Sunday, June 10, 2012

The Plan by Beryl Ensor-Smith

The arrival of a parrot in a small South African town stirs up the fortunes of shopkeeper Koos Venter and his family in Beryl Ensor-Smith's amusing tale.

It did not take Koos Venter very long to find that business in his little supply store was dwindling. Nor did it take much longer to find the cause.

"It's bad enough having a recession," he complained to his wife Mina, "without having Moodley round the corner cutting all his prices to the bone. How can an honest businessman contend with that? I never thought the day would come when the dorp volk would desert me to patronise Moodley! What are things coming to?"

"You can't blame them, Koos," Mina said reasonably. "When people feel the pinch, they naturally go where the prices are best. Besides, Moodley sells things in small quantities."

"Ja, in twists of newspaper," Koos grunted. "They'll all die of ink poisoning and serve them right too!"

"Come now, Koos, that's not true and you know it. It's blank paper that Moodley uses and he keeps his shop scrupulously clean," throwing a meaningful look at boxes stacked sloppily in one corner of their store. "Rina van Wyk says..."

"I don't want to hear what Rina van Wyk says. She has no brains anyhow. What I need is an idea; a good plan to draw people back to my store."

"A little hygiene might do it," Mina said sweetly and left her husband glowering at her departing back.

Nevertheless, with the help of his assistant Thabo, in the next day or two Koos set about straightening up the store, but to no avail. Custom remained sparse. He lay awake that night, tossing and turning whilst trying to decide what to do.

"For heavens sake, Koos, go to sleep," Mina said at last, thoroughly exasperated. "What's the matter with you?"

"I'm going to Jo'burg tomorrow," Koos decided impulsively. "You'll have to look after the store while I'm away."

"And what will you do in Jo'burg?" Mina enquired, now wide awake.

"I'm going to have a good look round and see how shops there attract buyers."

"There's no need to go so far to do that," Mina said sarkily. "I can tell you. Be satisfied with smaller profits and your customers will come back!"

"Listen, woman, I've not spent years building up a business just to bring in peanuts. My profits are reasonable."

"In comparison with what? The corner café? He's only a mite more expensive than you are!"

How was it, Koos wondered darkly, that the docile girl he had married had, over the years, become a bold, outspoken, disrespectful woman?

He left for Johannesburg the next day, but only after giving Mina and Thabo detailed instructions on the running of the business in his absence.

"That's all very well Koos," Mina said resentfully, "but you know I've your mother to take care of, and a bedridden invalid is a full-time job. If I do as you say she'll be left alone for long stretches of the day."

"Well she doesn't like company; she's happier alone," Koos mumbled guiltily, avoiding Mina's eye and ignoring her derisive snort. "I'll be back in about a week. Take care, now."

He surprised his wife by returning much sooner. Two days later, to be precise.

"Well, and what now?" she enquired as he planted a kiss on her weathered cheek.

"I've found it, Mina. The perfect thing. Come and see." He led her to the car, parked behind the store. On the back seat reposed a large cage and in it, a flamboyant, beady-eyed parrot.

"He talks, Mina. Says a lot of things. We'll put him on the counter. He even dances when you play music. Everyone will come in just to see him and hear him talk."

"Oh?" Mina said noncommittally, staring sceptically at the bird. "Where did you find him?" The parrot bobbed towards her and emitted a raucous squawk. She drew back hastily.

"He was advertised in the newspaper. His owners are moving to England. Very nice people Mina, and they let me have him very cheap."

"How cheap?" she demanded.

"Five hundred rand. That's cheap for a bird like this," hastily, as Mina gasped aloud.

"And what if it falls down dead tomorrow? It could be as old as the hills for all you know!" She was outraged.

"Now Mina, that's not so at all. He's only eighteen months old and parrots live a very long time. He'll last for years and years. Be a good girl and carry him inside while I bring in my suitcase."

Mina complied in silence, her lips a thin unyielding line. Five hundred rand for a bird! When the cage was on the shop counter, she noticed a piece of cardboard tied to it.

"D'Arcy," she read laboriously. "What's that?"

