The books that started it all, featuring Precious Ramotswe—Botswana's leading, and only, female private detective.
The seventeenth book in the No.1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series
One bright morning, Precious Ramotswe—head of Botswana’s No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency—receives a visitor: a woman from Australia. This woman asks Precious to take on a case: to find the nursemaid who raised her during her childhood in Botswana. The woman wants to thank her for being such an important part of her life. Precious has a history of successfully solving cases, but this one proves difficult and throws up a number of surprises and challenges.
Back in her office, next door to the Speedy Motors Garage on Twokleng Road, Precious also has a team to manage: Mr Polopetsi, a part-time science teacher and new assistant at the agency; she mentors Charlie, a former apprentice and young man too handsome and charming for his own good—a man who has gotten himself in deep water; and then there is Precious’s tumultuous but heart-warming friendship with her co-director, the fiery Grace Makutsi.
Precious and Grace is a story about being a detective, the complexities of human nature, as well as lessons about gratitude and obligation.
Precious Ramotswe, a kind and cheerful woman of traditional build, is the founder of Botswana’s first and only female-run detective agency. Her methods may not be conventional, and her manner not exactly Miss Marple, but she’s got warmth, wit and canny intuition on her side, not to mention Mr J. L. B. Matekoni, the charming proprietor of Tlokweng Road Speedy Motors. And Precious is going to need all of those assets as she sets out to track down a missing husband, uncover a con man, and follow a wayward daughter. But the case that tugs at her heart—is that of a missing eleven-year-old boy who may have been snatched by witch doctors.
Delightfully different, The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency is a captivating glimpse into an unusual world.
The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency received two Booker Judges’ Special Recommendations and was voted one of the International Books of the Year and the Millennium by the Times Literary Supplement.
Mma Ramotswe picked up the nurse’s uniform from her friend Sister Gogwe. It was a bit tight, especially round the arms, as Sister Gogwe, although generously proportioned, was slightly more slender than Mma Ramotswe. But once she was in it, and had pinned the nurse’s watch to her front, she was a perfect picture of a staff sister at the Princess Marina Hospital. It was a good disguise, she thought, and she made a mental note to use it at some time in the future.
As she drove to Happy Bapetsi’s house in her tiny white van, she reflected on how the African tradition of support for relatives could cripple people. She knew of one man, a sergeant of police, who was supporting an uncle, two aunts, and a second cousin. If you believed in the old Setswana morality, you couldn’t turn a relative away, and there was a lot to be said for that. But it did mean that charlatans and parasites had a very much easier time of it than they did elsewhere. They were the people who ruined the system, she thought. They’re the ones who are giving the old ways a bad name.
As she neared the house, she increased her speed. This was an errand of mercy, after all, and if the Daddy were sitting in his chair outside the front door he would have to see her arrive in a cloud of dust. The Daddy was there, of course, enjoying the morning sun, and he sat up straight in his chair as he saw the tiny white van sweep up to the gate. Mma Ramotswe turned off the engine and ran out of the car up to the house.
“Dumela Rra,” she greeted him rapidly. “Are you Happy Bapetsi’s Daddy?”
The Daddy rose to his feet. “Yes,” he said proudly. “I am the Daddy.”
Mma Ramotswe panted, as if trying to get her breath back. “I’m sorry to say that there has been an accident. Happy was run over and is very sick at the hospital. Even now they are performing a big operation on her.”
The Daddy let out a wail. “Aiee! My daughter! My little baby Happy!”
A good actor, thought Mma Ramotswe, unless ... No, she preferred to trust Happy Bapetsi’s instinct. A girl should know her own Daddy even if she had not seen him since she was a baby.
“Yes,” she went on. “It is very sad. She is very sick, very sick. And they need lots of blood to make up for all the blood she’s lost.”
The Daddy frowned. “They must give her that blood. Lots of blood. I can pay.”
“It’s not the money,” said Mma Ramotswe. “Blood is free. We don’t have the right sort. We will have to get some from her family, and you are the only one she has. We must ask you for some blood.”
The Daddy sat down heavily.
“I am an old man,” he said.
Mma Ramotswe sensed that it would work. Yes, this man was an impostor.
“That is why we are asking you,” she said. “Because she needs so much blood, they will have to take about half your blood. And that is very dangerous for you. In fact, you might die.”
The Daddy’s mouth fell open.
“Yes,” said Mma Ramotswe. “But then you are her father and we know that you would do this thing for your daughter. Now could you come quickly, or it will be too late. Doctor Moghile is waiting.”
The Daddy opened his mouth, and then closed it.
“Come on,” said Mma Ramotswe, reaching down and taking his wrist. “I’ll help you to the van.”
The Daddy rose to his feet, and then tried to sit down again. Mma Ramotswe gave him a tug.
“No,” he said. “I don’t want to.”
“You must,” said Mma Ramotswe. “Now come on.”
The Daddy shook his head. “No,” he said faintly. “I won’t. You see, I’m not really her Daddy. There has been a mistake.”
The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency has become a huge success in Botswana, and its lead detective Precious Ramotswe is gaining quite the reputation.
Among her cases are wayward wives and unscrupulous maids, plus the added excitement of Mma Ramotswe’s own impending marriage to that most gentlemanly of men, Mr J.L.B. Matekoni. Soon business is so good that her talented secretary Grace Makutsi (a graduate of the Botswana Secretarial College, with a mark of 97 per cent) is promoted to the dizzying heights of Assistant Detective. And then the arrival of two new members to the Matekoni family make life in Gaborone very interesting indeed.
He telephoned shortly before seven. Mma Ramotswe seemed pleased to hear from him and asked him, as was polite in the Setswana language, whether he had slept well. “I slept very well,” said Mr J. L. B. Matekoni. “I dreamed all the night about that clever and beautiful woman who has agreed to marry me.”
He paused. If she was going to announce a change of mind, then this was the time that she might be expected to do it.
Mma Ramotswe laughed. “I never remember what I dream,” she said. “But if I did, then I am sure that I would remember dreaming about that first-class mechanic who is going to be my husband one day.”
Mr J. L. B. Matekoni smiled with relief. She had not thought better of it, and they were still engaged.
“Today we must go to the President Hotel for lunch,” he said. “We shall have to celebrate this important matter.”
Mma Ramotswe agreed. She would be ready at twelve o’clock and afterwards, if it was convenient, perhaps he would allow her to visit his house to see what it was like. There would be two houses now, and they would have to choose one. Her house on Zebra Drive had many good qualities, but it was rather close to the centre of town and there was a case for being farther away. His house, near the old airfield, had a larger yard and was undoubtedly quieter, but was not far from the prison and was there not an overgrown graveyard nearby? That was a major factor; if she were alone in the house at night for any reason, it would not do to be too close to a graveyard. Not that Mma Ramotswe was superstitious; her theology was conventional and had little room for unquiet spirits and the like, and yet, and yet ...
In Mma Ramotswe’s view there was God, Modimo, who lived in the sky, more or less directly above Africa. God was extremely understanding, particularly of people like herself, but to break his rules, as so many people did with complete disregard, was to invite retribution. When they died, good people, such as Mma Ramotswe’s father, Obed Ramotswe, were undoubtedly welcomed by God. The fate of the others was unclear, but they were sent to some terrible place—perhaps a bit like Nigeria, she thought—and when they acknowledged their wrongdoing they would be forgiven.
God had been kind to her, thought Mma Ramotswe. He had given her a happy childhood, even if her mother had been taken from her when she was a baby. She had been looked after by her father and her kind cousin and they had taught her what it was to give love—love which she had in turn given, over those few precious days, to her tiny baby. When the child’s battle for life had ended, she had briefly wondered why God had done this to her, but in time she had understood. Now his kindness to her was manifest again, this time in the appearance of Mr J. L. B. Matekoni, a good, kind man. God had sent her a husband.
Precious Ramotswe continues her adventures with a cacophony of intriguing cases that lead her into the crazy world of car repairs and beauty pageants. The gifted detective finds business going so well that she has to expand. The recently-promoted Mma Makutsi is given her own case to investigate, and Mma Ramotswe has a close call after a poisoning attempt. And then there’s the small matter of moving Mr J.L.B. Matekoni into her home and the agency to the back of his garage, Tlokweng Road Speedy Motors. Facing supreme challenges at work and at home, will Precious rise to the occasion?
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.”
Mma Precious Ramotswe is content. Her business is well-established with many satisfied customers, and in her mid-thirties (“the finest age to be”) she has a house, two adopted children, and a fine fiancé. But as always there are challenges. Mr J. L. B. Matekoni has not yet set the date for their wedding. Mma Ramotswe is now a very busy lady, and must find the time to juggle her new clients with her personal life. Meanwhile, her able assistant, Mma Makutsi, has decided to establish a typing school for men. Most troublingly, a rival detective agency has opened in town–an agency that does not have the gentle approach to business that Mma Ramotswe’s does. Of course, Precious will manage these things, as she always does, with her unique insight and her good heart.
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.
Still engaged to the estimable Mr J.L.B. Matekoni, Mma Ramotswe wonders when a date for her wedding will be named, but she doesn’t want to put too much pressure on her fiancé. For indeed he has other things on his mind, including a hair-raising request made of him from Mma Potokwane, the ever-persuasive matron of the orphan farm.
Besides, Mma herself has weighty matters on her mind. She has been approached by a wealthy lady—whose fortune comes from successful hair-braiding salons—and has been asked to check up on several suitors. Are these men just interested in the lady or just her money? This may be difficult to find out, but it’s just the kind of problem Mma Ramotswe likes and she is, of course, a very intuitive lady.
As Mma Ramotswe sat at her desk, she heard sounds of activity from the garage on the other side of the building. Mr J. L. B. Matekoni was at work with his two apprentices, young men who seemed entirely obsessed with girls and who were always leaving grease marks about the building. Around each light switch, in spite of many exhortations and warnings, there was an area of black discolouration, where the apprentices had placed their dirty fingers. And Mma Ramotswe had even found greasy fingerprints on her telephone receiver and, more irritatingly still, on the door of the stationery cupboard.
“Mr J. L. B. Matekoni provides towels and all that lint for wiping off grease,” she had said to the older apprentice. “They are always there in the washroom. When you have finished working on a car, wash your hands before you touch other things. What is so hard about that?”
“I always do that,” said the apprentice. “It is not fair to talk to me like that, Mma. I am a very clean mechanic.”
“Then is it you?” asked Mma Ramotswe, turning to the younger apprentice.
“I am very clean too, Mma,” he said. ‘I am always washing my hands. Always. Always.”
“Then it must be me,” said Mma Ramotswe. “I must be the one with greasy hands. It must be me or Mma Makutsi. Maybe we get greasy from opening letters.”
The older apprentice appeared to think about this for a moment. “Maybe,” he said.
“There’s very little point in trying to talk to them,” Mr J. L. B. Matekoni had observed when Mma Ramotswe subsequently told him of this conversation. “There is something missing in their brains. Sometimes I think it is a large part, as big as a carburettor maybe.”
