The good husband of zebr.., p.7
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       The Good Husband of Zebra Drive, p.7
 

           Alexander McCall Smith
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  “We are not in a hurry,” he said. “Those parts are not going anywhere. And there are no girls to impress.”

  The apprentice had sat in the passenger seat, shoulders hunched. He had been silent.

  “I’m sorry to have to tell you off,” said Mr J.L.B. Matekoni. “But that is my job. I have to advise you. That is what an apprentice-master has to do.”

  That conversation came back to him now. If he were really serious about his duties, he would have warned Charlie of the folly of not completing his training. He would have spelled out to him the risks of starting one’s own business; he would have told him about cash-flow problems and the difficulty of getting credit. Then he would have gone on to warn him about bad debts, which presumably even taxi drivers encountered when people fled the car without paying or when, at the end of a journey, they confessed they did not have quite enough money to pay the fare and would five pula do?

  He had done none of this, he reflected; he had said nothing. But his failure, and Charlie’s departure, were not the end of the world. If the taxi service did not work, then Charlie could always come back, as he had done the last time he had given up his apprenticeship. That had been when he had gone off with that married woman and had come back, his tail between his legs, when that affair had come to its predictable end. That showed how these young men worked, he thought. They bounced back.

  Mma Makutsi’s departure, however, was a more serious matter altogether. Mma Makutsi resigned shortly before tea-time, when he and Mr Polopetsi came into the office, their mugs in their hands, expecting to find the tea already brewed. Instead they found Mma Ramotswe sitting at her desk, her head sunk in her hands, while Mma Makutsi was putting the contents of a drawer into a large plastic bag. Mma Makutsi looked up as the men entered the room.

  “I have not made tea yet,” she said. “You will need to put the kettle on yourselves.”

  Mr Polopetsi glanced at Mr J.L.B. Matekoni; he stood in some awe of Mma Makutsi, and he was wary of her moods. “She is a changeable person,” he had explained to his wife. “She is very clever, but she is changeable. One moment it’s this; the next moment, it’s that. You have to be very careful.”

  Mr J.L.B. Matekoni glanced at Mma Ramotswe, but she, looking up, merely nodded in the direction of the kettle.

  Mma Makutsi continued to busy herself with her task of emptying the drawer. “The reason why I did not put on the kettle is that I have resigned.”

  Mr Polopetsi gave a start. “From making tea?”

  “From everything,” snapped Mma Makutsi. “So I suspect that you will be doing more investigating, Rra, now that I am going. I hope that Mr J.L.B. Matekoni will be able to release you from your duties in the garage.”

  The effect on Mr Polopetsi of this remark was immediate. If he had wished to conceal his eagerness to occupy Mma Makutsi’s position, then this wish was overcome by his sheer and evident pleasure at the thought of doing more investigative work. And Mma Makutsi, sensing this, decided to take the matter further. “In fact,” she went on, slamming the drawer shut, “why don’t you take over my desk right now? Here, try this chair. You can put it up a bit by turning this bit here. See. That is for short people like you, Rra.”

  Mr Polopetsi put his mug down on Mma Makutsi’s desk and moved over to examine the chair. “That will be fine,” he said. “I can adjust it. It looks as if it needs a bit of oil, but we have plenty of that in the garage, don’t we, Mr J.L.B. Matekoni?”

  It was meant to be a joke, and Mr J.L.B. Matekoni smiled weakly, and dutifully. He glanced again at Mma Ramotswe, who was now glaring at her assistant on the other side of the room. It seemed to Mr J.L.B. Matekoni that the most tactful thing to do would be to leave the office, and he turned to Mr Polopetsi. “I think that we should have tea a bit later, Rra,” he said. “The ladies are busy.”

  “But Mma Makutsi …,” Mr Polopetsi began, but was silenced by a stare from Mr J.L.B. Matekoni, who had already started to move towards the door. Picking up his mug, Mr Polopetsi followed him out of the door and back into the garage.

  Mma Ramotswe waited until the door had been closed before she addressed Mma Makutsi. “I am very sorry,” she said. “I am very sorry if I have offended you, Mma Makutsi. You know that I have a lot of respect for you. You know that, don’t you? I would never deliberately be rude to you. I really would not.”

