A Story for September – No Double Bed

Typewriter by Iain McIntosh

September 2020

No Double Bed is an extract from the forthcoming book, ‘How to Raise an Elephant’, the twenty-first volume in The No.1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series.

No Double Bed

Precious Ramotswe, owner and only begetter of the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency – established to deal with the problems of ladies, and others – looked across her office towards the desk occupied by Grace Makutsi, former secretary and distinguished graduate – with ninety- seven per cent in the final examinations – of the Botswana Secretarial College. The sun was streaming through the high window behind Mma Ramotswe’s desk, sending a narrow butter- yellow beam to illuminate small particles of floating dust, just perceptible, feather- light, moving up and down, sometimes sliding sideways in obedience to the invisible currents in the room. But for the most part the air was still – it being that sort of day, sluggish and non- committal. The sort of day on which something might happen, but was more likely not to.

It was not unusual for Mma Ramotswe to look up and see Mma Makutsi staring back at her; and the same thing might be said for Mma Makutsi, who would suddenly lift her gaze from the papers in front of her and notice Mma Ramotswe watching her thoughtfully. Neither minded this – indeed, both were used to it, and when either of them was out of the office for whatever reason, the other would find that she missed seeing her colleague there at her desk when she looked up. This was particularly true for Mma Makutsi, for whom Mma Ramotswe was a reassuring presence every bit as significant, every bit as reassuring, as the great rock dome of Kgale Hill on the outskirts of town, or the deep waters of the Limpopo River, just a few hours off to the east, or the sandhills of the Kalahari over to the west. These were all geographical facts, just as Mma Ramotswe herself seemed to be a geographical fact. She was simply there – as predictable and as constant as any of these things. And her voice was as familiar and as loved as the voice of the doves inhabiting the acacia tree behind Tlokweng Road Speedy Motors; indeed, she would not have been surprised had Mma Ramotswe suddenly started to coo, just as those doves did. Mma Makutsi could not imagine Botswana without those doves, and she could not imagine it without Mma Ramotswe; if she were not there, then it would be just any other country; with her it was something special – it was Mma Ramotswe’s place, a place bathed in the warmth of her presence as effectively as the sun blesses the land each morning with its warming rays.

Now Mma Ramotswe looked across the office and noticed that Mma Makutsi was looking back at her. There was something different about Mma Makutsi, she thought, and it took Mma Ramotswe a little while to work out what it was. It was not what she was wearing: she had on the green dress that for some reason she liked to wear on Fridays – Mma Makutsi was a creature of habit. No, it was something else, and when Mma Ramotswe realized what it was she reproached herself for not noticing it sooner. Mma Makutsi’s glasses, normally large and round, like outsize swimming goggles, had shrunk. They were still round, but the lenses were considerably smaller – tiny discs, by comparison, no bigger than the coins to be found in a pocket of small change. Any detective worth her salt would have spotted the change immediately, thought Mma Ramotswe. She had always prided herself on her powers of observation, but it was hardly very observant to miss a detail such as this. Of course, she had the excuse of the familiar: the eye is lulled into complacency when contemplating those things and people we see every day.

‘Your glasses, Mma,’ said Mma Ramotswe.

Mma Makutsi leaned back in her chair. She was smiling. ‘I wondered when you were going to notice, Mma. Do you like them? They’re new.’

Mma Ramotswe knew from long experience that Mma Makutsi was sensitive to criticism. The only response one could safely give if asked one’s opinion on any aspect of her appearance was to say that it was perfect. Any reservation, even in the form of a momentary hesitation, could give rise to a display of hurt feelings that could quickly become a more than momentary sulk; not prolonged beyond the evening, of course – Mma Ramotswe had never known Mma Makutsi to keep a state of huff going for more than a few hours, but it was best to avoid such occasions altogether, she thought.

‘They are very fine glasses,’ she said. ‘They are clearly very fashionable.’

It was just the right thing to say. Mma Makutsi touched the spectacles gently, repositioning them slightly on the bridge of her nose. ‘I saw them in a magazine, Mma,’ she said. ‘One of those very famous actresses was wearing them.’

‘Which famous actress, Mma?’

Mma Makutsi shrugged. ‘Oh, I don’t remember the names of any of those people. But they are very famous, Mma. They go to parties and there are many photographers at those parties. Snap, snap, snap – so that we can all see what was happening at the party even if we never get an invitation.’

