The good husband of zebr.., p.6
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       The Good Husband of Zebra Drive, p.6

           Alexander McCall Smith
 
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  “You must be very proud of him,” said Mma Ramotswe.

  Mr Polopetsi beamed with pleasure. “I am, Mma,” he said. “He is the most precious thing I have in this world.” He seemed about to say something else, but stopped. He looked at Mma Ramotswe hesitantly, and she knew that he was about to make a request. It will be for money, she thought. There will be school fees to be paid, or shoes to be bought for this boy, or even a blanket; children needed all these things, all the time.

  “He needs a godmother,” said Mr Polopetsi. “He had a godmother, and now she is late. He needs a new one.”

  There was only one answer Mma Ramotswe could give. “Yes,” she said. “I will do that, Rra.”

  There would be birthdays from now on, as well as shoes and school fees and so forth. But we cannot always choose whose lives will become entangled with our own; these things happen to us, come to us uninvited, and Mma Ramotswe understood that well. And just as she had not chosen Mr Polopetsi’s son, she reflected, so too had the boy not chosen her.

  CHAPTER FIVE

  RESIGNATION SHOES

  MMA MAKUTSI was eager for a report the next day. She would have preferred to have gone to Mochudi in the place of Mr Polopetsi, who she thought would not have been likely to add very much to the investigation. But she was cautious about giving offence to Mma Ramotswe after the misunderstandings of the previous day, and she kept those feelings to herself. In fact, she went further than that and told Mma Ramotswe what a good idea it had been to take Mr Polopetsi. “If you’re a woman, sometimes people don’t take you seriously enough,” she said. “That is when it is useful to have a man around.”

  Mma Ramotswe was non-committal about that. Men were learning, she thought, and a great deal had changed. Mma Makutsi, perhaps, was fighting battles which had already been largely won, at least in the towns. It was different in the villages, of course, where men still thought that they could do what they liked. But she was thinking of other things: she had been pondering Mr J.L.B. Matekoni’s planned investigation and was wondering whether she could discreetly suggest that Mma Makutsi assist him. She could try that, certainly, but she was not sure whether he would welcome it; in fact, she was sure that he would not. Mr J.L.B. Matekoni might not be the most assertive of men, but there were sensitivities there that surfaced from time to time.

  “Be that as it may,” she said to Mma Makutsi, as they began to attend to the morning mail. “There was not very much that we could find out at the hospital. I saw the ward where it happened. I spoke to the nurses, who said almost nothing. And that was it.”

  Mma Makutsi thought for a moment. “And what can you do now?” she asked.

  It was difficult for Mma Ramotswe to answer that. She very rarely gave up on a case, as solutions had a habit of cropping up as long as one was patient. But it was difficult at any particular point to say what would happen next. “I shall wait,” she said. “There is no special hurry, Mma. I shall wait and see what happens.”

  “Well, I don’t see what can possibly happen,” said Mma Makutsi. “These things don’t solve themselves, you know.”

  Mma Ramotswe bit her lip and turned to the letter she had just opened. It was a letter of thanks from the parents of a young man whom she had eventually located in Francistown. There had been a family row and he had gone missing, leaving no address. There had been a girlfriend, about whom the parents knew nothing, and the young woman had eventually confided to Mma Ramotswe that he was in Francistown, although she was not sure exactly where. So Mma Ramotswe had quizzed her about his interests, which, she revealed, included jazz. From that it was a simple step to enquire of the only place in Francistown where jazz was played. Yes, they knew of him, and yes he would be playing the following evening. Would she like to come? She would not, but the young man’s parents did, and they were reunited with their son. He had wanted to contact them, but was too proud; the fact that his parents had come all the way from Gaborone meant that honour was satisfied. Everybody forgave one another and started again, which, Mma Ramotswe reflected, is how many of the world’s problems might be solved. We should forgive one another and start all over again. But what if those who needed to be forgiven hung on to the things that they had wrongly acquired: What then? That, she decided, was a matter that would require further thought.