  Mma Makutsi, who had risen to her feet as the two men left, was reaching down for her bag. She straightened up and hesitated for a few moments before she spoke. It seemed as if she was looking for exactly the right words. “I am aware of that, Mma,” she said slowly. “I know that. And I am the one who has been rude. But I have made up my mind. I have decided that I am fed up with being number two. I have always been number two, all through my life. I have always been the junior one. Now I am going to be my own boss.” She paused. “It’s not that you are a bad boss. You are a very good one. You are kind. You do not tell me what to do all the time. But I want to be able to speak as I wish. I have never been able to do that—ever. All my life, up in Bobonong, down here, I have been the one who has to watch my tongue and be careful. Now I do not want that any more. Can you understand that, Mma?”

  Mma Ramotswe did. “I can see that. You are a very intelligent woman. You have a piece of paper to prove it.” She pointed to the framed diploma above Mma Makutsi’s desk; the words ninety-seven per cent clearly legible even from afar. “Don’t forget to take that, Mma,” she said.

  Mma Makutsi looked up at the diploma. “You could easily have got one of those yourself, Mma,” she said.

  “But I didn’t,” said Mma Ramotswe. “You did.”

  There was silence for a moment.

  “Do you want me to stay?” asked Mma Makutsi. There was an edge of uncertainty in her voice now.

  Mma Ramotswe opened her hands in a gesture of acceptance. “I don’t think that you should, Mma,” she said. “You need a change. I would love you to stay, but I think that you have decided, haven’t you, that you need a change.”

  “Maybe,” said Mma Makutsi.

  “But you will come back and see me, won’t you?”

  “Of course,” said Mma Makutsi. “And you will come to my wedding, won’t you? You and Mr J.L.B. Matekoni? There will be a seat for you in the front row, Mma Ramotswe. With the aunties.”

  There was nothing more to do other than to retrieve the framed diploma from its place on the wall. When it was taken down, there was a white patch where it had been hanging, and they both saw this. Mma Makutsi had been there that long; right from the beginning, really, those humble days in the original office, when chickens came in, uninvited, and pecked at the floor around the desks.

  Their words of farewell were polite—the correct ones, as laid down in the old Botswana customs. Tsamaya sentlê: go well. To which the reply was, Sala sentlê: stay well; mere words, of course, but when meant, as now, so powerful. Mma Ramotswe could tell that Mma Makutsi was regretting her decision and did not want to go. It would have been easy to stop this now, to suggest that while Mma Makutsi was replacing the diploma, she, Mma Ramotswe, would start to make the tea. But somehow it seemed too late for that. Sometimes one knew, as Mma Makutsi clearly did, when it was necessary to move on to the next stage of one’s life. When this happened, it was not helpful for others to hold one back. So she allowed Mma Makutsi to leave, did nothing to stop her, and it was not until she had been gone for ten minutes or so that Mma Ramotswe began to weep. She wept for the loss of her friend and colleague, but also for everything else that she had lost in this life, and of which, unexpectedly, she was now by a flood of memories reminded: for her father, that great man, Obed Ramotswe, now late; for the child she had known for such a short time, such a precious time; for Seretse Khama, who had been a father to the entire country and who had made it one of the finest places on this earth; for her childhood. She wanted everything back, as we do sometimes in our irrationality and regret; we want it all back.

  CHAPTER SEVEN


  HOW DOES ONE BECOME MORE EXCITING?

