THE NO. 1 LADIES’ DETECTIVE AGENCY - Book 8
Fans around the world adore the best-selling No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series and its proprietor, Precious Ramotswe, Botswana’s premier lady detective. In this charming series, Mma Ramotswe—with help from her loyal associate, Grace Makutsi—navigates her cases and her personal life with wisdom, good humor, and the occasional cup of tea.
There is rarely a dull moment in the life of Precious Ramotswe, and on Zebra Drive and Tlokweng Road many changes are afoot. Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni wants be put in charge of a case involving an errant husband, and Mma Makutsi is considering leaving the agency, taking her near perfect score on the Botswana Secretarial College typing exam with her. Meanwhile, Mma Ramotswe has been asked to investigate a series of unexpected deaths at the hospital in Mochudi. Along the way, she encounters other tricky mysteries, and once again displays her undying love for Botswana, a country of which she is justly proud.
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Alexander McCall Smith is the author of the huge international phenomenon, The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency, and The Sunday Philosophy Club series. He was born in what is now known as Zimbabwe and he was a law professor at the University of Botswana and at Edinburgh University. He lives in Scotland, where in his spare time he is a bassoonist in the RTO (Really Terrible Orchestra). His website is www.alexandermccallsmith.com.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
Chapter One: A Very Rude Person
It is useful, people generally agree, for a wife to wake up before her husband. Mma Ramotswe always rose from her bed an hour or so before Mr J.L.B. Matekoni—a good thing for a wife to do because it affords time to accomplish at least some of the day’s tasks. But it is also a good thing for those wives whose husbands are inclined to be irritable first thing in the morning—and by all accounts there are many of them, rather too many, in fact. If the wives of such men are up and about first, the husbands can be left to be ill-tempered by themselves—not that Mr J.L.B. Matekoni was ever like that; on the contrary, he was the most good-natured and gracious of men, rarely raising his voice, except occasionally when dealing with his two incorrigible apprentices at Tlokweng Road Speedy Motors. And anybody, no matter how even-tempered he might be, would have been inclined to raise his voice with such feckless young men. This had been demonstrated by Mma Makutsi, who tended to shout at the apprentices for very little reason, even when one of them made a simple request, such as asking the time of day.
“You don’t have to shout at me like that,” complained Charlie, the older of the two. “All I asked was what time it was. That was all. And you shout four o’clock like that. Do you think I’m deaf?”
Mma Makutsi stood her ground. “It’s because I know you so well,” she retorted. “When you ask the time, it’s because you can’t wait to stop working. You want me to say five o’clock, don’t you? And then you would drop everything and rush off to see some girl or other, wouldn’t you? Don’t look so injured. I know what you do.”
Mma Ramotswe thought of this encounter as she hauled herself out of bed and stretched. Glancing behind her, she saw the inert form of her husband under the blankets, his head half covered by the pillow, which was how he liked to sleep, as if to block out the world and its noise. She smiled. Mr J.L.B. Matekoni had a tendency to talk in his sleep—not complete sentences, as one of Mma Ramotswe’s cousins had done when she was young, but odd words and expressions, clues each of them to the dream he was having at the time. Just after she had woken up and while she was still lying there watching the light grow behind the curtains, he had muttered something about brake drums. So that was what he dreamed about, she thought—such were the dreams of a mechanic; dreams of brakes and clutches and spark plugs. Most wives fondly hoped that their husbands dreamed about them, but they did not. Men dreamed about cars, it would seem.
Mma Ramotswe shivered. There were those who imagined that Botswana was always warm, but they had never experienced the winter months there—those months when the sun seemed to have business elsewhere and shone only weakly on southern Africa. They were just coming to the end of winter now, and there were signs of the return of warmth, but the mornings and the evenings could still be bitterly cold, as this particular morning was. Cold air, great invisible clouds of it, would sweep up from the south-east, from the distant Drakensberg Mountains and from the southern oceans beyond; air that seemed to love rolling over the wide spaces of Botswana, cold air under a high sun.
Once in the kitchen, with a blanket wrapped about her waist, Mma Ramotswe switched on Radio Botswana in time for the opening chorus of the national anthem and the recording of cattle bells with which the radio started the day. This was a constant in her life, something that she remembered from her childhood, listening to the radio from her sleeping mat while the woman who looked after her started the fire that would cook breakfast for Precious and her father, Obed Ramotswe. It was one of the cherished things of her childhood, that memory, as was the mental picture that she had of Mochudi as it then was, of the view from the National School up on the hill; of the paths that wound through the bush this way and that but which had a destination known only to the small, scurrying animals that used them. These were things that would stay with her forever, she thought, and which would always be there, no matter how bustling and thriving Gaborone might become. This was the soul of her country; somewhere there, in that land of red earth, of green acacia, of cattle bells, was the soul of her country.
