Friday, May 9, 2014

The Prize by Beryl Ensor-Smith

Petrus Willemse donates a pig as a prize for the church fete, but deciding how to award the animal becomes a nuisance for the Church Sisters when word gets about that it is cursed; by Beryl Ensor-Smith.

There was some muttering among the Church Sisters working against time as they sifted through piles of goods for their upcoming fete. Little did they know that they would be faced with a far bigger headache in the next few days.

"We need every pair of hands to get through this lot," Marion Klopper said crossly, "and where is our newest church deacon? Conspicuous by her absence!"

"It's too bad," Helga Swanepoel agreed, "especially from one in her position."

"It's not like her," Sarie Blignault said timidly. "Miems is usually very reliable."

As if her name had conjured her up, Miems Gouws appeared in the doorway leading from the church precincts into the hall.

"Sorry I'm late," she apologised, taking her place behind the table, "but I've just been talking to Dominee about the fete."

There was an audible sniff of disapproval from her fellow sisters. At a time like this, not a minute could be wasted on idle chatter! Seemingly oblivious of their censure, Miems continued brightly, "Donations for prizes have been coming in, and you'll never guess who's given something?"

This caught the interest of the sisterhood and they looked up from their work expectantly.

"Petrus Willemse!"

"Old grumpy? Never!" exclaimed Ma Gouws, who was hearing rather better now that she had had her ears syringed. She was the only seated person, a concession to her age. "That old skinflint thinks twice before turning over a cent."

"Well, he's donated a pig."

"A pig?" Elaine Ferreira spluttered with laughter. "That's a funny thing to give."

"It's pretty generous when you think of it. A pig would fetch Petrus a good price at the market." Christina du Plessis was always money-conscious.

"There must be something wrong with it," from Suzie Lamprecht.

"It's probably come from Brazil and has swine fever," Marion said nastily.

"It looks healthy enough but it's pretty small," Miems conceded. "In fact it's more of a piglet than a pig. It's in a makeshift pen behind the cemetery. Petrus said if Dominee wanted it, he had to take it right away. Petrus's wife thinks it's bewitched because it's got strange pale eyes, one blue and one green, and insisted he get rid of it."

"That explains his sudden generosity," Elsie Fourie said cynically.

Elaine was overcome with laughter again. "A pig with odd eyes? Who's ever heard of that?"

"It must surely be unusual," Suzie agreed. "I read somewhere that light eyes are weaker than brown. It's probably got poor eyesight?"

"Sisters, you're all being very uncharitable. Whatever his reasons, Petrus has given us a pig for a prize, which is very welcome." Helga was at her most sanctimonious.

"Well I don't suppose the colour of its eyes will matter once it's been fattened up and slaughtered. It's the quality of the bacon that will count," Christina said pragmatically.

"Slaughtered? Bacon?" Sarie's lips began to tremble. "That is so cruel!"

Trying to avert a flood of tears, Marion quickly suggested that they take a short break to have a look at the pig, a suggestion that was welcomed by all excepting Ma Gouws who opted out, though some of the ladies were less keen once they found that the recent rains had turned the pathway through the graveyard into mud.

Christina lifted a foot up to inspect it with disgust.

"Fancy putting a pig near the graves. It's very disrespectful, if you ask me!"

"There was nowhere else," Miems replied defensively, "and it's only for a short time."

The piglet, when viewed, did indeed have bright, pale eyes, one blue and one green. When she saw it, Sarie was overcome with delight.

"Isn't it the cutest little thing?" she said, bending over to lift it out of the pen and hold it against her bony frame. The other women reared back in horror. Honestly, Sarie was the limit, cradling a pig as if it were a baby!

"See how clean it is; oh, he's lovely!"

"Yes, well it's time we got back to our labours," Helga said stentoriously and marched the sisters back to the church hall in short order.

The news soon got around that Ma Gouws was saying Petrus Willemse had donated a blind Brazilian pig with swine fever as a prize for the church fete. Not only that, but the animal was cursed! When Petrus got wind of the story, he was livid and wasted no time in complaining heatedly to Dominee Seibrand.

"That spiteful old woman must be crazy," he stormed, "saying such a thing! Is this the way a donation is received?"

Dominee Seibrand handled the situation with his usual tact, pointing out Ma Gouws's advanced age and that when tales did the rounds they became embellished. "You'll probably find she said no such thing," he said soothingly, "and we are all most grateful for the pig. A very generous and welcome donation."

