A story for December: A Precious Christmas

December 2023

Exclusive short story: A Precious Christmas

Mma Ramotswe had always known that her assistant at the No 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, Mma Makutsi, was a woman of exceptional character.

There were so many reasons for coming to this conclusion – not only was there her remarkable performance in the final examinations of the Botswana Secretarial College, where she achieved the hitherto unheard-of mark of 97 per cent; not only was there that, but there was her sheer courage in standing up to bullies of every description.

Naturally Mma Ramotswe herself was not one to shirk the hard interview or the difficult investigation, but she was always a little bit more circumspect than Mma Makutsi. Her assistant tackled things directly, with all guns blazing, not giving an inch in the defence of her position. And that position, Mma Ramotswe agreed, was invariably the right one.

Mma Makutsi, of course, was now married to Mr Phuti Radiphuti, proprietor of the Double Comfort Furniture Store, whom she had first met at a dance class at the Botswana Academy of Dance and Movement. It had not been an auspicious first meeting: Phuti did not have a good sense of rhythm – indeed he could not dance at all – and he had also suffered from a serious speech impediment that made it impossible– at that stage at least – for her to understand anything of what he said. But she had persisted, and his dancing had become slightly better, or less dangerous, as the instructor put it, and the speech impediment had all but disappeared as he gained in confidence. Their engagement had followed and after that their wedding, on a fine Saturday when the sky above Botswana, the country they both loved so much, was high and blue, as it almost always was, and clear of cloud.

But even a good marriage, as hers undoubtedly was, could be expected to have its strains and tensions at the edges. In this case, all that came not from the parties to the marriage, but from one or two members of their respective family. On Mma Makutsi’s side there was her uncle, a man with a very curious broken nose, who had proved to be inordinately grasping in the property negotiations preceding the formal engagement.

On Phuti’s side, the awkward relative was his senior aunt, who had done her best to block the marriage altogether. In this campaign she had the advantage of having Phuti stay in her house during his recovery from an accident, and she had gone out of her way to make it impossible for Mma Makutsi to visit her injured fiancé.

That tactic had eventually failed, and she had been obliged to accept that the marriage was going ahead. This acceptance, though, did not preclude her from making snide remarks about Mma Makutsi at every turn, hoping in this way to alienate Phuti’s affections from his new bride.

And now, with only a few days left to go to Christmas, here was a card arriving in the post at the No 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency inviting both Mma Makutsi and Mma Ramotswe, and their respective husbands, to a Christmas Eve party at the aunt’s house. There will be enough beer, the invitation read. And there will also be enough meat. You will be very welcome.

“Well, well!” exclaimed Mma Makutsi as she passed the invitation over to Mma Ramotswe. “I can hardly believe this.”

Mma Ramotswe read out the invitation and then smiled. “It is this Christmas spirit that people always talk about,” she said. “I think that must be it.”

Mma Makutsi looked unconvinced. “Either that or she’s forgotten to put in the word not. Maybe what she meant to write was: There will not be enough beer. And there will also not be enough meat. You will not be very welcome.”

“I do not think so, Mma,” said Mma Ramotswe. “And I think that we should all go along and do our best to be kind to that poor woman.”

Mma Makutsi snorted. “Poor woman? She’s a very wicked lady, Mma Ramotswe. The last time that Phuti saw her – a few weeks ago – she said that she thought he was looking thin and that this must be because I was not feeding him enough. She said that he should come and have some meals at her house to make up for it. That’s what she said, Mma; I’m not making it up.”

Mma Ramotswe was charitable. “She must be unhappy inside, Mma Makutsi. People like that …”

“Unhappy inside and outside too,” interrupted Mma Makutsi. “Unhappy right way up and upside down too.”

Mma Ramotswe shrugged. “But if people are unhappy it’s not always their fault, you know.”

“Yes it is,” said Mma Makutsi abruptly.

Mma Ramotswe decided to leave the matter there. In spite of their misgivings, it was agreed that the four of them – Mma Ramotswe and her husband, Mr J.L.B. Matekoni, and Mma Makutsi and her husband, Mr Phuti Radiphuti – would all accept the invitation.

After all, turning down an invitation when you could really go offended traditional Botswana values – and those, as Mma Ramotswe often said, were the only real guide to what was right. No, they really had no choice: they would have to go.

On Christmas Eve Phuti Radiphuti and Mma Makutsi picked up Mma Ramotswe and Mr J.L.B. Matekoni in their car and they drove together to the house of the unpleasant aunt. Mma Ramotswe had baked a cake for their hostess and had wrapped it in festive red paper. For her part, Mma Makutsi had prepared a tray of fat cakes that she had liberally sprinkled with sugar. Phuti had tried one of these and had pronounced them delicious.