"That's his name," Koos informed her importantly. "It's a posh French one, but it isn't like you said it. It kind of runs together, like this." He pronounced the name roundly.

"Well we're not posh French people," Mina replied determinedly, "and I'm not calling him by that silly name. D'Arcy indeed!"

"But you can't change his name now. You'll just confuse him," Koos protested.

"We'll call him Du Plessis. That sounds near enough the same and he'll never notice the difference."

"But Mina," Koos said feebly, "Du Plessis is also a French name and..."

"Nonsense!" she interrupted. "Du Plessis is a good Afrikaner name and if he knows what's good for him he'll become a good Afrikaner bird! Now stop dithering, Koos, and get your case upstairs. There's a lot to do in the shop," she called as he made his way up the stairs leading to their small flat above the store, "and remember to look in and say hello to your ma. She's not been so good these last few days."

"Is she ever?" he muttered beneath his breath. It wasn't that he didn't love his mother... he did; but the stroke that had felled this strong woman and rendered her frail and dependent left him feeling adrift, not knowing how to deal with her.

He and Mina ate their supper in silence, each thinking about the bird. They had left it on the counter in the shop, which arrangement evidently did not please it as it protested in full and awful voice.

"We can't have that going on all night," Mina said at last. "Doesn't it ever keep quiet?"

"A quiet bird would be no good," Koos said defensively. Then his face brightened. "Ah, I forgot. It has to be covered up before it will sleep. Find an old towel or something, Mina."

He went ahead of her and was making friendly clucking noises to the bird when she arrived with the towel. The parrot divined her purpose and as she unfolded it to put over the cage, let fly with a stream of vituperative curses and four-letter words that left Mina dumbstruck and Koos glassy eyed. They were the first words the bird had uttered and were said with such feeling that for a moment or two neither of his two new owners was capable of speech.

"This," Mina said at last, "is the kind of language your nice, posh French people taught it?" Koos was too miserable to tell her they were immigrant English.

"And for this," Mina continued relentlessly, "you paid five hundred rand?"

Koos's face became suffused with rage. "I'll kill it," he breathed, "I'll wring its bloody neck!"

"You'll do nothing of the kind," Mina replied tartly. "It's one of God's creatures and it's been abused enough already; that is very clear! And you will clean up your language, Koos Venter. You're trying to compete with the parrot, perhaps?"

Koos stared at her unseeingly. "What now?"

"Well we certainly can't use it as you'd intended. With language like that it'll drive the last of your customers running to Moodley. Oh, cheer up Koos," at sight of his distressed face. "We're no worse off than we were before apart from the five hundred rand and we'll no doubt find a home for it somewhere."

"Ja, but where? Certainly not in Prentburg. With a tongue like that..."

"You can try the docks at Durban," Mina said with grim humour.

"Ve-ry funny, Mina. Ve-ry funny. For the moment we'll put it in ma's room," taking a small measure of revenge. "You're always saying she needs more company and her room's furthest away from the store. Now don't argue," as Mina opened her mouth to protest, "the noise this thing makes will be heard down here if we keep it anywhere else."

Koos was right in that. In fact, even though Du Plessis was placed in the furthest corner of the old lady's room, it could still be heard faintly in the store when it really got going.

"Your poor ma," Mina said. "How she stands it I don't know. She isn't in a position to complain either, Koos, not being able to speak any more. It's not fair on her at all!"

"That's not the case," Koos said stolidly. "She seems to like it very well." He cocked his head as a faint screech reached their ears. "I wish it would shut up. If the customers hear it..."

Which the customers did. Miems Gouws was in the shop browsing through some embroidery threads (Moodley didn't stock any) and was most surprised to hear what sounded like a shriek emanating from the ceiling just above which old Mrs Venter's room was placed. She looked upwards in astonishment. Koos promptly started coughing and spluttering in a most annoying way as it partially drowned out another series of peculiar and intriguing noises coming from the same place. He then started humming loudly, which was even more annoying as Koos had a poor sense of pitch. Yet even the unmelodious 'bromming' could not smother a faint cackle of demonical laughter. Miem's eyes went from ceiling to Koos Venter's face, which was becoming redder and redder.

