Doing the Right Thing

alexandermccallsmithShe looked at him and saw him smile in response. Yes he understood that what he said was funny. That was important in itself. It was good to be able to share such things with somebody else. The little jokes of life, the little absurdities.

They sat together for a few more minutes, finishing their drinks. Then Miss Makutsi rose to her feet and announced that she was going to the ladies room and would meet him back in the dance hall for the rest of the class.

She found a door labeled power room which bore an outline picture of a woman in a long flowing skirt. She went in and immediately regretted it.

“So! There you are, Grace Makutsi!” said the woman standing at the basin.

Miss Makutsi stopped, but the door had closed behind her and she could hardly pretend that she has come into the wrong room.

She looked at the woman at the basin, and the name came back to her. This was the woman she had seen in the dance class and her name was Violet Sephotho. She was one of the worst of the glamorous, empty headed set at the Botswana Secretarial College and here she was applying powder to her face in the aptly named Powder Room of the Presidents Hotel.

‘Violet,” said Miss Makutsi.  ”It is good to see you again.”

Violet smiled, closed her powder compact and leant back against the edge of the basin. She had the air of one who was settling in for a long chat.

‘Yes, sure,’ she said. “I haven’t seen you for ages. Ages. Not since we finished the course.” She paused, looking Miss Makutsi up and down, as if appraising her dress. “You did well, didn’t you? At that college, I mean.”

The thrust of the comment was unambiguous. One might do well at college, but this was very different from the real world. And then there was the disdainful reference to that college, as if there were better secretarial colleges to be attended.

Miss Makutsi ignored the barb, “And you, Violet? What have been doing? Did you manage to find a job?”

The implication in this remark was that those who got barely fifty per cent in the final examinations might be expected to experience some difficultly in finding a job. This was not lost on Violet, whose eyes narrowed.

“Find a job?” she retorted. ”Miss, I had them lined up to give me a job!  I had so many offers that I could think of no way of choosing between them.  So you know what I did?  You want to know?”

Miss Makutsi nodded.  She wanted to be out of this room, and away from this person, but she realized that she had to remain.  She would have to stand up for herself is she were not to feel completely belittled by the encounter.

“I looked at the men who were offering jobs and the chose the best looking one,” she announced.  “I knew that was how they would choose their secretary, so I applied the same rule to them! Hah!

Miss Makutsi said nothing.  She could comment on the stupidity of this, but then that would enable Violet to say something like, “Well that may be stupid in your eyes, but look at the jobs I got.”  So she said nothing, and held the other woman’s challenging glance.

Violet lowered her eyes and inspected her brightly polished nails.  “Nice shoes,: she said.  “Those green shoes of your, I‘ve never seen anybody wear green shoes before.  It’s brave of you.  I would be frightened that people would laugh at me if I wore shoes like that.”

Miss Makutsi bit her lip.  What was wrong with green shoes?  And how dare this woman, this empty headed woman, pass comment on her taste in shoes?  She looked at Violet’s shoes, sleek black shoes with pointed toes and quite unsuitable for dancing.  The looked expensive – much more expensive than these shoes which Miss Makutsi had treated herself to and of which she felt so proud.

“But lets not talk about funny shoes,” Violet went on breezily.  “Lets talk about men.  Don’t you love talking about men?   That man through there.  Is that your uncle or something?”

Miss Makutsi closed her eyes and imagined for a moment that Mma Ramotswe (her teacher) was by her side.  What would Mma Ramotswe advise I such circumstances?  Could Mma Ramotswe provide the words to deal with this woman, or would she say, “No, do not allow yourself to be belittled by her.  Do not stoop to her level.  You are worth more than that silly girl.”  And Miss Makutsi saw Mma Ramotswe in her mind’s eye, and heard her too, and that is exactly what she said.

“The man you are dancing with is very handsome,” said Miss Makutsi, “You are lucky to have such a handsome man to dance with.  But then you are a very pretty lady, Mma and you deserve these handsome men.  It is quite right that way.”

Violet stared at her for a moment and then looked away.  Nothing more was said, and Miss Makutsi went about her business.

“Well done,” said Mma Ramotswe’ voice, “You did just the right thing there.  Just the right thing!”

“It is very hard,” replied Miss Makutsi.

“It often is,” said Mma Ramotswe.

Website for more information:
Alexander McCall Smith
Excerpt from his book “In the Company of Cheerful Ladies”.
Official site with newsletter, biography, bibliography, Botswana trip diary and forum.

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