  IF I CAN FIX A CAR, Mr J.L.B. Matekoni told himself, then I can do a simple thing like find out whether a man is seeing a woman. And yet, now that he came to start the enquiry, he was not sure whether it would be quite as straightforward as he had imagined it would be. He could have asked Mma Ramotswe’s advice, but she was preoccupied with the consequences of Mma Makutsi’s departure and he did not want to add to her burdens. As far as the garage was concerned, Charlie still had to work a week’s notice—he had spared him a longer period than that, although he would have been entitled to insist on a month. Fortunately, since it was a relatively quiet period—the school holidays, when people tended not to find fault with their cars and when thoughts of routine servicing were put aside—it would be easy for Mr J.L.B. Matekoni to take a few hours off every day, should the need arise. The younger apprentice was slightly more reliable than Charlie anyway, and could now cope with many routine garage tasks, and Mr Polopetsi was also showing himself to be a natural mechanic. Of course he had aspirations to Mma Makutsi’s job, but Mr J.L.B. Matekoni doubted whether these ambitions would be satisfied. Mma Makutsi had done a lot of filing and typing, and he could not see Mr Polopetsi settling down to these mundane tasks. He wanted to be out and about, looking into things, and what Mma Ramotswe had said about his talents in this respect suggested that she might not be keen for him to do too much of that.

  It was all very well being confident, but as you climbed the outside staircase of the President Hotel, on your way to meet the client for your first proper conversation with her, then you felt a certain anxiety. It was not dissimilar to the way you felt when, as an apprentice, you stripped an engine down by yourself for the very first time, decoked it and fitted new piston rings. Would everything fit together again? Would it work? He looked over his shoulder at the scene in the square below. Traders had set up stalls, no more than upturned boxes in many cases, or rugs laid out on the concrete paving, and were selling their wares to passers-by: combs, hair preparations, trinkets, carvings for visitors. In one corner, a small knot of people clustered around a seller of traditional medicines, listening carefully as the gnarled herbalist explained to them the merits of the barks and roots that he had ranged in front of him. He at least knew what he was talking about, thought Mr J.L.B. Matekoni; he at least was doing what he had always done, and doing it well, unlike those who suddenly decide, in mid-life, that they want to become private detectives …

  He reached the top of the stairway and entered under the cool canopies of the hotel’s verandah. He looked about him; only a few of the tables were occupied, and he saw Mma Botumile immediately, sitting at the far end, a cup of coffee before her. He stood still for a moment and took a deep breath. She looked up and saw him and gestured to the empty chair at her table.

  “I have been waiting, Rra,” she said, looking at her watch. “You said …”

  Mr J.L.B. Matekoni consulted his own watch. He had made a point of being on time and had not expected to be censured for lateness. She had said eleven o’clock, had she not? He felt a pang of doubt.

  “Ten forty-five,” she said. “You said ten forty-five.”

  He was flustered. “I thought I said eleven. I am sorry, Mma. I thought …”

  She brushed aside his apology. “It does not matter,” she said. “Where is Mma Ramotswe?”

  “She is in the office,” he said. “She has assigned me to this case.”

  Mma Botumile, who had been lifting her cup of coffee to her lips, put it down sharply. A small splash of coffee spilled over the rim of the cup and fell on the table. “Why is she not dealing with this?” she asked coldly. “Does she think that I am not important enough for her? Is that it? Well, there are other detectives, I’ll have you know.”

  “There aren’t,” said Mr J.L.B. Matekoni politely. “The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency is the only agency. There are no other detectives that I know of.”

  Mma Botumile digested this information. She looked Mr J.L.B. Matekoni up and down before she spoke again. “I thought that you were the mechanic.”

  “I am,” he said. “But I also do investigations.” He thought for a few moments. “It is useful to have an ordinary occupation while at the same time you conduct enquiries.” He had no idea why this should be so, but it seemed to him to be a reasonable thing to say.

  Mma Botumile lifted up her coffee cup again. “Do you know my husband?” she asked.

  Mr J.L.B. Matekoni shook his head. “You must tell me about him,” he said. “That is why I wanted to meet you today. I need to know something more about him before I can find out what he is doing.”

  A waitress came to the table and looked expectantly at Mr J.L.B. Matekoni. He had not thought about what he would have, but now he felt that tea would be the right thing on a morning like this, which was getting hotter—you could feel it. He was about to order when Mma Botumile waved the waitress away. “We don’t need anything,” she said.

  He watched in astonishment as the waitress walked off. “I thought that I …,” he began.

  “No time,” said Mma Botumile. “This is business, remember. I am paying for your time, I take it. Two hundred pula an hour, or something like that?”

