Sunday, August 31, 2014

The Debacle by Beryl Ensor-Smith

In the sleepy dorp of Prentburg, Christina du Plessis take it upon herself to fulfil her friend's dying wish to be buried with her dog; by Beryl Ensor-Smith.

After the event, Christina du Plessis decided that it was only because nothing interesting had happened in the dorp for weeks that her usual sagacity had deserted her and she had become involved in something best left alone.

It had all started one hot afternoon when she was trying to have a conversation with Hans. Trying, because he was not being very co-operative and merely grunted in a most annoying way when a response was required. Perhaps it was that, that prompted her to interest him more in what she was saying? After several grunts, she changed the subject.

"Hans, did I tell you that Minky died yesterday?"

Hans racked his brains. Minky? Who the heck was Minky?

Seeing his baffled expression, Christina said resignedly: "Minky, Hans. Old Mrs. Jacobs' dog."

"But old lady Jacobs died some time ago, didn't she?"

"Six months, almost to the day, but Hilda gave Minky a home and she's now distraught."

Hans pondered some more. Hilda was his wife's best friend and in his opinion, a strange woman. Trying to imagine her 'distraught' was beyond his capabilities.

"She grew attached to the dog?"

"No," Christina said testily. "She never took to it, and that's the problem. Hilda's now racked with guilt and wants to honour her mother's dying wish, which was to have Minky buried with her."

"Well," said Hans, reaching for the newspaper, "she's six months too late then, isn't she?"

"Callous brute!" flared his wife, grabbing the paper and placing it out of his reach. "And why should it be too late? Surely it would be a simple matter to dig a shallow hole in Mrs. Jacob's grave and bury the dog, which is a small breed."

Hans now remembered the dog, a terrier type, unappealing in looks and uncertain of temper. "I suppose so," he said dubiously.

"Excepting that when Hilda approached Dominee, he said she needed permission from Jan Badenhorst and he's refused, saying it infringes some by-law. You'd think that in such a sensitive case he could stretch the law, but not that man! He thinks he's better than the rest of us and I've never liked him. What do you think, Hans?" Christina was working herself up into a rare state and Hans eyed her warily. When his wife really got going, there was hell to pay! As for Jan Badenhorst, he'd never given the man much thought other than to acknowledge grudgingly that he tackled his difficult job as Municipal Manager with fortitude and efficiency. This was not the time, however, to point this out to his irate wife. Trying to calm her down, Hans sealed his own fate by choosing to placate her.

"I agree with you entirely, my darling. The man's an idiot."

"I'm glad you see eye to eye with me, Hans. He shouldn't be allowed to throw his weight around like that!" A speculative gleam came into her eye and Hans began to feel the first qualms of disquiet.

"I think there's a way around this," Christina said dreamily. "With your help, Hans, we can set Hilda's mind at rest. It just needs a little thought."

There was now a decidedly hollow feeling in the pit of his stomach. From past experience Hans knew that when Christina got "that" look about her, it boded no good. No good at all!

During the course of the next week, nothing changed. Hans was beginning to hope that his wife had been distracted from her purpose, whatever it was. From her thoughtful expression, he doubted it, and hoped that his expected involvement would be minimal. Perhaps Christina intended him to speak to Dominee to try to enlist his help in getting permission for Minky (cursed dog!) to be buried with Mrs. Jacobs? More awkward would be her expecting him to approach Jan Badenhorst on the matter, but even that wouldn't be too bad. He would go through the motions and then persuade Christina to accept Jan's refusal. Hans was just beginning to feel that matters were in control when Christina dropped her bombshell.

"It's all arranged, Hans," she told him after his weekly game of golf. "Hilda and I have worked it all out. Sunday night would be the best time, well after dark, naturally."

"Best time for what?" Hans was suddenly on full alert, the euphoria of the two beers he'd consumed on the 19th hole deserting him.

"For burying Minky, of course!"

"But Jan's forbidden it!"

"Jan won't know, will he? Not unless you foul up."

"Me?" his voice was panic-stricken.

"You, Hans. You agreed that it's a silly by-law that should be ignored, remember?"