"How is your mother these days, Koos?" she asked curiously. Too hastily he replied

"Very well indeed, thank you Miems. She seems to be perking up a lot."

"I must really call in and say hello to her one of these days. It's been a long time since..."

"That would not really be wise Miems," he said earnestly, sweat gathering on his brow.

"Although she's much better, she's not really fit enough to have visitors. Very frail, you know."

Miems nodded sympathetically, but threw another hopeful glance ceilingwards. All, disappointingly, remained quiet.

Later Koos recounted the incident to Mina. She sniffed loudly.

"So she wants to see the old lady, does she? After all this time! It's shameful how soon after she was taken ill people stopped visiting. Only Dominee Seibrand calls round nowadays. Oh my, Koos," in dismay, "we can't have the bird in there when he comes. Its language gets fouler every day!"

"Relax, woman. The Dominee always 'phones before he comes and we can make a plan. It's unexpected visits I'm worried about, and you really can't blame people for not wanting to call round. Ma just lies there and stares at them. It makes them feel... uncomfortable." He nearly said 'inadequate', because that was how he felt in his mother's presence these days, as if he had in some way let her down, which made him feel hopeless. He preferred to leave Mina to care for her; which she did very lovingly, he had to admit. Mina had her faults – reflecting briefly on her sharp tongue – but she was a good woman. He surprised his wife by hugging her clumsily.

"Koos Venter what's got into you?" she demanded, but was pleased and smiled before releasing herself.

Koos noticed that over the course of the next few days, business began improving. More people came into the shop than he had served in weeks. He could not help but notice that many of them looked casually ceilingwards and that when Du Plessis obliged by being noisy, his customers suddenly remembered other things they needed to buy. Koos was not stupid. He soon realised that they thought his mother was responsible for the strange sounds that filtered faintly downwards, and as these were innocuous enough being only just audible, he let it ride and even fanned speculation by looking ceilingwards himself every so often and shaking his head sadly.

Yet the strange part was that his mother seemed to be improving. At his last dutiful visit, she had hardly cast him a glance before settling her eyes on the parrot again and he would swear there was a glimmer of amusement in them. Mina noticed it too.

"Your ma's really taken to Du Plessis, Koos. She's even trying to make sounds again and she looks a lot more interested in life these days. I think he's good for her."

"I thought he might be when I suggested putting him in her room," Koos said virtuously, then realised he had overplayed his hand when his wife gave him a sceptical glance from beneath raised brows.

At the next Sisters of the Church meeting, the Venter family was the main topic of tea-time conversation.

"I was in the store yesterday," Marion Klopper whispered while the others crowded round.

"She's definitely deteriorating. She made a funny kind of moaning noise; quite unearthly."

"And when I was there," Sarie Blignault recounted eagerly, "she was screaming and laughing at the same time."

"Is that possible?" old Mrs Merton enquired acidly.

"She was too," Sarie affirmed. "Like this," and she tried to imitate the sounds she had heard. Not too successfully but realistically enough to bring expressions of horror to the faces around her.

"Very sad. Very sad indeed," Helga Swanepoel clucked. "I don't know how Mina and Koos can stand it."

"Imagine trying to control her when she comes over queer," Elaine Ferreira said with relish. "I hear that when they're like that, people have the strength of a lion."

They all fell silent trying to visualise the frail old lady transformed into an uncontrollable force.

"Well it all sounds very odd indeed to me," Mrs Merton said sceptically. "There's something fishy about it somewhere."

The other 'sisters' glared at her. Trust that old biddy to try to put a different slant on things!
It took a while for Mina Venter to wake up to what was happening. When she did, she was thoroughly dismayed, the more so when she realised that by his silence Koos was guilty of complicity.

"How could you?" she stormed. "They think your mother is crazy and you've allowed it!"

"Business has been so good Mina," he said weakly, "and it hasn't done her any harm. My mother knows nothing about it, so it hasn't upset her."

"For shame!" Mina flared. "You are disgusting, Koos Venter, and I'm staying in the shop with you for the next few days to make sure you let everyone know the truth."

Koos drooped. Just when he was beginning to think his troubles were over... this!

Japie Fourie was the first to be put into the picture, but through a strange turn of events the truth became even more distorted. When his wife Elsie said she needed a few groceries, she hid a smile when Japie volunteered to go to the store to fetch them, knowing he detested shopping.

"That's very kind of you. Moodley should have everything I want."

"Oh, but Elsie," Japie said, thinking quickly, "Moodley's foodstuffs are not as fresh as the Venters. He's all right for other things, but fresh food..."

"Very well," Elsie agreed, taking pity on him. "I wonder," with great innocence, "if the old lady will carry on today?"

Japie kept his ears wide open the entire time he selected groceries but was resigned to missing out when, as he was paying for them, a screech louder than had been heard before rent the air.

"Your mother, she's well?" he asked Koos, poker-faced.

"Very well," Mina replied on Koos's behalf. "That noise you hear... that's Du Plessis."

"Therapy," Koos interjected quickly. "We got him for therapy for my mother. From Jo'burg. He's done her the world of good, hasn't he Mina?"

"He has that," she agreed. "She's much improved. She's even making sounds these days."

That's no lie, Japie thought, and when he got home told Elsie that the Venters had got a new doctor from Johannesburg, named Du Plessis, to give the old lady therapy. Elsie looked thoughtful.

"You know Japie I feel thoroughly ashamed of myself. I've never cared for Koos Venter much, thinking him to be selfish and rather cold, yet in these times when business is bad he brings a doctor from Jo'burg to see to his mother. That must be costing him a fortune. I'm going to bake one of my melk terts and take it round to them. Oh, I feel so ashamed!"

Meanwhile Koos, misunderstanding Japie's reaction, had said to Mina. "Well, now we're the laughing stock of the district I hope you're satisfied? Did you see the amazement on Japie's face when we spoke of Du Plessis? It's a stupid name for a bird. It could also cause offence to the Du Plessis in the drop. From now on we're calling it Polly!"

"Aren't you worried about confusing the bird?" Mina asked slyly.

Koos snorted. "I would say that sharing a room with my mother, it is already totally confused! Have you noticed, Mina, that it is twice as noisy as when it arrived?"

The news of the new therapist from Johannesburg quickly got around. In no time at all it was rumoured in the dorp that Dr du Plessis was an eminent psychologist.

"I've heard of this treatment," Helga Swanepoel said knowledgeably. "Giving free vent to feelings of frustration and despair."

"Old Mrs Venter must be feeling very frustrated and desperate," Miems Gouws said darkly, "the amount of noise she was making when I was in the shop yesterday. She's certainly letting it all out!"

"Well it's wonderful when you think that just a month ago she wasn't making any sounds at all. I think, sisters, we should call around to see her now that she's on the mend."

The 'sisters' quickly agreed with Helga that it was their Christian duty to do so.

Old Mrs Venter was certainly much better. There was a sparkle in her eye that had long been missing and she was now making an attempt to speak. Du Plessis, or Polly as he was now called, was so astonished when she first managed to say a few words to him, that he let fly a flow of his most colourful language. Mina, who was feeding the old lady at the time, dropped a spoonful of jelly in her agitation and her mother-in-law gripped her arm and managed to ask what the bird had just said. Mina replied with an inventiveness she hadn't known she was capable of, "It's French, ma. He comes from French people."

For some reason this pleased the old lady and she indicated that she enjoyed hearing the bird speak French.

"Afrikaans is better," Mina replied firmly. "Much better! Try to teach him some Afrikaans, ma."

The situation became even more complicated when Christina du Plessis visited the store the following day. The parrot was in fine form and had recently learned to imitate the wail of the siren at the local plastics factory. He gave his best and loudest rendition and it reached her ears clearly.

"Your mother sounds strong," she said faintly to Koos who was serving her.

"That's not Koos's mother. That's the bird; the parrot," Mina put in swiftly. Really, some of these dorp volk were slow on the uptake!

"You have a parrot?" Christina enquired, agog.

"Ja. Excuse me now. There's another customer, but Koos will pack your things for you." Mina bustled away.

"Therapy you know," Koos explained uncomfortably.

"Aah. Dr du Plessis recommended it? Is he still here?"

