The good husband of zebr.., p.12
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       The Good Husband of Zebra Drive, p.12

           Alexander McCall Smith
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  The waitress arrived with their plates. There was stew, and a plate of vegetables for each of them.

  He looked at his plate. “I shouldn’t talk like this, Mma. I have nothing to complain about, really. This is a good place.”

  Mma Ramotswe lifted up her fork, and then put it down again. She reached across and laid a hand upon his wrist. He looked down at where her hand rested.

  “You mustn’t be sad, Rra,” she said.

  He frowned, and laid down his knife.

  “I wish I could go home,” he said. “I love this country. I love it. But it’s not home for me.”

  “Well you could go home,” Mma Ramotswe said. She nodded in the direction of the border, not far across a few miles of scrub bush, behind the hills. “You could go home now, couldn’t you? There’s nothing stopping you.”

  “That place is not home any more,” he said. “I left it so long ago, I don’t feel at home there.”

  “And this place? Here?”

  “It’s where I live. But I can’t ever belong here, can I? I will never be from this place. I will never be one of these people, no matter how long I stay. I’ll always be an outsider.”

  She knew what he meant. It was all very well for her, she thought; she knew exactly where she came from and where she belonged, but there were many people who did not, who had been uprooted, forced out by need or victimisation, by being simply the wrong people in the wrong place. There were many such people in Africa, and they ate a very bitter fruit; they were extra, unwanted persons, like children who are not loved.

  She wanted to say something to this man, this lonely doctor, but she realised there was little comfort she could give him. Yet she could try.

  “Don’t think, Rra,” she said, “that what you are doing, your work in the hospital up there, is not appreciated. Nobody might ever have said thank you to you, but I do now, Rra. I say thank you for what you do.”

  He had lowered his gaze, but now he looked at her, and she found herself staring into those unnerving green eyes.

  “Thank you, Mma,” he said. And then he picked up his knife and fork and began to eat.

  Mma Ramotswe watched discreetly as she started on her own plate of food. She saw the way his knife moved, delicately, with precision.

  MR J.L.B. MATEKONI talked to Charlie that afternoon.

  “You can stop work today, Charlie,” he said. “I have made up your final pay packet.”

  Charlie wiped his hands on a piece of paper towel. “This stuff isn’t as good as lint, Boss,” he said, frowning at the towel. “Lint gets grease off much better.”

  “Paper towel is the modern thing,” said Mr J.L.B. Matekoni. “Paper towel and that scouring powder. That is very good for grease.”

  “Well, I won’t need that any more,” said Charlie. “Except maybe when I service the taxi.”

  “Don’t forget to do that,” warned Mr J.L.B. Matekoni. “It is an old car. Those old cars need regular oil changes. So change your oil every two months, Charlie. You will never regret that.”

  The apprentice beamed with pleasure. “I will, Boss.”

  Mr J.L.B. Matekoni looked at him from under his eyebrows. He doubted that the car would be well looked after, but he had steeled himself to let Charlie get on with his plans. And now it had come to the point where he would say goodbye and hand over the car. There was an agreement to be signed, of course, because Charlie did not have the money to pay for the vehicle and it would have to be paid off month by month for almost three years. Even then, he wondered whether he would ever see the money, or all of it, as of the two apprentices Charlie had always been the more financially irresponsible one and always tried to borrow towards the end of the month when money got tight.

  Charlie glanced at the document which Mr J.L.B. Matekoni had drawn up and that had been typed out by Mma Makutsi that afternoon. He would pay six hundred pula a month until the cost of the car had been covered. He would make sure that it was insured. If he could not keep up the payments he would give the car back to Mr J.L.B. Matekoni, who would pay the book price for it. That was all.

  “You should read that carefully,” said Mr J.L.B. Matekoni. “It is a legal document, you know.”

  But Charlie reached out for a pen from his employer’s top pocket. He left a small grease stain on the edge of the fabric. “That’s fine by me, Boss,” he said. “You would never try to cheat me. I know that. You are my father.”

