Tuesday, October 14, 2014

The Rebellion by Beryl Ensor-Smith

When an overbearing city minister takes over the local church for three months in the quiet drop of Prentburg, Sarie rebels and decides to take a break from Christianity; by Beryl Ensor-Smith.

When the residents of Prentburg first heard of the Interfaith Initiative, some were supportive of the idea while others were dubious. Among those less enchanted was the Dominee's wife, Anna. The wording of the Directive from the mother church in Pretoria offended her.

"Listen to this, Hendrik," she said to her husband, reading from the Directive, "'The Council of the Mother Church feels that it would benefit both the communities of small country towns and those in the cities to have an exchange of Dominees for a three month period. This would enable city congregations to experience the more relaxed attitude of a country Dominee, while the village congregations would gain greatly through exposure to the disciplined, academic approach of city Dominees.' Doesn't that strike you as being patronising in the extreme? It makes congregations in dorps such as ours sound like a bunch of ill-bred yokels! And how about the 'academic approach'? Where do they think you got your degree from; a lucky packet?"

Her husband laughed good-naturedly. "Ah, don't take it personally, Anna. It will probably be good for all of us to have a change. Don't you fancy a few months of more sophisticated living?"

"I like it very well here, thank you. One thing's for sure, Hendrik," she added thoughtfully, "as soon as we get to whatever city we're assigned, we're buying you a new academic gown! Yours is so full of darns, I can already see the raised eyebrows of those city folk. Before we leave, we'll disabuse them of some of their uppity ideas."

"Will we indeed? That remains to be seen!" He ducked as his wife threw a cushion at him.

The Sisters of the Church were atwitter when they learned that the Dominee assigned to Prentburg was from Bloemfontein. Dominee Broeksma and his good wife would be arriving at the start of the new month.

"Never heard of the man," Mrs Merton said dismissively.

Marion Klopper bridled. "There's lots of people you've never heard of who are actually quite important!"

"Yes," Helga Swanepoel agreed loftily, "and being given a Dominee from one of the bigger cities is a credit to us!"

"I'd hardly call Bloemfontein 'one of the bigger cities,'" Suzie Lamprecht argued. "It's more middling than big. Perhaps we're not so lucky after all."

After the first Sunday service presided over by Dominee Broeksma, this was a sentiment with which most of the Prentburg congregation would have agreed. He was a large man with a mane of greying hair growing round a bald wrinkled pate, dark-rimmed spectacles that magnified the fervour of eyes that seemed to bore into you, and an alarming habit of dropping his voice to a near whisper before making everyone jump in their pews by raising it to a yell. At the same time he would lift his arms from his sides, fingers pointing downwards, so that the arms of his academic gown hung like enormous black wings. With jaw thrust forward, he looked exactly like a huge, threatening bird of prey.

His sermon was of the hell-and-damnation kind, a long-winded rant that seemed to go on forever, leaving everyone feeling somewhat shell-shocked by the time they trooped into the church hall for tea. It was a remarkably subdued group that gulped down the hot liquid gratefully. All except one, who stuck out her bottom lip mutinously.

"I'm not coming back," Sarie Blignault whispered to Elaine Ferreira and Helga, who were pouring out cups of coffee, "until Dominee Seibrand returns."

"Of course you are," Helga said impatiently, passing the sugar bowl to a woman whose hand trembled so badly her cup rattled in its saucer. "It's your duty to attend our church services every Sunday."

"Then I'm resigning from this church!" This was said with such determination that Helga abandoned her pouring duties to stare at Sarie, usually so compliant and accommodating.

"You can't do that!" she said scandalised, "and anyway, there isn't another church of our faith for hundreds of miles, so you can't go anywhere else. It would be a real sin, Sarie, and very un-Christian, to stay away from Sunday services."

"Then," said Sarie, her eyes filled with defiance, "I'll resign from being a Christian. At least till Dominee Seibrand comes back, and that is that!" She turned and strode from the hall, leaving Elaine and Helga open-mouthed in disbelief.

The Sisters of the Church discussed her rebellion when next they had a charity drive meeting. Sarie's absence made this easier but was alarming in that she usually attended all get-togethers by the sisterhood. They were the family she didn't have.

"Mrs Dominee Broeksma will start asking questions if Sarie continues this nonsense," said Christina du Plessis impatiently. "She'll see Sarie's name on the duty roster and ask where she is."

"Too late!" Marion exclaimed. "She already has a copy. In fact, she demanded one very rudely and said she would be 'streamlining' our duties in future."

"Heaven help us," from Elaine. "She's just as bad as he is and we have more dealings with her. Somehow we've got to persuade Sarie back into the fold." The sisters looked doubtful. For all her sweet nature, when Sarie dug in her heels, she would not be moved!

"The only other option," suggested Helga, is to make her stay in her house for the entire time of their visit. We can say she's gone away, or something."

