The good husband of zebr.., p.2
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       The Good Husband of Zebra Drive, p.2

           Alexander McCall Smith
 
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  As they sat at the kitchen table that morning, Mr J.L.B. Matekoni suddenly looked up from his teacup and started to stare at a point on the ceiling. Mma Ramotswe knew that this preceded a disclosure; Mr J.L.B. Matekoni looked at the ceiling when something needed to be said. She said nothing, waiting for him to speak.

  “There’s something I meant to mention to you,” he said casually. “I forgot to tell you about it yesterday. You were in Molepolole, you see.”

  She nodded. “Yes, I went to Molepolole.”

  His eyes were still fixed on the ceiling. “And Molepolole? How was Molepolole?”

  She smiled. “You know what Molepolole is like. It gets a bit bigger, but not much else has changed. Not really.”

  “I’m not sure that I would want Molepolole to change too much,” he said.

  She waited for him to continue. Something important was definitely about to emerge, but with Mr J.L.B. Matekoni these things could take time.

  “Somebody came to see you at the office yesterday,” he said. “When Mma Makutsi was out.”

  This surprised Mma Ramotswe and, in spite of her equable temperament, irritated her. Mma Makutsi had been meant to be in the office throughout the previous day, in case a client should call. Where had she been?

  “So Mma Makutsi was out?” she said. “Did she say where?” It was possible that some urgent matter of business had arisen and this had required Mma Makutsi’s presence elsewhere, but she doubted that. A more likely explanation, thought Mma Ramotswe, was urgent shopping, probably for shoes.

  Mr J.L.B. Matekoni lowered his gaze from the ceiling and fixed it on Mma Ramotswe. He knew that his wife was a generous employer, but he did not want to get Mma Makutsi into trouble if she had deliberately disobeyed instructions. And she had been shopping; when she had returned, just before five in the afternoon—a strictly token return, he thought at the time—she had been laden with parcels and had unpacked one of these to show him the shoes it contained. They were very fashionable shoes, she had assured him, but in Mr J.L.B. Matekoni’s view they had been barely recognisable as footwear, so slender and insubstantial had seemed the criss-crossings of red leather which made up the upper part of the shoes.

  “So she went shopping,” said Mma Ramotswe, tight-lipped.

  “Perhaps,” said Mr J.L.B. Matekoni. He tended to be defensive about Mma Makutsi, whom he admired greatly. He knew what it was like to come from nowhere, with nothing, or next to nothing, and make a success of one’s life. She had done that with her ninety-seven per cent and her part-time typing school, and now, of course, with her well-heeled fiancé. He would defend her. “But there was nothing going on. I’m sure she had done all her work.”

  “But something did turn up,” pointed out Mma Ramotswe. “A client came to see me. You’ve just said that.”

  Mr J.L.B. Matekoni fiddled with a button on the front of his shirt. He was clearly embarrassed about something. “Well, I suppose so. But I was there to deal with things. I spoke to this person.”

  “And?” asked Mma Ramotswe.

  Mr J.L.B. Matekoni hesitated. “I was able to deal with the situation,” he said. “And I have written it all down to show you.” He reached into a pocket and took out a folded sheet of paper, which he handed to Mma Ramotswe.

  She unfolded the paper and read the pencil-written note. Mr J.L.B. Matekoni’s handwriting was angular, and careful—the script of one who had been taught penmanship, as he had been, at school all those years ago, a skill he had never forgotten. Mma Ramotswe’s own handwriting was less legible and was becoming worse. It was something to do with her wrists, she thought, which had become chubbier over the years and which affected the angle of the hand on the paper. Mma Makutsi had suggested that her employer’s handwriting was becoming increasingly like shorthand and that it might eventually become indistinguishable from the system of pencilled dashes and wiggles that covered the pages of her own notebook.

  “It will be a first,” she remarked, as she squinted at a note which Mma Ramotswe had left her. “It will be the first time that anybody has started to write shorthand without learning it. It may even be in the papers.”

  Mma Ramotswe had wondered whether she should feel offended by this, but had decided to laugh instead. “Would I get ninety-seven per cent for it?” she asked.

