The good husband of zebr.., p.3
The Good Husband of Zebra Drive,
Alexander McCall Smith
The man smiled at her. “Yes, Mma. We are cousins. Distant ones, of course, but still cousins.”
Mma Ramotswe made a welcoming gesture with her hands. “It is very good to meet a new cousin. But I was wondering …”
“How we are related?” the man interrupted. “I can tell you that quite simply, Mma. Your father was the late Obed Ramotswe, was he not?”
Mma Ramotswe nodded in confirmation: Obed Ramotswe—her beloved Daddy—the man who had raised her after the death of the mother she could not remember; Obed Ramotswe, the man who had scrimped and saved during all those hard, dark years down the mines and who had built up a herd of cattle that any man might be proud of. Not a day went past, not a day, but that she thought of him.
“He was a very fine man, I have been told,” said the visitor. “I met him once when I was much younger, but we had left Mochudi, you see, and we were living down in Lobatse. That is why we did not meet, you and I, even though we are cousins.”
Mma Ramotswe encouraged him to continue. She had decided that she liked this man, and she felt slightly guilty about her initial suspicions. You had to be careful, some people said; you had to be, because that was how the world had become, or so such people argued. They said that you could no longer trust people, because you did not know where other people came from, who their people were; and if you did not know that, then how could you trust them? Mma Ramotswe saw what was meant by such pronouncements, but did not agree with this cynical view. Everybody came from somewhere; everybody had their people. It was just a bit harder to find out about them these days; that was all. And that was no reason for abandoning trust.
Their visitor took a deep breath. “Your late father was the son of Boamogetswe Ramotswe, was he not? That was your grandfather, also late?”
“That was.” She had never known him, and there were no pictures of him, as was usually the case with people of that generation. Nobody knew any more how they looked, how they dressed. All that was lost now.
“And he had a sister whose name I cannot remember,” the man went on. “She married a man called Gotweng Dintwa, who worked on the railways back in the Protectorate days. He was in charge of a water tower for the steam trains.”
“I remember those towers,” said Mma Ramotswe. “They had those long canvas pipes hanging down from them, like an elephant’s trunk.”
The man laughed. “That is what they were like.” He leaned forward. “He had a daughter who married a man called Monyena. He was your father’s generation and they knew one another, not very well, but they knew one another. And then this Monyena went to Johannesburg and was thrown in jail for not having the right papers. He came back home to his wife and settled near Mochudi. That is where I come in. I am that man’s son. I am called Tati Monyena.”
He uttered the last sentence with an air of pride, as a storyteller might do at the end of a saga when the true identity of the hero is at last revealed. Mma Ramotswe, digesting the information, allowed her gaze to move off her guest and out of the window. There was nothing happening outside the window, but you never knew. The acacia tree might be still, its thorny branches unmoved by any breeze, with just the pale blue sky behind them, but birds landed there and watched, and moved, and led their lives. She thought of what had been told her—this potted story of a family that had shared roots with her own. A few words could sum up a lifetime; a few more could deal with a sweep of generations, whole dynasties, with here and there a little detail—a water tower, for instance—that made everything so human, so immediate. It was a distant link indeed, and she was as closely connected to him as she was to hundreds, possibly thousands of other people. Ultimately, in a country like Botswana, with its sparse population, everybody was connected in one way or another with virtually everybody else. Somewhere in the tangled genealogical webs there would be a place for everybody; nobody was without people.
Mma Makutsi, who had been listening from her desk, now decided to speak. “There are many cousins,” she said.
Tati Monyena turned round and looked at her in surprise. “Yes,” he said. “There are many cousins.”
“I have so many cousins,” Mma Makutsi continued. “I cannot count the number of cousins I have. Up in Bobonong. Cousins, cousins, cousins.”
“That is good, Mma,” said Tati Monyena.
Mma Makutsi snorted. “Sometimes, Rra. Sometimes it is good. But I see many of these cousins only when they want something. You know how it is.”
