Tuesday, March 25, 2014

The Mistake by Beryl Ensor-Smith

When Christina du Plessis finds a gun after witnessing a bungled burglary, and starts taking shooting lessons, things quickly begin to spiral out of control in the sleepy dorp of Prentburg; by Beryl Ensor-Smith.

When Christina and Hans du Plessis returned from visiting Hans's brother-and-sister-in-law in Johannesburg, Christina was a nervous wreck. On the night preceding their return, she told the Church Sisters at tea after the Sunday service, she had woken in the small hours gasping for air. She still suffered the occasional hot flush and had slipped through the dark house onto the veranda to cool off without even stopping to don a dressing gown. While standing there, flapping her floor-length white nighty and gulping in draughts of fresh air, a commotion had broken out in the house next door. An attempted burglary had been foiled when the family Doberman, a wily creature, had crept up on the miscreants from behind and they had escaped by the skin of their teeth by leaping across the garden wall. Christina had seen them... and they had seen her!

"I got such a fright, I screeched like a banshee," she told her spell-bound audience, "and after staring at me in horror, they high-tailed it out of there so fast that they were long gone by the time help arrived."

Mrs Merton was later to say spitefully that the two balaclava-wearing men would likely be traumatised for the rest of their lives, living with the spectre of Christina, already overweight, made bigger by her billowing nighty, her grey plaits hanging down her front nearly to her waist.

"She must have seemed like a crazed Rhine Maiden, especially when she opened her mouth and gave vent to a blood-curdling scream."

"If she made half as much as noise as she does when she hits those high opera notes," Marion Klopper agreed, "she must have scared the wits out of them!"

But all that came later. At the time of Christina's telling of the incident, the Church Sisters were all sympathy.

"How awful. Did the police manage to catch them, do you know?" asked Helga Swanepoel.

"They did not. Nor do I expect them to. With all the crime going on in our country, how much time do you think they'll give to something as low on the list as an unsuccessful robbery? That's why," she added with a defiant look round to make sure Dominee Seibrand was out of hearing, "when I found one of the thieves' guns in the garden the next morning while we were loading the car, I kept it."

"You what?" Marion Klopper gasped.

"I kept the gun. To protect myself here in Prentburg. It was probably stolen anyway, so where's the harm?"

"It's evidence," Helga protested indignantly, "and you should have given it to the police!"

"That's what Hans said. I decided to tell him I'd found it while we were driving back to Prentburg as I couldn't suddenly produce a gun out of thin air without any explanation. I intend taking shooting lessons in Waterfontein with that gun so that I can protect myself."

"Against what?" Sarie Blignault asked in bewilderment. "The only crime here is when one of Miems's hens get pinched, and even then it's likely to be teenagers getting up to mischief or a hungry squatter from the vlei. You can't shoot any of them. It would be murder!"

"I won't be murdering anyone," Christina said hotly, "but after being in such danger and nearly losing my life in Johannesburg, I'm taking no chances!" and neither reason nor condemnation could move her from her stubborn stance.

It soon became clear that Hans du Plessis was in total disagreement with his wife over the matter. When, as planned, she took to driving to Waterfontein once a week for shooting lessons, he sat at the sports club bar morosely nursing a beer.

"She's gone too far," he told whoever happened to be there, and when he found himself alone, he bent Alf the barman's ear. "The woman's lost it! She's always been security conscious since 1994, convinced that all whites in the country will meet grisly ends at the hands of the blacks, but now she's gone completely beserk. Have you any idea," he asked, lifting mournful eyes to Alf's, "what it's like living with someone so paranoid?"

Alf didn't but he could well imagine that life with the temperamental Christina, never easy, must be akin to hell with her in a permanent state of hysteria. Normally he had little time for Hans, whom he disliked, but he was so moved by his present plight that he slapped another beer in front of him with the words "On me." Hans was so steeped in misery that he forgot to thank Alf and any sympathy that the barman felt for him disappeared in a flash. "I'm calling 'time' in five minutes, so you'd better drink up," he said brusquely and moved away to polish glasses at the other end of the counter so that he need no longer listen to the complaints of the ungrateful sod.

While Christina certainly didn't intend her possession of the gun to become common knowledge, it was inevitable that in a dorp the size of Prentburg, news quickly spread. The Church Sisters couldn't help hinting at dissension in the Du Plessis household to their husbands and from there it was but a short step to revealing the source of the trouble. Hans was also too disturbed by his wife's behaviour to exercise discretion. He bumped into Frikkie van Wyk emerging from the club gym a week later and latched onto him.

