"Frikkie, I'm leaving you," she had said quietly. It had taken a moment to sink in. She then had his full attention. Rina was dressed in a dusty pink suit with a navy blue scarf and navy blue high-heeled shoes. She looked smart and distant and a cold shiver travelled the length of Frikkie's spine.
"What?" he croaked.
"You heard. My bags are packed and waiting in the hall. I've arranged for a taxi to take me to the station so you won't be put out in any way." She motioned with a contemptuous nod to the TV. "You can get back to your game now."
Instead, Frikkie lumbered to his feet. "Rina, what's going on?"
"I've told you. I'm leaving you."
"But why?" totally bewildered, "We're happy together and..."
"Are we?" she interrupted. "You're happy, yes, having an unpaid housekeeper to see to your every need, but tell me, Frikkie, what have I had? No," as he struggled to find words, "I'll tell you. I've had a bum of a husband who spends ninety percent of his time at the club with his mates and the other ten percent in front of that TV."
Frikkie stared at her with glazed eyes, speechless. This seemed to infuriate her, for she totally lost her temper and yelled, "Look at the house. You see that ceiling," pointing to the corner where it sagged tiredly from the water that had soaked in during the last deluge. "The roof is full of leaks, the garden's a mess and you... you're an incompetent, useless, apology of a husband! Do you know how long we've been married?"
Frikkie did a quick calculation. "Of course I do! It is... it is nine years, Rina, and now," aggrieved, "you want to leave me!" He sat down again as his legs had got the
trembles and he didn't want Rina to see this weakness. A man had to be strong!
"That's indeed what I'm doing," she retorted, "and should have done it much sooner. I've been wanting a baby for some time, but how could I possibly have a child in this run-down pigsty you call a house?"
"You never said..." he argued feebly, but again she interrupted.
"And what kind of father would you make? A fine example, you!" She calmed down a little, then said tightly. "I still love you, fool that I am, but unless you can change and become a better husband, I'm divorcing you. You have three months to pull yourself together. After that you'll hear from my lawyer."
While Frikkie was still protesting weakly, she walked from the room, her back straight and unyielding, her long, shapely legs bringing another frightening thought to mind.
"Have you found another man?" he stuttered trying to thrust his bare feet into his shoes and in his haste stubbing his toe instead. "Is that it?" His voice emerged as a sharp bark because of the agony he was in.
"Not yet," her voice floated from the hallway, "but I have every intention of doing so before I'm too old to be a mother. Speaking of which, I'll be at my mother's, but don't try to contact me unless you're prepared to make a real effort to save this marriage."
As he hobbled painfully after her, the front door slammed and he was just in time to catch a glimpse of her through the hall window as she got into the taxi and drove away.
After she had gone, Frikkie sat down again, his mind in turmoil. He was in such a state that he switched the TV off while the star of his team was diving for a try. What in God's name had got into Rina? He wasn't a bad husband!
He didn't beat her, keep her short of money, nor go with other women and while he had a few bad habits (he generously acknowledged) he had many good qualities too. By the time he had downed another beer, he was feeling very sorry for himself and decided to seek sympathy from whichever of his friends might be at the sports club.
Unfortunately, the only one sitting at the long bar was Hans du Plessis, whom he didn't care for much. However, Hans offered to buy him a drink, and that loosened the flood gates.
"Rina's left me," he told Hans soberly. "What? Your wife?" Hans's bloodshot eyes bulged slightly at this startling news.
Who the hell else? Frikkie thought morosely, once again confirmed in his opinion that Hans was not the brightest citizen in Prentburg. They sat in silence for a while, before he felt the need to continue.
"She called me an incompetent, useless husband. Is that a nice way for a woman to describe her husband?"
Hans shifted uncomfortably on his bar stool. He knew all about critical wives, being married to Christina, a woman with a tongue like a rapier! Trying to divert his thoughts from the abuse he would undoubtedly suffer once he reached home in his usual state of near-inebriation, he reverted to the topic in hand. "Why would she call you such names?"
"She said," Frikkie replied bitterly, "that she wanted a baby. Has she ever before even hinted at such a thing? No! But now she wants one and she said..." he racked his brains for the exact words, but the number of beers he'd downed had had their effect and he had to settle for an approximation. "She said she couldn't have one in my house (pigsty was too cruel to say aloud!) and what kind of example was I setting?"
"That's rough," Hans agreed sympathetically. "You've always struck me as a fine example. One of the boys. A real club man, full of jokes and with a good capacity for liquor. Have another," he offered generously.
It was now Frikkie's turn to squirm on his bar stool. What Hans had just said was too close to Rina's complaint for comfort! For the first time he began to wonder whether his wife was justified in her criticisms.
"No thanks. Time I went home anyway. Need to think a bit. She said I was an apology of a husband and she was going to find another man." It seemed a very real prospect and he felt very frightened.
At a total loss as to how to handle such a delicate situation, Hans resorted to patting Frikkie clumsily on the shoulder. "Old friend, she'll soon be back. It's probably just her hormones playing up and after a good cry she'll come to her senses, you'll see."
On hearing that, Frikkie felt more depressed than ever. Hans was an idiot. Rina was not at all the neurotic type and Frikkie had seldom seen her cry. If Hans could be so wrong about that, he was probably just as wrong about her coming home again. He had to face it, he was an abandoned husband! He felt a prickling sensation behind his eyelids and beat a hasty retreat before he embarrassed himself.
When Hans reached home, he was met at the door by a thunderous Christina. He had a sudden brainwave. "Angel," he said in a tremulous voice, "I have just been comforting a broken man."
Christina eyed him suspiciously. "You'll be a broken man by the time I've finished with you, you worm!"
"Just listen. Frikkie van Wyk is deeply distressed. His wife has left him!"
The impact of this news was very satisfactory. Christina was so astonished that she forgot completely to give Hans the hell he deserved. The Van Wyks had always seemed a contented couple, yet here was Hans saying...
"Are you sure you've got your facts straight, Hans? With the amount you've drunk," her fat face became suffused with anger again, "you've probably got the wrong end of the stick."
At sight of her flashing brown eyes, Hans felt panic rise in his breast and he said hastily, "Not so, Christina. He told me himself that she'd walked out on him because he is incompetent and an apology of a husband. She wants a baby and says she can't have one in his house and what kind of example is he?"
Christina drew a deep, satisfying breath. "He said that, truly Hans?"
"Truly, angel." Hans was grateful to see his wife completely diverted from thoughts of his own transgressions.
"Well, you've got it wrong you fool. She must have said 'impotent', not 'incompetent' if she's complaining that he can't give her a baby!"
"He didn't actually say..." Hans began a feeble protest. "Well, of course he wouldn't! What man would want to admit that he's a failure in bed? Do you?"
"Hey, steady on!" Hans was indignant. "You know that the reason we weren't able to have children had nothing to do with me!"
"So it's my fault!" Christina burst into floods of angry tears and Hans spent the next half-hour trying to placate her. He made her tea. He told her she was a wonderful wife and finally she relented and got back to talking about the Van Wyks.
"Did Frikkie really use those words, Hans?" she asked wiping away the last of her tears with the tissue Hans had provided. "That Rina considered him an apology of a husband because she couldn't have a baby and that he was impotent and what kind of an example was that?"
"He did," Hans said gravely, resolved to agree with whatever his wife said so that he could finally get to bed with a couple of disprin to try to dispel the throbbing headache that was attacking him.
"Well, well, who'd have thought it?" she said with great satisfaction. "It's quite scandalous. Wait until I break this news at the next Sisters of the Church meeting. It'll cause a real stir, I can tell you!"
And cause a stir, it did indeed. The "sisters", to a body, discarded their charity knitting and leaned forward to hear every last detail.
"Well, I think it's a real shame," said Sarie Blignault. "It's not his fault if he can't give her a child! For a wife to leave a husband because of that seems very cruel."
"He doesn't look impotent," Elaine Ferreira said doubtfully. "A great big fellow like that!"
"That's nothing to go by," Mrs Merton said cuttingly. "You can bet that half those bruisers on our sports teams are transvestites or gay!"
This comment met with shocked silence. An old biddy of that age should not have knowledge of such deviate practices, never mind airing them aloud. Instead it was Sarie who asked naively "What are transvestites? And why should sportsmen not be happy?"