"Good idea," Christina agreed readily, "Seeing she lives off the beaten track, there's little chance of their going that way. We must insist that she stays on her own property."

Suzie immediately objected, "That would be too cruel for words! How can we expect her to remain a prisoner in her home just because of those two bullies?"

"That's no way to talk about a Dominee and his wife," Christina admonished sternly. "She'll just have to do as she's told if she insists on being so obstinate."

However, when a group of the 'sisters' called on her to let her know of the two options open to her, Sarie other ideas.

"I'll not be cooped at home like a chicken. Forget it! I'll go into town when I need supplies, just like anyone else. And Vonkel likes a daily walk down the lane and will get it. Why should my animals be punished just because that Dominee is nasty? He has a darkness in him; a murky darkness," she said solemnly, "and I want nothing to do with him!"

"Which of her animals is Vonkel?" Elaine asked Marion in a whisper.

"Her pig. Remember, she won him at our fete last year? He's grown huge. She scrubs him down every week, and when she takes him for a walk he wears a bow tie." Elaine giggled at the image invoked, but Marion foresaw problems.

"Can you imagine his next sermon if that Dominee sees Sarie walking her pig? He doesn't strike me as an animal lover, he called pigs 'unclean' in one of his sermons."

The sisterhood called an emergency meeting for all members over a pot of tea in the Astonishing Café, reckoning that the Dominee and his wife were unlikely to frequent it as it was a bit of a dive.

"Sarie won't listen to reason," Christina told those gathered around the Formica-topped table. She filled them in on the lack of success of the sisters who had tried to 'talk sense into her.' "

Elsie Fourie had listened intently and now said: "Well, of course she should be allowed her freedom! The thing is, to find a way for her to get about without those two realising who she is and badgering her."

Miems Gouws hesitated while gathering her thoughts. "My ma's brother and his English wife lived with us at one time. Her sister was a nun," she continued slowly. "When she died, ma packed away her habit in a trunk in the attic. It's probably still there. Perhaps," tentatively, "Sarie could wear it when she goes out? The Dominee and his wife would never suspect who she was."

"Brilliant!" Marion breathed. "Miems, that's a stroke of genius." Miems was more used to being criticized than praised. There was still some jealousy because she had been chosen to be a church deacon. She turned red with pleasure. It was short-lived. Christina screeched indignantly:

"You know our church doesn't approve of Catholics! How can you even suggest such a thing, Miems?"

Rina van Wyk murmured quietly to Elaine, "They certainly won't approve of us either if Sarie impersonates one of them!"

"But that's the beauty of the thing!" Marion overruled Christina, "if Dominee Broeksma and his wife come across Sarie disguised as a nun, they're more likely to give her a wide berth than to acknowledge her."

"That's true enough," Helga mused. "Let's do it!" She ignored Christina's outraged glare before adding, "After all, she's said she's resigned from our church, at least temporarily, so she can be Catholic for a while! Now how do we get her to agree to wear that nun's outfit?"

"You won't if she learns it belonged to a dead person!" Suzie said forcefully. "You know how superstitious Sarie is."

"We won't tell her. We'll just say the nun changed shape and outgrew it," Marion said cheerfully.

Mrs Merton snorted with laughter. "That's no lie! She's probably a bit of ectoplasm floating about somewhere."

This comment from the irreverent old witch shocked the sisters into momentary silence. Finally, after a disgusted look at her, Helga said: "It's agreed then. Sarie will think the habit belonged to a skinny nun who got fat. Miems, will you dig it out of that trunk as soon as possible?"

After much persuasion Sarie reluctantly agreed to wear the nun's habit when she went out, only acquiescing once the exasperated sisters were persuaded to let her wear the Rosary beads that the habit had been wrapped around, as she took a shine to them.

"In for a penny, in for a pound," Helga said with resignation.

Mrs Dominee Broeksma was not easily bamboozled and looked very displeased when enquiring about the woman called Sarie Blignault on the duty roster and being told she was away.

"Dereliction of duty!" Her mouth compressed into a wrinkled prune of disapproval.

"She's looking after a sick relative," Helga said coldly. "Surely that should come before reading to the old folk in the retirement home?"

Her 'sisters' were once again confounded by the ease with which such a sanctimonious woman could lie! They also thought the old folk would be secretly relieved not to have Sarie read to them as she wasn't much good at it, stuttering and stumbling, ignoring all punctuation marks.

The next few weeks passed uneventfully enough, if one ignored the theatrical scariness of Dominee Broeksma's sermons and the high-handedness of his wife. She managed to upset the entire church committee and most of the congregation with her condescending attitude, insisting on overseeing every aspect of church life and interfering left, right and centre.

Among other acts officiousness, Mrs Dominee Broeksma took over arrangement of the flowers for church services, enraging Hilda Jacobs, Christina's best friend, who had done all the floral arrangements for years past. She was not one to take kindly to being displaced.

