Mary Mitchell pulls at the simple frock she’s wearing. It’s the same faded one she had on when she joined the convent, but the intervening years has been harsh; she’s lost quite a bit of weight. In the convent hairstyles didn’t matter so much, so the mousy mop tumbles in an untidy cascade towards her neck.
“I must look a bit like a scarecrow,” she tells the bank manager when she sits down at the polished desk. “I’ve been out of circulation for a while.”
“Not to worry, Miss Mitchell. In this bank we don’t care what you look like; if we can be of service, that’s the thing that counts.. I must say, it’s a bit of a surprise to see you. We have been looking all over for you for – let me see – close on two years.” The manager (the little plaque says he’s Mister John Brown) composes his fingers in a perfect steeple. This young lady phoned him a day ago, asking for an appointment. She said she had away for a while, and now needed to take control of her affairs once more.
Mary doesn’t offer any explanation. She basically wants to know if there is any money in her account, and if she can apply for a personal loan to tide her over until she’s back on her feet.
“I-I was wondering about a loan. I know I left a small balance on my account when I left, but I’m afraid that would have been exhausted by bank costs and admin fees by now. I was thinking of borrowing money to buy some clothes and cover personal expenses until I get my first salary cheque.”
Mr Brown rocks back in his chair slowly, allowing his eyes to rove over the thin woman with the sad face.
“Borrow? Borrow, Miss Mitchell? I don’t understand, I’m sorry.”
“W-w-well yes.” She’s extremely nervous now. Without money, she’s stranded. “Not much, though. Just to get me going, you see…?”
“My dear young lady,” Mr Brown seems astounded at the question. “I’m afraid that will be extremely stupid, if you’ll excuse my language. But it will. Why would the bank lend money to a woman like you? It’s absurd.”
“I have to get clothes … buy things…” she doesn’t trust her voice to continue any further.
“That’s the point, Miss Mitchell.” Mister Brown knits his heavy eyebrows together. “With the balance in your account, you can certainly draw some to cover all that?”
“But I’ll need jeans and blouses, some shoes, maybe a hand bag. You know how expensive thise things are, Mister Brown. We’re talking about two- or three thousand Rands worth of clothing. And then I have to find a place to stay. And what about groceries?”
“My point exactly. Your balance – and I checked it this morning – stands at two million, three-hundred thousand and forty-eight Rand and three cents. Exactly. That’s why I don’t understand…?”
For a moment Mary feels faint and dizzy. She grips the arm rests, squeezes her eyes shut, and takes a deep breath. After a second or two, the feeling passes.
“W-w-what? Where did the money come from?”
“Your father left it. In his will, when he died. It was a pay-out of life insurance.”
This time, everything does go black for a few seconds. Fighting for control, she forces herself to concentrate. Mr Brown notices her discomfort, gets up and pours a glass of water which he hands to her.
“My father is d-d-d-dead?” The idea is preposterous! That monster can’t be dead…
“Yes, my dear, didn’t you know? I’m so sorry.”
Breathing deeply, Mary takes the glass with a trembling hand, sips the water and tries to calm down.
“Are you sure? That he’s dead, I mean? Really?”
Mister Brown explains it was all over the newspapers for an entire week. “They cornered him in Natal, Miss Mitchell. Apparently he was involved in some syndicate….” Suddenly unsure, Mr Brown falters. Whatever that damn paedophile did, this is his daughter for goodness’ sakes! And if she really didn’t know? “Where, exactly, Miss Mitchell, were you for the last few years?”
It’s only after the second cup of tea (milk and three sugars, please) the two of them finally come to understand the situation. Brown is profusely apologetic while Mary tries to hide her embarrassment. Not only didn’t she know (no papers, TV or magazines in Mother Superior’s convent); that is bad enough; but her main discomfort isn’t the fact that she didn’t know about the shoot-out. It is far worse: flood after flood of relief washes through her as she gets to grip with the thought that she won’t ever have to be afraid of him – ever again…
It’s ironic, she realises, that the man who wrecked her youth now emerges as the saviour of her future. In life he destroyed her; in death he rescues her.