Now Mma Ramotswe heard the sound of voices coming from the garage. Mr J. L. B. Matekoni was saying something to the apprentices, and then there came a mumbling sound as one of the young men answered. Another voice; this time raised; it was Mr J. L. B. Matekoni.
Mma Ramotswe listened. They had done something again, and he was reprimanding them, which was unusual. Mr J. L. B. Matekoni was a mild man, who did not like conflict, and always spoke politely. If he felt it necessary to raise his voice, then it must have been something very annoying indeed.
“Diesel fuel in an ordinary engine,” he said, as he entered her office, wiping his hands on a large piece of lint. “Would you believe it, Mma Ramotswe? That ... that silly boy, the younger one, put diesel fuel into the tank of a non-diesel vehicle. Now we have to drain everything out and try to clean the thing up.”
“I’m sorry,” said Mma Ramotswe. “But I am not surprised.” She paused for a moment. “What will happen to them? What will happen when they are working somewhere else—somewhere where there is no longer a kind person like you to watch over them?”
Mr J. L. B. Matekoni shrugged. “They will ruin cars left, right, and centre,” he said. “That is what will happen to them. There will be great sadness among the cars of Botswana.”
Mma Ramotswe shook her head. Then, on a sudden impulse, and without thinking at all why she should say this, she asked, “And what will happen to us, Mr J. L. B. Matekoni?”
The words were out, and Mma Ramotswe looked down at her hands on the desk, and at the diamond ring, which looked back up at her. She had said it, and Mr J. L. B. Matekoni had heard what she had said.
Mr J. L. B. Matekoni looked surprised. “Why do you ask, Mma? What do you mean when you ask what will happen to us?”
Mma Ramotswe raised her eyes. She thought that she might as well continue, now that she had begun. “I was wondering what would happen to us. I was wondering whether we would ever get married, or whether we would continue to be engaged people for the rest of our lives. I was just wondering, that was all.”
Precious Ramotswe is busier than ever at the detective agency when she discovers an intruder in her house on Zebra Drive—and perhaps even more baffling—a pumpkin on her porch. Her associate, Mma Makutsi, also has a full plate. She’s taken up dance lessons, only to be partnered with a man with two left feet. And at Tlokweng Road Speedy Motors, where Mma Ramotswe’s husband, Mr J.L.B. Matekoni is already overburdened with work, one of his apprentices has run off with a wealthy older woman. But what finally rattles Mma Ramotswe’s normally unshakable composure is a visitor who forces her to confront a difficult secret from her past.
Mma Ramotswe raised her tea cup to her lips and looked out over the brim. At the edge of the car park, immediately in front of the café, a small market had been set up, with traders’ stalls and trays of colourful goods. She watched as a man attempted to persuade a customer to buy a pair of sunglasses. The woman tried on several pairs, but was not satisfied, and moved on to the next stall. There she pointed to a small piece of silver jewellery, a bangle, and the trader, a short man wearing a wide-brimmed felt hat, passed it across to her to try on. Mma Ramotswe watched as the woman held out her wrist to be admired by the trader, who nodded encouragement. But the woman seemed not to agree with his verdict, and handed the bangle back, pointing to another item at the back of the stall. And at that moment, while the trader turned round to stretch for whatever it was that she had singled out, the woman quickly slipped another bangle into the pocket of the jacket she was wearing.
Mma Ramotswe gasped. This time, she could not sit back and allow a crime to be committed before her very eyes. If people did nothing, then no wonder that things were getting worse. So she stood up, and began to walk firmly towards the stall where the woman had now engaged the trader in earnest discussion about the merits of the merchandise which he was showing her.
“Excuse me, Mma.”
The voice came from behind her, and Mma Ramotswe turned round to see who had addressed her. It was the waitress, a young woman whom Mma Ramotswe had not seen at the café before.
“Yes, Mma, what is it?”
The waitress pointed an accusing finger at her. “You cannot run away like that,” she said. “I saw you. You’re trying to go away without paying the bill. I saw you.”
For a moment Mma Ramotswe was unable to speak. The accusation was a terrible one, and so unwarranted. Of course she had not been trying to get away without paying the bill—she would never do such a thing; all she was doing was trying to stop a crime being committed before her eyes. She recovered herself sufficiently to reply. “I am not trying to go away, Mma,” she said. “I am just trying to stop that person over there from stealing from that man. Then I would have come back to pay.”
The waitress smiled knowingly. “They all find some excuse,” she said. “Every day there are people like you. They come and eat our food and then they run away and hide. You people are all the same.”
Mma Ramotswe looked over towards the stall. The woman had begun to walk away, presumably with the bangle still firmly in her pocket. It would now be too late to do anything about it, and all because of this silly young woman who had misunderstood what she was doing.
She went back to her table and sat down. “Bring me the bill,” she said. “I will pay it straightaway.”
The waitress stared at her. “I will bring you the bill,” she said. “But I shall have to add something for myself. I will have to add this if you do not want me to call the police and tell them about how you tried to run away.”
As the waitress went off to fetch the bill, Mma Ramotswe glanced around her to see if people at the neighbouring tables had witnessed the scene. At the table next to hers, a woman sat with her two young children, who were sipping with evident pleasure at large milkshakes. The woman smiled at Mma Ramotswe, and then turned her attention back to the children. She had not seen anything, thought Mma Ramotswe, but then the woman leaned across the table and addressed a remark to her.
“Bad luck, Mma,” she said. “They are too quick in this place. It is easier to run away at the hotels.”
For a few minutes Mma Ramotswe sat in complete silence, reflecting on what she had seen. It was remarkable. Within a very short space of time she had seen an instance of bare-faced theft, had encountered a waitress who thought nothing of extorting money, and then, to bring the whole matter to a shameful conclusion, the woman at the next table had disclosed a thoroughly dishonest view of the world. Mma Ramotswe was frankly astonished. She thought of what her father, the late Obed Ramotswe, a fine judge of cattle but also a man of the utmost propriety, would have thought of this. He had brought her up to be scrupulously honest, and he would have been mortified to see this sort of behaviour.
The many problems that lead customers to Mma Ramotswe’s door seem to be multiplying, and no sooner has she settled into her newly married state than she finds herself looking into several troublesome matters at once. There is, to begin with, a disturbing case of blackmail and theft from the Government catering college. Then, while on an errand for her husband to the Mokolodi Game Reserve Mma Ramotswe is summoned to investigate an unpleasant situation that may be due to witchcraft, or something worse. There are sinister goings-on at a health clinic to be looked into, not to mention any number of small wrongs to be righted along the path to detective triumph. And to further complicate matters, Grace Makutsi may have scared off her own fiance. Yet even while Mma Ramotswe must consider weighty questions of a philosophical nature—on, for example, whether it is right to find happiness in small things, such as a new pair of blue shoes, a slice of cake, or a red sunset over the Kalahari—her adventures never fail to entertain.
Mma Makutsi pondered this for a few moments. In general, she thought that Mma Ramotswe was right about matters of this sort, but she felt that this particular proposition needed a little bit more thought. She knew that there were some people who were unable to make of their lives what they wanted them to be, but then there were many others who were quite capable of keeping themselves under control. In her own case, she thought that she was able to resist temptation quite effectively. She did not consider herself to be particularly strong, but at the same time she did not seem to be markedly weak. She did not drink, nor did she over-indulge in food, or chocolate or anything of that sort. No, Mma Ramotswe’s observation was just a little bit too sweeping and she would have to disagree. But then the thought struck her: could she resist a fine new pair of shoes, even if she knew that she had plenty of shoes already (which was not the case)?
“I think you’re right, Mma,” she said. “Everybody has a weakness and most of us are not strong enough to resist it.”
Mma Ramotswe looked at her assistant. She had an idea what Mma Makutsi’s weakness might be, and indeed there might even be more than one.
“Take Mr J. L. B. Matekoni, for example,” said Mma Ramotswe.
“All men are weak,” said Mma Makutsi. “That is well known.”
She paused. Now that Mma Ramotswe and Mr J. L. B. Matekoni were married it was possible that Mma Ramotswe had discovered new weaknesses in him. The mechanic was a quiet man, but it was often the mildest-looking people who did the most colourful things, in secret of course. What could Mr J. L. B. Matekoni get up to? It would be very interesting to hear.
“Cake,” said Mma Ramotswe quickly. “That is Mr J. L. B. Matekoni’s great weakness. He cannot help himself when it comes to cake. He can be manipulated very easily if he has a plate of cake in his hand.”
Mma Makutsi laughed. “Mma Potokwani knows that, doesn’t she?” she said. “I have seen her getting Mr J. L. B. Matekoni to do all sorts of things for her just by offering him pieces of that fruit cake of hers.”
Mma Ramotswe rolled her eyes up towards the ceiling. Mma Potokwani, the matron of the orphan farm, was her friend, and when all was said and done she was a good woman, but she was quite ruthless when it came to getting things for the children in her care. She it was who had cajoled Mr J. L. B. Matekoni into fostering the two children who now lived in their house; that had been a good thing, of course, and the children were dearly loved, but Mr J. L. B. Matekoni had not thought the thing through and had failed even to consult Mma Ramotswe about the whole matter. And then there were the numerous occasions on which she had prevailed upon him to spend hours of his time fixing that unreliable old water pump at the orphan farm—a pump which dated back to the days of the Protectorate and should have been retired and put into a museum long ago. And Mma Potokwani achieved all of this because she had a profound understanding of how men worked and what their weaknesses were; that was the secret of so many successful women—they knew about the weaknesses of men.
As winter turns to spring across Botswana, all is not quite as it should be on Zebra Drive. The cases keep coming into the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency and Mma Makutsi’s impending marriage threatens her happy working relationship with Mma Ramotswe. Will the agency have the man-power to cope? Will Precious be able to explain an unexpected series of deaths at the hospital in Mochudi? And what about the missing office supplies at Teenie Magama’s printing company? In the midst of this, Mr J. L. B. Matekoni, trying to prove himself a worthy husband, decides to try a little detective work—and naturally, disaster looms.
Tender, witty and wise, this instalment in the lives of Alexander McCall’s Smith’s extended Botswana family reminds us of the importance of trust, love, and not judging by appearances—and shows us what really makes a good husband.
Once the children had set off for school, Mma Ramotswe and Mr J. L. B. Matekoni found themselves alone in the kitchen. The children always made a noise; now there was an almost unnatural quiet, as at the end of a thunderstorm or a night of high winds. It was a time for the two adults to finish their tea in companionable silence, or perhaps to exchange a few words about what the day ahead held. Then, once the breakfast plates had been cleared up and the porridge pot scrubbed and put away, they would make their separate ways to work, Mr J. L. B. Matekoni in his green truck and Mma Ramotswe in her tiny white van. Their destination was the same—the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency shared premises with Tlokweng Road Speedy Motors—but they invariably arrived at different times. Mr J. L. B. Matekoni liked to drive directly to the top of the Tlokweng Road along the route that went past the flats at the end of the university, while Mma Ramotswe, who had a soft spot for the area of town known as the Village, would meander along Oodi Drive or Hippopotamus Road and approach the Tlokweng Road from that direction.