  “It is so easy to thank people,” said Mma Ramotswe, passing the letter over to Mma Makutsi. “And most people don’t bother to do it. They don’t thank the person who does something for them. They just take it for granted.”

  Mma Makutsi looked out of the window. Mma Ramotswe had done her plenty of favours in the past, and she had never written to thank her. Could the remark be aimed at her? Could Mma Ramotswe have been harbouring a grudge, as people did, sometimes for years and years? She looked at her employer and decided that this was unlikely. Mma Ramotswe could not harbour a grudge convincingly; she would start to laugh, or offer the object of her grudge a cup of tea, or do something which indicated that the grudge was not real.

  Mma Makutsi read the letter. “Where shall I file this, Mma?” she asked. “We do not have a file for letters of thanks. We have a file for letters of complaint, of course. Should it go there?”

  Mma Ramotswe did not think this a good idea. They could open a new file, but their filing cabinets were already overcrowded and she did not think it would be worthwhile opening a file which might never contain another letter. “We can throw it away now,” she said.

  Mma Makutsi frowned. “At the Botswana Secretarial College we were taught never to throw anything away for at least a week,” she said. “There might always be some follow-up.”

  “There will be no follow-up to a letter of thanks,” said Mma Ramotswe. “That is it. There will be no more. That case is closed.”

  With a slow show of reluctance, Mma Makutsi held the letter over the bin and dropped it in. As she did so, the door of the office opened and Charlie, the older of the two apprentices, walked in. He had removed his work overalls to reveal a pair of jeans and a tee-shirt underneath. The tee-shirt, Mma Ramotswe noticed, had a picture of a jet aircraft on it and the slogan underneath in large letters: HIGH FLIER.

  Mma Makutsi looked at him. “Finishing work early today?” she asked. “Ten o’clock in the morning? You’re a quick worker, Charlie!”

  The young man ignored this comment as he sauntered over to Mma Ramotswe’s desk. “Mma Ramotswe,” he said. “You’ve always been kind to me.” He paused, casting a glance over his shoulder in the direction of Mma Makutsi. “Now I’ve come to say goodbye. I’m finishing work here soon. I’m going. I’ve come to say goodbye.”

  Mma Ramotswe stared at Charlie in astonishment. “But you haven’t finished your … your …”

  “Apprenticeship,” supplied Mma Makutsi from the other side of the room. “You silly boy! You can’t leave before you’ve finished that.”

  Charlie did not react to this. He continued to look at Mma Ramotswe. “I haven’t finished my apprenticeship—I know that,” he said. “But you only need to finish your apprenticeship if you want to be a mechanic. Who said I want to be a mechanic?”

  “You did!” shouted Mma Makutsi. “When you signed your apprenticeship contract, you said that you wanted to be a mechanic. That’s what those contracts say, you know.”

  Mma Ramotswe raised a hand in a calming gesture. “You needn’t shout at him, Mma,” she said quietly. “He is going to explain, aren’t you, Charlie?”

  “I’m not deaf, you know,” said Charlie over his shoulder. “And I wasn’t talking to you anyway. There are two ladies in this room—Mma Ramotswe and … and another one. I was talking to Mma Ramotswe.” He turned back to face Mma Ramotswe. “I’m going to do another job, Mma. I am going into business.”

  “Business!” chuckled Mma Makutsi. “You’ll be needing a secretary soon, I suppose.”

  “And don’t bother to apply for that job, Mma,” Charlie snapped. “Seventy-nine per cent or not, I would never give you a job. I’m not mad, you see.


  “Ninety-seven per cent!” shouted Mma Makutsi. “See! You can’t even get your figures right. Some profit you’ll make!”

  “Please do not shout at each other,” said Mma Ramotswe. “Shouting achieves nothing. It just makes the person doing the shouting hoarse and the person being shouted at cross. That is all it does.”

  “I was not shouting,” said Charlie. “Somebody else was doing the shouting. Somebody with big round glasses. Not me.”

  Mma Ramotswe sighed. It was Mma Makutsi’s fault, this feeling between the two of them. She was older than Charlie and might have turned a blind eye to the young man’s faults; she might have encouraged him to be a bit better than he was; she might have understood that young men are like this and that one has to be tolerant.

