Sunday, December 8, 2013

The Advert by Beryl Ensor-Smith

Gideon Visser advertises for a wife in another of Beryl Ensor-Smith's scintillating tales of gossip and misunderstanding in the sleepy South African dorp of Prentburg.

It was Suzie Lamprecht who discovered that Gideon Visser was advertising for a wife. Since his father had become an invalid, she had been helping out where she could. The old man was difficult, very bigoted, and would allow only Gideon to see to his needs which put a lot of pressure on Gideon, as it meant he had to leave his hardware business to come home every few hours to attend to his father's personal requirements.

Suzie would pop in when she had the time, to check that the char was doing her chores and not making long-distance phone calls to who-knew-where. (Gideon's phone account had soared since his father became bed-ridden.) If the truth be told, she also had a bit of a crush on Gideon, who was a good-looking and amiable soul, so it came as a cruel blow to discover that he had turned to the internet to seek a wife.

"I was helping out, as usual," she told the Sisters of the Church after their AGM when such important matters as fund-raising, charitable work and social functions were discussed. "Gideon went to answer a knock at the door and I just happened to be standing near the computer where he'd been working." In fact, Suzie had been distracting Gideon with her mindless chatter, but he had been too polite to put a stop to the flow. The moment he left the room, she pounced on the computer and read the advert he was composing.

"He was advertising for a wife," she said, scandalised. "He was busy listing all the qualities he wanted."

"What did he say?" Helga Swanepoel asked, hoping Gideon's specifications would be interesting and belie his clean-cut appearance. Life in Prentburg had been very dull lately!

"He's looking for a practical, reliable woman who can handle an invalid."

"She'd need to be a saint to put up with Gabriel Visser," Marion Klopper put in her two cent's worth, "but you'd think Gideon would've said something about, well, her appearance and personality and suchlike. Practical and reliable sounds so boring." Helga Swanepoel nodded in agreement, deeply disappointed in Gideon.

"Well he'd only just started on it. I suppose he was still getting round to that side of things." Despite his betrayal, Suzie nevertheless felt bound to defend Gideon.

"If his top priority is a practical, reliable, boring woman, there are plenty of single ones right here in the dorp," Mrs Merton stated in her usual waspish manner.

"I entirely agree," Suzie said before she realised the insult in the old misery's comment. "Why couldn't he choose one of us?"

Miems Gouws told her mother the news when she got home, shouting into the old lady's earhorn. Old Ma Gouws still refused to use a hearing-aid for fear of being electrocuted. When she was assured that this was impossible as it ran off batteries and was thus quite safe, she retorted "and what when there's lightning? You think it wouldn't get into those wires and run straight into my head?" Mrs Merton was later heard to say that this would be no bad thing as it might re-ignite some of the many dead brain cells rattling idly around in Ma Gouws's skull; a typically acid comment from the bad-tempered old bag.

"Gideon's looking for a wife on the internet," Miems told her mother.

"The what? Don't mumble, Miems. By now you should have learned to speak clearly, the age you are. It sounded as though you were saying Gideon's looking for a life on an Indian jet. That can't be right!"

"The internet, ma. INTERNET," Miems bellowed.

Her mother's face screwed up in bewilderment. "What's an internet?"

Miems was at a loss. How to explain the intricacies of something she didn't fully understand herself? "It's like a radio. Kind-of. Gideon's advertising to find a wife. A WIFE, ma!"

"Have I got this clearly? Gideon's advertising on the radio for a wife?"

Miems nodded, energy levels too depleted from shouting to bother with correcting minor discrepancies. After all, it came to much the same thing.

"The man's mad! Doesn't he realise you can't do that kind of thing nowadays? You can't be specific because it's considered discriminatory. So who does he think he'll land up with, and his father such a racist too! Gabriel won't even let the char come into his room to clean it. Can you imagine what a pig-sty it must be. I taught Gabriel when he was a boy and even then he wasn't too particular about personal hygiene. His ears were so filthy you could have planted potatoes in them. I should know, I pulled them often enough!"