As they sat at the kitchen table that morning, Mr J. L. B. Matekoni suddenly looked up from his teacup and started to stare at a point on the ceiling. Mma Ramotswe knew that this preceded a disclosure; Mr J. L. B. Matekoni looked at the ceiling when something needed to be said. She said nothing, waiting for him to speak.
“There’s something I meant to mention to you,” he said casually. “I forgot to tell you about it yesterday. You were in Molepolole, you see.”
She nodded. “Yes, I went to Molepolole.”
His eyes were still fixed on the ceiling. “And Molepolole? How was Molepolole?”
She smiled. “You know what Molepolole is like. It gets a bit bigger, but not much else has changed. Not really.”
“I’m not sure that I would want Molepolole to change too much,” he said.
She waited for him to continue. Something important was definitely about to emerge, but with Mr J. L. B. Matekoni these things could take time.
“Somebody came to see you at the office yesterday,” he said. “When Mma Makutsi was out.”
This surprised Mma Ramotswe and, in spite of her equable temperament, irritated her. Mma Makutsi had been meant to be in the office throughout the previous day, in case a client should call. Where had she been?
“So Mma Makutsi was out?” she said. “Did she say where?” It was possible that some urgent matter of business had arisen and this had required Mma Makutsi’s presence elsewhere, but she doubted that. A more likely explanation, thought Mma Ramotswe, was urgent shopping, probably for shoes.
Mr J. L. B. Matekoni lowered his gaze from the ceiling and fixed it on Mma Ramotswe. He knew that his wife was a generous employer, but he did not want to get Mma Makutsi into trouble if she had deliberately disobeyed instructions. And she had been shopping; when she had returned, just before five in the afternoon—a strictly token return, he thought at the time—she had been laden with parcels and had unpacked one of these to show him the shoes it contained. They were very fashionable shoes, she had assured him, but in Mr J. L. B. Matekoni’s view they had been barely recognisable as footwear, so slender and insubstantial had seemed the criss-crossings of red leather which made up the upper part of the shoes.
“So she went shopping,” said Mma Ramotswe, tight-lipped.
“Perhaps,” said Mr J. L. B. Matekoni. He tended to be defensive about Mma Makutsi, whom he admired greatly. He knew what it was like to come from nowhere, with nothing, or next to nothing, and make a success of one’s life. She had done that with her ninety-seven per cent and her part-time typing school, and now, of course, with her well-heeled fiancé. He would defend her. “But there was nothing going on. I’m sure she had done all her work.”
“But something did turn up,” pointed out Mma Ramotswe. “A client came to see me. You’ve just said that.”
Mr J. L. B. Matekoni fiddled with a button on the front of his shirt. He was clearly embarrassed about something.
“Well, I suppose so. But I was there to deal with things. I spoke to this person.”
“And?” asked Mma Ramotswe.
Mr J. L. B. Matekoni hesitated. “I was able to deal with the situation,” he said. “And I have written it all down to show you.” He reached into a pocket and took out a folded sheet of paper, which he handed to Mma Ramotswe.
Mma Ramotswe discovers that there are downsides to being the best-known lady detective in Botswana when she receives an anonymous threatening letter. While she ponders the identity of the letter-writer, Mma has a further set of problems to solve on Tlokweng Road. There’s an adopted child’s poignant search for her true family, and Mr J. L. B. Matekoni’s pursuit of an expensive miracle for their own foster daughter, Motholeli.
But there are very few problems that cannot be solved with kindness, and very few dry seasons that do not end with welcome rain.
There are things that some men know and some ladies do not, and vice versa. It is unfortunate, for example, that Mma Ramotswe’s newest client is the big-shot owner of the ailing Kalahari Swoopers, and that the one thing this lady detective knows very little about is football.
And when Mma Makutsi’s unsuspecting fiancé Phuti Radphuti hires her longtime nemesis, the very glamorous Violet Sephotho, to assist in his store, it becomes clear that some men do not know how to recognise a ruthless jezebel—even when she is bouncing up and down on the best bed in the Double Comfort Furniture Shop.
Mma Ramotswe ventures into new territory as she attempts to foster understanding between the sexes and find the cause of the football club’s unexpected losing streak. She drinks tea in unfamiliar kitchens, and finds we must dig deep to uncover the goodness of the human heart.
Traditionally built people may not look as if they are great walkers, but there was a time when Precious Ramotswe walked four miles a day. As a girl in Mochudi, all those years ago, a pupil at the school that looked down over the sprawling village below, she went to her lessons every morning on foot, joining the trickle of children that made its way up the hill, the girls in blue tunics, the boys in khaki shirts and shorts, like little soldiers. The journey from the house where she lived with her father and the older cousin who looked after her took all of an hour, except, of course, when she was lucky and managed to ride on the mule-drawn water cart that occasionally passed that way. The driver of this cart, with whom her father had worked in the gold mines as a young man, knew who she was and always slowed down to allow her to clamber up on the driver’s seat beside him.
Other children would watch enviously, and try to wave down the water cart. ‘I cannot carry all Botswana,’ said the driver. ‘If I gave all you children a ride on my cart, then my poor mules would die. Their hearts would burst. I cannot allow that.’
‘But you have Precious up there!’ called out the boys. ‘Why is she so special?’
The driver looked at Precious and winked. ‘Tell them why you are special, Precious. Explain it to them.’
The young Mma Ramotswe, barely eight, was overwhelmed by embarrassment.
‘But I am not special. I am just a girl.’
‘You are the daughter of Obed Ramotswe,’ said the driver. ‘He is a great man. That is why you are riding up here.’
He was right, of course—at least in what he said about Obed Ramotswe, who was, by any standards, a fine man. At that age, Precious had only a faint inkling of what her father stood for; later on, as a young woman, she would come to understand what it was to be the daughter of Obed Ramotswe. But in those days, on the way to school, whether riding in state on the water cart or walking along the side of that dusty road with her friends, she had school to think about, with its lessons on so many subjects—the history of Botswana, from the beginning, when it was known as Khama’s country, across the plains of which great lions walked, to the emergence of the new Botswana, then still a chrysalis in a dangerous world; writing lessons, with the letters of the alphabet being described in white chalk on an ancient blackboard, all whirls and loops; arithmetic, with its puzzling multiplication tables that needed to be learned by heart—when there was so much else that the heart had to learn.
The water cart, of course, did not pass very often, and so on most days there was a long trudge to school and a long walk back. Some children had an even greater journey; in one class there was a boy who walked seven miles there and seven miles back, even in the hottest of months, when the sun came down upon Botswana like a pounding fist, when the cattle huddled together under the umbrella shade of the acacia trees, not daring to wander off in search of what scraps of grass remained. This boy thought nothing of his daily journey; this is what you did if you wanted to go to school to learn the things that your parents had never had the chance to learn. And you did not complain, even if during the rainy season you might narrowly escape being struck by lightning or being washed away by the torrents that rose in the previously dry watercourses. You did not complain in that Botswana.
Mma Ramotswe and Mma Makutsi are called to a safari lodge in Botswana’s Okavango Delta to carry out a delicate mission on behalf of a former guest. The Okavango makes Precious appreciate once again the beauty of her homeland. A paradise of teeming wildlife, majestic grasslands and sparkling water, it is also home to rival safari operators, fearsome crocodiles and disgruntled hippopotamuses.
What’s more, Mma Makutsi still does not have a date set for her wedding to Phuti Radiphuti and is feeling rather tetchy—especially when his aunt seems to be pushing her out of the picture. But Precious is confident that with a little patience, kindness, and good sense, things will work out for the best in the end.
‘No car,’ thought Mr J.L.B. Matekoni, that great mechanic, and good man. ‘No car ... ’
He paused. It was necessary, he felt, to order the mind when one was about to think something profound. And Mr J. L. B. Matekoni was at that moment on the verge of an exceptionally important thought, even though its final shape had yet to reveal itself. How much easier it was for Mma Ramotswe—she put things so well, so succinctly, so profoundly, and appeared to do this with such little effort. It was very different if one was a mechanic, and therefore not used to telling people – in the nicest possible way, of course—how to run their lives. Then one had to think quite hard to find just the right words that would make people sit up and say, ‘But that is very true, Rra!’ Or, especially if you were Mma Ramotswe, ‘But surely that is well known!’
He had very few criticisms to make of Precious Ramotswe, his wife and founder of the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, but if one were to make a list of her faults—which would be a minuscule document, barely visible, indeed, to the naked eye—one would perhaps have to include a tendency—only a slight tendency, of course—to claim that things that she happened to believe were well known. This phrase gave these beliefs a sort of unassailable authority, the status that went with facts that all right-thinking people would readily acknowledge—such as the fact that the sun rose in the east, over the undulating canopy of acacia that stretched along Botswana’s border, over the waters of the great Limpopo River itself that now, at the height of the rainy season, flowed deep and fast towards the ocean half a continent away. Or the fact that Seretse Khama had been the first President of Botswana; or even the truism that Botswana was one of the finest and most peaceful countries in the world. All of these facts were indeed both incontestable and well known; whereas Mma Ramotswe’s pronouncements, to which she attributed the special status of being well known, were often, rather, statements of opinion. There was a difference, thought Mr J.L.B. Matekoni, but it was not one he was planning to point out; there were some things, after all, that it was not helpful for a husband to say to his wife and that, he thought, was probably one of them.
Now, his thoughts having been properly marshalled, the right words came to him in a neat, economical expression: No car is entirely perfect. That was what he wanted to say, and these words were all that was needed to say it. So he said it once more. No car is entirely perfect.
In his experience, which was considerable—as the proprietor of Tlokweng Road Speedy Motors and attending physician, therefore, to a whole fleet of middle-ranking cars—every vehicle had its bad points, its foibles, its rattles, its complaints; and this, he thought, was the language of machinery, those idiosyncratic engine sounds by which a car would strive to communicate with those with ears to listen—usually mechanics. Every car had its good points, too: a comfortable driving seat, perhaps, moulded over the years to the shape of the car’s owner, or an engine that started first time without hesitation or complaint, even on the coldest winter morning, when the air above Botswana was dry and crisp and sharp in the lungs. Each car, then, was an individual, and if only he could get his apprentices to grasp that fact, their work might be a little bit more reliable and less prone to require redoing by him. Push, shove, twist: these were no mantras for a good mechanic. Listen, coax, soothe: that should be the motto inscribed above the entrance to every garage; that, or the words which he had once seen printed on the advertisement for a garage in Francistown: Your car is ours.
That slogan, persuasive though it might have sounded, had given him pause. It was a little ambiguous, he decided: on the one hand, it might be taken to suggest that the garage was in the business of taking people’s cars away from them—an unfortunate choice of words if read that way. On the other, it could mean that the garage staff treated clients’ cars with the same care that they treated their own. That, he thought, is what they meant, and it would have been preferable if they had said it. It is always better to say what you mean—it was his wife, Mma Ramotswe, who said that, and he had always assumed that she meant it.
