A Story for August: A preview from The House of Unexpected Sisters

African Elephant by Iain McIntosh

August 2017

This month we bring you a preview from The House of Unexpected Sisters a novel not yet published.

You Could Find Yourself Shaking Your Head So Much

She picked up a fine piece of Botswana beef from the butcher before returning to Zebra Drive that evening. The butcher, whose own father had known her father, the late Obed Ramotswe, always gave her the best cut, just as he always managed to come up with some reminiscence of his father’s dealings with Obed. There were not many stories to tell on the subject, but he made the most of those there were, recycling them every so often with additional details to add colour. Had her father ever told her about the time they saved a cow from drowning after a particularly heavy storm? Had he ever mentioned a man called Cephas Pilane who was a bit of a gambler and who had lost a donkey in a ridiculous wager? Had he ever told her about the time the two of them—his father and hers—were chased by a bull and had to climb a thorn tree, much to their discomfort? The stories were old ones, much embroidered, but they were typical of the skein of tales that kept people together, that reminded them of who their people were and what they meant to them. You might think they were just stories about cattle and the men who owned them, but of course they were much more than that: they were stories about Botswana and what it meant to be a Motswana. And she never tired of hearing about her father—that great man, that unrivalled judge of cattle, her daddy, as she called him, and of whom she thought at some point every day, every single day, and whom she had loved with all her heart. It did not matter if the butcher told her the same things time and time again—she would never tire of hearing what he had to say.

Back at the house, she parked her tiny white van in its customary place, put the beef in the fridge, and made herself a pot of redbush tea. She would drink the tea as she walked round the garden, carrying out her usual inspection of the vegetable patch—her beans were doing well, nurtured by the run-off water from the kitchen drain. In a dry country, no water is wasted, and Mma Ramotswe and Mr J. L. B. Matekoni had stretched out a hose pipe that would take the water from the drain, across a stretch of dusty garden, to the raised vegetable beds towards the back of their plot. There the hose fed the water into an old oil drum that acted as reservoir and from which much smaller pipes led to the individual beds. The final stage in this engineering marvel was the trailing of cotton threads from a bucket suspended above the plants; water would run down this thread drop by drop to the foot of each plant’s stem. No water thus fell on ground where nothing grew; every drop reached exactly the tiny patch of ground where it was needed.

Everything was in order. The beans were obediently ripening; the tomatoes were weighing down their stems; the melons, fat, lazy and yellow, were half hidden by their leaves but would be ready any day now to be plucked, cooked, and served with gravy. In fact . . . She bent down and felt the largest of the melons. Then she tapped on it gently, as if to see if anybody was in. It was just right, and she now lowered herself onto her haunches and gently separated the melon from its stalk. She would cook it that evening, to go with the beef from the butcher. Mr J. L. B. Matekoni’s favourite meal of all was just that: good Botswana beef, fed on the sweet grass of the veld, accompanied by boiled melon from their very own soil. What could be better than that? What country, any where on the face of this earth, could deliver bounty as honest, as nourishing, and as delicious?

She had done much of the cooking by the time he came home. She had also collected Motholeli from school, where she had been at her girl guide meeting, started Puso on his homework, and generally tidied up the kitchen. Mr J. L. B. Matekoni was slightly later than usual, as he had been dealing with a sophisticated modern car and had none of the diagnostic equipment that par- ticular make of car needed. Something was wrong with the car’s soul, he thought; a modern mechanic might put it differently, and might talk about malfunctioning sensors or a software problem of some sort, but in his view it was the car’s soul. Somewhere deep in the electronic gadgetry orchestrating the engine, there was something wrong; and just as the failure of one organ in the human body may disrupt the performance of the whole, this little glitch had thrown the whole mighty engine into disarray. It had been a frustrating experience, but he had eventually solved the problem by disconnecting and then reconnecting as many wires as he could see. One of them had a faulty contact point and had responded to this shock therapy.

‘It’s only by chance that I fixed it,’ he said, lowering himself into a chair by the kitchen table. ‘What a fuss it was.’

