“Your mother?” said Mma Ramotswe. “You said something about your mother? I was not paying attention, Mma Makutsi. I missed what you said.”
The two women had been in the van, driving out of Gaborone, out to a village where they had to speak to somebody about somebody who was missing. It was a hopeless case; people went missing all the time because they wanted to, not because somebody had abducted them or lured them away. They simply went missing because they had had enough. Of course one had to make an effort in such cases. One could hardly say to the client, “Look, this person has gone away because he can’t stand your nagging any more.” You could not say that; you had to try to find some trace, so that a mind could be set at rest. The worst thing, Mma Ramotswe thought, was not to know. It was not easy not to know.
Now, half way through the journey, along a broken road that had to be negotiated very slowly, they stopped under a tree by the side and ate the sandwiches which Mma Makutsi had packed for them – thick slices of bread, roughly cut, with a slices of ham and tomato between them. Mma Ramotswe liked ham, but she thought that it was spoiled by tomatoes and she wondered whether she could tactfully extract the tomato and drop it on the ground beside her – food for ants. But she decided that she could not, as Mma Makutsi would notice and that was just the sort of thing that could lead to offence being taken. Mma Makutsi took offence; not often, but she took it.
“You said something about your mother,” Mma Ramotswe repeated. “I was thinking about food, I’m afraid – about these fine sandwiches and I didn’t hear what you said about your mother.”
Mma Makutsi’s mouth was full, and she had to wait until she had swallowed before she could reply. “I said that she did not like dust. I said that if there was too much dust her eyes would water and she would be very uncomfortable.”
“An allergy,” said Mma Ramotswe.
Mma Makutsi nodded. She had a piece of ham stuck in between teeth, at the front, and she tackled this, turning her head away as she did so. “Yes, an allergy.”
“This is not a good country if you’re allergic to dust,” observed Mma Ramotswe, looking down at the ground beneath them. They were sitting on a couple of rocks under the tree – rocks which other people had left there for people to sit on – and there was fine, sandy soil underfoot, and dust. There was dust everywhere, and when you drove along a road such as this the dust followed you in clouds like a vapour trail. Even her tiny white van, the least of machines, so modest, so old, had a vapour trail like that of a jet.
“That is why she liked the rainy season,” Mma Makutsi said. She had extracted the fragment of ham and she let it fall to the ground, a tiny speck, lost in the desert that was that sand.
“Do you remember much about your mother?” asked Mma Ramotswe. “How old were you when she became late?”
“Oh, I remember her very well. Very well. She only became late a few years ago.” She stopped and thought. Four years. That was all. But at least she had known about the graduation from the Botswana Secretarial College, about the ninety-seven per cent; she had known about that and had been so proud, as the whole family was.
“Ninety-seven per cent?” she had said. “I cannot believe it. Ninety-seven per cent?”
That had been such a proud moment, after all the sacrifices that the Makutsi family had made to put their daughter through the college; the livestock sold so that the fees could be paid, the meals that she was sure they had missed so that she could buy the books that she had needed. There had been no complaint about any of that; it had simply been done, because that was what family meant. They were poor – when she had been asked by her father to fill in some government form for him, something to do with a grant for a water pipe, he had instructed her to write peasant in the box which said occupation. The form had been in English, and that was the word that he wanted to use. She said, “What about farmer?” and he had shaken his head and said, “I like peasant. That is what I want to be.”
Mma Makutsi looked at Mma Ramotswe. She had heard a lot about her employer’s father, Obed Ramotswe, but not much about her mother. Obed Ramotswe had been a great man, by all accounts, and not just in Mma Ramotswe’s estimation – she regularly heard comments from others who had known him, and they were all complimentary. Mma Makutsi could imagine him, this man who had brought up Precious Ramotswe, with his old hat and his eye for cattle. She smiled at the thought. But then she turned to Mma Ramotswe. “And your mother?” she asked.
Mma Ramotswe was silent.
