CHAPTER ONE: NO DOUBLE BED
Precious Ramotswe, owner and only begetter of the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency—established to deal with the problems of ladies, and others—looked across her office towards the desk occupied by Grace Makutsi, former secretary and distinguished graduate—with ninety-seven per cent in the final examinations—of the Botswana Secretarial College. The sun was streaming through the high window behind Mma Ramotswe’s desk, sending a narrow butter-yellow beam to illuminate small particles of floating dust, just perceptible, feather-light, moving up and down, sometimes sliding sideways in obedience to the invisible currents in the room. But for the most part the air was still—it being that sort of day, sluggish and non-committal. The sort of day on which something might happen, but was more likely not to.
It was not unusual for Mma Ramotswe to look up and see Mma Makutsi staring back at her; and the same thing might be said for Mma Makutsi, who would suddenly lift her gaze from the papers in front of her and notice Mma Ramotswe watching her thoughtfully. Neither minded this—indeed, both were used to it, and when either of them was out of the office for whatever reason, the other would find that she missed seeing her colleague there at her desk when she looked up. This was particularly true for Mma Makutsi, for whom Mma Ramotswe was a reassuring presence every bit as significant, every bit as reassuring, as the great rock dome of Kgale Hill on the outskirts of town, or the deep waters of the Limpopo River, just a few hours off to the east, or the sandhills of the Kalahari over to the west. These were all geographical facts, just as Mma Ramotswe herself seemed to be a geographical fact. She was simply there—as predictable and as constant as any of these things. And her voice was as familiar and as loved as the voice of the doves inhabiting the acacia tree behind Tlokweng Road Speedy Motors; indeed, she would not have been surprised had Mma Ramotswe suddenly started to coo, just as those doves did. Mma Makutsi could not imagine Botswana without those doves, and she could not imagine it without Mma Ramotswe; if she were not there, then it would be just any other country; with her it was something special—it was Mma Ramotswe’s place, a place bathed in the warmth of her presence as effectively as the sun blesses the land each morning with its warming rays.
Now Mma Ramotswe looked across the office and noticed that Mma Makutsi was looking back at her. There was something different about Mma Makutsi, she thought, and it took Mma Ramotswe a little while to work out what it was. It was not what she was wearing: she had on the green dress that for some reason she liked to wear on Fridays—Mma Makutsi was a creature of habit. No, it was something else, and when Mma Ramotswe realised what it was, she reproached herself for not noticing it at once. Mma Makutsi’s glasses, normally large and round, like outsize swimming goggles, had shrunk. They were still round, but the lenses were considerably smaller—tiny discs, by comparison, no bigger than the coins to be found in a pocket of small change. Any detective worth her salt would have spotted the change immediately, thought Mma Ramotswe. She had always prided herself on her powers of observation, but it was hardly very observant to miss a detail such as this. Of course, she had the excuse of the familiar: the eye is lulled into complacency when contemplating those things and people we see every day.
“Your glasses, Mma,” said Mma Ramotswe.
Mma Makutsi leaned back in her chair. She was smiling. “I wondered when you were going to notice, Mma. Do you like them? They’re new.”
Mma Ramotswe knew from long experience that Mma Makutsi was sensitive to criticism. The only response one could safely give if asked one’s opinion on any aspect of her appearance was to say that it was perfect. Any reservation, even in the form of a momentary hesitation, could give rise to a display of hurt feelings that could quickly become a more than momentary sulk; not prolonged beyond the evening, of course—Mma Ramotswe had never known Mma Makutsi to keep a state of huff going for more than a few hours, but it was best to avoid such occasions altogether, she thought.
“They are very fine glasses,” she said. “They are clearly very fashionable.”
It was just the right thing to say. Mma Makutsi touched the spectacles gently, repositioning them slightly on the bridge of her nose. “I saw them in a magazine, Mma,” she said. “One of those very famous actresses was wearing them.”
“Which famous actress, Mma?”
Mma Makutsi shrugged. “Oh, I don’t remember the names of any of those people. But they are very famous, Mma. They go to parties and there are many photographers at those parties. Snap, snap, snap—so that we can all see what was happening at the party even if we never get an invitation.”
“So, this lady—whoever she was—was wearing your spectacles, Mma?”
“The exact same,” said Mma Makutsi. “And there was a list at the bottom of the page of what she was wearing, and how much it cost. They gave the name of the shop where you could order spectacles like that. It’s down in Cape Town; they do not sell these glasses in Botswana. You have to write off for them. These are Cape Town glasses—everyone is wearing them down there, they say.”
Mma Ramotswe wondered whether it was really a model who had been wearing them. “I think that lady might have been paid to wear them, Mma. I think that is possible, because otherwise they would not have published the details of where you could buy them.”
“It does not matter,” said Mma Makutsi. “She might have been a model—who knows?”
Mma Ramotswe thought about this. “If she was a model, Mma, do you think she was really short-sighted, or would she have been wearing them just for the photograph?”
Mma Makutsi hesitated. “It is possible, Mma, that she was short-sighted. I could not tell from the photograph.”
“You’re right, though, Mma,” said Mma Ramotswe. “It doesn’t matter whether or not she needed them. The point is: they look very good on you, Mma.”
“You’re not just saying that, Mma?”
Mma Ramotswe shook her head. “I am not just saying it, Mma Makutsi. I am sitting here thinking it as well. I am sitting here thinking: Those spectacles look very good on Mma Makutsi. They are a big improvement.”
As soon as she said this, Mma Ramotswe realised that she had said the wrong thing. She was about to rephrase her words, but it was too late.
“What was wrong with my old glasses, Mma? Why did they need improvement?”
