Why widower du Preez finally caved in and proposed to Mary Bottomsweight – also affectionately known as Fat Mary – is a question of conjecture. She isn’t really anything much to look at, although there is so much to look at. She did sing in the church choir for a while but eventually was asked (very nicely, very diplomatically) to leave as her voice drowned out the harmonious voices around her. And, maybe because she won the yearly weight-lifting competition at the annual agricultural show by lifting Fred Vermaak’s prize milk cow, none of the bachelors of the district had the guts to ask her out on a date.
Now, you must not confuse dating in a big city with the risky business of asking a girl out in a town like Rolbos. You see, Rolbos consists of a few houses, a pub, a sort-of post Office which doubles as the pharmacy and Sammie’s Shop. It is a small, insignificant place, where the inhabitants had absolutely nothing to excite their lives. If anything of note happened, it caused great excitement and prompted lively and enthusiastic discussions. Endless discussions, you might say. Several events fell into the ‘excitement category’; such as the length of the drought or the dust devil that danced down the main street; what was it, three weeks ago?
Dating doesn’t occur in Rolbos, anyway. Old Frank Pretorius – the only other older and single male, had his prostate operated on three years ago (an event that still fills the slow hours of gossip) and consensus in town is that he apparently lost more than just a troublesome gland during the procedure. There are several widows around, of course, but they are generally so satisfied with their hard-won freedom that they not only consider it as an apt reward for years of faithful service; but also have no wish to go hunting for a new victim.
Nobody really recalls the last time a gentleman of marryable age courted a consenting young lady. There must have been a time in the distant past that such things occurred, but that was so long ago that nobody talks about it anymore. It could also be that everybody wanted to forget the clumsy days of holding hands and staring at the sunset while the entire town looks on. Dating, you must understand, is a very public thing in Rolbos. That bench in the garden next to the church offers the only place where you can whisper sweet nothings without the whole town doing lip-reading.
Gertruida is arguably the best lip-reader in the country, if not the continent. Armed with her (now dead) husband’s binoculars, she may as well have been a stenographer in the Supreme Court in Cape Town. She can recite, word for word and with the necessary emotions, the conversations people have when they pass past het lace curtains on their way to the pub or the shop. Fortunately her window overlooks the main street and not the garden next to the church, so that anything that must be shared with utmost confidence, is talked about on that bench. No other place; not he shop or the pharmacy, offers the degree of confidentiality that garden does.
But all this didn’t help Karel du Preez any. As the local postmaster, he knew exactly what was happening in town. Every letter told a story, every telegram held a secret and every package on his little postal shelf – next to the few pills he kept – conveyed some information about the recipient. If anybody knew the extent of gossip in town, he did; which is why he swore an oath to keep his mouth shut about other people’s affairs. Now, this fact caused a lot of debate as well. Some say he is a real stuck-up individual, thinking that he is more important than the rest of them. Others appreciate him for protecting the news of a daughter who became pregnant or the increase of their anti-depressants.
So we end up with secretive Karel and Fat Mary, both of them lonely and not part of the circle of gossipers – and therefore giving them something in common. This certainly is no basis for a successful relationship – according to the talk in town. Oudoom says marriage is only desirable if it was planned in Heaven but Gertruida says the condition of male congestion is reason enough. Because she knows more about medicine than most people, her verdict was never questioned and nobody asked her to explain what exactly the term meant.
When Fat Mary walked, waddled and heaved into Karel’s post office that day, there must have been an alignment of several major celestial bodies to cause the effect it had on both of them.
She enquired about a package; he shook his head. No telegram either.
“Expecting something?” This was a silly question and Karel immediately apologised. After all, it wasn’t his business, was it? Then again, as postmaster, maybe it was.
“Yes,” she said hesitantly.
“Large or small?”
“Well, I don’t really know. I ordered the…thing after I saw an advertisement. In a magazine, you understand? They didn’t say what size the package was, only that it would be wrapped in plain brown paper.” This was quite a statement for a town like Rolbos, but Karel was known for his confidentiality, so she said: “It must be about that long and has batteries.” She indicated with her fingers as she whispered the last bit.
Karel knew there was no such package but he looked again before shaking his head sadly. No, he didn’t have it. She promised to be back again the next day and Karel closed his shop that evening, taking her innermost secret with him.
That long, works with batteries. He mulled over it. Rolbos is a lonely place. Fat Mary may be big, but she is a woman…a real, live, healthy woman. She must have feelings, emotions desires?
That night Karel dreamt about his wife. They were sitting at their favourite picnic spot next to the river. They laughed and drank wine. All of a sudden she got up and looked down at him.
“Karel,” she said with a kind voice, “you have been alone for too long. It is time for you to move on.”
Then just like dreams do, she smiled and dissolved into a pure-white cloud, that was blown away by a gentle breeze as he stood there, waving.
Fat Mary returned the next day, and the next. They talked a bit, well aware that the townsfolk would start wondering about the frequent visits. By day four, they no longer worried or cared about the gossip – they had found talking easy and that they shared an interest in poetry and music and cooking. Day five saw them swapping favourite recipes and when the package eventually arrived before her sixth visit, they decided to celebrate with a dinner at her house. She’d bake and he’d bring pudding.
Karel had, of course, inspected the package carefully before she came. It was, indeed, about that long, and when he shook the wrapped-in-brown-paper package, he could hear loose items inside – like batteries, maybe?
The town looked on as he walked down the street to her house that evening. He was dressed in his best, flowers in one hand, the baked pudding balanced on the other – and the package, dangling by its string from one finger. Everybody – everybody – knew what was happening. Gertruida predicted the inevitable. He has male congestion, she said, and there is only one cure. Boggel’s Place buzzed with the news.
Karel, indeed, had more than supper in mind. His congestion, as Gertruida so correctly diagnosed, was in an advanced stage and he made a few lewd remarks over the superb well-fed leg of lamb. To his surprise, Fat Mary laughed and replied that her well-done leg was sure to satisfy even the best taste in town. One thing led to another and by the time they finished the pudding, they were sitting next to each other, feeding hungry mouths with the dripping custard on their fingers.
The cracking of a twig disturbed their mood at that moment. When Karel went to the window, he wasn’t surprised to find Gertruida hiding behind the chrysanthemums. By then the two diners couldn’t give a damn anymore. They switched off all the lights. If the town wanted to talk about them; well so be it.
The rustling of paper stopped Karel in his tracks. The package! Surely he was man enough for this filly; although she may be rather large, he certainly was man enough for the job, wasn’t he? No need for her to revert to artificial means, after all. He could supply all she needed.
And so Karel du Preez proceeded, in the worst Victorian fashion, to seduce Fat Mary. Truth be told: she wasn’t entirely unwilling in all this. She surprised him by accepting his initial clumsy advances and then overwhelmed him with her willingness to be part of his fantasy.
Later, when he flopped back exhausted and was ready to doze off, he heard the rustling again and felt despair taking over. Had he not been good enough? Had he not made the grade?
He heard the carton flaps open, some mechanical sounds and batteries being inserted into a hollow space. Then she switched on the torch…
“I’m just going to see if there is any lamb left, I’m so peckish when I’m happy …” she said.
That’s why we’ll never know why Karel du Preez popped the question. Was it because the town knew, and it was the honourable thing to do? Was it because he liked her cooking? Or was it sheer relief that he was good enough and that the package only contained a torch, about that long?
I don’t suppose we’ll ever know, will we? Gertruida didn’t return to the pub that night – she said Karel’s congestion is his own business, anyway. But Fat Mary did make a beautiful bride in the end.
The day they walked down the aisle, a few pure-white clouds travelled slowly across the sky and dissolved into the blue as they did so. Karel smiled his secret smile and squeezed the ample body next to him, drawing her closer.
“Now everybody knows,” he said.
And Fat Mary gave an earthy giggle, never realising that she wouldn’t be enjoying this moment if she hadn’t ordered that torch in the Farmer’s Weekly.
Which just goes to show: even the happiest couples keep a few little secrets from each other. Some are so precious that even lip-reading Gertruida would never guess what they are.
Author’s Note: Karel was the postmaster before Servaas took over. Soon after Karel’s marriage, the couple moved to Grootdrink, where they still stay.