"She'll regret this!" she told Christina grimly. The latter was torn between her friendship for Hilda and respect for those in authority and dithered this way and that, to the point that Hilda lost patience and started ignoring her.

Christina, short of friends at the best of times, vented her frustration on her spouse Hans. He also took to ignoring her, escaping to the club whenever her back was turned. Christina began to conceive an intense loathing of the Broeksmas and wished desperately for the return of Dominee Seibrand and Anna.

Mrs Dominee Broeksma had no idea she was the object of such dislike and continued her campaign of 'improvement' by taking over the training of the church choir, which, at its best, could just about manage to lead the congregation in the easier hymns.

"She's making us sing something boring by an ou called Palestrina," the youngest Cilliers girl complained to Miems. "We have to sing in parts and it's very difficult!" The already traumatised congregation had to sit through an anguished, unaccompanied caterwauling during the next service. They, too, longed for the return of their own down-to-earth Dominee.

"Too much!" Koos Venter was heard to mutter resentfully.

Meanwhile, the only happy one among them, Sarie, was going contentedly about her business, secretly pleased to be having a break from her religious tasks and spending much time with her best friend, Ntebo Dlamini, owner of the local beauty parlour.

"You're lucky you're black," Sarie told her artlessly on one of her visits to the salon. "This Dominee from Bloemfontein and his wife won't bother you or be poking their noses into your business because they won't even notice you."

"My favourite kind of racist," Ntebo agreed sarcastically, "but now that you're dressed like a nun they're not pestering you, are they?"

"No, but I'm not taking any chances. Whenever I see them in town I change direction and go down another street."

Just when the sisters were beginning to feel complacent about their act of deception, their peace was shattered.

"Who is that peculiar nun who wanders around the village?" demanded Mrs Dominee Broeksma before the start of the next Women's Auxiliary meeting, reducing the sisters to dumbstruck silence. Eventually Suzie recovered enough to say: "That's Sister Bernice, the... the Blushing."

"The Blushing?" Mrs Dominee queried incredulously, "I've heard of nuns called 'the Virtuous' or 'Merciful' and the like, but 'the Blushing?' and why does she always skitter away when she sees people?"

Marion had by then regained her composure. "It's one of the new titles. The Catholic church also moves with the times, you know, and as for her avoiding people, well, she belongs to a closed order."

"If that's true, she has nothing to blush about!" Mrs Dominee snapped. "She seems to me to be downright rude, the way she dodges people." Her brow creased in a thoughtful frown. "There's no convent in this town, nor even a Catholic church, so what is she doing here?" with growing suspicion.

"She's here on..." Elaine was about to say 'holiday' when it struck her that it was unlikely for a cloistered nun to do anything so frivolous. Mrs Merton stepped in smartly and surprisingly; the one and only time they could recall the crusty old creature helping them out. "...Retreat. She's retreating from the world to spend time in contemplation and prayer."

This in no way alleviated Mrs Dominee's suspicions. Her eyes narrowed. "You're telling me she was sent to this one-horse town in the middle of nowhere, to think and pray? Well," not noticing that every woman present had bristled with fury at this slight to their beloved dorp, "it's clear to me she's being punished. It also explains 'the Blushing'. It's a reminder to her to be modest. This nun has obviously flouted the convent rules in some way; she must have committed a sin of a carnal nature!"

"Not Sa.. saintly Sister Bernice," Elaine protested, quickly covering her slip. "She's a vegetarian! She wouldn't eat a lamb chop if the Pope himself offered her one."

A glazed look came over Mrs Dominee's features.

"You're getting mixed up, Elaine," Miems said kindly. "You're thinking of carnivorous, which means eating flesh!"

"No, that's cannibal," Suzie objected.

The Dominee's wife looked from one to the other as if they were raving mad. Mrs Merton watched proceedings with an evil grin while Marion tried to get things back on track. "A cannibal eats human flesh. Mrs Dominee Broeksma is speaking of enjoyment of the flesh; you know, men and women. Together," she finished meaningfully.

"Oh," said Helga blankly. She turned to Mrs Dominee. "I can assure you there's nothing of that kind going on with... with Sister Bernice. She's never known any man in the biblical sense."

"Or any other," Christina said nastily. "Such a plain woman!"

"It's the plain ones that are most vulnerable to seduction," the Dominee's wife reprimanded. "Sister Bernice has obviously fallen prey to the smooth tongue and silky charms of some rogue. Quite probably a monk."

As the chairlady rapped on the table to start the meeting, the sisters were all trying to envisage Sarie being romanced by a Don Juan in a cassock, but failed miserably. Such a thing defied even the most active imagination!

Helga turned on Suzie. "'The Blushing?' That's what's led us into this quagmire. What were you thinking?" she hissed.