“There was nothing wrong with them,” said Mma Ramotswe hurriedly. “They were very fine glasses. It’s just that these new ones are even finer.” She repeated, even more emphatically, “Even finer, Mma.”
Mma Makutsi seemed appeased. She looked at her watch, and Mma Ramotswe noticed that she was peering at it more closely than usual. Perhaps it was the light, as the sun had just gone behind a cloud and it was darker in the office than it had been a few minutes earlier.
“I think it is time for tea, Mma,” she said. “I shall make it.”
She got up from her desk and crossed over to where the kettle was perched on top of the filing cabinet. As she pressed the switch, she said to Mma Ramotswe, “Have your new neighbours moved in now, Mma?”
Mma Ramotswe nodded. “They have, Mma. I watched their furniture arrive this morning. It was very interesting, Mma.”
AND IT HAD BEEN, because there are few things more interesting in neighbourhood life than to witness the unpacking and the installation of one’s neighbours’ effects. People can say all sorts of things about themselves, can portray themselves in all sorts of false lights should they choose to do so, but their furniture is incapable of lying. Your furniture always tells the truth about you, and if the furniture is unvarnished, then so too is that truth.
The furniture van, a lumbering pantechnicon, had pulled up outside the neighbour’s house at seven in the morning, at a time when Mma Ramotswe had just served breakfast to Motholeli and Puso. Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni always breakfasted early, and he had already driven off in his truck to Tlokweng Road Speedy Motors. An early departure meant that he would beat the morning traffic, which, as was happening everywhere else, was getting worse and worse. Gaborone had grown, and its traffic problem had grown with it, although it was nowhere near as bad as it was in many other cities. They had discussed that over morning tea in the office a few days earlier, a discussion that had led to a spirited exchange between Charlie, the junior assistant detective and part-time mechanic, and Mma Makutsi. Mma Makutsi had introduced the topic by mentioning the traffic jams that could now be encountered in Nairobi.
“I’ve heard that there are people who live in their cars these days,” she said. “It takes so long to drive into work that they don’t bother to drive back. They just pull in to the side of the road, change into their pyjamas, and sleep in the car. Then they reverse back to the office the next morning.”
Charlie had laughed. “You cannot live in a car,” he said. “Where would you cook your meals? Where would you go to the bathroom? Those are very important questions, Mma Makutsi.”
Mma Makutsi had dismissed these objections. “I’m not saying that I have seen people doing these things, Charlie. I’m simply telling you what I have read in the newspaper—or it might have been a magazine. Somewhere I read it. They called them the ‘car people.’ That is what they said. They said they take their food with them. They did not say anything about the bathroom.”
Mma Ramotswe had expressed the view that it would help if the government spent more on public transport. “We need more buses,” she said. “We need more of these big buses that take a whole lot of people. One hundred people, sometimes, all in one bus.”
“The government says it has no money,” said Mma Makutsi. “They say it is not their job to buy these buses.” She paused. “Anyway, even if we had more buses, there are still too many cars. Too many people are buying cars and then driving them round. What can you expect but traffic jams if people have too many cars?”
Charlie frowned. “So what do we do?”
Mma Makutsi had the answer. “We take cars away from people. The government should say: there are too many cars, and so you cannot have a car any longer. They would give them compensation, of course, but they would take their cars away.”
“Whose cars?” challenged Charlie.
“People’s,” said Mma Makutsi.
“Including yours?” Charlie asked Mma Makutsi. “And Mma Ramotswe’s white van? What about that? Should the government take Mma Ramotswe’s van away from her?”
Mma Makutsi made a dismissive gesture. “Of course not, Charlie. I’m not suggesting that anybody should take Mma Ramotswe’s van from her. She needs it to get into work.”
“Ha!” crowed Charlie. “And your car, Mma Makutsi? You have that red car of yours with its big exhaust pipe. Think of all the smoke you make, Mma Makutsi, racing round in that red car. Think of that. And Phuti Radiphuti too. He has a car with a big engine—I’ve serviced that engine and so I should know. It is a very thirsty engine, I can tell you. Think of the Limpopo in full flood, and that is how much petrol goes into that engine. Ow!”
Mma Makutsi glared at the young man. “You’re talking nonsense, Charlie. Nobody is going to take my car. I need it to get into work and Phuti uses his car for his furniture business. Our cars would be . . .”
“Exempt?” offered Mma Ramotswe.
“Yes,” said Mma Makutsi. “That’s the word: exempt.
Mma Ramotswe looked down at her desk. Everybody wanted to look after the world, but nobody wanted to give up anything they already had. Mma Makutsi was right when she said there were too many cars, but the business of reducing the number of cars would never be easy. That was particularly so in Africa, where so many people had never had the chance to own a car, and now, just as they were able to afford one, along came people who said they should not have one. And the same thing applied to beef, she thought. Many people had not been able to afford much meat in the past; now, when they could, people who had been eating meat for a long time said it was time for everybody to stop. There was something unfair in that, she thought, and yet we only had one world, and only one Botswana in that world, and we had to look after them both.
But now Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni was off to the garage—in his truck, which was not particularly economical to run and not at all green, she suspected—and she had just fed the children, and at that moment the removal van happened to draw up outside the neighbours’ house. In such circumstances all that one could do was to tell the children to hurry up and finish their breakfast and get ready for school. Puso, of course, could walk there, as the school was just round the corner, but Motholeli, who was in a wheelchair, could not. On occasion, Puso would push her to school, taking pride in helping his sister, but in this hot weather, with all the dust the heat seemed to bring, Mma Ramotswe preferred to take the chair in her van. She would do that this morning, she thought, and then return to the house so that she could keep an eye on what was going on next door.
Copyright © 2020 by Alexander McCall Smith. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.