The good husband of zebr.., p.10
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       The Good Husband of Zebra Drive, p.10

           Alexander McCall Smith
 
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  “That is Mma Ramotswe,” said Mma Makutsi. “And the garage is Tlokweng Road Speedy Motors. It is run by …”

  Violet interrupted. “Yes, yes,” she said impatiently. “So you’ve lost that job, have you?”

  Mma Makutsi gasped. It was outrageous that this Violet, this fifty-per-cent (at the most) person should imagine that she had been dismissed from the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency. “I did not!” she burst out. “I did not lose that job, Mma! I left of my own accord.”

  Violet looked at her unapologetically. “Of course, Mma. Of course. Although sometimes people leave just before they’re pushed. Not you, of course, but that happens, you know.”

  Mma Makutsi took a deep breath. If she allowed herself to become angered, or at least to show her anger, then she would be playing directly into Violet’s hands. So she smiled gently and nodded her agreement with Violet’s comment. “Yes, Mma. There are many cases of people who are dismissed who say that they resigned. You must see a lot of that. But I really did resign because I wanted a change. That’s why I’m here.”

  This submissive tone seemed to appeal to Violet. She looked at Mma Makutsi thoughtfully. “I’ll see what I can do,” she said slowly. “But I can’t work miracles. The problem is that … Well, the problem, Mma, is one of presentation. These days it is very important that firms have a smart image. It’s all about impact, you know. And that means that senior staff must be well presented, must be … of good appearance. That’s the way it is in business these days. That’s just the way it is.” She shuffled a few papers on her desk. “There are a few high-level vacancies at the moment. A personal assistant post to a chief executive. A secretary to the general manager of a bank. That sort of thing. But I’m not sure if you’re quite right for that sort of job, Mma. Maybe something in a Ministry somewhere. Or …” She paused. “Have you thought of leaving Gaborone? Of taking something down in Lobatse or Francistown or somewhere like that? Lots of people like those places, you know. There’s not so much going on, of course, but it’s a peaceful life out of town.”

  Mma Makutsi watched Violet as she spoke. The face revealed so much; that she had been taught by Mma Ramotswe, who had pointed out that the real meaning of what anybody said was written large in the muscles of the face. And Violet’s face said it all; this was a calculated put-down, an intentional humiliation, possibly inspired by jealousy (Violet knew about Phuti Radiphuti and knew that he was well off), possibly inspired by anger over their vastly differing performances at the Botswana Secretarial College, but more probably inspired by pure malice, which was something which often just occurred in people for no apparent reason and with which there was no reasoning.

  She rose to her feet. “I don’t think you have anything suitable for me,” she said.

  Violet became flustered. “I didn’t say that, Mma.”

  “I think you did, Mma,” said Mma Makutsi. “I think you said it very clearly. Sometimes people don’t have to open their mouths to say anything, but they say it nonetheless.”

  She moved towards the door. For a moment or two it seemed as if Violet was about to say something, but she did not. Mma Makutsi gave her one last glance, and then left, nodding to the receptionist on her way out, as politeness dictated. Mma Ramotswe would be proud of me, she thought; Mma Ramotswe had always said that the repaying of rudeness with rudeness was the wrong thing to do as it taught the other person no lesson. And she was right about that, as she was right about so many other things. Mma Ramotswe … Mma Makutsi saw the face of her friend and heard her voice, as if she was right there, beside her. She would have laughed at Violet. She would have said of her insults, Little words, Mma, from an unhappy woman. Nothing to think twice about. Nothing.

  Mma Makutsi went out into the sunshine, composed herself, and began to walk home. The sun was high now, and there was much more warmth in it. She could get a minibus most of the way, if she waited, but she decided to walk, and had gone only a short distance when the heel of her right shoe broke. The shoe now flapped uselessly, and she had to take both shoes off. At home, in Bobonong, she had often gone barefoot, and it was no great hardship now. But it had not been a good morning, that morning, and she felt miserable.

