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The mystery of meerkat h.., p.1
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       The Mystery of Meerkat Hill, p.1

           Alexander McCall Smith
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The Mystery of Meerkat Hill


  Copyright © 2012 by Alexander McCall Smith

  Illustrations copyright © 2012 by Iain McIntosh

  All rights reserved. Published in the United States by Anchor Books, a division of Random House LLC, a Penguin Random House Company, New York, and in Canada by Random House of Canada Limited, Toronto. Originally published in Great Britain as Precious and the Mystery of Meerkat Hill by Polygon, an imprint of Birlinn Ltd., Edinburgh, in 2012.

  Anchor Books and colophon are registered trademarks of Random House LLC.

  The Cataloging-in-Publication Data is available at the Library of Congress.

  Paperback ISBN: 978-0-345-80446-4

  eBook ISBN: 978-0-345-80447-1

  Hardcover ISBN: 978-0-345-80458-7

  Gibraltar Library ISBN: 978-0-345-80616-1

  Cover illustration and design by Iain McIntosh




  Title Page


  Chapter One

  Chapter Two

  Chapter Three

  Chapter Four

  Chapter Five

  Chapter Six

  Chapter Seven

  Chapter Eight

  About the Author

  Other Books by This Author

  Geography and People of Botswana

  Reader’s Guide

  THIS IS THE STORY of a girl called Precious. It is also the story of a boy whose name was Pontsho, and of another girl who had a very long name. Sometimes people who have a very long name find it easier to shorten it. So this other girl was called Teb. There is no room here, I’m afraid, to give her full name, as that would take up quite a few lines. So, like everybody else, we’ll call her Teb.

  Precious’s last name was Ramotswe, which sounds like this—RAM—OT—SWEE. There: try it yourself—it’s not hard to say. She lived in a country called Botswana, which is in Africa. Botswana is very beautiful—it has wide plains that seem to go on and on as far as the eye can see, until they join the sky, which is high and empty. Sometimes, you know, when you look up at an empty sky, it seems as if it’s singing. It is very odd, but that is how it seems.

  There are hills that pop up on these plains. The hills look rather like islands, and the plains look a bit like the sea.

  Precious lived with her father, Obed, in a small house outside a village. Obed was a good, kind man who wore a rather battered old hat. That hat was well-known in the village and even further away.

  “Here he comes!” people would say when they saw his hat in the distance. “Here comes Obed!”

  On one occasion Obed lost his hat while walking home in the dark. A wind blew up and lifted it right off his head, and because there was no light he was unable to find it. The next day, when he went back to the place where he had lost the hat, there was still no sign of it. He searched and searched, but without success.

  “You could buy a new one, Daddy,” Precious suggested.

  Obed shook his head. “A new hat is never as comfortable as an old one,” he said. “And I loved that hat.” He paused, looking up at his daughter. “It saved my life, you know.”

  Precious wondered how a hat could save your life. “Please tell me the story,” she said. She loved her father’s stories, especially when he told them at bedtime. There is something very exciting about a bedtime story, and it is even better if the story is told after the lights have been turned out. The words sound different—as if they are being whispered just for you and for nobody else. The words are all around you, like a warm blanket.

  So Obed told her about the hat that evening, when it was already dark outside and the African sky was filling with stars.

  “Quite a few years ago,” he began, “before you were even born, I worked for a while on a farm. It was a very dry place, as there was not much rain in that part of the country. But each year the rains came, and the land would turn green as the plants returned to life. That could happen so quickly—sometimes overnight.

  “My job was to see that the cattle were getting water to drink. We had to pump the water up from deep wells. Then the cattle could satisfy their thirst. I had to go and check that everything was working properly and fix it if it was not.

  “Now, it was rather remote and empty down there, and although there were no lions, there were other wild animals—and birds. And this is all about one of those birds—a very dangerous bird.”

  Precious interrupted him. “Birds can’t be dangerous,” she said, laughing at the thought. “Birds are far too small.”

  Obed shook his head. “That’s where you’re wrong, my darling. There are some birds that are very big.”

  “An eagle?” asked Precious.

  “Bigger than that. Much bigger.”

  She thought and thought, and was still thinking when Obed said: “An ostrich!

  “An ostrich,” her father went on, “is much bigger than a man, and yes, it can be very dangerous. You have to be very careful if you get too close to an ostrich because they can kick. They have these very strong legs, you see, and at the end of one of them there is a claw. You can be very badly hurt by an ostrich kick—very, very badly hurt.”

  Precious shivered. Sometimes her father’s stories were a little bit frightening, even if they usually ended well.

  “Now,” Obed continued, “I was walking through the bush one day, looking for some stray cattle, and suddenly I heard a noise. It was a very strange noise, and I stopped in my tracks wondering what it was. Then I saw it. Not far away from me, looking at me with those big angry eyes that they have, was an ostrich. And I knew right away that I had disturbed this creature and that it was about to attack me. The reason why it was so angry was that I had come too close to its nest. These birds make large nests on the ground in which they lay massive eggs. Think of a hen’s egg. Then think of an egg twenty times bigger than that—that’s an ostrich egg.