There was much clearing of throats and coughing before Marion Klopper interposed kindly, "Why indeed? Don't concern yourself with it, Sarie. Some people should know better than to talk that way!" She threw a dark glance Mrs Merton's way.
"Oh really? You think it's better to live in cloud-cuckoo land, do you?" Mrs Merton smiled nastily before turning to Sarie. "This world is full of screwed up people, my girl, and the sooner you know about it, the better. There are even some who are truly evil. Take Satanists for example."
"Frikkie van Wyk isn't a Satanist," Sarie gasped, thoroughly upset.
"No, no. Of course he's not," Helga Swanepoel spoke up for the first time, "He is only impotent and there's no crime in that!" She, too, glared angrily at Mrs Merton.
"But surely," Miems Gouws said slowly, "there are all kinds of things on the market that help cure that kind of problem nowadays? What about Viagra?"
"Viagra doesn't increase a man's sperm," Marion Klopper corrected. "It's more for... well, for those who are growing older, or who through illness or some such can't... well, you know!"
Helga hastily glossed over this potentially dangerous subject by saying, "Miems is right. Before all hope is abandoned Frikkie should see a doctor. Who is going to tell him?"
It was finally decided that Elaine Ferreira would be able to handle the matter in the most tactful way. She was the only one who was unhappy about it.
"I won't know what to say to him! You can't come right out and tell a man who is only a casual acquaintance that you think he should seek medical help to make him fertile, for heavens sake!"
"Come now, you'll find the words," Helga said brightly. "It's our Christian duty to help heal this marriage, sisters."
Over the next few weeks Frikkie began to feel more kindly towards the women of the dorp. He'd always considered them to be a bunch of gossips, but in his time of trouble they called around with food and comforting words and he was truly grateful. Some of them seemed to speak in riddles, as for example Sarie Blignault, who, as she was leaving, took his hand in hers and said: "Frikkie, I know you're a good Christian, no matter what anybody says!" He quickly decided that he had better start going to church regularly again, as it had obviously been noticed that his attendance had fallen off sharply since Rina had left him.
He was also completely baffled by the visit he had from Elaine Ferreira. Her husband, Benny, was one of his best friends, but he'd had little contact with Elaine and came to the conclusion that she was well meaning but decidedly odd. He'd opened his front door to her knock and found her there, flushed and strangely fearful, and invited her in.
"It is kind of you to call, and thank you for the cake. Please sit," he invited.
She perched on the very end of a chair, twisting her hands together. "Frikkie," she said eventually, "we are very concerned about you. Please don't take it amiss if we, that is, the church sisters, offer some advice, will you?"
Frikkie looked noncommittal, which seemed to daunt her even further. While he regretted her discomfort, he really did not want the church sisters in on the act!
"We all go through bad times," she spluttered, "and sometimes needlessly so. There is no shame in seeing a doctor to... to get whatever help is available. Frikkie," she said earnestly, "Although Dr Ismail is not one of our race, he has won great respect from all in the dorp as he is a really good doctor. Being young, he also keeps up with the latest available medicines, and being an Indian he may even have access to some that other doctors know nothing about. Why not see him? He could have the solution to your problem."
Frikkie didn't see how anyone, least of all an Indian doctor, could be expected to perform the miracle of getting Rina to return to him but he thanked Elaine gravely and said he would think about what she had suggested. Which he did, and as he had been sleeping very badly since Rina's departure, he decided that it might not be a bad idea to talk things over with the doctor.
Dr Ismail asked why he needed sleeping tablets and he found himself telling the doctor the whole sad story. When he left half an hour later Frikkie felt a great deal better as, while his friends had all been very sympathetic, the doctor was the first person to listen dispassionately and offer sound, practical advice. He provided mild sleeping tablets and some interesting insights into the different needs of men and women, suggested a course on relationships that Frikkie could attend in neighbouring Waterfontein and even gave him the name of a good DIY book. Elaine Ferreira was right about one thing, Frikkie acknowledged. Dr Ismail was indeed a very good doctor.
When next he bumped into her in Koos Venter's supply store, Frikkie told her that he had heeded her advice and been to see the doctor and that Dr Ismail had supplied him with some pills and generally been of great help. Elaine was thrilled and couldn't wait to pass the good news on to the other "sisters".
