Date Published: 3rd February 2016
It was settled. Pat had agreed to move in, and would pay rent from the following Monday. The room was not cheap, in spite of the musty smell (which Bruce pointed out was temporary) and the general dinginess of the décor (which Bruce had ignored). After all, as he pointed out to Pat, she was staying in the New Town, and the New Town was expensive whether you lived in a basement in East Claremont Street (barely New Town, Bruce said) or in a drawing-room flat in Heriot Row. And he should know, he said. He was a surveyor.
“You have found a job, haven’t you?” he asked tentatively. “The rent … ”
She assured him that she would pay in advance, and he relaxed. Anna had left rent unpaid and he and the rest of them had been obliged to make up the shortfall. But it was worth it to get rid of her, he thought.
He showed Pat to the door and gave her a key. “For you. Now you can bring your things over any time.” He paused. “I think you’re going to like this place.”
Pat smiled, and she continued to smile as she made her way down the stair. After the disaster of last year, staying put was exactly what she wanted. And Bruce seemed fine. In fact, he reminded her of a cousin who had also been keen on rugby and who used to take her to pubs on international nights with all his friends, who sang raucously and kissed her beerily on the cheek. Men like that were very unthreatening; they tended not to be moody, or brood, or make emotional demands—they just were. Not that she ever envisaged herself becoming emotionally involved with one of them. Her man—when she found him—would be …
“Very distressing! Very, very distressing!”
Pat looked up. She had reached the bottom of the stair and had opened the front door to find a middle-aged woman standing before her, rummaging through a voluminous handbag.
“It’s very distressing,” continued the woman, looking at Pat over half-moon spectacles. “This is the second time this month that I have come out without my outside key. There are two keys, you see. One to the flat and one to the outside door. And if I come out without my outside key, then I have to disturb one of the other residents to let me in, and I don’t like doing that. That’s why I’m so pleased to see you.”
“Well-timed,” said Pat, moving to let the woman in.
“Oh yes. But Bruce will usually let me in, or one of his friends … ” She paused. “Are you one of Bruce’s friends?”
“I’ve just met him.”
The woman nodded. “One never knows. He has so many girlfriends that I lose track of them. Just when I’ve got used to one, a quite different girl turns up. Some men are like that, you know.”
Pat said nothing. Perhaps wholesome, the word which she had previously alighted upon to describe Bruce, was not the right choice.
Pat saw nothing in her father’s face of the hollow dread he felt. He was accomplished at concealing his feelings, of course, as all psychiatrists must be. He had heard such a range of human confessions that very little would cause him so much as to raise an eyebrow or to betray, with so much as a transitory frown, disapproval over what people did, or thought, or perhaps thought about doing. And even now, as he sat like a convicted man awaiting his sentence, he showed nothing of his emotion.
“Yes,” said Pat. “I’ve written to St Andrews and told them that I don’t want the place next month. They’ve said that’s fine.”
“Fine,” echoed Dr Macgregor faintly. But how could it be fine? How could she turn down the offer from that marvellous place, with all that fun and all that student nonsense, and Raisin Week and Kate Kennedy and all those things? To turn that down before one had even sampled it was surely to turn your back on happiness.
“I’ve decided to go to Edinburgh University instead,” went on Pat. “I’ve been in touch with the people in George Square and they say I can transfer my St Andrews place to them. So that’s what I’m going to do. Philosophy and English.”
For a moment Dr Macgregor said nothing. He looked down at his shoes and saw, as if for the first time, the pattern of the brogue. And then he looked up and glanced at his daughter, who was watching him, as if waiting for his reaction.
“You’re not cross with me, are you?” said Pat. “I know I’ve messed you around with the two gap years and now this change of plans. You aren’t cross with me?”
He reached out and placed his hand briefly on hers, and then moved his hand back.
“Cross is the last thing I am,” he said, and then burst out laughing. “Does that sound odd to you? Rather like the word order of a German or Yiddish speaker speaking English? They say things like, ‘Happy I’m not,’ don’t they? Remember the Katzenjammer Kids?”
Of course she didn’t. Nor did she know about Max und Moritz nor Dagwood and Blondie, he suspected—those strange denizens of that curious nowhere world of the cartoon strips—although she did know about Oor Wullie and the Broons. Where exactly was that world, he wondered? Dundee and Glasgow respectively, perhaps, but not exactly.
Pat smiled. “I’m glad,” she said. “I just decided that I’m enjoying myself so much in Edinburgh that I should stay. Moving to St Andrews seemed to me to be an interruption in my life. I’ve got friends here now … ”
“And friends are so important,” interrupted her father, trying to think of which friends she had in mind, and trying all the time to control his wild, exuberant joy. There were school friends, of course; the people she had been with at the Academy during the last two years of her high school education. He knew that she kept in touch with them, but were those particular friendships strong enough to keep her in Edinburgh? Many of them had themselves gone off to university elsewhere, to Cambridge in one or two cases, or to Aberdeen or Glasgow. Was there a boy, perhaps? There was that young man in the flat in Scotland Street, Bruce Anderson; she had obviously been keen on him but had thought better of it. What about Matthew, for whom she worked at the gallery? Was he the attraction? He might speculate, but any results of his speculation would not matter in the slightest. The important thing was that she was not going to Australia.
They went downstairs. A small crowd of people had gathered round the door into the stalls and there was a buzz of conversation. As Isabel and Jennifer drew near, a woman turned to them and said: “Somebody fell from the gods. He’s in there.”
Isabel nodded. “We saw it happen,” she said. “We were up there.”
“You saw it?” said the woman. “You actually saw it?”
“We saw him coming down,’ said Jennifer. “We were in the grand circle. He came down past us.”
“How dreadful,” said the woman. “To see it … ”
The woman looked at Isabel with that sudden human intimacy that the witnessing of tragedy permitted.
