Alexander writes four or five new books every year. This page gives you an 'at-a-glance' view of the newest releases.
When writer Paul Stewart heads to the idyllic Italian town of Montalcino to finish his already overdue cookbook, he expects it to be the perfect escape from stressful city life. But when he arrives, things quickly take a turn for the worse. His hired car is nowhere to be found, and with no record of a reservation at the car-rental counter and no other cars are available, it appears that Paul will be stuck at the airport—that is, until an enterprising stranger offers him an unexpected alternative: a bulldozer. With little choice in the matter, Paul accepts, and so begins a series of laugh-out-loud adventures as he trundles through the Tuscan countryside. A story of unexpected circumstances and making the best of what you have, My Italian Bulldozer is a warm and witty read guaranteed to put a smile on your face.
Scotland fell away beneath him, a stretch of green pasture, of hills, of swirling mist. Suddenly they were bathed in sunlight; fields of cloud, topped with crenulations of white, now lay beneath them as their plane pointed towards south. In his window seat he closed his eyes against the glare, imagining for a few moments their destination, as much an idea, a feeling, as a place. He saw a small tower that he had never seen before, a tower of warm red brick with a pattern of holes for doves. Down below, a man was pulling at a bell rope; as the bell rang the doves launched themselves from their holes in the brick and fluttered skywards.
He opened his eyes, and noticed that the passenger in the seat beside him, a man in perhaps his early fifties, dressed in a lightweight linen suit, was looking at him. The man smiled at him, and he returned the smile.
“What takes you to Pisa?” the man asked. His accent revealed him as Italian.
Paul hesitated, unsure as to whether he wanted to strike up a conversation that went beyond the niceties. He had brought with him a book that was just beginning to engage him and he was looking forward to getting back to it. But the man smiled at him again, and his natural politeness decided the matter.
“So parlare Italiano,” he began. “Sono ... ”
The man did not allow him to finish. “Ah!” he said, and then, continuing in Italian. “What a pleasure it is for us Italians to discover somebody who speaks our language.”
“I’m sure there are many. Such a beautiful language ... ”
“Yes, but what use is a beautiful language spoken just by oneself? It’s all very well for the Spaniards, because there are so many Spanish speakers—all over the world. Even Portuguese has Brazil, but we have just us—just Italy—and after a while we get fed up with speaking only to ourselves. We have heard everything there is to say in Italian.”
“Surely not ... ”
“I am not entirely serious. A bit serious, perhaps, but not entirely.” Turning in his seat, he extended a hand towards Paul. “But I must introduce myself. I am Palumbieri—Silvio Palumbieri.”
“I’m Paul Stuart.”
Silvio loosened his tie. “Stuart is the name of Scottish kings, is it not? Mary Stuart ... ” He made a chopping gesture across his throat. “She was most unfortunate. Queens cannot choose their neighbours, and if they find they have one who has an axe, then it is most regrettable.” He sighed, as if the execution of Mary Queen of Scots had been a recent outrage.
“It was a long time ago,” Paul said.
Silvio raised an eyebrow. “But I am an historian,” he said. “What happened in the past remains rather vivid for me and ... ” He paused, and now removed the tie altogether. “That’s better. Yes I find that the past has a much bigger shadow than people believe. It’s still with us in so many ways. At our side all the time, whispering into our ear.”
“Warning us not to repeat our mistakes?”
Silvio smiled. “We repeat some. Others we’re sensible enough to avoid making more than once. But that’s not what I was thinking about. What I was thinking about was the way in which the past determines our character, not just as individuals, but as nations. A child who is treated badly grows up damaged. A people who are subjected to bad treatment will be suspicious. They will be bad allies.”
Paul, who had been holding his book, slipped it into the seat pocket in front of him. He had endured worse conversations on flights, including an attempt at religious conversion, a confession of adultery, and detailed advice on the attractions of Panama as a tax shelter. “You’re thinking of?”
Silvio waved a hand airily. “Oh, there are many examples. Russia, for one. Russia is a peasant country. It has a past of serfdom that ended only in the nineteenth century. That made for a vast, stubborn, ignorant population—one that was also very resentful. And they are resentful today—particularly of the west.”
“They view the west in the same light as they viewed their feudal masters. Authority.” He paused. “So western politicians who lecture Russia about human rights or their tendency to invade their neighbours will never change them. Not one bit. You’re dealing with a particular sort of bear, you see. One with a history. An abused bear with a short temper.”
Paul savoured the metaphor. He was right. “And Italy?”
“Well, that’s an interesting case. With us, the important thing to remember is that we are very young. We have lots of history, of course, but Italy itself is a teenager. The Risorgimento was really just yesterday, you’ll know. It ended in 1871. That’s yesterday. And that means that as a state, we are still very far from maturity. That’s why half the population doesn’t really believe that the Italian state exists—or, if it does, feel that they owe it nothing. We’re very disloyal to Rome, you know. We look after ourselves—our family, our city—and we don’t like paying taxes to Rome.”
“Nobody likes taxes.”
“Some like them less than others. Take the Greeks. They have a particular aversion to taxes, and this is because they haven’t forgotten that they were once part of the Ottoman Empire and they saw no reason to pay taxes to the Ottomans.”
“So you’re saying that people don’t change?”
Silvio sighed. “They don’t. Or if they do, it takes a long time. A very long time.”
The plane gave a slight jolt as it encountered a pocket of turbulent air. Paul glanced out of the window, and then returned to the conversation. “May I ask you something?” he said. “Is this what you actually do?”
Silvio shook his head. “I’m an economic historian,” he replied. “That’s something quite different, but it doesn’t stop me having views on these more general matters.”
“Economic history,” muttered Paul.
“A sobering science. That’s why I’ve been in Scotland. I’ve been at a conference.” He paused. “You didn’t tell me why you’re going to Pisa.”
“To taste food and wine,” said Paul.
Silvio looked surprised. “So that’s what you do?”
“Yes. I write about it.”
“There is a great deal to be said about Italian food.”
“Yes, I’m discovering that.”
Paul reached for his book.
“I mustn’t keep you from your reading.”
