The good husband of zebr.., p.4
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       The Good Husband of Zebra Drive, p.4

           Alexander McCall Smith
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  She prepared a stew for Phuti Radiphuti and carefully measured out the beans that would accompany it. Then she laid the table with the plates that she knew he liked, the ones with the blue and red circles, with his teacup, a large one with a blue design that she had bought at the bring-and-buy sale at the Anglican Cathedral. “That teacup,” Mma Ramotswe had said, “belonged to the last Dean. He was such a kind man. I saw him drinking from it.”

  “It belongs to me now,” said Mma Makutsi.

  Like Mma Ramotswe, Phuti Radiphuti drank red bush tea, which he thought was much better for you, but he had never asked Mma Makutsi for it and had simply taken what was served to him. He was planning, though, to make the request, but the moment had not yet arisen and with each pot of ordinary tea served it became more difficult for him to ask for something different. That had been Mma Makutsi’s own quandary, resolved when she had eventually plucked up all her courage and blurted out to Mma Ramotswe that she would like to have India tea and would have preferred that all along.

  There were one or two other matters which Phuti Radiphuti would have liked to raise with his fiancée but which he had found himself unable to bring up. They were small things, of course, but important in a shared life. He did not take to her curtains; yellow was not a colour that appealed to him in the slightest. In his view, the best colour for curtains was undoubtedly light blue—the blue of the national flag. It was not a question of patriotism; although there were those who painted their front doors that blue for reasons of pride. And why should they not do so, when there was a lot to be proud of? It was more a question of restfulness. Blue was a peaceful colour, Phuti Radiphuti thought. Yellow, by contrast, was an energetic, unsettled colour; a colour of warning, every bit as much as red was; a colour which made one feel vaguely uncomfortable.

  But when he arrived at her house that evening, he did not want to discuss curtain colour. Quite suddenly, Phuti Radiphuti felt grateful; simply relieved that of all the men she must have come across, Mma Makutsi had chosen him. She had chosen him in spite of his stammer and his inability to dance; had seen past all that and had worked with such success on both of these defects. For that he felt thankful, so thankful, in fact, that it hurt; for it so easily might have been quite different. She might have laughed at him, or simply looked away with embarrassment as she heard his unco-operative tongue mangle the liquid syllables of Setswana; but she did not do that because she was a kind woman, and now she was about to become his wife.

  “We must decide on a day for the wedding,” he said as he sat down at the table. “We cannot leave that matter up in the …” The importance of what he was about to say made the words stick; they would not come.

  “Up in the air,” said Mma Makutsi quickly.

  “Yes,” he said. “Yes. We must share … must share … our … our …”

  For a moment Mma Makutsi thought that the next word was blanket, and almost supplied that, for this was a common metaphor in Setswana—to share a blanket. But then she realised that Phuti Radiphuti would never be so forward as to say such a thing, and she stopped herself just in time.

  “Our ideas on that,” went on Phuti Radiphuti.

  “Of course. We must share our ideas on that.”

  Phuti Radiphuti was relieved that he had made a start and went on to deal with the details. Now he spoke easily again, with none of the stumbling that had at one time dogged him when he had something important to say.

  “I think that we should get married in January,” said Phuti. “January is a month when people are looking for things to do. A wedding will keep them busy. You know, all the aunties and people like that.”

  Mma Makutsi laughed. There was so much to think of—so many exciting things—but this reference to aunts gave her a reason to chuckle. And beyond the amusement there was the heady, intoxicating fact: he had said it! He may not have named a day, but at least he had named a month! Her marriage was now not just some sort of vague possibility in the future; it was a singled-out time, as definite, as cast in stone, as the dates on her calendar in the office from the Good Impression Printing Company: 30 September—Botswana Independence Day; 1 July—Birthday of Sir Seretse Khama. Those dates she remembered, as everyone did, because they were holidays, and Mma Ramotswe remembered a few more: 21 April—Queen Elizabeth II’s birthday; 4 July—Independence Day of the United States of America. There were others in the calendar that the Good Impression Printing Company thought important enough to note, but which escaped the attention of the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency. Some of these were other national days; 1 October, for example, was Nigeria’s national day, and was marked in the calendar, but not observed in any way by Mma Ramotswe. When Mma Makutsi had drawn Mma Ramotswe’s attention to the significance of that day, there had been a brief silence and then, “That may be so, Mma, and I am happy for them. But we cannot observe everybody’s national day, can we, or life would be one constant celebration.” The apprentices had been hovering nearby when this remark was passed and Charlie, the older one, had opened his mouth to say, “And what would be wrong with that?” but had stopped himself and instead nodded his head in exaggerated agreement.

  She sat quite still at the table, her eyes lowered to the plate before her. “Yes. January would be a good time. That gives people six months to get ready. That should be enough.”

  Phuti agreed. It had always struck him as strange that people took such trouble over weddings, with two parties—one for each family—and a great deal of coming and going by anybody who was related, even distantly, to the couple. Six months would be reasonable, and would not encourage unnecessary activity; if one allowed a year, then people would think of a year’s worth of things to do.