  “Suddenly I remembered something I had been told, and it was just as well it came back to me. Looking down on the ground, I saw a long stick that had fallen from a nearby tree. I picked this up and put my hat on the end of this stick. Then I held it up high in the air—like this.

  “Ostriches may be strong, but they are not very bright. I had remembered being told that if you put your hat on a stick and then held it up high, an ostrich would think that the hat was your head. They would also think that you were much taller than they were, and so they would leave you alone. And, do you know, it worked! The ostrich saw my hat and thought I must be a very tall and strong creature—more than a match for her. So she backed off and I was able to continue on my way unkicked.”

  Precious breathed a sigh of relief. She did not want her father to be kicked by an ostrich—who does?

  “I’m glad it worked out well for you,” she said.

  “Thank you,” said her father. “And now you go off to sleep, Precious, as you must be ready for school tomorrow morning.”

  Precious closed her eyes and thought of school. She had heard that there was a new family coming to the school the next day—a boy and a girl—and she wondered what they would be like. New people are always interesting, and she thought that perhaps they might be her friends. It was good, she thought, to have old friends, but it was also good to have new ones.

  But what about the lost hat? Did Obed get it back after it had blown away? Yes, he did. It landed a long way away but when people picked it up they knew immediately whose it was, and it was returned to him a few days later none the worse for its adventure. Of course he was very pleased, and from that day onwards whenever there was a high wind, he held onto his hat very firmly. Which
is what all of us should do, don’t you think?

  THE NEXT DAY Precious went to school eager to meet the two new arrivals. Neither of them was in her class, as one, the boy, was a year younger than she was, and his sister was a year older. But when the time came for the morning break, when the children spilled out of the classroom for half an hour of play, she quickly spotted them.

  They were standing together under the shade of a tree. Precious noticed that they were watching the other children play, but not joining in. She understood that—she remembered what it was like to be new in school. Everybody else seems to know lots of people, and you know none. It is not at all easy.

  She made her way through the jostling knots of boys and girls until she reached the tree.

  “Hello,” she said. “My name’s Precious.”

  The girl smiled at her, and gave her their names. “I’m called Teb,” she said. “And this is my brother, Pontsho.”

  Pontsho looked at Precious a little nervously, but when he saw her smile he smiled back.

  “You’re new, aren’t you?” said Precious.

  “Yes,” said the girl, glancing around her. “And we don’t know anybody.”

  “Well,” said Precious. “You know me now, don’t you?”

  The girl nodded.

  “And I can tell you the names of everybody here,” said Precious, looking around the group of children. “So I’m sure that you’ll soon know everybody.”

  They talked until it was time to go back into the classroom. Even when she was a young girl, Precious was very curious to find out as much as she could about other people. That was why she would become such a good detective when she grew up—detectives have to keep their eyes open; they have to look at people and think I wonder who that person is. I wonder where he comes from. I wonder what his favorite color is. And so on. She was very good at all that.

  But of course one of the best ways of finding something out is to ask somebody. That was a rule that Precious Ramotswe learned very early in her life, and would never forget. So that morning, as she stood under the tree and talked to Teb and Pontsho, she found out a great deal about the two newcomers just by asking a few questions.

  For instance, she asked: “How many people live in your house?”

  And Teb replied: “There are six people who live in our house. There is me and my brother here—that’s two. Then there’s our mother, and our mother’s sister. She is our aunt. And then there is our grandmother and our grandfather. They are very old. Our grandfather has no teeth left but our grandmother still has two or three. They like to sit in the sun all day and watch what’s going on. They are very kind to us.”

  And then Precious asked: “What about your father?”

  This time the boy answered. “Our father was struck by lightning two years ago,” he said.

  “That’s very sad,” said Precious.

  The girl nodded. “And so we had to sell the place we lived in. We moved here because my grandfather had a small house that he owned. We all live there now.”

  There were one or two other questions that Precious was able to ask. She asked how long it took them to walk to school, and they replied that it took just over half an hour. She asked them whether they believed in ghosts and Teb said no, although Pontsho hesitated a bit before he too said no. Then she asked them whether they liked apples, and Teb shook her head.

  “I have never tasted an apple,” she said. “Are they good?”

  Precious tried not to show her surprise. Imagine never having tasted an apple! She herself loved apples, which her father bought her every Friday from one of the village stores. And then she saw something that she had not noticed before. Neither of the children was wearing shoes.

  It did not take her long to work things out. Teb and Pontsho must be very poor. That was why they had never tasted an apple and that was why they had no shoes. The thought made her sad. To walk to school for half an hour on ground that could become burning hot during the summer could not be easy. Of course your feet got used to it, and the skin underneath became harder and harder, but it must still have been uncomfortable. And what about thorns? Some of the bushes that grew at the side of paths were known for their vicious thorns. It would be only too easy to get one of these in your foot, and she knew how painful that could be.

  She did not say anything, though. Sometimes people who are very poor are ashamed of it, even if they have no reason to be. Being poor is usually not your fault, unless it’s because you are very lazy. There are all sorts of reasons why people can be poor. They may have not been able to find any work. They may be in a job where they are not paid very much. They may have lost their father or mother because of illness or an accident or, Precious thought, lightning. Yes, lightning was the reason here, and it made her sad just to think of it.

  The bell sounded for the end of the morning break. “We have to go inside now,” said Precious. “But if you like, I can walk home with you and we can talk a bit more. Your house isn’t far from mine.”

  “I would like that very much,” said Teb. And then she added: “And if you come to my place, my brother can show you something really special.” She turned to Pontsho and gave him a warning look. “But don’t tell her yet, Pontsho! Let it be a surprise.”

  “I won’t tell,” said the boy. And smiled.

  PRECIOUS could hardly contain her excitement on the walk to Teb and Pontsho’s house. She wondered what her new friends could have in store for her, but try as she might, she could not guess what it was. That’s the thing about a real surprise—you have no idea what it can possibly be, and the more you think about it, the harder it becomes to imagine what it is. Try it. Try to think of something that you don’t know anything about. Hard, isn’t it?

  After they had been walking for a while Teb said: “We’re just about there. Our house is just down there. See, near that hill? Where those trees are? That’s our place.”

  They were now outside the village, and there were no other buildings to be seen. There were plenty of trees, though, and it took Precious a few moments to work out which trees Teb meant. But then she saw a wisp of smoke rising up into the sky and she knew that this was from somebody’s cooking fire. And, sure enough, when her eye followed the smoke down she saw that there was a small house tucked away at the end of it. So that was their place.

  They followed the path that led to the house and soon they were there.

  “This is our place,” said Teb. “This is where we live.”

  Precious looked at the house. It was not very large and she wondered how everybody could fit inside. But she did not want to say anything about that, as people are usually proud of their houses and do not like other people (and that means us) to point out that their houses are too small, or too uncomfortable, or the wrong shape.

  And so she said, ‘That’s a nice house, Teb.”

  That was not a lie. It is not a lie to say something nice to somebody. You have to remember that you can usually find something good to say about anything if you look hard enough. And it’s kind too, and Precious Ramotswe was a kind girl, as everybody knew.

  Teb beamed with pleasure. “Thank you,” she said. “It’s a bit small maybe, but then my brother sleeps out at the back, under a shelter, and so he doesn’t take up much room. And my grandfather sleeps during the day and so he doesn’t really need a bed at night—he just sits in his chair until morning. He’s very happy.”

  Precious looked about her. In front of the house she saw two chairs, and in those two chairs she suddenly noticed that there were two very old people, both wearing hats that had been pulled down over their eyes.

  “That’s my grandfather and grand- mother,” explained Teb. “You may think they can’t see anything, with those hats pulled over their eyes, but they can. They have small holes in the hats, you see, and they see through those.”

  Precious looked again, and saw that Teb was right. There were small holes in the hats and through those holes she could just make out … eyes.

  And then one of the people raised a hand to wave to her, and then the other did the same thing. So Precious waved back.

  Teb and Pontsho took Precious to say hello to their grandparents. Precious did this, and was greeted very kindly.

  “How do you do?” asked the grand- father. “You are very welcome. Thank you for coming. Good day.”

  And the grandmother said: “How are you? It is very nice to see you. Good day too, my dear.”

  Then Teb took her into the kitchen, which was the first room that you went into when you entered the front door. There she met Teb’s mother and her aunt, who were both busy crushing grain in a large tub. Some people don’t know that bread comes from grain. You do, of course, but others have to be told that not everybody can go into a shop and buy a loaf of bread. Some people don’t have shops anywhere near them, and some don’t have the money to buy bread. So they have to make it. And it tastes delicious!

  They went outside again, and at last Precious learned what the big surprise was. And it was truly surprising. It was the sort of surprise that she would never have guessed, even if she had tried to do so for hours and hours.

  What was this surprise? Well, here it is. It was a MEERKAT.

  Now, what exactly is a meerkat? Well, it’s not a cat. And it’s not a squirrel, nor a racoon, nor a … Perhaps it’s a mongoose, but it’s easiest to think of them as being … just meerkats. They look like meerkats and they do the things that meerkats do—which is just what this meerkat now did, standing up on its hind legs, its front paws held out for balance, and its small black nose sniffing at the air with the greatest possible interest.

  “A meerkat!” exclaimed Precious. “You’ve got a meerkat!”

  Teb smiled. “Yes,” she said. “This is Kosi. He belongs to my brother. His name means chief.”

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