No, he mused: there is no such thing as a perfect car, and if every car had its good and bad points, it was the same with people. Just as every person had his or her little ways—habits that niggled or irritated others, annoying mannerisms, vices and failings, moments of selfishness—so too did they have their good points: a winning smile, an infectious sense of humour, the ability to cook a favourite dish just the way you wanted it.
That was the way the world was; it was composed of a few almost perfect people (ourselves); then there were a good many people who generally did their best but were not all that perfect (our friends and colleagues); and finally, there were a few rather nasty ones (our enemies and opponents). Most people fell into that middle group—those who did their best—and the last group was, thankfully, very small and not much in evidence in places like Botswana, where he was fortunate enough to live.
These reflections came to Mr J. L. B. Matekoni while he was driving his tow-truck down the Lobatse Road. He was on what Mma Ramotswe described as one of his errands of mercy. In this case he was setting out to rescue the car of one Mma Constance Mateleke, a senior and highly regarded midwife and, as it happened, a long-standing friend of Mma Ramotswe. She had called him from the roadside. ‘Quite dead,’ said Mma Mateleke through the faint, crackling line of her mobile phone. ‘Stopped. Plenty of petrol. Just stopped like that, Mr Matekoni. Dead.’
Mr J. L. B. Matekoni smiled to himself. ‘No car dies for ever,’ he consoled her. ‘When a car seems to die, it is sometimes just sleeping. Like Lazarus, you know.’ He was not quite sure of the analogy. As a boy he had heard the story of Lazarus at Sunday School in Molepolole, but his recollection was now hazy. It was many years ago, and the stories of that time, the real, the made-up, the long-winded tales of the old people—all of these had a tendency to get mixed up and become one. There were seven lean cows in somebody’s dream, or was it five lean cows and seven fat ones?
‘So you are calling yourself Jesus Christ now, are you, Mr Matekoni? No more Tlokweng Road Speedy Motors, is it? Jesus Christ Motors now?’ retorted Mma Mateleke. ‘You say that you can raise cars from the dead. Is that what you’re saying?’
Mr J. L. B. Matekoni chuckled. ‘Certainly not. No, I am just a mechanic, but I know how to wake cars up. That is not a special thing. Any mechanic can wake a car.’ Not apprentices, though, he thought.
‘We’ll see,’ she said. ‘I have great faith in you, Mr Matekoni, but this car seems very sick now. And time is running away. Perhaps we should stop talking on the phone and you should be getting into your truck to come and help me.’
So it was that he came to be travelling down the Lobatse Road, on a pleasantly fresh morning, allowing his thoughts to wander on the broad subject of perfection and flaws. On either side of the road the country rolled out in a grey-green carpet of thorn bush, stretching off into the distance, to where the rocky outcrops of the hills marked the end of the land and the beginning of the sky. The rains had brought thick new grass sprouting up between the trees; this was good, as the cattle would soon become fat on the abundant sweet forage it provided. And it was good for Botswana too, as fat cattle meant fat people—not too fat, of course, but well-fed and prosperous-looking; people who were happy to be who they were and where they were.
Yes, thought Mr J. L. B. Matekoni, even if no country was absolutely perfect, Botswana, surely, came as close as one could get. He closed his eyes in contentment, and then quickly remembered that he was driving, and opened them again. A car behind him—not a car that he recognised—had driven to within a few feet of the rear of his tow-truck, and was aggressively looking for an opportunity to pass. The problem, though, was that the Lobatse Road was busy with traffic coming the other way, and there was a vehicle in front of Mr J. L. B. Matekoni that was in no hurry to get anywhere; it was a driver like Mma Potokwani, he imagined, who ambled along and frequently knocked the gear-stick out of gear as she waved her hand to emphasise some point she was making to a passenger. Yet Mma Potokwani, and this slow driver ahead of him, he reminded himself, had a right to take things gently if they wished. Lobatse would not go away, and whether one reached it at eleven in the morning or half past eleven would surely matter very little.
He looked in his rear-view mirror. He could not make out the face of the driver, who was sitting well back in his seat, and he could not therefore engage in eye contact with him. He should calm down, thought Mr J. L. B. Matekoni, rather than ... His line of thought was interrupted by the sudden swerving of the other vehicle as it pulled over sharply to the left. Mr J. L. B. Matekoni, well versed as he was in the ways of every sort of driver, gripped his steering wheel hard and muttered under his breath. What was being attempted was that most dangerous of manoeuvres—overtaking on the wrong side.
He steered a steady course, carefully applying his brakes so as to allow the other driver ample opportunity to effect his passing as quickly as possible. Not that he deserved the consideration, of course, but Mr J. L. B. Matekoni knew that when another driver did something dangerous it was best to allow him to finish what he was doing and get out of the way.
In a cloud of dust and gravel chips thrown up off the unpaved verge of the road, the impatient car shot past, before swerving again to get back on to the tarmac. Mr J. L. B. Matekoni felt the urge to lean on his horn and flash his lights in anger, but he did neither of these things. The other driver knew that what he had done was wrong; there was no need to engage in an abusive exchange which would lead nowhere, and would certainly not change that driver’s ways. ‘You do not change people by shouting at them,’ Mma Ramotswe had once observed. And she was right: sounding one’s horn, shouting—these were much the same things, and achieved equally little.
And then an extraordinary thing happened. The impatient driver, his illegal manoeuvre over, and now clear of the tow-truck, looked in his mirror and gave a scrupulously polite thank-you wave to Mr J. L. B. Matekoni. And Mr J. L. B. Matekoni, taken by surprise, responded with an equally polite wave of acknowledgement, as one would reply to any roadside courtesy or show of good driving manners. That was the curious thing about Botswana; even when people were rude—and some degree of human rudeness was inevitable—they were rude in a fairly polite way.
The road was climbing at this point, and the other car soon disappeared over the brow of the hill. Mr J. L. B. Matekoni wondered why the driver had been in such a rush. He could be late for an appointment, perhaps; or he could be a lawyer due to make an appearance in the High Court down there. That could be awkward, of course, and might just explain a certain amount of speeding. He had heard from a lawyer whose car he fixed that it was a serious matter to be late in court, not only from the lawyer’s point of view, but from that of the client as well, as the judge would hardly be sympathetic to somebody who had kept him waiting. But even if that driver was a lawyer, and even if he was running late, it would not excuse passing on the wrong side, which put the lives of others in danger. Nothing excused that sort of thing.
Mr J. L. B. Matekoni found himself wondering what Mma Ramotswe would have said about this. When he had first got to know her, he had been surprised at her ability to watch the doings of others and then come up with a completely credible explanation of their motives. Now, however, he took that for granted, and merely nodded in agreement when she explained to him even the most opaque acts of others. Of course that was why this or that was done; of course that was why somebody said what they did, or did not say it, depending on the circumstances. Mma Ramotswe simply understood.
He imagined himself telling her that evening: ‘I saw a very bad bit of driving on the Lobatse Road this morning. Really bad.’
She would nod. ‘Nothing new there, Mr J. L. B. Matekoni.’
‘A man shot past me on the wrong side. Whoosh! He was in a very big hurry to get to Lobatse.’ He would pause, and then would come the casual query, ‘Why do you think somebody would risk his neck—and mine too—to get down to Lobatse so quickly?’
Mma Ramotswe would look thoughtful. ‘A new car?’ she asked. ‘A big one?’
‘A very big one,’ said Mr J. L. B. Matekoni. ‘Three-point-six-litre engine with continuous variable-valve timing ... ’
‘Yes, yes.’ Mma Ramotswe did not need these mechanical details. ‘And the colour of the car?’
‘Red. Bright red.’
Mma Ramotswe smiled. ‘And the driver? Did you see anything of the driver?’
‘Not really. Just the back of his head. But he was a very polite bad driver. He thanked me after he had passed me on the wrong side. He actually thanked me.’
Mma Ramotswe nodded. ‘He must be having an affair, that man. He must be rushing off to see a lady. I suspect he was late, and did not want to keep her waiting.’
‘Come on now, Mma! How can you tell that just from the colour of the car?’
‘There is that. But there is also the politeness. He is a man who is feeling pleased with the world and grateful for something. So he thanked you.’
He went over this imaginary conversation in his head. He could just hear her, and her explanation, and he thought how she would probably be right, even if he could not see how she could reach a conclusion on the basis of such slender evidence. But that was the difference between Mma Ramotswe, a detective, and him, a mere mechanic. That was a very significant difference, and ...
He paused. On the road before him, still some way in the distance, but unmistakable, he could see a car pulled up at the side of the road, a car that he recognised as belonging to Mma Mateleke. And just beyond it, also pulled up at the side of the road, was the large red car that had shot past him a few minutes previously. The driver had got out of the red car and was standing beside Mma Mateleke’s window, looking for all the world as if he had stopped to chat with an old friend encountered along the road. He had been in such a terrible rush, and yet here he was, stopping to talk. What would Mma Ramotswe make of this, Mr J. L. B. Matekoni wondered, as he began to apply the brakes of his truck.
Mma Mateleke had got out of her car by the time Mr J. L. B. Matekoni had parked safely on the verge. She greeted him warmly as he approached.
‘Well, well, I am a very lucky lady today,’ she said. ‘Here you are, Mr Matekoni, with that truck of yours. And here is another man, too, who happened to be passing. It is very nice for a lady in distress to have two strong men at her side.’
As she spoke she looked in the direction of the driver of the red car. He smiled, acknowledging the compliment, and then turned to Mr J. L. B. Matekoni.
‘This is Mr Ntirang,’ said Mma Mateleke. ‘He was travelling down to Lobatse and he saw me by the side of the road.’
Mr Ntirang nodded gravely, as if to confirm a long and complicated story. ‘Her car had clearly broken down,’ he said to Mr J. L. B. Matekoni. ‘And this is miles from anywhere.’ He paused before adding, ‘As you can see.’
Mr J. L. B. Matekoni took a piece of cloth from his pocket and wiped his hands. It was a habit he had, as a mechanic, stemming from the days when he had used lint in the garage and was always removing grease. Now it had become a nervous gesture, almost, like straightening one’s cuffs or wiping one’s brow.
‘Yes,’ he said, meeting the other man’s gaze. ‘This is far from everywhere, although ... ’ He hesitated. He did not want to be rude, but he could not let the bad driving he had witnessed go unremarked upon.
‘Although this is a busy road, isn’t it? And quite a dangerous one, too, with all the bad driving one sees.’
There was silence, but only a brief one. There was birdsong, from an acacia tree behind the fence that ran along the edge of the road; the sound of the bush. There was always birdsong.
Mr Ntirang did not drop his eyes when he spoke, nor did he look away. ‘Oh, yes, Rra. Bad driving! There are some very bad drivers around. People who cannot drive straight. People who go from one side of the road to the other. People who drink while they drive—not driving after you’ve been drinking, but driving while you’re drinking. There are all of these things.’ He turned to Mma Mateleke. ‘Aren’t there, Mma?’