‘So, this lady – whoever she was – was wearing your spectacles, Mma?’

‘The exact same,’ said Mma Makutsi. ‘And there was a list at the bottom of the page of what she was wearing, and how much it cost. They gave the name of the shop where you could order spectacles like that. It’s down in Cape Town; they do not sell these glasses in Botswana. You have to write off for them. These are Cape Town glasses – everyone is wearing them down there, they say.’

Mma Ramotswe wondered whether it was really a model who had been wearing them. ‘I think that lady might have been paid to wear them, Mma. I think that is possible, because otherwise they would not have published the details of where you could buy them.’

‘It does not matter,’ said Mma Makutsi. ‘She might have been a model – who knows?’

Mma Ramotswe thought about this. ‘If she was a model, Mma, do you think she was really short- sighted, or would she have been wearing them just for the photograph?’

Mma Makutsi hesitated. ‘It is possible, Mma, that she was shortsighted. I could not tell from the photograph.’

‘You’re right, though, Mma,’ said Mma Ramotswe. ‘It doesn’t matter whether or not she needed them. The point is: they look very good on you, Mma.’

‘You’re not just saying that, Mma?’

Mma Ramotswe shook her head. ‘I am not just saying it, Mma Makutsi. I am sitting here thinking it as well. I am sitting here thinking: those spectacles look very good on Mma Makutsi. They are a big improvement.’

As soon as she said this, Mma Ramotswe realised that she had said the wrong thing. She was about to rephrase her words, but it was too late.

‘What was wrong with my old glasses, Mma? Why did they need improvement?’

‘There was nothing wrong with them,’ said Mma Ramotswe hurriedly. ‘They were very fine glasses. It’s just that these new ones are even finer.’ She repeated, even more emphatically, ‘Even finer, Mma.’

Mma Makutsi seemed appeased. She looked at her watch, and Mma Ramotswe noticed that she was peering at it more closely than usual. Perhaps it was the light, as the sun had just gone behind a cloud and it was darker in the office than it had been a few minutes earlier.

‘I think it is time for tea, Mma,’ she said. ‘I shall make it.’

She got up from her desk and crossed over to where the kettle was perched on top of the filing cabinet. As she pressed the switch, she said to Mma Ramotswe, ‘Have your new neighbours moved in now, Mma?’

Mma Ramotswe nodded. ‘They have, Mma. I watched their furniture arrive yesterday. It was very interesting, Mma.’

And it had been, because there are few things more interesting in neighbourhood life than to witness the unpacking and the installation of one’s neighbours’ effects. People can say all sorts of things about themselves, can portray themselves in all sorts of false lights should they choose to do so, but their furniture is incapable of lying. Your furniture always tells the truth about you, and if the furniture is unvarnished, then so too is that truth.

The furniture van, a lumbering pantechnicon, had pulled up outside the neighbour’s house at seven in the morning, at a time when Mma Ramotswe had just served breakfast to Motholeli and Puso. Mr J. L. B. Matekoni always breakfasted early, and he had already driven off in his truck to Tlokweng Road Speedy Motors.

An early departure meant that he would beat the morning traffic, which, as was happening everywhere else, was getting worse and worse. Gaborone had grown, and its traffic problem had grown with it, although it was by nowhere near as bad as it was in many other cities. They had discussed that over morning tea in the office a few days earlier, a discussion that had led to a spirited exchange between Charlie, the junior assistant detective and part- time mechanic, and Mma Makutsi. Mma Makutsi had introduced the topic by mentioning the traffic jams that could now be encountered in Nairobi.

‘I’ve heard that there are people who live in their cars these days,’ she said. ‘It takes so long to drive into work that they don’t bother to drive back. They just pull in to the side of the road, change into their pyjamas, and sleep in the car. Then they reverse back to the office the next morning.’

Charlie had laughed. ‘You cannot live in a car,’ he said. ‘Where would you cook your meals? Where would you go to the bathroom? Those are very important questions, Mma Makutsi.’

Mma Makutsi had dismissed these objections. ‘I’m not saying that I have seen people doing these things, Charlie. I’m simply telling you what I have read in the newspaper – or it might have been a magazine. Somewhere I read it. They called them the “car people”. That is what they said. They said they take their food with them. They did not say anything about the bathroom.’

Mma Ramotswe had expressed the view that it would help if the government spent more on public transport. ‘We need more buses,’ she said. ‘We need more of these big buses that take a whole lot of people. One hundred people, sometimes, all in one bus.’

