"Bertha's so lazy. Doesn't lift a finger to help in any way."
Later Suzie's grievances became more specific and tinged with resentment.
"I'd forgotten how sly she is. Do you know what she's done now? She swapped my bottle of Dune perfume with a fake!"
"How could she manage that?" Helga Swanepoel raised her eyes from sorting through the donations received for the white elephant stall of the coming church fete. "It sounds impossible, never mind unlikely."
"It's very possible and I can tell you exactly how she managed it. Last year she manipulated herself onto a cruise up the west coast with some friends, and when they stopped at Dakar, she bought boxes of French perfume from a vendor in the dockyards at what she thought were bargain prices. They were in proper packaging right down to the cellophane wrapping and it was only once she opened the bottles that she found they were all fake. I know because she phoned me to whine about it. The only time Bertha ever bothers to phone me is to complain about something!"
"Well, you're fast joining her in that little habit," Mrs Merton said bluntly. "All you ever do these days is moan."
For once the other church sisters were in accord with their most contentious member, their sympathy with Suzie having been worn thin.
"I can't help it," Suzie said pathetically. "To find I'm landed with her stinky scent and she's got my precious Dune is too galling for words!"
"Did you not take up the issue with her?" Helga Swanepoel asked pompously.
"Of course I did, but she denied everything, saying I was paranoid."
The church sisters were silently relieved when Suzie announced some weeks later that she was getting rid of Bertha. They were by then heartily sick of her very name, although none of them had met Suzie's cousin as she disdained coming to church and told Suzie she disliked women, a fact Suzie relayed to the indignant 'sisters' with relish.
"Bertha's two weeks have already become three, and I've had enough! I've booked one of those package holidays to Durban for myself, to force her to leave. It's the only way I can get her out, even though I wasn't planning on having a holiday and it will cost me a fortune."
"How lovely," Sarie Blignault breathed. "You'll be taken to all the beauty spots and get to see Zulu dancing. Perhaps you'll even be lucky enough to have a ride in a rickshaw!"
The others looked at this childish member of the sisterhood in amazement. Only Sarie would find pleasure in something they would pay to miss!
"All I know is that it's most inconvenient. I'll have to catch a bus to Waterfontein and from there, another to Durban, lugging a heavy suitcase."
All except Sarie chose to ignore this blatant hint, being by then as fed up with Suzie as she was with her cousin. Sarie, however, humbled them by saying wistfully:
"Shame, Suzie. I'd take you to Waterfontein if I had a car."
This resulted in prompt offers of transport from each of the 'sisters' possessing a car, and it fell to Helga Swanepoel to do the honours of seeing Suzie safely on her way.
"When she comes home she'll be full of fun again," Sarie said optimistically, "and have lots of exciting things to tell us."
But on her return Suzie became as silent as she had previously been garrulous, her thoughts obviously miles away, and the church sisters had to drag information about her holiday from her.
"What's the matter with you?" Marion Klopper said crossly, having asked Suzie the same questions three times without getting an answer. They were all gathered around the tea table after church service, usually a sociable time, but the silent Suzie was literally becoming a spectre at the feast.
"Sorry, sorry," Suzie apologised, her eyes filling with tears.
At once the sisterhood crowded supportively around her, for at heart they were a kindly lot. Their sympathetic ministrations with tissues and hugs unlocked her tongue.
"It's just that I did a silly thing when I was in Durban. One afternoon, I landed up at a fortune teller in one of the back streets behind the hotel. I was bored, you see." There had been a bit more to it than that. Suzie had been hoping that the rather grubby lady swathed in lengths of colourful cloth would tell her she had a chance of romance with the widower Geldenhuys, but no such luck.
"It's dangerous to play around with that kind of thing," Elaine Ferreira said disapprovingly, but curiosity won the day. "What did she say?"
"She asked me for an item of jewellery and I gave her my string of pearls."
The 'sisters' nodded impatiently. They were all acquainted with this necklace as Suzie wore it to church every Sunday.
"And?" Marion Klopper prompted.
"Well, she went into a kind of trance and said a poem." Suzie's voice grew tremulous.
"She was supposed to tell your fortune, not spout poetry!" Rina van Wyk was clearly disappointed.
"Well," Suzie said again, "the poem was by way of being my fortune, but it was bad news."
The sisterhood drew closer, agog.