  Mr J.L.B. Matekoni watched Charlie as he signed with a flourish and handed over the piece of paper. There were greasy fingerprints on the document where the apprentice had held it. I have tried to teach him, Mr J.L.B. Matekoni said to himself. I have tried my best.

  They went outside to where the old Mercedes-Benz was parked. Mr J.L.B. Matekoni handed over the keys to Charlie. “It’s insured on my policy for the next two weeks,” he said. “Then it’s up to you.”

  Charlie looked at the keys. “I can hardly believe this, Boss. I can hardly believe it.”

  Mr J.L.B. Matekoni bit his lip. He had looked after this boy, every day, every day, for years now. “I know you’ll do your best, Charlie,” he said quietly. “I know that.”

  A door opened in the building behind them and Mma Makutsi appeared. Charlie put the keys in his pocket and looked nervously at Mr J.L.B. Matekoni.

  “I have come to say goodbye,” Mma Makutsi said. “And to wish you good luck with the business, Charlie. I hope that it goes well with you.”

  Charlie had been staring at the ground. Now he looked up and smiled. “Thank you, Mma. I will try.”

  “Yes,” said Mma Makutsi. “I am sure that you will. And here’s another thing. I’m sorry, Rra, if I have ever been unkind to you. I am sorry for that.”

  Nobody spoke. Mr J.L.B. Matekoni, who was holding the piece of paper which Charlie had signed, busied himself with folding it neatly and putting it into his pocket, a task which seemed to take a long time, and had to be re-done. Somewhere, on the road behind the garage, an engine revved up, coughed, and then died away into silence.

  “That needs fixing,” said Charlie, laughing nervously. Then, he looked at Mma Makutsi, and smiled at her. “If you need my taxi, Mma,” he said, “I will be proud to drive you.”

  “And I will be proud to go in it,” she said. “Thank you.”

  After that, there was little more to be said. Great feuds often need very few words to resolve them. Disputes, even between nations, between peoples, can be set to rest with simple acts of contrition and corresponding forgiveness, can so often be shown to be based on nothing much other than pride and misunderstanding, and the forgetting of the humanity of the other—and land, of course.



  AFTER THE DEPARTURE of Charlie, which happened shortly after four o’clock, Mr J.L.B. Matekoni found it difficult to settle back to work. Charlie had driven away in triumph, at the wheel of the Mercedes-Benz which Mr J.L.B. Matekoni had just made over to him. For the proprietor of Tlokweng Road Speedy Motors it was an emotional parting, and although Mr J.L.B. Matekoni was not one to show his feelings—mechanics do not do that—he had nearly been overcome by the moment. When he had first taken on the two apprentices, he had allowed himself to imagine that perhaps one of them would prove to be his helpmate and would in due course take over the garage. Charlie would have been the obvious choice, as the older of the two boys, but before very long it had become apparent to Mr J.L.B. Matekoni that such thoughts were no more than fond imaginings. But in spite of all Charlie’s faults—his bad workmanship, his impetuosity, his endless attempts to impress girls—Mr J.L.B. Matekoni had conceived of a rough affection for him, as one will sometimes grow to love another for his human weaknesses. Now, with Charlie away, and the younger apprentice looking lost and disconsolate, Mr J.L.B. Matekoni felt curiously empty. It was not that he had no work to do—a station wagon belonging to an Air Botswana pilot, a much-loved car which Mr J.L.B. Matekoni had nursed through various mechanical ill
nesses, was waiting for him to replace some of its wiring. The old wires, pulled out and unravelled like a network of nerves, protruded from their hiding places; fuses lay beside them on the seats. But he could not bring himself to start this task, and so he put it off until the next day.