“I don’t know if we should be standing here,” Isabel muttered, half to Jennifer, half to the other woman. “We’ll just get in the way.”
The other woman drew back. “One wants to do something,” she said lamely.
“I do hope that he’s all right,” said Jennifer. “Falling all that way. He hit the edge of the circle, you know. It might have broken the fall a bit.”
No, thought Isabel, it would have made it worse perhaps; there would be two sets of injuries, the blow from the edge of the circle and injuries on the ground. She looked behind her; there was activity at the front door and then, against the wall, the flashing blue light of the ambulance outside.
“We must let them get through,” said Jennifer, moving away from the knot of people at the door. “The ambulance men will need to get in.”
They stood back as two men in loose green fatigues hurried past, carrying a folded stretcher. They were not long in coming out—less than a minute, it seemed—and then they went past, the young man laid out on the stretcher, his arms folded over his chest. Isabel turned away, anxious not to intrude, but she saw his face before she averted her gaze. She saw the halo of tousled dark hair and the fine features, undamaged. To be so beautiful, she thought, and now the end. She closed her eyes. She felt raw inside, empty. This poor young man, loved by somebody somewhere, whose world would end this evening, she thought, when the cruel news was broached. All that love invested in a future that would not materialise, ended in a second, in a fall from the gods.
Date Published: 26th January 2016
Mma Ramotswe picked up the nurse’s uniform from her friend Sister Gogwe. It was a bit tight, especially round the arms, as Sister Gogwe, although generously proportioned, was slightly more slender than Mma Ramotswe. But once she was in it, and had pinned the nurse’s watch to her front, she was a perfect picture of a staff sister at the Princess Marina Hospital. It was a good disguise, she thought, and she made a mental note to use it at some time in the future.
As she drove to Happy Bapetsi’s house in her tiny white van, she reflected on how the African tradition of support for relatives could cripple people. She knew of one man, a sergeant of police, who was supporting an uncle, two aunts, and a second cousin. If you believed in the old Setswana morality, you couldn’t turn a relative away, and there was a lot to be said for that. But it did mean that charlatans and parasites had a very much easier time of it than they did elsewhere. They were the people who ruined the system, she thought. They’re the ones who are giving the old ways a bad name.
As she neared the house, she increased her speed. This was an errand of mercy, after all, and if the Daddy were sitting in his chair outside the front door he would have to see her arrive in a cloud of dust. The Daddy was there, of course, enjoying the morning sun, and he sat up straight in his chair as he saw the tiny white van sweep up to the gate. Mma Ramotswe turned off the engine and ran out of the car up to the house.
“Dumela Rra,” she greeted him rapidly. “Are you Happy Bapetsi’s Daddy?”
The Daddy rose to his feet. “Yes,” he said proudly. “I am the Daddy.”
Mma Ramotswe panted, as if trying to get her breath back. “I’m sorry to say that there has been an accident. Happy was run over and is very sick at the hospital. Even now they are performing a big operation on her.”
The Daddy let out a wail. “Aiee! My daughter! My little baby Happy!”
A good actor, thought Mma Ramotswe, unless … No, she preferred to trust Happy Bapetsi’s instinct. A girl should know her own Daddy even if she had not seen him since she was a baby.
“Yes,” she went on. “It is very sad. She is very sick, very sick. And they need lots of blood to make up for all the blood she’s lost.”
The Daddy frowned. “They must give her that blood. Lots of blood. I can pay.”
“It’s not the money,” said Mma Ramotswe. “Blood is free. We don’t have the right sort. We will have to get some from her family, and you are the only one she has. We must ask you for some blood.”
The Daddy sat down heavily.
“I am an old man,” he said.
Mma Ramotswe sensed that it would work. Yes, this man was an impostor.
“That is why we are asking you,” she said. “Because she needs so much blood, they will have to take about half your blood. And that is very dangerous for you. In fact, you might die.”
The Daddy’s mouth fell open.
“Yes,” said Mma Ramotswe. “But then you are her father and we know that you would do this thing for your daughter. Now could you come quickly, or it will be too late. Doctor Moghile is waiting.”
The Daddy opened his mouth, and then closed it.
“Come on,” said Mma Ramotswe, reaching down and taking his wrist. “I’ll help you to the van.”
The Daddy rose to his feet, and then tried to sit down again. Mma Ramotswe gave him a tug.
“No,” he said. “I don’t want to.”
“You must,” said Mma Ramotswe. “Now come on.”
The Daddy shook his head. “No,” he said faintly. “I won’t. You see, I’m not really her Daddy. There has been a mistake.”
Date Published: 21st March 2016
“Ready?” asked Fee’s father. “Are you ready to bring us up?”
Fee nodded. She had sat at the controls of the family submarine many times before this, but you know how it is when somebody asks you to take over a submarine—you always feel just a little bit nervous.
“Yes,” she said, trying her best to sound brave. “I’m … I’m sort of ready.”
Both Fee and her twin brother, Ben, had been taught from a very early age to help sail the submarine belonging to their parents, who were well-known marine scientists. Now, at twelve, almost thirteen, Fee had enough experience to bring the vessel up to the surface all by herself. But it was a very big responsibility, and it always brought to mind the things that could go wrong.
What if you made a mistake and dived instead of surfacing? What if you surfaced too quickly, so that the submarine popped up out of the sea like a cork out of water? What if you came up right underneath a large ship—a massive oil tanker, perhaps—broke the glass observation window, and then went straight down again? There were so many things that could go wrong in a submarine.
“Right,” said her father. “Take her up, Fee! You’ll do fine, of course, but I’ll be in the engine room if you need me.”
Once her father had left the control room she was quite alone. Her brother was doing his packing in his cabin, and her mother was busy in the galley—the submarine’s tiny kitchen—making sandwiches for the twins. Fee was by herself. Entirely.