"It was all in rhyme. It took me by surprise, you know, so I only caught bits of it. It started off with something about a curse. Then a bit later there was something about a hearse, and also about a nurse and an empty purse and finished off with words to the effect that before things got better, they'd get a lot worse!"
"Whew!" Sarie patted Suzie's hand consolingly. "That's not at all nice."
"Did you ask the woman to explain?" Mrs Merton barked.
"Yes. She seemed to wake up after a while, but all she would say was that sometimes the spirit moved in her in a mysterious way and she could recall nothing of what she'd said when she was under its influence."
"Under the influence is about right." Mrs Merton was contemptuous. "She'd probably been at the bottle and was drunk!"
"I don't think so," tears trickled down Suzie's cheeks, "and now I'm dead worried. What curse? What nurse and all that other stuff?"
"The only nurse around here is that retired Mrs Cunliff. Even in her heyday she was more of a hindrance than a help and now she's utterly past it, so if she's involved, I'd say she was the curse and the hearse would follow quite naturally on any nursing she chose to do at this advanced stage!"
"That's enough, Ethel Merton. Suzie needs words of comfort, not to be scared witless." Marion Klopper was delighted to be able to take the old harridan to task.
"I think you should be scared of curses," Sarie said earnestly. "They're bad things."
"Yes. What about all those people involved in opening the tomb of Tuthankamun, the Egyptian pharaoh?" Elaine's impressive bit of knowledge was sullied somewhat by her next comment. "There was a curse on the lot of them and that Lord Carnival died horribly after being bitten by a snake!"
"Lord Carnarvon, and it was an infected mosquito that killed him." Mrs Merton was at her most acid. Everyone ignored her. Elaine's version was far more exciting! The only person who seemed in the least dismayed was Sarie, who clapped a hand to her mouth.
"Say what you like, they all met a sad end." Elaine was defiant. "Some Arab got shot by his wife and a Frenchman fell to his death; I remember reading that somewhere. There were a lot of other mysterious deaths too."
Suzie's sobbing now grew louder and more desperate.
"Marion's right. Enough of this morbidity. Suzie, there is no such thing as a curse and surely you're sensible enough to realise it's all hogwash? Nothing at all is going to happen to you, so cheer up!"
These bracing words of Mrs Merton's had the opposite effect from what was intended. Suzie spent a sleepless night wondering just what was lying in wait for her and was
convinced that whatever it was, it was likely to be a lot more dangerous than the doubtful ministrations of Nurse Cunliff!
Leon Markovitz, local pharmacist, looked up in alarm when Sarie Blignault slipped apologetically into his shop the next day. He had learned from experience that Sarie's requirements, pharmaceutical or otherwise, were at the very least surprising, and at most, brought with them an element of danger at odds with the peaceful life desired by someone of an academic turn of mind. He stifled his misgivings and greeted her cheerfully. "Hello, Sarie. Lovely day, isn't it?"
Sarie blinked rapidly. "Oh. Yes, it is." The weather had obviously not been at the forefront of her mind. A worried frown creased her brow as she gathered herself to pose a question while Leon held his breath.
"Leon, do you keep anything to... to act against snake bites?"
Leon went limp with fright and asked urgently "What kind of snake? Have you been bitten, Sarie?"
She looked upset. "I don't know what kind of snake. Haven't you got something that does for all?"
"Sarie, for heavens sake, when and where were you bitten?"
"It's not for me," she smiled reassuringly. "I'm fine. It's for one of the church sisters Leon. There's a strong chance she'll be bitten by a snake. An Egyptian snake, I think. Or she may be shot by an Arab instead but I don't think Suzie knows any Arabs, do you?"
"Sarie, Sarie," Leon massaged his temples which had begun to throb with the beginnings of a migraine, "what's this all about?" Sarie's child-like mind was sometimes more than he could cope with.
"You know," she said musingly, "it would be better if you could give me something to kill a curse. That way we could protect Suzie from everything bad. Can you help, Leon?"
Exercising all his patience, Leon said he regretted that he kept only ordinary medicines in his pharmacy and had little knowledge of curses, but he was absolutely sure that Suzie would be fine. Just fine. He could see that Sarie was unconvinced by this unsubstantiated assertion and felt he was letting her down.
"You could try praying for your friend, you know. Prayer has been known to help where all else has failed."
"You're right," she beamed happily. "What a good idea! I'll suggest it to the other church sisters at our Trivial Pursuit evening next week."
