When Oudoom staggers home after a most enjoyable afternoon in Boggel’s Place (Marco never breathed another word about the secrets of Rodriquez da Silva), he is in great spirits – in more ways than one. He’s never let his hair down like that, and it was great to be comfortable amongst friends. Mevrou always has this haughty approach when she talks to members of the congregation – something she encourages him to do, as well. He tries, Lord knows, he tries. But this afternoon he felt so much closer to his flock, so much nearer to the heartbeat of the little society.
“Hey, Honeybunch, I’m ho-o-ome!” Oudoom giggles as he pushes open the door. That’s what they called her in the time she stayed in the small servant’s room behind the house. It was a house joke – whenever any of them came home, they’d call her that. It made them feel more domesticated than having a lowly servant around. And back then, when she was young and shapely and still seeking the illusive husband, she’d be there, waiting with some freshly brewed coffee and rusks.
“You watch your step, Oudoom,” she never uses his first name these days, “I can tell you’ve been drinking again. I hang my head in shame, that’s all I can tell you. The shepherd that leads his flock astray. You’re as bad as them all. Sies, man!” The muffled voice behind the door is angry, spoiling for a fight.
“You’ll never guess what we talked about,” he shouts back happily.
Eventually, curiosity kills the cat. “What?”
“Remember your friend Rodriquez da Silva? The one who collected the rent every month?” Oudoom forces the mirth from his voice. “Well, he’s coming to visit. Fancy that?”
Mevrou feels the earth opening beneath her and prays that it’ll swallow her so deep, no trace will be left behind. Of course she remembers him. He was her pocket money every month – how else could she survive? And how else would she have been able to buy wine for the graduates after their exams? And Rodriquez, the gambler who knew everything there is to know about everybody, duped her into submission by threatening to expose her past activities to her current employers.
It was a game she understood well after the law firm asked her to leave. She was prepared to do anything, anything, anything, to be sure of a roof over her head. Back then her father still refused to talk to her and she had nowhere to go. So when Rodriquez said his silence is for sale the, er, transaction was done.
If Oudoom knew the details of that affair, he’d kick her out, just like her father had back then. If Rodriquez breathed a word of her attempts to secure a well-to-do husband, Oudoom, the congregation, the entire district – even the Synod – will come crashing down on her like a ton of accusing bricks.
And, after all these years, the people will laugh at Mevrou, the iron woman with the clay feet. They’ll realise she is a fake, a false prophet, a woman with a much-tainted past. She, the source of so much embarrassment to herself, her husband, everybody. The laughing stock of the Northern Cape. That is if Die Huisgenoot – or worse – the Upington Post don’t start writing about her.
She opens the door on a crack. “What?” Breathless, anxious.
Mevrou sinks to her knees behind the door. No. Nooooo! This can’t be happening! After all these years? Oudoom never said anything, and now…
Oudoom saunters over to the cabinet where the communion wine is kept. “Want a drink, Honeybunch? Our house special, not really heavy on the palate, but that’s all we’ve got. I’ll have a double myself, thank you.”
“But we don’t drink, you know that.” Funny how old habits die hard – even in the face of the firing squad, some people still try to convince others they are wrong. What’s the use?
“We.” Oudoom gets up to do a curtsy. “Oh, your royal highness, I do beg your pardon! I bow low before your radiant eminence.”
“You’re drunk! That’s it! You’ve made up that story about Rodriquez to keep me off your back – because you’re drunk. Oh, how low can you go, Dominee?” She spits out the last word as she marches down the corridor towards him. “You lied, didn’t you? Tell me you lied, you miserable man! Tell me! Tell me now…!”
Oudoom sways a little as he toasts the window. He never realised how bad he used to feel until now. Trying to keep his balance, he mulls over this wisdom. Now, in this euphoria, it is so easy to see how the wasted years affected his calling. Somehow, he finds it funny (or fonny, as Marco says) that he found this truth not in some holy handbook, but in a bottle of Cactus Jack…
“It’s so fonny,” he says, “so terribly sad and fonny…” He finally manages to coordinate his swaying with the erratic movements his eyes seem to favour. Mevrou swims into focus.
Mevrou… When did he start calling her that? Isabella Franciska Badenhorst – that’s her maiden name. He used to call her Issie – way back then, when he still thought they could manage to be civil with each other. But, somewhere along the way, he became Oudoom and she, Mevrou.
