Tag Archives: confession

The Miracle of Rolbos…

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.


[i] https://rolbos.wordpress.com/2012/06/06/framed/   Boggel did a few nasty things, he even lied to Sersant dreyer

Shadows of Yesterday

 

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.

Silence.

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…

Gertruida looks.

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.

“Yes?”

“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.

“Come here.”

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…