The moment she left, Leon filled a glass with water and downed two strong headache tablets. Shortly afterwards Japie Fourie called in to collect his chronic medication and Leon, mind still reeling from the unreality of his conversation with Sarie, told Japie about it. The phlegmatic Japie gave a derisive snort.
"Who knows what goes on in the heads of those church sisters? Koeksisters, they should be called... syrup on the outside but thick dough inside!"
This description amused Leon and helped him regain a sense of perspective. Sarie was always an unknown quantity and he was foolish to be thrown by anything she did or said.
Japie, however, had sold the church sisters short. They were quite intelligent enough to turn down flatly Sarie's suggestion that they ask Dominee Seibrand to include in the Sunday prayers one requesting that the curse be lifted from Suzie.
"We can't do that!" Christina du Plessis was appalled. "Imagine what he'd say?"
They imagined, while Sarie looked from one to the other in bewilderment.
"Sarie, the church doesn't believe in curses," Marion Klopper explained kindly.
Sarie gave the matter thought. "They believe in miracles. Why don't we ask for a miracle for Suzie?"
Marion ignored the clucks of impatience from the assembled sisterhood and came up with a possible solution.
"We can certainly each pray for Suzie in a personal capacity. How about that?"
Sarie didn't appear too impressed with this cop-out but eventually gave a reluctant nod.
In the meantime, Suzie brooded about her fate. It was totally unfair that the poem had been so vague. Was the curse to happen indoors or outdoors? She lost both sleep and weight worrying about it, not knowing whether she was safer staying at home or surrounding herself with people. Even an invitation from the widower Geldenhuys to dine at the one and only hotel in Prentburg, the Welcome Inn, couldn't dispel her qualms and she spent a good deal of the time looking fearfully around for sources of danger instead of focusing her attention on him. If she had but known, her apparent indifference to his charms awoke in the widower an interest in her that had so far been lacking. He was also rather taken with the interesting hollows in her cheeks and her new, slender figure.
Nor did a phone call from Bertha telling Suzie she'd slipped in her kitchen and broken a leg have much impact, even though Bertha made it clear she considered it Suzie's fault entirely that she was now in plaster from hip to ankle. Suzie had unkindly sent her home before she wanted to go. This selfishness had played on her mind and the accident was the result. She hoped Suzie felt remorse for being the cause of so much pain and suffering. Suzie didn't. She was far too worried about the sword of Damocles hanging over her own head to worry about her cousin's discomfort, but she did manage to utter a few insincere words of sympathy hoping they would appease Bertha and stop the flow of upsetting recriminations.
The church sisters, in an effort at solidarity with one of their own, drew up a roster in which each took a turn at visiting and trying to cheer Suzie up. Or that was their intention.
Helga Swanepoel popped in after her afternoon jog up to the dam and sweated copiously all over Suzie's new sofa. To add insult to injury, Helga's poodle Bianca threw up in the hall, leaving a stench that permeated the house for a week. Suzie couldn't help thinking that with friends like hers, who needed a curse?
Marion Klopper arrived with a bunch of mixed blooms from her garden that unfortunately brought on an attack of Suzie's hayfever, and Mrs Merton fell asleep within minutes of arriving and spent the next hour snoring loudly before awakening with a start and needing assistance to get into her ancient car. Suzie spent the next half-hour worrying whether the old girl had got home safely, wondering whether The Curse (which she now thought of in capital letters) would embrace all those with whom she came into contact.
Sarie arrived with her two goldfish, "to keep you company tonight," assuming that Suzie would be as pleased to have them as she was to make the sacrifice of doing without their delightful presence until the next day.
"The big one is Golda and the little, Fatima."
"How do you know they're both girls?" Suzie asked suspiciously.
"I don't, but then neither do they, so it doesn't matter much, does it?"
This distorted logic made a strange kind of sense and Suzie was still trying to fathom out why, when Sarie continued:
"Golda's Jewish and Fatima's Muslim and see how well they get on together? I'm going to send a photo of the two of them to Mr Arafat with a note saying that if my fish can be such good friends, so can that mob up there."
Apart from the fact that the intended recipient of Sarie's photo was well beyond human reach, a fact that she obviously didn't know, her comment definitely didn't make any sense at all! However, knowing how dear her pets were to Sarie, Suzie spent a good deal of the night checking to see that The Curse hadn't afflicted Golda and Fatima with something like death. (The thought of the hearse clung like Gladwrap even though Suzie realised it could not possibly apply to goldfish!) Morning and their reunion with their fond owner could not come soon enough for her peace of mind.