"I didn't exactly say..."

"Hans du Plessis, are you calling me a liar?" Christina drew herself up to her full height, her overweight body quivering with affront.

"No, not at all. I just meant..." "That's just as well," she interrupted, "seeing I've told Hilda you've agreed to do it.

We're counting on you, Hans, to carry out an old lady's last request." Seeing his eyes dart from one side to the other seeking a way out, she added contemptuously, "Come on, Hans, how hard can it be? It's rained heavily this past week so the soil is soft and Minky's a small dog. It need only be a shallow hole, so will involve hardly any effort on your part."

"Christina, it's against the law!"

"That's why you'll do it at midnight when nobody will be there to see you." Christina changed her tactics and said gently, "My darling, I'll be forever in your debt if you do this little thing for my dearest friend. You scratch my back and I'll scratch yours, you know?"

Fat chance, Hans thought gloomily. Christina had a short memory when it came to favours owed.

"I can't manage such a thing on my own," he protested. "How am I expected to carry a dead dog, a spade and a torch?"

"Mrs. Jacobs is buried near the West gate, twelve graves along in the second row which is hardly any distance at all, and anyway I've arranged that Sarie will help you."

"Sarie Blignault, that half-wit?"

"She's not a half-wit, just a bit slow," Christina cajoled, though she was usually the first to label Sarie a mental case.

"Why not you or Hilda?" Hans argued, already knowing he was on a losing wicket. "Why must I be the one to do the job if it's so easy!"

"Because," Christina said patiently, "Hilda's emotional about this, and you honestly can't expect me with my nervous disposition to tackle it!" Her voice had taken on an edge and Hans knew that while she trotted out the excuse of her nerves only when it suited her, any further objection would be useless.

"I just hope you've made clear to Sarie what will be expected of her," he capitulated sulkily. "I can't do this on my own."

"Of course, beloved. Sarie is pleased to be helping in such a worthy cause."

It had, in fact, been anything but easy to persuade Sarie to help. Christina had used every weapon in her considerable arsenal to win her victim over. She had decided it would be wise to give Sarie the least possible information in the interests of keeping the matter secret, and also so as not to confuse someone she considered seriously lacking in the brains department. She had merely said that Hans wished to honour an old woman's dying wish to have Minky buried with her, and that because of a silly by-law he had to do it on the quiet and needed Sarie's help. She had played on Sarie's conscience and sympathy, and eventually wrested reluctant agreement from her.

"All you have to do is carry the torch to light the way, and hold it steady while Hans digs."

"I don't like cemeteries, especially at night, Christina."

"Don't be a silly goose! Hans will be there with you and just think how good you'll feel to have been part of such a noble deed!"

"Yes?" tremulously.

"Yes," Christina said firmly, and that was that!

Hans slept very little in the nights leading up to Sunday. He was bedevilled with misgivings and was thoroughly tired and out of sorts by the time Sunday arrived. The Sisters of the Church were quick to pick up on his despondent mood at the Sunday service.

"Did you notice how miserable Hans is looking?" Marion Klopper queried when tea was being served after the service. "He paid hardly any attention to Dominee's sermon."

"Perhaps he's sickening with something," Suzie Lamprecht replied, not displaying much sympathy.

"It's more likely that Christina's been playing up again," Helga Swanepoel said so loudly that the other two looked round in embarrassment, relieved to see that the lady in question was some distance away, in earnest conversation with her friend Hilda.

"She seems her usual self," Elaine Ferreira offered. "Poor old Hans. His life can't be easy."

Hans would have been the first to agree with her had he been privy to the conversation. By the time midnight came, he was riddled with impatience just wanting the unpleasant chore to be over and done with. He was to fetch Sarie from her house and drive out to the cemetery, some distance from the dorp. Which he did, being reminded by his wife to take a spade and a torch, and with the box containing Minky (who had been kept frozen in Hilda's "old" freezer which she was trying to sell) and was now a solid weight, on the back seat. Sarie was a very silent passenger, beset with doubts, but too timid to voice them.