Mma Mateleke glanced at her watch. She did not seem particularly interested in this conversation. ‘Maybe,’ she said.
‘There are many instances of bad behaviour, but I do not think that we have time to talk about them right now.’ She turned to Mr J. L. B. Matekoni. ‘Could you take a look, Rra, and see what is wrong with this car of mine?’
Mr J. L. B. Matekoni moved towards the car and opened the driver’s door. He would never mention the fact to Mma Mateleke, but he did not like her car. He found it difficult to put his finger on it, but there was something about it that he distrusted. Now, sitting in the driver’s seat and turning the key in the ignition, he had a very strong sense that he was up against electronics. In the old days—as Mr J. L. B. Matekoni called everything that took place more than ten years ago—you would never have had to bother very much about electronics, but now, with so many cars concealing computer chips in their engines, it was a different matter. ‘You should take this car to a computer shop,’ he had been tempted to say on a number of occasions. ‘It is really a computer, you know.’
The ignition was, as Mma Mateleke had reported, quite unresponsive. Sighing, he leaned under the dashboard to find the lever that would open the bonnet, but there was no lever. He turned to unwind the window so that he could ask Mma Mateleke where the lever was, but the windows, being electric, would not work. He opened the door.
‘How do you get at the engine on this car?’ he asked. ‘I can’t see the lever.’
‘That is because there is no lever,’ she replied. ‘There is a button. There in the middle. Look.’
He saw the button, with its small graphic portrayal of a car bonnet upraised. He pressed it; nothing happened.
‘It is dead too,’ said Mma Mateleke, in a matter-of-fact voice. ‘The whole car has died.’
Mr J. L. B. Matekoni climbed out of the car. ‘I will get it open somehow,’ he said. ‘There is always some way round these things.’ He was not sure that there was.
Mr Ntirang now spoke. ‘I think that it is time for me to get on with my journey,’ he said. ‘You are in very good hands now, Mma. The best hands in Gaborone, people say.’
Mr J. L. B. Matekoni was a modest man, but was clearly pleased with the compliment. He smiled at Mr Ntirang, almost, if not completely, ready to forgive him his earlier display of bad driving. He noticed, though, an exchange of glances between Mma Mateleke and Mr Ntirang, glances that were difficult to read. Was there reproach—just a hint of reproach—on Mma Mateleke’s part? But why should she have anything over which to reproach this man who had stopped to see that she was all right?
Mr Ntirang took a step back towards his car. ‘Goodbye, Rra,’ he said. ‘And I hope that you get to the bottom of this problem. I’m sure you will.’
Mr J. L. B. Matekoni watched as the other man got into his car and drove off. He was interested in the car, which was an expensive model, of a sort that one saw only rarely. He wondered what the engine would look like, mentally undressing the car. Mechanics did that sometimes: as some men will imagine a woman without her clothes, so they will picture a car engine without its surrounding metal; guilty pleasures both. He was so engaged in this that Mr Ntirang was well on his way before Mr J. L. B. Matekoni realised that the red car was being driven back to Gaborone. Mma Mateleke had said, quite unambiguously, that Mr Ntirang had been on his way to Lobatse, and Mr Ntirang had nodded—equally unambiguously—to confirm that this was indeed true. Yet here he was, driving back in the direction from which he had come. Had he forgotten where he was going? Could anybody be so forgetful as to fail to remember that they were driving from Gaborone to Lobatse, and not the other way round? The answer was that of course they could: Mr J. L. B. Matekoni himself had an aunt who had set out to drive to Serowe but who had turned back halfway because she had forgotten why it was that she wanted to go to Serowe in the first place. But he did not think it likely that Mr Ntirang was liable to such absent-mindedness. It was his driving style that pointed to this conclusion—he was a man who very clearly knew where he was going.
As the countdown finally begins to Mma Makutsi’s wedding, all is not as it should be at the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency. While investigating unpleasant occurrences on a southern cattle-post, Mma Ramotswe, always on the side of the underdog, has reason to reflect on Rule No. 3 of The Principles of Private Detection: never lie to the client.
Outside of the office, there are other troubles: Mma Ramotswe fears she may be hallucinating when she sees her beloved old white van—sent to the junkyard long ago—trundling around the city again; one of the apprentice mechanics at Tlokweng Road Speedy Motors appears to have run off to avoid certain crucial responsibilities; and Mma Makutsi’s nemesis Violet Sephotho is casting her net wider and standing for election to Parliament, which could spell trouble for the entire nation.
Mma Ramotswe had by no means forgotten her late white van. It was true that she did not brood upon it, as some people dwell on things of the past, but it still came to mind from time to time, often at unexpected moments. Memories of that which we have lost are curious things—weeks, months, even years may pass without any recollection of them and then, quite suddenly, something will remind us of a lost friend, or of a favourite possession that has been mislaid or destroyed, and then we will think: Yes, that is what I had and I have no longer.
Her van had been her companion and friend for many years. Can a vehicle—a collection of mechanical bits and pieces, nuts and bolts and parts the names of which one has not the faintest idea of—can such a thing be a friend? Of course it can: physical objects can have personalities, at least in the eyes of their owners. To others, it may only be a van, but to the owner it may be the friend that has started loyally each morning—except sometimes; that has sat patiently during long hours of waiting outside the houses of suspected adulterers; that has carried one home in the late afternoon, tired after a day’s work at the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency. And just like a person, a car or a van may have likes and dislikes. A good tar road is balm to man and machine and may produce a humming sound of satisfaction in both car and driver; an unpaved road, concealing behind each bend a deep pothole or tiny mountain range of corrugations, may provoke rattles and groans of protest from even the most tolerant of vehicles. For this reason, the owners of cars may be forgiven for thinking that under the metal there lurks something not all that different from a human soul.
Mma Ramotswe’s van had served her well, and she loved it. Its life, though, had been a hard one. Not only had it been obliged to cope with dust, which, as anybody who lives in a dry country will know, can choke a vehicle to death, but its long-suffering suspension had been required to deal with persistent overloading, at least on the driver’s side. That, of course, was the side on which Mma Ramotswe sat, and she was, by her own admission and description, a traditionally built person. Such a person can wear down even the toughest suspension, and this is exactly what happened in the case of the tiny white van, which permanently listed to starboard as a result.
Mma Ramotswe’s husband, Mr J. L. B. Matekoni, that excellent man, proprietor of Tlokweng Road Speedy Motors and widely regarded as the best mechanic in all Botswana, had done his best to address the problem, but had tired of having to change the van’s shock absorbers from side to side so as to equalise the strain. Yet it went further than that. The engine itself had started to make a sinister sound, which grew in volume until eventually the big-end failed.
“I am just a mechanic, Mma Ramotswe,” he had said to his wife. “A mechanic is a man who fixes cars and other vehicles. That is what a mechanic does.”
Mma Ramotswe had listened politely, but her heart within her was a stone of fear. She knew that the fate of her van was at stake, and she would prefer not to know that. “I think I understand what a mechanic does, Rra,” she said. “And you are a very good mechanic, quite capable of fixing a—”
She did not finish. The normally mild Mr J. L. B. Matekoni had raised a finger. “A mechanic, Mma,” he pronounced, “is different from a miracle-worker. A miracle-worker is a person who ... works miracles. A mechanic cannot do that. And so when the time comes for a vehicle to die—and they are mortal, Mma, I can assure you—then he cannot wave a wand and make the car new again.” He paused, looking at her with the air of a doctor imparting bad news. “And so ... ”
He had done his best for her, of course, and bought her a spanking new van, blue this time, with an array of buttons on the dashboard that she had not yet dared investigate, and with an engine so quiet and unobtrusive that it was sometimes possible to believe that it was not switched on at all and that it was gravity alone, or some other mysterious force, that was propelling the van down the road. She tried to appear grateful, but it was hard. It was true that the point of a vehicle was to get you from one place to another without incident, but that, she thought, was not the only consideration. If efficiency were the only value in this life, then we would be content to eat bland but nutritious food every day—and the same food at that. That would keep us alive, but it would make for very dull mealtimes. And the same was true of transport: there was all the world of difference between travelling along a highway in an air-conditioned bus, behind tinted glass, and making the same journey by a side-road, on a cart pulled by a team of mules, with the morning air fresh against your face and the branches of the acacia trees brushing past so close that you could reach out to touch the delicate green leaves. There was all that difference.
The tiny white van had gone to a scrap dealer, and that, she thought, was the end. But then she encountered a woman who told her that a nephew of hers had acquired the van, and towed it up to his place near the Tuli Block. He loved tinkering, she said, and he might be able to do something with the parts that he could strip from the body of the van. That was all Mma Ramotswe heard, and nothing more. It was a better fate, perhaps, than that of total destruction in the jaws of some metal-crushing predator, but still she hoped that the young man who had bought the van for scrap might exercise his mechanical skills and restore it. And that possibility she kept in her mind, tucked away among the other scraps of hope of the sort that we go through life with, not thinking about them very much but unwilling to let them fade away altogether.
Now, on this crisp Botswana day, at the tail end of a winter that, for all its cold mornings, was still drenched in clear and constant sun, Mma Ramotswe was reminded of her former van by something she saw on the road. She was driving past the Ministry of Water Affairs, her mind on a case that she had been working on for some time and was no nearer resolution than when she had started. She wondered whether she should not begin afresh, abandoning all the information she had obtained, and speaking to everybody again from scratch; possibly, she thought, it might be easier if ... And then, out of the corner of her eye, she saw what seemed to be her tiny white van. It was not just that she saw a white van—they were common enough in a country where the most popular colour for a vehicle was white—it was the fact that the white vehicle she saw had the air of her van, a characteristic gait, so to speak, a way of moving.
Her first instinct was to stop, and this she did, pulling in to the side of the road, her wheels throwing up a cloud of dust and causing the vehicle behind her to swerve angrily. She waved an apology—that was not the sort of driving she condoned in others—before twisting round in her seat to look at the turning down which she had glimpsed the van making its way. She saw nothing, so she decided to reverse a few yards to get a better view. But no, the side-road was empty.
She frowned. Had she imagined it? She had read somewhere that those who mourn will sometimes see those they mourn—or will think they see them. But she was not really mourning her van, even if she regretted its passing; she was not the sort of woman who would allow something like that to get in the way of living. She shook her head, as if to clear it, and then, on impulse, made a sweeping U-turn, heading off on to the side-road down which she had seen the white van disappear.
A woman was sitting on a stone on the edge of the road, a small bundle of possessions on the ground beside her. Mma Ramotswe slowed down, and the woman looked at her enquiringly.
“I’m sorry, Mma,” said Mma Ramotswe through her open window. “I haven’t stopped to give you a ride to wherever it is you want to go.”
“Ah,” said the woman. “I hoped you had, Mma, but I don’t mind. My son promised to come and collect me, and he will get round to it eventually.”
“Sometimes men forget these things,” said Mma Ramotswe.
“They tell us that they are too busy to do the things we want them to do, but they have plenty of time for their own concerns.” The woman laughed. “Oh, that is right, my sister! I can hear them saying that in those voices that men have!”