  Mma Makutsi became serious. She did not like her result at the Botswana Secretarial College to be taken lightly. “No,” she said. “I was only joking about shorthand. You would have to work very hard at the Botswana Secretarial College to get a result like that. Very hard.” She gave Mma Ramotswe a look which implied that such a result would be well beyond her.

  Now, on the paper before her, were Mr J.L.B. Matekoni’s notes. “Time,” he had written, “3:20 p.m. Client: woman. Name: Faith Botumile. Complaint: husband having an affair. Request: find out who the husband’s girlfriend is. Action proposed: get rid of girlfriend. Get husband back.”

  Mma Ramotswe read the note and looked at her husband. She was trying to imagine the encounter between Faith Botumile and Mr J.L.B. Matekoni. Had the interview taken place in the garage, while his head was buried in some car’s engine compartment? Or had he taken her into the office and interviewed her from the desk, wiping his hands free of grease as she told her story? And what was Mma Botumile like? What age? Dress? There were so many things that a woman would notice which would provide vital background to the handling of the case which a man simply would not see.

  “This woman,” she asked, holding up the note. “Tell me about her?”

  Mr J.L.B. Matekoni shrugged. “Just an ordinary woman,” he said. “Nothing special about her.”

  Mma Ramotswe smiled. It was as she had imagined, and Mma Botumile would have to be interviewed again from scratch.

  “Just a woman?” she mused.

  “That’s right,” he said.

  “And you can’t tell me anything more about her?” asked Mma Ramotswe. “Nothing about her age? Nothing about her appearance?”

  Mr J.L.B. Matekoni seemed surprised. “Do you want me to?”

  “It could be useful.”

  “Thirty-eight,” said Mr J.L.B. Matekoni.

  Mma Ramotswe raised an eyebrow. “She told you that?”

  “Not directly. No. But I was able to work that out. She said that she was the sister of the man who runs that shoe shop near the supermarket. She said that she was the joint owner, with him. She said that he was her older brother—by two years. I know that man. I know that he had a fortieth birthday recently because one of the people who brings in his car for servicing said that he was going to his party. So I knew …”

  Mma Ramotswe’s eyes widened. “And what else do you know about her?”

  Mr J.L.B. Matekoni looked up at the ceiling again. “Nothing, really,” he said. “Except maybe that she is a diabetic.”

  Mma Ramotswe was silent.

  “I offered her a biscuit,” said Mr J.L.B. Matekoni. “You know those iced ones you have on your desk. In that tin marked Pencils. I offered her one of those and she looked at her watch and then shook her head. I have seen diabetics do that. They sometimes look at their watch because they have to know how long it is before their next meal.” He paused. “I am not sure, of course. I just thought that.”

  Mma Ramotswe nodded, and glanced at her own watch. It was almost time to go to the office. It was, she felt, going to be an unusual day. Any day on which one’s suppositions are so rudely shattered before eight o’clock is bound to be an unusual day, a day for discovering things about the world which are quite different from what you thought they were.

  She drove into work slowly, not even trying to keep up with Mr J.L.B. Matekoni’s green truck ahead of her. At the top of Zebra Drive she nosed her van out across the road that led north, narrowly avoiding a large car which swerved and sounded its horn; such rudeness, she thought, and so unnecessary. She drove on, past the entrance to the Sun Hotel and beyond it, against the hotel fence, the place where the women sat with their crocheted
bedspreads and table-cloths hung out for passers-by to see and, they hoped, to buy. The work was intricate and skilfully done; stitch after stitch, loop after loop, worked slowly and painstakingly out from the core in wide circles of white thread, like spider-webs; the work of women who sat there so patiently under the sun, women of the sort whose work was often forgotten or ignored in its anonymity, but artists really, and providers. Mma Ramotswe needed a new bedspread and would stop to buy one before too long; but not today, when she had things on her mind. Mma Botumile. Mma Botumile. The name had been tantalising her, because she thought that she had encountered it before and could not recall where. Now she remembered. Somebody had once said to her: Mma Botumile: rudest woman in the whole of Botswana. True!