Hans was not familiar with driving in the dark, which he found disorientating, but eventually found the gate to the cemetery and parked the car under the pine trees to the left of it. He then carried the box containing Minky, leaving Sarie with torch and spade trailing after him. She was supposed to be lighting the way for him but the torch beam wandered hither and thither in her uncertain grip and at one point she dropped it completely, leaving him some distance ahead of her in pitch darkness.

In the informal settlement not far from where Sarie lived, Moses Shilowa had also had a sleepless night, one brought about by excitement at becoming the owner of a brand new bicycle. Eventually he gave up trying to drop off and decided that it would be wise to tire himself out, and what better way to do it than to drive the new bike through the dorp and along the main road beyond? Very quietly so as not to wake up his wife, Lindiwe, he put his track suit on over his pyjamas, slipped his feet into his trainers and carried the bike out of their house so that it would not make a noise, closing the front door quietly behind him. Once on the pathway he happily mounted the bike and rode away. He decided he'd ride to the cemetery and back, by which time he would be well exercised and ready for sleep.

When he got to the cemetery he made a u-turn and it was then that he saw a car parked on the verge under the pine trees. Moses' curiosity was aroused. Who could possibly be visiting such a place in the deep of night? Peering through the trees he saw a light bobbing along. He felt very uneasy and was just about to ride off in a hurry when it disappeared for a second, and then came on again, shining up into the face of a woman he recognised. In his consternation, Moses exclaimed aloud. Sarie, hearing him, shone the torch straight at him. All she could see were the whites of his eyes as his clothing and skin were dark and blended into the night. She screamed at the top of her voice and Moses took off for home like a rocket. Needless to say, sleep eluded him for the rest of the night!

Meantime Hans's heart had jumped into his throat with fright. When he had recovered, he called out tremulously: "Sarie?"

"I'm here," she replied, stumbling towards him. "Oh, Hans, I've just seen a ghost. It's standing outside the wall watching us!"

"Nonsense," he replied brusquely. "You're imagining things." All the same, his need to get the business over and done with was greater then ever.

"Help me count the graves. It's the 12th on the right-hand side."

The light from the torch was fast fading. Either the batteries were flat or its encounter with the ground had done it no good. Hans cursed beneath his breath. When he and Sarie were in agreement about having found the 12th grave, he was dismayed to see it was covered with white pebbles and had an enormous concrete urn filled with flowers near the headstone. He dumped Minky unceremoniously on the ground, took the spade from Sarie and told her to keep the beam steady. In her state of nerves she was unable to do so.

Hans started to spade up white pebbles in the centre of the grave, placing them carefully on the ground beside it. Then he tried to move the urn, but it was awkwardly shaped, fat and round and the flowers got in his way. His efforts only resulted in a nasty cut on his hand where it got caught in the wire mesh holding the flowers, and when he next looked, blood was streaming from the wound. It was the last straw. He gave in to a bout of bad temper and aimed the heel of his boot at the offending urn, giving it a hefty kick. It took off most satisfactorily and landed with a thump somewhere in the darkness. Sarie promptly dropped the torch again and the light went out, permanently this time.

Hans dug a hole as best he could, heaping the sand he removed onto a plastic sheet he'd brought for that purpose. It took more than the "few minutes" Christina had promised, despite the recent rain. By the time the hole was big enough to accommodate Minky, Hans was sweating and angry (his hand was still bleeding copiously and he had nothing with which to bind it up) and he disposed of the dog without sentiment, tossing the soil back into the hole and tamping it down with the spade. He then got Sarie to help him spread the pebbles over the area where the hole had been. He could only hope they did a reasonable job as they could see very little. He now regretted the loss of the urn as it would have helped cover the disturbance. Failing that, he got Sarie to gather what pine cones she could find. No easy task in the dark and she gathered piles of debris with them, but beggars can't be choosers and Hans strewed them around as best he could.

"That's it. Let's get out of here," he said. Sarie could not oblige soon enough.

When Hans got home, Christina was fast asleep. There's gratitude for you, he thought as he treated his wound and performed perfunctory ablutions before stripping and climbing into bed alongside her snoring form.