At this, Tati Monyena stiffened in his chair. “Not everybody sees their cousin for that reason,” he muttered. “I am not one of those who …”
Mma Ramotswe threw a glance at her assistant. She might be engaged to Phuti Radiphuti now, but she had no right to speak to a client like that. She would have to talk to her about it, gently, of course, but she would have to remonstrate with her.
“You are very welcome, Rra,” Mma Ramotswe said hurriedly. “I am glad you came to see me.”
Tati Monyena looked at Mma Ramotswe. There was gratitude in his eyes. “I haven’t come to ask a favour, Mma,” he said. “I mean to pay for your services.”
Mma Ramotswe tried to hide her surprise, but failed, as Tati Monyena felt constrained to reassure her once more. “I shall pay, Mma. It is not for me, you see, it’s for the hospital.”
“Don’t worry, Rra,” she said. “But what hospital is this?”
That triggered so many memories: the old Dutch Reformed Mission Hospital in Mochudi, now a Government hospital, near the meeting place, the kgotla; the hospital where so many people she knew had been born, and had died; the broad eaves of which had witnessed so much human suffering, and kindness in the face of suffering. She thought of it with fondness, and now turned to Tati Monyena and said, “The hospital, Rra? Why the hospital?”
His look of pride returned. “That is where I work, Mma. I am not quite the hospital administrator, but I am almost.”
The words came quickly to Mma Ramotswe. “Associate administrator?”
“Exactly,” said Tati Monyena. The description clearly pleased him, and he savoured it for a few moments before continuing, “You know the hospital, Mma, don’t you? Of course you do.”
Mma Ramotswe thought of the last time she had been there, but put that memory out of her mind. So many had died of that terrible disease before the drugs came and stopped the misery in its tracks, or did so for many; too late, though, for her friend of childhood, whom she had visited in the hospital on that hot day. She had felt so powerless then, faced with the shadowy figure on the bed, but a nurse had told her that holding a hand, just holding it, could help. Which was true, she thought later; leaving this world clasping the hand of another was far better than going alone.
“How is the hospital?” she asked. “I have heard that you have a lot of new things there. New beds. New X-ray machines.”
“We have all of that,” said Tati Monyena. “The Government has been very generous.”
“It is your money,” chipped in Mma Makutsi from behind his chair. “When people say that the Government has given them this thing or that thing, they are forgetting that the thing which the Government gave them belonged to the people in the first place!” She paused, and then added, “Everybody knows that.”
In the silence that followed, a small white gecko, one of those albino-like creatures that cling to walls and ceilings, defying gravity with their tiny sucker-like toes, ran across a section of ceiling board. Two flies, which had landed on the same section, moved, but languidly, to escape the approaching danger. Mma Ramotswe’s gaze followed the gecko, but then dropped to Mma Makutsi, sitting defiantly below. What she said might be true—in fact, it was self-evidently true—but she should not have used that disparaging tone, as if Tati Monyena were a schoolboy who needed the facts of public finance spelled out for him.
“Rra Monyena knows all that, Mma,” said Mma Ramotswe quietly.
Tati Monyena gave a nervous glance over his shoulder in the dir
“You wouldn’t think that some politicians knew that,” said Mma Makutsi.
Mma Ramotswe decided that it was time to get the conversation off politics. “So the hospital wants me to do something,” she said. “I am happy to help. But you must tell me what the problem is.”
“That’s what doctors say,” offered Mma Makutsi from the other side of the office. “They say, What seems to be the problem? when you go to see them. And then they say …”
“Thank you very much, Mma,” said Mma Ramotswe firmly. “No, Rra, what is this problem that the hospital has?”
Tati Monyena sighed. “I wish we had only one problem,” he began. “In fact, we have many problems. All hospitals have problems. Not enough funds. Not enough nurses. Infection control. It would be a very big list if I were to tell you about all our problems. But there is one problem in particular that we decided I needed to ask you about. One very big problem.”
“People have died in the hospital,” he said.
Mma Ramotswe caught Mma Makutsi’s eye. She did not want any further remarks from that quarter, and she gave her assistant a severe look. She could imagine what Mma Makutsi might have said to that: that people were always dying in hospitals, and that it was surely no cause for complaint if this happened from time to time. Hospitals were full of sick people, and sick people died if the treatment did not work.