  CHAPTER TWO

  THE RULE OF THREE

  SO, MMA,” said Mma Makutsi from behind her desk. “Another day.”

  It was not an observation that called for an immediate reply; certainly one could hardly contradict it. So Mma Ramotswe merely nodded, glancing at Mma Makutsi and taking in the bright red dress—a dress which she had not seen before. It was very fetching, she thought, even if a bit too formal for their modest office; after all, new clothes, grand clothes, can show just how shabby one’s filing cabinets are. When she had first come to work for Mma Ramotswe, Mma Makutsi had possessed only a few dresses, two of which were blue and the others of a faded colour between green and yellow. With the success of her part-time typing school for men, she had been able to afford rather more, and now, following her engagement to Phuti Radiphuti, her wardrobe had expanded even further.

  “Your dress, Mma,” said Mma Ramotswe. “It’s very smart. That colour suits you well. You are a person who can wear red. I have always thought that.”

  Mma Makutsi beamed with pleasure. She was not used to compliments on her appearance; that difficult skin, those too-large glasses—these made such remarks only too rare. “Thank you, Mma,” she said. “I am very pleased with it.” She paused. “You could wear red too, you know.”

  Mma Ramotswe thought: Of course I can wear red. But she did not say this, and simply said instead, “Thank you, Mma.”

  There was a silence. Mma Ramotswe was wondering where the money for the dress came from, and whether it had been bought during that unauthorised absence from work. She thought that she might know the answer to the first question: Phuti Radi-phuti was obviously giving Mma Makutsi money, which was quite proper, as he was her fiancé, and that was part of the point of having a fiancé. And as for the second question, well, she would be able to find that out readily enough. Mma Ramotswe strongly believed that the simplest way to obtain information was to ask directly. This technique had stood her in good stead in the course of countless enquiries. People were usually willing to tell you things if asked, and many people moreover were prepared to do so even if unasked.

  “I always find it so hard to make up my mind when I’m choosing clothes,” said Mma Ramotswe. “That’s why Saturday is such a good time for clothes-shopping. You have the time then, don’t you? Unlike a working day. There’s never time for much shopping on a work day, don’t you find, Mma Makutsi?”

  If Mma Makutsi hesitated, it was only for a moment. Then she said, “No, there isn’t. That’s why I sometimes think that it would be nice not to have to work. Then you could go to the shops whenever you wanted.”

  Silence again descended on the office. For Mma Ramotswe, the meaning of Mma Makutsi’s comment was quite clear. It had occurred to her before now that her assistant’s engagement to a wealthy man might mean her departure from the agency, but she had quickly put the idea out of her mind; it was a possibility so painful, so unwelcome, that it simply did not bear thinking about. Mma Makutsi might have her little ways, but her value as a friend and colleague was inestimable. Mma Ramotswe could not imagine what it would be like to sit alone in her office, drinking solitary cups of bush tea, unable to discuss the foibles of clients with a trusted confidante, unable to share ideas about difficult cases, unable to exchange a smile over the doings of the apprentices. Now she felt ashamed of herself for having begrudged Mma Makutsi her shopping trip during working hours. What did it matter if a conscientious employee slipped out of the office from time to time? Mma Ramotswe herself had done that on numerous occasions, and had never felt guilty about it. Of course, she was the owner of the business and had nobody to account to apart from herself, but that fact alone did not justify having one rule for herself and one for Mma Makutsi.

  Mma Ramotswe cleared her throat. “Of course, one might always take a few hours off in the afternoon. There’s nothing wrong with that. Nothing at all. One cannot work all the time, you know.”

  Mma Makutsi was listening. If she had intended her remark to be a warning, then it had been well heeded. “Actually, I did just that the other day, Mma,” she said casually. “I knew that you wouldn’t mind.”

  Mma Ramotswe was quick to agree. “Of course not. Of course not, Mma.”

  Mma Makutsi smiled. This was the response she had hoped for, but Mma Ramotswe could not be let off that easily. “Thank you.” She looked out of the window for a moment before continuing. “Mind you, it must be a very nice, free feeling not to work at all.”