  “You have an uncle …,” he began. This, he knew, was the delicate part of the matter. Mma Makutsi would have to be paid for, and an uncle would probably wish to negotiate the bride price. Her uncle would speak to his father and his uncles, and together they would agree the figure, notionally in head of cattle.

  He stole a glance at his fiancée. A woman of her education and talents could expect a fairly good dowry—perhaps nine cattle—even if her background would not normally justify more than seven or eight. But would this uncle, if he existed, try to raise the price once he found out about the Double Comfort Furniture Store and all those Radiphuti cattle out at the cattle post? In Phuti Radiphuti’s experience, uncles did their homework in these situations.

  “Yes,” said Mma Makutsi. “I have an uncle. He is my senior uncle, and I think that he will want to talk about these things.”

  It was delicately put, and it made it possible for Phuti Radiphuti to move on from this potentially awkward topic to the safer ground of food. “I know somebody who is a very good caterer,” he said. “She has a truck with a fridge in it. She is very good at this sort of thing.”

  “She sounds just right,” said Mma Makutsi.

  “And I can get hold of chairs for the guests to sit on,” went on Phuti Radiphuti.

  Of course, thought Mma Makutsi; the Double Comfort Furniture Store would come in useful for that. There was nothing worse than a wedding where there were not enough chairs for people to sit on and they ended up eating with their plates balanced on all sorts of things, ant heaps even, and getting food on their smart clothes. She vowed to herself, That will not happen at my wedding, and the thought filled her with pride. My wedding. My wedding guests. Chairs. It was a long way from those days of penury as a student at the Botswana Secretarial College, of rationing herself in what she ate; of making do with just one of anything, if that. Well, those days were over now.

  And Phuti Radiphuti, for his part, thought, My days of loneliness are finished. My days of being laughed at because of the way I speak and because no woman would look at me—those are over now. Those are over.

  He reached out and took Mma Makutsi’s hand. She smiled at him. “I am very lucky to have found you,” he said.

  “No, I am the lucky one. I am the one.”

  He t
hought that unlikely, but he was moved very deeply that somebody should consider herself lucky to have him, of all people. The previously unloved may find it hard to believe that they are now loved; that is such a miracle, they feel; such a miracle.

  WHILE MMA MAKUTSI and Phuti Radiphuti were reflecting on their good fortune, Mma Ramotswe and Mr J.L.B. Matekoni, who themselves had on many occasions pondered their own good luck, were engaged in a conversation of an entirely different nature. They had finished their dinner and the children had been dispatched to bed. Both were tired—he because he had removed an entire engine that afternoon, a task which involved considerable physical exertion, and she because she had awoken the night before and lost an hour or two of sleep. The kitchen clock, which always ran ten minutes fast, revealed that it was eight thirty, eight twenty after adjustment. One could not decently go to bed before eight thirty, Mma Ramotswe felt; and so she sat back and chatted with her husband about the day’s events. She was not particularly interested in the removal of the engine, and listened to his comments on that with only half an ear. But then he said something which engaged her full attention.

  “That woman I spoke to,” he said. “Mma What’s-her-name. The one with the husband.”

  “Mma Botumile.” Mma Ramotswe’s tone was cautious.

  “Yes, her,” said Mr J.L.B. Matekoni. “I thought that maybe … that maybe because I spoke to her first …” He trailed off. Mma Ramotswe was staring at him, and he felt disconcerted.

  Mma Ramotswe thought for a while before she said anything. It was important that she should handle this carefully. “Do you want to be involved?” she asked.

  “I already am,” he said.

  She hesitated. “In a way.”

  Mr J.L.B. Matekoni now became more confident. “Being a mechanic is fine,” he said. “But it is always the same thing. A car comes in, I listen to what the engine has to say, I make my diagnosis, and then I fix it. That is what I do.”

  There was nothing wrong with that, thought Mma Ramotswe. Being a mechanic was a great calling, in her view, and was certainly more useful than many of the white-collar jobs that seemed to carry all the prestige. A country could never have too many mechanics, but it could have too many of the civil servants who wrote complicated and obscure letters to Mma Ramotswe about her tax payments and about various forms and returns that they thought she should fill in.

  It worried her that Mr J.L.B. Matekoni should find his work repetitive. Everybody’s work was repetitive, if one thought about it; even in a business such as the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency there was a certain sameness to the enquiries that she and Mma Makutsi undertook. Was so-and-so being unfaithful? Was some dispatch clerk making up bogus orders and then claiming that the invoices were lost? Were somebody’s impressive work record and testimonials entirely false? The same things arose time and time again, even if there were features of some cases that made them particularly amusing. That testimonial, for example, that she had been asked to check a few months ago where the writing was almost illegible and where the final sentence said, I have never heard this person use strong language, even to himself. Did anybody seriously imagine that real testimonials said things like that? Obviously somebody did think that. What might she write—in that style—of Mma Makutsi, if she had to write her a testimonial? She divides the office doughnuts with complete impartiality. That would be a good recommendation, she thought; how a person divided a shared doughnut was a real test of integrity. A good person would cut the doughnut into two equal pieces. A shifty, selfish person would divide it into two pieces, but one would be bigger than the other and he would take that one himself. She had seen that happen.