  Now he would return to his other role—to the investigation of the errant Mr Botumile. His last observation of this man had revealed nothing more than that he kept surprisingly bad company. But that was not the same thing as adultery, and it was a suspected affair that had brought Mma Botumile to the door of the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency. She wanted to know the identity of the woman whom she suspected her husband was seeing—a reasonable thing for a wife to want to know, thought Mr J.L.B. Matekoni—and he was determined to find that out. What happened after that was another matter. Mma Botumile was a formidable person, and Mr J.L.B. Matekoni did not envy the other woman any encounter that she might have with her. That was not really his business, though. At the most, he imagined that he or Mma Ramotswe might be asked to warn the girlfriend off, which was something that could be done quite tactfully. All that would be necessary, he thought, would be to tell her that Mma Botumile knew, and that Mma Botumile was not the sort of woman who would countenance her husband’s having an affair. A sensible girlfriend would then understand that a choice had to be made. She could fight for Mr Botumile and prise him away from his wife, or she could find another man. What she could not do was to continue to be a rival to Mma Botumile while her husband was still with her.

  It was almost on impulse that Mr J.L.B. Matekoni went into the office to ask Mma Makutsi if he could borrow the agency camera. This camera had been bought at an early stage in the existence of the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, in the belief that it would be necessary for the obtaining of evidence. Clovis Andersen had advised this, saying that while one cannot say that a camera never lies, it is hard to beat photographic evidence. Many is the time that I have personally confronted a malefactor with a photograph of himself engaged in something discreditable and said, “There, who’s that then? The Man in the Moon?” It was Mma Makutsi who had read this passage, been impressed, and suggested the purchase of the camera. She had hardly ever used it, but the camera, ready and loaded with film, sat on a shelf behind Mma Ramotswe’s desk, awaiting its moment.

  Armed with the camera, Mr J.L.B. Matekoni had then left the garage, instructions having been given to the younger apprentice to lock up, and had driven in his truck to exactly that spot outside the office building where he had previously waited for Mr Botumile. He had been in position for ten minutes by the time that the front door opened and a man came out and headed for one of the two red cars parked to the side of the building. Although he was the first man out after five, this was not Mr Botumile but the other man, and Mr J.L.B. Matekoni ignored him as he got into the car and drove away. Then, a few minutes later, Mr Botumile appeared and climbed into his car.

  Mr J.L.B. Matekoni followed the red car. The traffic was light, for some reason, and it was easy to keep a reasonable distance back without losing sight of his quarry. This time a new route was followed, and the red car drove back towards the Tlokweng Road. The main road was, of course, much busier, and he had to be careful not to lose sight of Mr Botumile’s car, but he was close enough, and alert enough, not to miss it as it turned sharply off to the right a short distance after the shopping centre. Mr J.L.B. Matekoni was fairly familiar with the dirt road down which the red vehicle now travelled. This was not far from the garage, and he occasionally drove down here to test a car that he had repaired, especially if new suspension needed to be tried out. It was mostly a residential area, sparsely populated, although there were one or two business plots at the Tlokweng Road end. It was also a road for goats, he remembered, as a bit of land halfway down was given over to these destructive creatures. It had been stripped almost bare of vegetation, apart from a few thorn bushes which had defeated even the talents of the goats. Now, as he drove down it, following the small cloud of dust thrown up from the wheels of Mr Botumile’s car, he saw a few goats standing by the side of the road, nibbling at a piece of sacking which had been blown against a fence. These were odd parts of the town; not quite the bush, which was just beyond the fences, but heading that way, prone to the incursions of animals.

  Suddenly the rear lights of Mr Botumile’s car glowed through the dust and he swung into the driveway of a house. Mr J.L.B. Matekoni, reacting quickly, slowed down and then drew in to the side of the road. He would wait a minute or so, he thought, before he drove past the house. This would give Mr Botumile time to get out of the car, if he was going to get out, or pick up his waiting girlfriend, if that was what he had in mind.

  By the time he drove past, Mr Botumile was out of his car. Mr J.L.B. Matekoni saw him walking up a short path towards the door of the house. He saw the door open, and he saw a woman standing there, waiting. It was not much more than a brief glimpse, but it was etched indelibly in his mind—the man, his lover, the dispirited dust-covered vegetation in the yard of the house, the angle of the gate, which was off its hinge, the stand-pipe at the side of the house. Was this what a clandestine affair looked like?

