Mevrou puts on her baggy pyjamas before getting in bed. Passing the long mirror in the bedroom, she grimaces. Has it come to this? When she met Oudoom, all those many years ago, she was rather proud of her appearance. In fact, she used to be beautiful. Pretty. Like that damned Italian girl… Now, however things have changed so much.
Pulling the blankets tight around her neck, she allows herself to wallow in the luxury of self-pity. Yes, those years were years of poverty, patched dresses and empty cupboards. After leaving school in Standard 8, she worked as a secretary in one of Stellenbosch’s oldest law firms. Well, not strictly as secretary; more like a typist-cum-office girl, but that’s the same thing, isn’t it? Coming from a poor family, her position was cause for celebration.
However, even her father said she should think of her future. Land yourself a rich husband, he joked (or did he?), or you’ll never get anywhere if life. Look at me – I will have to work till I die. But you? But you, you are young and beautiful. Nothing wrong if you landed yourself an attorney or maybe a doctor. That’s your ticket, my girl. That’s how you go up in life.
That, arguably was the worst advice she ever got in her entire life.
She then, progressively and with increasing success, began seducing men of some social stature. Oh, she was most discreet about these liaisons, always taking great care to protect the integrity of her suitors. But, as men will brag about their conquests in the bars and clubs in the town, she soon earned the label as an easy target.
The road from socialite to harlot is a steep and slippery slope. Once the tyres lose their traction on that icy hill, there’s nothing to stop the harlot from becoming the plaything of the unscrupulous.
She lost her job because of her unsavoury reputation. A law firm must have the respect of the community, Miss. We stand for integrity, values, trust. We have had several reports about your after-hours … activities. I’m afraid we cannot afford this type of gossip, Miss; you’ll have to go.
By now, her life was in shambles. Having tried her best with the young doctors, lawyers, engineers and a variety of desperate dates with rather enthusiastic students, she had run out of options. Her father was furious about the job and wouldn’t listen to her explanation that she had simply been trying to land the big one, Daddy. They may be poor, he said, but they have always been honest and proud. Now, he sighed, she’d gone and ruined the only thing they had left – a good reputation. No, no more. If she wanted to life the life of a whore, she was no longer welcome in his house.
It’s the word that did it. Whore… her father called her the most despicable word in his vocabulary. That’s what he thought of her – while she did her best to escape from the run-down cottage in the wrong side of town. And she – still beautiful and desirable – fled her father’s house, because she knew he had been speaking the truth.
Her exploits did have certain benefits: before submitting to her suitor’s advances, she usually demanded (and got) ‘presents’. This was not payment for services to be rendered, you must understand, it simply confirmed the young man as rich, determined and a possible target for her future attentions. How else would she know what his worth was, anyway? But somewhere; between the pendant, the bangle or the ear rings and the second or third date; something always went wrong. The man drank too much. The man became abusive. The man demanded secrecy. The man was married already. Something. Always.
Now, with a little stash of golden trinkets, she swallowed her pride and visited old Mister Levy, the local jeweller. Would he be interested? Yes he was, and bought the ornaments for a pittance – the same ones he originally sold at inflated prices. She had enough money to survive two months in the lice-ridden motel outside town, with a shattered reputation and no prospects. Her desperate phone calls to previous lovers and friends usually ended with a distinct ‘click’ at the other end of the line.
Realising she was nearing the end of the line; she walked from house to house, looking for a job. Anything. She can be a servant, an au pair, a gardener, a dish washer – anything. Please?
The last house in the street that day belonged to Rodriquez da Silva, the shady Portuguese gambler who owned several properties in and around Stellenbosch. He rented his houses to students for a very specific reason – the parents of students rarely defaulted. And he, Rodriquez, didn’t become fabulously rich by taking untoward risks.
Oudoom, much younger and still in his final year, opened the door to her knocking. She asked for work. He saw the desperation. No, sorry, we do everything ourselves. Please, she said, I have nowhere to go. She started crying.
We can’t have a woman staying here, he said, we’re students of theology. Next year we’ll be reverends. We have to be sensitive about these things, our professors… You must understand…
Yes. I do, she sobbed. I understand. Yours is the Christian way. Turn away the destitute, trample on the fallen, spit on the lowly. Love thy neighbour only when it suits you. Go ahead, your professor will be proud...
The young student stood dumbfounded. The accusations stung. After a lengthy discussion with the four other students in the house, a compromise was struck. You can stay in the servant’s quarter at the back. We can’t pay you, but if you cook and do the washing, you can eat with us. She wept again, this time at their generosity.