She had supportive visits from each of the other 'sisters' with one exception... Christina du Plessis. Christina decided that Suzie was definitely not a healthy person to be around while being cursed and gave her a wide berth. To salve her conscience, she visited the local library to find something helpful for Suzie, attached a brief note and slipped the book into Suzie's letterbox with the excuse that much as she, Christina, would love to visit, "dear Hans" had the flu and she didn't want to pass his germs to Suzie, "especially in the present circumstances," and would Suzie kindly return the book to the library once she'd read it.
Being reminded of her vulnerability increased Suzie's depression. The book didn't help one bit either. It went by the title "Medieval Spells" and the first and only spell she glanced at listed as its first two ingredients:
The shaft of a feather freshly plucked from a fowl
The paw of a cat.
Suzie slammed the book shut feeling decidedly hysterical. Did Christina really expect her to go round chasing chickens and killing cats? She was so overwrought that The Curse notwithstanding, she grabbed her anorak, stuffed the book under her arm and headed straight for the library to hand it back. On her way up the library steps she bumped into the widower Geldenhuys, who had just exchanged his books. After greeting her, he caught a glimpse of part of the title of the book she was returning, seeing only the word "Medieval" before Suzie shifted her arm to shield it from his gaze. Damn it all, she thought furiously, all she needed was for him to see her with a book of spells to kill any romantic notions he might be harbouring stone dead. (Visions of the hearse again!) In actual fact, the widower was intrigued. This woman was full of unexpected surprises. Unlike the others in the dorp who seemed to spend their lives reading trash of the bodice-ripping kind (if the covers were anything to go by) here was one who was reading about... Medieval History? Medieval Art? Architecture? And the shy way she had tried to shield the title from him was so appealing; such modesty in a woman! He definitely wanted to get to know her better.
Once they had parted and Suzie had rid herself of the offending book, she spent an hour looking for the most lurid, far-fetched novel she could find, determined to lose herself in a chimerical world that would make her present haunted life pale in comparison.
The husbands of the sisterhood soon became aware that something was amiss with Suzie Lamprecht when their wives became neglectful. A series of missed meals, piled up ironing and the like soon had them asking questions. They had to content themselves with vague and unsatisfactory answers along the lines of Suzie not being well. None of the wives was willing to make a fool of herself by mentioning fortune tellers and curses, knowing what a sceptical lot the menfolk of the village were, and the howls of derision that such candour would invoke.
"It's bound to be women's trouble of some kind," Benny Ferreira said when next they gathered at the sports club for a quick beer.
"She probably needs a hysterectomy," from a pensive Hans du Plessis, "That's bad, but not nearly as bad as the menopause. Believe me, that's no joke! When it hit Christina she was impossible to live with... hot flushes, mood swings... hysteria... she had the lot. I tell you, sometimes I didn't think I was going to survive it!"
The other men nodded sagely. Frikkie van Wyk, who had a puritanical streak, couldn't stomach this kind of talk. He swigged the last of his beer and left, thinking that even at her best Christina was no prize with her filthy temper and controlling ways. What she would be like when something as mysterious and distasteful as the menopause struck, he couldn't begin to imagine; and chose not to!
When the sisters of the church next met to work at their charity needlework, they had to put up with a Suzie who couldn't have been more temperamental if she were old enough to be in the throes of menopause. Every comment she made was either bitter or negative.
"Bertha's been on the phone again, would you believe it? She was just wondering whether I had any idea of the extent of her misery, hobbling around with a crutch. She also wanted to let me know that she couldn't get in and out of the bath by herself and was having to pay a packet to get the clinic sister in to help her. Of course she blames it all on my selfishness in chasing her home!"
"The hell with Bertha," Elaine Ferreira said unfeelingly.
"And the widower Geldenhuys has turned out to be a total bore. He called round to see me and all he could talk about was medieval crime and punishment; I've never heard anything so gruesome in my entire life! What made it all the more sickening was his enjoyment. I think that underneath that smooth appearance he's a... a..."
"Sadist," supplied Mrs. Merton. "I'm not at all surprised. Those skeletal types are often suspect."