The next thing, it was being circulated through the dorp that Ma Gouws had heard Gideon Visser was advertising for a black bride. This rumour lasted only as long as it took to reach Gideon's ears. His friend, Frikkie van Wyk broke the news and none too tactfully, either. He called in at Gideon's hardware store, waited until he had finished serving a customer, then broached the subject.

"Ma Gouws is spreading the news through the dorp that you're planning to marry a black, er, lady. Is it true?" (He had nearly said "woman", but walls had ears these days and you could get into big trouble for saying anything remotely perceived as racist.)

With slack jaw Gideon stared at Frikkie in disbelief.

"What? WHAT?" Frikkie nodded to show that Gideon had heard correctly.

Gideon was momentarily bereft of speech. "Well that explains why I've had practically every white woman in the dorp stalking into my shop these past few days, buying one washer or one nail and giving me the evil eye! Tell me, Frikkie, what has Ma Gouws got against me that she would say such a thing? Just tell me."

Frikkie shrugged apologetically, and the two looked blankly at one another, totally mystified.

After Frikkie had left, Gideon turned to his 19-year-old assistant, who had listened to the exchange between the two men in open astonishment.

"Philemon, what would you say if you heard someone was going round telling people you were planning on getting yourself a white wife?'

Philemon thought of the procession of stiff-backed, grim-faced white women who had haunted the shop during the past week.

"Nay!" he said with deep feeling.

"That's exactly right," Gideon agreed. "Nay's the word. Women, whatever their colour, are bad news!"

Philemon agreed heartily. Had he not, that very morning, put up with a tongue-lashing from his mother because of the paint stains on his new jersey?

Gideon's denial put an end to that particular rumour, to the disappointment of many, and in particular, Helga Swanepoel.

"I knew it was a lie," Suzie said to the friends she'd arranged to meet for tea at the Astonishing Café. (Mrs Merton said the only astonishing thing about it was that anyone still bothered to patronise it, but beggars couldn't be choosers.) "Gideon didn't say anything like that in his advertisement."

"You only saw part of it," Christina du Plessis reminded her. "You don't know what else he listed when he came to the personal part."

"Well you can be quite sure he didn't list that!" Suzie retorted. "His father would kill him for even imagining such a thing."

"Stop quarrelling, you two. Suzie's right. Gideon's imagination doesn't stretch very far," Helga admonished, remembering the unexciting content of Gideon's advertisement. A frown furrowed her brow. "He obviously needs our help. See what happens when he's left to his own devices? Somehow we've got to think of a plan to get him the right kind of wife. If he hasn't bothered, in his advert, to say what he requires on a personal level, he could land up with anything... even a murderess!"

"Or a bimbo," Marion Klopper agreed, as if this were infinitely worse.

"Don't you think," Sarie Blignault said timidly, "that we should leave Gideon to choose for himself? He's one of the cleverest men in the dorp, otherwise he wouldn't run such a successful business."

Helga pooh-poohed such a wimpish suggestion. "Gideon is a babe in arms in some respects. Sisters, he definitely needs our help!"



Suzie Lamprecht sadly and secretly agreed with the first part of Helga's assessment. Gideon was a real babe. Why was he looking outside the village when there was a perfectly good wife to be had right on his doorstep? It was enough to reduce a woman to tears, but, she decided defiantly, if he hadn't the sense to see this, then he wasn't worth having. Feeling greatly cheered by her sensible summing up of the situation, she took to thinking about the other eligible men in the dorp.

Gideon was completely unaware that he had become the target of the church sisterhood's attention, but over the next few days he became increasingly concerned at the treatment he was receiving from the dorp ladies. What could he possibly have done to offend them? Or some of them at any rate, as not only was there Ma Gouws's attempt to blacken his name (and he intended no pun) but for no apparent reason Suzie Lamprecht had stopped calling around, which made his lot even harder. As if that weren't enough, his char Agnes had told him that one of these days her mother was coming to see him about his father's rudeness in forbidding her to enter his room. Normally optimistic, for the first time in his life Gideon felt badly done by.