"Yes, well..." Petrus was not to be placated, "there's absolutely nothing wrong with that animal; it's from good stock. My wife's just taken against it because of its eyes, but there's no explaining the way women think!"

Dominee Seibrand agreed that women could sometimes be an enigma but pointed out that the world would be poorer without them.

"You think so? Sometimes I wonder," Petrus said darkly, "and when they get together like that bunch of trouble-making Church Sisters, they cause all kinds of havoc."

"Those women are the backbone of my church," Dominee Seibrand said staunchly.

"Well you've got more than one bad apple among them!"

"Come now. I understand that you're upset over what's being said about the pig and I assure you I'll put a stop to it immediately. I'm really glad you came by Petrus, as I want to consult you about something..." Dominee took Petrus by the arm and led him into his study where he asked for Petrus's advice in solving a weighty church problem, listening most attentively to Petrus's proposals. By the time he left, Petrus was completely mollified, his ego fully restored to its previously inflated status.

True to his word, Dominee Seibrand raised the question of donations for the fete during the next Sunday's services, making special mention of the generous gift of a sound and healthy piglet from Petrus Willemse. He gently reminded his congregation that any and all donations were greatly appreciated and that he would take amiss the passing of any derogatory comments. He finished off with a touch of humour by saying that one shouldn't look a gift piglet in the mouth.

Unfortunately all his little homily did was stir greater interest in the pig, for it wasn't its mouth that was in question, but its eyes. Those Church Sisters who had been absent when the fete contributions were being sorted made a point of paying it a visit in its temporary pen. Even old Mrs Merton hobbled determinedly down the muddy pathway through the cemetery on her two sticks. After giving the pig the once-over, she pronounced:

"Not much to make a fuss over, is it? It's practically a runt!"

Rina van Wyk disagreed. "It's just young, and you must admit those strange eyes are unusual. They give me the creeps."

"They gave Maria Willemse the creeps too and that's the only reason it's here. Petrus has short arms and deep pockets, as we all know."

"Well," Rina said doubtfully, "it's going to be difficult to decide where to award it. Not everyone wants to win a pig for a prize. Can you imagine someone like Helga being thrilled at winning a pig?"

Mrs Merton smiled with grim satisfaction. "I'm beginning to think this creature has decided possibilities after all!"

Rina gave her a sideways look. Really, the passing of time had done nothing to melt the hard inner core of this Church Sister!

Interest in the pig spread beyond the confines of the congregation. Squatters in the camp along the banks of the vlei heard about it from Ntebo Dlamini, owner of the dorp's beauty salon. She was Sarie's best friend and confidant. When Dominee Seibrand's wife, Anna, went to feed the pig late one afternoon she was taken aback to find a contingent of shack dwellers surrounding its pen and murmuring excitedly. Moses Shilowa took it upon himself to be their spokesman.

"This pig, we don't like it."

Anna didn't like it much either and was at a loss as to how to reply.

"This pig, it is evil," Moses continued.

"No," Anna objected. "It's only an animal. It can't be evil."

"This pig is bad; see the eyes? The Tokolosh has entered this pig!"

Anna wasn't too clued up about the Tokolosh other than knowing it was some kind of mystical, supernatural African entity and the cause of great fear in many black people. From the little she'd heard about it, the Tokolosh wasn't kindly disposed towards humans. A cold shiver travelled the length of her backbone. Christian beliefs or not, she didn't intend provoking the Tokolosh by scoffing at it!

"Please," she beseeched, "go home. This is only a harmless animal; just a pig. It can't hurt anyone."

The eyes that met hers remained unconvinced, but after a few minutes the squatters sauntered off, muttering among themselves. Anna beat a speedy retreat home and told her husband that unless he took swift action, the piglet was unlikely to live long enough to reach maturity. He groaned aloud. Really, this animal was beginning to live up to its reputation of being cursed; it was proving to be more trouble than it was worth!

So it was that on that same day, old man Davenport, despite not being a member of the church, was prevailed upon to provide a temporary home for the piglet on his smallholding. He had pigs of his own and assured the Dominee that he had a spare pen where it would be safe and sound.

Dominee Seibrand had some misgivings about its new location as the smallholding was a stone's throw from the informal settlement on the banks of the vlei. He explained his concerns for its welfare to old man Davenport.