  He went further down the road until he came to a place where he could turn without being seen from the house. Then he drove back slowly, this time with the camera ready on his lap. As he drew level with the house, he slowed down slightly, and, manipulating the camera with one hand while the other hand was on the steering wheel, he took a photograph of the house. Then, his heart beating hard with the sheer excitement of it, he accelerated back in the direction of the Tlokweng Road. He felt confused. It had been an exhilarating experience in one sense, and he had felt the satisfaction of seeing what he had expected to see. But the act of taking the photograph seemed to him to have been an intrusion of a quite different degree from that of following Mr Botumile. He glanced down at the camera beside him on the seat of the truck; the sight of it, with its prying lens, made him feel dirty. This was not like being a mechanic; this was like being … well, it was like being a spy, an informant, a seeker-out of the tawdry secrets of others.

  He thought that he would discuss it with Mma Ramotswe. It was impossible to imagine her ever doing anything that was wrong or shabby, and if she said that in this case the end justified the means, then he would be satisfied. But then he thought again: the whole point about this investigation was that he was doing it himself; he should not run off to Mma Ramotswe the moment anything difficult arose. No, he would have the film developed and he would show the photograph to Mma Botumile. But first he would find out who lived in that house so that he might reveal to her the chapter and verse of her husband’s infidelity. He did not envy Mr Botumile after that, but then it was really not for him, Mr J.L.B. Matekoni, to pass judgement on a client’s marriage, other than to come to the conclusion, privately, that if Mma Botumile were the last woman in Botswana and he were the last man, he would stay resolutely single.

  WHILE MR J.L.B. MATEKONI wrestled with his conscience, Mma Makutsi was preparing a meal for Phuti Radiphuti in her house in Extension Two. The previous evening had been one of his days to eat at his aunt’s house, and this meant that he would be looking forward to Mma Makutsi’s cooking. Mma Makutsi cooked what Phuti Radiphuti wanted, whereas his aunt cooked what she thought he should eat. That evening, she had prepared fried chicken with rice into which sultanas had been sprinkled. There was also fried banana, which always seemed to go so well with chicken, and a small jar of Mozambiquan peri-peri sauce which gave a kick to everything. Phuti Radiphuti had revealed a taste for hot food, which Mma Makutsi was trying to acquire herself. She was making some progress in that, but it was slow, and frequent glasses of water were required.

  Their conversation ranged over the events of the past few days. Mma Makutsi had debated with herself whether to reveal her abortive resignation, and had eventually decided that she would do so. She did not come out of the episode very well, she thought, but she had never concealed anything from
him, and she did not want to start doing so now.

  “I made a fool of myself yesterday,” she said to him, as she stirred the fried chicken in the pan. “I thought I would go and get another job.” That was all she said. She had thought that she would tell him everything, but now, in the end, she did not. There was no mention of the encounter with Violet and of the humiliation that had entailed; there was no mention of the broken shoe, nor of the ignominious barefoot walk, nor the thorn.

  She was surprised by the strength of his reaction to the news. “But you can’t do that!” he exploded. “What about Mma Ramotswe! You can’t leave Mma Ramotswe!”

  Taken aback, Mma Makutsi made an attempt to defend herself. “But there’s my career to think about,” she protested. “What about me?”

  Phuti Radiphuti seemed unmoved. “What would Mma Ramotswe do without you?” he asked. “You are the one who knows where everything is. You have done all the filing. You know all the clients. You cannot leave Mma Ramotswe.”

  Mma Makutsi listened to this with foreboding. It seemed to her that he cared more about Mma Ramotswe than he did about her. Surely as her fiancé he should side with her in all this, should have her interests at heart rather than those of Mma Ramotswe, worthy though she undoubtedly was?

  “I came back very quickly,” she said lamely. “I was only away for the morning.”

  Phuti Radiphuti looked at her with concern. “Mma Ramotswe relies on you, Mma,” he said. “You know that?”

  Mma Makutsi replied that she did. But there were times when one had to move on, did he not think …

  She did not finish. “And I can understand why she cannot do without you,” Phuti continued. “It is the same reason why I cannot do without you.”

  Mma Makutsi was silent.

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