Koos did some quick thinking. Christina was the most snobbish resident in town – a real social climber. There was no way he could explain the situation without offending her.

"Mmmm," he said. "Du Plessis is no longer with us. Polly the parrot is." That was the closest he could come to the truth, and really, in essence, it was so!

"An extension of the therapy," Christina supplied helpfully. "You know, Koos, I've been thinking. Your Dr du Plessis could be a relative of my Hans. We have some very famous Du Plessis in our family. What is his first name?"

"D'Arcy," the name popped out without thought.

"That's the one," Christina cried triumphantly, liking the sound of it. "D'Arcy du Plessis. He's a cousin of my Hans."

"I'm not at all surprised," Koos said dryly. He had always considered Hans du Plessis to be a real birdbrain!

At the first opportunity Christina made known the arrival of the bird at the next charity sewing session of the church sisters.

"How nice," Sarie Blignault said sentimentally. "A canary or a budgie perhaps?"

"A parrot!" Christina announced importantly. "Twice as noisy as the old lady. It has something to do with the therapy recommended by Dr du Plessis. He's Hans's cousin, you know. Very famous. He's written many papers and is well known overseas."

"Really?" Helga Swanepoel was visibly impressed. She thought for a moment. "It's transference, of course. I've read about it. The patient makes noises which are taken up by the parrot and... and eventually the patient stops making them," she finished lamely.

"You mean she passes the noises over to the bird?" Marion Klopper sounded interested.

"Yes."

"Well I hope it works. It'll drive Mina and Koos mad if both the bird and the old lady keep at it! Really sisters, it is time we visited Mrs Venter. What about Thursday morning?"

All agreed with this excellent suggestion.

Mina was a bit taken aback when the delegation arrived at the shop laden with flowers and tasty dishes for her mother-in-law.

"We'll stay only a few minutes," Mrs Merton assured her.

The few minutes dragged on to nearly an hour. The parrot, an exhibitionist if ever there were one, preened and pranced. Old Mrs Venter, delighted to have visitors and proud of the bird, managed to speak more than she had in months and all in all it was a most successful visit, apart from the fruity interjection offered by the parrot when the good 'sisters' stood up to take their leave.

"Really," breathed Marion Klopper on their way out of the shop, "who would have thought old Mrs Venter would be familiar with an expression like that? And to be encouraged to pass it on to an innocent bird!"

"It's part of the therapy," Christina du Plessis bristled. "You can be sure my cousin the doctor knows exactly what he's doing and that there's a good reason for it. He's very famous..."

"No doubt," Mrs Merton interrupted, thinking that doctors were definitely not what they used to be.

Koos and Mina gradually learned that the parrot's behaviour was not going to be held against them. In fact there wasn't a day when they didn't have shoppers buy a few items and call in to see the old lady. Even the visits of Dominee Seibrand ceased to hold terror. After the first, when most unusually he had called without warning, he had come down the stairs smiling and said to Mina who was helping in the busy store, "That's an interesting bird you have there."

"Yes," she agreed uneasily.

"And," his smile broadened, "he is quite a linguist. Your mother assured me it was French he was speaking." He gave Mina a broad wink and went chortling from the store.

A few weeks later Mina came home from town with news for Koos.

"You'd better make another plan to keep your customers, Koos. Moodley has bought a pelican and has it stalking around his shop!"

For a moment Koos was taken aback. Then he cocked his head as a loud squawk descended the stairwell, followed by a cackle of laughter from his mother. He motioned towards the open doorway and the steady trickle of people making for their store.

"I think," he said complacently, "Moodley will need more than a pelican to take away my trade. At the very least he will need," he considered a moment, "a dancing bear." He grinned hugely before adding, "and a French-speaking one at that!"

2 comments:

  1. i like this, very unusual i thought. is it too simple to say that people just need to know that someone(thing?) is interested in them. most people do not have the necessary patience to sit with older people but a 'dumb' animal....

    michael mccarthy

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  2. Ingenious and original, though a little longer, I think, than it could really get away with, given something of a credibility problem. It also tends to rely on dialogue more than is good for it; the characters need a bit more about them.

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