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The Full Cupboard of Life
by Alexander McCall Smith
A Great Sadness among the Cars of Botswana
Precious Ramotswe was sitting at her desk at the No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency in Gaborone. From where she sat she could gaze out of the window, out beyond the acacia trees, over the grass and the scrub bush, to the hills in their blue haze of heat. It was such a noble country, and so wide, stretching for mile upon mile to brown horizons at the very edge of Africa. It was late summer, and there had been good rains that year. This was important, as good rains meant productive fields, and productive fields meant large, ripened pumpkins of the sort that traditionally built ladies like Mma Ramotswe so enjoyed eating. The yellow flesh of a pumpkin or a squash, boiled and then softened with a lump of butter (if one's budget stretched to that), was one of God's greatest gifts to Botswana. And it tasted so good, too, with a slice of fine Botswana beef, dripping in gravy.
Oh yes, God had given a great deal to Botswana, as she had been told all those years ago at Sunday school in Mochudi. "Write a list of Botswana's heavenly blessings," the teacher had said. And the young Mma Ramotswe, chewing on the end of her indelible pencil, and feeling the sun bearing down on the tin roof of the Sunday school, heat so insistent that the tin creaked in protest against its restraining bolts, had written: (1) the land; (2) the people who live on the land; (3) the animals, and specially the fat cattle. She had stopped at that, but, after a pause, had added: (4) the railway line from Lobatse to Francistown. This list, once submitted for approval, had come back with a large blue tick after each item, and the comment written in: Well done, Precious! You are a sensible girl. You have correctly shown why Botswana is a fortunate country.
And this was quite true. Mma Ramotswe was indeed a sensible person and Botswana was a fortunate country. When Botswana had become independent all those years ago, on that heart-stilling night when the fireworks failed to be lit on time, and when the dusty wind had seemed to augur only ill, there had been so little. There were only three secondary schools for the whole country, a few clinics, and a measly eight miles of tarred road. That was all. But was it? Surely there was a great deal more than that. There was a country so large that the land seemed to have no limits; there was a sky so wide and so free that the spirit could rise and soar and not feel in the least constrained; and there were the people, the quiet, patient people, who had survived in this land, and who loved it. Their tenacity was rewarded, because underneath the land there were the diamonds, and the cattle prospered, and brick by brick the people built a country of which anybody could be proud. That was what Botswana had, and that is why it was a fortunate country.
Mma Ramotswe had founded the No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency by selling the cattle left her by her father, Obed Ramotswe, a good man whom everybody respected. And for this reason she made sure that his picture was on the office wall, alongside, but slightly lower than, the picture of the late President of Botswana, Sir Seretse Khama, paramount chief of the Bangwato, founding president of Botswana, and gentleman. The last of these attributes was perhaps the most important in Mma Ramotswe's eyes. A man could be a hereditary ruler, or an elected president, but not be a gentleman, and that would show in his every deed. But if you had a leader who was a gentleman, with all that this meant, then you were lucky indeed. And Botswana had been very lucky in that respect, because all three of her presidents had been good men, gentlemen, who were modest in their bearing, as a gentleman should be. One day, perhaps, a woman might become president, and Mma Ramotswe thought that this would be even better, provided, of course, that the lady in question had the right qualities of modesty and caution. Not all ladies had those qualities, Mma Ramotswe reflected; some of them being quite conspicuously lacking in that respect.
Take that woman who was always on the radio-a political woman who was always telling people what to do. She had an irritating voice, like that of a jackal, and a habit of flirting with men in a shameless way, provided that the men in question could do something to advance her career. If they could not, then they were ignored. Mma Ramotswe had seen this happening; she had seen her ignoring the Bishop at a public function, in order to talk to an important government minister who might put in a good word for her in the right place. It had been transparent. Bishop Theophilus had opened his mouth to say something about the rain and she had said, "Yes, Bishop, yes. Rain is very important." But even as she spoke, she was looking in the direction of the minister, and smiling at him. After a few minutes, she had slipped away, leaving the Bishop behind, and sidled up to the minister to whisper something to him. Mma Ramotswe, who had watched the whole thing, was in no doubt about what that something had been, for she knew women of this sort and there were many of them. So they would have to be careful before choosing a woman as president. It would have to be the right sort of woman; a woman who knew what hard work was and what it was like to bear half the world upon your shoulders.