Mma Ramotswe joined in the laughter. Then she asked, “Did a white van come down this way, Mma? Not a big one—a small one, same size as this one I’m in but much older—and white.”
The woman frowned. “When, Mma? I have only been sitting here for half an hour.”
“Oh, not that long ago,” said Mma Ramotswe. “About two or three minutes ago. Maybe four.”
The woman shook her head. “No, Mma. Nobody has been down here for at least ten minutes, maybe more. And there have been no white vans—I would have seen one if there had been. I have been watching, you see.”
“Are you sure, Mma?”
The woman nodded vigorously. “I am very sure, Mma. I see everything. I was in the police, you see. For three years, a long time ago, I was one of those police ladies. Then I fell off a truck and they said that I could not walk well enough to stay in. They are very foolish sometimes, and that is why the criminals sit there in those bars and tell one another stories of what the police have not done. They laugh at them and drink their beer. That is what is happening today, and God will certainly punish the politicians one day for letting this happen.”
Mma Ramotswe smiled. “You are right, Mma. Those criminals need to be taught a lesson. But to go back to the van, are you absolutely sure, Mma?”
“I am one hundred per cent sure,” said the woman. “If you made me stand up in the High Court in Lobatse and asked me whether I had seen a van, I would say certainly not and that is the truth.”
Mma Ramotswe thanked her. “I hope that your son comes soon, Mma,” she said.
“He will. When he has finished dancing with ladies or whatever he is doing, he will come.”
Mma Ramotswe continued with her journey, completing the tasks she had been on her way to perform. She thought no more of the sighting of the van until she returned to the office a couple of hours later and mentioned the matter to Mma Makutsi.
“I saw something very strange today, Mma,” she began as she settled herself at her desk.
“That is no surprise,” said Mma Makutsi from the other side of the room. “There are some very strange things happening in Gaborone these days.”
Mma Ramotswe would normally have agreed with this—there were very odd things happening—but she did not want Mma Makutsi to get launched on the subject of politics or the behaviour of teenagers, or any of the other subjects on which she harboured strong and sometimes unconventional views. So she went on to describe the sighting of the van and the curiously unsettling conversation she had had with the woman by the side of the road. “She was very sure that there had been no van, Mma, and I believed her. And yet I am just as sure that I saw it. I was not dreaming.”
Mma Makutsi listened attentively. “So,” she said. “You saw it, but she did not. What does that mean, Mma?”
Mma Ramotswe considered this for a moment. There was something on the issue in Clovis Andersen’s book, she seemed to remember; The Principles of Private Detection had a great deal to recommend it in all departments, but it was particularly strong on the subject of evidence and the recollection of what people see. When two or more people see something, the great authority had written, you would be astonished at how many different versions of events you will get! This is not because people are lying; it is more because we see things differently. One person sees one thing, and another sees something altogether different. Both believe that they are telling the truth.
Mma Makutsi did not wait for Mma Ramotswe to answer her question. “It means that one of you saw something that the other did not.”
Mma Ramotswe pondered this answer. It did not advance the matter very much, she thought.
“So the fact that one of you saw nothing,” Mma Makutsi continued, “does not mean that there was nothing. She saw nothing because she did not notice anything. You saw something that she did not notice because it was not there, or it was not there in the way that you thought it was there.”
“I’m not sure I follow you, Mma Makutsi ... ”
Mma Makutsi drew herself up behind her desk. “That van, Mma Ramotswe, was a ghost van. It was the spirit of a late van. That’s what you must have seen.”
Mma Ramotswe was not certain whether her assistant was being serious. Mma Makutsi could make peculiar remarks, but she had never before said anything quite as ridiculous as this. That was what made her feel that perhaps she was joking and that the proper reaction for her was to laugh. But if she laughed and her assistant was in fact being serious, then offence would be taken and this could be followed by a period of huffiness. So she confined her reaction to an innocent question: “Do vans have ghosts, Mma? Do you think that likely?”
“I don’t see why not,” said Mma Makutsi. “If people have ghosts, then why shouldn’t other things have them? What makes us so special that only we can have ghosts? What makes us think that, Mma?”
“Well, I’m not so sure that there are ghosts of people anyway,” said Mma Ramotswe. “If we go to heaven when we die, then who are these ghosts that people talk about? No, it doesn’t seem likely to me.”
Mma Makutsi frowned. “Ah, but who says that everybody goes to heaven?” she asked. “There are people who will not get anywhere near heaven. I can think of many ... ”
Mma Ramotswe’s curiosity was too much for her. “Such as, Mma?”
Mma Makutsi showed no hesitation in replying. “Violet Sephotho,” she said quickly. “There will be no place for her in heaven—that is well known. So she will have to stay down here in Gaborone, walking around and not being seen by anybody because she will be a ghost.” She paused, an expression of delight crossing her face.
“And, Mma, she will be a ghost in high-heeled shoes! Can you imagine that, Mma? A ghost tottering around on those silly high heels that she wears. It is a very funny thought, Mma. Even those who saw such a ghost would not be frightened but would burst out laughing. Other ghosts would laugh, Mma—they would, although we wouldn’t hear them, of course.”
“Unless we were ghosts ourselves by that stage,” interjected Mma Ramotswe. “Then we would hear them.”
This warning made Mma Makutsi fall silent. It had been an appetising picture that she had been painting, and she slightly resented Mma Ramotswe’s spoiling it like this. But her resentment did not persist, as it occurred to her that Mma Ramotswe, having possibly just seen a ghost herself—even if only a ghost van—might be in need of a restorative cup of redbush tea.
“I think it is time that I put the kettle on,” she said. “All this talk of ghosts ... ”
Mma Ramotswe laughed. “There are no ghosts, Mma. No ghost people, no ghost vans. These things are just stories we make up to frighten ourselves.”
Mma Makutsi, now standing beside the kettle, looked out of the window. Yes, she thought, one can say that sort of thing in broad daylight, under this wide and sunlit Botswana sky, but would one say the same thing with equal conviction at night, when one was out in the bush, perhaps, away from the streetlights of town, and surrounded by the sounds of the night—sounds that could not be easily explained away and could be anything, things known or unknown, things friendly or unfriendly, things that it was better not to think about? She shuddered. It was not a good idea to let one’s mind dwell on these matters, and she was sure it was best to think about something quite different. And so she said to Mma Ramotswe,
“Mma, I am worried about Charlie. I am very worried.”
Mma Ramotswe looked up from her desk. “Charlie, Mma Makutsi? But we have always been worried about Charlie, right from the beginning.” She smiled at her assistant. “I’m sure that even when he was a very small boy, this high, his mother was shaking her head and saying that she was worried about Charlie. And all those girls, I’m sure that they have been saying the same thing for years. It is what people say about him.”
Mma Makutsi smiled too, but only weakly. “Yes, Mma,” she said. “But this time it’s different. I think now that we have to do something about him.”
Mma Ramotswe sighed. Whatever it was, Mma Makutsi was probably right. But she was not sure that it was the responsibility of the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency to deal with Charlie’s problems—whatever they were. Charlie was an apprentice of Tlokweng Road Speedy Motors, and it would have to be Mr J. L. B. Matekoni who took action.
She looked across the room at her assistant, who was frowning with concentration as she poured the boiling water into the teapot. “Very well, Mma Makutsi,” she said. “Tell me what the trouble is. What has our young friend been up to now?”
Precious Ramotswe is very busy these days. The best apprentice at Tlokweng Road Speedy Motors is in trouble with the law and stuck with the worst lawyer in Gaborone. Grace Makutsi and Phuti Radiphuti are embarking on married life and building a new house—a tricky business under any circumstances, but especially hazardous when working with the Joy and Light Building Company, a contractor that is not entirely on the up and up. Most shockingly, Mma Potokwane, the orphan farm’s respected matron, has been dismissed from her post. Mma Ramotswe is not about to rest when her friends are mistreated. And help arrives from unexpected visitor: none other than the estimable Mr Clovis Andersen, author of The Principles of Private Detection, the No.1 Ladies’ prized guide to their trade.
Mma Ramotswe looked down at her desk. She did not like to discuss the intimate side of anybody’s marriage—particularly when the marriage was as recent as Mma Makutsi’s. She thought of new marriages as being rather like those shy, delicate flowers one sees on the edge of the Kalahari; so small that one might miss them altogether, so vulnerable that a careless step might crush their beauty. Of course, people talked about their dreams without too much embarrassment—most dreams, after all, sound inconsequential and silly in the cold light of day—but it was different when a wife talked about a husband’s dreams, or a husband about a wife’s. Dreams occurred in beds, and what occurred in marital beds was not a subject for debate in the office—especially if the dream related to beds, as it appeared that some of Phuti Radiphuti’s dreams did.
But if Mma Ramotswe was reluctant to probe Phuti’s dreams too closely, the same was not true of her assistant. The topic had now been broached, and Mma Makutsi pursued it enthusiastically.
“There is no doubt about a dream about beds,” she continued. “The meaning of that dream is very clear, Mma. It should be very obvious, even to a person who does not know much about dreams, or other things, for that matter.”
Mma Ramotswe said nothing.
“Yes,” said Mma Makutsi, “if a person says I have been dreaming about beds, then you know straight away what the dream means. You can say to them, I know what that dream means. It is very clear.”
Mma Ramotswe looked out of the window, which was high, and gave a view from that angle only of a slice of blue; empty blue; blue with no white of cloud; nothingness. “Is the meaning of dreams clear, Mma? Do any dreams make sense, or are they just like ... like clouds in the sky, composed of nothing very much? Maybe they are clouds in our mind, Mma; maybe that is what they are.”
Mma Makutsi was having none of this. “The meaning is often clear,” she retorted. “I have no difficulty, Mma, in understanding a dream about beds.”
Mma Ramotswe sighed. “Well, they do say, don’t they, Mma, that men have such things on their minds most of the time. They say that men think only of that, all day. Listen to the way Charlie speaks when he thinks you can’t hear him. That shows you what men think about—or at least, young men. I do not think that Mr J. L. B. Matekoni has thoughts like that in his head all day. I do not think that, Mma.”
It was as if Mma Makutsi had not heard her. “Yes, Mma. The meaning of a dream about beds is very simple. It means that you are tired. It means that you need more sleep.”
Mma Ramotswe stared at her assistant for a few moments. Then, with some degree of relief, she smiled. “Well, there you have it, Mma. That must be what such a dream means.”
As Botswana awaits the familiar blessing of the rains and the resumption of the eternal cycle, a seismic upheaval is taking place at the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency. Not only is Mr J. L. B. Matekoni attempting to reform himself into a modern husband, but after her marriage to Phuti Radiphuti, Mma Ramotswe’s challenging but irreplaceable associate Mma Makutsi has joyful news.
While the arrival of an heir to the Double Comfort Furniture empire keeps Mma Makutsi busy with motherhood, Mma Ramotswe must grapple alone with two puzzling cases. Disturbing developments over the will of a local dignitary, Edgar Molapo, point to fraud and a shocking family secret. And, tracing the source of a smear campaign against the Minor Adjustment Beauty Salon, in which notorious troublemaker Violet Sephotho may or not have a hand, will require a keen eye and an open mind.
