As the countdown finally begins to Mma Makutsi’s wedding, all is not as it should be at the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency. While investigating unpleasant occurrences on a southern cattle-post, Mma Ramotswe, always on the side of the underdog, has reason to reflect on Rule No. 3 of The Principles of Private Detection: never lie to the client.
Outside of the office, there are other troubles: Mma Ramotswe fears she may be hallucinating when she sees her beloved old white van—sent to the junkyard long ago—trundling around the city again; one of the apprentice mechanics at Tlokweng Road Speedy Motors appears to have run off to avoid certain crucial responsibilities; and Mma Makutsi’s nemesis Violet Sephotho is casting her net wider and standing for election to Parliament, which could spell trouble for the entire nation.
Mma Ramotswe had by no means forgotten her late white van. It was true that she did not brood upon it, as some people dwell on things of the past, but it still came to mind from time to time, often at unexpected moments. Memories of that which we have lost are curious things—weeks, months, even years may pass without any recollection of them and then, quite suddenly, something will remind us of a lost friend, or of a favourite possession that has been mislaid or destroyed, and then we will think: Yes, that is what I had and I have no longer.
Her van had been her companion and friend for many years. Can a vehicle—a collection of mechanical bits and pieces, nuts and bolts and parts the names of which one has not the faintest idea of—can such a thing be a friend? Of course it can: physical objects can have personalities, at least in the eyes of their owners. To others, it may only be a van, but to the owner it may be the friend that has started loyally each morning—except sometimes; that has sat patiently during long hours of waiting outside the houses of suspected adulterers; that has carried one home in the late afternoon, tired after a day’s work at the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency. And just like a person, a car or a van may have likes and dislikes. A good tar road is balm to man and machine and may produce a humming sound of satisfaction in both car and driver; an unpaved road, concealing behind each bend a deep pothole or tiny mountain range of corrugations, may provoke rattles and groans of protest from even the most tolerant of vehicles. For this reason, the owners of cars may be forgiven for thinking that under the metal there lurks something not all that different from a human soul.
Mma Ramotswe’s van had served her well, and she loved it. Its life, though, had been a hard one. Not only had it been obliged to cope with dust, which, as anybody who lives in a dry country will know, can choke a vehicle to death, but its long-suffering suspension had been required to deal with persistent overloading, at least on the driver’s side. That, of course, was the side on which Mma Ramotswe sat, and she was, by her own admission and description, a traditionally built person. Such a person can wear down even the toughest suspension, and this is exactly what happened in the case of the tiny white van, which permanently listed to starboard as a result.
Mma Ramotswe’s husband, Mr J. L. B. Matekoni, that excellent man, proprietor of Tlokweng Road Speedy Motors and widely regarded as the best mechanic in all Botswana, had done his best to address the problem, but had tired of having to change the van’s shock absorbers from side to side so as to equalise the strain. Yet it went further than that. The engine itself had started to make a sinister sound, which grew in volume until eventually the big-end failed.
“I am just a mechanic, Mma Ramotswe,” he had said to his wife. “A mechanic is a man who fixes cars and other vehicles. That is what a mechanic does.”
Mma Ramotswe had listened politely, but her heart within her was a stone of fear. She knew that the fate of her van was at stake, and she would prefer not to know that. “I think I understand what a mechanic does, Rra,” she said. “And you are a very good mechanic, quite capable of fixing a—”
She did not finish. The normally mild Mr J. L. B. Matekoni had raised a finger. “A mechanic, Mma,” he pronounced, “is different from a miracle-worker. A miracle-worker is a person who ... works miracles. A mechanic cannot do that. And so when the time comes for a vehicle to die—and they are mortal, Mma, I can assure you—then he cannot wave a wand and make the car new again.” He paused, looking at her with the air of a doctor imparting bad news. “And so ... ”
He had done his best for her, of course, and bought her a spanking new van, blue this time, with an array of buttons on the dashboard that she had not yet dared investigate, and with an engine so quiet and unobtrusive that it was sometimes possible to believe that it was not switched on at all and that it was gravity alone, or some other mysterious force, that was propelling the van down the road. She tried to appear grateful, but it was hard. It was true that the point of a vehicle was to get you from one place to another without incident, but that, she thought, was not the only consideration. If efficiency were the only value in this life, then we would be content to eat bland but nutritious food every day—and the same food at that. That would keep us alive, but it would make for very dull mealtimes. And the same was true of transport: there was all the world of difference between travelling along a highway in an air-conditioned bus, behind tinted glass, and making the same journey by a side-road, on a cart pulled by a team of mules, with the morning air fresh against your face and the branches of the acacia trees brushing past so close that you could reach out to touch the delicate green leaves. There was all that difference.
The tiny white van had gone to a scrap dealer, and that, she thought, was the end. But then she encountered a woman who told her that a nephew of hers had acquired the van, and towed it up to his place near the Tuli Block. He loved tinkering, she said, and he might be able to do something with the parts that he could strip from the body of the van. That was all Mma Ramotswe heard, and nothing more. It was a better fate, perhaps, than that of total destruction in the jaws of some metal-crushing predator, but still she hoped that the young man who had bought the van for scrap might exercise his mechanical skills and restore it. And that possibility she kept in her mind, tucked away among the other scraps of hope of the sort that we go through life with, not thinking about them very much but unwilling to let them fade away altogether.
Now, on this crisp Botswana day, at the tail end of a winter that, for all its cold mornings, was still drenched in clear and constant sun, Mma Ramotswe was reminded of her former van by something she saw on the road. She was driving past the Ministry of Water Affairs, her mind on a case that she had been working on for some time and was no nearer resolution than when she had started. She wondered whether she should not begin afresh, abandoning all the information she had obtained, and speaking to everybody again from scratch; possibly, she thought, it might be easier if ... And then, out of the corner of her eye, she saw what seemed to be her tiny white van. It was not just that she saw a white van—they were common enough in a country where the most popular colour for a vehicle was white—it was the fact that the white vehicle she saw had the air of her van, a characteristic gait, so to speak, a way of moving.
Her first instinct was to stop, and this she did, pulling in to the side of the road, her wheels throwing up a cloud of dust and causing the vehicle behind her to swerve angrily. She waved an apology—that was not the sort of driving she condoned in others—before twisting round in her seat to look at the turning down which she had glimpsed the van making its way. She saw nothing, so she decided to reverse a few yards to get a better view. But no, the side-road was empty.
She frowned. Had she imagined it? She had read somewhere that those who mourn will sometimes see those they mourn—or will think they see them. But she was not really mourning her van, even if she regretted its passing; she was not the sort of woman who would allow something like that to get in the way of living. She shook her head, as if to clear it, and then, on impulse, made a sweeping U-turn, heading off on to the side-road down which she had seen the white van disappear.
A woman was sitting on a stone on the edge of the road, a small bundle of possessions on the ground beside her. Mma Ramotswe slowed down, and the woman looked at her enquiringly.
“I’m sorry, Mma,” said Mma Ramotswe through her open window. “I haven’t stopped to give you a ride to wherever it is you want to go.”
“Ah,” said the woman. “I hoped you had, Mma, but I don’t mind. My son promised to come and collect me, and he will get round to it eventually.”
“Sometimes men forget these things,” said Mma Ramotswe.
“They tell us that they are too busy to do the things we want them to do, but they have plenty of time for their own concerns.” The woman laughed. “Oh, that is right, my sister! I can hear them saying that in those voices that men have!”
Mma Ramotswe joined in the laughter. Then she asked, “Did a white van come down this way, Mma? Not a big one—a small one, same size as this one I’m in but much older—and white.”
The woman frowned. “When, Mma? I have only been sitting here for half an hour.”
“Oh, not that long ago,” said Mma Ramotswe. “About two or three minutes ago. Maybe four.”
The woman shook her head. “No, Mma. Nobody has been down here for at least ten minutes, maybe more. And there have been no white vans—I would have seen one if there had been. I have been watching, you see.”
“Are you sure, Mma?”
The woman nodded vigorously. “I am very sure, Mma. I see everything. I was in the police, you see. For three years, a long time ago, I was one of those police ladies. Then I fell off a truck and they said that I could not walk well enough to stay in. They are very foolish sometimes, and that is why the criminals sit there in those bars and tell one another stories of what the police have not done. They laugh at them and drink their beer. That is what is happening today, and God will certainly punish the politicians one day for letting this happen.”
Mma Ramotswe smiled. “You are right, Mma. Those criminals need to be taught a lesson. But to go back to the van, are you absolutely sure, Mma?”
“I am one hundred per cent sure,” said the woman. “If you made me stand up in the High Court in Lobatse and asked me whether I had seen a van, I would say certainly not and that is the truth.”
Mma Ramotswe thanked her. “I hope that your son comes soon, Mma,” she said.
“He will. When he has finished dancing with ladies or whatever he is doing, he will come.”
Mma Ramotswe continued with her journey, completing the tasks she had been on her way to perform. She thought no more of the sighting of the van until she returned to the office a couple of hours later and mentioned the matter to Mma Makutsi.
“I saw something very strange today, Mma,” she began as she settled herself at her desk.
“That is no surprise,” said Mma Makutsi from the other side of the room. “There are some very strange things happening in Gaborone these days.”
Mma Ramotswe would normally have agreed with this—there were very odd things happening—but she did not want Mma Makutsi to get launched on the subject of politics or the behaviour of teenagers, or any of the other subjects on which she harboured strong and sometimes unconventional views. So she went on to describe the sighting of the van and the curiously unsettling conversation she had had with the woman by the side of the road. “She was very sure that there had been no van, Mma, and I believed her. And yet I am just as sure that I saw it. I was not dreaming.”
Mma Makutsi listened attentively. “So,” she said. “You saw it, but she did not. What does that mean, Mma?”
Mma Ramotswe considered this for a moment. There was something on the issue in Clovis Andersen’s book, she seemed to remember; The Principles of Private Detection had a great deal to recommend it in all departments, but it was particularly strong on the subject of evidence and the recollection of what people see. When two or more people see something, the great authority had written, you would be astonished at how many different versions of events you will get! This is not because people are lying; it is more because we see things differently. One person sees one thing, and another sees something altogether different. Both believe that they are telling the truth.
Mma Makutsi did not wait for Mma Ramotswe to answer her question. “It means that one of you saw something that the other did not.”
Mma Ramotswe pondered this answer. It did not advance the matter very much, she thought.
“So the fact that one of you saw nothing,” Mma Makutsi continued, “does not mean that there was nothing. She saw nothing because she did not notice anything. You saw something that she did not notice because it was not there, or it was not there in the way that you thought it was there.”
“I’m not sure I follow you, Mma Makutsi ... ”
Mma Makutsi drew herself up behind her desk. “That van, Mma Ramotswe, was a ghost van. It was the spirit of a late van. That’s what you must have seen.”
Mma Ramotswe was not certain whether her assistant was being serious. Mma Makutsi could make peculiar remarks, but she had never before said anything quite as ridiculous as this. That was what made her feel that perhaps she was joking and that the proper reaction for her was to laugh. But if she laughed and her assistant was in fact being serious, then offence would be taken and this could be followed by a period of huffiness. So she confined her reaction to an innocent question: “Do vans have ghosts, Mma? Do you think that likely?”
“I don’t see why not,” said Mma Makutsi. “If people have ghosts, then why shouldn’t other things have them? What makes us so special that only we can have ghosts? What makes us think that, Mma?”
“Well, I’m not so sure that there are ghosts of people anyway,” said Mma Ramotswe. “If we go to heaven when we die, then who are these ghosts that people talk about? No, it doesn’t seem likely to me.”
Mma Makutsi frowned. “Ah, but who says that everybody goes to heaven?” she asked. “There are people who will not get anywhere near heaven. I can think of many ... ”
Mma Ramotswe’s curiosity was too much for her. “Such as, Mma?”
Mma Makutsi showed no hesitation in replying. “Violet Sephotho,” she said quickly. “There will be no place for her in heaven—that is well known. So she will have to stay down here in Gaborone, walking around and not being seen by anybody because she will be a ghost.” She paused, an expression of delight crossing her face.
“And, Mma, she will be a ghost in high-heeled shoes! Can you imagine that, Mma? A ghost tottering around on those silly high heels that she wears. It is a very funny thought, Mma. Even those who saw such a ghost would not be frightened but would burst out laughing. Other ghosts would laugh, Mma—they would, although we wouldn’t hear them, of course.”
“Unless we were ghosts ourselves by that stage,” interjected Mma Ramotswe. “Then we would hear them.”
This warning made Mma Makutsi fall silent. It had been an appetising picture that she had been painting, and she slightly resented Mma Ramotswe’s spoiling it like this. But her resentment did not persist, as it occurred to her that Mma Ramotswe, having possibly just seen a ghost herself—even if only a ghost van—might be in need of a restorative cup of redbush tea.
“I think it is time that I put the kettle on,” she said. “All this talk of ghosts ... ”
Mma Ramotswe laughed. “There are no ghosts, Mma. No ghost people, no ghost vans. These things are just stories we make up to frighten ourselves.”
Mma Makutsi, now standing beside the kettle, looked out of the window. Yes, she thought, one can say that sort of thing in broad daylight, under this wide and sunlit Botswana sky, but would one say the same thing with equal conviction at night, when one was out in the bush, perhaps, away from the streetlights of town, and surrounded by the sounds of the night—sounds that could not be easily explained away and could be anything, things known or unknown, things friendly or unfriendly, things that it was better not to think about? She shuddered. It was not a good idea to let one’s mind dwell on these matters, and she was sure it was best to think about something quite different. And so she said to Mma Ramotswe,
“Mma, I am worried about Charlie. I am very worried.”
Mma Ramotswe looked up from her desk. “Charlie, Mma Makutsi? But we have always been worried about Charlie, right from the beginning.” She smiled at her assistant. “I’m sure that even when he was a very small boy, this high, his mother was shaking her head and saying that she was worried about Charlie. And all those girls, I’m sure that they have been saying the same thing for years. It is what people say about him.”
Mma Makutsi smiled too, but only weakly. “Yes, Mma,” she said. “But this time it’s different. I think now that we have to do something about him.”
Mma Ramotswe sighed. Whatever it was, Mma Makutsi was probably right. But she was not sure that it was the responsibility of the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency to deal with Charlie’s problems—whatever they were. Charlie was an apprentice of Tlokweng Road Speedy Motors, and it would have to be Mr J. L. B. Matekoni who took action.
She looked across the room at her assistant, who was frowning with concentration as she poured the boiling water into the teapot. “Very well, Mma Makutsi,” she said. “Tell me what the trouble is. What has our young friend been up to now?”