“I am sorry,” said Mma Ramotswe. “I can imagine that the hospital does not like its patients to become late. But, after all, hospitals …”
“Oh, we know that we’re going to lose a certain number of patients,” said Tati Monyena quickly. “You can’t avoid that.”
“So, why would you need my services?” asked Mma Ramotswe.
Tati Monyena hesitated before he replied. “This will go no further?” he asked. His voice was barely above a whisper.
“This is a confidential consultation,” Mma Ramotswe reassured him. “It is just between you and me. Nobody else.”
Tati Monyena looked over his shoulder again. Mma Makutsi was staring at him through her large round glasses and he quickly looked back again.
“My assistant is bound to secrecy too,” said Mma Ramotswe. “We do not talk about our clients’ affairs.”
“Except when …,” began Mma Makutsi, but she was cut off by Mma Ramotswe, who raised her voice.
“Except never,” she said. “Except never.”
Tati Monyena looked uncomfortable at this display of disagreement and hesitated a moment. But then he continued, “People become late in a hospital for all sorts of reasons. You would be surprised, Mma Ramotswe, at how many patients decide that now that they’ve arrived in hospital it’s time to go …” He pointed up at the ceiling. “To go up there. And then there are those who fall out of bed and those who have a bad reaction to some drug and so on. There are many unfortunate things that happen in a hospital.
“But then there are those cases where we just don’t know why somebody became late—we just don’t know. There are not many of these cases, but they do happen. Sometimes I think that is because of a broken heart. That is something that you cannot see, you know. The pathologist does a post-mortem and the heart looks fine from outside. But it is broken inside, from some sadness. From being far from home, maybe, and thinking that you will never again see your family, or your cattle. That can break the heart.”
Mma Ramotswe nodded her agreement at that. She knew about broken hearts, and she understood how they can occur. Her father had told her about that many years ago; about how some men who went off to the mines in South Africa died for no reason at all, or so it seemed. A few weeks after they had arrived in Johannesburg, they simply died, because they were so far from Botswana, and their hearts were broken. She remembered that now.
“A broken heart,” mused Tati Monyena. “But to have a broken heart you have to be awake, Mma, would you not agree?”
Mma Ramotswe looked puzzled. “Awake?”
“Yes. Let me tell you what happened, Mma, and then you will see what I mean. I’m not sure if you know much about hospitals, but you know about a ward they have which is called intensive care. That is for people who are very ill and have to be looked after by nurses all the time, or just about all the time. Sometimes these people are in comas, on ventilators, which help them to breathe. You know about those machines, Mma?”
Mma Ramotswe did.
“Well,” continued Tati Monyena, “we have a ward like that in the hospital. And of course when people become late in that ward, nobody is too surprised. They are very sick when they go in and not all of them will come out. But …” He raised a finger in the air to emphasise the point. “But, when you have three deaths in six months and each of those takes place in the same bed, then you begin to wonder.”
“Coincidence,” muttered Mma Makutsi. “There are many coincidences.”
This time, Tati Monyena did not turn to answer her, but addressed his reply to Mma Ramotswe. “Oh, I know about coincidences,” he said. “That could easily be a coincidence. I know that. But what if those three deaths take place at more or less exactly the same time on a Friday? All of them?” He raised three fingers in the air. “Friday.” One finger went down. “Friday.” The second finger. “Friday.” The third.
I HAVE FOUND YOU
MMA MAKUTSI went home that day thinking about what Tati Monyena had said. She preferred not to dwell upon her work once she left the office—something that they had strongly recommended at the Botswana Secretarial College. “Don’t go home and write letters all over again in your head,” said the lecturer. “It is best to leave the problems of the office where they belong—in the office.”