The next morning she quizzed him about proceedings and he gave her an edited version, complaining that Sarie had been worse than useless. He thought it best not to mention his fit of temper and sending the urn flying, and hid from her the deep cut in the palm of his hand. He would deny any knowledge of the urn, should Hilda ask what had happened to it. After all, vandalism was rife everywhere, even in cemeteries.

Christina gave him a sharp look. "So I can tell Hilda you did a decent job?"

"You can tell her I did my best in very difficult circumstances," he retorted, "and you'd better have another word with Sarie, swearing her to secrecy. She thought she saw a ghost and will probably go blabbing about it to anyone who'll listen."

Christina wasted no time in doing so and spent the best part of the next morning reminding Sarie that promises had to be kept as they were sacred; that should anyone learn of her part in burying Minky she could be in big trouble and (laying it on thick) could land up in jail. By the time she was done, Sarie was convinced that if she breathed a word about what had happened, she would burn in hell.

"I won't tell," she assured Christina, "but there's one thing that I'm wondering?"

"And what is that?" Christina asked benignly, now that she had scared the woman senseless.

"Why did Hans bury Minky in Nana Fotheringham's grave?"

"Pardon?" Christina said breathlessly, trying to gain time to take in what Sarie had just said.

"Why Nana Fotheringham's grave? She didn't even like animals, being allergic to them. She said they gave her hives."

Christina went cold but quickly pulled herself together. Clearly something had gone horribly wrong. She should have known Hans would mess things up! She racked her memory for images of the Fotheringhams, finally remembering they were English immigrants who had settled in the drop about two years before. "Nana" must be the granny. Trust Sarie to know everyone in the village and all their business!

"Well," she said slowly, giving herself time to think and recalling that she had not actually told Sarie that Minky was to be buried with her mistress, "that's exactly why, er, Nana Fotheringham wanted this. She couldn't have pets in life, so she wanted one in death. It was her dearest wish."

"Was it?" Sarie queried dubiously. "I didn't know you were friendly with her."

"Not exactly friendly. We met in the dorp sometimes when we had to go shopping. That's when she told me."

"But she was in a wheelchair!"

Christina had now recovered her wits. "That didn't prevent her being driven to the shops now and then, just for a change. She would sit in the car and watch the world go by," she improvised. "I'd stop and talk to her."

"That was nice of you, Christina." Sarie still seemed doubtful.

"I do my best," Christina said modestly. "That's why I implored Hans to bury Minky with her, knowing how important it was to her. We should try to help out where we can, don't you agree?"

Sarie nodded. "I wonder what Mrs. Jacobs is thinking, wherever she is. Do you suppose she minds?"

Christina wondered too, but quickly replied, "Not at all. She was a good Christian."

When she got home, Christina tackled Hans. He defended himself vehemently.

"I did exactly as you told me. I buried the blasted dog in the second row, 12 graves from the West gate."

"Excepting that Sarie says that you went to the East gate. She says you parked the car under the pines. There are no trees anywhere near the West gate, so in this she must be right!"

Hans muttered something about it being pitch black, so small wonder he became confused.

"Confused? You buried an Afrikaans dog in an English grave! You'd better hope Hilda never gets wind of this. Her mother had strong feelings about the Boer war and must now be spinning like a top beneath the soil. If Hilda finds out what you've done, she'll come after you with her meat cleaver! I suggest you waste no time visiting Mrs Jacobs' grave and mussing up the soil a bit in case Hilda decides to check that you did what you promised."

"It's broad daylight. What if I'm seen?" Hans whinnied.

"Say you're doing some gardening," his wife returned callously.

Both hoped that would be the end of the matter. No such luck. When Christina attended the next Sisters of the Church charity handwork session later that week, she was inundated with the latest gossip doing the rounds.

"Completely desecrated," Helga Swanepoel said portentously. "The Fotheringhams are livid!"

Suzie Lamprecht looked round furtively then beckoned the 'sisters' to come closer, which they did with unseemly haste.

"I've heard that it's more than mere desecration. Sergeant Mostert's investigating the possibility of Satanism!"

"Satanism? Why?" from a wide-eyed Elaine Ferreira.