  Mr J.L.B. Matekoni did not know what to say. There would be a fee, of course, but he had not thought about what it would be. He was accustomed to charging for mechanical work and he imagined that each case would have its mechanical equivalent. Finding out about an errant husband would be the equivalent perhaps of a full service, with oil change and attention to brakes. A more complex enquiry might be charged at the same rate as the replacement of a timing chain. He had not worked any of this out, but he would certainly not be charging two hundred pula an hour to sit and talk on the verandah of the President Hotel.

  Mr J.L.B. Matekoni was a tolerant man, not given to animosity of any sort, but as he gazed at Mma Botumile he found himself developing a strong dislike for her. But he knew too that this was dangerous; he knew that as a professional person he should keep personal feelings strictly out of the picture. He had heard Mma Ramotswe talk about this before, and he had agreed with her. One simply could not allow one’s feelings to get in the way of one’s judgement. It was exactly the same with cars: emotion should not come into decisions about a car’s future, no matter what the bonds between the car and the owner. But then there was Mma Ramotswe’s tiny white van; if ever there were a case for not allowing emotion to cloud one’s view of a vehicle, then that was it. He had nursed and cajoled that vehicle when good sense suggested that it should be replaced by something more modern, but Mma Ramotswe would have none of that. “I cannot see myself in a new car,” she said. “I am a tiny white van person. That is what I want.”

  He lowered his gaze; Mma Botumile was staring back at him and he felt uncomfortable. “You must tell me about your husband,” he said. “I must know the sort of things that he likes to do.”

  Mma Botumile settled back in her chair. “My husband is not a very strong man,” she said. “He is one of those men who does not really know what he wants. I can tell, of course, what he wants, but he cannot.” She looked at Mr J.L.B. Matekoni as if expecting a challenge to this, but when none came she continued. “We have been married for twenty years now, which is a long time. We met when we were both students at the University of Botswana. I am a B.Com., you see. He is an accountant with a mining company.

  “We built a house out over near the Western by-pass, near where the Grand Palm Hotel is. It is a very fine house—you may have seen it from the road, Rra. It has gates which go like this—large gates. You know the place?”

  Mr J.L.B. Matekoni did, and he had often wondered who would build gates like those; now he knew.

  He nodded and waited for her to continue, but she was silent, watching him over the rim of her coffee cup.

  “And was this marriage a happy one?” he asked finally. He found that the question came out in those words without his really having to think very much about
it. Where had it come from? He suddenly remembered: years before, he had been in the High Court in Lobatse, waiting to give evidence in a case involving a road accident, and he had slipped into one of the courts to watch a case. He remembered the lawyer standing at his table, facing a woman who was sitting in the witness box, crying. And the lawyer suddenly spoke and said to her: “And was this marriage a happy one?” and the woman had started to cry all the more. What a ridiculous question, he had thought; what a ridiculous question to ask of a woman who was in floods of tears. Of course the marriage was not a happy one. But the question itself had sounded so impressive, that he had remembered it, little thinking that years later he would be able to use those precise words.

  Unlike the witness, Mma Botumile did not burst into tears. “Of course it was happy,” she said. “And still is. Or rather, could be, if he stopped seeing that other woman.”

  “Have you spoken to him about her?” Mr J.L.B. Matekoni asked.

  Mma Botumile was dismissive. “Of course not! And, anyway, what could I say? I know nothing about this woman, whoever she is. That is for you to find out.”

  Mr J.L.B. Matekoni pondered this for a moment. “But you do know that he’s seeing a woman, do you?” he asked.

  “Oh, I know that all right,” said Mma Botumile. “Women know these things.”

  Intuition, thought Mr J.L.B. Matekoni. That’s what women claimed they had and men did not, or did not have enough of: intuition. He had often wondered, though, how one could know something without actually hearing it, or seeing it, or even smelling it. If one did not acquire knowledge from one’s senses, then where would one acquire it? That’s what he would have liked to ask Mma Botumile, but felt that he could not. She was not a woman, he felt, who would take well to being challenged.

  “I see,” he said mildly. “But, do you mind telling me how women know these things? I’m sure they do know them, but how come?”

 
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