She put a kettle on the stove and looked out of the window. In mid-winter it would barely be light at seven; now, at the tail end of the cold season, even if the weather could still conjure up chilly mornings like this one, at least there was a little more light. The sky in the east had brightened and the first rays of the sun were beginning to touch the tops of the trees in her yard. A small sun bird—Mma Ramotswe was convinced it was the same one who was always there—darted from a branch of the mopipi tree near the front gate and descended on the stem of a flowering aloe. A lizard, torpid from the cold, struggled wearily up the side of a small rock, searching for the warmth that would enable him to start his day. Just like us, thought Mma Ramotswe.
Once the kettle boiled, she brewed herself a pot of red bush tea and mug in hand went out into the garden. She drew the cold air into her lungs and when she breathed out again her breath hung in the air for a moment in a thin white cloud, quickly gone. The air had a touch of wood smoke in it from somebody’s fire, perhaps that of the elderly watchman at the nearby Government offices. He kept a brazier fire going, not much more than a few embers, but enough for him to warm his hands on in the cold watches of the night. Mma Ramotswe sometimes spoke to him when he came off duty and began to walk home past her gate. He had a place of sorts over at Old Naledi, she knew, and she imagined him sleeping through the day under a hot tin roof. It was not much of a job, and he would have been paid very little for it, so she had occasionally slipped him a twenty-pula note as a gift. But at least it was a job, and he had a place to lay his head, which was more than some people had.
She walked round the side of the house to inspect the strip of ground where Mr J.L.B. Matekoni would be planting his beans later in the year. She had noticed him working in the garden over the last few days, scraping the soil into ridges where he would plant, constructing the ramshackle structure of poles and string up which the bean stalks would be trained. Everything was dry now, in spite of one or two unexpected winter showers that had laid the dust, but it would be very different if the rains were good. If the rains were good . . .
She sipped at her tea and made her way to the back of the house. There was nothing to see there, just a couple of empty barrels that Mr J.L.B. Matekoni had brought back from the garage for some yet-to-be-explained purpose. He was given to clutter, and the barrels would be tolerated only for a few weeks before Mma Ramotswe would quietly arrange for their departure. The elderly watchman, Mr Nthata, was useful for that; he was only too willing to take away things that Mr J.L.B. Matekoni left lying about in the yard; Mr J.L.B. Matekoni forgot about these things fairly quickly and rarely noticed that they had gone.
It was the same with his trousers. Mma Ramotswe kept a general watch on the generously cut khaki trousers that her husband wore underneath his work overalls, and eventually, when the trouser legs became scuffed at the bottom, she would discreetly remove them from the washing machine after a final wash and pass them on to the woman at the Anglican Cathedral who would find a good home for them. Mr J.L.B. Matekoni often did not notice that he was putting on a new pair of trousers, particularly if Mma Ramotswe distracted him with some item of news or gossip while he was in the process of getting dressed. This was necessary, she felt, as he had always been unwilling to get rid of his old clothes, to which, like many men, he became excessively attached. If men were left to their own devices, Mma Ramotswe believed, they would go about in rags. Her own father had refused to abandon his hat, even when it became so old that the brim was barely attached to the crown. She remembered itching to replace it with one of those smart new hats that she had seen on the top shelf of the Small Upright General Dealer in Mochudi, but had realised that her father would never give up the old one, which had become a talisman, a totem. And they had buried that hat with him, placing it lovingly in the rough board coffin in which he had been lowered into the ground of the land that he had loved so much and of which he had always been so proud. That was long ago, and now she was standing here, a married woman, the owner of a business, a woman of some status in the community; standing here at the back of her house with a mug that was now drained of tea and a day of responsibilities ahead of her.
She went inside. The two foster children, Puso and Motholeli, were good at getting themselves up and did so without any prompting by Mma Ramotswe. Motholeli was already in the kitchen, sitting at the table in her wheelchair, her breakfast of a thick slice of bread and jam on a plate before her. In the background, she could hear the sound of Puso slamming the door of the bathroom.
“He cannot shut doors quietly,” said Motholeli, putting her hands to her ears.
“He is a boy,” said Mma Ramotswe. “That is how boys behave.”
“Then I am glad that I am not a boy,” said Motholeli.
Mma Ramotswe smiled. “Men and boys think that we would like to be them,” she said. “I don’t think they know how pleased we are to be women.”
Motholeli thought about this. “Would you like to be somebody else, Mma? Is there anybody else you would like to be?”