Of course, Mma Ramotswe and Mr J. L. B. Matekoni had discussed the issue many times themselves, as they did that evening some months previously when he had first raised it with her. They were sitting on their veranda in that companionable manner that may come upon a married couple at the end of a day’s work, when they are together again and watching the sun sink behind the acacia trees and the untidy telephone wires of their neighbour’s garden. They had been talking about nothing in particular, with few matters that were likely to disturb the peace of this quiet half-hour before supper.
“I wonder when our neighbour is going to tidy up those wires,” mused Mr J. L. B. Matekoni. “You’d think that he’d get in touch with the telephone people and get them to come round and sort things out. I shouldn’t be surprised to find out that half those wires are dead—just ancient wires from the past.”
Mma Ramotswe glanced over the fence at the untidy cluster of wires attached to the wooden telephone pole. She felt that Mr J. L. B. Matekoni was probably right; the country was full of wires that might have done something important in the past but had long since stopped being used. She imagined somehow listening in to one of these wires and hearing the echoes of some forgotten exchange between people that had taken place many years before but still echoed through those old abandoned wires. One might hear a conversation that took place in 1962, perhaps, when Botswana was still the Bechuanaland Protectorate, and when cattle were the main industry and there were no diamonds. It might be a conversation between somebody in Lobatse driving up to see somebody in Gaborone and not requiring any directions because there were only a couple of roads. “You take the right-hand road. You know the right-hand road?”
Silence, empty silence, and then a faint, tinny voice ringing down the line. “I know that road, Rra. That is the road my grandfather lives on.”
The voice of the dead—you could hear them still, if you listened hard enough. Late people still talking, like children talking after lights-out: the faint, distant voices of our ancestors.
And then, as if he had already forgotten about the telephone wires, Mr J. L. B. Matekoni suddenly said, “Mma Makutsi?”
It was a question rather than a pronouncement, and Mma Ramotswe waited a moment or two before answering, in case the point of the question might be expanded upon. But it was not.
“Yes,” she said. “Mma Makutsi: what of her, Rra?”
Mr J. L. B. Matekoni shrugged. “Nothing, Mma.” But it was not nothing. “I just happened to be wondering whether there was anything ... different about her?” He paused. “Now that she’s married, you see.”
She looked at him, and he turned away, embarrassed. “No, I don’t mean ... ”
“Of course not. But it is true, Mr J. L. B. Matekoni: marriage changes people. For some people it can be quite a surprise.”
“Yes, I know that, but there is something about Mma Makutsi I would like to raise, Mma—if you don’t mind.”
Mma Ramotswe looked at him expectantly. “Please do, Rra. We have all the time in the world.”
He frowned. “But we don’t have all the time in the world, Mma Ramotswe ... ”
She gently encouraged him. “No, of course we don’t, but we certainly have enough time for you to say something.”
He looked out over the garden, out towards the mopipi tree of which Mma Ramotswe was so proud. Not everyone had a mopipi tree in the garden and she had been solicitous of its welfare, giving it more water than a tree might otherwise expect.
“A question,” he said. “When did Mma Makutsi get married? Was it seven months ago? Eight?”
Mma Ramotswe did a quick calculation. “It was just after the first rains, wasn’t it? Which makes it about ten or eleven months ago.”
Mr J. L. B. Matekoni looked thoughtful. “Then that is the answer,” he said.
“The answer to what? To when she got married?”
He shook his head. “Pregnant, Mma. Mma Makutsi must be pregnant.”
The fifteenth book in the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series
Over the years Mma Ramotswe has found many lost things, but never before has she been asked to help a woman find herself—until now. A kindhearted brother and sister have taken in a nameless woman with no memory of her own history or how she came to Botswana. It falls to Precious Ramotswe and her newly appointed co-director, Grace Makutsi, to discover the woman’s identity. Meanwhile, motherhood proves to be no obstacle to Mma Makutsi’s professional success, as she launches a new enterprise of her own: the Handsome Man’s De Luxe Café, a restaurant for Gaborone’s most fashionable diners, even if it becomes quickly apparent that she’s bitten off a bit more than she can chew. And next door, Mr J.L.B. Matekoni is forced to make a choice that will directly affect not only Tlokweng Road Speedy Motors, but the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency as well. With sympathy and boundless good humor, Mma Ramotswe and her friends see one another through these major changes and discover along the way what true friendship really means.
Precious Ramotswe, creator and owner of the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, friend of those who needed help with the problems in their lives, and wife of that great garagiste, Mr J. L. B. Matekoni, felt that there were broadly speaking two sorts of days. There were days on which nothing of any consequence took place—these were in a clear majority—and then there were those on which rather too much happened. On those uneventful days you might well wish that a bit more would happen; on days when too much occurred, you longed for life to become a bit quieter.
It had always been like that, she thought, and always would be. As her father, the late Obed Ramotswe, often said: there are always too many cattle or too few—never just the right number. As a child she had wondered what he meant by this; now she knew.
Both sorts of day started in much the same way, with the opening of her eyes to the familiar dappled pattern made by the morning sun on the ceiling above her bed, an indistinct dancing of light, faint at first, but gradually becoming stronger. This intrusion of the dawn came from the gap between the curtains—the gap that she always intended to do something about, but did not because there were more pressing domestic tasks and never enough time for everything you had to do. And as long as curtains did their main job, which was to prevent nosy people—unauthorised people, as Mma Makutsi would call them—from looking into her bedroom without her permission, then she did not have to worry too much about their not meeting in the middle.
She woke up at more or less the same time each morning, thought for a while about getting up, and then rose, leaving Mr J. L. B. Matekoni still deeply asleep on his side of the bed, dreaming about the sort of things that mechanics, and men in general, dream about. Women, she felt, should not enquire too closely as to what these things were, as they were not the sort of things that women liked very much—engines and football, and so on. A friend had once said to her that men did not dream about things like that—that this was just what women wanted men to dream about, while men, in reality, dreamed about things that they would never reveal. Mma Ramotswe doubted this. She had asked Mr J. L. B. Matekoni one morning what he had dreamed about and he had replied: ‘the garage’, and if this were not proof enough, on another occasion, when she had woken him from the tossing and turning of a nightmare, he had replied to her question about the content of the bad dream by saying that it had all been to do with a seized-up gearbox. And then there was Puso, their foster child, who had told her that his dreams were about having a large dog that chased away the bullies at school, or about finding an old aeroplane in the back yard and fixing it so that it could fly, or about scoring a goal for Botswana in a soccer match against Zambia, with the whole stadium rising to its feet and cheering him. That, she thought, settled that. Perhaps there were some men who dreamed about other things, but she felt that this was not the case for most men.
Once up and about, clasping her cup of freshly brewed red- bush tea in her hand, she took a walk around the garden, savouring the freshness of the early-morning air. Some people said that the air in the morning had no smell; she thought they were wrong, for it smelled of so many things—of the acacia leaves that had been closed for the night and were now opening at the first touch of the morning sun; of a wood fire somewhere, just a hint of it; of the wind, and the breath that the wind had, which was dry and sweet, like the breath of cattle. It was while she was standing there that she decided whether the day would be one in which things might happen; it had something to do with the way she felt when she considered the day ahead. And most of the time she was right, although sometimes, of course, she could be completely wrong.
On that particular morning as she walked past the mopipi tree she had planted at the front of the garden, she had a sudden feeling that the next few hours were going to be rather unusual. It was not a disturbing premonition—not one of those feelings that one gets when one fears that something is going to go badly wrong—it was more a feeling that something interesting and out of the ordinary lay ahead.
She remarked on the fact to Mr J. L. B. Matekoni as he sat at the kitchen table eating the brown maize porridge that he liked so much. Puso and his sister Motholeli had already eaten their breakfast and were in their rooms preparing to leave for school. The school run that Mma Ramotswe had become so used to was now no longer necessary, as Puso was of an age to make his own way there—the school was not far away—and he was also able to help his sister with the wheelchair. This gave the children an inde- pendence that they both enjoyed, although departing on time could be a problem when Puso had some boyish task to complete—the catching of flying ants, for instance—or Motholeli had at the last minute to find another pair of cotton socks or locate a book that needed to be returned to the school library.
“I have a feeling,” announced Mma Ramotswe, “that this is going to be a busy day.”
Mr J. L. B. Matekoni glanced up from his porridge. “Lots of letters to write? Bills to send out?”
Mma Ramotswe shook her head. “No, we’re up to date on all of those things, Rra. Mma Makutsi has been busy with her filing, too, and everything is put away.”
“Lots of clients to see, then?” He thought of his own day, and imagined a line of driverless, impatient cars, each eager for his attention, their horns honking to attract his notice: cars, in his view, were quite capable of all the human emotions and failings, including a lack of patience or restraint.
Mma Ramotswe had looked at her diary just before leaving the office the previous day, and had seen that it was largely empty.
“No,” she answered. “There are no appointments with clients. Nothing this morning and nothing this afternoon, I think.”
He looked puzzled. “And yet it’s going to be a busy day?”
“I have that feeling. It’s difficult to say why, but I am sure that this will not be a quiet day.”
Mr J. L. B. Matekoni smiled. People talked about the intuition of women, but he was not sure that he believed in it. How could women possibly know things that men did not know? Was their hearing more acute than men’s, so that they heard things that men missed—as dogs or cats might pick up frequencies audible only to them? He thought not. Or was their eyesight more acute, so that they saw clear details where men saw only indistinct blurs? Again, he thought not. What we knew, we knew from our senses, and the senses of women were no different from the senses of men.
And yet, and yet ... As he returned to his porridge, Mr J. L. B. Matekoni reflected on how there had been so many instances in which Mma Ramotswe had shown a quite uncanny ability to notice things that he himself had simply missed, or to know things about others that most people—most ordinary people, or men, to be specific—would not be expected to know. He remembered how, while out shopping with her a few weeks earlier, she had whispered to him that a woman walking towards them was probably one of Mma Potokwani’s cousins. He had cast an eye discreetly over the woman and wondered whether he had ever met her in the company of Mma Potokwani, but decided that he had not. How, then, could Mma Ramotswe tell?
“She was carrying one of those bags that the orphans make in Mma Potokani’s craft workshop,” said Mma Ramotswe. “That’s the first thing I noticed. Then I saw the shoes that she was wearing. They were very unusual shoes, and I had seen them before—when they belonged to Mma Potokwani. She must have passed them on.”
He had dismissed this as fanciful, but several days later, when he had gone out to the Orphan Farm to attend to one of the vans, on a pro bono basis of course, he had remembered the incident and asked Mma Potokwani whether she had any cousins visiting her. She did. And had she passed on an unusual pair of shoes to this cousin? “As it happens,” said Mma Potokwani, “I did. But let’s not waste time talking about these small things, Rra. Now there is something wrong with the spare van too, and I was hoping that you would have the time to look at that one as well.”