There’s some logic to that, he decides. After all, were their roles not defined by their functions as church leaders? And did those functions eventually become the two individuals they are? They lost … what? Their personalities? Their humanity? Whatever they lost doesn’t matter: they’ve become automated beings – machine-like because they were programmed to perform certain functions.
“No, Isabella Francisca, I did not lie.” A wave of nausea starts building up, but he swallows it away. “Mevrou is about to meet her past, and the whole town will be witness to it. We, my dear and beloved wife, are finished.”
Mevrou watches her husband collapse in the rocking chair next to the fireplace. This is his favourite retreat when he’s working on his sermons. When he’s in that chair, gently rocking and staring into the flames, he ventures into a world of his own – a silent world where her biting remarks and sarcasm can’t reach him. It’s almost as if he leaves the room to be somewhere else – somewhere where clouds are rosy and people are kind.
To her utter surprise, he starts crying.
She’s never seen him react with emotion. Even on funerals he keeps his stern face, unmoved by grief and untouched by the sadness of a final good-bye. When she taunts him, he simply becomes stone-faced and waits for her anger to fizzle out. He doesn’t smile on weddings and he never does the coochie-coo-thing with babies.
Now, he’s come back from that Italian – first laughing and now crying – with the most upsetting attitude. And she’s never – never – heard him use her first names like that. He is, by all accounts, as drunk as a lord.
The knock at the door crashes into her thoughts. People! Damn! Oudoom is drunk, she is dishevelled, and now there are people at the door! She can’t possibly allow people into her house now? What’ll they think?
“Open up, Mevrou, it’s Gertruida. Please?”
Well, at least it’s Gertruida. Maybe she’ll understand? She was in the bar as well, wasn’t she?
Gertruida walks in when the door is opened. She murmurs a soft hello before going over the slumbering figure of Oudoom.
“He passed out, did he?”
“Yes, I’m afraid so. Very unusual, I must say. Not like him at all. Can I help you?”
“No, Mevrou, I can help you. First we must get Oudoom to bed, and then we’ll talk. Come, help me get him to the bedroom…”
With no choice in the matter, Mevrou helps Gertruida to drag the slumbering Oudoom down the corridor. While Mevrou takes off the clergyman’s shoes, Gertruida scans the pictures on the wall.
“This is … you?” She points at the picture of a pretty young lady on the wall. Glancing over her shoulder, Mevrou simply nods.
“You were – are – beautiful! My, I never realised…”
“That was a long time ago, Gertruida. Long. Many years. Everything has changed over the years. Look at me now.” Her tone is harsh – now, don’t you patronise me…
An older woman well past her prime, that’s for sure. The wrinkled brow speaks of sleepless nights and deep torment. The thin lips that find it so difficult to curl up in a smile. The loose skin on the once-beautiful neck. And the eyes – the incredible, terrible sadness lurking there. Somehow, Gertruida realises, she has never looked at Mevrou. Not like this.
“We were both young once.” It sounds so lame…
Mevrou sits down next to Oudoom, brushing away the sparse hair from his forehead.
“Yes, Getruida, we all were. Even this old bag of bones here,” she gestures towards Oudoom, but there is a new softness in her voice. Not knowing what else to say, she adds: “We had a party, once. We even danced.”
“Young girls tend to do that,” Gertruida smiles at the memories of her own youth. “I had a special friend back then. Ferdinand…[i] Wow! How that man danced! But he … went away. Life was never the same after that. But I suppose that’s what happens.” She pauses as she glances at the prostate figure on the bed. “Is he okay? That’s what I came to find out, sorry.”
“No, I don’t think so. He came back from that bar and he wasn’t himself. I’ve never seen him like that. Not like him at all. What happened there, Gertruida?”
Gertruida tells her how Marco can talk the tail off a horse – and that he must have a teflon-lined liver. “You know, Mevrou, Oudoom even laughed out loud! It was so good to see him like that. Lately he seemed so depressed and … even lonely, if you’ll excuse me saying it.” She waits for the rebuke that doesn’t come. “Anyway, we just listened as old Marco rambled on and on. He’s really a most interesting character. Been around the world a few times and has such a lot of funny stories to tell. He even told us about a nephew he met in the Cape. Rodriquez somebody..” She stops when she sees Mevrou blanching. “Oh, Mevrou! Anything wrong?”
Then he did tell the truth! That’s why he drank so much! Oh, no…they’ll all find out.
