When Oudoom rushes up the steps to the pulpit, everybody knows a storm is brewing. In a place like Rolbos, it usually doesn’t take a genius to figure out who did what wrong, and where, so all eyes swivel to Servaas and Hybie, who sit next to each other at the back. The creaking of the old benches settles down as Oudoom holds up a hand.
“Today, we’re not going to read from the scriptures. I won’t deliver a sermon. We won’t sing.” He pauses and allows the silence to make his congregation uncomfortable. “We will, of course take up an offering, as usual.” Like a good politician, he waits before he goes on.
“Today I want to talk to you about silence.” Again the pause. “Silence can be a sin, did you know that? Remaining silent about a sin, is a sin.” Now his words tumble out in a cascade of fury. He slams his fist down on the dais, and shouts: “All ye who remain silent about sin, are as guilty as the sinners themselves! Not a single person – no man or woman – had the integrity to complain about the gross misconduct that everybody knew about. You all harboured the snake of Satan, fed it, silenced it, and lived with it.”
Bu now, there is no doubt that he is going on about Servaas, the elder in the church, and his association with Hybie, the widow of Egbert, who fell from the roof on a Sunday because Hybie told him to get up there to fix it. A man of the church, stooping so low…and getting involved…
“Now I don’t have to spell out the rules of the church, do I? I don’t have to remind you of the wages of sin. You know right and wrong, Lord knows, I’ve spent my life teaching you about it. You’re about to gamble away your life in eternity and I shall not allow it! You must root out the unjust. You have a holy duty to declare you allegiance. You have no excuse! No excuse!” The fist comes down again. “I’ll give you a week. One week to sort this out. And then we’ll see…”
He stomps out, forgetting to ask somebody to take up the offering.
Outside the church the little congregation gathers in a much confused group. Servaas fled to his home, leaving Hybie to walk alone towards hers.
“Don’t you think he was talking about Boggel’s Place?” Vetfaan tries to make sense out of the sermon that wasn’t. “Remember how he objected to Boggel becoming a deacon?”
“Yes, but that was before we learnt about his regular supply of Port. You’ll recall he later preached about Paul who said a little wine is good for your health. No, there’s no prize for guessing what’s going on in his head. And I, for one, won’t do anything about it. If old Servaas is lucky enough to find a bit of company in his old age, I say we let it be.” Kleinpiet still dreams of the right one to grow old with him. He’s a romantic at heart, despite the rough exterior. “If you guys want to start complaining about things, you go ahead. I’m off to Boggels for a drink – I can sure use one right now.”
Not entirely surprisingly, the rest join him.
The atmosphere in Boggel’s Place is somber as the bent little man serves them all. It is obvious that Oudoom won’t let this one pass without some serious consequences. They all followed the romance between the two old people with a mixture of joy, jealousy and several smirks. Imagine that at that age, one can still become excited about …
“We’ll have to think of something, guys.” Life in Rolbos won’t ever be the same if Oudoom makes a stand of it, and Vetfaan knows it. “Maybe we should appoint a delegation to talk to Oudoom?”
“With him in such a mood? You’ve got to be joking. Nobody will sway him if he acts like he did this morning.” Gertruida – who is an expert on human behaviour (amongst other things) – is using her lecture voice. “No, I think we must rally in support of Servaas and Hybie. Sure, we had a nice gossip about them, but their happiness is at stake. Did you see the look on Hybie’s face when she had to go home alone? Both of them are crushed right now. They need us more than Oudoom needs somebody to come and lay a complaint. If nobody complains, he makes himself guilty of acting upon gossip. There’s something in the Bible about that, as well.”
For the rest of the week, Servaas, Hybie and Oudoom remain confined to their homes. The first two are rarely alone, however. Kleinpiet spends his days playing poker (beans as chips) with Servaas, while they talk about everything – except Hybie. Precilla and Gertruida take turns to visit Hybie, who keeps herself busy with a huge tapestry of an Eland. Nobody visits Oudoom, who can be seen peeking through the drawn curtains of the pastorie.
The talk in Boggel’s Place revolves around the question whether anybody should go to church on Sunday. Kleinpiet says they must all boycott the church, but Gertruida reckons that would be wrong. “We’re angry with Oudoom, not the Lord. Let’s go and hear what he has to say. If he starts up with Servaas and Hybie, we can all walk out and leave him shouting at the rafters. Maybe he’ll get the message then.”
Servaas visited Siena’s grave again on Friday. For once, he gets no answer. No friendly dust devil and no lonely Springbok arrive to give him a clue. He’s on his own, and he knows it.
On Saturday Boggel watches with a certain amount of trepidation as Servaas, dressed in his best, walks down the street towards Hybie’s home. Half-an-hour later he reappears and returns to his own cottage. He has the determined step of a soldier on his way to the front.
The townsfolk arrive at church on the stroke of nine on Sunday. Nobody wanted to be early for the usual chat-and-banter before the service, in case Oudoom confronts them in person. It is easier to keep the pulpit between the clergyman and the flock – it creates a safe distance which they all feel they need right now.
The Oudoom that emerge from the vestry, is a downcast and depressed-looking man. Gone is the fire and brimstone of last week; replaced with a resigned slouch of the shoulders and an almost whispered welcome to the House of the Lord.
“You know,” he starts in a soft and conversational tone, like one would expect a condemned man would use before the sergeant gives the order to fire; it is stupid and hopeless to argue at that point. “I was hoping for more integrity amongst you. After the years of preaching and teaching, I thought you had enough knowledge and wisdom to recognise the Devil.
“If one of you had the guts to complain, I could have acted. If a single voice went up in protest, I could have prevented the agent of Satan to infiltrate our midst. You’ve all seen it, right under your noses, and yet you remained silent!” He is getting angry again, and several people start eying the doors. They may have to leave soon. “But no. I tried telling Sammie you wouldn’t tolerate it. He laughed in my face. I told him you know about gambling, and that you’d complain. He said if a single one of you complained, he’d remove the Lotto machine from his shop…”
Oudoom doesn’t get to finish the sentence. Despite his anger, he sees how suddenly his congregation starts cheering and laughing. Kleinpiet is on his feet, hugging Gertruida, who doesn’t know whether to laugh or to cry. Vetfaan skips down the aisle to shake Boggel’s hand. And Hybie, who sits a respectable distance from Servaas, suddenly finds her hand clasped in the bony hand of the old man, while he tells her he loves her.
Once the pandemonium dies down, they circulate a petition to ask Sammie – with great respect and a promise to pay their accounts within the next week – if he would mind if they asked him nicely to remove the instrument of Satan from his shop. Let the rest of the country gamble, but the Lotto is not welcome in Rolbos, where Oudoom is right in saying gambling is wrong. The slightly overwhelmed and confused pastor says a quick prayer of thanks before he allows his flock to start to trudge out, to celebrate at Boggel’s.
“The ways of the Lord…”he whispers, shaking his head as they leave. Then he catches a glimpse of Servaas and Hybie, walking hand-in-hand through the big wooden doors that protect the sacred building. A sad smile hovers on his face. It’s such a beautiful thing if love found it’s way back to Rolbos, he thinks, I’ll have to congratulate them, once I’ve spoken to Sammie tomorrow…