"Don't you worry about that for a second. I got a rottweiler after having a duck nicked by one of the squatters and a sheep shot by a potty ancient from the old age home. Snarl sleeps outside and heaven help anyone stupid enough to try to break in. Your pig will be quite safe; count on it!"

Filled with even greater misgivings, the Dominee drove away thinking he had made a big mistake. A combination of vicious rottweiler, superstitious shack dwellers and unpredictable Davenport did not bode well for either himself or the piglet and he said some fervent prayers all the way home.

Nor were his troubles over. The next morning an indignant Miems Gouws waylaid him in the vestry.

"Dominee, I was in the church garden picking roses for the altar when I saw Sarie creeping round the back of the church in a furtive manner and went to investigate." She pursed her lips disapprovingly.

"When I asked what she was up to, she lied and said she was visiting one of the graves. She has no people buried there, as I pointed out, so why would she want to do such a thing? I challenged her and then she broke down and confessed she was planning to kidnap Petrus's pig as she didn't want it to be slaughtered and eaten."

Dominee Seibrand suppressed an oath. That damned pig again! Was there no end to the trouble it was causing?

"Where is Sarie now?"

"She dissolved into tears and fled. I suppose she went home."

"Well please, Miems, get hold of her and tell her not to worry. The piglet is safe and sound and in no danger of being eaten for a long time as it's too small."

Somehow Miems didn't think that would be much comfort to Sarie and said dubiously:

"She's crazy about animals. You know how fond she is of all those creatures she has."

"I know. Please do your best to reassure her, will you Miems?"

Miems nodded, "But I won't tell her where it is now in case she gets it into her head to have another go at it!"

Later that afternoon when the Dominee was preparing his sermon, he was rudely interrupted by a delegation of five women, strangers all, who pushed past Anna and stalked into his study. The most flinty eyed informed him that they were from the Animal Welfare Society in Waterfontein.

"It has come to our ears, Dominee Seibrand, that you have incarcerated a defenceless pig in an inadequate shelter in your cemetery!"

The Dominee sighed, pushed his glasses up onto his forehead and stood up, willing himself to remain calm.

"First of all I apologise, ladies, for not being able to offer you seats. Had I known you would be visiting, I would have provided enough chairs."

The gentle rebuke went over their insensitive heads. If anything they bristled with even more righteous indignation.

Looking at them, Dominee Seibrand knew exactly who the source of their information had been. Christina du Plessis! She had no doubt phoned one of her Waterfontein cronies with the tale of the pig. What exactly she could have said that caused her friend to contact Animal Welfare he could not even begin to imagine!

"I'm afraid you've been misinformed," he said politely. "In the first place, the pig was not kept in the cemetery but on a piece of land behind it. This was a temporary arrangement and it has now been moved to a smallholding and is in a proper pig-pen."

Stony silence as the gimlet eyes stared assessingly into his. Without further ado, the Dominee reached for the pad on which he'd written old man Davenport's telephone number and passed it across to the officious one.

"If you doubt my word, this is the number of the man who is presently caring for the pig. Please feel free to contact him."

Another suspicious look before she backed down.

"I'm pleased to hear it. Keeping an animal in unsuitable conditions is unlawful and a cemetery is no place for a pig! They're very sensitive creatures, you know, and also have rights."

Was the woman deaf? Had she not heard him say it had been housed on land behind the cemetery? He looked despairingly at Anna, who was still standing in the doorway. She decided enough was enough, pulled herself up to her full, impressive height and turned on the group.

"And what of the Dominee's rights? A right of respect both in his personal and his professional capacities? A right to consideration? Now that you have done your duty and learned that the pig is well cared for, perhaps you should get back to your cars and return to Waterfontein. An hour-long trip; perhaps longer, if the traffic is heavy." (Which uncharitably she hoped it would be.)

"Well!"

"Well indeed," she replied, shooing them out unceremoniously. "Next time you wish to see the Dominee, please make an appointment. He's a very busy man."

Once they had left, he said: "We should at least have offered them tea, Anna."

"They didn't deserve tea. They were extremely rude; but yes, I suppose you're right and I shouldn't have followed their bad example. Hendrik, couldn't we just leave that troublesome animal where it is, with old man Davenport? He'd be quite happy to keep it, I'm sure."

"He probably would, but Petrus would be highly incensed and rightly so. That pig, I regret to say, has to be handed out as a prize at our fete and until then, it's our problem."