He had sighed. “I am always happy to help you, Mma Potokwani,” he said. “But there are places called garages, you know, and they are there to fix vehicles. That is their job. Perhaps you might try in future to—”
Mma Potokwani did not let him finish. “Oh, I know all about garages,” she said lightly. “But I would never go to one of them—your own garage excluded, of course, Rra. Ow, those garages are expensive! You drive onto their forecourt and straight away that’s two hundred pula. You get out of the car—that’s another fifty pula. They say, ‘Good morning, Mma, and what can we do for you?’ That costs seventy-five pula to say, and so it goes on. No, Rra, I will not go near those places; not me.”
Now, as he finished the last of his porridge, Mr J. L. B. Matekoni reminded himself that the one thing he felt certain about when it came to women was that you could never be sure. If Mma Ramotswe said she had a feeling about something, then it was perfectly possible that her instinct was correct. So rather than say, “We shall see, Mma,” he muttered, “Well, you’re probably right, Mma.” And then he added, very much as an afterthought—and a hesitant afterthought at that—“Who knows, Mma, what will happen? Who knows?”
When Mma Ramotswe arrived at the office that morning, Mma Makutsi was already there. Grace Makutsi, wife of Mr Phuti Radiphuti and mother of Itumelang Clovis Radiphuti, had recently been made a full partner in the business. It had been a long road, one that stretched from her first appointment as secretary in the fledgling agency, to assistant detective, to the vague, rather unsatisfactory status of associate detective, and finally to partnership. It had been a road that started in distant Bobonong, in the north of the country, in a home that housed six people in two cramped rooms, and from there had led, through much scrimping and saving by Mma Makutsi’s family, to the Botswana Secretarial College. At the end of her course the road had climbed sharply uphill to the glorious mark of ninety-seven per cent in the final examinations—a result never before achieved at the college, and never since then equalled. But even that distinction provided in itself no guarantee of a life free of struggle, and for some years Mma Makutsi had been obliged to endure an existence of parsimony and want. Mma Ramotswe would have paid her more had she been able, but the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency made no money at all, and there was a limit to how generous a loss-making business could be. There would have been no point, she thought, in giving Mma Makutsi a bigger salary and then having to close the business down after a month or two when it went bankrupt.
Mma Makutsi understood all this. She was grateful to Mma Ramotswe for all she did for her, and so when her fortunes changed dramatically on her marriage to Mr Phuti Radiphuti, she made it clear that she would not give up her job, but would continue to work at the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency. As a partner in the business, her devotion to the enterprise became even more intense—hence her new habit of arriving earlier than Mma Ramotswe on most mornings.
To begin with, her baby son, Itumelang, accompanied his mother into the office, sleeping contentedly in his carrycot while she got on with her work. Now, however, he had become more wakeful, and consequently more demanding, and this meant that he was left at home with the woman from Bobonong who had been employed as a nursemaid.
“I am very happy with my life,” said Mma Makutsi. “I find professional satisfaction in my work, and at the same time I have all the pleasure of running a home. It is a very good thing when a woman can do both of these things.”
“Yes, we women are doing very well in Botswana,” agreed Mma Ramotswe. “We don’t have to sit out in the lands all day. We are running businesses now. We are building roads. We are flying aeroplanes. We are doing all the things that men used to think were not for us.”
For a moment, Mma Makutsi pictured Mma Ramotswe at the controls of a plane. It would be hard for her to keep the aircraft level, she thought, as her traditional build would make it far heavier on the side on which she was sitting. It would be possible, she felt, to adjust the controls so that the wing on her side came up a bit, but she still imagined that landings would be a bit heavy, and bumpy. Of course it would be quite a shock if one were to get into a plane and see that Mma Ramotswe was in the pilot’s seat. It would be rude to refuse to board the plane in such circumstances, and one would simply have to put a brave face on it and hope for the best. Perhaps one could hide one’s surprise by saying something like, “Oh, Mma Ramotswe, I did not know that you had taken up flying. This is good news, Mma. This is a big victory for women.”
Coming into the office first, Mma Makutsi took it upon herself to have the early-morning cup of tea—as distinct from the mid-morning and late-morning cups—ready for when Mma Ramotswe arrived. This cup was an important one, as it enabled the two women to consider their plans for the day ahead. There might have been no scientific connection between drinking tea and getting one’s thoughts in order, but that was the way it seemed, at least in Mma Ramotswe’s opinion. Tea brought about focus, and that helped.
“So,” said Mma Ramotswe. “What have we today, Mma Makutsi?”
“We have tea to begin with,” said Mma Makutsi.
“That is very good.”
“And then ... well, we have nothing, as far as I can see, Mma.” Mma Makutsi paused. “Unless, of course, something turns up. And it might. Sometimes there is nothing at eight o’clock and then at ten o’clock there is something.”
“I have a feeling there’ll be something,” said Mma Ramotswe.
“When I was in my garden this morning I had a feeling about that.”
Mma Makutsi, looking down at the surface of her desk, moved a pencil from one place to another. “Yes,” she said pensively.
“There might be something. Later on.”
“You think so, Mma?” asked Mma Ramotswe.
Mma Makutsi waited some time before answering. Then at last she said, “I am expecting some news, Mma. It might come today.”
Mma Ramotswe knew better than to ask exactly what this news might be. Mma Makutsi sometimes liked to shroud her affairs in mystery, and did not always respond well to direct questioning. So she simply said, “I hope that you get your news, Mma.”
“Thank you, Mma. When you are waiting for news, it is better to get it. It is not easy not to get news that you’re waiting for. Then you think: what has happened about the thing that I’m waiting to hear about? Has it happened, or has it not happened?” Mma Makutsi stared at Mma Ramotswe as she made these remarks. The light caught her large glasses and danced, in shards of gold, across the ceiling.
“And if you don’t hear anything,” she continued, “then you can spend the whole day worrying about it.”
“This news of yours,” said Mma Ramotswe, trying to sound as if the matter under discussion was barely of any interest at all, “will it come in a letter, or ... ”
“No,” said Mma Makutsi, shaking her head. “It will not be in a letter.”
“Or a telephone call?”
“Yes, it will be a telephone call. It will be a telephone call from my lawyer.”
This could hardly be ignored. “Your lawyer, Mma?”
Mma Makutsi waved a hand with the air of one who is accustomed to having a lawyer. Of course she might have a lawyer now, thought Mma Ramotswe, but she would not have had one all that long ago. Yet she did not begrudge Mma Makutsi the satisfaction of having a lawyer after having lived so many years without one, even if she had no lawyer herself, now that she came to think of it.
“It is nothing very important, Mma Ramotswe. Just a little ... ” Mma Ramotswe waited.
“A little personal matter.”
Mma Makutsi rose from her desk. “But we should not be talking about these things. We should perhaps be going over that business plan I drew up, Mma.”
“Ah, yes,” said Mma Ramotswe. “The business plan.”
Mma Makutsi had drawn up a business plan when she had seen one that Phuti Radiphuti had prepared for the Double Comfort Furniture Store. Of course the two businesses were as chalk and cheese in terms of turnover and profit, but Phuti had told her that every concern should have a plan and she had volunteered to do the necessary work.
Mma Ramotswe took the sheet of paper passed to her by Mma Makutsi. The heading at the top read The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency: Challenges Ahead and Options for the Future.
“That is a very good title,” said Mma Ramotswe. “Challenges and options. I think you are right to mention those, Mma: they are both there.”
Back in her seat, Mma Makutsi accepted the compliment gracefully. “It is forward-looking, Mma. You’ll have noticed that.” Mma Ramotswe glanced down the page. “And there is this paragraph here that talks about enhanced profit. That is good, Mma.”
Mma Makutsi inclined her head. “That is the objective of every business, Mma. Enhanced profit is what counts. If we were a company, that would drive the share price up.”
“Yes,” said Mma Ramotswe, knowing even as she spoke that she sounded rather vague. She had no head for finance, especially when it came to companies and share prices and so on, although she understood the basics and was particularly good at counting. This she had learned from her father, who had been able to count a herd of cattle with astonishing accuracy, even as the animals moved around and mingled with one another. She frowned. Enhanced profit had to come from somewhere. “But where do these bigger profits come from, Mma?”
Mma Makutsi answered with authority. “They come from greater turnover, Mma. That is where profits come from: turnover.”
Mma Ramotswe muttered the words greater turnover. There was a comforting, mantra-like ring to them, yes, but ... “Turnover is the same thing as fees?” she asked.
“It is,” said Mma Makutsi. “Turnover is money going through the books.” She made a curious gesture with her right hand, rep- resenting, Mma Ramotswe assumed, the progress of money through the books. It all looked so effortless, but Mma Ramotswe was not convinced.
“More money going through the books, Mma Makutsi, must mean ... ” She hesitated. “More fees?”
“Yes. In a sense.”
“In a sense?”
Mma Ramotswe looked down at the business plan. “So, unless I misunderstand all this, Mma, more fees means more clients, or, I suppose, higher charges to the clients we already have.”
Mma Makutsi stared at her. Her large glasses, thought Mma Ramotswe, reflected the world back at itself. People looked at Mma Makutsi and saw themselves.
“You could say that,” said Mma Makutsi. “That is one way of putting it.”
Mma Ramotswe’s tone was gentle. “And how are we going to get more clients, Mma?”
Mma Makutsi opened her mouth to answer, but then closed it again. She shifted her head slightly, to look past Mma Ramotswe, through the window behind her.
“There is one arriving right now,” she said.
Mma Ramotswe slipped the business plan into a drawer. The trouble with plans, she thought, was that they tended to be expressions of hope. Everybody, it seemed, felt that they should have a plan, but for most people the plan merely said what they would like to happen rather than what they would actually achieve. Most people did what they wanted to do, whether or not that was what their plan said they should do. So plans were useful only in revealing what people wished for. If you wanted to know what they would actually do, then the only way of finding out was by watching them and seeing what they did. Then you would know what they might do in the future—because most people did what they had always done. That, thought Mma Ramotswe, was well known—in fact, it was one of the best-known things there was.
“We can talk about plans some other time,” said Mma Ramotswe. “We would not want this client to think that we sit about making plans all the time.”
Mma Makutsi felt rather relieved. She was aware that her business plan was optimistic, but she had found it difficult to write anything that took a bleak view. After all, what did it matter? The important thing was that they were perfectly all right as they were. She had Phuti Radiphuti and her baby and her new house. Mma Ramotswe had Mr J. L. B. Matekoni and her white van and Puso and Motholeli. She had her garden, too, with her mopipi tree and the runner beans. And they both had the land about them; the sky that went on for ever, it seemed, and was filled with sun and with the air that they all needed, that the cattle needed, that the animals in the Kalahari needed—there was plenty of that; they had Botswana. So everybody had the things that mattered, when you came to think of it, and if you had that, did you really need a business plan?
Those were the thoughts in Mma Makutsi’s mind as she watched the car being parked beside Mma Ramotswe’s white van under the acacia tree. Two people got out—two clients, not one: as in the business plan.
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.