On that day, sitting at her desk, Mma Ramotswe allowed her thoughts to wander. There was nothing in particular to do. There were no outstanding matters to investigate, as she had just completed a major enquiry on behalf of a large store that suspected, but could not prove, that one of its senior staff was embezzling money. Its accountants had looked at the books and had found discrepancies, but had been unable to find how and where the money had disappeared. In his frustration at the continuing losses, the managing director had called in Mma Ramotswe, who had compiled a list of all the senior staff and had decided to look into their circumstances. If money was disappearing, then there was every likelihood that somebody at the other end would be spending it. And this elementary conclusion-so obvious really-had led her straight to the culprit. It was not that he had advertised his ill-gotten wealth; Mma Ramotswe had been obliged to elicit this information by placing temptation before each suspect. At length, one had succumbed to the prospect of an expensive bargain and had been able to offer payment in cash-a sum beyond the means of a person in such a position. It was not the sort of investigation which she enjoyed, because it involved recrimination and shame, and Mma Ramotswe preferred to forgive, if at all possible. "I am a forgiving lady," she said, which was true. She did forgive, even to the extent of bearing no grudge against Note Mokoti, her cruel former husband, who had caused her such suffering during their brief, ill-starred marriage. She had forgiven Note, even though she did not see him any more, and she would tell him that he was forgiven if he came to her now. Why, she asked herself, why keep a wound open when forgiveness can close it?
Her unhappiness with Note had convinced her that she would never marry again. But then, on that extraordinary evening some time ago, when Mr J.L.B. Matekoni had proposed to her after he had spent all afternoon fixing the dispirited engine of her tiny white van, she had accepted him. And that was the right decision, for Mr J.L.B. Matekoni was not only the best mechanic in Botswana, but he was one of the kindest and most gracious of men. Mr J.L.B. Matekoni would do anything for one who needed help, and, in a world of increasing dishonesty, he still practised the old Botswana morality. He was a good man, which, when all is said and done, is the finest thing that you can say about any man. He was a good man.
It was strange at first to be an engaged lady; a status somewhere between spinsterhood and marriage; committed to another, but not yet another's spouse. Mma Ramotswe had imagined that they would marry within six months of the engagement, but that time had passed, and more, and still Mr J.L.B. Matekoni had said nothing about a wedding. Certainly he had bought her a ring and had spoken freely, and proudly, of her as his fiancée, but nothing had been said about the date of the wedding. She still kept her house in Zebra Drive, and he lived in his house in the Village, near the old Botswana Defence Force Club and the clinic, and not far from the old graveyard. Some people, of course, did not like to live too close to a graveyard, but modern people, like Mma Ramotswe, said that this was nonsense. Indeed, there were many differences of opinion here. The people who lived around Tlokweng, the Batlokwa, had a custom of burying their ancestors in a small, mud-walled round house, a rondavel, in the yard. This meant that those members of the family who died were always there with you, which was a good practice, thought Mma Ramotswe. If a mother died, then she might be buried under the hut of the children, so that her spirit could watch over them. That must have been comforting for children, thought Mma Ramotswe, to have the mother under the stamped cattle-dung floor.
There were many good things about the old ways, and it made Mma Ramotswe sad to think that some of these ways were dying out. Botswana had been a special country, and still was, but it had been more special in the days when everybody-or almost everybody-observed the old Botswana ways. The modern world was selfish, and full of cold and rude people. Botswana had never been like that, and Mma Ramotswe was determined that her small corner of Botswana, which was the house on Zebra Drive, and the office that the No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency and Tlokweng Road Speedy Motors shared, would always remain part of the old Botswana, where people greeted one another politely and listened to what others had to say, and did not shout or think just of themselves. That would never happen in that little part of Botswana, ever.
That morning, sitting at her desk, a steaming mug of bush tea before her, Mma Ramotswe was alone with her thoughts. It was nine o'clock, which was well into the working morning (which started at seven-thirty), but Mma Makutsi, her assistant, had been instructed to go to the post office on her way to work and would not arrive for a little while yet. Mma Makutsi had been hired as a secretary, but had quickly proved her value and had been promoted to assistant detective. In addition to this, she was Assistant Manager of Tlokweng Road Speedy Motors, a role which she had taken on with conspicuous success when Mr J.L.B. Matekoni had been ill. Mma Ramotswe was lucky to have such an assistant; there were many lazy secretaries in Gaborone, who sat in the security of their jobs tapping at a keyboard from time to time or occasionally picking up the telephone. Most of these lazy secretaries answered the telephone in the same tone of voice, as if the cares of being a secretary were overwhelming and there was nothing that they could possibly do for the caller. Mma Makutsi was quite unlike these; indeed she answered the telephone rather too enthusiastically, and had sometimes scared callers away altogether. But this was a minor fault in one who brought with her the distinction of being the most accomplished graduate of her year from the Botswana Secretarial College, where she had scored ninety-seven per cent in the final examinations.
As Mma Ramotswe sat at her desk, she heard sounds of activity from the garage on the other side of the building. Mr J.L.B. Matekoni was at work with his two apprentices, young men who seemed entirely obsessed with girls and who were always leaving grease marks about the building. Around each light switch, in spite of many exhortations and warnings, there was an area of black discolouration, where the apprentices had placed their dirty fingers. And Mma Ramotswe had even found greasy fingerprints on her telephone receiver and, more irritatingly still, on the door of the stationery cupboard.
"Mr J.L.B. Matekoni provides towels and all that lint for wiping off grease," she had said to the older apprentice. "They are always there in the washroom. When you have finished working on a car, wash your hands before you touch other things. What is so hard about that?"
"I always do that," said the apprentice. "It is not fair to talk to me like that, Mma. I am a very clean mechanic."
"Then is it you?" asked Mma Ramotswe, turning to the younger apprentice.
"I am very clean too, Mma," he said. "I am always washing my hands. Always. Always."
"Then it must be me," said Mma Ramotswe. "I must be the one with greasy hands. It must be me or Mma Makutsi. Maybe we get greasy from opening letters."
The older apprentice appeared to think about this for a moment. "Maybe," he said.
"There's very little point in trying to talk to them," Mr J.L.B. Matekoni had observed when Mma Ramotswe subsequently told him of this conversation. "There is something missing in their brains. Sometimes I think it is a large part, as big as a carburettor maybe."
Now Mma Ramotswe heard the sound of voices coming from the garage. Mr J.L.B. Matekoni was saying something to the apprentices, and then there came a mumbling sound as one of the young men answered. Another voice; this time raised; it was Mr J.L.B. Matekoni.
Mma Ramotswe listened. They had done something again, and he was reprimanding them, which was unusual. Mr J.L.B. Matekoni was a mild man, who did not like conflict, and always spoke politely. If he felt it necessary to raise his voice, then it must have been something very annoying indeed.
"Diesel fuel in an ordinary engine," he said, as he entered her office, wiping his hands on a large piece of lint. "Would you believe it, Mma Ramotswe? That . . . that silly boy, the younger one, put diesel fuel into the tank of a non-diesel vehicle. Now we have to drain everything out and try to clean the thing up.
Excerpted from The Full Cupboard of Life by Alexander McCall Smith.
Copyright © 2004 by Alexander McCall Smith. All rights reserved.
Posted with permission of the publisher.
No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without
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