‘The government says it has no money,’ said Mma Makutsi. ‘They say it is not their job to buy these buses.’ She paused. ‘Anyway, even if we had more buses, there are still too many cars. Too many people are buying cars and then driving them round. What can you expect but traffic jams if people have too many cars?’

Charlie frowned. ‘So what do we do?’

Mma Makutsi had the answer. ‘We take cars away from people. The government should say: there are too many cars, and so you cannot have a car any longer. They would give them compensation, of course, but they would take their cars away.’

‘Whose cars?’ challenged Charlie.

‘People’s,’ said Mma Makutsi.

‘Including yours?’ Charlie asked Mma Makutsi. ‘And Mma Ramotswe’s white van? What about that? Should the government take Mma Ramotswe’s van away from her?’

Mma Makutsi made a dismissive gesture. ‘Of course not, Charlie. I’m not suggesting that anybody should take Mma Ramotswe’s van from her. She needs it to get into work.’

‘Ha!’ crowed Charlie. ‘And your car, Mma Makutsi? You have that red car of yours with its big exhaust pipe. Think of all the smoke you make, Mma Makutsi, racing round in that red car. Think of that. And Phuti Radiphuti, too. He has a car with a big engine – I’ve serviced that engine and so I should know. It is a very thirsty engine, I can tell you. Think of the Limpopo in full flood, and that is how much petrol goes into that engine. Ow!’

Mma Makutsi glared at the young man. ‘You’re talking nonsense, Charlie. Nobody is going to take my car. I need it to get into work and Phuti uses his car for his furniture business. Our

cars would be . . . ’

‘Exempt?’ offered Mma Ramotswe.

‘Yes,’ said Mma Makutsi. ‘That’s the word: exempt.’

Mma Ramotswe looked down at her desk. Everybody wanted to look after the world, but nobody wanted to give up anything they already had. Mma Makutsi was right when she said there were too many cars, but the business of reducing the number of cars would never be easy. That was particularly so in Africa, where so many people had never had the chance to own a car, and now, just as they were able to afford one, along came people who said they should not own one. And the same thing applied to beef, she thought. Many people had not been able to afford much meat in the past; now, when they could, people who had been eating meat for a long time said it was time for everybody to stop. There was something unfair in that, she thought, and yet we only had one world, and only one Botswana in that world, and we had to lookafter them both.

But now Mr J. L. B. Matekoni was off to the garage – in histruck, which was not particularly economical to run and not at all green, she suspected – and she had just fed the children, and at that moment the removal van happened to draw up outside the neighbours’ house. In such circumstances all that one could do was to tell the children to hurry up and finish their breakfast and get ready for school. Puso, of course, could walk there, as the school was just round the corner, but Motholeli, who was in a wheelchair, could not. On occasion, Puso would push her to school, taking pride in helping his sister, but in this hot weather, with all the dust the heat seemed to bring, Mma Ramotswe preferred to take the chair in her van. She would do that this morning, she thought, and then return to the house so that she could keep an eye on what was going on next door.

She was back at the house after the school run just in time to see the men, who had been perched on the tailgate of the removal van, eating sandwiches, now roll up their sleeves and begin to unload the furniture. This was the interesting part – more interesting, perhaps, than the actual meeting of the new neighbours themselves, whom she had already spotted over the fence when they were viewing their intended purchase. She felt a thrill of excitement, but then, a moment or two later, she felt something quite different. This was doubt. Should she allow herself to take such an interest in the household possessions of her new neighbours, or was this no more than nosiness – the sort of thing that idle village people loved to do because they had nothing better with which to fill their time? The otherwise unoccupied took a great interest in what everybody else had and did. And then they went off and talked about it, sometimes stirring up feelings of jealousy amongst those whose lives were less exciting and less blessed with material goods. Envy was a real problem in villages, where there were plenty of people ready to resent those who had more than they did. It was not an edifying characteristic, and if Botswana had any faults, then this was one of them. It did not help, and people who encouraged it should feel real shame.