"She's taken to sleeping with the gun under her pillow, fully loaded," he said hollowly, "and this after only three lessons. What does Christina know about guns? She'll kill the pair of us before she's done. I'm afraid to go to the toilet at night in case she mistakes me for a burglar. Tell me, old friend, what should I do? What would you do in my place?"

Drown her, Frikkie thought callously, but tried to be helpful. "You could talk to her instructor and tell him you're concerned," he suggested. "He must have some influence over her. At the very least he can make Christina aware how dangerous weapons are in the hands of the uninitiated."

"The trouble is that Christina doesn't consider herself ignorant about anything! She thinks she's well on the way to becoming an excellent markswoman."

"Perhaps she is," Frikkie said encouragingly.

"And perhaps not," Hans replied darkly, "seeing she shivers with fright every time she handles the thing."

"Well, old pal, they say practise makes perfect, so perhaps you should persuade your wife to spend every spare moment honing her skills," Frikkie joked, but Hans took him seriously.

"That's an idea. At least her aim might improve and that would be something."

Frikkie gave Hans a pitying look. To be satisfied with so little was the mark of real desperation!

Hans acted on both of Frikkie's suggestions. Christina's shooting instructor assured him that she had been warned of the dangers of handling a gun, but promised to caution her again. He also seemed to think it a good idea to encourage her to do some target practice.

"It will help her gain confidence," he said. "She's very nervous at present."

Not nervous enough to be dissuaded from her purpose, unfortunately. When next she met up with the Church Sisters at their monthly meeting, she told them triumphantly that Hans had been won round as he was now encouraging her to learn to shoot. This was a gross distortion of the facts as Hans had actually been quite rude.

"If you insist on this madness," he said severely, "then at least you should take it seriously enough to do it properly. Set up some targets in between your lessons and practise. Perhaps," he added sarcastically, "the best place would be the cemetery. It's far enough out of town to be safe and the inhabitants are already dead!"

Christina actually gave his suggestion some thought before reluctantly discarding it.

"It would look bad if there's a funeral and I'm found shooting bottles off the headstones."

Her husband gave her a disbelieving look. In branding his wife as totally insensitive it never occurred to him that he was considered equally so by the dorpvolk!

Christina decided that a suitable place to practise would be the strip of bush behind old man Davenport's smallholding.

"It's completely isolated," she told Hans.

"But it's not that far from the squatter camp on the banks of the vlei," he protested.

"Oh bosh! They're the other side of the dirt road, and anyway I'll face away from them just to be on the safe side."

"They'll hear you!"

"They're used to noise. They certainly make enough themselves, especially when they party through the night as they do regularly, so they can hardly object."

"You're asking for trouble," Hans rumbled portentously.

"Oh relax, Hans, I'll be very careful and you can stand on the dirt road waving a red flag as an extra precaution. We'll have our first session on Monday afternoon."

Hans considered refusing to get involved, but he was genuinely concerned that Christina would come to grief, perhaps wounding herself in the process, so he reluctantly agreed to her proposal. Thus it was that the following Monday he found himself setting up cans poised on rocks in the bush, carefully positioned away from human habitation. The squatter camp would be behind Christina and Davenport's smallholding to the side, separated by a vibracrete wall. He only hoped that the deaf old man would not hear Christina shooting at the targets. Then with a sigh of resignation he stood in the dirt road with a pair of his bright red boxer shorts tied to a pole that he waved periodically even though no-one was in sight.

Unknown to Hans, two boys from the squatter camp were high up in a tree overlooking the strip of bush when he and Christina arrived and they watched the ensuing preparations with great interest. Later they were to tell their parents about the strange behaviour of the two whites.

"While the man dried the red pants on a stick, the woman started shooting. We thought at first she was trying to hit the cans, but then decided they were put there to show her where not to shoot because she didn't hit any. Instead she made a hole in Davenport's wall. The man ran to the hole and looked through. Then he shouted at her and she started crying."

There had been more to the story. After looking around frantically, the man had found a concrete block in the veld and dragged it across to the wall. With a lot of huffing and puffing he had eventually managed to scramble over it and was gone for quite a long time. Then he had climbed back over the wall, grabbed the woman by the arm and the two had driven off in the car arguing angrily.

The boys' parents didn't know what to make of it, but then who could explain the odd behaviour of some white people? Too much time and not enough to occupy it, they agreed, once the boys were in bed. Drying their underwear in strange places and shooting holes in Davenport's wall! They only hoped old man Davenport wouldn't accuse any of the squatters of damaging his property when he found the hole, which was all too likely.

What had in fact happened was that Christina's aim was appalling. She let off four shots and by the time the last was released, the gun had swung round, hence the hole in Davenport's wall. It had immediately been followed by a distressed baying sound on the other side of the wall, also heard by Hans. She stood there dumbstruck while he peered through the bullet hole.

"You've hit one of Davenport's sheep!" he shouted, aghast. "It's now lying motionless on the ground."

While she wept, he got hold of the concrete block, dragged himself over the wall and went to investigate the extent of the damage. On his return he looked grim.

"You've killed it. I dragged it into the shade of a bush to try to resuscitate it, but it's stone dead. See what you've done, woman, with all your nonsense?"

He gathered up the tins put up for target practise and slung them into the boot, then

took Christina by the arm and propelled her towards the car, the pair of them quarrelling loudly.

Hans wanted to inform old man Davenport immediately about the death of his sheep. Christina refused even to consider the idea. "It'll come out that I've got an illegal gun, Hans. How can I explain that to the police without getting into even more trouble? They may even think I was involved in the Johannesburg burglary! I could land up in prison." Her voice rose hysterically "It was a mistake, that's all. Am I to spend time behind bars because of one small slip with a sheep? Is that what you want for me, Hans?"

In vain Hans argued that no such thing would happen. He sounded none too confident despite what he said. In truth he was none too sure what the outcome would be and after a while was persuaded to wait a while before reporting the incident. "But we'll be in even more trouble for delaying things," he warned.

"Not if we come up with a reasonable solution. Just give me time and I'll think of something. What does one sheep matter anyway?"

"Davenport must be reimbursed for his loss," Hans said stubbornly. "How are you going to manage that, Christina?"

"Give me time," she snapped. "I'll find a way. Now shut up and let me think!"

She thought all of the next day. When Hans returned from playing a round of golf in the late afternoon, she greeted him exuberantly.

"I've solved the problem! You said you dragged the sheep into the shade under a bush? Well it would be a pity to waste it, so I've invited a lot of people including Davenport to a braai on Thursday night. Seeing you're dead set on paying him for the damned thing, he can help eat it and we'll ply him with drink. When he's drunk you can stuff some money into one of his pockets to the value of the sheep."

Hans gazed at his wife as if she were mad.

"Don't look at me like that Hans; hear me out! We couldn't invite Davenport on his own as we're not that friendly with him and he would be suspicious, but to be invited as one of a crowd of people would be quite natural."

"You've got it all worked out, have you?"

"Yes! Davenport was in the royal navy and everyone knows that sailors drink like fish so there should be no problem there, and it shouldn't be beyond your limited capabilities to stuff a few banknotes into one of his jacket pockets when he's motherless, or is that too much to ask?"

Stung by her sarcastic tone, Hans responded in kind. "I'm sorry to rain on your parade Christina, but you've jumped to quite a few conclusions with this grand plan of yours. Namely, that Davenport is a drinker. That he will be wearing a jacket. That I will risk embarrassment by being caught with a hand in his pocket. That we can get that sheep out of his property and somehow cut it up into braai pieces, and more importantly, that it will still be fit to eat... which it certainly will not!"

"Nonsense Hans, if you mean it should have been kept in the fridge. Butchers hang meat for quite a while before selling it to the public. It has to mature." An edge of panic tinged Christina's voice and suddenly Hans felt sorry for his wife. Whatever she may or may not be, Christina had guts; she was willing to try anything, battling gamely against all odds.

"My darling," he told her gently, "By now that sheep is so bloated from gasses in its stomach that its flesh will be completely contaminated. Besides, it's too late. Davenport has already found the poor beast and lodged a complaint with the police. It's the talk of the town."

Christina stared at her husband in dismay. "Hans," she wailed, "what are we to do?"

"Order meat for the braai," he said stoically. "Just how many people have you invited, Christina, and does anyone know that you were shooting in the bush yesterday?"

"No," she assured him. "I told no-one. Oh Hans," with tears welling in her eyes, "I'm so sorry! This is a bad business."

The informal settlers thought so too. True to form, old man Davenport had insisted that the police pay them a visit to find out who had shot his sheep. The parents of the boys who had witnessed Christina's mishap decided to say nothing as they didn't want their sons involved in a police enquiry. After a search the police found three unlicensed guns in different shacks, but as none matched the bullet found in the sheep, the weapons were confiscated and the owners let off with a stern warning.