She had done that, for the most part, but it was not easy when there was something as unusual—as shocking, perhaps—as this. Even though she tried to put out of her mind the account of the three unusual hospital deaths, the image returned of Tati Monyena holding up three fingers and bringing them down one by one. So might the passing of one’s life be marked—by the raising and lowering of a finger. She thought of this again as she unlocked the door of her house and flicked the light switch. On, off; like our lives.
It had not been a good day for Mma Makutsi. She had not sought out that altercation with Mma Ramotswe—if one could call it that—and it had left her feeling uncomfortable. It was Mma Ramotswe’s fault, she decided; she should not have made those remarks about shopping during working hours. One might reasonably require a junior clerk to keep strict hours, but when it came to those at a higher level, such as herself, then a certain leeway was surely normal. If one went to the shops in the afternoon they were full of people who were senior enough to take the time off to do their shopping. One could not expect such people—and she included herself in that category—to struggle to get everything done on a Saturday morning, when the whole town was trying to do the same thing. If Mma Ramotswe did not appreciate that, she said to herself, then she would have to employ somebody else.
She stopped. She was standing in the middle of the room when this thought crossed her mind, and she realised that it was the first time she had seriously contemplated leaving her job. And now that she had articulated the possibility, even if only to herself, she found that she felt ashamed. Mma Ramotswe had given her her first job when she had been beaten to so many others by those feckless, glamorous girls from the Botswana Secretarial College, with their measly fifty per cent results in the final examinations. It had been Mma Ramotswe who had seen beyond that and had taken her on, even when the agency could hardly afford to pay her wages. That had been one of Mma Ramotswe’s many acts of kindness, and there had been others. There had been her promotion; there had been her support after the death of her brother, Richard, when Mma Ramotswe had given her three weeks off and had paid half the cost of the funeral. She had expected and wanted no thanks, had done it out of the goodness of her h
Mma Makutsi put the bag she was carrying on the table and started to unpack it. She had called in at the shops on the way home and had bought the supplies that she needed for Phuti Radiphuti’s dinner. He came to eat at her house on several evenings a week—on the others he still ate with his father or his aunt—and she liked to prepare him something special. Of course she knew what he liked, which was meat, good beef fed on the sweet, dry grass of Botswana; beef served with rice and thick gravy and broad beans. Mma Ramotswe always liked to cook boiled pumpkin with beef, but Mma Makutsi preferred beans, and so did Phuti Radiphuti. It was a good thing, she thought, that they liked the same things, on the table and elsewhere, and that boded well for the marriage, when it eventually happened. That was something she wanted to talk to Phuti about, without appearing to be either too anxious or too keen about it. She was acutely aware of the fact that Mma Ramotswe’s engagement to Mr J.L.B. Matekoni had been a long-drawn-out affair, concluded only when he was more or less manoeuvred into position for the wedding by no less a person than Mma Potokwane. She did not want her engagement to last that long, and she would have to get Phuti Radiphuti to agree to a date for the wedding. He had already spoken of that, and had shown no signs of the reluctance, dithering really, which had held back Mr J.L.B. Matekoni from naming a day.
The winter day died with the quickness of those latitudes. It seemed to be only for a few moments that the sun made the sky to the west red, and then it was gone. The night would be a cold one, clear and cold, with the stars suspended above like crystals. She looked out of her window at the lights of the neighbouring houses. Through the windows she saw her neighbours on the other side of the road seated round the fire that she knew they liked to keep going in their hearth throughout the winter months, triggering the memory, long overlaid but still there, of sitting round the fire at the cattle posts. Mma Makutsi had no fireplace in her house, but she would have, she thought, when she moved to Phuti’s house, which had more than one; mantelpieces too, on which she could put the ornaments which she currently kept in a box behind her settee. There would be so much room in her new life; room for all the things that she had been unable to do because of poverty, and if she did not have to work—that thought returned unbidden—then she would be able to do so much. And she could stay in bed too, if she wished, until eight in the morning; such a prospect—no dashing for the minibus, no crowding with two other people into a seat made for two; and so often, it seemed, those others were ladies of traditional build who could have done with an entire bench seat to themselves.
The Good Husband of Zebra Drive by Alexander McCall Smith / Mystery & Detective have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes