Authors: Alexander Mccall Smith
She walked back to the van and climbed into the driving seat. She had succeeded in
very determined when she gave the apprentices their instructions, but she felt far from certain inside. In fact, she felt extremely concerned. In her experience, when people began to behave out of character it was a sign that something was very wrong. Mr J.L.B. Matekoni was a thoroughly conscientious man, and thoroughly conscientious men did not let their customers down unless there was a very good reason. But what was it? Was it something to do with their impending marriage? Had he changed his mind? Did he wish to escape?
MMA MAKUTSI locked the door of the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency. Mma Ramotswe had gone off to the garage to talk to Mr J.L.B. Matekoni and had left her to finish the letters and get them to the post. No request made of her would have seemed excessive, so great was Mma Makutsi’s joy at her promotion and the news of her increase in wages. It was a Thursday, and tomorrow was payday, even if it would be a payday at the old rate. She would treat herself to something in anticipation, she thought—perhaps a doughnut on the way home. Her route took her past a small stall that sold doughnuts and other fried foods and the smell was tantalising. Money was the problem, though. A large, fried doughnut cost two pula, which made it an expensive treat, especially if one thought what the evening meal would cost. Living in Gaborone was expensive; everything seemed to cost twice as much as it did at home. In the country, ten pula would get one a long way; here in Gaborone ten pula notes seemed to melt in one’s hand.
Mma Makutsi rented a room in the backyard of a house off the Lobatse Road. The room formed half of a small, breezeblock shack which looked out to the back fence and a meandering lane, the haunt of thin-faced dogs. The dogs were loosely attached to the people who lived in the houses, but seemed to prefer their own company and roamed about in packs of two or three. Somebody must have fed them, at irregular intervals, but their rib cages still showed and they seemed constantly to be scavenging for scraps from the rubbish bins. On occasion, if Mma Makutsi left her door open, one of these dogs would wander in and gaze at her with mournful, hungry eyes until she shooed it out. This was perhaps a greater indignity than that which befell her at work, when the chickens came into the office and started pecking about her feet.
She bought her doughnut at the stall and ate it there and then, licking the sugar off her fingers when she had finished. Then, her hunger assuaged, she began the walk home. She could have ridden home in a minibus—it was a cheap enough form of transport—but she enjoyed the walk in the cool of the evening, and she was usually in no hurry to reach home. She wondered how he was; whether it had been a good day for her brother, or whether his coughing would have tired him out. He had been quite comfortable over the last few days, although he was very weak now, and she had enjoyed one or two nights of unbroken sleep.
He had come to live with her two months earlier, making the long journey from their home by bus. She had gone to meet him at the bus station down by the railway, and for a brief moment she had looked at him without recognising him. The last time she had seen him he had been well-built, even bulky; now he was stooped and thin and his shirt flapped loosely about his torso. When she realised that it was him, she had run up and taken his hand, which had shocked her, for it was hot and dry and the skin was cracked. She had lifted his suitcase for him, although he had tried to do that himself, and had carried it all the way to the minibus that plied its trade down the Lobatse Road.
After that, he had settled in, sleeping on the mat which she had set up on the other side of her room. She had strung a wire from wall to wall and hung a curtain over it, to give him privacy and some sense of having his own place, but she heard every rasping breath he drew and was often woken by his mumbling in his dreams.
“You are a kind sister to take me in,” he said. “I am a lucky man to have a sister like you.”
She had protested that it was no trouble, and that she liked having him with her, and that he could stay with her when he was better and found a job in Gaborone, but she knew that this was not going to happen. He knew too, she was sure, but neither spoke about it or the cruel disease which was ending his life, slowly, like a drought dries up a landscape.
Now, coming home, she had good news for him. He was always very interested to hear what had happened at the agency, as he always asked her for all the details of her day. He had never met Mma Ramotswe—Mma Makutsi did not want her to know about his illness—but he had a very clear picture of her in his head and he always asked after her.
“I will meet her one day, maybe,” he said. “And I will be able to thank her for what she has done for my sister. If it hadn’t been for her, then you would never have been able to become an assistant detective.”
“She is a kind woman.”
“I know she is,” he said. “I can see this nice woman with her smile and her fat cheeks. I can see her drinking tea with you. I am happy just to think about it.”
Mma Makutsi wished that she had thought to buy him a doughnut, but often he had no appetite and it would have been wasted. His mouth was painful, he said, and the cough made it difficult for him to eat very much. So often he would take only a few spoonfuls of the soup which she prepared on her small paraffin stove, and even then he would sometimes have difficulty in keeping these down.
Somebody else was in the room when she got home. She heard a strange voice and for a moment she feared that something terrible had happened in her absence, but when she entered the room she saw that the curtain had been drawn back and that there was a woman sitting on a small folding stool beside his mat. When she heard the door open, the woman stood up and turned to face her.
“I am the nurse from the Anglican hospice,” she said. “I have come to see our brother. My name is Sister Baleje.”
The nurse had a pleasant smile, and Mma Makutsi took to her immediately.
“You are kind to come and see him,” Mma Makutsi said. “I wrote that letter to you just to let you know that he was not well.”
The nurse nodded. “That was the right thing to do. We can call in to see him from time to time. We can bring food if you need it. We can do something to help, even if it’s not a great deal. We have some drugs we can give him. They are not very strong, but they can help a bit.”
Mma Makutsi thanked her, and looked down at her brother.
“It is the coughing that troubles him,” she said. “That is the worst thing, I think.”
“It is not easy,” said the nurse.
The nurse sat down on her stool again and took the brother’s hand.
“You must drink more water, Richard,” she said. “You must not let yourself get too thirsty.”
He opened his eyes and looked up at her, but said nothing. He was not sure why she was here, but thought that she was a friend of his sister, perhaps, or a neighbour.
The nurse looked at Mma Makutsi and gestured for her to sit on the floor beside them. Then, still holding his hand, she reached forward and gently touched his cheek.
“Lord Jesus,” she said, “who helps us in our suffering. Look down on this poor man and have mercy on him. Make his days joyful. Make him happy for his good sister here, who looks after him in his illness. And bring him peace in his heart.”
Mma Makutsi closed her eyes, and put her hand on the shoulder of the nurse, where it rested, as they sat in silence.
A VISIT TO DR MOFFAT
S MMA Makutsi sat at her brother’s side, Mma Ramotswe was driving her tiny white van up to the gate of Mr J.L.B. Matekoni’s house near the old Botswana Defence Force Club. She could see that he was in; the green truck which he inevitably drove—in spite of his having a rather better vehicle which he left parked at the garage—stood outside his front door, which he had left half open for the heat. She left the van outside, to save herself from getting in and out to open and shut the gate, and walked up to the house past the few scruffy plants which Mr J.L.B. Matekoni called his garden.
“Ko! Ko!” she called at the door. “Are you there, Mr J.L.B. Matekoni?”
A voice came from the living room. “I am here. I am in, Mma Ramotswe.”
Mma Ramotswe walked in, noticing immediately how dusty and unpolished was the floor of the hall. Ever since Mr J.L.B. Matekoni’s sullen and unpleasant maid, Florence, had been sent to prison for harbouring an unlicensed gun, the house had been allowed to get into an unkempt state. She had reminded Mr J.L.B. Matekoni on several occasions to engage a replacement maid, at least until they got married, and he had promised to do so. But he had never acted, and Mma Ramotswe had decided that she would simply have to bring her maid in one day and attempt a spring clean of the whole place.
“Men will live in a very untidy way, if you let them,” she had remarked to a friend. “They cannot keep a house or a yard. They don’t know how to do it.”
She made her way through the hall and into the living room. As she entered, Mr J.L.B. Matekoni, who had been lying full length on his uncomfortable sofa, rose to his feet and tried to make himself look less dishevelled.
“It is good to see you, Mma Ramotswe,” he said. “I have not seen you for several days.”
“That is true,” said Mma Ramotswe. “Perhaps that is because you have been so busy.”
“Yes,” he said, sitting down again, “I have been very busy. There is so much work to be done.”
She said nothing, but watched him as he spoke. There was something wrong; she had been right.
“Are things busy at the garage?” she asked.
He shrugged his shoulders. “Things are always busy at the garage. All the time. People keep bringing their cars in and saying Do this, do that. They think I have ten pairs of hands. That’s what they think.”
“But do you not expect people to bring their cars to the garage?” she asked gently. “Is that not what a garage is for?”
Mr J.L.B. Matekoni looked at her briefly and then shrugged. “Maybe. But there is still too much work.”
Mma Ramotswe glanced about the room, noticing the pile of newspapers on the floor and the small stack of what looked like unopened letters on the table.
“I went to the garage,” she said. “I expected to see you there, but they said that you had left early. They said you often left early these days.”
Mr J.L.B. Matekoni looked at her, and then transferred his gaze to the floor. “I find it hard to stay there all day, with all that work,” he said. “It will get done sooner or later. There are those two boys. They can do it.”
Mma Ramotswe gasped. “Those two boys? Those apprentices of yours? But they are the very ones you always said could do nothing. How can you say now that they will do everything that needs to be done? How can you say that?”
Mr J.L.B. Matekoni did not reply.
“Well, Mr J.L.B. Matekoni?” pressed Mma Ramotswe. “What’s your answer to that?”
“They’ll be all right,” he said, in a curious, flat voice. “Let them get on with it.”
Mma Ramotswe stood up. There was no point talking to him when he was in this sort of mood—and it certainly was a mood that he seemed to be in. Perhaps he was ill. She had heard that a bout of flu could leave one feeling lethargic for a week or two; perhaps that was the simple explanation of this out-of-character behaviour. In which case, she would just have to wait until he came out of it.
“I’ve spoken to Mma Makutsi,” she said as she prepared to leave. “I think that she can start at the garage sometime in the next few days. I have given her the title of Assistant Manager. I hope that you don’t mind.”
His reply astonished her.
“Assistant Manager, Manager, Managing Director, Minister of Garages,” he said. “Whatever you like. It makes no difference, does it?”
Mma Ramotswe could not think of a suitable reply, so she said goodbye and started to walk out of the door.
“Oh, by the way,” said Mr J.L.B. Matekoni as she started to leave the house, “I thought that I might go out to the lands for a little while. I want to see how the planting is going. I might stay out there for a while.”
Mma Ramotswe stared at him. “And in the meantime, what happens to the garage?”
Mr J.L.B. Matekoni sighed. “You run it. You and that secretary of yours, the Assistant Manager. Let her do it. It’ll be all right.”
Mma Ramotswe pursed her lips. “All right,” she said. “We’ll look after it, Mr J.L.B. Matekoni, until you start to feel better.”
“I’m fine,” said Mr J.L.B. Matekoni. “Don’t worry about me. I’m fine.”
SHE DID not drive home to Zebra Drive, although she knew that the two foster children would be waiting there for her. Motholeli, the girl, would have prepared their evening meal by now, and she needed little supervision or help, in spite of her wheelchair. And the boy, Puso, who was inclined to be rather boisterous, would perhaps have expended most of his energy and would be ready for his bath and his bed, both of which Motholeli could prepare for him.
Instead of going home, she turned left at Kudu Road and made her way down past the flats to the house in Odi Way where her friend Dr Moffat lived. Dr Moffat, who used to run the hospital out at Mochudi, had looked after her father and had always been prepared to listen to her when she was in difficulties. She had spoken to him about Note before she had confided in anybody else, and he had told her, as gently as he could, that in his experience such men never changed.
“You must not expect him to become a different man,” he had said. “People like that rarely change.”
He was a busy man, of course, and she did not wish to intrude on his time, but she decided that she would see if he was in and whether he could throw any light on the way in which Mr J.L.B. Matekoni was behaving. Was there some strange infection doing the rounds which made people all tired and listless? If this were the case, then how long might one expect it to last?
Dr Moffat had just returned home. He welcomed Mma Ramotswe at the door and led her into his study.
“I am worried about Mr J.L.B. Matekoni,” she explained. “Let me tell you about him.”
He listened for a few minutes and then stopped her.
“I think I know what the trouble might be,” he said. “There’s a condition called depression. It is an illness like any other illness, and quite common too. It sounds to me as if Mr J.L.B. Matekoni could be depressed.”
“And could you treat that?”
“Usually quite easily,” said Dr Moffat. “That is, provided that he has depression. If he has, then we have very good antidepressants these days. If all went well, which it probably would, we could have him starting to feel quite a bit better in three weeks or so, maybe even a little bit earlier. These pills take some time to act.”
“I will tell him to come and see you straightaway,” said Mma Ramotswe.
Dr Moffat looked doubtful. “Sometimes they don’t think there’s anything wrong with them,” he said. “He might not come. It’s all very well my telling you what the trouble probably is; he’s the one who has to seek treatment.”
“Oh, I’ll get him to you,” said Mma Ramotswe. “You can count on that. I’ll make sure that he seeks treatment.”
The doctor smiled. “Be careful, Mma Ramotswe,” he said. “These things can be difficult.”