"He probably prescribed some mysterious Oriental drug," Marion Klopper said thoughtfully.
"That would indeed be unusual," Mrs Merton returned with asperity (there was an on-going cold war between herself and Marion), "seeing as Dr Ismail is not an Oriental."
"Well you know what I mean," Marion said sulkily. "Those foreign nations are very into unusual sexual practices and have gadgets and things that enhance... enhance..."
"Performance?" Mrs Merton supplied. "Perhaps. Well, we'll keep an eye on Frikkie. If he starts looking edgy, we'd better think of a way to get Rina back here quickly before he blots his copybook once and for all by sewing wild oats."
There was contemplative silence as all present tried to imagine Frikkie van Wyk, who had always seemed only half-alive, in the grip of uncontrolled sexual desires brought on by exotic foreign potions.
In the weeks that followed, Frikkie found himself the object of close scrutiny by the local ladies every time he left his house. In fact, he did not even have to leave his house to know that eyes were upon him. While he was up on the roof mending the leaks (the book recommended by the doctor had been very comprehensive) he was aware of Miems Gouws walking her dog on the opposite side of the street and it seemed to him that she gave the dog more than enough time to sniff around the lamp post. In fact, it pulled at its lead in an effort to get going while Miems determinedly held it back!
When he attacked the wilderness of his garden, there was Helga Swanepoel, a frightening sight in running gear with her enormous backside and thunder thighs. (Rina had a beautiful figure, he thought nostalgically and hoped to God she wasn't showing it off in running gear to some lecherous devil supposedly gardening!)
Helga drew to a stop outside his gate.
"My," she gasped once she had enough breath, "you're very busy these days, Frikkie."
"Yes, well there's a lot to be done," he said shortly.
Helga couldn't remember a time when there had not been a lot to be done in and around the Van Wyk property, but she held her peace. She looked him up and down. He had discarded his shirt, his tanned body looked trim and his stomach flat now that he had cut down on the beer. She was impressed with whatever Dr Ismail had already done for that body and hoped he could help with its impotency as it would be a real waste for such a body to be ineffectual!
"I can't remember your ever being so active," she said coyly.
Frikkie felt uncomfortable under that raking glance. Had the woman no shame? He quickly put his shirt on again. "I've a lot of energy to work off," he mumbled.
"So I see! Any time you have some to spare, the Swanepoel household could use it."
Heaven forbid, Frikkie thought and decided to draw up a long list of things that needed doing in his own house in case any of the other ladies got it into their heads to enlist his help. Once he started on the list, he was appalled to find how much maintenance was needed and felt ashamed that he had been so negligent. No wonder Rina had run away.
The course on relationships was held two evenings each week for a month. Frikkie signed up and despite great feelings of embarrassment, proceeded to attend. After the first two sessions he was far more relaxed about it as there were as many men as women there, and none were the wimps he had expected. He also found, to his great surprise, that both the lectures and the workshops were not only interesting but educational; he learned how to express his feelings more openly as well as being more sensitive to the feelings of others. He had already begun to appreciate how much of a contribution Rina made to the marriage and realise how much she meant to him, but he was now learning just how far he fell short of meeting her expectations. It was a chastening experience.
It was only a matter of time before it became known that he was going out in the evenings. It was the husbands who gave the game away. His friends, of whom there were many, as the club was their meeting-ground, started complaining to their wives that Frikkie was becoming unsociable.
"I can't remember when last he joined us," Benny Ferreira muttered into his after-dinner coffee. "He's always too busy during the day and traipsing off heaven knows where at night! He's very cagey about where he goes."
Elaine picked up her ears and excitedly passed this new bit of scandal on at the next get-together of the church sisters.
"Hmmm," said Mrs Merton. "That doesn't sound at all healthy! What's he getting up to, I wonder?"
"You don't think...?" Marion Klopper tactfully let her sentence fade into meaningful silence.
The "sisters" exchanged a knowledgeable look, excepting for Sarie Blignault who glanced from one to the other in perplexity.
"Do you think Frikkie's taken too much of that Indian medicine?" she asked anxiously, "and it's disagreed with him?"