The church sisters had decided on their strategy. Not being computer literate, none had much faith in Gideon's use of the internet.

"We'll advertise in the Farmers' Weekly," Helga decided. "They have a column for farmers needing wives and lots of women read it. We can make sure that our advertisement covers everything Gideon is likely to have left out. We're bound to get numerous replies."

They eventually drafted something that pleased each of them. All had agreed that mention of Gideon's difficult father be kept to the bare minimum. Their advert read:

Good-looking, pleasant man of middle age and comfortable means seeks a wife to take care of him and his resident father. (They had argued a bit about the wording but finally decided that "resident" covered a lot of ground and could include someone frail.) The successful applicant will be assured of fair treatment and a good home. (Elaine Ferreira's objections that this sounded like taking on a pet were overruled.) Only healthy women of happy disposition, attractive looks and a capacity for hard work need apply. Applicants also need to be gentle and loving. (Sarie Blignault's contribution. Normally easily led, the compassionate Sarie had been downright stubborn on this point. She was very fond of Gideon.)

"It's rather long, isn't it?" queried Marion Klopper, "who's going to pay for it?"

It was hastily decided that as it was an act of Christian charity to see Gideon right, money could be taken from their church charity needlework account, and that replies would be addressed to the box number of Suzie Lamprecht, being single and not having to explain an influx of mail to a curious husband. Men didn't understand this kind of thing and would raise all kinds of spurious objections. Suzie was delighted to be the one to vet the mail, as, having written Gideon off as a potential husband, she was maliciously interested in the kind of woman who would respond and secretly hoped he would land up with

a real dog who would make him bitterly regret not choosing someone from the dorp to be his wife; namely, herself.

Sarie Blignault had serious doubts about their interference and when she next bumped into Gideon in the supermarket, tried to find out whether he had included reference to requirements of a more personal nature in his internet advertisement. Being a simple soul, she was unable to dissemble and tackled the problem head-on, which took all of her limited reserves of courage.

"Gideon," she said apologetically, "forgive me for saying so, but it's well known in the dorp that you've put an advertisement on the internet." (God in heaven, was there nothing these women didn't ferret out? wondered Gideon) "Did you think to state that ladies who apply should be gentle and pretty?"

"I don't think my pa needs gentleness, Sarie. He needs a woman of strong character and that's what I said. As for her looks, what does it matter if she's pretty or not? Pa won't notice and I'll be at work most of the day." Really, women were a very strange species. There had been times in the past when he had regretted not marrying. He had even wondered whether, instead of advertising for a housekeeper he should have been looking for a wife, but the strange behaviour of the dorp ladies in the past few weeks had persuaded him that his instincts to avoid matrimony had been sound, and their peculiar antics had put him clean off the idea, henceforth and forever!

"But Gideon... what about at night?"

So they even knew he'd applied for a live-in housekeeper! How had the news got out? Gideon was annoyed. He had hoped to keep the matter under wraps until it was all finalised and now it was being discussed left, right and centre before he'd had time to receive a single reply.

"Looking at her over the dinner table won't kill me even if she's ugly, Sarie," he said more brusquely than he'd intended. "After that I'll read for a while in my study and she can do as she pleases. Then it's bedtime and lights off and I certainly won't be spending any time worrying about her looks then, will I?"

"Er, I suppose not." Sarie was shocked. She'd had no idea that Gideon could be so crude and so callous! Perhaps, after all, he deserved whatever woman was chosen for him by the church sisters.

In the following week applications began arriving both at Gideon's house and at Suzie's box number. In both instances, they were disappointing. Gideon, after reading the fifth unsatisfactory letter, wondered whether Sarie had been right in saying he should have requested gentleness as every last applicant sounded as if she'd been trained as a prison warden. Strong-minded was one thing, but hardness quite another and there was no way he'd expose his invalid father to such insensitivity.

The "sisters" were equally disappointed. That is, all excepting Suzie Lamprecht.