Slowly she pulled the control column towards her. She could not see exactly where she was going—that’s never easy in a submarine—but she hoped there was nothing ahead of them, or above. The last thing a submarine wants to meet is a whale or a rock—or a whale and a rock, for that matter. You have to hope, too, that there isn’t another submarine coming up for air in exactly the same place as you.
A few minutes later, when they were just below the surface, Ben entered the control room.
“I’ve finished my packing,” he announced. “What about you?”
She glanced at her brother. She could see that he was excited, but she had far more important things to do than talk about packing.
“You mustn’t disturb me,” she said. “I’m just about to look through the periscope.”
He became quiet. It is always a special moment when you raise a submarine’s periscope, because that is when you find out where you are. You hope that you have come up in the right place, but you can never be absolutely sure. So if your hands shake a little as the periscope rises above the waves, and if you feel your heart thump a bit more loudly, then that is entirely normal.
Fee peered into the periscope as she pushed it upwards. There was water, just water, swirling round in every direction, and then, with no warning at all, she saw sunlight. The periscope was above the surface.
“What can you see?” Ben asked.
She blinked. The light was very intense and it would take a moment for her eyes to adjust.
You can turn a periscope round, so that it gives you a view in every direction. She would do that—just to check that nothing was coming—but first she would have a good look at the land.
“I can see an island in the distance,” she said. “I can see the shore.”
Ben caught his breath. “That’ll be Mull,” he said. Mull was the island they were heading for.
“It’s sunny,” said Fee. “It’s morning.”
“And Tobermory?” asked Ben. “Can you see Tobermory?”
“Which Tobermory?” asked Fee. “Tobermory the town or Tobermory the ship?”
She was right to ask: there were two Tobermorys. Tobermory, the town, was where the Tobermory, the ship, was based. They were going to the Tobermory the ship, but Tobermory, the place, was the harbour in which she (and ships are always called she) was normally anchored. The Tobermory was a sailing ship and a school at the same time. It was a boarding school on the sea, and while most schools stay in exactly the same place all the time, this one did not. This one sailed about, teaching everybody not only subjects like history and science – the things that normal schools teach—but also everything that you needed to know if you were going to be a sailor.
“I can’t see either of them,” said Fee. “I think we might be a little way away. But we can’t be too far.”
“Let me have a look,” said Ben, sounding rather impatient. Although they were twins, Fee had been born two minutes before her brother, and that made her older. It was only two minutes, but she often said that those two minutes were very important. “When you’ve been alive two minutes longer than somebody else,” she was fond of saying, “it shows. You’re just a bit more grown-up, you see.”
Ben did not look at it that way. He thought he was every bit as mature as his sister, and felt entitled to do everything she did. Right then he felt that he should have a turn on the periscope. “Let me look,” he repeated.
“No,” she said. “I’ve spotted a seagull. Oh, it’s come down lower. I think it’s going to land on top of the periscope!”
Fee laughed as she watched the seagull land. She had a good view of its yellow feet and of the underneath of its wings, that were white. As she watched, it flapped these wings, sending little droplets of water splashing against the outer lens of the periscope.
Slowly she moved the periscope round, so that she could look in other directions. The seagull did not like this, and he flapped his wings again in protest. Then she saw it.
‘There’s a boat coming straight towards us!” she cried out.
“Dive!” shouted Ben.
Because his sister was busy pulling down the periscope, he decided to take the controls himself. Pushing the column forwards, he opened the throttle as far as he could. The submarine responded immediately, giving a lurch downwards.
It was just in time. Seconds later they heard the thud of a boat’s engine pass directly over them.
“You should have looked round you,” accused Ben. “You should have looked instead of watching that seagull.” Although he was very fond of his sister, Ben secretly liked it when she did something to remind her she was not perfect.
Fee looked crestfallen. “I’m sorry,” she said. But then she said, rather crossly, “We can all make mistakes, you know.”
“Is everything all right?” their mother called out from the galley. “I felt a bit of a lurch there.”
“Everything’s fine,” shouted Ben in reply. He could have said, Fee didn’t spot a boat coming straight at us! But he did not. He could have added, And I had to take over the controls to get us out of trouble! But again he did not. Instead of this he simply said, ‘We’re going up again,’ and left it at that.
They surfaced once more, and this time they were both able to have a good look through the periscope. Fee had been right—they were not far from the island—but they were also closer than she had thought to both Tobermorys. There was the town, a small harbour with brightly painted houses curving round the rim of the bay. There were the people walking down the street, off to buy their newspaper and their morning bread and milk. And there in the harbour, riding proudly on its great anchor chain, was the most remarkable sailing ship they had ever seen. And across its bow was the name painted in shining blue paint—SCHOOL SHIP TOBERMORY.
“I think it’s safe to go all the way up now,” said Ben.
Fee guided the submarine right up to the surface. Now they could open the hatches and step out onto the deck to gaze at the ship that was to be their new home. As Fee stared at the ship through the submarine’s binoculars, she felt no qualms about joining the school. She had always tried not to be frightened by new experiences—nor by the dark, nor bad dreams, nor the thought of what could go wrong. That’ll soon be me, she thought, as she studied the distant figures on the ship’s deck. Although she could not make out what they were doing, they all seemed busy.
It was a wonderful sight. The great ship was painted white from bow to stern. Along the side were lines of neat portholes—the windows of a ship. And, as he stood next to his sister, gazing over at the Tobermory, Ben thought about how one of the portholes would be his. That would be his to look out of.
It was a very exciting thought, even if it made him feel just a little bit anxious. He had never been away from family for any length of time, and although people told him that going away to school was fun he was not sure whether it would be fun for him. What would it be like sharing everything with a lot of people you didn’t know? Could you be sure they wouldn’t laugh at you if you did something stupid? What if you lost your toothbrush, or your pyjamas, or one of your socks? What if somebody came and pushed you around or stole your money?
He had wanted to ask Fee some of these questions, but she had seemed so confident about what lay ahead that he had been unable to do so.