She thought about this, and almost persuaded herself that she should turn away and drive off to work, leaving the removal men to do their heaving and carrying unobserved. But then she thought: no harm will be done if I watch, but do not tell anybody about anything I might see. She thought about this for a few moments, closing her eyes, the better to facilitate judgement. Decisions made with closed eyes were, Mma Ramotswe thought, often weightier, more balanced. And now she made up her mind: if she watched, but did not speak about, what was unfolding next door, it would be a perfectly acceptable compromise between natural curiosity and a decent respect for the privacy of others. Her decision made, she settled on her veranda, in a cool spot away from the slowly rising morning sun, with a cup of freshly brewed redbush tea to hand. In that position she watched as the drama of the arrival took place. Mma Ramotswe watched as the kitchen effects emerged. There was a large fridge, of newish manufacture, which required three men to carry it in, and this was followed by a fancy-looking cooker. This required careful manhandling out of the van and lifting onto a sturdy- looking trolley. On this it was wheeled round to the back of the house from where various shouted instructions emerged as men manoeuvred it into the kitchen. Next came boxes of pots and pans, handles sticking out of splits in the cardboard, and several boxes given over, she thought, to current provisions, judging by the trail of flour that one of them left as it was carried in. Mma Ramotswe smiled at that. It would be a good clue for a detective, she thought, and could imagine what Clovis Andersen, author of The Principles of Private Detection might write about that. If you find a trail of flour, you can be reasonably sure that somebody has been making their way into or out of a kitchen. Beyond that conclusion, of course, there would be little one could say.

It took a good hour for the kitchen furniture and equipment to be offloaded and installed. It was now time for Mma Ramotswe to go to work, but she was enjoying herself far too much to do that. There were one or two matters to be dealt with in the office that morning, though none of them was urgent. Mma Makutsi would be there and she could deal with any new business that arose – not that this was likely. For some reason it was a quiet time, and new clients were few and far between. It might be the weather, Mma Ramotswe thought: the heat had been building up steadily, and in hot conditions people tended to behave themselves. Suspected unfaithfulness, the bread and butter of any private detective agency, was seasonal: the hot weather seemed to inhibit it, while the cooler weather brought it on. Clovis Andersen said nothing about this in his book, but then he was used to a climate in which people had the energy to engage in affairs at any time of the year. Here, who could be bothered, in the heat, to flirt with anybody, let alone embark on something more serious?

Of course, temptation could strike at any time, and in any circumstances, and there would always be a trickle of enquiries, no matter what the season was. The previous day they had heard from a prospective client, a woman in Lobatse who had witnessed a small child running up to her husband in a shopping mall. The child had shouted ‘Daddy, Daddy,’ and flung his arms around her husband’s legs. ‘Silly child,’ the husband had said. ‘He has mistaken me for his daddy.’ But he had been flustered – far more than one might expect an innocent person to be in such circumstances.The child had been retrieved by a young girl who was clearly a nanny, and had been dragged away protesting and still shouting, ‘Daddy!’ Could the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency look into this matter? Of course they could, and Mma Makutsi had agreed to drive down to Lobatse the following week and interview the client about her concerns. ‘My husband is a good man,’ the woman had said, ‘but you know what men are like, Mma. They are not good all the time.’

‘The only men who are good all the time,’ Mma Makutsi had said, ‘are the saints, and they are all dead now, Mma.’

Charlie, who had overheard this conversation in the office, had scowled. ‘You have no right to talk about men like that,’ he protested. ‘There are many men who are good all the time. Many, Mma.’

‘Name one,’ said Mma Makutsi, adding, ‘Apart from Mr J. L. B. Matekoni, of course. He is a very good man on a permanent basis.’

Charlie tried a different tack. ‘And women? Are women always good, Mma?’

Mma Makutsi did not reply immediately. Mma Ramotswe, who was amused by this exchange, decided to keep out of it.

At last Mma Makutsi said, ‘Women are human, Charlie. That is well known.’ She glanced at Mma Ramotswe as she said this.

‘That is well known’ was Mma Ramotswe’s phrase – the clincher of any argument, the settler of any point of dispute. But there were occasions when Mma Makutsi employed it, although she always glanced at Mma Ramotswe as she did so, as if to confirm she had the licence to use it.

‘So,’ said Charlie, ‘if they are human, then they will be just as bad as men. All humans are equal, I think. Isn’t that what the Constitution of Botswana says?’

‘This has nothing to do with the Constitution of Botswana, Charlie,’ snapped Mma Makutsi. ‘This is psychology, and there has never been any doubt that women have better psychology than men when it comes to . . . ’ She waved a hand in the air. ‘. . . when it comes to these things.’

‘What things, Mma?’