Paul had not intended to be rude. “Forgive me. I was enjoying our conversation.”
“But you must read your book, and I have some papers to attend to.” Silvio reached into his pocket. “Let me give you my card. I’m at the University of Pisa. It has all the details there. If you need help while you’re in Italy, please get in touch with me. My door is always open.”
Paul thanked him and took the card. Professor Silvio Palumbieri, it appeared, was not only Professor of Economic History at the University of Pisa, but a member of the Italian Academy of Economic Science and a cavaliere of the Republic. He slipped the card into the pocket of his jacket and opened his book.
They arrived in Pisa shortly before eleven in the morning. Paul said goodbye to Silvio in the plane, and once again as they were waiting for their luggage at the baggage carousel.
“Don’t forget,” said Silvio. “You have my card. I am at your disposal while you’re in my country.”
Paul thanked him. The first of his two suitcases had now been disgorged and he struggled to retrieve it. A few minutes later the second case appeared, and in that mood of relief and gratitude that always follows a safe reunion with luggage, he began to make his way to the a of the car hire firm with which Gloria had made the reservation of a small saloon car.
And that was the point at which the journey, so smooth until then, began to go badly wrong.
“Your name?” said the reservation clerk.
Paul handed him the booking confirmation Gloria had printed out for him. “It’s all there,” he said.
The clerk took the piece of paper. There was an air of suspicion in the way in which he held it—as if this might be a forgery of some sort. He looked down at his computer and typed in a few digits. Then he scrutinised the form again, glanced at Paul, and then looked back at his screen.
“I am afraid there is no such reservation,” he said.
Paul leant forward, trying to get a glimpse of the computer screen. The clerk shifted it slightly, to ensure that it was even less visible.
“I’m sorry, dottore, but there is nothing. This reservation has been made by one of our overseas offices, and they have not confirmed it with us. This has happened before. It is not our fault.”
Paul felt the back of his neck becoming warm. “But it says very clearly ... ”
The clerk cut him short. “There is nothing here on my screen.” He gave Paul a look of reproach. “Nothing. There is no car.”
“But that print-out ... ” Paul pointed at his pieced of paper, now seemingly so much more valuable than before.
“That piece of paper has the name of your firm at the top and below that it has the words Reservation Confirmed. Look. Right here. Reservation confirmed.”
The clerk shook his head. “That document is no longer valid.”
“What do you mean by that?” challenged Paul. He was being polite, but was unable to prevent a testy note from creeping into his voice.
“I mean that if a document of that type is not confirmed by an entry in the main computer, then it ceases to have any validity. That is the way these things are.” It was the voice of the patient bureaucrat, explaining how, by immutable custom, the working world ordered its affairs. But even the strictest system has room for humanity. “However, we have a spare car. It is our very last car in hand; it is a very busy time of year, you’ll understand. We can allocate that to you instead of this non-existent car you have been promised.”
“For the same rate?” asked Paul.
The clerk looked at him lugubriously, as if disappointed that Paul could even suspect that they would even consider a higher rate. “At exactly the same rate,” he confirmed. “It is much bigger than the car you claim to have booked ... ”
“That I did book,” corrected Paul.
“It is bigger than that car,” repeated the clerk. “It is a Mercedes Benz. I can prepare the documents for you.”
Paul relaxed. He was not yet in Montalcino, but the prospect of arriving there before dinner was beginning to seem more real. “You’re very kind,” he said to the clerk.
The clerk bowed his head. Tapping out details on his keyboard, he printed two sheets of paper for Paul to sign before reaching for a set of keys.
“You’ll find the car outside,” he said, and told him the row in the car park where it would be parked. “Show your copy to the woman at the barrier, and she will let you through.”
It was now midday, and the sun was at its zenith. When he left the cool of the car rental office, with its sharp, air-conditioned air, Paul felt it press down on him like a warm hand; it was humid, and his shirt clung to him uncomfortably, the damp patches showing dark through the fabric. He wiped his brow. It would be cooler in Montalcino, several hundred feet higher than Pisa.
He looked about him. The form gave the colour of the car and the number, and he started to make his way slowly along the lines of vehicles in the relevant row. By the time he reached the end, he had failed to find it. He looked along the line of vehicles in the neighbouring row; perhaps they had made a mistake and parked it in the wrong place. Slowly he worked his way along that row too, checking the number of each Mercedes Benz. It was not there—nor was it in the row beyond that. That left only one possible line of cars, and he now checked this carefully, with the same lack of result.
He felt hot and frustrated. He had heard that car hire in Italy could be an arcane, rather trying process, but he had hoped that Gloria’s arrangements would somehow avoid any difficulties. Obviously not, he said to himself.
The relatively short time he had spent in the sun was enough to make him thirsty. Looking around, he saw on the far side of the car park, separated from it by only a modest fence, a small café. He would find himself something to drink there—something cool and refreshing—before going back to the car rental office. There must be other car parks, he decided; perhaps an employee had put it in the wrong car park altogether; airports were complicated places, with all their roads and buildings, and that sort of mistake could be made only too easily.
He sat in the café for fifteen minutes or so, enjoying the air-conditioning and the bottle of chilled mineral water he had ordered. Then he returned to the terminal building, where the office of Personal-Drive Italia was located. The clerk for some reason pretended not to recognize him, and solemnly noted down his details afresh.
“So you say the car isn’t there,” he said once Paul had finished with his story.
“That’s so,” said Paul. “I have looked very carefully and it isn’t there.”
The clerk stared at him. “Yet you signed for it.”
Paul frowned. “I signed the rental agreement.”
The clerk shook his head. “No, you signed for the car itself. Look ... ” He took the form from Paul. “Here—you see—here and here. That says, I have received the above-mentioned car in good condition. That is your signature, I take it.”
“Of course it is. You were here when I signed it. You gave it to me. You.”
The clerk looked away. “Under this agreement,” he intoned, “you are liable for the car once it comes into your possession.”
“But it never did!” exploded Paul. “I never found the car. I’ve just tried to tell you that.”
“That is not what the document says,” retorted the clerk.