The day of Oudoom’s final exam witnessed a rare party at the student’s house. They had made it! Now society awaits their sermons, their guidance and their care. Mevrou, as the cook, made a special bredie with yellow rice and served some wine (bought out of her own precious and diminishing funds). It was a heady celebration to mark the end of years of sacrifice and toil, and the wine – so studiously avoided because of their divine calling – added to the atmosphere of release, of joy and … fun.
Somebody put a record on the player. Surely, if they drank wine, dancing is acceptable? And so, for an entire evening, Mevrou danced with them: sometimes singly, sometimes in a group. They laughed the way young people do, when the world’s your oyster and you’ve reached the top.
But there was a problem, of course. If the students left – Mevrou had nowhere to go. And so Mevrou, the poor, desperate girl who had dreams of becoming somebody, did what poor, desperate girls do when the last chance comes around.
Oudoom woke up the next morning with his first hangover, a dry mouth and a guilty conscience. When he moved his eyes (sooo painful!) the tussled head next to him smiled back. I hope I’m not pregnant, the head said. Oudoom closed his blood-shot eyes and saw his future disappearing in a haze of scorn by his peers. He then did what desperate men do: I love you, he said.
Mevrou became Mevrou soon after. The guilt and fear in the ignorant mind of Oudoom left him no choice and they were married in a small ceremony, very private, by one of his favourite professors. And because everybody knew about her reputation, Oudoom was forced to accept the calling to the smallest, most distant, congregation willing to appoint him.
Of course she wasn’t pregnant. Oudoom found that out soon after he proposed; but by then it was too late to backtrack. He accepted, with great regret, the irony that she never fell pregnant. Apt reward for my rash and drunken behaviour…
Over the years they did have some consolation. Rolbos accepted them with quiet resignation, feeling more secure that a Man of the Cloth now lived amongst them and that baptisms, weddings and funerals (Boggel calls it the Hatch, Match and Dispatch Business) could now be done on their doorstep. This gave a certain stature to the clergyman and his wife and at last, after all her failures, Mevrou worked hard at building the impeccable image of the loyal vicar’s wife.
Her father visited them once – dressed in his best old suit and wearing a proud smile. Father and daughter tried to keep their relationship alive after that visit, but with her new high standing in society, her father felt too uncomfortable to impose. In the end, Mevrou saw it as one of the sacrifices she must make to support Oudoom – both of them didn’t need to be reminded of a troubled past. And was her father not the one who directed her on the path to eternal unhappiness? So Mevrou lived the life of an unloving wife married to an unhappy man and isolated from her family.
As the years went by, Oudoom became more and more disgruntled with their relationship. He felt – but could never say it – that she tricked him into an inappropriate marriage. And as the once-beautiful swan turned into a fat duck, the only thing that kept them together was the fact that he served the Church, and divorce was out of the question.
“We worked hard to bring this congregation to where it is,” Mevrou says the next morning after a fitful seep, “and you cannot allow some foreigners to come in and corrupt our little community. That woman with the short skirts has every man in town lusting after her. And look at the way she laughs! It’s an open invitation to debauchery. And this, my husband, is happening right on your doorstep. And what about her father? Just coming in here as if the town belongs to him? It’s not right, I tell you – it’s not right. And you – you are as bad as the rest of them. I see the way you look at that woman! Don’t think I’m blind!
“And did you see the amount of wine they brought here? Need I remind you what wine does? It ruins lives, that’s what! And you stand by as if nothing is wrong. No, you are neglecting your duty as a servant to the Lord.” She seems to run out of steam, panting with the effort. “I swear they’re in a different church as well. Praying to some pagan god, they are. And you simply allow all this to happen as if there’s nothing wrong. I am ashamed, that’s all I can say to that. The Spineless Servant, the Demented Dominee. He does nothing.”
Satisfied with her outburst, she stomps from the room. Oudoom lets his head hang, cupping it in his hands. When she’s in this mood …
Oudoom makes sure she’s locked the bedroom door; like she always does when she has these tantrums. Then, knowing she’d be watching from the bedroom window where the chintz curtains allow her to watch Boggel’s Place without being seen, he marches over to the bar, where the group is gathered around the table where Marco and Lucinda is talking.
“Ahem,” he announces at the door, so they must know he’s near. They always curb their language a bit when he’s in their company. “I’m sorry, but I have to talk to Lucinda and her father.”
“Oh, you’re the pastor! Please, come sit. Maybe you drink some of this, a, what you call it? Cactus! That’s right. First time I taste, I tell my daughter: this is coodrink. But this morning, I wake up and I know it’s not.” The old man laughs heartily, pointing to the empty chair next to him. As Oudoom sits down, Marco simply rambles on, “I’m so glad we find this place. When my daughter she starts her trip in Africa, I tell her to look everywhere for such a nice place. She look all over – here and there and everywhere.”