"I think it's agreed with him rather too well!" Mrs Merton returned grimly, "and that it's time we got Rina to come home. Well, sisters, how do we go about it?"
Being singularly devoid of imagination, the best they could come up with was to send a letter to Rina at her mother's house saying that Frikkie was ill and in the care of the doctor.
"After all, that is pretty near the truth," Elaine said breathlessly. "But who's going to sign it? She won't take any notice of an anonymous letter. She'll think Frikkie has sent it in a bid to get her worried."
They argued about it amongst themselves, but no-one was willing to take sole responsibility, so eventually they compromised. The typed letter read:
Thought you should know Frikkie has been taken ill and has Dr Ismail in attendance. He needs careful nursing and is calling for you. Come quickly.
Sisters of the Church.
It was Sarie who suggested the "calling for you" bit. The others were reluctant to include it but eventually gave in to her obstinate insistence. In any event, she was proved right, though they were never to know it. "Calling for you" suggested to Rina that Frikkie was either delirious or on his death bed and it was that part that alarmed her into packing her bags then and there and catching the next train home.
When she unlocked the front door with her key and walked into the sitting room, in his surprise Frikkie fell off the ladder he was balanced on, nearly turning the letter into a self-fulfilling prophecy. Fortunately, because he was so fit, he managed to land on his feet. He and Rina stood gaping at one another.
"What are you doing?" she asked faintly.
"Fixing the ceiling. Oh Rina, welcome home!" and he took her and held her until she started laughing helplessly in sheer relief at finding him well.
"I thought you were sick. I got this letter." She dug it out of her bag and they read it together. "I got such a fright," she said. "Have you been ill?"
Frikkie was mystified. "Do I look it?"
"No," she said. "You actually look pretty good!"
"And you look wonderful. I've been trying, Rina. Did you see the garden? And I've fixed the leaking roof and lots of other things." He took her by the hand and led her through the house, showing her all he had done in her absence. Rina praised everything. He loved her so much and for once, told her so.
Later they read the letter again. "Why did they send it?" she wondered aloud. "It doesn't make any sense."
"They're a weird lot," Frikkie said, thinking of the odd behaviour of Sarie, Elaine, Miems, and Helga. He was even more convinced of their eccentricity when all four looked evasive and pleaded ignorance of the letter. By that time it didn't much matter, as he and Rina were thoroughly reconciled. He had had a bad scare and took care not to slide too far backwards. Besides, he found he was good at repairing things and started to take pleasure in the jobs he did.
It was only a matter of time before Rina fell pregnant and was gratified at the exuberant delight of the Sisters of the Church.
"It was touching how pleased they were," she told Frikkie.
"Daft lot!" he said good-humouredly.
"That Dr Ismail is really something," Helga Swanepoel said admiringly when the group got together again, sans Rina. "Whatever he prescribed has done the trick."
"It's that Indian medicine," Marion Klopper said knowingly.
As for Dr Ismail, he was surprised to find that he had a sudden spate of infertile men and women consulting him from as far afield as Waterfontein. (Hans and Christina du Plessis had lived for some years in Waterfontein and she couldn't resist making loaded comments about having initiated Frikkie's "cure"). Wanting to help the childless couples, Dr Ismail spent much time researching the subject and as time passed, the reputation he had erroneously earned became a reality without his having to resort to unconventional medication!
It was as well that Rina and Frikkie van Wyk were unaware that the smiles bestowed on their new-born daughter by the church sisters held more than a hint of self-satisfaction. Knowing what a sensitive subject impotency was to most men, the church sisters took care that not a whisper reached the ears of the Van Wyks about the part they had played in restoring Frikkie's virility. Nonetheless they could not help smirking delightedly every time they saw the new parents with baby Annette.
Another secret they resolved to keep was that concerning the letter despatched to Rina to bring her home. There was no way to explain it, so to a woman they resolved to deny any knowledge of it. After all, they reasoned, this little white lie would surely be forgiven by the Almighty as it had been done for the best of reasons. Helga Swanepoel put it in a nutshell when she said sanctimoniously, "Sisters, Frikkie was the clay and we the tools, and though I say it myself," (thinking of that muscular, toned body the day she had seen him gardening) "we did a fine job on him!"