“What will it be like?” was all he had managed.
And she replied, “It’s going to be great.” And then, after a short pause, “You’re not scared, are you?”
He shook his head. “No, I’m not scared. Of course I’m not scared.” That is what people who are scared often say.
“Good,” said Fee. “Because I’m not going to be able to look after you all the time, you know.”
She did not say that unkindly, but it did not really help Ben very much. He wondered why she had thought she would have to look after him. Did she know something he did not? Had she heard things about the Tobermory that he had missed? But this was not the time for such thoughts. They had the ship to look at, and now, as the submarine sailed a bit closer, they were able to make out more details.
Above the ship, towering to what seemed like an impossible height, were the masts. The Tobermory was a sailing ship, and it had masts from which sails were suspended. These sails would fill with wind when a breeze blew up, and it is this that would drive the ship through the water. The ship also had an engine, of course, that it could use to go in and out of harbour or to help it on its way if there was no wind, but for most of the time it would rely on its sails.
“Look at all those ropes,” marvelled Fee, pointing to what looked like an elaborate web spun by some giant spider.
Ben shielded his eyes from the sun to get a better view.“That’s the rigging. Those ropes keep the masts in place.”
“And you climb up them?” It all seemed very high to Fee.
“Yes,” said Ben, taking his turn with the binoculars. “I’ve seen pictures of people doing that.”
Although they had spent a lot of time on their parents’ submarine—sometimes weeks and weeks at a stretch—Fee and Ben had never been on a sailing ship. That had not stopped them, though, from applying for a place at the school ship, encouraged by their parents who had decided that the Tobermory was just the right school for them. They had needed to think about boarding school for Ben and Fee, as they were often away on research expeditions. Up to then, the twins had stayed with an aunt, who looked after them while their parents were away, but this was going to be much more difficult, as the aunt had found a job that involved travel.
They had looked at various schools, but had not really liked what they saw. One was in a remote place on a mountainside and appeared dark and uncomfortable. The dormitory floors, they noticed, were all at an angle, with the result that the beds followed the slope of the mountainside. Sleeping in such a bed, thought Fee, would be most peculiar, as one’s toes would be much lower than one’s head, and all one’s blood would end up in one’s feet. And the blankets would gradually slip down to the end of the bed, which would mean that one’s top half would be too cold and one’s lower half too warm. “Not for you, I think,” said their mother—much to their relief.
Then there was the school that made everyone take a cold shower every morning. “It’s very character-building,” explained the principal.
“And very freezing,” said their mother—to suppressed giggles from Fee and Ben.
That same principal believed in lots of physical activity—all the time. So, as people moved from classroom to classroom they all ran, and meals were eaten standing up, so that people could do press-ups and other exercises between courses.
“It all helps to build people up,” said the principal proudly.
Then somebody suggested the Tobermory, and their parents had remembered once meeting the captain when he berthed his ship near their submarine. “He’s a very kind man,” remarked their mother, who wanted the best for her twins. “You’ll be happy there. I’ve heard good things about that ship.”
“Such as?” asked Ben. The idea of going away to school was still new to him.
“Just good things in general,” his mother replied. “Good things like making friends, which you’ve always wanted. And other things too …” She did not explain further, but just waved her hand and said, “You’ll find out.”
His mother was trying to reassure him, thought Ben, but did she really know what life would be like on the Tobermory?
“That’s right,” said Fee, who had overheard this conversation. “You’ll find out.”
But she, too, did not know, thought Ben.
Their father nosed the submarine in as close to the Tobermory as he thought safe.
“You’ll have to paddle the rest of the way in your rubber boat,” he explained. “We’ll wave goodbye from here.”
Ben and Fee began to blow up the inflatable boat that had been a present for their last birthday. It was not very big, but it would have just enough room to carry them both, together with their kitbags. They had been told not to bring a suitcase, but rather to bring soft luggage that could be folded and put into a locker. Now their two full kitbags, both labelled with their names, Ben and Fee MacTavish, stood at the ready on top of the submarine.
Once the boat was inflated, Ben pushed it gently from the submarine deck and into the water. Their mother, coming up from below, pressed two packets of sandwiches into their hands. “You might feel hungry before lunch,” she said. “I’ve heard the school food’s very good on the Tobermory, but just in case … ”
They thanked her, and she gave them each a goodbye kiss, as did their father.
“I know you’re going to be all right,” said their mother. “But I’ll be thinking of you. Will you think of me too? Every day?”
They both reassured her that they would.
“And you will write, won’t you?” she said. “It doesn’t have to be a long letter—even a postcard will do.”
“Of course we will,” said Fee.
“We’ll be back to collect you at the end of term,” he said.
“Work hard,” said their mother. “And remember to clean your teeth after every meal—every meal, please. And don’t forget to floss!”
“Yes, yes,” said Ben. He was eager to make the short crossing to their new home and he had decided to be brave. He could see that already there were other people on the deck of the sailing ship—people in smart blue uniforms swabbing the decks from buckets of sea water, polishing brass fittings, and generally looking very busy. These would be his new schoolmates—his new friends, he hoped. He was eager to meet them.
They climbed down into the boat and set off.
“Goodbye!” shouted their mother, waving a handkerchief.
“Goodbye!” they both shouted, as they started to paddle their way across the short stretch of water.
As they reached the side of great sailing ship, they both turned round to have one last look at their parents. But their mother and father had disappeared back into the submarine, and now the dark tube of the vessel was beginning to sink below the surface of the sea. They waved, although they knew that their parents would not be able to see them. They felt sad to be saying goodbye, and both of them—and that included Fee—now felt a bit anxious, but when you are starting at a new boarding school there is no time to think too much about the family you have left behind. This is especially true when your new school is towering above you and somebody is lowering a rope ladder for you to climb up. Not everybody starts school that way, but Ben and Fee did.