“That will show my aunt that you can cook,” he said.

“Of course I can cook,” said Mma Makutsi, irritation surfacing in her voice. “I will show her these, perhaps, and ask her why she thinks I cannot feed you properly.”

Mma Ramotswe said nothing. It was not going to be an easy occasion, she imagined, and she thought it might be best not to say anything that would put Mma Makutsi in an even worse mood.

They arrived, and made their way up the path to the aunt’s front door.

“There’s her horrible car,” muttered Mma Makutsi, pointing to an old-fashioned brown car parked beside the house.

Again Mma Ramotswe judged it prudent to say nothing; had she spoken, it would have been to point out that one should not judge people by their cars, but had she said that, she knew that Mr J.L.B. Matekoni might have been drawn into the discussion – as a mechanic he had always held that you could do just that.

They knocked on the front door and uttered the greeting that good manners required of any visitor: Ko, ko!  After a few moments, somewhere deep within the house, heavy footsteps could be heard approaching. The door opened and the aunt, casually clad in a faded pink housecoat, looked at them with astonishment.

Mma Ramotswe greeted her politely. “We’re here for the party, Mma. I hope we aren’t too early.”

The aunt frowned. “Party? What is this party?”

“Your Christmas party, aunt,” said Phuti mildly.

The aunt swung round to glare at her nephew. “My party? What are you talking about, Phuti? Has this woman …” And here she glanced dismissively at Mma Makutsi.

Mma Ramotswe intervened. “We had an invitation, Mma. It said that you were holding a party.”

The aunt shook her head. “That is nonsense. That is some silly person playing a joke on you.” She paused. “I have a very difficult neighbour, Mma. Maybe that is her idea of a joke. She is a very silly woman.”

Phuti shifted uncomfortably from foot to foot. ‘I think maybe we should go,” he said. “My aunt is very busy.”

Mma Ramotswe made a rapid judgement. “I tell you what, Mma. We have all this good food we’ve brought – could we not bring that in and make a small party for you. Not a big one, just a small one. There is this cake, you see, and these fat cakes.”

The aunt glanced at the tray of fat cakes. She hesitated for a few moments. “Maybe I could make some tea,” she said.

“That would be perfect,” said Mma Ramotswe. “Tea is always better than beer.” She paused, looking briefly at Phuti and Mr J.L.B. Matekoni. “Except for men, that is.”

The aunt looked down at the floor. “I may have some beer in the house. I could look …”

They went inside. While Mma Makutsi set the fat cakes out on a plate, Mma Ramotswe helped the aunt put on the kettle and prepared the tea pot and cups.

“This is a very nice kitchen,” she said. “It is good to see such a well-kept kitchen, Mma.”

The aunt waved a hand in a non-committal way. “It is a kitchen,” she said. “A kitchen is a kitchen.”

Once the tea was made, they returned to the living room where the others were seated on the worn brown sofa and chairs that ringed a low centre table. Tea was poured and fat cakes passed round. Two beers, found in the back of the fridge, were opened and poured into rather greasy glasses.

“This is all very nice,” said Mr J.L.B. Matekoni bravely. “It is very good to have a party, I always say.”

“Yes,” said Mma Ramotswe quickly. “And I’m very glad that we are able to have it here, so that we can thank Phuti’s aunt.”

The aunt looked suspiciously at Mma Ramotswe. “To thank me for what?”

“For all you did for Phuti,” said Mma Ramotswe. “For looking after him when he was a little boy and bringing him up to be such a good, kind man – and a good husband for Mma Makutsi.” She looked pointedly at her assistant before she continued.

“And Mma Makutsi is so grateful for that, Mma.”

There was a silence.

“Aren’t you, Mma?” prompted Mma Ramotswe.

“Yes,” said Mma Makutsi, eventually. “Yes, I am.”

The aunt made a dismissive gesture. “Oh that was nothing, I just did …”

“You did everything, aunt,” interjected Phuti Radiphuti.

The aunt looked down at the floor again, but she was smiling as she did so. “These fat cakes are very well cooked,” she said. “They are very good. I will have another one, please.”

Several hours later, as they made their way down the front path, Mma Ramotswe whispered to Mma Makutsi. “Christmas spirit, Mma? What do you think? It works, doesn’t it? It really does.”

Mma Makutsi nodded. “I think you’re right, Mma,” she said.

And she knew that Mma Ramotswe was indeed right, and the Christmas spirit, healing and generous as it inevitably was, always worked. It really did.


This story was written exclusively for the Express. The latest No.1 Ladies’ Detective Agency novel, From A Far and Lovely Country, is available now.