“It’s just that I have heard so much about your father,” Mma Makutsi went on. “But I have never heard about your mother. I know that she is late, but you never talk …”
Mma Ramotswe put the remains of her sandwich on her knee and reached for the bottle of water they had bought from the van. Above them, in the delicate foliage of the acacia tree, she could make out the remnants of a bird’s nest, a sad bundle of twigs. There was a gecko on the branch below the nest, one of those small, brightly coloured creatures that scampered up the trunks of trees, unworried by gravity; unlike us, she thought, for whom gravity was always there, and such a problem sometimes.
“No,” she said. “I don’t talk about her very much.”
Mma Makutsi was watching her. She saw the familiar, comfortable figure of her employer; saw the purple-dyed dress that she liked to wear when she went off on investigations, the scarf tied about the head like one of those doeks which the Herero women liked to wear. What would somebody, some stranger, make of this woman whom she so took for granted? Would a stranger be able to tell what sort of woman she was? There is so much that we do not know about other people, she thought; we imagined we knew about them, but we did not, not really. Often we knew only what they wanted us to know, and the other things, the things that were really very interesting, were kept hidden. She wondered about Mma Ramotswe, and any secrets that she might be concealing; but then she thought, no, there are no secrets there. And then the further thought came, that she had no secrets herself, which was a depressing conclusion, that one’s life should have no secrets, not even a few.
Why, she wondered, would Mma Makutsi not wish to talk about her late mother? Sometimes people did not like to talk about those who were recently late – the just late – but Mma Ramotswe’s mother had died a long time ago, when Precious was a child. It was not a recent loss.
“What was she like, Mma? What was your mother like?”
Mma Ramotswe retrieved her sandwich from its resting place on her knee. She looked up at the sky. “I was very small,” she said. “I was just a baby. She was killed in an accident on a level crossing – you know that one near Pilane? You know that place?”
Mma Makutsi did. She was regretting now that she had asked Mma Ramotswe about this. It was obviously a painful topic.
“We don’t know how it happened,” said Mma Ramotswe. “The train had a light. How can you not see a train? How can you not hear it?”
“Sometimes people don’t,” said Mma Makutsi. “It can be very dark. The light of a train – that light on the front – might seem like the moon, don’t you think? And the noise – if it’s the rainy season you might think that it’s a storm. There are many reasons …”
There were; but some of these reasons were not so easy to live with. “Maybe.”
“So you don’t remember her, Mma? You have no memories?’
Mma Ramotswe shook her head. “I do not remember her.”
“That is very sad.”
“I do not think about it, Mma. I do not think about it.”
Mma Makutsi reached for the bottle of water. It seemed to her to be strange that Mma Ramotswe should not think about her mother; would it not be better to think about her at least a little bit, to find out from others, perhaps, as to what she was like? It seemed odd, almost unnatural, to allow a gap like that to exist, an area of unknowing.
“Maybe …” Mma Makutsi began, but she was interrupted by Mma Ramotswe, who said, “Yes, maybe I should. But then how can I talk about something I know nothing about? How can I do that, Mma?”
“Somebody must have spoken to you about her,” said Mma Makutsi. “They must have said something.”
“No,” said Mma Ramotswe. “I don’t think they did. I think it was too hard for my father to speak about her. His heart was broken inside him, you see. That is why he could not speak.”
Mma Makutsi frowned. “Never?”
“Not ever that I remember … except …”
Mma Makutsi leaned forward and touched Mma Ramotswe lightly on the forearm. “You remember something, don’t you, Mma?”
Mma Ramotswe hesitated. She was not sure. It was a long time ago. But he had said to her, had he not, that she was like her mother? He had said it once when she was a young woman, seventeen or thereabouts, and she had come back to Mochudi from a visit to an aunt and had found her father standing by that stone wall that ran near their house. It had been in the evening, and he had been standing there, staring out over the field, and she had come up to him to give him a surprise. He had heard her, had spun round, smiled, and said, “You are just like your mother, you know. She had a dress like that, Precious, and you look like her. I thought … “ He trailed off, and her breath had caught within her, as she imagined that he was going to say more, but the moment passed and he did not.
She told Mma Makutsi this, and the younger woman had smiled at her with encouragement. “There you are, Mma Ramotswe,” she said. “I thought that you knew something after all. So we know that she was just like you. Does that not make you happy?”
Mma Ramotswe shrugged. ‘I don’t know. Aren’t we all like our parents? And aren’t they all like us?”