The Church Sisters had the task of deciding which prizes should be allocated, and where, for their fete. This was usually a pleasant undertaking and quickly decided.

Not so this time. The piglet proved to be a stumbling block.

"We've got to be careful with this one," Marion Klopper warned. "We can't just attach it to one of the activities as not everyone wants to win a pig."

"Most won't, if you ask me!" Helga voiced their doubts. "Especially after the stories doing the rounds." Here she glared at old Ma Gouws, who glared right back again.

"That pig is bad news," the old one pronounced. "Diseased and cursed!"

"What utter nonsense," Mrs Merton said scathingly. There was no love lost between her and Ma Gouws. "But Marion is right. I've had Engele Claassens on the phone wanting assurance before she participates in any of the events. She says she'd rather not come to the fete at all than risk being landed with a pig, whatever its state of health."

Miems looked startled. "I thought I was the only one receiving such phone calls! Sisters, we badly need the funds from the fete to have the organ fixed. We can't afford to have people stay away."

"Don't worry about that, Miems," Sarie said kindly. "Ntebo says that lots of people from the black township are coming to our fete."

The sisters exchanged a look of pure horror.

"They'll be coming in hopes of winning the pig, Marion observed, "and not with its welfare in mind!" "This fete is headed for disaster," Christina forecast direly.

"They're not the only people who'll compete for the pig," Suzie protested. "Old man Davenport's expressed interest... also that Scots fellow, McKilroy, and the widower Geldenhuys. Why he should want it I don't know, seeing he hasn't got a farm or smallholding, but then he's decidedly weird. Perhaps pigs played a part in medieval rituals? I can imagine him enjoying the thought of a pig being sacrificed. If there are such things as vampires, he's one, with his blood lust!"

"The widower Geldenhuys is a vampire? He's going to sacrifice the pig?" Sarie cried out in horror.

"No, no, Sarie," Helga couldn't contain her impatience. "Suzie's just taken against the widower Geldenhuys for some reason." She rounded on Suzie and whispered fiercely: "You just watch that tongue of yours or you'll have Geldenhuys complaining to Dominee about us too, just like Petrus." She added,

"You know how Sarie takes everything literally! She's quite likely to go round telling everyone that the widower Geldenhuys is a vampire intent on harming the pig."

Miems blanched. "Dominee's already had the Animal Welfare people pestering him. If they get wind of this..."

Marion saw that emotions were getting out of control.

"Sisters, I say we all sleep on it and try to think of a way to allow those who'd like the pig to compete for it, while making sure it isn't given to anyone who doesn't want it or to anyone who would abuse it."

"That's a big ask," Elsie said slowly.

It was Elaine who came up with the best suggestion when the group next met for tea at the Welcome Inn. The Astonishing Café had been the recipient of their recent custom, but after a brief effort, it had reverted to its usual unappetising fare and the Welcome Inn was their preferred choice.

"It's actually Bennie's idea," Elaine admitted. "We should have a competition for the best name for the pig. Whoever comes up with the most suitable, gets it as the prize."

The other Sisters thought this an admirable suggestion. They then set about refining the details. It was decided that the best approach would be to draw up a list of numbers against which those wanting to enter would write their own name and their name for the pig. On small slips of paper they would then write their allotted number and their suggestion for the pig's name, but omitting their own, and these would be given to the Dominee's wife to decide which was best. The list would then be consulted to match winning number with the name of the contestant.

"I'll keep the list," Helga said importantly, "so that there can be no question that everything is fair and above board."

"That's all very well," Christina said repressively (she hated anyone taking charge as she felt she was the leader of the pack), "but what if a squatter wins? That pig won't see the day out and is likely to be put to death in a horrible way if they think it's been invaded by the Tokolosh!"

Marion gave heartfelt thanks that it was Sarie's turn to read to the residents of the old folks' home that day and was thus not present to hear Christina's dire prediction.

"There's not much we can do about that except hope that our lot come up with some really imaginative names."

This proved to be the reverse of the case when Anna went through the entries after the fete, which turned out to be a very jolly affair, well patronised by the locals of all races. Children took part in various competitions and a prize was awarded to the child in the best fancy dress. Here a mistake was made by the judges who, wandering around among the children, awarded it to a chubby lad from the vlei township who appeared to have come as a garden gnome, wearing oversized T-shirt and pants teamed with old takkies and (the thing that deceived the judges) a knitted, red Noddy-type hat, but without a bell on the end. It transpired that this was his normal garb, but fortunately the boy and his mother were unaware of the reason for his being given a prize and were just delighted that he now had a bright new train set to take home with him.

