A Story for April: The Shape of Ladies

April 2017

Mma Ramotswe, sole begetter and proprietrix of the No 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, Botswana’s only detective agency for the problems of ladies (and others), was sitting in her office, drinking a cup of red bush tea. It was her fourth cup of bush tea that day, but that did not matter. She could drink six or even seven cups if she wished, as bush tea contained no caffeine and was said to be rather good for you. So she was never affected by those worries which coffee drinkers had about having too much caffeine, or which tea drinkers had about their teeth being turned brown by all the tannin in their favourite brew.

Mma Makutsi, her assistant, had recently started to drink ordinary tea again, and had to watch how many cups she consumed during the day, or she would find difficulty in sleeping at night. And Mma Makutsi was also worried that too much tea might not help her complexion, which was a difficult one.

“I have heard that drinks like coffee and tea may not be good for the skin,” she remarked to Mma Ramotswe. “Perhaps I should stop drinking them.”

“I have heard that too, Mma,” said Mma Ramotswe. “But you cannot stop everything that you like just for the sake of looking good. That is the trouble with these fashionable ladies who starve themselves in order to stay thin. What’s the point of that? Why be hungry and unhappy when you could just as easily be full of good food and happy.”

“You are right, Mma,” said Mma Makutsi. “I have heard such ladies described as fashion victims. That is very sad, isn’t it.”

Mma Ramotswe nodded. “It is much better to be traditionally built. Traditionally-built people are always happier. Have you noticed that, Mma Makutsi? Have you seen how miserable those thin people look most of the time, and just how contented traditionally-built people look?”

Mma Makutsi looked out of the window. Outside the office, in the heat of the day, the acacia trees looked drained of life and energy. Under the relentless hammer of the mid-day sun, nature seemed to be browbeaten into submission, afraid to move, torpid. On a branch of one of the trees a grey lourie, known as the go-away bird because of its cry, perched half-concealed by the foliage. Mma Makutsi watched the bird, and thought. One never saw traditionally-built birds, she reflected; such birds, if they existed, would be unable to get off the ground to escape their predators. A traditionally-built bird would not last long.

She turned to Mma Ramotswe. “Of course what you say is right, Mma,” she began. “But do you not think that you might be saying that because you cannot lose weight? Would you say the same thing if you were not traditionally-built yourself?”

There was a silence in the room – a silence which was suddenly broken by the plaintive cry outside of the go-away bird. It was as if the bird himself had heard this remark and wished to refute it.

Mma Ramotswe stared at Mma Makutsi, who dropped her gaze. The younger woman had been wanting to say something like that for some time now, whenever Mma Ramotswe started to go on about the advantages of being traditionally-built, but perhaps she should not have said it. Mma Ramotswe was such a kind woman, who was always courteous to others, and Mma Makutsi now remembered the numerous acts of kindness which she herself had been shown by her employer. The first of these had been Mma Ramotswe’s taking her on as a secretary, when there was not really enough work to justify such a post – even in the case of somebody who had got ninety-seven per cent in the final examinations of the Botswana Secretarial College.

“I’m sorry, Mma Ramotswe,” she began, stumbling over the words in her embarrassment. “I had not … I had not thought before I started …”

Mma Ramotswe cut her short. “Don’t worry, Mma. What you said is true enough, I think. Maybe I do go on a bit about the advantages of being traditionally built. But I don’t think that it’s because I couldn’t lose weight. Of course I could lose weight.”

Mma Makutsi had not intended to show surprise, but her eyes widened nonetheless. “Could you, Mma?’ she asked. “Are you sure about that?”

“Of course I could,” said Mma Ramotswe. “If I wanted to. But I’m not sure if I want to, you see. I am not going to be intimidated into going on one of these diets. Why should I? I am happy as I am. You know that.”

Mma Makutsi smiled. “Oh, I know that, Mma,” she said. “But you know it’s not just a question of happiness. It’s also a question of health.”

Mma Ramotswe took a sip of her bush tea. “I am very healthy,” she said firmly. “And this bush tea keeps me that way.”

“So we’ll never know whether you have the will power or not,” muttered Mma Makutsi, almost under her breath.

Mma Makutsi had not intended this remark to have any particular effect. In fact, she had more or less made it to herself. But it did not go unnoticed by Mma Ramotswe, who put her tea-cup down on the desk with a sudden thud.

“If you need me to show you that, Mma,” she said. “Then I shall be very happy to go on a diet and settle the matter.”

“Oh, please don’t …” began Mma Makutsi. But her protest was waved away by Mma Ramotswe.

“I have made up my mind, Mma Makutsi,” she said. “So I suggest that we get on with some work. The matter is now closed.”