The township residents showed their displeasure by protesting loudly in front of the municipal buildings, waving placards saying 'End Police Brutality' and toyi-toyiing enthusiastically. Watching through his office window, Jan Badenhorst, Administrative Manager, felt the beginnings of a migraine take hold. If Brenda Dixon, Counsellor of their area got to hear of this, all hell would break loose, as she was involved in implementation of a new nation-building programme and would blame him for any racial tension in his territory. There was no help for it but to make a big hole in his annual budget by presenting the demonstrators with two sheep bought from a local farmer, by way of apology for the indignity they had suffered.

Jan was furious. Who was responsible for this unacceptable expense? If he laid hands on the person who had killed Davenport's sheep, he would see to it that they repaid municipal funds to the very last frigging cent! He attached a notice to both the municipal bulletin board and one in the local library to the effect that the government would demand recompense from the perpetrator of the cowardly slaughter of Davenport's animal, for the full cost of the two sheep given to the township dwellers. Christina read it when she went to renew her library books and rushed home to tell Hans.

"Now the government's after me too! Where will this end, Hans?"

He didn't know, but one thing that was becoming very clear was that Christina's "little mistake" was proving to be a very costly one, for he now felt duty-bound to reimburse both Davenport and Jan Badenhorst.

"You'd better think of another plan," he told Christina angrily, "as to how to repay Jan Badenhorst too. On second thoughts," he added hastily before she came up with another daft idea, "leave it to me. I'll handle that side of things. You just see to the braai." That reminded him that it would also cost a packet as Christina seemed to have invited everyone in the dorp. He glared at his wife.

"Just one thing, Christina. Get rid of that gun. I don't care how you do it, but by Monday it must be gone and make sure you wipe your fingerprints off it first."

"Yes Hans," she replied meekly. "I've had enough of it anyhow. That gun is bad news!"

The Du Plessis braai was declared a roaring success by all who attended. Just why or what they were celebrating was not exactly clear. When glasses were filled and Koos Venter asked what they should drink to, Christina replied "Freedom!" with such fervour that it gave rise to covert comment.

"For someone so reluctant to embrace the New South Africa, that's a very liberal toast," Suzie Lamprecht whispered. "Do you think she's a bit tiddly?"

Christina wasn't, but as the night wore on, old man Davenport became raucously so as he downed one drink after another.

"I told you so," Christina hissed at Hans, "He's a real booze-hound. By the time he goes home he'll have drunk the cost of that sheep. What's even worse is that you were right; he didn't even have the courtesy to wear a jacket!"

Hans gave his wife an icy glance, then topped up Davenport's glass knowing it would annoy her. Christina was not exactly in favour with him at present and he wanted her to be well aware of it!

On the day after the braai, the Du Plessis went their separate ways in setting about damage-repair. Christina put on a pair of rubber gloves, washed and dried the gun carefully, loaded it with the few remaining bullets, wrapped it in a new yellow duster and hid it in her handbag. It was her turn, as a Sister of the Church, to visit the old folk's home and read to the residents. She always chose something that would reflect well on her own intellect, an "arty" kind of book. That the old folk found such reading both obscure and boring did not deter her one bit and this day it worked to her advantage.

Only five of the residents pitched up to meet her in the lounge, and after fifteen minutes, all had nodded off. Still pretending to read, Christina took the wrapped gun stealthily from her bag and jammed it down the side of the upholstered chair next to hers. She made sure the barrel pointed downwards so that if the safety catch got released and the gun went off some time in the future, it would hurt no-one. It did not bother her that the weapon was certain to be found sooner or later. After all, with more than a hundred residents in the home, some with very poor memories, who could know who had put it there?

Hans, in the mean time, had gone to the bank. Years before, he had been the bank manager, working with one assistant, a Miss Braithwaite. She was still employed in the same capacity, though now nearing retirement age herself. The present manager, Hans knew, would be attending a meeting at the main branch in Waterfontein as the custom of Monday morning meetings still prevailed. Knowing Miss Braithwaite as well as he did Hans decided to confide in her. He told her exactly what had happened and that he wanted to make good the damage done to Davenport and to reimburse Jan Badenhorst for the shortfall in municipal funds. But he wished this to be done anonymously so that he could protect Christina. Would she help?