For a few moments Paul was speechless. Then he spoke coldly and decisively. “I must speak to the manager,” he said. “Please call him.”
The clerk’s eyes narrowed. “The manager is away.”
“He is at the funeral of his mother. In Ravenna.”
Paul tried to decide whether this was a lie. It was difficult to tell.
“In that case I want to see the assistant manager,” he said.
The clerk replied quickly. “I am the assistant manager.”
Paul looked up at the ceiling. “I suggest we shall forget the whole business, then.”
The clerk shrugged. “When are you going to bring the car back? I can’t cancel the contract until the car has been returned.”
Paul gasped. “I have never seen this car,” he said, chiselling out each word for emphasis. “How can I return something I’ve never had?”
“Then you will be liable for the whole cost of the car.”
Paul closed his eyes. “I’m going to call the police,” he said.
The clerk shrugged again. “There is a policeman standing over there,” he said. “You see him? You can call him if you like.”
Paul strode across the arrivals hall and approached the policeman. The officer was talking to a woman running a small luggage stall, but he broke away when Paul addressed him.
“I am having a bit of trouble over there,” said Paul, nodding in the direction of the car rental desk. “I am being falsely accused of taking a car that I have never so much as seen. I believe this is an attempt at extorting money from me.”
The policeman adjusted his belt. “I shall accompany you, sir,” he said. “Let’s see what’s going on.”
Paul felt relieved that here was somebody who might penetrate the fog of obfuscation into which it seemed he had wandered. But once at the desk, his relief proved to be short-lived.
“This gentleman,” said the clerk, rising to greet the policeman, “has disposed of one of our vehicles. He refuses to return it, and I have simply informed him of the consequences.”
The policeman frowned, and turned to face Paul. “This is a very serious matter,” he said. “Where is this car?”
Paul drew in his breath. “There is no car,” he said. “I have never touched it.”
This was the signal for the clerk to pass a copy of the rental document to the policeman. “Here is the proof that he took it,” he said. “You’ll see his signature down at the bottom there. That establishes that he took possession of the car—the same car that he now refuses to hand back.”
The policeman studied the piece of paper. “Is this your signature, sir? Is your name ... ” He stumbled over the pronunciation. “Paul Stuart?”
“That’s me,” said Paul. “And that’s my signature too.”
“In that case,” said the policeman, “you must accompany me to the police station.”
“Oh, this is absurd,” said Paul, his voice rising markedly.
The policeman reached out to touch him on the arm. “You must control yourself, sir. It doesn’t help to shout.”
“But I have never even seen this car,” Paul protested. “I have had nothing to do with it. Nothing.”
The policeman looked at him guardedly. “But you have signed this document.”
“I signed it before I went to look for the car,” said Paul.
“But that’s not what it says here,” said the policeman.
Paul glared at the clerk, who simply stared at his screen, as if waiting for a troublesome client to go away so as to allow him to get back to his work. He looked at his watch. If he had to go to the police station he would do it, so that he could get on with the task of finding another car. And at the police station, he imagined that he might find somebody who would be able to take a more intelligent view of the situation than this junior officer.
“I’m ready to accompany you to the police station,” Paul said. “Although I shall have to come in your car, as I don’t have one myself.”
The policeman smiled. “You mustn’t make light of these things,” he said in a not unfriendly tone. “Car theft is a serious charge, you know.”
Paul opened his mouth to say something, but found that he had no words. His Italian, his English, his French all seemed to have deserted him. Kafka, he thought, and then, more appropriately he felt, Lewis Carroll.
Imagine going to school on a boat! The rip-roaring excitement continues in the second volume of this adventure-mystery series set on the high seas.
Ben and Fee MacTavish and their schoolmates on board the School Ship Tobermory are headed thousands of miles from their base in Mull to a small island in the Caribbean. They will learn extraordinary details about Captain Macbeth’s past and come face to face with modern-day pirates. The students and crew aboard the Tobermory will have to band together and use their wits to escape harm and overcome the evil pirates.
Our beloved cast of characters are back, as are the joys and trials of life at 44 Scotland Street.
Bertie’s mother, Irene, returns from the Middle East to discover that, in her absence, her son has been exposed to the worst of evils—television shows, ice cream parlors, and even unsanctioned art at the National Portrait Gallery. Her wrath descends on Bertie’s long-suffering father, Stuart. But Stuart has found a reason to spend more time outside of the house and seems to have a new spring in his step. What does this mean for the residents of 44 Scotland Street?
The winds of change have come to the others as well. Angus undergoes a spiritual transformation after falling victim to an unexpected defenestration. Bruce has fallen in a rather different sense for a young woman who is determined to share with him her enthusiasm for extreme sports. Matthew and Elspeth have a falling out with their triplets’ au pair, while Big Lou continues to fall in love with her new role as a mother. And as Irene resumes work on what she calls her Bertie Project, reinstating Bertie’s Italian lessons, yoga classes, and psychotherapy, Bertie begins to hatch a project of his own—one that promises freedom.
In this latest installment of Alexander McCall Smith’s ever-delightful and perennially best-selling series, amateur sleuth and philosopher Isabel Dalhousie is called upon to help when a matchmaker begins to question her latest match.
A new baby brings an abundance of joy to Isabel Dalhousie and her husband, Jamie—but Isabel’s almost four-year-old son, Charlie, is none too keen on his newborn brother. In fact, Charlie refuses to acknowledge Magnus, and Isabel must find a way to impress upon her older son the patience and understanding that have served as guiding principles in her own life. These are, of course, the qualities that bring Rosemary Hipple, an old acquaintance of Isabel’s, to seek her help in a tricky situation. Rosemary is something of a matchmaker and has brought together a cosmetic surgeon and a successful banker at her most recent dinner party. But new information comes to light about the cosmetic surgeon that causes Rosemary to doubt the auspiciousness of the match. Isabel agrees to find out more, but her inquiries take an unexpected turn, and she starts to wonder which of the two she should be investigating after all. As ever, her intelligence, quick wit, and deep empathy for others will come to her aid as she grapples with the issues that are her bread and butter: friendship and its duties, the obligation of truthfulness, and the importance of perspective.