"The concrete vase decorated with angels was found broken to bits some distance away and all the flowers in it scattered to the four winds."

"That could have been done by vandals," old Mrs. Merton scoffed, "and is no evidence of Satanism by any stretch of the imagination."

The 'sisters' glared at the most contentious member of their group. For the first time in months, a good story, and this killjoy wanted to quash it!

"There is more," flashed Suzie, "The white stones on the grave were splashed with sacrificial blood!" She threw a triumphant look at her detractor. "They'd also been disturbed and pine cones and birds' feathers were spread over them. The Fotheringhams are getting their priest to do a purification rite at the grave, they're so concerned."

This news had spread not only to the ears of the Church Sisters, but also to those of Moses Shilowa in the informal settlement.

"You remember I told you I saw the white witch in the cemetery the other night?" he reminded his wife. "Well, we now know what she was doing!"

"And what exactly was that?" asked a sceptical Mrs. Shilowa.

"Practising her black magic, of course. At that time of night she could hardly be attending a funeral, could she?" said he, annoyed.

By way of reply the irritating woman merely raised her eyebrows and bent on him a pitying look. She knew of someone else who had been at the cemetery that same night for a completely innocuous reason and was willing to bet his nemesis was equally innocent of wrongdoing.

"Just you warn the children to keep away from her house," he commanded.

"Don't worry, they're dead scared of her after all your scary stories!"

Christina lost no time in letting Hans know the latest news.

"I can't begin to imagine what you did to that grave on Sunday night and don't want to know," she said scathingly, "but you had better hope it goes no further, Hans. All you were required to do was bury a small dog and now there's talk of sacrificial offerings and Satanic rituals!"

Hans thought it wisest to keep quiet.

A week went by in which both he and Christina held their breath. Then another week. After three, interest in the matter faded as Sergeant Mostert was unable to pin the crime on anyone as the perpetrators had seemingly disappeared into thin air. By the end of the month, the Du Plessis felt they were off the hook.

"You seem to have got away with it, Hans."

"I? It was at your instigation, Christina! I didn't want any part of it, remember?"

"Yes, well you're the one who'll be facing some awkward questions if by some miracle you eventually land up outside the pearly gates. You'll be met by two women wanting answers. You'll have to explain to one how it is that you failed to bury her beloved pet with her, but instead placed it in the grave of someone she would have considered a bitter enemy. And what will you say to the other? A woman who detested animals and is now forced to lie through eternity with the bones of an unwanted dog nose to nose with her! No matter how much blessing that priest does, she'll never rest easy!"

She pondered for a moment before adding sarcastically, "Come to think of it Hans, you'll probably be better off when you die if you're sent down below where you'd get more of a welcome. It'd probably be easier living with the devil than facing those two old women."

Live with the devil? I already do, Hans felt like retorting, but thought better of it.

6 comments:

  1. A hen-pecked husband with a short attention span, an overbearing wife who cooks up half-baked schemes, their loony friends, a cemetary at midnight, a shovel and a torch, a dead dog, a 'ghost'...what could go wrong? A well-potted recipe for disaster full of village characters well-equipped to pull it all off. If you live with the devil, what do you expect? A well told story.

    James Shaffer

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  2. I'm with James on this one - but, instead of "half-baked" schemes, I'm not sure the oven was even turned on! :-) Another fun read, Beryl!

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  3. Oh dear! What a tangled web Christina & Hans weave for themselves - Christina doing most of the weaving. I found myself laughing out loud at Sarie's unexpected who's who of cemetery geography, and the 'occult' misunderstanding.
    Another well-told and hilarious story!

    Brooke Fieldhouse

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  4. I liked the idea of the story but the pov was inconsistent, which made it hard to become immersed in the characters.

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  5. This was an interesting story, Beryl. Thank you!

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  6. Thank you James, Jim, Brooke, Don and Sam for your feedback which is much appreciated. Sorry to have been late in acknowledging your comments but we've been up the coast looking for Spring flowers ... they're here one day and gone the next! Sadly we were too late to find many but had a good time anyway.
    Best wishes,
    Beryl

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