Miss Braithwaite felt flattered by his confidence. Besides, she had grown fond of Hans during the time they had worked together, knowing that his irritating pomposity hid a surprising vein of integrity and that he could, on occasion, be exceptionally kind. She would and did help him. Hans handed over a great deal of cash, Miss Braithwaite tapped away at the computer and after a few minutes assured him that both old man Davenport's account and that of the municipality had been credited. As to who had sent the money, all they would find would be the word "sheep" in the relevant column, so that they would know why the money had been paid.

"Don't worry. If they come in to enquire, as quite likely they will, they'll find I have a very poor memory." Miss Braithwaite's eyes twinkled. "A very poor memory indeed, Mr Du Plessis, which cannot be jogged. One thing about being an old spinster is that people expect us to be a bit lacking."

"Jane Braithwaite," Hans purred, "there's nothing lacking where you're concerned and I hope one day I can return the favour. Both Christina and I thank you. I can tell you one thing", this said with deep feeling, "I never want anything more to do with sheep again as long as I live!"

When the bank manager returned from his Waterfontein meeting, he found his assistant pink and flustered. Really, the old girl was very fluttery these days. Just as well she'd soon be retiring. He'd get a pretty young thing with long legs in her place. Looking up from his reverie, he met the shrewd, smiling eyes of Jane Braithwaite and became pink and flustered himself!

The recipients of Hans's money understood immediately that it was compensation for their respective losses when they saw the word "sheep" in the depositor's column, but their reaction was very different. Old man Davenport was livid.

"Some sicko takes a pot-shot at my sheep just for the hell of it then suffers an attack of conscience and thinks sending me money will make up for it. Well it won't! As for that stupid old bat at the bank who 'can't remember' who paid the money into my account, she's no better. Bring back capital punishment I say!" Whether for the perpetrator of the crime or for the hapless Miss Braithwaite was not exactly clear, but in the face of Davenport's wrath no-one risked incurring more by raising the question.

When the gun was discovered at the old folk's home the following week, Davenport had a great deal more to say.

"I might have known it! One of those toothless vegetarians in that godawful place taking it out on my animals because they can no longer eat meat! Bloody typical. Euthanase the lot of them I say!"

When the matron of the home got to hear of his accusations she snorted derisively.

"He's as bad as that police sergeant who came here when the gun was found. Apparently it's the one that killed the sheep. The sergeant made it obvious that he suspects the staff, especially those coming from the township. I know my staff and they're all far too warm and caring to risk harming the residents by bringing a dangerous weapon into the home." She shook her head in annoyance. "As to Davenport saying that one of the old folk is responsible, I ask you! How, pray were they supposed to have acquired a gun, never mind covered the distance to his property?" She pondered for a while before saying briskly, "It must have been someone visiting a resident. Just last week Tannie Botha said she didn't know a man claiming to be her nephew." That Tannie Botha disclaimed knowledge of all of her visitors was conveniently glossed over. However, even in her wildest flights of fantasy, it never for one moment occurred to the matron that the guilty party could be a Sister of the Church!

Jan Badenhorst, unlike old man Davenport, was more than satisfied that a generous sum had been paid into the municipal account to cover the cost of the sheep presented to the protesters. He didn't much care what had prompted the payment or who had made it, although some understanding was beginning to dawn. Drumming his fingers thoughtfully on his desk, he recalled the gossip about Christina du Plessis taking shooting lessons. He had been one of those invited to the braai and remembered the woman saying grandly that the lessons were now a thing of the past.

"After all," she said by way of airy explanation, "Why do I need protection with such good friends living near me?"

Jan laughed aloud. In his opinion, the wrong question had been asked. In the circumstances a more fitting one would have been, 'Why did her good friends need protection with Christina living near them?"

He shook his head and laughed again. The two women in the adjoining office heard him and exchanged a baffled look. Their boss was an enigma. For the past few days he had been like a bear with a sore head, thoroughly disgruntled, yet here he was, alone in his office, laughing like a loon!

4 comments:

  1. nice one again Beryl. beautifully descriptive and with that unique small town atmosphere!

    Michael McCarthy

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  2. You're on quite the roll here, Beryl. Another fun story with quite the cast of characters! Keep um coming!

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  3. Charming story. I'm going to search for your past work.

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  4. Hi Michael, Jim and Tim. Thanks for your encouraging comments. Always good to hear from you Michael and Jim and so pleased you enjoyed the story enough, Tim, to want to read some of the others.
    We'll be visiting our daughter in the UK in May and I'm pretty excited about seeing her again; just hope your summer starts early as we've had such a good one this year and I don't relish the cold!
    All the best to the three of you.
    Beryl.

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