“No, just feeling a bit dizzy, that’s all. Too much for one day, really!” She gets up and puts on her formal face again. “Well, thank you, Gertruida, I appreciate your help. I think I’ll just sit here with him for a while…”
“Mevrou…?” Gertruida dangles the question in the air, afraid to finish the sentence.
“Why are you and Oudoom so upset by this Rodriquez character? When Oudoom heard his name, he almost fainted. You had the same reaction just now. If he hurt you in the past…?
Mevrou shakes her head. “No, it’s not like that. Go now.”
“It’s somebody you both knew, isn’t it? Somebody in the time before you moved to Rolbos. Somebody … who had something to do with both of you.”
“Gertruida, I don’t want to talk about it. Go now!”
Oudoom stirs, shakes his head, groans – and sits up. His movements are tentative, but his eyes are much more focussed.
“No, Issie. Stop it. I can’t live like this any longer. I know Gertruida – and I trust her. Won’t you make me a cup of coffee, then we talk about Rodriques da Silva and the lawyers and the doctors and Lord knows who else. We’ve ignored this thing long enough.”
Gertruida leaves them long after the jackals in the desert stopped howling at each other. In fact, she can identify Venus over the eastern horizon as she walks home.
In the parsonage two old people sit, staring wordlessly at each other until Oudoom sighs.
“We should have talked about this a long time ago, Issie. We’ve bottled up those words until it choked the both of us – now it’s out. I must say, I feel much better.”
Isabella Francisca Vermeulen smiles – not hugely so, but still – at her husband. She loves the way he says her name. A sudden thought wipes the would-be smile away.
“But nothing has changed, you know that. I’m still the scarlet woman in this town; you’re still the man tricked into an unhappy marriage and that … that Italian is going to ruin everything. Gertruida might not talk about it, but once Rodriquez comes, we’re done for. Can you imagine how they’ll talk…”
It’s way past eleven when Mevrou brings in a tray with fresh coffee to the bedroom.
“We were fools. That Gertruida has called a meeting for tonight – in Boggel’s Place. And I can tell you what that hussy is going to do – she’ll jump the gun: by the time Da Silva comes, he’ll be too late to do any more damage. Gertruida is going to sink us at this meeting. I know it. We might as well leave.”
Oudoom runs a hand trough her greying hair. Oh, how beautiful it was when they first met! Her hair always had a special way of reflecting the sunlight on a summer’s day – now it is dull and grey and lifeless. This is what we’ve become, he thinks.
“I was called to serve this congregation, Issie. Tomorrow is Sunday. Let them gossip all they want tonight, I’ll serve my resignation during the service tomorrow. But I won’t run away. We won’t run away. If they want to crucify us, then so be it. No, let them talk. But we – you and I – were joined in a holy union. And we’ll honour those vows – till the end. And, in exactly the same manner, we’ll approach this problem with the congregation.”
“But, Hendrik,” must his name feel so foreign on her tongue? “Now that you know everything about me – Lord knows, I was so ashamed to tell you those things – how can you say that? I’m nothing but a … a … harlot!”
“And, much like Noah, I got drunk. And remember the weekend that dancer stayed in here? The one with the fishnets? I’m as guilty as you are. My sin isn’t bigger than yours, and we’ve both been living a lie for too long. I married you out of guilt. You married me out of desperation. Who is the bigger sinner? We both did wrong.
“But now – now at last – we were brave enough to talk about it. And whether Gertruida spills our beans or not, she did us a favour to get us talking. Even that silly Italian helped. I don’t know about you, but I feel like a weight has been removed from my shoulders.
For the first time in …thirty, forty, years? … Issie settles in the arms of her husband.
“Fonny,” she smiles as she deliberately mimics the Italian she’s never met, “I used to fit in better in the old days.” Snuggling in a bit deeper, she sighs: “Tomorrow we’ll start a new life, Hennie. We’ll go away. And we’ll start over.”
“No, my dear – not tomorrow. We’ll start a new life today.” She feels his hand move slowly down her spine to cup the rather voluptuous cheek down there…
Afterwards it was his turn to mimic. “Its fonny – those bits still fit perfectly well, don’t they?”
Issie cuddles up to the broad chest, still surprised at the grey hair she never noticed growing there. Yes, let them talk. Tomorrow, from the pulpit, her husband, Dominee Hendrik Vermeulen, will do the honourable thing. And then, somewhere far away, they’ll start a new life.
A happy life.
The life both of them wanted for so long…
(And check up on Oudoom’s indiscretion here: https://rolbos.wordpress.com/2012/03/27/those-fishnets/