  “Tell me about this business, Charlie,” she said gently. “What is it?”

  Charlie sat down on the chair in front of Mma Ramotswe. Then he leaned forward, his arms resting on the surface of her desk. “Mr J.L.B. Matekoni has sold me a car,” he said, his voice barely above a whisper, so that Mma Makutsi might not hear. “It is an old Mercedes-Benz. An E220. The owner has a new one, a C-Class, and since this one has such a large mileage on it he sold it to the boss for very little. Twenty thousand pula. Now the boss has sold it to me.”

  “And?” coaxed Mma Ramotswe. She had seen the Mercedes in the garage and had noticed that it had been parked at the side of the building for over two weeks. She assumed that they were waiting for some part that had been ordered from South Africa. Now she knew that there were other plans for the car.

  “And I am going to start a taxi service,” said Charlie. “I am going to start a business called the No. 1 Ladies’ Taxi Service.”

  There was a gasp from the other side of the room. “You can’t do that! That name belongs to Mma Ramotswe.”

  Mma Ramotswe, taken aback, simply stared at Charlie. Then she gathered her thoughts. The name that he had chosen was certainly derivative, but was there anything wrong with that? In one view, it was a compliment to have a name one had invented being used by somebody else. The only difficulty would be if the name were to be used by a similar business—by a detective agency that wanted to take clients away from them. A taxi company and a detective agency were two very different things, and there would be no prospect of competition between them.

  “I don’t mind,” she said to Charlie. “But tell me: Why have you chosen that name? You’ll be driving the car—where do the ladies come into it?”

  Charlie, who had been tense under Mma Makutsi’s onslaught, now visibly relaxed. “The ladies will be in the back of the car.”

  Mma Ramotswe raised an eyebrow. “And?”

  “And I will be in the front, driving,” he said. “The selling point will be that this is a taxi that is safe for ladies. Ladies will be able to get in without any fear that they will find some bad man in the driver’s seat—a man who might not be safe with ladies. There are such taxi drivers, Mma.”

  For a minute or so nobody spoke. Mma Ramotswe was aware of the sound of Charlie’s breathing, which was shallow, from excitement. We must remember, she thought, what it is like to be young and enthusiastic, to have a plan, a dream. There was always a danger that as we went on in life we forgot about that; caution—even fear—replaced optimism and courage. When you were young, like Charlie, you believed that you could do anything, and, in some circumstances at least, you could.

  Why should Charlie’s taxi firm not succeed? She remembered a conversation with her friend Bernard Ditau, who had been a bank manager. “There are so many people who could run their own businesses,” he had said, “but they let people tell them it won’t work. So they give up before they start.”

  Bernard had encouraged her to start the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency when others had merely laughed and said that it would be the quickest way of losing the money that Obed Ramotswe had left her. “He worked all those years, your Daddy, and now you’re going to lose everything he got in two or three months,” somebody had said. That remark had almost persuaded her to drop the idea, but Bernard had urged her on. “What if he hadn’t bought all those good fat cattle?” he asked. “What if he had been too timid to do that and had left the money to sit gathering dust?”

  Now she was sitting, in a sense, in Bernard’s place. There was little doubt but that Mma Makutsi would be only too ready to throw cold water over Charlie’s plan, but she decided that she would not do this.

  “I will tell all my friends to use your taxi,” she said. “I am sure you will be very busy.”

  Charlie beamed with pleasure. “I will give them a discount,” he said. “Ten per cent off for anybody who knows Mma Ramotswe.”

  Mma Ramotswe smiled. “That is very kind of you,” she said. “But that is not the way to run a business. You will need every pula you can make.”

  “If you make any, that is,” muttered Mma Makutsi.

  Mma Ramotswe threw a disapproving glance in Mma Makutsi’s direction. “I am sure he will,” she said. “I am sure of that.”

  After Charlie had left the office, Mma Ramotswe fiddled for a moment with a small pile of papers on her desk. She looked across the room at Mma Makutsi, who was studiously avoiding looking at her, and was paging through her shorthand notebook as if it contained some important hidden secret. “Mma Makutsi,” she said, “I really need to talk to you.”