“Tie your dinghy to this rope,” shouted somebody from above them. “Then, once, you’ve climbed up the rope ladder, we’ll pull your boat up too.”
A rope came snaking down from above. Fee tied this to the rubber boat, stowed the paddles safely, and then she and Ben began to inch their way up the rope ladder.
“Ben,” whispered Fee as they began the climb. “Are you just a little bit … scared?”
Ben, who had started first, looked down at his sister beneath him. His decision to be brave was working. “Don’t be scared, Fee,” he said. “I’m not.”
But she was. And so would anybody be. The water seemed a long way down below now, and the Tobermory was rocking in the swell of the sea, making the rope ladder swing out from the side of the ship.
“I didn’t hear you,” said Fee. “What did you say?”
“I said I’m not scared,” repeated Ben.
And oddly enough, simply saying that he was not scared seemed to help.
They were nearly at the top of the ladder now, and he even managed to smile as he saw a pair of hands stretch out over the railings to help him clamber onto the deck. He looked up and saw that the hands belonged to a boy of about his own age, dressed in a smart blue uniform and grinning at him in a friendly way. The boy had a cheerful look to him—the sort of look that makes you think, I hope he’ll be my friend.
“I’m Badger Tomkins,” said the boy as he gripped Ben’s wrists and pulled him onto the deck. “Who are you?”
“I’m Ben,” said Ben.
“I was told to look out for you,” said Badger. “Welcome aboard the Tobermory!”
Badger now turned to help Fee. “You must be Fee,” he said. “I saw your name on the list of new students. Welcome, Fee!”
“What do we do now?” asked Ben.
“We haul up your rubber boat,” said Badger. “Then we let the air out of it and stow it away. Everything has to be stowed away neatly on the ship. It’s one of the rules.”
“Are there lots of rules?” asked Ben.
Badger laughed. “Plenty,” he said. “Maybe five or six hundred. But don’t worry. You probably only need to know ten. Those are called the big rules. All the others are called small rules, and we don’t pay much attention to them.”
Fee stared at Badger. “Do you like it here?” she asked.
Badger thought this a rather odd question. “But of course I like it,” he answered. “This is the most amazing, fantastic, exciting, superb, ace school in … in the entire world.”
“Are you joking?” asked Ben.
“Not at all,” said Badger. “You’ll see soon enough.” He paused. “Mind you, I won’t pretend that there aren’t some things that aren’t so great.”
“What are those?” asked Ben.
“You’ll see,” said Badger again. He looked at his watch. “We’d better get your boat up. Breakfast is in half an hour and if you’re late all the sausages will be taken.” He made a face “Some people always try to take more than their fair share.”
“Who are they?” asked Fee.
“You’ll see,” said Badger once again. “But let’s not stand about talking. Let’s get the boat up and then I can take you to the Captain before breakfast. We always have to take new people to the Captain when they arrive.”
“Is he the principal?” asked Ben.
“He is,” said Badger. “But you never call him that. He’s called the Captain because he’s the captain of the ship. His full name is Captain Macbeth. He’s also a teacher, of course, but his main job is running the ship.”
They began to haul up their rubber boat. Once it was up on deck, they took out the plug, deflated it, and stowed it away in a nearby locker. The locker was full of other rubber boats, all folded up just as theirs was. ‘This is where we keep our personal boats,” explained Badger. “Mine is that red one over there. It has a bit of a leak, I’m afraid, but I don’t use it often now. We have a class in the care and maintenance of rubber boats. They teach you how to stick a plaster over any holes.”
Badger looked at his watch again. “Right,” he said. “Ready for the Captain? Yes? Well, in that case follow me!”
Date Published: 26th January 2016
He telephoned shortly before seven. Mma Ramotswe seemed pleased to hear from him and asked him, as was polite in the Setswana language, whether he had slept well. “I slept very well,” said Mr J. L. B. Matekoni. “I dreamed all the night about that clever and beautiful woman who has agreed to marry me.”
He paused. If she was going to announce a change of mind, then this was the time that she might be expected to do it.
Mma Ramotswe laughed. “I never remember what I dream,” she said. “But if I did, then I am sure that I would remember dreaming about that first-class mechanic who is going to be my husband one day.”
Mr J. L. B. Matekoni smiled with relief. She had not thought better of it, and they were still engaged.
“Today we must go to the President Hotel for lunch,” he said. “We shall have to celebrate this important matter.”
Mma Ramotswe agreed. She would be ready at twelve o’clock and afterwards, if it was convenient, perhaps he would allow her to visit his house to see what it was like. There would be two houses now, and they would have to choose one. Her house on Zebra Drive had many good qualities, but it was rather close to the centre of town and there was a case for being farther away. His house, near the old airfield, had a larger yard and was undoubtedly quieter, but was not far from the prison and was there not an overgrown graveyard nearby? That was a major factor; if she were alone in the house at night for any reason, it would not do to be too close to a graveyard. Not that Mma Ramotswe was superstitious; her theology was conventional and had little room for unquiet spirits and the like, and yet, and yet …
In Mma Ramotswe’s view there was God, Modimo, who lived in the sky, more or less directly above Africa. God was extremely understanding, particularly of people like herself, but to break his rules, as so many people did with complete disregard, was to invite retribution. When they died, good people, such as Mma Ramotswe’s father, Obed Ramotswe, were undoubtedly welcomed by God. The fate of the others was unclear, but they were sent to some terrible place—perhaps a bit like Nigeria, she thought—and when they acknowledged their wrongdoing they would be forgiven.
God had been kind to her, thought Mma Ramotswe. He had given her a happy childhood, even if her mother had been taken from her when she was a baby. She had been looked after by her father and her kind cousin and they had taught her what it was to give love—love which she had in turn given, over those few precious days, to her tiny baby. When the child’s battle for life had ended, she had briefly wondered why God had done this to her, but in time she had understood. Now his kindness to her was manifest again, this time in the appearance of Mr J. L. B. Matekoni, a good, kind man. God had sent her a husband.
