A toga has a certain dignity to it. It changes the wearer from a average person to somebody with authority. Or knowledge. Or wisdom. Maybe even into an extension of some higher power – especially amongst the faithful who flock to churches every Sunday. The message from the pulpit becomes a missive from Above, and not the ramblings of a Common Joe who fretted a week long to find new words to describe sin. Without the toga, the sermon loses its weight, and the congregation gets exposed to a preacher who can claim no more influence than they can.
Oudoom has always been meticulous about his toga. A crumpled toga belongs to a negligent pastor. A dirty toga (thank goodness it’s black) is unthinkable. During all the years of guilt and anger, he needed that toga to give him the strength to climb the few steps to the small pulpit in the tiny church in the diminutive town of Rolbos.
But not today. After glancing over to Mevrou, he pauses longer than usual at the steps as a murmur of surprise ripples through the gathering. What? Oudoom in jeans and a plain shirt? No tie? Where’s the man’s toga, for goodness sakes! She nods with a sad smile, and he climbs up to the pulpit.
The whispers subside when he looks up; as if in surprise at their reaction; when he reaches the top stair. He greets them with is usual salutation, sighs, and sits down so they can sing the first hymn. As usual, the congregation follows the slow pace of the organ, stretching the words into almost-unrecognisable forms. Oudoom often wonders if the Lord likes slow singing – or if it matters at all how these songs are sung. Is it simply a matter of repeating the right words – without having to grasp the depth and the meaning of the hymn? Funny how he never worried about this – and now, today; on this most important day; these thoughts are bothering him. Toga’s and hymns; the opium to the masses? The thought causes an unexpected smile.
When at last the congregation sits down, Oudoom gets up with slumped shoulders. Better get this over with. Tell them about the past, greet them, and get out – three main points, like a good sermon should have.
Before he starts speaking, he notices old Marco and his pretty daughter sitting in the bench near the door. Prabably came to gloat, he thinks, to see how my life finally caught up with me. Ah, well, maybe just as well. Now they will hear the news first-hand and won’t have to rely on gossip.
“Today I want to talk to you – not as your pastor, but as a man. A simple man. A man that has lived a lie for too many years. Don’t look at me as your Dominee today, or even as Oudoom … today it is I, Hendrik Vermeulen, husband of Issie, who wants to talk to you.”
Again the murmur – only Gertruida knew Mevrou’s name. Oudoom coughs, holds up a hand, and continues.
“Issie and I know about your meeting last night. I’m sure you discussed the … developments … of recent times in detail. I see Mister Verdana and his daughter are here today, as well, and that makes it easier to say what I have to.
“I want to start with the reason why I came to Rolbos. I need to confess…”
“Excuse me, Dominee.” Servaas – dressed in the obligatory suit and white tie – uses his church voice to interrupt. “I have something to say.”
Oudoom hates interruptions; everybody knows that. A small irritated frown forms on his forehead, but he manages to nod. Servaas gets up to address the pulpit.
“You know we are taught – every Sunday – about morals. About right and wrong. About sin.” Servaas talks to Oudoom directly, with his back to the audience. “You have scolded us when we were – in your eyes – straying from the path of righteousness. And you know, Dominee, that’s what we talked about last night. We simply cannot go on the way we are doing. It’s not right. The Lord will frown down on us if we don’t cleanse this congregation of falsehood and deceit.”
Several heads nod amongst the people in the benches. Yes, they’re saying, Servaas is right, we’re with him on this one.
“Rolbos, Dominee, is a small community. We depend on each other. Why, the other day when Vrede went missing, we all looked for him. And when we found him quietly gnawing a bone behind Sammie’s Shop, we were glad. And when Boggel needed a new roof, we all worked together to fix it. That’s how it is in Rolbos. We know we can depend on honesty and if one of us has a problem, we stand together to fix it.
“That’s what we talked about. Gertruida told us. She said you carry a heavy yoke and you never had the courage to share it. Now we, Dominee, take a dim view of that. Very dim. We are your flock and we expect you to share with us.
“But Gertruida also said another thing in Boggel’s last night. We didn’t want to hear it, no sir! It cut too near the bone! So we talked about it a lot and came to a decision. Maybe it’s not what you and Mevrou would approve, not during a service, but that’s what we decided and that’s what we are going to do.
“Now Dominee, we decided…”
“Oh for goodness sakes, Servaas, get on with it.” Vetfaan’s irritated voice drowns Servaas’ monotone. “Let’s get this over with. It’s hard enough the way it is.”
Servaas turns around to face Vetfaan. “Listen, I am the elder, and it is my duty. Now why don’t you just remain quiet while I do my job. I remind you that Oudoom appointed me as head elder and not you.” He stares Vetfaan down, who drops his head in his hands, muttering something about somebody’s inflated ego.
“So, as I was saying, Dominee, we came to a decision.” Servaas turns on his heel and takes his seat next to Vetfaan, who gets an elbow in the ribs.
“And what, Elder Servaas, is that decision?” Oudoom knows – from years of experience – that a Dominee must always listen to his congregation. If they have something to say, it’s better to let them air their opinions. You don’t have to agree, but you must seem to be interested in their drivel.
To his surpise, Boggel shuffles to the front after Servaas stared at him. This, Oudoom decides, is something they agreed on.
Boggel, despite his hunchback, straightens himself as well as he can.
“Dominee, I grew up in an orphanage. There I fell in love with a girl. Her father abused her…” Boggel speaks for a full ten minutes, telling them about his past[i]. When at last he finishes, Kleinpiet gets up and tells them about the girl he left when she fell pregnant. Then it’s Precilla who – blushing and stuttering – informs them how she made money to pay for her studies, and what price she had to pay for it eventually. Sersant admits he hates his job and how he struggles to understand the way the police force works these days.
To their utter surprise, Sammie walks into the church at that point, and confesses how he has been diddling his books to avoid paying taxes. Ben Bitterbrak tells them about his childhood and how he learnt to curse like he does. He manages with only three bloodies and a single f-word. Gertruida takes them back to her affair with Ferdinand, the spy, and their evenings in his flat.
And so, one after the other, the members of the congregation impart their deepest secrets. By this time, Mevrou has joined Oudoom on the pulpit, where the couple listens with tears streaming down their cheeks.
It becomes one of the longest services the little church has even seen. Wiele Willemse stands up to say he’s sorry for all the fake sick notes he has handed in at Kalahari Vervoer. It is almost as if they are all overwhelmed by the need to get rid of the stuff that has been bothering for years. At last, Servaas confesses to the communion-wine debacle.
The meeting falls silent. In a long, drawn-out few minutes, nobody dares to speak. Oudoom tries to clear his throat and is about to start talking when an extremely guilty-looking Vrede ambles down the aisle. In his mouth is a piece of biltong he just stole from Servaas’s stoep. With a muffled grrrr-arf he flops down in front of the pulpit.
All of a sudden, the spell is broken. The congregation collapses in laughter; but whether it is relief, or mirth or just the fact that everybody got rid of some nasty baggage, is difficult to say. Servaas gets up, bends down to take his biltong back – but straightens up again, shaking his head.
“You see, Dominee, we all have secrets. Maybe we have less of them after this service, but last night we decided it is wrong to live with so much pretence. Now, Dominee, Gertruida refused to tell us what this yoke is that’s bearing you down. She also said there is a season for everything. She assured us you have other priorities now, and that you and Mevrou will need some time to sort things out. You’ll tell us when you’re good and ready and when the Lord leads you to do so.
“So we all chipped in, Dominee. We think you and Mevrou need a bit of time to yourself. Sammie, here, has a brother who has a flat in Onrus, that little seaside village near Cape Town. We want you to take Vetfaan’s pickup and drive there today. Lucinda packed some padkos, Marco gave some wine and the rest of us want you to accept this small donation we collected last night.” After stretching to place the envelope on the pulpit, he turns to the congregation. Servaas spreads his arms wide and blesses them with the benediction.
Oudoom is left gaping as the people file out. Here he was, ready to resign, and … He turns to Mevrou with a trembling lip.
“This isn’t happening,” he says.
And Issie, with a tenderness so long forgotten, tells him yes my love, it is.
When the pickup drives down Voortrekker Weg, the crowd in front of Boggel’s Place waves until the dust on the road to Grootdrink settles.
The woman next to the driver glances back with a wry smile.
“You know that lot is going to have a week-long party, with you out of town and nobody to guide them?”
The driver laughs. “Honeybunch, it’s okay. They taught me more about faith in a single morning than the university did in all those years. Let them be. They deserve a break from us.”
“You know, this is special town,” Marco says as Boggel shuffles over with some wine. “I never hear something like this. You make history today.”
“No, Marco, not history. We just did the right thing.” He smiles at Lucinda who blows him a kiss. “And we made a memory.”
“And you make two people very happy,” Lucinda says. “I like that.”
Servaas storms in, red in the face and out of breath. “Has anyone seen that damn dog? If I find him, I’ll skin him alive! He took ALL of my biltong.”
“No Servaas,” Gertruida calms the old man down. “I took it and hung it on my porch. The roof is higher. It’s like we did with Oudoom and Mevrou – it’s safer when you move nearer to heaven…”
And so, after reading about 160 Rolbos stories (and writing them), it is time for us to leave Boggel to pursue the lovely Lucinda; for old Marco to settle in the community; for Gertruida to catch up on her reading of National Geographic; for Vetfaan and Kleinpiet to do a bit of farming for a change; and for Mevrou to unpack (to Oudoom’s delight) her new frillies – which, incidentally, helped settle many problems in the pastorie. Precilla still dreams of love, Sammie hopes for a bumper season and Wiele Willemse hopes Kalahari Vervoer will buy a new lorry..
To all the readers who lived in Rolbos for the last six months – a BIG thank you. God willing, the journey will continue in September…
Bless you all.