  No, every job had its repetitive side and most people, surely, recognised that. She glanced again at Mr J.L.B. Matekoni. She knew that many men of his age started to feel trapped and began to wonder if this was all that life offered. It was understandable; anyone might feel that, not just men, although they might feel it particularly acutely, as they felt themselves weaken and began to realise that they were no longer young. Women were better at coming to terms with that, thought Mma Ramotswe, as long as they were not the worrying sort. If one was of traditional build and not given to fretting … If one drank plenty of bush tea …

  “You know,” she said to Mr J.L.B. Matekoni, “all of us have things that are the same in our jobs. Even in the sort of work I do, the same sort of thing happens quite a lot. I don’t think there is anything much that you can do.”

  It was not like Mr J.L.B. Matekoni to argue, but now, if there was a stubborn streak in his character, it showed. “No,” he said. “I think there is something that you can do. You can try something different.”

  Mma Ramotswe was silent. She reached for her teacup. It was cold. She looked at him. It was inconceivable that Mr J.L.B. Matekoni could be anything but a mechanic; he was a truly great mechanic, a man who understood engines, who knew their every mood. She tried to picture him in the garb of some other profession—in a banker’s suit, for example, or in the white coat of a doctor, but neither of these seemed right, and she saw him again in his mechanic’s overalls, in his old suede boots so covered in grease, and that somehow rang true, that was just what he should wear.

  Mr J.L.B. Matekoni broke the silence. “I’m not thinking of stopping being a mechanic, of course. Certainly not. I know that I must do that to put bread on our table.”

  Mma Ramotswe’s relief showed, and this caused him to smile reassuringly. “It’s just that I would like to do a little bit of detective work. Not much. Just a little.”

  That, she thought, was reasonable enough. She had no desire to fix engines, but there was no harm in his wanting to see her side of the business. “Just to find out what it’s like? Just to get it out of your system?” she asked, smiling. Most men, she thought, fantasised about doing something exciting, about being a soldier, or a secret agent, or even a great lover; that was how men were. That was normal.

  Mr J.L.B. Matekoni frowned. “Please don’t laugh at me, Mma Ramotswe.”

  She leaned forward and rested her hand on his forearm. “I would never laugh at you, Mr J.L.B. Matekoni. I would never do that. And of course you can look after a case. How about this Mma Botumile matter? Would that do?”

  “That is the one that I want to investigate,” he said. “That is the one.”

  “Then you shall investigate,” she said.

  Even as she spoke, she had her misgivings, unexpressed. The thought of Mma Botumile’s reputation disturbed her, and she was not sure whether she should put Mr J.L.B. Matekoni in the path of a woman like that. But it was too late to do anything about it, and so she looked at her watch and rose to her feet. She would not think about it any more, or she would have difficulty in getting to sleep.



  MMA RAMOTSWE TRAVELLED to Mochudi the next day. She decided to take Mr Polopetsi with her; there was nothing for him to do in the garage that morning and he had asked Mma Makutsi three times if there was anything that he could help her with in the office. She had tried to think of some task, and failed, and so Mma Ramotswe had invited him to accompany her on the Mochudi trip. She enjoyed his company, and it would be good to have somebody to talk to. Whether he would contribute anything to her enquiries there was another matter; Mr Polopetsi, she feared, would never distinguish himself in the role of detective, as he tended to jump to conclusions and to act impetuously. But there was something appealing about him that made all that forgivable—an earnestness combined with a slight air of vulnerability that made people, particularly women, want to protect him. Even Mma Makutsi, who was famously short with the two apprentices and who tended to talk to men as if they were children, had been won over by Mr Polopetsi. “There are many men for whom there does not appear to be any reason,” she once said to Mma Ramotswe. “But I don’t feel that about Mr Polopetsi. Even when he is standing there, doing nothing, I don’t think that.”

  It had been a curious thing to say, but then Mma Makutsi often said things that surprised Mma Ramotswe and she had become used to her pronouncements. But what made this remark particularly unusual was the fact that it was made while Mr Polopetsi was in the office, busying himself with the making of a pot of tea. Mma Makutsi must have been aware of his coming into the room, but must simply have forgotten his presence after a few moments and addressed Mma Ramotswe without thinking. And there was no doubt in Mma Ramotswe’s mind that Mr Polopetsi had heard what was said about him, for he stopped stirring the tea for a moment, as if frozen, and then, after a few seconds, began to rattle the spoon about the pot more vigorously than before. Mma Ramotswe had felt acutely embarrassed, but had decided that the remark was hardly unflattering to Mr Polopetsi, even if he had scurried out of the room, his mug of tea in his hand, studiously avoiding looking at the author of the remark. For Mma Makutsi’s part, she had simply raised an eyebrow when she realised that he had heard her, and shrugged, as if this was merely one of those things that happened in offices.

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