‘Adlestrop,’ said Isabel Dalhousie. Jamie thought for a moment. They were sitting in their kitchen, on one of those indecisive days that was summer, but not quite yet; a day when the heating might as well be off as on, but when prudence—and superstition—required it still to be kept going. If you lived in Scotland and you turned off your heating too early, then the weather gods—stern, Nordic, and unforgiving—could send a body of cold air down from the Arctic, and remind you that they, not you, were in control. Jamie at least had taken off his sweater—as an act of faith, thought Isabel—while she had kept hers on. One of the newspapers, glimpsed in the local newsagent’s shop, had featured the headline Weathermen say summer will be scorching! but Isabel remembered that this particular newspaper said much the same thing every year, out of concern for its readers, she decided, who otherwise were deprived of good news, and who were desperate for any meteorological crumb of comfort. ‘Yes, I remember it,’ said Jamie, looking at her from over the table. ‘Although I’ve never been there, of course. It all depends on what one means by remember.’ He paused. ‘Not that I want to sound too much like you, Isabel.’ She smiled; the allusion had not been lost on her. They were playing Free Association, a game they sometimes resorted to when conversation failed, when there was no newspaper or magazine to browse, or when there was simply nothing else to think about. Each would come up with a name of a person or a place and then the other would describe the thoughts that the word triggered. They had not invented it, of course: Isabel was careful to credit Freud for that, even if there were plenty of other practitioners, including Proust, who, she felt, only had to glance at something before he would be off into several pages of triggered memories. Her reference was to the railway station at which Edward Thomas’s train had stopped one day in 1914. Adlestrop—seeing the name on the platform sign had prompted the famous poem: the steam hissed; somebody cleared his throat; no one came or left on the bare platform. Yes, I remember Adlestrop was the first line, and this had been what triggered Jamie’s response. She was proud of him: few people bothered to remember poetry any more, but Jamie did and could reel off screeds of it. ‘It somehow sticks in my mind,’ he once said. ‘I just remember it. All sorts of poetry.’ ‘Things you learned at school?’ He nodded. ‘Especially those. We were encouraged to commit poems to memory. Shakespeare’s sonnets, Wordsworth, Byron. The lot. Remember Hiawatha? Longfellow’s still there.’ He smiled at her. ‘Or some of it. On the shores of Gitche Gumee/Of the shining Big-Sea-Water/Stood . . .’ ‘Nokomis,’ supplied Isabel. ‘My mother loved that poem and read it all to me—all how many stanzas? It goes on forever, doesn’t it? Still, Nokomis . . . Now then . . . Stood Nokomis, the old woman/Pointing with her finger westward . . .’ She paused as the words, with their insistent, repetitive rhythm came back to her. She had not thought about Nokomis for a long time. Then she continued, ‘Nokomis sent him off to avenge her father, didn’t she?’ ‘She did,’ said Jamie. ‘It was somewhat vindictive of her, don’t you feel?’ ‘Oh, I think you’re being a bit unfair. Nokomis was right to encourage him to deal with Megissogwon who was, after all, Tall of stature/Broad of shoulder/Dark and terrible in aspect/Clad from head to foot in wampum . . . My goodness, why did I remember that?’ Jamie laughed. ‘What exactly is wampum? I was never quite sure what the word meant.’ ‘Shell beads,’ said Isabel. ‘They were used as money, as well as being worn. You might describe Wall Street brokers as clad in wampum. I suspect they probably are.’ But now it was his turn. Leaning back, looking up at the ceiling, he said, ‘Glyndebourne.’ Isabel’s reply was immediate. It was a rule of Free Association that if you did not reply within ten seconds you lost your turn and the other player had another go. It was a further rule—invented by Jamie—that if you hesitated twice in a row you had to get up and make tea. ‘Wagner,’ she replied. He looked at her. ‘Glyndebourne doesn’t make me think of Wagner,’ he said. ‘It makes me think of Britten.’ She shook her head. ‘That’s not the point of this game, Jamie. You say the first thing that comes into your head, not into somebody else’s. And another rule is that you can’t argue with the other player’s association. If I say Wagner, it’s because I thought of Wagner, and your saying Britten counts as a hesitation. If you do that again, you have to make us both tea.’ He pretended to sulk. ‘Your go, then.’ ‘Tea,’ she said. ‘Mist,’ came the reply. She looked at him enquiringly. ‘Why mist?’ ‘Now you’re arguing.’ She defended herself. ‘No, I’m not. I’m just interested in why you said mist. I’m not saying you can’t think of mist, I was just wondering why.’ ‘Because that’s what I see. I thought of a tea estate somewhere up in the hills, in Assam, maybe. And I saw women in saris picking tea leaves.’ ‘Fair enough.’ But she was back in Glyndebourne. ‘I thought of Wagner,’ she said, ‘but not any old Wagner. I thought of Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg.’ ‘Ah.’ He looked at her cautiously. He had almost taken a job at Glyndebourne—a long time ago, before they married. That road not taken could have been the end of their relationship, and they both skirted around the subject. ‘Don’t worry,’ she said. ‘It was not an unhappy memory.’ And then, years later, they had eventually made it to Glyndebourne together, leaving Charlie in the care of the housekeeper, Grace, who had moved into the house for the weekend. Charlie loved Grace, and she loved him in return, although something in her background—something that Isabel could not fathom—made her adopt a brisk, and slightly distant, manner with children. ‘You have to be firm,’ she said. ‘If you aren’t, then they’ll take advantage. They watch us, you know. They look for the slightest excuse to avoid bedtime.’ They had flown down to Gatwick and then gone to a pub in the Sussex Downs that had rooms at the back for opera-goers and enthusiasts of real ale. The two groups, sitting in the pub, could not have more easily identifiable had they sported large labels. The beer enthusiasts were bearded and loud; the opera-goers, elegantly dressed and feeling out of place, spoke more quietly than they would do later amongst their own in the opera house bar. It was Isabel’s first visit to Glyndebourne. She had been invited before, once when she was living in Cambridge and again after she had returned to Edinburgh, but had been unable to make it on either occasion. The second of these invitations had come from her niece, Cat, who had been given two tickets by one of her customers, and had offered to take Isabel with her. When Isabel had been unable to go, Cat had gone with a friend, and had complained about the opera, Tippett’s The Knot Garden, that she had not enjoyed. Even Cat, who was musically hard to please, would have luxuriated in The Meistersinger, a rich and spectacular production. Isabel sat transfixed and had to be prodded by Jamie to return to reality at the interval, when they went off to have dinner in one of the opera house’s restaurants. And at the end, when they went out into the summer night, the sky still light enough for them to read the programme notes, Isabel did not want the evening to end. But Glyndebourne’s spell was slow to fade, and it was still upon them when they returned to the room they had booked in the pub, and closed the door and lay together on the lumpy double bed, still in their evening clothes, holding hands like two students newly in love, staring up at the ceiling with its uneven ancient beams of darkened oak. And she thought: how extraordinarily fortunate I am to be here, with him, when my life might have been so different if he had not come into it. She looked at him, and loosened his black bow-tie—a gesture that struck her, even as she performed it, as one of ownership. It was a curious feeling—one of . . . what? she wondered. Sexual anticipation? The feeling that you have when you realise that you will be sleeping that evening with the person you most want to sleep with in this world. The game of Free Association might have continued had it not been for the sudden eruption of sound from a small monitor perched on the kitchen dresser. ‘Magnus,’ said Jamie. ‘Bottles,’ said Isabel. ‘Endless nappies. Sleepless nights.’ Jamie laughed. ‘I had stopped playing Free Association,’ he said, pointing to the monitor. ‘I know,’ said Isabel, smiling. ‘But I couldn’t resist the associations.’ Magnus was their second child, who had arrived three months earlier, and who had just signalled that he had woken and was in need of attention. His nap had overlapped with Charlie’s; Charlie, although still sleeping, would shortly wake up too and make his presence felt. ‘Do you remember what it was like?’ said Jamie, as he rose to his feet. ‘What what was like?’ ‘When we only had Charlie.’ Isabel rolled her eyes. ‘Life was so absurdly simple then.’ ‘Not that I’d change anything,’ said Jamie hurriedly. ‘I love them both to bits.’ She knew that he did. He loved his two boys to bits and she loved them that way too. She also loved Jamie to bits, and he had assured her that he loved her to bits. And if an inventory of affection were being made, she thought of so many things she could add to it: their house in Edinburgh, with its shady garden and elusive resident, Brother Fox; their city, with its fragile, spiky beauty, its mists and its skies and its romantic history; and her country, too, Scotland, with all its curious quirks and its capacity to break the heart again and again. ‘I’ll go and get him up,’ said Jamie. ‘I’ll change him if he needs it.’ ‘I’ll entertain Charlie when he wakes,’ said Isabel. ‘How do people who have four or five children cope?’ asked Jamie. ‘Or six?’ ‘Six!’ ‘The older ones look after their younger siblings,’ said Isabel. ‘Look at old photographs. Fifty, sixty years ago. Look at pictures showing children in the street—the young ones are holding hands with their older brothers and sisters who are clearly baby-sitting. An eight-year-old would look after a one-year-old, and a six-year-old would look after a four-year-old.’ ‘Everybody looked after everybody else, I suppose.’ ‘They did,’ agreed Isabel. ‘And did so without complaint.’ The monitor gave a further squawk. ‘Yet they didn’t even have monitors,’ said Jamie.
Magnus’s arrival on the stage had been two weeks early, brought about, Jamie half seriously suggested, by Isabel having listened to a foot-tapping piece of music from the Penguin Cafe Orchestra. She had closed her eyes as she listened and then opened them suddenly, wide-eyed at the stab of pain. Her breath had been taken away from her and it was a few moments before she could speak. ‘She’s coming,’ she said. They had been calling the baby ‘she’ although they had asked not to be told what sex it was. Yet they were convinced; it would be a daughter this time. They knew they should not make any assumptions, but somehow they felt certain. Jamie had looked puzzled. ‘But it’s two weeks . . .’ She did not let him finish. ‘I need to phone the midwife. I need to let them know.’ He realised that she was serious. ‘I’ll take you to the Infirmary,’ he said hurriedly. ‘Grace can look after Charlie. I’ll phone her right now.’ Isabel held up a hand. ‘Hold on,’ she said. ‘They’ll tell me to wait. We’ll have hours.’ But she did not have much time. Things happened quickly and she was in the labour ward within three hours, Magnus appearing twenty minutes later. ‘A boy,’ said the obstetrician, passing the glistening infant to a waiting nurse. Jamie gasped. They had been so sure. ‘A little boy,’ muttered Isabel. The nursing staff fussed around the baby before handing him to Isabel, loosely wrapped in an off-white cotton blanket. Swaddling clothes, thought Isabel. But this is loose, and is not proper swaddling. Jamie cried, wiping at his tears with the back of his hand. They were tears that came with the cathartic welling up of more than one emotion: relief, sheer joy, love. These had all been his companions at the bedside, where he had sat through Isabel’s short labour; now they found release. A young nurse in training, attending her first birth, was similarly afflicted, struggling to force back her own tears, but finding the battle too much. A senior nurse, standing at her side, whispered something in her ear, and touched her briefly on the shoulder. ‘Are you sure he’s a boy?’ asked Isabel. The obstetrician peeled off his gloves. ‘I’ve never been wrong on that one,’ he said. The trainee nurse giggled. ‘You need to get some sleep,’ said the senior nurse. She looked at Jamie. ‘Father too.’ ‘We thought it was going to be a girl,’ said Jamie. ‘Well, there you are,’ said the nurse. ‘You were going to get one or the other, weren’t you?’ Isabel held the baby, her cheek pressed lightly against his tiny forehead. She saw that the baby’s blanket had letters printed on it, and they suddenly registered. RIP: what a tactless thing to put on a swaddling blanket, but then she noticed that the letters actually said, RIE. The Royal Infirmary of Edinburgh. That was considerably better. The eye could so easily deceive—as when, a few months ago, she had misread a newspaper headline Pope hopes as Pope elopes, and had, for a moment, been both shocked and surprised. Of course now that a pope had broken with long historical practice and retired, it was always possible that a radical successor might feel that the time was ripe to elope. Through the euphoria of the morphine they had given her right at the end, she felt a small niggle of disappointment. She had so wanted a girl, but she knew that she must not allow herself to think about it. She had a healthy, breathing baby and that was all that mattered. Perhaps it had been a mistake to remain ignorant of the baby’s sex; the sonographers had found out when they performed the ultrasound scans but at her request had deliberately not shown her the screen. Perhaps they should have asked, because that would have prevented their building up hopes. She had wanted a girl because there were things a mother could do with a girl. They would be friends, as mothers and daughters so often are, and would share their world with each other. This was a boy, and it would be like Charlie all over again; not that she regretted anything about him, but the demands of a boy were different. Jamie held her hand. ‘Well done,’ he whispered. She squeezed his hand. ‘Twice as many things for you to do now that he’s a boy,’ she said drowsily, not knowing exactly what she meant, or why she said it.
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.
The first book in the School Ship Tobermory series
There is a great deal of fun to be had aboard the School Ship Tobermory. Weigh anchor with Alexander McCall Smith and set sail on a series of amazing adventures.
Follow the exploits of the children who go to a most unusual school—the sail-powered training ship Tobermory. When a film crew arrives in Tobermory Bay, Ben and Fee are invited to be extras. But their suspicions are soon aroused—is the film crew genuine, or are they up to something sinister? Ben and Fee soon discover the truth when they uncover a dastardly plan masterminded by a South American businessman.
“Ready?” asked Fee’s father. “Are you ready to bring us up?”
Fee nodded. She had sat at the controls of the family submarine many times before this, but you know how it is when somebody asks you to take over a submarine—you always feel just a little bit nervous.
“Yes,” she said, trying her best to sound brave. “I’m ... I’m sort of ready.”
Both Fee and her twin brother, Ben, had been taught from a very early age to help sail the submarine belonging to their parents, who were well-known marine scientists. Now, at twelve, almost thirteen, Fee had enough experience to bring the vessel up to the surface all by herself. But it was a very big responsibility, and it always brought to mind the things that could go wrong.
What if you made a mistake and dived instead of surfacing? What if you surfaced too quickly, so that the submarine popped up out of the sea like a cork out of water? What if you came up right underneath a large ship—a massive oil tanker, perhaps—broke the glass observation window, and then went straight down again? There were so many things that could go wrong in a submarine.
“Right,” said her father. “Take her up, Fee! You’ll do fine, of course, but I’ll be in the engine room if you need me.”
Once her father had left the control room she was quite alone. Her brother was doing his packing in his cabin, and her mother was busy in the galley—the submarine’s tiny kitchen—making sandwiches for the twins. Fee was by herself. Entirely.
Slowly she pulled the control column towards her. She could not see exactly where she was going—that’s never easy in a submarine—but she hoped there was nothing ahead of them, or above. The last thing a submarine wants to meet is a whale or a rock—or a whale and a rock, for that matter. You have to hope, too, that there isn’t another submarine coming up for air in exactly the same place as you.
A few minutes later, when they were just below the surface, Ben entered the control room.
“I’ve finished my packing,” he announced. “What about you?”
She glanced at her brother. She could see that he was excited, but she had far more important things to do than talk about packing.
“You mustn’t disturb me,” she said. “I’m just about to look through the periscope.”
He became quiet. It is always a special moment when you raise a submarine’s periscope, because that is when you find out where you are. You hope that you have come up in the right place, but you can never be absolutely sure. So if your hands shake a little as the periscope rises above the waves, and if you feel your heart thump a bit more loudly, then that is entirely normal.
Fee peered into the periscope as she pushed it upwards. There was water, just water, swirling round in every direction, and then, with no warning at all, she saw sunlight. The periscope was above the surface.
“What can you see?” Ben asked.
She blinked. The light was very intense and it would take a moment for her eyes to adjust.
You can turn a periscope round, so that it gives you a view in every direction. She would do that—just to check that nothing was coming—but first she would have a good look at the land.
“I can see an island in the distance,” she said. “I can see the shore.”
Ben caught his breath. “That’ll be Mull,” he said. Mull was the island they were heading for.
“It’s sunny,” said Fee. “It’s morning.”
“And Tobermory?” asked Ben. “Can you see Tobermory?”
“Which Tobermory?” asked Fee. “Tobermory the town or Tobermory the ship?”
She was right to ask: there were two Tobermorys. Tobermory, the town, was where the Tobermory, the ship, was based. They were going to the Tobermory the ship, but Tobermory, the place, was the harbour in which she (and ships are always called she) was normally anchored. The Tobermory was a sailing ship and a school at the same time. It was a boarding school on the sea, and while most schools stay in exactly the same place all the time, this one did not. This one sailed about, teaching everybody not only subjects like history and science – the things that normal schools teach—but also everything that you needed to know if you were going to be a sailor.
“I can’t see either of them,” said Fee. “I think we might be a little way away. But we can’t be too far.”
“Let me have a look,” said Ben, sounding rather impatient. Although they were twins, Fee had been born two minutes before her brother, and that made her older. It was only two minutes, but she often said that those two minutes were very important. “When you’ve been alive two minutes longer than somebody else,” she was fond of saying, “it shows. You’re just a bit more grown-up, you see.”
Ben did not look at it that way. He thought he was every bit as mature as his sister, and felt entitled to do everything she did. Right then he felt that he should have a turn on the periscope. “Let me look,” he repeated.
“No,” she said. “I’ve spotted a seagull. Oh, it’s come down lower. I think it’s going to land on top of the periscope!”
Fee laughed as she watched the seagull land. She had a good view of its yellow feet and of the underneath of its wings, that were white. As she watched, it flapped these wings, sending little droplets of water splashing against the outer lens of the periscope.
Slowly she moved the periscope round, so that she could look in other directions. The seagull did not like this, and he flapped his wings again in protest. Then she saw it.
‘There’s a boat coming straight towards us!” she cried out.
“Dive!” shouted Ben.
Because his sister was busy pulling down the periscope, he decided to take the controls himself. Pushing the column forwards, he opened the throttle as far as he could. The submarine responded immediately, giving a lurch downwards.
It was just in time. Seconds later they heard the thud of a boat’s engine pass directly over them.
“You should have looked round you,” accused Ben. “You should have looked instead of watching that seagull.” Although he was very fond of his sister, Ben secretly liked it when she did something to remind her she was not perfect.
Fee looked crestfallen. “I’m sorry,” she said. But then she said, rather crossly, “We can all make mistakes, you know.”
“Is everything all right?” their mother called out from the galley. “I felt a bit of a lurch there.”
“Everything’s fine,” shouted Ben in reply. He could have said, Fee didn’t spot a boat coming straight at us! But he did not. He could have added, And I had to take over the controls to get us out of trouble! But again he did not. Instead of this he simply said, ‘We’re going up again,’ and left it at that.
They surfaced once more, and this time they were both able to have a good look through the periscope. Fee had been right—they were not far from the island—but they were also closer than she had thought to both Tobermorys. There was the town, a small harbour with brightly painted houses curving round the rim of the bay. There were the people walking down the street, off to buy their newspaper and their morning bread and milk. And there in the harbour, riding proudly on its great anchor chain, was the most remarkable sailing ship they had ever seen. And across its bow was the name painted in shining blue paint—SCHOOL SHIP TOBERMORY.
“I think it’s safe to go all the way up now,” said Ben.
Fee guided the submarine right up to the surface. Now they could open the hatches and step out onto the deck to gaze at the ship that was to be their new home. As Fee stared at the ship through the submarine’s binoculars, she felt no qualms about joining the school. She had always tried not to be frightened by new experiences—nor by the dark, nor bad dreams, nor the thought of what could go wrong. That’ll soon be me, she thought, as she studied the distant figures on the ship’s deck. Although she could not make out what they were doing, they all seemed busy.
It was a wonderful sight. The great ship was painted white from bow to stern. Along the side were lines of neat portholes—the windows of a ship. And, as he stood next to his sister, gazing over at the Tobermory, Ben thought about how one of the portholes would be his. That would be his to look out of.
It was a very exciting thought, even if it made him feel just a little bit anxious. He had never been away from family for any length of time, and although people told him that going away to school was fun he was not sure whether it would be fun for him. What would it be like sharing everything with a lot of people you didn’t know? Could you be sure they wouldn’t laugh at you if you did something stupid? What if you lost your toothbrush, or your pyjamas, or one of your socks? What if somebody came and pushed you around or stole your money?
He had wanted to ask Fee some of these questions, but she had seemed so confident about what lay ahead that he had been unable to do so.
“What will it be like?” was all he had managed.
And she replied, “It’s going to be great.” And then, after a short pause, “You’re not scared, are you?”
He shook his head. “No, I’m not scared. Of course I’m not scared.” That is what people who are scared often say.
“Good,” said Fee. “Because I’m not going to be able to look after you all the time, you know.”
She did not say that unkindly, but it did not really help Ben very much. He wondered why she had thought she would have to look after him. Did she know something he did not? Had she heard things about the Tobermory that he had missed? But this was not the time for such thoughts. They had the ship to look at, and now, as the submarine sailed a bit closer, they were able to make out more details.
Above the ship, towering to what seemed like an impossible height, were the masts. The Tobermory was a sailing ship, and it had masts from which sails were suspended. These sails would fill with wind when a breeze blew up, and it is this that would drive the ship through the water. The ship also had an engine, of course, that it could use to go in and out of harbour or to help it on its way if there was no wind, but for most of the time it would rely on its sails.
“Look at all those ropes,” marvelled Fee, pointing to what looked like an elaborate web spun by some giant spider.
Ben shielded his eyes from the sun to get a better view.“That’s the rigging. Those ropes keep the masts in place.”
“And you climb up them?” It all seemed very high to Fee.
“Yes,” said Ben, taking his turn with the binoculars. “I’ve seen pictures of people doing that.”
Although they had spent a lot of time on their parents’ submarine—sometimes weeks and weeks at a stretch—Fee and Ben had never been on a sailing ship. That had not stopped them, though, from applying for a place at the school ship, encouraged by their parents who had decided that the Tobermory was just the right school for them. They had needed to think about boarding school for Ben and Fee, as they were often away on research expeditions. Up to then, the twins had stayed with an aunt, who looked after them while their parents were away, but this was going to be much more difficult, as the aunt had found a job that involved travel.
They had looked at various schools, but had not really liked what they saw. One was in a remote place on a mountainside and appeared dark and uncomfortable. The dormitory floors, they noticed, were all at an angle, with the result that the beds followed the slope of the mountainside. Sleeping in such a bed, thought Fee, would be most peculiar, as one’s toes would be much lower than one’s head, and all one’s blood would end up in one’s feet. And the blankets would gradually slip down to the end of the bed, which would mean that one’s top half would be too cold and one’s lower half too warm. “Not for you, I think,” said their mother—much to their relief.
Then there was the school that made everyone take a cold shower every morning. “It’s very character-building,” explained the principal.
“And very freezing,” said their mother—to suppressed giggles from Fee and Ben.
That same principal believed in lots of physical activity—all the time. So, as people moved from classroom to classroom they all ran, and meals were eaten standing up, so that people could do press-ups and other exercises between courses.
“It all helps to build people up,” said the principal proudly.
Then somebody suggested the Tobermory, and their parents had remembered once meeting the captain when he berthed his ship near their submarine. “He’s a very kind man,” remarked their mother, who wanted the best for her twins. “You’ll be happy there. I’ve heard good things about that ship.”
“Such as?” asked Ben. The idea of going away to school was still new to him.
“Just good things in general,” his mother replied. “Good things like making friends, which you’ve always wanted. And other things too …” She did not explain further, but just waved her hand and said, “You’ll find out.”
His mother was trying to reassure him, thought Ben, but did she really know what life would be like on the Tobermory?