  She walked on. Near the stretch of open bush that the school used for playing sports, she picked up a thorn in her right foot. It was easy to extract, but it pricked hard for such a small thing. She sat down on a stone and nursed her foot, rubbing it to relieve the pain. She looked up at the sky. If there were people up there, she did not think that they cared for people down here. There were no thorns up there, no rudeness, no broken shoes.

  She rose and picked up her shoes. As she did so, a rattly old blue taxi drove past, the driver with his right arm resting casually on the sill of the window. She thought for a moment, That’s a dangerous thing to do—another car might drive too close and that would be the end of your arm.

  She raised her own arm, suddenly, on impulse. The taxi stopped.

  “Tlokweng Road, please,” she said. “You know that old garage? That place. The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency.”

  “I will take you there, Mma,” said the taxi driver. He was not rude. He was polite, and he made conversation with Mma Makutsi as they drove.

  “Why are you going there, Mma?” he asked as they negotiated the lights at the old four-way stop.

  “Because that’s where I work,” said Mma Makutsi. “I took the morning off. Now it’s time to go back.”

  She looked down at the broken shoe, now resting on her lap. It was such a sad thing, that shoe, like a body from which the life had gone. She stared at it. Almost challenging it to reproach her. But it did not, and all she heard, she thought, was a strangled voice which said, Narrow escape, Boss. You were walking in the wrong direction, you know. We shoes understand these things.

  IF IT HAD BEEN a bleak morning for Mma Makutsi, it was equally bleak at the premises of the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency and Tlokweng Road Speedy Motors. In Mma Ramotswe’s small office the desk previously occupied by Mma Makutsi stood forlorn, bare of paper, with only a couple of pencils and an abandoned typewriter upon it. Where three cups had stood on the cabinet behind it, along with the tea-making equipment of a kettle and two tea-pots, there now were only two—Mma Ramotswe’s personal cup and the cup that was kept for the client. The absence of Mma Makutsi’s cup, a small thing in itself but a big thing in what it stood for, seemed only to confirm in Mma Ramotswe’s view that the heart had been taken out of the office. Steps could be taken, of course: Mr Polopetsi could be invited to keep his mug there rather than on the hook which it occupied beside the spanners in the garage. But it would not be the same; indeed it was impossible to imagine Mr Polopetsi occupying Mma Makutsi’s chair; much as Mma Ramotswe liked him, he was a man, and the whole ethos of the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, its guiding principle really, was that it was a business in which women were in the driving seat. That was not because men could not do the job—they could, provided they were the right sort of men, observant men—it was simply because that particular business had always been run by women, and it was women who gave it its particular style. There was room in this world, Mma Ramotswe thought, for things done by men and things done by women; sometimes men could do the things done by women, sometimes not. And vice versa, of course.

  She felt lonely. In spite of the sounds from the garage, in spite of the fact that immediately on the other side of the office wall was Mr J.L.B. Matekoni, her husband and helpmate, she felt alone, bereft. She had once been told by an aunt in Mochudi how, shortly after being widowed, she had seen her husband in empty rooms, in places where he liked to sit in the sun, coming back down the track that he always walked down; and these were not tricks of the light, but aches of the mind, its sad longings. And now, after her assistant had been absent for so short a time, she had looked up suddenly when she thought she heard Mma Makutsi say something, or had seen something move on the other side of the room. That movement was a real trick of the light of c
ourse, but it still brought home the fact that she was on her own now.

  And that was difficult. Mma Ramotswe was normally quite content with her own company. She could sit on her verandah on Zebra Drive and drink tea in perfect solitude, with her only company that of the birds outside, or of the tiny, scrambling geckos that made their way up the pillars and across the roof; that was different. In an office one needed to be able to talk to somebody, if only to make the surroundings more human. Homes, verandahs, gardens were human in their feel; offices were not. An office with only one person in it was a place unfurnished.

