manage the business in the absence of Mr J. L. B. Matekoni? She thought not. Charlie had always needed close supervision or he would lose his temper with an engine and start hitting it with a hammer; he would be no use. Fanwell was a much better, much more patient mechanic but he was reticent in his manner and it was difficult to see him coping with some of the more assertive customers, particularly those who objected to the size of the bills that had to be issued for servicing or repairing a car. Cars were expensive things and anything to do with their maintenance was correspondingly costly, even if a garage was modest in its charges. Fanwell was too gentle, she thought, to fight that particular corner.
Mma Ramotswe returned to her task, but she had planted a seed in Mr J. L. B. Matekoni’s mind. He sat in his chair, looking up at the ceiling, drumming his fingers lightly on the table. Then he stood up, crossed to the window, and looked out into the yard. It was dark outside, and the light in the kitchen prevented his seeing the stars that hung, in great draperies of silver, above the land.
Turning away from the window, he addressed Mma Ramotswe.
“Of course, you could, you know. There’s no reason why you shouldn’t.”
She stirred the pot with the wooden spoon she had owned since the age of eight—an artefact of her childhood that still reminded her of the aunt who had given it to her. It was another world, the world of childhood and of Mochudi—a world of openness and innocence, a world in which the old Botswana ways were not just the customs that people remembered with fondness but the precepts and habits by which people led their day-to-day lives. We have lost so much, she thought. Our dear country has lost so much. But everybody had lost something—it was not just Botswana, which had perhaps lost less than others. So many people had lost that sense of identification with the land that gave meaning to life; that fixed one firmly to a place one loved. At least we still have that, she thought; at least we still have land that we can call our place; acacia trees that are our acacia trees; a sky that is our sky because it watched over our mothers and fathers and took them up into it, embraced them, when they became late. We still have that, no matter how big and frightening the world becomes.
The thoughts inspired by the simple wooden spoon gave way to his question. What had he suggested she do? Or not do, perhaps?
“Me? Do what, Rra?”
“Take a holiday, Mma. You work so hard—”
She cut him short. “A holiday? No, I was not talking about myself, Mr J. L. B. Matekoni. I was talking about other people taking a holiday—maybe even you.”
He shook his head. “And I told you I cannot, Mma, but then I thought: Why doesn’t Mma Ramotswe take a holiday herself? That’s what I thought, Mma.”
Mma Ramotswe laughed. “But I can’t possibly take a holiday, Rra. Who would look after the agency?”
Mr J. L. B. Matekoni did not hesitate. “Mma Makutsi.”
Mma Ramotswe laid down the wooden spoon. Mma Makutsi had many virtues—she was the first to admit that—but the thought of leaving her in sole charge of the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency was absurd. Judgement was needed to run something like a detective agency, and she was not at all sure that Mma Makutsi had that. Yes, she was keen and hard-working, and yes, her filing was probably second to none in all Botswana, but the agency dealt with some very delicate matters and Mma Makutsi had never been renowned for her tact. If she were left in charge, there was bound to be a point at which she would say something ill-considered or even downright confrontational. Look at how she always succeeded in riling Charlie when anybody with any real sense would know that a young man like that has to be handled with circumspection. If you criticised somebody like Charlie or, worse still, shouted at him, you would be guaranteed to get nowhere; in fact, you could more or less be assured of going backwards. No, she could not countenance leaving Mma Makutsi in charge of the agency, and she explained to Mr J. L. B. Matekoni why this should be so.
He listened courteously, as he always did when she—or anybody else, for that matter—addressed him. Once she had finished, he smiled. “Everything you say may be true, Mma,” he conceded.
“It is true that Mma Makutsi can be a little bit difficult from time to time, but in spite of that she is still very good at her job. And remember that she got ninety-seven per cent in the—”
“Oh, I know all about that,” said Mma Ramotswe. “We have all heard about that ninety-seven per cent. But that was for things like filing and shorthand. I’m talking about ordinary human skills now.”
“Well, I think she has those too,” said Mr J. L. B. Matekoni.
“And even if she doesn’t have them at the moment, how is she going to develop them if you never give her a chance? How does somebody who is down at the bottom ... ”—and here he gestured with one hand to demonstrate the lowest rung on the ladder—“ ... how can somebody who is down there get up here?” His hand was raised to above his head—a social and professional elevation separated from the starting point by an ascent beyond scaling.