“That’s right,” said Fee, who had overheard this conversation. “You’ll find out.”
But she, too, did not know, thought Ben.
Their father nosed the submarine in as close to the Tobermory as he thought safe.
“You’ll have to paddle the rest of the way in your rubber boat,” he explained. “We’ll wave goodbye from here.”
Ben and Fee began to blow up the inflatable boat that had been a present for their last birthday. It was not very big, but it would have just enough room to carry them both, together with their kitbags. They had been told not to bring a suitcase, but rather to bring soft luggage that could be folded and put into a locker. Now their two full kitbags, both labelled with their names, Ben and Fee MacTavish, stood at the ready on top of the submarine.
Once the boat was inflated, Ben pushed it gently from the submarine deck and into the water. Their mother, coming up from below, pressed two packets of sandwiches into their hands. “You might feel hungry before lunch,” she said. “I’ve heard the school food’s very good on the Tobermory, but just in case ... ”
They thanked her, and she gave them each a goodbye kiss, as did their father.
“I know you’re going to be all right,” said their mother. “But I’ll be thinking of you. Will you think of me too? Every day?”
They both reassured her that they would.
“And you will write, won’t you?” she said. “It doesn’t have to be a long letter—even a postcard will do.”
“Of course we will,” said Fee.
“We’ll be back to collect you at the end of term,” he said.
“Work hard,” said their mother. “And remember to clean your teeth after every meal—every meal, please. And don’t forget to floss!”
“Yes, yes,” said Ben. He was eager to make the short crossing to their new home and he had decided to be brave. He could see that already there were other people on the deck of the sailing ship—people in smart blue uniforms swabbing the decks from buckets of sea water, polishing brass fittings, and generally looking very busy. These would be his new schoolmates—his new friends, he hoped. He was eager to meet them.
They climbed down into the boat and set off.
“Goodbye!” shouted their mother, waving a handkerchief.
“Goodbye!” they both shouted, as they started to paddle their way across the short stretch of water.
As they reached the side of great sailing ship, they both turned round to have one last look at their parents. But their mother and father had disappeared back into the submarine, and now the dark tube of the vessel was beginning to sink below the surface of the sea. They waved, although they knew that their parents would not be able to see them. They felt sad to be saying goodbye, and both of them—and that included Fee—now felt a bit anxious, but when you are starting at a new boarding school there is no time to think too much about the family you have left behind. This is especially true when your new school is towering above you and somebody is lowering a rope ladder for you to climb up. Not everybody starts school that way, but Ben and Fee did.
“Tie your dinghy to this rope,” shouted somebody from above them. “Then, once, you’ve climbed up the rope ladder, we’ll pull your boat up too.”
A rope came snaking down from above. Fee tied this to the rubber boat, stowed the paddles safely, and then she and Ben began to inch their way up the rope ladder.
“Ben,” whispered Fee as they began the climb. “Are you just a little bit ... scared?”
Ben, who had started first, looked down at his sister beneath him. His decision to be brave was working. “Don’t be scared, Fee,” he said. “I’m not.”
But she was. And so would anybody be. The water seemed a long way down below now, and the Tobermory was rocking in the swell of the sea, making the rope ladder swing out from the side of the ship.
“I didn’t hear you,” said Fee. “What did you say?”
“I said I’m not scared,” repeated Ben.
And oddly enough, simply saying that he was not scared seemed to help.
They were nearly at the top of the ladder now, and he even managed to smile as he saw a pair of hands stretch out over the railings to help him clamber onto the deck. He looked up and saw that the hands belonged to a boy of about his own age, dressed in a smart blue uniform and grinning at him in a friendly way. The boy had a cheerful look to him—the sort of look that makes you think, I hope he’ll be my friend.
“I’m Badger Tomkins,” said the boy as he gripped Ben’s wrists and pulled him onto the deck. “Who are you?”
“I’m Ben,” said Ben.
“I was told to look out for you,” said Badger. “Welcome aboard the Tobermory!”
Badger now turned to help Fee. “You must be Fee,” he said. “I saw your name on the list of new students. Welcome, Fee!”
“What do we do now?” asked Ben.
“We haul up your rubber boat,” said Badger. “Then we let the air out of it and stow it away. Everything has to be stowed away neatly on the ship. It’s one of the rules.”
“Are there lots of rules?” asked Ben.
Badger laughed. “Plenty,” he said. “Maybe five or six hundred. But don’t worry. You probably only need to know ten. Those are called the big rules. All the others are called small rules, and we don’t pay much attention to them.”
Fee stared at Badger. “Do you like it here?” she asked.
Badger thought this a rather odd question. “But of course I like it,” he answered. “This is the most amazing, fantastic, exciting, superb, ace school in ... in the entire world.”
“Are you joking?” asked Ben.
“Not at all,” said Badger. “You’ll see soon enough.” He paused. “Mind you, I won’t pretend that there aren’t some things that aren’t so great.”
“What are those?” asked Ben.
“You’ll see,” said Badger again. He looked at his watch. “We’d better get your boat up. Breakfast is in half an hour and if you’re late all the sausages will be taken.” He made a face “Some people always try to take more than their fair share.”
“Who are they?” asked Fee.
“You’ll see,” said Badger once again. “But let’s not stand about talking. Let’s get the boat up and then I can take you to the Captain before breakfast. We always have to take new people to the Captain when they arrive.”
“Is he the principal?” asked Ben.
“He is,” said Badger. “But you never call him that. He’s called the Captain because he’s the captain of the ship. His full name is Captain Macbeth. He’s also a teacher, of course, but his main job is running the ship.”
They began to haul up their rubber boat. Once it was up on deck, they took out the plug, deflated it, and stowed it away in a nearby locker. The locker was full of other rubber boats, all folded up just as theirs was. ‘This is where we keep our personal boats,” explained Badger. “Mine is that red one over there. It has a bit of a leak, I’m afraid, but I don’t use it often now. We have a class in the care and maintenance of rubber boats. They teach you how to stick a plaster over any holes.”
Badger looked at his watch again. “Right,” he said. “Ready for the Captain? Yes? Well, in that case follow me!”
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.