  On the other side of the wall, Mr J.L.B. Matekoni felt a similar moroseness. It was perhaps not quite as acute in his case, but it was still there, a feeling that somehow things were not complete. It was as a family might feel, he thought, if it sat down to dinner on some great occasion and had one seat unoccupied. He liked Mma Makutsi; he had always admired her determination and her courage. He would not like to cross her, of course, as she could be prickly, and he was not sure whether she handled the apprentices very well. In fact she did not; he was certain of it, but he had never quite got round to suggesting to her that she should change her tone when handling those admittedly frustrating young men. And of course Charlie was going to go too, once he had finished tinkering with that old Mercedes and the taxi licence application had been approved. The garage would not be the same without him, Mr J.L.B. Matekoni thought; there would be something missing, in spite of everything.

  Charlie, from the other side of the garage, where he was about to raise a car on the hydraulic ramp, glanced at Mr J.L.B. Matekoni and said to the younger apprentice standing beside him, “I hope that the Boss doesn’t think that she’s gone because of me. I hope he doesn’t think that.”

  The younger apprentice wiped his nose on the sleeve of his blue overalls. “Why would he think that, Charlie? What’s it got to do with you? You know what that woman’s like. Nag, nag, nag. I bet that the Boss is relieved that she’s gone.”

  Charlie thought about this possibility for a moment, and then dismissed it. “He likes her. Mma Ramotswe likes her too. Maybe even you like her.” He looked at the younger man and frowned. “Do you? Do you like her?”

  The younger apprentice shifted his feet. “I don’t like her glasses,” he said. “Where do you think she got those great big glasses?”

  “An industrial catalogue,” said Charlie.

  The younger apprentice laughed. “And those stupid shoes of hers. She thinks she looks good in those shoes of hers, but most girls I know wouldn’t be seen dead in them.”

  Charlie looked thoughtful. “They take your shoes off when you’re dead, you know.”

  The younger apprentice was concerned. “Why?” he asked. “What do they do with them?”

  Charlie reached forward and polished the dial of the panel that controlled the hydraulic lift. “The doctors take them,” he explained. “Or the nurses in the hospital. Next time you see a doctor, look at his shoes. They all have very smart shoes. Lots of them. That’s because they get the shoes when …”

  He stopped. A blue taxi had drawn up in front of the garage and the passenger door was opening.

  CHAPTER TEN

  A SMALL BUSINESSWOMAN

  WITH MMA MAKUTSI back in her usual place, the heavy atmosphere that had prevailed that morning lifted. The emotional reunion, as demonstrative and effusive as if Mma Makutsi had been away for months, or even years, had embarrassed the men, who had exchanged glances, and then looked away, as if in guilt at an intrusion into essentially female mysteries. But when the ululating from Mma Ramotswe had died down and the tea had been made, everything returned to normal.

  “Why did she bother to leave if she was going to be away five minutes?” asked the younger apprentice.

  “It’s because she doesn’t think like anybody else,” said Charlie. “She thinks backwards.”

  Mr J.L.B. Matekoni, who overheard this, shook his head. “It’s a sign of maturity to be able to change your mind when you realise that you’re wrong,” he explained. “It’s the same with fixing a car. If you find out that you’re going along the wrong lines, then don’t hesitate to stop and correct yourself. If, for example, you’re changing the oil seal at the back of a gearbox, you might try to save time by doing this without taking the gearbox out. But it’s always quicker to take the gearbox out. If you don’t, you end up taking the floor out and anyway you have to take the top of the gearbox off, and the prop shaft too. So it’s best to stop and admit your mistake before you go any further and damage things.”

  Charlie listened to this—it was a long speech for Mr J.L.B. Matekoni—and then looked away. He wondered if this was a random example seized upon by Mr J.L.B. Matekoni, or if he knew about that seal he had tried to install in the old rear-wheel-drive Ford. Could he have found out somehow?

  There was little work done in the agency that afternoon. Mma Makutsi restored her desk to the way she liked it to be: papers reappeared, pencils were resharpened and arranged in the right fashion, and files were extracted from the cabinet and placed back on the desk for further attention. Mma Ramotswe watched all this with utter satisfaction and, after she had offered to make the tea—an offer which Mma Makutsi politely declined, pointing out that she had not forgotten her role altogether—she asked her assistant if she would care to have the rest of the afternoon off.