"Perhaps it's the beginning of The Curse that I should now find him so unattractive," Suzie said gloomily.
"Nonsense! He's the same as he's always been. It's just your perception of the man that has changed."
This was too deep for Suzie, especially in her current frame of mind. All she knew was that she couldn't rely on anything remaining unchanged; not even her feelings!
The following week when she was in the queue at the butcher's shop, she found herself weeping as she gazed at the carcass of a sheep waiting to be cut up. (That sodding hearse again!) Frikkie van Wyk, on his way out after having bought a few sticks of dried wors, saw her and hesitated.
"What's the matter, Suzie? Can I help?"
She shook her head. "No-one can. It's The Curse." She no longer cared if the whole world knew. "It leaves me feeling so miserable."
Frikkie stared glassily at her, cleared his throat and fled. Such immodesty in a woman! His abrupt departure, as if she had the plague, left Suzie feeling more of a pariah than ever.
On reaching home, Frikkie's wife Rina took one look at his face and asked
"What's the matter?"
"Whatever's happened to womanly reserve? I've just bumped into Suzie Lamprecht in the butcher's. She was crying and when I asked the reason she said... she actually said it was her time of month!"
"Suzie? I don't believe it. You must have misheard."
"I did no such thing! Her exact words were that she had the curse and was feeling miserable."
Rina's lips twitched. "Oh. Suzie didn't mean.... she..... Frikkie, you don't understand and I can't explain it to you."
"Whenever something concerns one of those church sisters you tell me I don't understand," Frikkie flared. "I'm not a moron."
"No," his wife agreed sweetly, "you're just a man!" and went on serenely stringing beans for dinner while Frikkie stomped into the bedroom, slammed the door and sulked.
At church the following Sunday, the sisterhood greeted Suzie's appearance with relief. She had not felt up to attending for the past two weeks.
"Are you feeling better?" Marion queried.
"Well, you look great," Elsie Fourie told her, stretching the truth, "but what's happened to your lovely pearls? They've lost their shine and started to peel."
Suzie quickly unclasped them from her neck, donned her spectacles and inspected them.
"These aren't mine!" she gasped. "They're Bertha's. When we were young we were both bridesmaids at a friend's wedding and the groom gave us matching strands. I know these are Bertha's because when she arrived to visit last month, I'd been reading the paper and was wearing my glasses when I opened the door to her. The first thing I noticed were her pearls, and how shabby they looked in comparison with mine."
"You look after your things beautifully," Helga agreed, "but would Bertha really do something so diabolical as to swap hers for yours?"
"Would she not? She has!"
The women crowded around Sarie exclaiming in disbelief and disgust. All excepting Mrs Merton. She began to grin in a very nasty way, rather like a shark that had spied its next meal.
"You should be leaping in the air with joy, my girl, instead of mourning the loss of your pearls. They're cheap at the price. That curse you're so worried about... it belongs to Bertha, not you! The fortune was Bertha's, not yours."
The 'sisters' gave this pronouncement their full attention. Hope began to bloom in Suzie; then faded as she said disconsolately "But I was wearing her pearls at the time!"
Helga waved a nonchalant hand. "I don't think that would count one bit. Those pearls were worn by your cousin so often that they were probably soaked with... with her essence. The few times you wore them wouldn't have made any impression at all."
"Suzie, wake up. Who broke a leg? Who's having to pay a nurse to help her in and out of the bath? Bertha, that's who!" Marion Klopper crowed.
Sarie grabbed the hands of the two women nearest her and soon the whole group followed suit, whirling round laughingly in a circle, all dignity forgotten, handbags bouncing and Sunday hats sliding forward over their faces. Their husbands looked on in astonishment, not knowing what to make of this unprecedented behaviour, while Dominee Seibrand, standing in the church doorway, smiled indulgently at such an uninhibited display from the usually decorous ladies of his flock.
The next morning Sarie Blignault arrived breathlessly in Leon Markovitz's pharmacy.
"I just had to come and tell you," she said shyly, "that you were quite right, Leon, and to say a big thank you. I prayed and prayed, and guess what?"
Leon wondered uneasily what was coming.
"The curse on Sarie has gone and settled itself on her cousin Bertha instead! Isn't it marvellous?"
Leon stared wordlessly after Sarie as she left, calculating just what new sin he would now be held accountable for when he met his maker, while Sarie trotted perkily down the road, happiness radiating from every pore of her thin body.