“Life is strange, Mister Brown.”
“Indeed it is, Miss Mitchell. Now, once you’ve settled, may I suggest we have a chat about investments? That money should work for you, not so?”
Upington offers several shops with a great choice in clothing – especially if you’ve got a bit of money to spend. Fashion Focus, on Scott Street, supplied most of her needs and a quick stop at Edgars sorted out cosmetics and personal items. The hair stylist threw up his hands in horror before settling down to work. It took another two hours…
Then, for the first time in her life, she books in to the Oasis Casino Hotel, asks for their presidential suite – and orders room service, a massage and a bottle of champagne, to be delivered in that order. After a long, hot bath, she dresses in the transparent French nightgown she purchased, pours the champagne and picks up the phone.
Yes, she wants a vehicle only tomorrow, thank you. Say … at about nine? No, she’s not sure for how long, but she has this new credit card; would that be alright?
Yet, despite the luxurious feel of silk against her skin and the bubbling glass in her hand, she experiences a new fear. She can’t really put her finger on it: it’s a dull, vague sense that everything isn’t right. For so long her fear centred on her father, and the many childhood memories of what he is – was – capable of. Now that he’s finally gone, it is as if he left a void that must be filled by some other dread; something equal to the horrors she had been used to.
Boggel. Tomorrow she’ll see him again. Last time she visited Rolbos, it was abundantly clear he was smitten by that Italian vixen. Oh, they had a good chat on the way to Rolbos that day. Lucinda told Mary about her life and the many places she had been to. That, and the men. Men seemed to find her attractive, and quite unable to keep their hands off her. Lucinda bragged about that, but then said she wanted to escape from the endless superficial affairs to settle down with a loving man. For some strange reason, women find this type of personal conversation quite natural; and that day Lucinda told Mary more than she would have liked to hear.
Boggel’s reaction towards Lucinda was the final straw. Had he had the courage to mention his feelings towards the pretty Italian, it would have been easier. But the way he looked at her was enough. Mary had hoped – secretly – that Boggel would plead her not to go to the convent. Yet, when she told him about her plans, he seemed almost relieved.
Despite her luxurious surroundings and the crisp bubbles of the champagne, Mary shivers as the old fear fights to get its talons into her mind again.
But … Boggel did write to tell her he’d like to talk to her, didn’t he? Just that…Talk. Did he rethink his fascination with the Italian? Or did they want to get married and he wanted to tell her personally? Well, tomorrow she will surprise him. With no prior warning, she’ll be able to see for herself what has transpired in Rolbos. If Boggel is lost to her, she’d have to make peace with it. She’s young enough to start over again … or is she?
But without Boggel … ?
The Presidential Suite usually gets used for honeymoon couples and dignitaries. The bed is wide and soft and has many plush cushions. Usually it is a happy place of celebration and laughter.
But not tonight. Mary selects the most appropriate cushion to cry on. Sad tears. Fearful tears. Anxious tears, because tomorrow will determine the rest of her life.
Tonight, in the Presidential Suite of the Oasis Casino and Hotel, there will be no laughter. Fear, clutching at the heart of the sad woman on the bed, will make sure of that. When at last slumber can no longer be denied, she falls asleep – remembering the song they sang in the dormitory at night. It was, she realises, almost prophetic…
Holy Mary, Day by day
Watch beside us, guard and guide us
Lest we stray on life’s highway
On our knees to thee Humbly we pray
Hear my plea! Pity me
Blessed Mary send and save me
Holy Maid, Lend your aid
Ere the convent vows enslave me.
Fairest Flow’rs I’ll bring you,
Sweetest songs I’ll sing you,
Pray’r and Praise shall not cease
If you grant release.