As for the names suggested for the pig by members of the church congregation:

"These are so predictable," Anna complained to her husband. "We have a Percy (later found to be the choice of Davenport), a Porky (McKilroy), a Pinky and a Two-Eyes (other locals). There's also a peculiar name I've never heard of before; 'Narses.' I had to look it up on the internet, and found he was a war-mongering Goth from the Middle Ages. Who would come up with something like that?" (The widower Geldenhuys!)

It was, however, the names from the township dwellers that gave Anna the biggest headache. "They're all in Zulu or Xhosa or something! How can I tell what they mean? I can hardly judge them just by the sound," she said despondently. "The only name I recognise is Tokolosh."

"Cheer up, my girl," the Dominee comforted. "We'll ask Reverend Motsepe from the Informal Settlement to translate for us and help choose the winner.

It will actually give the whole process credibility if we involve him as we're less likely to have complaints of partisanship from other races."

Reverend Motsepe obliged willingly, but agreed with Anna when she said that most of the names tendered by his flock were unsuitable.

"Evil-eye, Ugly and Sick One are very negative," she said, "and I really can't go along with anything as un-Christian as Tokolosh, Devil and the like!"

"Why not choose the most cheerful name that's been suggested?" the Reverend proposed. Together they went through all the slips of paper.

"There's only this one," she said doubtfully, "and it's rather off-beat. What do you think?"

Reverend Motsepe laughed and said he thought it as good a name for a pig as any other, and the matter was decided. Their choice, however, did not meet with unanimous approval.

"Vonkel?" Christina said disbelievingly. "What kind of a name is that?"

"It's Afrikaans and means 'sparkle' or 'twinkle'," Helga replied condescendingly.

"I know what it means! It's a crazy name for a pig. Who suggested it?"

"Sarie," Miems replied.

"I might have guessed! Only someone playing without a full deck would suggest such a daft name."

"Well, it does have bright eyes, even if they sparkle in different colours," Marion argued, "and at least the pig will have a good home with Sarie. She adores all her animals."

"Sunshine the canary, Sooty the cat, Golda and Fatima, Sarie's goldfish," Elaine recited. "That pig will have plenty of company," she giggled.

"You forgot to mention the white rat," Helga gave a shudder of distaste.

"Wendy," Elaine provided promptly. She was vastly amused by Sarie's menagerie. "The only thing is, will Sarie be able to afford to keep a pig? They eat so much."

It was quickly decided that the sisters would contribute all their vegetable peelings towards Vonkel's upkeep.

"It's the least we can do," Helga agreed, "but will Sarie be safe living so close to the squatter camp? They have it in for that pig and might come after it!"

Helga needn't have worried. When Moses Shilowa learned who had won the pig, he gave the matter deep thought.

"The white witch has the pig," he told his wife. "She probably used magic to get it."

Unconvinced, she replied, "Reverend Motsepe helped choose the winner."

"Perhaps, but that woman is very powerful. You forget, I have seen her make spells! The Tokolosh is in that pig and now she has it. Together, they are very dangerous. We must warn the others to keep well away from the white witch's house."

As for Sarie, unaware of the reputation she had unwittingly earned, she was thrilled to win the piglet. "God is so good. I prayed so hard to have Vonkel," she told Anna, who passed this on to her husband.

He pondered for a moment, then smiled broadly.

"I've never doubted the efficacy of prayer, but when you consider, Anna, how things could have worked out for this problematic pig, it's the mysteriousness of His ways that make me marvel." His smile grew wider.

"What better owner than Sarie? Vonkel will be lavished with love and I have a feeling that he will enjoy a long and happy life in her chaotic household!"

3 comments:

  1. once again Beryl a clever story evoking small time life. whatever happens there´s a happy conclusion which ties up all the loose ends.
    well done

    Michael McCarthy

    ReplyDelete
  2. I like that you provide a (humorous) peek into a world that is far removed from where I sit. The sprinklings of superstitions, cemetaries, and gossipy church and townfolk into this "prize" story about a piglet (who conveniently has eyes of two different colors) makes for a delightful and fun read (as always when it comes to the Sisters). And Vonkel? What a name! ;-)

    ReplyDelete