Date Published: 3rd February 2016
“Money,” said Cat. “That’s the problem. Money.” Isabel handed Cat a glass of wine. “It invariably is,” she said.
“Yes,” Cat went on. “I suppose that if I were prepared to offer enough I would be able to get somebody suitable to stand in for me. But I can’t. I have to run it as a business, and I can’t make a loss.”
Isabel nodded. Cat owned a delicatessen just a few streets away, in Bruntsfield, and although it was successful, she knew that the line between profitability and failure was a narrow one. As it was, she had one full-time employee to pay, Eddie, a young man who seemed to be on the verge of tears much of the time, haunted, thought Isabel, by something which Cat could not, or would not, speak about. Eddie could be left in control for short periods, but not for a week it seemed.
“He panics,” said Cat. “It gets too much for him and he panics.”
Cat explained to Isabel that she had been invited to a wedding in Italy and wanted to go with a party of friends. They would attend the wedding in Messina and then move north to a house which they had rented for a week in Umbria. The time of year was ideal; the weather would be perfect.
“I have to go,” said Cat. “I just have to.”
Isabel smiled. Cat would never ask outright for a favour, but her intention was transparent. “I suppose … ” she began. “I suppose I could do it again. I rather enjoyed it last time. And if you remember, I made more than you usually do. The takings went up.”
This amused Cat. “You probably overcharged,” she said. And then a pause, before she continued: “I didn’t raise the issue to get you to … I wouldn’t want to force you.”
“Of course not,” said Isabel.
“But it would make all the difference,” Cat went on quickly. “You know how everything works. And Eddie likes you.”
Isabel was surprised. Did Eddie have a view on her? He hardly ever spoke to her, and certainly never smiled. But the thought that he liked her made her warm towards him. Perhaps he might confide in her, as he had confided in Cat, and she would be able to help him in some way. Or she could put him in touch with somebody: there were people who could help in such circumstances; she could pay for it if necessary.
They discussed the details. Cat would be leaving in ten days’ time. If Isabel came for a hand-over day before then, she could be shown the current stock and the order book. Consignments of wine and salamis were expected while Cat was away and these would have to be attended to. And then there was the whole issue of making sure that the surfaces were cleaned—a fussy procedure subject to an entire litany of regulations. Eddie knew all about that, but you had to watch him; he was funny about olives and often put them in containers marked down for coleslaw.
“It will be far more difficult than editing the Review of Applied Ethics,” said Cat, smiling. “Far more difficult.”
Date Published: 26th January 2016
Mma Ramotswe cleared her throat.
“Mma Makutsi,” she began. “I have been thinking about the future.”
Mma Makutsi, who had finished her rearranging of the filing cabinet, had made them both a cup of bush tea and was settling down to the half-hour break that she usually took at eleven in the morning. She had started to read a magazine—an old copy of the National Geographic—which her cousin, a teacher, had lent her.
‘The future? Yes, that is always interesting. But not as interesting as the past, I think. There is a very good article in this magazine, Mma Ramotswe,’ she said. ‘I will lend it to you after I have finished reading it. It is all about our ancestors up in East Africa. There is a Dr Leakey there. He is a very famous doctor of bones.’
“Doctor of bones?” Mma Ramotswe was puzzled. Mma Makutsi expressed herself very well—both in English and Setswana—but occasionally she used rather unusual expressions. What was a doctor of bones? It sounded rather like a witchdoctor, but surely one could not describe Dr Leakey as a witchdoctor?
“Yes,” said Mma Makutsi. “He knows all about very old bones. He digs them up and tells us about our past. Here, look at this one.”
She held up a picture, printed across two pages. Mma Ramotswe squinted to make it out. Her eyes were not what they once were, she had noticed, and she feared that sooner or later she would end up like Mma Makutsi, with her extraordinary, large glasses.
“Is that Dr Leakey?”
Mma Makutsi nodded. “Yes, Mma,” she said, “that is him. He is holding a skull which belonged to a very early person. This person lived a long time ago and is very late.”
Mma Ramotswe found herself being drawn in. “And this very late person,” she said. “Who was he?”
“The magazine says that he was a person when there were very few people about,” explained Mma Makutsi. “We all lived in East Africa then.”
“Yes. Everybody. My people. Your people. All people. We all come from the same small group of ancestors. Dr Leakey has proved that.”
Mma Ramotswe was thoughtful. “So we are all brothers and sisters, in a sense?”
“We are,” said Mma Makutsi. “We are all the same people. Eskimos, Russians, Nigerians. They are the same as us. Same blood. Same DNA.”
“DNA?” asked Mma Ramotswe. “What is that?”
“It is something which God used to make people,” explained Mma Makutsi. “We are all made up of DNA and water.”
Mma Ramotswe considered the implications of these revelations for a moment. She had no views on Eskimos and Russians, but Nigerians were a different matter. But Mma Makutsi was right, she reflected: if universal brotherhood—and sisterhood—meant anything, it would have to embrace the Nigerians as well.
“If people knew this,” she said, “if they knew that we were all from the same family, they be kinder to one another, do you think?”
Mma Makutsi put down the magazine. “I’m sure they would,” she said. “If they knew that, then they would find it very difficult to do unkind things to others. They might even want to help them a bit more.”
Date Published: 4th February 2016
During Mr J. L. B. Matekoni’s illness they had moved the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency into the back office at Tlokweng Road Speedy Motors. It had proved to be a successful arrangement: the affairs of the garage could be easily supervised from the back of the building and there was a separate entrance for agency clients. Each business benefited in other ways. Those who brought their cars in for repair sometimes realised that there was a matter which might benefit from investigation—an errant husband, for example, or a missing relative—while others who came with a matter for the agency would arrange at the same time for their cars to be serviced or their brakes to be checked.