‘Well, you did it,’ she said. ‘That’s the important thing.’ She leaned forward and sniffed at the stew. Mma Ramotswe believed in using your nose while cooking; too many people, she thought, relied on taste, and were always dipping a spoon into a dish to see how it was faring. In her view, that was unnecessary—and unhygienic. You could find out everything you needed to know through the sense of smell. A good stew smelled like a . . . well, a good stew; it would remind you of that time when the sun has just sunk over the Kalahari, when the cattle have been brought back into their kraal against a background of gentle lowing, when the moon is floating up in the sky over Botswana and the children are sitting about the fire, waiting for their dinner. It smelled like that. It smelled like the world when, early in the morning, you made your way through the bush and the birds were just beginning to greet the world and the delicate leaves of the acacia trees were opening to the warmth of the gold with which the land was painted. It smelled like that, and all you had to do was to train yourself to know when something was just right.

Mr J. L. B. Matekoni was thinking of cars, though. He was thinking about the loss of soul in cars and what this meant for people like him—mechanics, who were priests of a sort. There would be no role for mechanics in the new world that was being created around them; a world in which you never fixed anything but simply replaced it with a new part. Look at what had happened to carburettors; look at what had happened to gearboxes; look at what had happened even to the lights that lit up the inside of a car when you opened the door. They used to have bulbs that you could take out and change—tiny, fragile things that came in flimsy cardboard boxes with the address of the factory printed on them – somewhere in England, or Germany, where he had heard the cattle were very well watered and were fat; and these bulbs, these little bubbles of impossibly thin glass, would fit just about any car that needed a replacement. Where were those bulbs now? They had gone, and now the lights in a car were whole units, square and chunky, that had to be specially ordered if they failed, which the manufacturers said they never would do, because they were meant to last for one hundred thousand hours, as he had seen claimed in the handbook of a car he had recently serviced. One hundred thousand hours . . . That sounded like a lifetime to him; it sounded like many generations of old bulbs, stretching off into the distance in a long line of little cardboard boxes.

He sighed, but privately and inaudibly. There was no point in bemoaning these things, because you could find yourself shak- ing your head so much that you would end up with a sore neck. And what was the point of that? You could not uninvent things; you could not bring back a world that had gone forever, even if you could remember it from time to time, and think fondly of what had been. It was important to be positive, and Mr J. L. B. Matekoni was positive; he was. So he said, ‘I suppose you’re right, Mma Ramotswe.’ This was always a good thing to say, and he meant it too, because she was usually right, and if there ever came a point when he could not say that, then that would be a sad day indeed. So, having said that, he went on to enquire about her day.

‘And what about you, Mma? What about you?’

She replaced the lid on the pot in which the melon was being cooked.

‘We had a visit from Mr Polopetsi,’ she said. ‘Did you see him?’ He shook his head. ‘I was under that car. I was trying to work out what was what. You know, in the old days, if you went under a car . . . ’

‘Yes,’ said Mma Ramotswe. ‘It was simpler then.’ Everything had been simpler then, she thought—not just cars, but people and the world too. People knew what to do because they had the old Botswana morality to guide them, and that had never proved wanting. You respected your elders, you stood by those who were connected to you through friendship or family, you shared the things you had with those you knew and with those you did not know.

‘So, what did old Polopetsi want?’ Mr J. L. B. Matekoni often called him that—old Polopetsi—although Mr Polopetsi was only in his early forties. It was a term of affection, because he liked him, even if he found him slightly odd, with his frightened manner and his self-effacing comportment. ‘Is he doing some work for you?’

Mma Ramotswe joined him at the table. ‘He came to talk about a woman who is the sister of one of the teachers at the school.’

Mr J. L. B. Matekoni nodded. So many things in Botswana started that way: somebody knew somebody who was a brother or sister of somebody else, and this person, or even this person’s brother, needed your help, or even a loan. That was the way the country worked. ‘So, there is this woman . . . ’

‘She’s called Charity Mompoloki.’

He thought for a moment, but then shook his head. ‘I’ve never heard of her.’ He looked up at the ceiling, as if to find there some clue that would jog his memory. Mma Ramotswe had noticed this habit of doing this before, of looking to the ceiling for assistance, and had playfully said to him, ‘Yes, R ra, there could be something written on the ceiling—you never know.’ But now there was nothing, and he said, ‘I don’t know of any family of that name—not personally, that is.’