She informed the others with undisguised glee that all their applicants thought Gideon was a rich farmer and their materialistic motives were clear as daylight. The letters were circulated at the next Sisters of the Church charity needlework session, eliciting varying expressions of disapproval.

"Suzie's right," Elaine Ferreira declared in dismay. "This one has the gall to ask outright how big Gideon's farm is, and this one," waving the offending letter in outrage, "actually asks how much his net earnings are per month!"

"This one is even worse, it's so smarmy. This female simpers on for two pages about her love of animals, not to mention crop farming, hedging all her bets no doubt. Then she lists her interests as ballroom dancing, theatre and dinner parties. She must think that Prentburg is one of Cape Town's southern suburbs!" Elsie Fourie was scathing.

"Ballroom dancing? Dominee Seibrand had better not get to hear about this!"

"You're right, Marion. We've obviously advertised in the wrong publication," Christina du Plessis threw a condemnatory look at Helga Swanepoel. "What was needed was a photograph of Gideon placed discreetly in the appropriate column of an up-market newspaper. Not an appeal in an uncouth farmer's magazine!"

Helga was cut to the quick by this unfair criticism. She was also convinced that Christina was trying to wrest authority from her. When Miems Gouws asked how they were to get hold of a photo of Gideon, she interposed swiftly "Leave it to me," quelling further interference from Christina with a look of steely determination.

The next weekend Gideon arranged to meet his friend Frikkie van Wyk for a beer at the sports club. Frikkie breezed in with an enthusiastic greeting and was surprised when Gideon did not reply in kind, merely giving him a rueful smile.

"What's the matter, pal?"

"I'm just trying to fathom what the heck I've done to displease the village womenfolk. They really have it in for me, Frikkie. Yesterday evening while I was watering the front garden, that Swanepoel woman leapt out from behind a bush and took a flashlight photo of me. I got one hell of a fright, I can tell you. She's a big girl, that, and surprisingly athletic, like a charging rhino. What's behind this vendetta, I ask myself?"

"You know how it is with these women," Frikkie comforted. "They haven't enough to do and get bored out of their minds. That's when they dream up crazy schemes. I keep telling my Rina that those church sisters are poison and I'm not happy she's a member, but she just ignores me and tells me I don't understand. What's to understand?"

"Whatever it is, I don't understand it either!"

"Cheer up, old friend. The beer's on me this afternoon and the Bulls take on the Sharks in less than half an hour. Life could be worse."

Not much, Gideon thought morosely.

Having acquired their photo, the "sisters" were somewhat at a loss as to what to do with it. Christina had suggested the idea and they turned to her for illumination. "It should go in the smalls of a big city newspaper," she said, but without conviction. "I'm sure I saw such photos in the Johannesburg evening paper when Hans and I visited his brother."

"The only place I've seen photos in the smalls of one of those newspaper is in the 'In Memoriam' section," Marion said doubtfully. "You know, where they remember people who have passed away, on birthdays and anniversaries and suchlike."

"I've seen them inside the 'personal' column as well," Miems contradicted her, "but as I remember, they were mostly photos of sexy young girls."

"All looking for husbands?" Sarie asked in astonishment.

"Nooo. Not exactly," Elaine replied, discomfited. Really, Sarie was so naive!

"Charming!" barked Mrs Merton, who had thus far kept silent, which was always the disquieting prelude to some crushing remark, and here it came:

"So we either flash Gideon's photo among the call-girls - or escorts as they call themselves these days - or we feature him among the dear departed. If you want my opinion," with a contemptuous look at the photo Helga had taken, "he'd fit in better with the last lot, looking as he does in that photo as if he'd died of fright, with those stark, staring eyes."

"It's not a flattering picture," Sarie agreed.

Helga descended into sulky silence at yet more criticism of her efforts and refused to say another word on the subject, which had become a thorny one and was soon dropped as no-one had any further ideas as to how to proceed.

The following day when Gideon returned from work he found not only Agnes, but also her mother, waiting for him. His heart dropped at sight of the large, imposing woman.

"I'm Jamina Molefe, Mr Visser," she said, meeting his eyes squarely. "That old man," motioning to the bedroom where his father reposed, "is difficult and Agnes is too young to handle him."