Mma Ramotswe considered this for a moment. It was the sort of question that she always found rather difficult to answer—just as she found it impossible to reply when people asked when one would like to have lived if one did not live in the present. That question was particularly perplexing. Some said that they would have liked to live before the colonial era, before Europe came and carved Africa up; that, they said, would have been a good time, when Africa ran its own affairs, without humiliation. Yes, it was true that Europe had devoured Africa like a hungry man at a feast—and an uninvited one too—but not everything had been perfect before that. What if one had lived next door to the Zulus, with their fierce militarism? What if one were a weak person in the house of the strong? The Batswana had always been a peaceful people, but one could not say that about everybody. And what about medicines and hospitals? Would one have wanted to live in a time when a little scratch could turn septic and end one’s life? Or in the days before dental anaesthetic? Mma Ramotswe thought not, and yet the pace of life was so much more human then and people made do with so much less. Perhaps it would have been good to live then, when one did not have to worry about money, because money did not exist; or when one did not have to fret about being on time for anything, because clocks were as yet unknown. There was something to be said for that; there was something to be said for a time when all one had to worry about was the cattle and the crops.
And as for the question of who else she would rather be, that was perhaps as unanswerable. Her assistant, Mma Makutsi? What would it be like to be a woman from Bobonong, the wearer of a pair of large round glasses, a graduate—with ninety-seven per cent—of the Botswana Secretarial College, an assistant detective? Would Mma Ramotswe exchange her early forties for Mma Makutsi’s early thirties? Would she exchange her marriage to Mr J.L.B. Matekoni for Mma Makutsi’s engagement to Phuti Radiphuti, proprietor of the Double Comfort Furniture Store—and of a considerable herd of cattle? No, she thought she would not. Manifold as Phuti Radiphuti’s merits might be, they could not possibly match those of Mr J.L.B. Matekoni, and even if it was good to be in one’s early thirties, there were compensations to being in one’s early forties. These were . . . She stopped. What precisely were they?
Motholeli, the cause of this train of thought, now interrupted it; there was to be no enumeration of the consolations of being forty-ish. “Well, Mma,” she said. “Who would you be? The Minister of Health?”
The Minister, the wife of that great man, Professor Thomas Tlou, had recently visited Motholeli’s school to present prizes and had delivered a stirring address to the pupils. Motholeli had been particularly impressed and had talked about it at home.
“She is a very fine person,” said Mma Ramotswe. “And she wears very beautiful headdresses. I would not mind being Sheila Tlou . . . if I had to be somebody else. But I am quite happy, really, being Mma Ramotswe, you know. There is nothing wrong with that, is there?” She paused. “And you’re happy being yourself, aren’t you?”
She asked the question without thinking, and immediately regretted it. There were reasons why Motholeli would prefer to be somebody else; it was so obvious, and Mma Ramotswe, flustered, searched for something to say that would change the subject. She looked at her watch. “Oh, the time. It’s getting late, Motholeli. We cannot stand here talking about all sorts of things, much as I’d like to . . .”
Motholeli licked the remnants of jam off her fingers. She looked up at Mma Ramotswe. “Yes, I’m happy. I’m very happy. And I don’t think that I would like to be anybody else. Not really.” Mma Ramotswe sighed with relief. “Good. Then I think . . .”
“Except maybe you,” Motholeli continued. “I would like to be you, Mma Ramotswe.”
Mma Ramotswe laughed. “I’m not sure if you would always enjoy that. There are times when I would like to be somebody else myself.”
“Or Mr J.L.B. Matekoni,” Motholeli said. “I would like to know as much about cars as he does. That would be good.”
And dream about brake drums and gears? wondered Mma Ramotswe. And have to deal with those apprentices, and be covered in grease and oil half the time?
Once the children had set off for school, Mma Ramotswe and Mr J.L.B. Matekoni found themselves alone in the kitchen. The children always made a noise; now there was an almost unnatural quiet, as at the end of a thunderstorm or a night of high winds. It was a time for the two adults to finish their tea in companionable silence, or perhaps to exchange a few words about what the day ahead held. Then, once the breakfast plates had been cleared up and the porridge pot scrubbed and put away, they would make their separate ways to work, Mr J.L.B. Matekoni in his green truck and Mma Ramotswe in her tiny white van. Their destination was the same—the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency shared premises with Tlokweng Road Speedy Motors—but they invariably arrived at different times. Mr J.L.B. Matekoni liked to drive directly to the top of the Tlokweng Road along the route that went past the flats at the end of the university, while Mma Ramotswe, who had a soft spot for the area of town known as the Village, would meander along Oodi Drive or Hippopotamus Road and approach the Tlokweng Road from that direction.
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.”
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