  “Do you really think so, Mma?” asked Mma Ramotswe. “Don’t you think you’d become bored rather quickly? Particularly if you left a job like this, which is such an interesting one. I would miss it very badly, I’m afraid.”

  Mma Makutsi appeared to give the matter some thought. “Maybe,” she said, non-committedly. And then added, as if to emphasise the doubtfulness of Mma Ramotswe’s proposition, “Perhaps.”

  The matter was left at that. Mma Makutsi had made her point—that she was now a woman who did not actually need the job she occupied, and who would go shopping if she wished; and for her part, Mma Ramotswe had been made to understand that there had been a subtle shift in power, like a change in the wind, barely noticeable, but nonetheless there. She had always been a considerate employer, but her seniority in age, and in the business, had lent her a certain authority that Mma Makutsi had always recognised. Now that things appeared to be changing, she wondered if it would be Mma Makutsi, rather than herself, who decided when tea break was to be. And would it stop at that? There was always Mr Polopetsi to be considered. He was the exceedingly mild man to whom Mma Ramotswe had given a job—of sorts—after she had knocked him off his bicycle and had heard of his misfortunes. He had proved to be a keen worker, capable of helping Mr J.L.B. Matekoni in the garage as well as taking on small tasks for the agency. He was both unobtrusive and eager to please, but she had already heard Mma Makutsi referring to him as “my assistant” in a tone of voice that was distinctly proprietorial, even though there had never been any question but that she was herself an assistant detective. Mma Ramotswe wondered whether Mma Makutsi might now claim to be something more than that, a co-detective, perhaps, or better still an associate detective; there were many ways in which people could inflate the importance of their jobs by small changes to their titles. Mma Ramotswe had met an associate professor from the university, a man who brought his car to Mr J.L.B. Matekoni for repair. She had reflected on his title, imagining that this would be appropriate for one who was allowed to associate with professors, without actually being allowed to be one himself. And when they had tea, these professors, did the associate professors drink their tea while sitting at the edge of the circle, or a few yards away perhaps—of the group but not quite of it? She had smiled at the thought; how silly people were with their little distinctions, but here she was herself thinking of some way of bringing Mma Makutsi forward, but not too far forward. That, of course, would be a way of keeping her assistant. It would be easy enough to give her a nominal promotion, particularly if no salary increase was required. This would be an exercise in window-dressing, in tokenism; but no, she would do this because Mma Makutsi actually deserved it. If she was to become an associate detective, with all that that implied—whatever that was—it would be because she had e
arned the title.

  “Mma Makutsi,” she began. “I think that it is time to have a review. All this talk of jobs and not working and such matters has made me realise that we need to review things …”

  She got no further. Mma Makutsi, who had been looking out of the window again, had seen a car draw up to park under the acacia tree.

  “A client,” she said.

  “Then please make tea,” said Mma Ramotswe.

  As Mma Makutsi rose to her feet to comply, Mma Ramotswe breathed a discreet sigh of relief. Her authority, it seemed, was intact.

  “SO, WE’RE COUSINS!” said Mma Ramotswe, her voice halfway between enthusiasm and caution. One had to be careful about cousins, who had a habit of turning up in times of difficulty—for them—and reminding you of cousinship. And the old Botswana morality, of which Mma Ramotswe was a stout defender, required that one should help a relative in need, even if the connection was a distant one. There was nothing wrong with that, thought Mma Ramotswe, but at times it could be abused. It all depended, it seemed, on the cousin.

  She glanced discreetly at the man sitting in the chair in front of her desk, the man whom Mma Makutsi had spotted arriving and whom she had ushered into the office. He was well dressed, in a suit and tie, and his shoe laces, she noticed, were carefully tied. That was a sign of self-respect, and such evidence, together with his open demeanour and confident articulation, made it clear that this was not a distant cousin on the scrounge. Mma Ramotswe relaxed. Even if a favour was about to be asked for, it would not be one which would require money. That was something of a relief, given that the income of the agency over the past month had been so low. For a moment she allowed herself to think that this might even be a paying case, that the fact that the client was a cousin would make no difference when it came to the bill. But that, she realised, was unlikely. One could not charge cousins.

 
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