Date Published: 13th March 2023
Alexander McCall Smith is travelling in Australia at present, touring literary festivals and doing the full round of media interviews. As he travels he is writing, and now he can reveal what is coming up in the next book in The No.1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series, From a Far and Lovely Country. Pop the kettle on and enjoy!
Carbolic soap and birthday cake.
Precious Ramotswe, daughter of the late Obed Ramotswe of Mochudi, near Gaborone, in Botswana, near Heaven, wife of Mr J.L.B. Matekoni, garagiste; friend to so many, but particularly to Mma Silvia Potokwani, and Grace Makutsi, of course, formerly of Bobonong, who was, in turn, wife of Mr Phuti Radiphuti and graduate of the Botswana Secretarial College – with ninety-seven per cent in the final examinations; that Precious Ramotswe lay in her bed, opening first one eye, then another, and subsequently, after only a few short seconds, closing both once more.
Waking up in the morning, as she had now done, was never too difficult; the hard part, she thought, was what happened afterwards. To begin with, you had to remind yourself where you were. Those first few seconds of consciousness could be quite detached from everything else. You knew who you were, of course, and you knew you were in your bed, but you did not necessarily remember where you had just been: there might still be drifting around a few fragments of a dream, the remnants of some curious and unreal events in which you had just been participating, and you had to put those out of your mind as the real day began. The mind was good at that – it remembered not to remember, so to speak, because it knew that dreams could not be allowed to clog up memory, which had far more important things to do. And so, the strange conversations of the night, the odd transports back to childhood, the unlikely dramas and surprises – all these were swept away as the light of day signalled the beginning of your real life, as yourself, facing another day of being you.
Now, on that particular morning, she was fully awake, and conscious of the fact that she was alone in her bed, and that her husband, was no longer there. You could always tell when there was somebody else in bed with you, and, equally, when there was not. There was the silence, of course – there was the absence of the breathing noises that husbands tended to make – and then there was something about the way the mattress sloped when there was nobody to counteract the weight on one’s own side. And then, if you turned your bed, as she now did, you saw that there was nobody there, and you began to listen for sounds from deeper within the house – for the sound of your husband in the kitchen, preparing breakfast in bed for you, as a treat, because today, you suddenly remembered, was a somewhat special day, being your birthday, when breakfast in bed, or even a simple cup of redbush tea placed steaming on the bedside table, would be so welcome. Not that you expected it as of right, but it would still be a nice touch.
She listened hard, holding her breath for a few moments so as to hear the better, but there was no sound coming from the direction of the kitchen. And there was nothing to be heard from the other two bedrooms, because it was that odd, quiet time of the year, the school holidays, when the children were away for three weeks, staying in Lobatse with the families of schoolfriends, helping with the planting and the cattle, learning to love the land, which is something we all should learn to do when we were young. No, the house was quite silent, and that meant that Mr J.L.B. Matekoni had already gone off to the garage, as he sometimes did when there was a lot to do and rather too many cars waiting for attention, like a line of patients nursing their complaints in a hospital waiting-room.
Mma Ramotswe sighed. You should not begin your birthday with a sigh, though, and she quickly turned the sigh into a deep breath, the sort of breath you take when you are deciding to be positive about the day ahead. She then put on her housecoat and slippers, and made her way into the kitchen to fill the kettle. As she entered the room, her eye fell on a note displayed prominently on the table, and she smiled. That would be the message he had left for her, saying something like Happy Birthday, my dearest wife – I am so sorry that I have had to go work early on this special day, but I’ll make up for it later. Your loving husband, Mr J.L.B. Matekoni. Something like that.
She picked up the note and read it. Gone to work, it said, rather tersely. See you at tea time. Don’t forget to buy soap for the garage, please. The please was underlined – not out of politeness, but to emphasise the importance of the request. And that was all. There was nothing about her birthday – just that reminder about the soap that he needed for the washbasin in the garage so that he and his assistant, Fanwell, could get the grease off their hands after attending to engines and before handling the steering wheels of upholstery of the cars in their care. Soap was important, she thought, but so were birthdays – and if one had to rank the two things in order of importance, she would say that from the point of view of the person whose birthday it was, birthdays outranked soap.