‘To behaviour,’ said Mma Makutsi. ‘Women are always thinking of what is best for children, for instance. They think: what is going to make children strong and happy? What is going to make sure that there is food on the table? What is best for everybody? Those are the questions that women are always asking.’

‘And men?’ Charlie demanded. ‘Do men not think about those things too?’

Mma Makutsi replied that men sometimes thought about those things, but they often acted impulsively because they were impatient. Or they acted without thinking because . . . well, they didn’t think in the same way as women. They thought that something needed to be done, and they did it. They did not think about the consequences.

And that was where the discussion had ended, as the office telephone had rung with another call, and human psychology was left for another day. Now, on her veranda, watching the removal men, Mma Ramotswe thought about the exchange between Mma Makutsi and Charlie, and reflected on the fact that there could be discussions between two people where both were wrong. You might even embody that in one of Clovis Andersen’s rules, she thought: Do not think that in any case where there are two competing arguments that one of them has to be right: both can be wrong.

Her thoughts were disturbed by a shout from one of the removal men, who had stumbled while carrying a small table. The table had landed on his foot and he had shouted out in pain. One of the other men had laughed, calling out some comment about carelessness. Mma Ramotswe was concerned; the man was crouched down now, rubbing his foot, clearly in considerable pain. Instinctively she rose from her seat and made her way to her gate.

‘Are you all right, Rra?’ she asked.

He looked up. He was a man of about forty, with the lightish brown skin that suggested a touch of San blood somewhere in his ancestry. His shirt was soaked in sweat, under the armpits, along the chest, around the collar.

‘I have hurt my foot a bit,’ he said. ‘But I think it will be all right, Mma.’

He stood up now, wincing slightly as he tested his weight on his foot.

‘I have some of that stuff you can rub on your foot,’ Mma Ramotswe said. ‘You know that green ointment? Zam- Buk? The one that is very good for bruises?’

He shook his head. ‘That is kind of you, Mma, but we must finish this load.’ He looked inside the van, and Mma Ramotswe followed his gaze. There were still a few items remaining – bedroom furniture, she noted. She saw a wardrobe, still tied to the side of the van’s interior to prevent its toppling over; two chests of drawers; a standing mirror. And then there were the beds. She counted them. One, two, three, four.

The man was looking up at the sky. ‘When is it going to rain, Mma?’

Mma Ramotswe sighed. ‘I ask myself that every morning, Rra. I go out into my garden and I look at my beans and I think, when is it going to rain? And the beans are thinking that too, I believe.’

The man laughed. ‘And the grass. And the cattle. And the snakes down in their holes. They are coughing, I think, because of all the dust – the snakes are coughing.’

Mma Ramotswe smiled. ‘That is a very odd thought, Rra. I can imagine a snake would have a long cough – a very long cough.’

She looked into the van again. One of the other men was untying the beds, making them ready for removal. Four beds. Four single beds.

On impulse she asked, ‘Are there only four beds, Rra?’

He glanced into the van. ‘Yes, there are four. We loaded four, and we shall be unloading four. That is how it works, Mma.’

She thought, single beds. She looked at the man. ‘No double bed,’ she muttered.

The comment had not been addressed to him, but he answered.

‘We do not ask about these things, Mma. We are removal men. You give us the furniture; we put it in the van; we drive wherever: one hundred kilometres, two hundred, one thousand if you want to go and live up in Zambia. We will take your things anywhere.’

He looked at her, and then said, ‘We do not think about these things, Mma – not in our job.’

She lowered her eyes, chastened. She felt that she wanted to tell him that she was not a gossip, that she was not one of those people who pried into the affairs of others. She wanted to explain to him that she was a detective and that it had become second nature to her to look at the world and then wonder what lay behind the things one saw. But she did not say any of this, because she felt ashamed, and he had his work to do, and she should leave them to it now.

He thanked her for the offer of the ointment and returned to his work. She went back to her veranda, where she finished her cup of redbush tea, and prepared to drive into the office. No double bed, she thought. And this was followed by the thought: this is not my business. It was important to think that particular thought, she reminded herself as she drove off towards the Tlokweng Road and the premises of the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency. There are things in this world that are one’s business, and things that are not. It was sometimes a challenge to find exactly where the boundary between these two lay, and to act accordingly. That was the challenge. Yet here it was obvious: whether or not one’s new neighbours slept in a double bed was no business of anybody but themselves. Others should not even think about it. So she told herself not to think about it, which of course is the surest way of guaranteeing that you will think about exactly the thing you do not wish to think about.