  Mma Makutsi continued to leaf through the notebook. “I am here,” she said. “I am listening, Mma.”

  Mma Ramotswe felt her heart beating within her. I am not very good at this sort of thing, she told herself. “That young man,” she said, “is just the same as any young man. He has his dreams, as we all did when we were his age. Even you, Mma Makutsi. Even you. You went to the Botswana Secretarial College—you sacrificed so much for that—your people up in Bobonong sacrificed too. You wanted to make something of yourself, and you did.” She paused. Mma Makutsi was sitting quite still, no longer looking through the notebook, which she had laid down on the desk.

  “Now everything has turned out well for you,” Mma Ramotswe went on. “You have your house. You have that fiancé of yours. You will have money when you marry him. But don’t forget that there are many others who still don’t have what you now have. Don’t forget that.”

  “I don’t see what this has to do with anything,” Mma Makutsi interjected. “I was merely pointing out what is very clear, Mma. That boy’s business will fail because he is no good. Anybody can see that he is no good.”

  “No!” said Mma Ramotswe firmly. “You cannot say that he is no good! You cannot say that.”

  “Yes, I can,” said Mma Makutsi. “I can say that because it’s the truth, Mma. Your trouble …” She paused. “Your trouble, Mma, is that you’re too kind. You let those boys get away with all sorts of things just because you’re too kind. Well, I’m a realist. I see things as they really are.”

  “Oh,” said Mma Ramotswe. And then she said again, “Oh.”

  “Yes,” said Mma Makutsi. “And now, Mma, I shall resign. I do not have to work here and I have decided that it is time to resign. Thank you for everything you have done for me. I hope that you find the filing system is easy to use. You will find everything in the right place when I am gone.”

  And with that she rose to her feet and began to walk to the door. She stopped, though, and returned to her desk, where she opened a drawer and began to survey its contents. Mma Ramotswe noticed that she was wearing new shoes: burgundy suede shoes with bows on the toe caps. They were not the shoes of a modest person, she thought. They were … and then the description came to her. They were resignation shoes.

  CHAPTER SIX

  GO IN PEACE; STAY IN PEACE

  MR J.L.B. MATEKONI had seen crises before. Usually these involved mechanical matters—distraught owners feeling desperate about cars which were needed for some important occasion; the non-arrival of spare parts; the eventual arrival of spare parts, but the wrong ones—there were many ways in which difficult
situations could arise in a garage, but he had found that the best response to these was the same in every case. He would sit down and consider the situation carefully. Not only did this help to identify the solution to the problem, but it also gave him the opportunity to remind himself that things were not really as bad as they seemed; it was all a question of perspective. Sitting down and looking up at the sky for a few minutes—not at any particular part of the sky, but just at the sky in general—at the vast, dizzying, empty sky of Botswana, cut human problems down to size. It was not possible to tell what was in that sky, of course, at least during the day; but at night it revealed itself to be an ocean of stars, limitless, white in its infinity; so large, so large, that any of our problems, even the greatest of them, was a small thing. And yet we did not look at it like that, Mr J.L.B. Matekoni thought, and that made us imagine that a blocked fuel feed was a disaster.

  He had not wanted Charlie to hand in his resignation, but when the apprentice had asked him about the possibility of using that car as a taxi, he had resisted the temptation to refuse him point-blank. That at least would have solved the problem in the short term. It would have put an end to his immediate plans to start a taxi service, but it would not have scotched the young man’s hopes. So he had agreed to the proposition and had watched Charlie’s face light up. Mr J.L.B. Matekoni had his reservations about the feasibility of the idea; there was scant profit to be made from taxis unless one over-charged—which some taxi drivers did—or drove too quickly—which all taxi drivers did. Charlie now had his driving licence, but Mr J.L.B. Matekoni had little confidence in his driving ability and had once stopped him and taken over when they were travelling together to pick up a consignment of parts and he had let Charlie take the wheel of the truck.

 
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