  “You may have shopping to do, Mma,” said Mma Ramotswe. “You know that you can have the time off whenever you want for things like that.”

  Mma Makutsi had clearly been pleased by this, but again declined. There was filing to do, she insisted; it was extraordinary how quickly filing accumulated; one turned one’s back for a few hours and there it was—piled up. Mma Ramotswe thought that this was also true of detection work. “No sooner do you deal with one case,” she said, “than another turns up. There is somebody coming tomorrow morning. I should really be seeing people about that hospital matter, but I am going to have to be here to see this other person. Unless …”

  She glanced across the room at Mma Makutsi, who was polishing her spectacles with that threadbare lace handkerchief of hers. You would think, Mma Ramotswe said to herself, that she would buy herself a new handkerchief now that she had the money, but people held on to things they loved; they just did.

  Mma Makutsi finished with her polishing and replaced her large round spectacles. She looked straight at Mma Ramotswe. “Unless?”

  Mma Ramotswe had always insisted that she see the client first, even if the matter was subsequently to be delegated to Mma Makutsi. But things had to change, and perhaps this was the time to do it. Mma Makutsi could be made an associate detective and given the chance to deal with clients herself, right from the beginning of a case. All that would be required would be that the client’s chair be turned round to face Mma Makutsi’s desk rather than hers.

  “Unless you, as … as associate detective were to interview the client yourself and look after the whole matter.” Mma Ramotswe paused. The afternoon sun was slanting in through the window and had fallen on Mma Makutsi’s head, glinting off her spectacles.

  “Of course,” said Mma Makutsi quietly. Associate detective. Whole matter. Herself. “Of course,” she repeated. “That would be possible. Tomorrow morning? Of course, Mma. You leave it to me.”

  THE SMALL WOMAN sitting in the re-oriented client’s chair looked at Mma Makutsi. “Mma?”

  “Makutsi. I am Grace Makutsi.”

  “I had heard that there was a woman called Mma Ramotswe. People have spoken of her. I heard very good things.”

  “There is a woman of that name,” said Mma Makutsi. “She is my colleague.” She faltered briefly at the word colleague. Of course Mma Ramotswe was her colleague; she was also her employer, but there was nothing to say that an employer could not also be a colleague. She went on, “We work very closely together. As associates. So that is why you are seeing me. She is out on another case.”

  The small woman hesitated for a moment, b
ut then appeared to accept that situation. She leaned forward in her chair, and Mma Makutsi noticed how her expression seemed to be a pleading one, the expression of one who wanted something very badly. “My name, Mma, is Mma Magama, but nobody calls me that very much. They call me Teenie.”

  “That is because …” Mma Makutsi stopped herself.

  “That is because I have always been called that,” said Teenie. “Teenie is a good name for a small person, you see, Mma.”

  “You are not so small, Mma,” said Mma Makutsi. But you are, she thought; you’re terribly small.

  “I have seen some smaller people,” said Teenie appreciatively.

  “Where did you see them?” asked Mma Makutsi. She had not intended to ask the question, but it slipped out.

  Teenie pointed vaguely out of the window, but said nothing.

  “Anyway, Mma,” Mma Makutsi went on. “Perhaps you will tell me why you have come to see us.”

  Mma Makutsi watched Teenie’s eyes as she spoke. The pleading look that accompanied each sentence was disconcerting.

  “I have a business, you see, Mma,” Teenie said. “It is a good business. It is a printing works. There are ten people who work there. Ten. People look at me and think that I am too small to have a business like that—they look surprised. But what difference does it make, Mma? What difference?”

  Mma Makutsi shrugged. “No difference at all, Mma. Some people are very stupid.”

  Teenie agreed with this. “Very,” she said. “What matters is what’s up here.” She tapped her head. Mma Makutsi could not help but notice that her head was very small too. Did the size of a brain have any bearing on its ability? she wondered. Chickens had very small brains but elephants had much bigger ones, and there was a difference.

 
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