He waited for her to respond, but she did not. She realised that he was right: people had to be given their chance.
“Well, Mma?” pressed Mr J. L. B. Matekoni.
“I still don’t think I need a holiday,” she said. “Everything is going very well at the moment, and I don’t want to put a spanner in the works.”
Mr J. L. B. Matekoni’s eyes lit up at the use of the mechanical metaphor. “Talking of putting spanners in the works,’ he said, smiling in pleasure at the recollection, “one of our clients brought his car in today. We had serviced it only six months ago and so I wasn’t expecting it.”
“He said that the engine was making a strange noise.”
Mr J. L. B. Matekoni’s tone changed. He was now the concerned doctor, conveying to the family of a patient some item of bad news. “So I drove it round the block and listened. And yes, the engine was making a very discouraging noise – a sort of clanking sound that meant that all was very definitely not going well. So I took the vehicle back to the garage and opened up the engine compartment. And you know what I found?”
Mma Ramotswe could not resist answering. “A spanner? There was a spanner in the works?”
He looked crestfallen. “Well, yes, that’s exactly what I found. It had been left there by Charlie when he serviced the car some months earlier, and it had become entangled with all sorts of bits and pieces.” Mma Ramotswe rolled her eyes heavenwards. “Charlie is very slow to learn, isn’t he?”
“He is, I’m afraid,” said Mr J. L. B. Matekoni. “But remember that he is still very young and things could get better.”
“Do you think they will?” asked Mma Ramotswe.
Mr J. L. B. Matekoni thought for a moment. “I don’t think so,” he said at last.
It was not the answer that Mma Ramotswe would have given. She was of the view that things were getting better, even if there were temporary setbacks and even if there was very little light at the end of the tunnel. But in her opinion, the last thing one should do was to bemoan the fact that things were changing. She would not slip into a position that failed to see any progress in human affairs. There was a great deal of progress being made, right under their noses, particularly in Africa, and this progress was good. Life was much harder for tyrants than it had been before. There were more civil liberties, more literacy, more children surviving that first critical year of infancy; there was a lot of which one could be proud. And Charlie would be a better young man eventually—all he needed was time, which was what we all required.
Mr J. L. B. Matekoni tried another tack. “But you deserve it, Mma. We all agree about that. We all think you deserve a holiday.” She smiled at the kindness but then, as she turned back towards the pot on the stove, the implications of what he had just said sunk in. We all think you deserve a holiday ... This meant that they had been discussing it amongst themselves. Why had they done this? Was it a ... she hardly dared say the word to herself, but now she forced herself to face it. Was it a plot?
She closed her eyes and for a moment saw Mma Makutsi lurking in the shadows somewhere with some faceless ally, her presence only betrayed by a glint of light catching the glass of her spectacles. And she heard her saying, “Well, that’s got rid of her for the time being. She’ll be off for ... ” And the other conspirator would say
“She’ll be off for ever, not that she’ll suspect it.”
The resentment welled up within her, but subsided very quickly when she reminded herself that she was putting these words into Mma Makutsi’s mouth and there was no evidence—not one scrap—that suggested that her colleague—or anybody else—wanted her out of the way. Even so, she saw no reason at all to take a holiday—none whatsoever. And Mma Makutsi would never betray her; she just would not. There were some people about whom one could say that sort of thing—and Mma Makutsi was one such person—but generally one had to be careful about trusting the rest of humanity; sometimes the people who were closest to you were also those who were furthest away. One should remember that, she told herself: there were no plots being hatched against her—there just were not. But how do you know that? asked a tiny voice, from somewhere down below. How can you be so sure?
She looked down at her shoes. Had they spoken? If there were any speaking shoes, then they belonged to Mma Makutsi, not to her; unless, of course, the condition, whatever it was, were an infectious one, and she had now caught it. No, that was ridiculous—patently so. She knew that any utterances that came from down below were almost certainly no more than tricks played by the mind, even if the questions they asked, or the observations they made, seemed penetrating and acute. One might hear anything, if one allowed one’s mind to wander; people said, for instance, that if you stood out under the stars above the Kalahari, under those great silver-white fields of distant light, you could hear a tsk-tsk sound that was the stars calling to their hunting dogs. But in reality there was no sound—or if there was, it came from somewhere closer at hand, from scurrying insects, timid creatures whose job it was to whistle and whisper in the darkness.
“I just know,” she muttered.
“More fool you,” said the shoes.