"I meant to say 'the Blessing'. I was flustered. At least," Suzie flared, "I came up with something while the rest of you stood with mouths gaping."

"Well it's turned us into a bunch of liars who'll have to spend the rest of our lives atoning for the untruths we've told!" Helga descended into miffed silence.

The following week when Christina arrived to prepare the hymn and prayer books for the next day's services, she found her estranged friend Hilda arranging the flowers. Her jaw dropped.

"I thought Mrs Dominee took over this duty from you, Hilda?"

Hilda nodded. "She did indeed. Unfortunately, last week some nettles found their way into the bunch she was arranging and she is now suffering from a bad case of nettle rash." The complacent smile that crossed her lips reminded Christina that the previous week she had seen Hilda cutting flowers in the church gardens wearing a heavy pair of leather gloves. She remembered being puzzled as the weather was sweltering and Hilda wasn't one to pamper her hands, being a woman without vanity. A shiver travelled the length of Christina's spine. She was once again reminded that Hilda was a bad person to cross!

"Well," she said quickly, "it's good that you're doing the flowers again. Your arrangements are far more attractive than Mrs Dominee's."

Hilda gave her an amused look, but she had missed Christina's company so decided to bury the hatchet.

"Friends again?" she asked, snipping excess leaves ruthlessly from the stem of a Chrysanthemum.

Watching the secateurs cutting away so relentlessly, Christina agreed somewhat feverishly, "Yes, friends again!"

The Prentburg congregation gave the Broeksmas a rousing send-off after his last morning service before returning home. They waved them away with broad smiles. Koos Venter went even further, clapping loudly as they climbed into their car.

"You know, Wynand," Mrs Dominee said quite emotionally to her husband as they drove away from the church, "they've grown really fond of us! Despite the fact that they're an odd lot, we've obviously got through to them. We can report on the complete success of our mission when we get back to Bloemfontein!"

The church 'sisters' were surprised to see Sarie still wearing the nun's habit around the town once the Broeksmas had left.

"She says she loves wearing it," Elaine explained, "because it has good vibes!"

They digested this news in silence. Then Helga said determinedly, "Miems, you must get that outfit back before Dominee Seibrand and Anna return. Sarie's grown too attached to it!"

"Definitely," Christina agreed. "Can you imagine what he'll say if he sees her dressed as a nun? It was a bad idea to begin with!" looking accusingly at Miems.

"She'll have to convert back to our faith again," Suzie mused.

Mrs Merton nodded grimly. "She's enjoyed being a Catholic far too much! Waste no time fetching the habit and Rosary, Miems, and while you're at it, just you remind Sarie where her religious loyalties lie!"

10 comments:

  1. What a hoot - great fun - could possibly form the basis for a radio play? Oh the idiosyncrasies of the pure of heart!
    Thank you,
    Ceinwen Haydon

    ReplyDelete
  2. Hi Ceinwen,
    Thanks for your comments. So pleased you enjoyed the story!
    Best wishes,
    Beryl

    ReplyDelete
  3. Ceinwen nailed it - this was definitely quite a "hoot." Why do I get the feeling we haven't heard the last of Sarie and her habit?
    Fun story, Beryl.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Always good to hear from you Jim. There are a few more in the series, yes, and as Sarie is one of my favourite characters, she'll be in some of them. Keep well!
      Beryl

      Delete
  4. Episode 1 - "The Golden Girls of Prentburg" - wherein Sarie takes on a habit she's not easily willing to give up. Like the course of true love, the journey towards God is not straight and smooth.
    The dialogue and characters were just great. The plots, the planning, the snippets of conversation, made the characters come alive.
    Like Ceinwen, I can imagine this on the radio...'and now BBC Radio 4 presents...'

    James Shaffer

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks for your comments, James. Wish I could get my series featured on radio!! Meantime, it's simply good to have them published and enjoyed.
      Best wishes,
      Beryl.

      Delete
  5. Loved this, got quite a laugh at the "sisters" and loved them all. Especially Sarie with her habit - could see this nun walking a bow-tied pig. Keep writing more like this one. You have a fan base.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hi, Laura,
      Your encouragement is much appreciated. Writing isn't always easy but it is a joy, and so good to know it gives pleasure to others.
      Thank you.
      Beryl

      Delete
  6. No end of invention in this story. I loved the description of the City Dominee as he preached, and the...'he has a darkness, a murky darkness about him'!
    A really good read!
    I shall go away now, continue my humdrum daily tasks, and no doubt soon come upon something which causes my mouth to compress 'into a wrinkled prune of disapproval'!
    Brooke

    ReplyDelete
  7. Thanks for your comments, Brooke - and I don't believe for a moment that your mouth ever compresses into a "wrinkled prune"!!
    Best wishes,
    Beryl.

    ReplyDelete