From Chapter One
The following day, Mma Ramotswe slept in rather longer than usual. The absence of the children meant that the house was unnaturally quiet, and she barely noticed Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni slipping out of bed. Nor did she hear him making his breakfast in the kitchen, or calling out, at the front door, “That’s me off to work now, Mma. Don’t forget to go to the office!” It was a well-worn joke between them: he would remind her to go to the office and she would respond by telling him that he should not forget to come home after work. On such small sayings and customs are marriages built—comfortable familiarity; and that, Mma Ramotswe always felt, made a better basis for a marriage than any amount of novelty.
She experienced a moment of panic when she eventually emerged from drowsiness and looked at the clock on her bedside table. It was already eight-thirty, a recklessly late hour for her, but then she remembered that the children were at their friends’ houses and did not have to be got ready for school. The agency was going through a quiet spell—several major inquiries had recently been satisfactorily concluded—and she had no appointments that day. Mma Makutsi would open up the office and together they would tackle some of the administrative tasks that had been piling up and needed to be attended to. She knew that Mma Makutsi would be keen to do some filing and she herself would work on the bills for recently completed investigations. There would be time for several tea breaks, of course, and in this way they could expect to spend a pleasant and not unduly stressful day in the office. It was also possible that a new client might walk in off the street—one never knew when that would happen, and that was often the way in which some of their most interesting clients contacted them. Of course there were factors at work in the background, foremost of which was the word of mouth on which every business ultimately would succeed or fail.
She did not hurry. A leisurely breakfast of a fried egg, toast spread with honey, and a large cup of red bush tea was followed by a walk around her vegetable garden and a quick tidying-up of the living room. After that she was ready to prepare a sandwich for her lunch, have a final cup of tea, and then set off in her tiny white van for the short drive to the office. The traffic was light, as the morning rush was over, and she did not push her van beyond a stately fifteen miles an hour, a speed at which it seemed to be most comfortable and at which the fewest rattles and other worrying noises emerged from the engine compartment. Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni would have replaced the van at the drop of a hat, but Mma Ramotswe was as loyal to machinery as she was to people, and steadfastly refused to countenance the purchase of a new vehicle. One day the white van would finally expire, but that day had not yet come, and until then it did what was asked of it patiently and with dignity.
Parking the van in its accustomed place under an acacia tree, Mma Ramotswe walked past the entrance to the garage. Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni was busy performing open-heart surgery on a battered Land Rover, and did not see her, but Fanwell, his face streaked with grease, raised a spanner in salutation. Mma Ramotswe continued to the side of the garage, where a white-painted door constituted the entrance to the agency office.
Habit, more than anything else, made her knock. You did not have to knock on your own door, but she did, so deep was her engrained courtesy.
From within a voice invited her to enter.
“But Mma Ramotswe, it is just you!” exclaimed Mma Makutsi. “I thought it might be somebody important.”
Mma Makutsi realised how unfortunate that sounded, and quickly apologised. “I mean, you are very important, Mma—it’s just that I thought it might be a client.”
Mma Ramotswe laughed. “I know what you mean, Mma. Don’t worry. Sometimes things come out the wrong way.”
She made her way towards her desk, but before she reached it, she noticed that something was different. It caught her eye from the side—a small name-plate, of engraved brass, mounted upon a wooden base, reading Mma Grace Makutsi
. It was not a large sign, but at the same time it was not exactly small, and it was positioned on the side of Mma Makutsi’s desk so that it could be seen by anybody entering the room.
“My goodness!” exclaimed Mma Ramotswe. “What is that, Mma?”
At first Mma Makutsi affected not to know what Mma Ramotswe was talking about. “What is what, Mma?” she asked.
“That,” replied Mma Ramotswe, pointing at the name-plate.
Mma Makutsi allowed her gaze to drift to the sign. “Oh, that. That’s a name-plate, Mma. You see them on desks in offices. They tell the public who it is who’s sitting behind the desk. They are very modern things.”
Mma Ramotswe lowered herself into her chair. The sign was still visible, at an angle. “It’s very impressive, Mma Makutsi,” she said.
Mma Makutsi inclined her head. “Thank you, Mma. I think it will be helpful too.”
Mma Ramotswe thought about this. “Yes, you would not want people not to know who you are.”
“Precisely,” said Mma Makutsi.
“And it will be helpful for me too,” Mma Ramotswe went on. “I might be sitting here at my desk and when I look across the room I might think: Who is that lady sitting at the other desk? And then I shall see the sign, and all doubt will be removed. I shall say to myself, ‘That lady over there is Mma Grace Makutsi.’ At least, according to the sign, it’s Grace Makutsi.”
The irony was lost on Mma Makutsi, who simply nodded her agreement.
Then Mma Ramotswe said, “Is there a sign for me, Mma?”
Mma Makutsi frowned. “I paid for the sign myself, Mma. I did not expect the office to pay for it.”
Mma Ramotswe thanked her. “That was most considerate, Mma, but I wondered whether you had one made for me at the same time.”
There was a silence that seemed to last for some time. “I’m sorry,” Mma Makutsi said at last. “I did not think of that, Mma. I am very sorry.”
“That is all right,” said Mma Ramotswe. “I think that people coming here for an appointment know who I am. I do not think they need to be told.”
If there was reproach in Mma Ramotswe’s voice, it was mild; so mild, in fact, that it seemed to go unnoticed. “I can order one if you would like me to,” said Mma Makutsi. “Phuti knows the man who makes them. He made mine at a special rate. It was not expensive.”
Mma Ramotswe bit her lip. Her reply was measured. “I don’t think that will be necessary,” she said, then after the shortest of pauses added, “Thank you, anyway.” She tried not to sound hurt, but Mma Makutsi’s thoughtlessness had surprised her. She would never have done something like that—she would never have ordered a sign for herself and forgotten all about Grace, but that was another matter: Mma Makutsi had her little ways and it was always possible that her apparent selfishness had been entirely unintended.
“Are you sure, Mma?” Mma Makutsi pressed. “It would be helpful, I think, for us both to have these signs on our desks.”
Mma Ramotswe shook her head. “Don’t worry, Mma, there are many more important things to think about.”
They set about their work, Mma Makutsi having already started filing the pile of papers on her desk and Mma Ramotswe having invoices to compile. It was while they were both engaged in these tasks that a knock came on the door and Mma Makutsi leaped up—somewhat guiltily, thought Mma Ramotswe—to admit the unexpected caller; except that he was not unexpected, as Mma Ramotswe was soon to discover.
Copyright © 2022 by Alexander McCall Smith. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.