Mma Ramotswe and Mma Makutsi had arranged their desks in such a way that they could engage in conversation if they wished, without staring at one another all the time. If Mma Ramotswe turned in her chair, she could address Mma Makutsi on the other side of the room without having to twist her neck or talk over her shoulder, and Mma Makutsi could do the same if she needed to ask Mma Ramotswe for anything.
Now, with the day’s post of four letters attended to and filed, Mma Ramotswe suggested to her assistant that it was time for a cup of bush tea. This was a little earlier than normal, but it was a warm day and she always found that the best way of dealing with the heat was a cup of tea, accompanied by an Ouma’s rusk dipped into the liquid until it was soft enough to be eaten without hurting the teeth.
“Mma Makutsi,” Mma Ramotswe began after her assistant had delivered the cup of freshly made tea to her desk, “are you happy?”
Mma Makutsi, who was halfway back to her desk, stopped where she stood. “Why do you ask, Mma?” she said. “Why do you ask me if I’m happy?” The question had stopped her heart, as she lived in fear of losing her job and this question, she thought, could only be a preliminary to suggesting that she move on to another job. But there would be no other job, or at least no other job remotely like this one. Here she was an assistant detective and previously, and possibly still, an acting garage manager. If she had to go somewhere else, then she would revert to being a junior clerk, at best, or a junior secretary at somebody else’s beck and call. And she would never be as well paid as she was here, with the extra money that came to her for her garage work.
“Why don’t you sit down, Mma?” went on Mma Ramotswe. “Then we can drink our tea together and you can tell me if you are happy.”
Mma Makutsi made her way back to her desk. She picked up her cup, but her hand shook and she put it down again. Why was life so unfair? Why did all the best jobs go to the beautiful girls, even if they barely got fifty per cent in the examinations at the Botswana Secretarial College while she, with her results, had experienced such difficulty in finding a job at all? There was no obvious answer to that question. Unfairness seemed to be an inescapable feature of life, at least if you were Mma Makutsi from Bobonong in Northern Botswana, daughter of a man whose cattle had always been thin. Everything, it seemed, was unfair.
“I am very happy,” said Mma Makutsi miserably. “I am happy with this job. I do not want to go anywhere else.”
Mma Ramotswe laughed. “Oh, the job. Of course you’re happy with that. We know that. And we’re very happy with you. Mr J. L. B. Matekoni and I are very happy. You are our right-hand woman. Everybody knows that.”
It took Mma Makutsi a few moments to absorb this compliment, but, when she did, she felt relief flood through her. She picked up her tea cup, with a steady hand now, and took a deep draught of the hot red liquid.
Date Published: 3rd February 2016
She walked back across the Meadows, a wide expanse of common ground on which people strolled and played. To the south, along the edge of the park, rose the high Victorian tenements of Marchmont, stone buildings of six floors or so, topped with spiky adornments—thistles, fleurs-de-lis and the like. There were attics up there, rooms looking out of the sharply rising slate roofs, out towards the Forth and the hills beyond, rooms let out to students and later, during the summer, to the musicians and actors who flocked to Edinburgh for the Festival. As she walked up towards Bruntsfield she could make out the door that led to the narrow hall and, up five long flights of stone stairs, to the flat where more than twenty years ago her schoolfriend Kirsty had at sixteen conducted an affair with a student from Inverness, her first boyfriend and lover. Isabel had listened to her friend’s accounts of this and had felt an emptiness in the pit of her stomach, which was longing, and fear too. Kirsty had spoken sotto voce of what had happened, and whispered, “They try to stop us, Isabel. They try to stop us because they don’t want us to know. And then we find out … ”
“And?” Isabel had said. But Kirsty had become silent and looked out of the window. This was the private past; intimate, unquestioned, precious to each of us.
Reaching Bruntsfield, she found herself outside Cat’s delicatessen. She could not walk past without going in, although she tried not to distract Cat when she was busy. That time in the afternoon was a slack period, and there was only one customer in the shop, who was in the process of paying for a baguette and a tub of large pitted olives. There were several tables where people could sit and be served coffee and a small selection of food, and Isabel took a seat at one of these, picking up an out-of-date copy of Corriere della Sera from the table of newspapers and magazines beside the cheese counter. She glanced at the political news from Italy, which appeared to be a series of reports of battles between acronyms, or so it seemed. Behind the acronyms there were people, and passions, and ancient feuds, but without any idea of what stood for which, it was much like the battle between the Blues and Greens in Byzantium—meaningless, unless one understood the difference between the orthodox and the Monophysites who stood behind these factions.
She abandoned the paper. Eddie, Cat’s shy assistant, to whom something traumatic had happened that Isabel had never fathomed, took the money for the baguette and the olives and opened the door for the customer. There was no sign of Cat.
“Where is she?” asked Isabel, once they had the shop to themselves.
Eddie came over to the table, rubbing his hands on his apron. His nervousness in Isabel’s presence had abated, but he was still not completely at ease.
“She went out for lunch,” he said. “And she hasn’t come back yet.”
Isabel looked at her watch. “A long lunch,” she remarked.
Eddie hesitated for a moment, as if weighing up whether to say anything. “With her new boyfriend,” he said, adding, after further hesitation, “again.”
At the end of the seminar, when Dr Fantouse had shuffled off in what can only have been disappointment and defeat, back to the Quattrocento, the students snapped shut their notebooks, yawned, scratched their heads, and made their way out of the seminar room and into the corridor. Pat had deliberately avoided looking at Wolf, but she was aware of the fact that he was slow in leaving the seminar room, having dropped something on the floor, and was busy searching for it. There was a noticeboard directly outside the door, and she stopped at this, looking at the untidy collection of posters which had been pinned up by a variety of student clubs and societies. None of these was of real interest to her. She did not wish to take up gliding and had only a passing interest in salsa classes. Nor was she interested in teaching at an American summer camp, for which no experience was necessary, although enthusiasm was helpful. But at least these notices gave her an excuse to wait until Wolf came out, which he did a few moments later.