Mma Ramotswe drove home in her tiny white van, back down Tlokweng Road and into the area of town known as the Village. She drove past Mrs Moffat’s house, with its great jacaranda tree that shaded the house and half the garden. She slowed down, seeing her friend in her garden watering her vegetables, and waved. Mrs Moffat waved back, and Mma Ramotswe noticed for the first time that her friend was not at all traditionally-built . What was her secret, she wondered. She seemed to enjoy cake well enough; when they met for tea there was always some cake on the table. But how many pieces did she eat, wondered Mma Ramotswe. Did she ever take a second piece, or did she stop at one? She tried to remember the last time she had had tea with Mrs Moffat. They had sat out on the verandah and talked and there had been four pieces of cake on a plate in front of them. She remembered that cake, which had been covered with a delicious lemon icing, and she could see Mrs Moffat offering her a second piece, and she remembered taking it. Then she recalled licking the icing off the tips of her fingers and being offered yet another piece. And she had accepted. Yes, she had; the memory was coming back clearly now. So that answered that: she had eaten three pieces of cake to Mrs Moffat’s single piece. Perhaps that provided the answer to the question which she had asked in the first place. Mrs Moffat was not traditionally-built because she usually only ate one piece of cake. Traditionally-built people ate at least three pieces.

When she arrived home, she went straight into the kitchen. It was half past five, and this was the time that she liked to sit on her verandah, a cup of tea in hand, and observe the ending of the day. On the road outside her house, which was normally quiet, there would be a few passing cars as people made their way back home. She recognised many of these cars – the large red car that belonged to the man who worked for the diamond company; the sleek black car of the woman who had a beauty salon in one of the hotels; the car that belonged to her neighbour, who had those unpleasant yellow dogs that liked to bark at night. That last car was not a car she would have liked to travel in, with its windows covered with marks where the dogs had pressed their moist noses against the glass.

She watched the cars, and the passers-by, people walking home on foot – a man whistling a tune she half-recognized, a young boy shuffling along, scuffing his shoes in the dirt at the side of the road, who looked up and saw her through the hedge and looked away quickly, as if expecting some reproach. She smiled; she would not reprimand a young boy in public these days, at least not in Gaborone, although adults would do that quite readily in the villages. It takes a whole village to raise a child, people said, and Mma Ramotswe agreed. But things had changed in town, and people were less ready to remind children of what they should do and what they should not do. That was bad. How could children grow up knowing what to do if adults were not there to tell them? Mma Ramotswe shook her head.

Her tea finished she stood up and made her way back into the kitchen. There was a meal to be prepared now, and she opened the fridge door to take out the small parcel of beef that she had bought the previous day from the supermarket at the beginning of the Tlokweng Road. It was good Botswana beef, they had said, and the thought of it made her mouth water. This was fine, grass-fed beef, from the land that she knew so well, from cattle which might have belonged to people she knew, or their cousins, or somebody with whom she could easily establish some form of contact. For that is what Botswana was like. Everybody would know somebody who knew somebody else; nobody could be a stranger, no matter how hard he tried.

She took the beef out of the packet and put it on a chopping board. The meat was tender and light red; it would make a very fine stew once she had added onions to it, and some carrots too. And then there would be some mashed potatoes, which the children, the two adopted orphans, loved to eat. Puso, the boy, especially liked potatoes prepared in that way. He would make a little hill of the potatoes and create a dam at the top, a dam filled with rich, heavy gravy. Mma Ramotswe smiled at the thought. Boys were like that – they never stopped playing. Just like men.

It was hungry work making the stew and the smell of the meat being browned in her large blackened saucepan made her stomach seem to knock at her ribs. Yes, she would enjoy the stew too, and would perhaps have two helpings – there was certainly enough for that. But then she stopped. Her diet had begun, and she had told herself she would have only a very small portion of stew and no potatoes at all. It was a terrible thought. Perhaps the diet should begin tomorrow, after breakfast. Perhaps it should begin at the end of the week, once she had given herself time to get used to the idea of being hungry. Perhaps …

At the table, seated with Mr J.L.B. Matekoni and the children, Mma Ramotswe took the lid off the pot in which the stew had been brought from the kitchen. Immediately a rich, tempting smell filled the air, making Mr J.L.B. Matekoni lean forward with anticipation.

“This smells very good,” he said, rubbing his hands together. “I have been working very hard all day and am looking forward to this good meal you have made, Mma Ramotswe.”

Mma Ramotswe looked at him and frowned. “I have been working hard all day too,” she snapped. “There is not just one person in this house who works hard.”

Mr J.L.B. Matekoni looked up in surprise. It was unlike Mma Ramotswe to snap at him, and yet her response to his innocent comment had been distinctly short. “I’m sorry,” he said, mildly. “I know that you work hard, Mma Ramotswe. Everybody knows that.”

Mma Ramotswe said nothing, but concentrated on ladling out helpings of the stew and vegetables that went with it. She gave Mr J.L.B. Matekoni a particularly large portion, and she also gave generous helpings to Puso and his sister, Motheleli. But when it came to her own turn, she gave herself only a very small amount, barely enough to cover one corner of the plate.

“Are you not hungry tonight?’ asked Mr J.L.B. Matekoni. “This stew is very good, Mma Ramotswe. You should have some more.”