‘She used to work at that office furniture place—the one near Kgale Hill.’

Mr J. L. B. Matekoni knew the place. ‘The man who owns that has a Mercedes-Benz. I have fixed it for him several times, but he does not drive it carefully. He is hard on the gearbox. A gearbox will not forget you if you are unkind to it. Gearboxes have a long memory—just like elephants.’

Mma Ramotswe told him the story that Mr Polopetsi had recounted that morning. She told him how Charity had worked at the store for over six years and had done well. Then, without any warning, even as she was in the middle of taking an order for six filing cabinets and a receptionist’s desk, she had been called to the manager’s office and summarily dismissed. The pretext, Mr Polopetsi said, had been rudeness to an important client. This had been denied vigorously, but the client had made it clear that he would not be bought off with a mere apology: he wanted the offender fired.

‘That was all Mr Polopetsi knew about the incident,’ said Mma Ramotswe.

Mr J. L. B. Matekoni tutted in disapproval. He had heard that employers were getting tougher with their staff and were less tol- erant than they used to be. It was not unconnected, he thought, with the desire to cut down the size of the workforce: find a pre-text to dismiss somebody—any excuse would do—and slim down the payroll that way. He would never do that sort of thing, but there were many who would, and he strongly disapproved of the practice. ‘If you cannot afford to keep people on,’ he said, ‘then you should explain the situation to them rather than fire them for something else – something you’ve just made up.’

Now, to Mma Ramotswe, he said, ‘She should have had a warning. I’m not excusing rudeness, but it’s a bit extreme to get rid of somebody just because she forgot to be polite.’

‘I agree,’ said Mma Ramotswe. She knew that Mr J. L. B. Matekoni would never do anything so harsh; on the contrary, he had always forgiven his apprentices for even the most exceptional mistakes and had never threatened to dismiss them. It was true that Charlie had lost his job at the garage, but that was only when financial stringency made it impossible to pay his wages, and since then he had been taken back, even if only on a part-time basis, the rest of his salary being made up by Mma Ramotswe. She had given Charlie a number of hours’ work a week as an assistant in the agency—with mixed results.

Mr J. L. B. Matekoni asked why Mr Polopetsi had brought up the case of the dismissed woman. In response, Mma Ramotswe made a gesture of acceptance with her hands; the sort of gesture you make when there is no alternative. ‘He wondered whether I could help to get her job back.’ She looked apologetic, as if it were she who had made the awkward request.

Mr J. L. B. Matekoni looked doubtful. ‘I don’t see what you can do, Mma,’ he said. ‘The labour court won’t interfere in a case like that. They’d probably say that the dismissal was justified.’

‘Unless it’s not true,’ said Mma Ramotswe. ‘Unless she was not rude in the first place.’

Mr J. L. B. Matekoni looked puzzled. ‘But you said she had been.’

‘No,’ said Mma Ramotswe. ‘I said that was the reason given for the dismissal. That’s not the same thing as saying that she did what they said she did.’

He looked up at the ceiling again, but only briefly. ‘You’re suggesting that the client made it up?’

‘No, I’m suggesting that the client may not know anything about it. I’m suggesting that the employer might have made it up.’

‘But why would he do that?’

Mma Ramotswe shrugged. ‘There are many reasons for wanting to get rid of somebody. I don’t know what the reason might have been in this case, but what I do know is that if I were an employer in such a situation, and I wanted to get rid of somebody, my main worry would be the labour court. You can be taken to court, as you know, if you fire somebody without good reason. They may order reinstatement in the job. They may instruct com- pensation to be paid.’

Mr J. L. B. Matekoni had been aware of that. There had been a prominent case in the motor trade where a car salesman had been fired without good reason because he had been having an affair with the younger sister of one of the directors of the company. The director had considered the salesman unworthy of his sister, as the salesman came from a minority clan, and this element of animosity had been stressed in the newspaper reports of the case. The resultant bad publicity had its effect: sales had dropped because of public sympathy for the employee, and the firm had eventually filed for bankruptcy: all because of small- minded snobbery.

‘It will be very difficult, Mma,’ he said cautiously. ‘If the orig- inal complaint is true, then there’s not much you can do. If it is not true, then I don’t see how you can prove it.’