Mma Makutsi thought for a moment. She had known many people who struck her as being very different from their parents, for which they, and many others too, were very grateful. There was that young man, also from Bobonong, the one who almost married her cousin; his father was the headmaster of a school, but that young man … well, it was best not to think about him. But it was different with Mma Ramotswe – very different, and she would have to tell her that. It was a bit embarrassing, perhaps, but she would have to tell her.
“But listen, Mma,” she said. “It’s a very good thing to be like you. I would be very happy if I were like you. I really would.”
Mma Ramotswe made a gesture of embarrassment. “No,” she said. “You must not say things like that! I am just the same as anybody else.” She looked at Mma Makutsi, who had lowered her gaze, and at this point, surreptitiously, almost on impulse, she deftly slipped a slice of tomato out of her sandwich and flicked it down on to the ground. Then, with a quick movement of the foot, she covered it with her shoe.
“But that is not true!” said Mma Makutsi. “It is just not true. You are a very nice woman, Mma Ramotswe. Everybody likes you. You are kind. You never shout at anyone – even those stupid apprentices. No, you don’t. I have never heard you raise your voice to them. I have done that myself. Yes, I have. But not you.”
Mma Ramotswe said nothing. She thought that Mma Makutsi was rather impatient with those young men, even if they did offer frequent provocations, but she did not think it was necessarily productive to shout at people. But now, she felt, was not the time to say that; not immediately after being showered with such praise.
“So you know a lot about your mother, Mma Ramotswe,” Mma Makutsi continued. “You know that she was kind. You know that she was very pretty …”
“And traditionally built,” interrupted Mma Ramotswe.
“Maybe. Maybe. But you know that people must have liked her a lot. She would have been popular in Mochudi. Many people would have been at her funeral, you know.”
“Yes,” said Mma Ramotswe. “There were a lot of people. I heard that once – from an old man, a distant relative. And somebody else told me that too.”
“There you are,” exclaimed Mma Makutsi. “You know a lot about her, Mma. Can you not see her now?”
Mma Ramotswe looked out beyond her tiny white van, which was parked to the side of the tree under which they were sitting. “I think she would have liked my van,” she said. “I can see her driving that. I can see her driving up towards the kgotla at Mochudi, with a cloud of dust behind her.”
“And dogs running after the van and barking,” suggested Mma Makutsi. “I can see that too.”
Mma Ramotswe smiled. “And I think that she would have been very kind to me,” she said.
Mma Makutsi was silent for a moment. She had been looking up, through the leaves of the acacia tree, at a sky which the leaves split up into fragments of blue, of white, of emptiness. “She would have loved you so much,” she said. “And you would have loved her too.”
Mma Ramotswe turned to face her. “Can you love a person you cannot remember, Mma? Can you do that?”
Mma Makutsi replied without a moment of hesitation. There was no doubt in her mind; none. “Yes you can, Mma. Of course you can. Of course.”
They sat for a few minutes more, under the shade of the tree. Somewhere, off in the bush behind them, there were cattle bells, and it seemed enough for them that they should listen to that familiar sound of the Botswana bush, a sound which reminded them of who they were, and where they were. Then Mma Ramotswe stood up. It was so comfortable on that smooth rock, but there was a journey to be completed.
“We must go, Mma,” she said. “We have work to do.”
Mma Makutsi stood up too. She reached for the water bottle. Then Mma Ramotswe took a step towards the van and saw, as she did so, that the slice of tomato, rejected and lying in the white dust of that place, was very visible.
Mma Makutsi did not appear to see it, and they went over to the van, brushing their skirts to get rid of fragments of sand; a dusty place. Once in the van, Mma Ramotswe started the engine and they drove, bumpily, back onto the road. She was thinking of what her assistant had said. It had been very good of her, very helpful.
“What you said back there,” said Mma Ramotswe, slowing down to avoid a donkey that had strayed into the road and was gazing mournfully, almost accusingly, at the sudden appearance of the van. “What you said back there, Mma Makutsi, was very kind. Thank you. You are very kind.”
Her companion nodded, somewhat curtly, thought Mma Ramotswe.
“Even if you didn’t like my sandwiches,” muttered Mma Makutsi.