Gideon's heart plunged still further. Was he now also to be sans a char?

"We have talked and decided that I'll be working for you from now, and Agnes will find other work in the village. The old one is lonely and wants attention, but it's complete nonsense that a busy man like you has to come home from work every few hours to put him on the toilet and I've told him so. There'll be no more of it." Arms akimbo, she gave Gideon a brisk nod. He smiled weakly in return and decided he'd better see how his father had responded to being told off. Excusing himself he made for the old man's bedroom. He could hardly recognise it. It had been on the receiving end of a thorough cleaning from top to bottom, windows and glass surfaces gleaming. His father sat propped up against the pillows, his blanket drawn up to his eyes. All the bedding had been changed too, Gideon noticed, and what little could be seen of his father, revealed clean pyjamas and hair that normally stood up on end in untidy tufts, combed slickly over his balding pate. The curtains were pulled wide apart and the top section of the sash window was open. For the first time in months the room was filled with light and fresh air.

Gabriel peered wordlessly at his son from above the blanket, his eyes huge, like those of a Marmoset monkey. Eventually he lowered the blanket and croaked pitifully:

"She bathed me, Gideon! That woman picked me up like a sack of mielies, undressed me and put me in the bath, ignoring my objections. She took a brush to my feet and nails and my ears are still ringing from the way she mauled them."

Gideon murmured something placatory, but his father's litany hadn't ended.

"She cut my nails and trimmed my beard!" (Sacrilege!) "She treated me like just like a baby. Your mother," he whined, "is the only woman who has ever seen me naked. Until now."

Hiding a grin, Gideon said cheerfully "Pa, you're hardly a sex object at your age, so I wouldn't worry about it, and don't you feel a lot more comfortable with a nice clean body and a nice clean room?"

"That's beside the point!" Gabriel snapped.

"Well you'd better get used to Jamina, pa, because she's here to stay. She'll take care of us both from now on." Gideon was firm and to the point. Jamina Molefe was nothing less than an answer to prayer!

Gabriel continued to complain about Jamina's uncompromising treatment over the next few months. She was now their live-in housekeeper and their lives ran as smoothly as clockwork, to Gideon's great contentment. He soon noticed that at weekends when she went home to her family on the banks of the vlei, the nature of Gabriel's complaints changed.

"This food's disgusting, Gideon. I'll say one thing for That Woman. She knows how to cook."

"Can't you arrange my pillows properly? I keep sliding down. Jamina never lets me get so uncomfortable," in a voice full of self-pity.

"I'm bored, Gideon. Jamina plays draughts or noughts-and-crosses with me... why don't you? It's terrible being a poor old man confined to bed without entertainment!"

More and more in that vein, but instead of making his son feel guilty, it had the effect of cheering Gideon up no end. Despite their continual sparring, his father and Jamina had grown fond of one another, much to his relief, and he could now pay more attention to his business.

As for the church sisters, they were not often beaten, but this was one occasion where each silently acknowledged that they had failed. Or had they? Because Gideon seemed to have dropped the whole idea of acquiring a wife, which was, when you came to think of it, the best solution of all. Perhaps they had played a small part in changing his mind about marriage, even if none of them quite knew how?

5 comments:

  1. another super story, brilliant characters, and a nice message as well

    well done!

    Michael McCarthy

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  2. I can't help but giggle when the sisters become involved in something. I'm with Michael, brilliant characters and a fun little story (again).

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  3. Great first line, and unusually good first lines of paragraphs. Propels the story along. Nice story.

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  4. Thank you Michael, Jim and Jeff. (Makes you sound like a music group; I expect you to burst into song any minute!) Seriously, though, your comments are much appreciated and also that you take time to read my stories. I'll try to live up to your good impressions with future submissions, always supposing they get published.
    Have a great Christmas.
    Beryl

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    1. I'll stick to playing a guitar or something. If I burst into song I'd scare off the wildlife for miles around, say nothing of the people. Enjoy your Christmas as well.

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