Mma Ramotswe appreciated his reservations, but they would not be enough to deter her from doing something for this woman—if she could. She could imagine nothing worse than being accused of something you did not do. There were few people in this world who would be able to do much for a person in that invidious position, but she felt that if anybody could do anything, it would be a private detective.

‘I’m going to try to help her,’ she said. ‘We cannot leave her.’ Mr J. L. B. Matekoni took a moment to react. He had noticed the use of the word we, and he knew that she was right. If she did not take on this sort of matter, then there would be nowhere for an innocent woman—if she were innocent—to turn. That was clear enough, but there remained the question of payment. This did not sound like a paying proposition, and there was a limit to the number of cases Mma Ramotswe could take on without payment. Or was there?

‘I don’t suppose . . . ’ he began, but stopped. She knew what he was going to ask.

‘No, there isn’t,’ she said. ‘Nothing was said about that.’

Mr J. L. B. Matekoni smiled. ‘That doesn’t matter,’ he said, as cheerfully as he could. ‘The garage still makes a little bit of money and that will keep us going.’

She nodded. ‘That’s good of you, Rra.’

‘And all we need,’ he continued, ‘is to have enough money to clothe the children . . . and buy their schoolbooks and shoes and . . . ’ He waved a hand in the air. ‘And to eat, of course.’

‘Yes,’ said Mma Ramotswe. ‘And on that subject, Rra, I think this stew is about ready. Are you hungry this evening?’

She knew that she need hardly ask the question, but she did, out of politeness. Men were always hungry; they were hungry as boys, they were hungry as young men, they were hungry as mature men. It was part of being a man, and it was part of being a woman to observe this; not that women were never hungry—they were—but, thought Mma Ramotswe, they were hungry in a rather different way. One day, of course, these differences between men and women would disappear—there were signs of that beginning to happen already—but she did not think that day would come at all soon, and she was rather pleased that this was so. God had made things in a certain way, she felt; he had made Africa, he had made Botswana, he had made cattle—and then he made men and women; and he knew what he was doing and we should not be too quick to undo his work.

The reply to her question did not come in any words from Mr J. L. B. Matekoni, to whom it had been addressed, but in chorus in two higher-pitched voices. ‘Yes, we are very hungry.’

Puso and Motholeli had come into the room—Puso pushing his sister’s wheelchair, both smiling broadly.

‘Is homework finished?’ asked Mma Ramotswe.

This was answered with a solemn nodding of heads.

‘And done neatly?’

Again, nodding heads provided the answer.

Then Puso added, ‘I had to draw a map of the world, and then colour in the countries.’

‘He did it really well,’ observed Motholeli. ‘But he put Australia in the wrong place.’ She turned to her brother. ‘Australia is not at the top—it’s down at the bottom, Puso.’

‘Then why don’t they fall off ?’ asked Puso. ‘If Australia is at the bottom, then people would fall off. But they don’t, do they?’

‘It’s because we’re spinning round,’ said Motholeli.

Puso looked doubtful. ‘We’re not spinning round.’ He looked to Mma Ramotswe for support. ‘We’re not spinning around, are we Mma?’

‘I think we are, Puso, but gravity stops us from falling off, I think. You know what gravity is?’

Puso looked knowing. ‘Everybody knows what gravity is,’ he said.

‘And he made Botswana as big as South America,’ Motholeli continued.

Mma Ramotswe smiled. ‘I can see why he did that,’ she said.

‘Botswana’s very important to us.’

‘See,’ said Puso, a note of triumph in his voice.

Both children looked pointedly at Mma Ramotswe. And then she said, ‘Dinner is ready now, I think.’

She ladled stew into four plates and placed these, one by one, on the table. Once seated herself, Mma Ramotswe lowered her head and said grace. ‘We give thanks for the food our country

gives us, and we think of those who do not have what we have. We give thanks for Africa and for the good things that Africa gives its children. Amen.’

‘Amen,’ said Motholeli.

‘Me too,’ said Puso.

We hope you enjoyed this opportunity to read a preview from The House of Unexpected Sisters, a No.1 Ladies’ Detective Agency novel.