“No thank you, Rra,” said Mma Ramotswe. She tried to make her voice sound normal, but it came out sounding irritated, as if she were cross with Mr J.L.B. Matekoni for even raising the issue. He said nothing further. Women were sometimes inexplicably moody, he had observed, and this was an example of that. And the best thing to do in such circumstances was to be completely quiet. Resistance was useless; all men knew that.

Over the next two days, although she cooked good meals for the household, Mma Ramotswe ate very little. At work, when Mma Makutsi took two large doughnuts out of a greasy paper bag and offered one to her, Mma Ramotswe merely shook her head curtly.

“Then I shall have to eat it myself,” said Mm Makutsi, laying it carefully on a piece of scrap paper at the side of her desk. “I don’t mind eating two doughnuts.”

Mma Ramotswe looked across the room at the doughnut. It was a very fine doughnut, and she would dearly have loved to have savoured it with the cup of bush tea that was before her on the desk, but she had made the decision to go on a diet and she was determined to go ahead with it. After all, this was not just a question of weight; it was a question of will power.

After a few minutes, Mma Makutsi reached out for the second doughnut and sunk her teeth into a corner of it, closing her eyes with delight as she did so. Mma Ramotswe watched, and for a few moment her upper lip trembled – not enough to be seen by Mma Makutsi, had her eyes been open at the time, but enough to be felt by Mma Ramotswe herself, who struggled to control it.

“I wish you wouldn’t sit there and eat doughnuts all day,” she said testily. “It doesn’t give a very good impression to the clients. They don’t expect the people who are meant to be working on their cases to be sitting around eating doughnuts.”

Mma Makutsi opened her eyes. “But we have no clients at the moment,” she said, through a mouthful of doughnut. “No clients at all.” As she spoke, a few crumbs of doughnut escaped from her lips and shot forwards onto the desk. She reached for them and stuffed them back into her mouth.

It was very clear to Mma Makutsi what the problem was. The new diet of Mma Ramotswe’s was making her feel so hungry and uncomfortable that she was snapping at people for the slightest thing. And the thought occurred to her: if this is the way that Mma Ramotswe was when she was on the way to being thin, then one could only imagine how difficult she would be once she reached her goal. She would be impossible to work with, sitting there being short with anybody who said or did anything.

At lunch break, when Mma Ramotswe went off shopping by herself, Mma Makutsi wandered out of the office and into the workshop of Tlokweng Road Speedy Motors, the business with which they shared premises. Mr J.L.B. Matekoni, spanner in hand, was standing over an exposed car engine, talking to one of the apprentices. Mma Makutsi drew him aside.

“Have you noticed how touchy Mma Ramotswe has been over the last few days?” she asked.

Mr J.L.B. Matekoni put down the spanner on an upturned oil-drum. “Oh yes, Mma,” he sighed. “She has been very cross with the world. It is most unlike her. And she seems to have lost her appetite too.”

Mma Makutsi laughed. “I don’t think that she has lost her appetite,” she said. “I think that her appetite is still there.”

“Then why is she not eating?” asked Mr J.L.B. Matekoni. “Is she ill, do you think?”

“She is dieting,” said Mma Makutsi. “She wants to become thin.”

Mr J.L.B. Matekoni stared at Mma Makutsi. “But she cannot!” he exclaimed. “I did not want to marry a thin lady. I wanted a nice, plump lady. She cannot do this.”

Mma Makutsi thought for a moment. An idea was coming to her as to how she might deal with this, and she leaned forward and grasped Mr J.L.B.Matekoni’s arm as she explained to him what she might do to bring Mma Ramotswe to her senses. He listened, and nodded. It seemed to him to a good plan, a clever plan – just what one might expect from an intelligent woman like Mma Makutsi, with her large round spectacles.

Once Mma Ramotswe had come back from her shopping and had settled back at her desk, Mma Makutsi looked across the room and addressed her.

“I was talking to Mr J.L.B. Matekoni at lunchtime,” she said. “And he told me that he is very unhappy.”

Mma Ramotswe raised an eyebrow. “Why should be unhappy?” she asked. “The garage is doing well.”

“It’s nothing to do with that,’ said Mma Makutsi. “He’s worried that you will become thin. He knows that you are a strong-willed person and that it will be easy for you to lose weight, but he does not want that to happen. He thinks that traditionally-built ladies are far more beautiful.”

Mma Ramotswe looked down at her hands, which were folded over her lap. “Is that really what he thinks?’ she asked.

“Yes,” said Mma Makutsi. “That is what he thinks.”

Mma Ramotswe unfolded her hands. “Perhaps …” she began.

She did not finish the sentence. Mma Makutsi had now taken out the bag of doughnuts which the apprentice had been sent off to buy after her lunchtime conversation with Mr J.L.B Matekoni. She rose to her feet and brought the bag over to the other woman.

Mma Ramotswe stared into the bag.

“Oh well,” she said.