Marco has the Italian gift for incessant talking. Boggel’s Place has never seen anything like this and the old man fascinates them. Once he starts speaking, he doesn’t seem to be able to stop
“Now I fly to Cape Town, I get such a surprise. Who do I find at airport? My nephew! He’s the son of my sister. She – she’s funny.” He says fonny. “She marry a Portuguese man, a Da Silva. He was there to meet his son Rodriquez, a very rich boy, that one. He fly with me and I never see him. Can you believe that? I always know he lives in South Africa, but to meet him there, with the first time I land in Cape Town? I think God is good, yes? Now I have family here…”
Oudoom doesn’t listen anymore. He remembers Rodriquez da Silva, his landlord from many years ago. Shocked, he accepts the Cactus Jack Vetfaan places in front of him, downs it and holds out his glass for another.
“….and he say he knows Rolbos! Can you believe? He say one of his students live here. It is such a small world, no?”
Oudoom suddenly feels as if the walls of Jerusalem tumble around him. This sanctuary, his fortress, of secrecy he’s built so carefully around his past, is starting to crumble and fall to the ground. If Mevrou’s past came back to haunt them, he might as well lock the doors to the old church. And how will they laugh in Boggel’s Place if they knew he, Oudoom, was tricked into marrying a woman of ill repute? For the second time today, Oudoom rests his head in his head, feeling totally defeated and deflated. His sins have finally caught up with him.
Finding his voice, he croaks out the question between his clasped hands. Please Lord, if it has to happen, make it quick.
“And what did this … this Rodriquez tell you about Rolbos?”
“Oh, he say it nice place. He say this place has good people. And he say here are many secrets. I no understand, so he say maybe he tell one day, I must find out myself, if I want to. But, he say, the past is the past. Better look ahead, he say. And, he say, he come to visit. I think he come soon.”
There is a complete silence in Boggel’s Place. Precilla remembers the shots that landed her in hospital[i]; Servaas shivers as he remembers the time he got drunk and got cheated out of the communion wine[ii]; Kleinpiet thinks back to the time when he walked away from his pregnant girlfriend [iii], while Vetfaan lets his head hang when he remembers the love he lost during the war[iv]. And Boggel thinks back to the last day of his father’s life – does this man know anything about that?[v] Without realising it, Marco has – in a few simple words – reminded them all of the wrongs in their past. Everybody, except Oudoom, wonders who this Da Silva might be, and what worms will crawl out of the woodwork if he ever came to visit. Is he somebody – one of those coincidental people you meet in life while you’re going on with your own business – who saw something, heard something or simply happen to know something you’d like to keep to yourself?
“So – now you all quiet, so suddenly? I think Rodriquez, he right. Many secrets, yes? Just like my town in Italy, Fillettino. Huh! Now those people, they have all kinds of secrets. You know, this one, he sleep with that woman? And Antonio, he stole money from Umberto? Such things. All towns have that. I no expect Rolbos to have no secret? No! I want to stay where people are real people. They make the mistake. They lie a little. Sometimes they get a bit too … adventurous, maybe? Real people live life. Live! It’s like Bombolini – the mayor in the cinema about Santa Vittoria. You see that? No? When my things come, I invite you all to come watch. I make the pizza, you bring the Cactus and we have fun. Good idea, no? We have a Bombolini evening. Not so, Lucinda?”
Despite themselves, the group starts smiling at the old man with a bigger curve in his back, than even Boggel has. Oudoom,now on his third Cactus, cannot help but to feel comfortable in the conversation that follows.
From behind the chintz, Mevrou watches as Oudoom and the old Italian chat away the afternoon. Either he’s really laying it on thick, or – like she knows he occasionally does – he’s bungled his speech and now needs a lot of time to get his message across. Whichever way, she doesn’t care. She is Mevrou, a woman of impeccable standards, the pastor’s wife. Rolbos may be a small town, but here she rules the roost. People look up to her for moral leadership, and by all that’s holy: they will –will – respect her for her position and respect her for what she stands for.
No little hussy with a short skirt is going to steal her thunder. She is Mevrou, the undisputed centre of of moral standards in the town. If everybody suddenly starts ogling a nice pair of legs on an Italian nobody, she’ll fight to get her position back – as the bastion of personal integrity, purity and cleanliness.
Mevrou is the woman who runs this town. She earned it. She fought for it. And with or without Oudoom, she’ll see to it that they respect her for it.