She stood quite still, peering at the small print on the summer camp poster. There was something about an orientation weekend and insurance, and then a deposit would be necessary unless …
“Not a nice way to spend the summer,” a voice behind her said. “Hundreds of brats. No time off. Real torture.”
She turned round, affecting surprise. “Yes,” she said. “I wasn’t really thinking of doing it.”
“I had a friend who did it once,” said Wolf. “He ran away. He actually physically ran away to New York after two weeks.” He looked at his watch and then nodded in the direction of the door at the end of the corridor. “Are you hungry?”
Pat was not, but said that she was. “Ravenous.”
“We could go up to the Elephant House,” Wolf said, glancing at his watch. “We could have coffee and a sandwich.”
They walked through George Square and across the wide space in front of the McEwan Hall. In one corner, their skateboards at their feet, a group of teenage boys huddled against the world, caps worn backwards, baggy, low-crotched trousers half-way down their flanks. Pat had wondered what these youths talked about and had concluded that they talked about nothing, because to talk was uncool. Perhaps Domenica could do field work outside the McEwan Hall—once she had finished with her Malacca Straits pirates—living with the skateboarders, in a little tent in the rhododendrons at the edge of the square, observing the socio-dynamics of the group, the leadership struggles, the badges of status. Would they accept her, she wondered? Or would she be viewed with suspicion, as an unwanted visitor from the adult world, the world of speech?
She found out a little bit more about Wolf as they made their way to the Elephant House. As they crossed the road at Napier’s Health Food Shop, Wolf told her that his mother was an enthusiast of vitamins and homeopathic medicine. He had been fed on vitamins as a boy and had been taken to a homeopathic doctor, who gave him small doses of carefully chosen poison. The whole family took Echinacea against colds, regularly, although they still got them.
“It keeps her happy,” he said. “You know how mothers are. And it’s cool by me if my mother’s unstressed. You know what I mean?”
Pat thought she did. “That’s cool,” she said.
And then he told her that he came from Aberdeen. His father, he said, was in the oil business. He had a company which supplied valves for off-shore wells. They sold valves all over the world, and his father was often away in places like Houston and Brunei. He collected air miles which he gave to Wolf.
“I can go anywhere I want,” he said. “I could go to South America, if I wanted. Tomorrow. All on air miles.”
“I haven’t got any air miles,” said Pat.
“None at all?”
Wolf shrugged. “No big deal,” he said. “You don’t really need them.”
“Do you think that Dr Fantouse has any air miles?” asked Pat suddenly.
They both laughed. “Definitely not,” said Wolf. “Poor guy. Bus miles maybe.”
Date Published: 22nd February 2016
They did their best to be generous to Sister Flora when she left the convent, but the dresses they gave her left something to be desired. A great deal, in fact, according to some.
“Well!” muttered one of the laywomen who helped with the vegetable garden. “Did you see the outfits they gave her? You wouldn’t think it was 1961—more like 1931!”
She was right about the dresses, of which there were two. Both had been donated to the convent by the women’s guild at the local church, and both were irretrievably dull. One was made of beige bombazine, the other of a rough wool fabric of the sort that a rural schoolmistress might have worn decades earlier. Both had been retrieved from somebody’s wardrobe, both had a faint odour of camphor, although neither appeared to have suffered any moth damage.
They also gave her an unbecoming grey cardigan, a plain, full-length coat, and a pair of shoes that was slightly too small. The shoes, at least, were new, although they, too, were far from fashionable. Then there was a small suitcase, a sponge bag of toiletries, and an envelope containing fifteen pounds.
“We might have entertained the possibility of giving you a slightly larger sum,” said the Mother Superior, “but since you are going to be living with your aunt you will have no rent to pay and I imagine your aunt, being the pious woman she is, will provide necessities.”
Flora smiled. “I don’t really deserve anything,” she said. “I brought nothing with me when I came ten years ago, and I don’t think I should leave with anything.”
“That’s a very good attitude,” the Mother Superior continued. “Mind you, I gather that money is not going to be a problem. This sum is purely to tide you over until such time as your … your arrangements are in place.”
“I have been most fortunate,” she said. “I am not intending to forget that, Mother.”
“No,” said the Mother Superior. “I don’t imagine you will. You always had a very good disposition, you know. I’m sorry that one or two people have been passing … well, what can only be described as uncharitable remarks.” She looked away, her lips pursed in disapproval. “I heard somebody say they thought that money had interfered with God’s plan for you.”
“I don’t think that’s entirely fair,” said Flora.
“Neither do I,” said the Mother Superior. “And indeed I imagine there are circumstances that suggest that God’s plan for certain people is that they should have money. After all, if nobody had any money, then who would give to the Holy Church?”
“Precisely,” said Flora.
The Mother Superior looked out of the window. “I was very reassured to hear that you hadn’t lost your faith. That was a great comfort to me, you know.”
“I haven’t lost it,” said Flora. “It’s just that … oh, I suppose it’s just that I decided that I’m not cut out for the religious life. I’ve enjoyed it well enough, but I feel that somehow life is passing me by.”
“Quite understandable, my child,” said the Mother Superior.
“And I thought that I really had to make a decision one way or the other. So I decided that I would go out into the world. It just seemed the right thing for me to do.”
“We all understand,” said the Mother Superior. “I understand; poor Sister Frances understands—just; and Father Sullivan understands. You’ll be happy doing God’s work for you in the wider world—whatever that happens to be.”
“I hope so.”
“And, of course,” continued the Mother Superior, “you will be a wealthy woman.”
Sister Flora lowered her eyes. “I didn’t reach the decision because of that,” she said. “I had already decided.”
“Oh, I know that,” said the Mother Superior. “I wasn’t for a moment suggesting post hoc, propter hoc. But being wealthy will be … well, rather nice, don’t you think?”