Tuesday, December 23, 2014

The Suitor by Beryl Ensor-Smith

A tiff between Rina and Frikkie van Wyk leads to unexpected consequences in the latest chapter of Beryl Ensor-Smith's delightful Prentburg stories.

Frikkie van Wyk was enjoying a breakfast of bacon and eggs when, with one sentence, his wife Rina killed his appetite.

"My mother's coming to visit, Frikkie."

Such was his dismay that he exclaimed, "No! Must she?"

Rina had braced herself for his response knowing that there was not much love lost between her husband and her mother, yet she could not help retorting angrily, "She's my mother Frikkie, and wants to visit her daughter and her only grandchild, so the answer to your question is yes, she must! Why can you not welcome her?"

It would be like welcoming a viper into their home, Frikkie thought morosely, but taking a look at his wife's resentful expression, wisely decided to keep quiet. It was, however, too late. Rina was thoroughly riled and he knew he was in for what he privately called 'the deep freeze'; the cold, silent treatment! When Rina was really upset it could last for up to a week.

Frikkie loved his wife and needed her approval. Two days of being ignored was as much as he could take. He sought advice from his friends at the sports club, but they weren't much help.

"If she's anything like Christina, there's blow all you can do," Hans du Plessis told him morosely. "You can try flowers and chocolates but it won't help. When you insult your wife's mother, man, you're asking for trouble!"

Bennie Ferreira was also pessimistic. "When it comes to family visits, there's only one course of action. Grin and bear it. What's so wrong with your mother-in-law, anyway?"

"What's right with her would be an easier question to answer. In her book I'll never be good enough for Rina and since the old man died she's become even more critical of me. She even blames me for giving her only one grandchild, Elisabeth. She says a real man would have fathered a whole brood!"

"That's a bit rough," Hans sympathised. He and Christina had been unable to have any children and he knew what it was to be unfairly blamed!

"You'll just have to sit it out," Bennie told him, "until Rina feels ready to forgive you. Which might only be after her mother's visit, depending on your attitude towards her."

"I'm always polite and considerate when she's here," Frikkie protested, "not that it helps!"

Rina continued to treat Frikkie with calculated indifference, knowing even as she did so that she was being unfair. When it came to Frikkie her mother could be difficult, as she had not forgotten the time her daughter had moved in with her for a few weeks because Frikkie took her for granted. No amount of reassuring her mom that he had changed and was now a good, considerate husband could convince her.

Frikkie was doing his best to make up for his gaffe, taking on more of the domestic chores, especially in regard to Elisabeth, their toddler, but, knowing that things would never change between him and her mother frustrated Rina and she took it out on Frikkie, being nearest.

Meanwhile he moped, escaping the house whenever he could. He took to going for walks along the banks of the vlei and it was during one of these that he bumped, quite literally, into Dr Ismail, as his eyes were fixed miserably on the pathway. The good doctor took one look at his face and suggested they sit on a bench and talk. The Van Wyks were his patients and he had counselled Frikkie once before.

"It's good that like me, you're taking the air despite the poor weather," he said to Frikkie, "but bad that you look so unhappy. What's wrong?"

"I've quarrelled with Rina," Frikkie admitted, explaining what had happened. "Even though I attended that course you recommended on relationships, I still have difficulty expressing my feelings. I need her to forgive me!"

"Well," said Dr Ismail, casting a glance skywards as it started to drizzle, "why don't you write her a note? It's sometimes easier to put one's thoughts on paper. Keep it short and to the point; it'll have more impact." He stood up. "We both need to get home before the skies open."

Frikkie went home in a more cheerful frame of mind. The doctor had helped him once before with good advice, so why not this time too? He gave careful thought to what he would say in his note to Rina while he completed a design for the corner unit Helga Swanepoel had commissioned. In the last few years he had developed a talent and a taste for woodwork and was soon being asked to take orders from some of the locals. It kept him pleasantly busy in the evenings and at weekends and supplemented his income. At times like this it also kept him out of Rina's hair!

The next day, Saturday, while Rina was out shopping for groceries, first dropping Elisabeth off to spend time with Frikkie's mother, he wrote his letter remembering the doctor's advice to keep it short and sweet. He then popped it into one of the envelopes he kept for his quotes and put it under a book on the hall table. He would give it to Rina after he returned from delivering the design and quote for Helga's cupboard.

Frikkie's handwriting was an untidy scrawl, so he printed his quotes neatly. Rina kept urging him to use the computer, but he was all thumbs and found it easier to do them by hand. He completed the one for Helga and started working on a folding table for Miems Gouws. So absorbed was he that he quite forgot the time and it was only when he heard her key in the front door that he realised Rina had returned. He grabbed his jacket and Helga's quote and hurried through the house, reaching the hall as a flustered Rina came inside with a shopping bag in each hand.

"More in the car," she said shortly, but Frikkie stuffed the envelope he was carrying into his pocket, took the bags from her and told her he'd fetch the others. "You look as if you could do with a cup of tea," urging her into the kitchen; "I'll bring in the rest of the groceries, drop off Helga's paperwork and fetch Elisabeth from my mother's. You could do with a rest."

"Thank you," Rina said with real gratitude.

On the way out he grabbed the note he'd written to her from the hall table. It had to be given to Rina at the right time when she'd be amenable to his appeal, not when she was tired and grumpy.

Helga Swanepoel had just made a batch of scones when Frikkie arrived at her house.

"Come in and try one," she said coquettishly, "and I see you have something for me?"

"Yes," Frikkie mumbled, handing her the envelope. Helga always made him feel uncomfortable and he did not want the scone she held out to him but felt obliged to take it. Helga opened the envelope and studied its contents while he munched the scone. Rina's were much better, he thought critically. This one was dry and tasteless. When he looked up it was to see a dazed expression on Helga's face, not the one of satisfaction he had expected.

"You don't like what I've proposed?" he said, uncertainly.

"This is... unacceptable," she stuttered.

Frikkie was completely taken aback. The woman had eagerly agreed to all his suggestions when he had first called round to take measurements, yet she was clearly dissatisfied with the design he'd presented.

"I'm sorry. I thought this is what you wanted?"

"Not at all. You've misunderstood my intentions completely!"

Frikkie's bewilderment was so genuine, his dismay so obvious, that her attitude softened.

"I appreciate... the sentiment, Frikkie, but this will not do! You have to meet your obligations; the promises you made."

Totally baffled, Frikkie shuffled his feet. "Perhaps you need more time to think about what it is you actually want? I will, of course, try to meet your expectations."

Helga stared glassily at him. "I have none. It's best that you leave now."

Driving home Frikkie told himself he would never understand women, and definitely not this one! She was clearly daft, speaking of promises and obligations. He was, at a stretch, obliged to do his best to present a design she liked, but he had promised her nothing! His mind turned to Rina. She might be difficult at times but she spoke her mind plainly. When he got home he would get their relationship back on track. He would promise to welcome her mother with open arms, if that's what it took!

After Elisabeth had eaten her lunch and settled down for her afternoon nap, Frikkie handed his wife the note he had written. "This is for you," he said shyly.

Rina took it from the envelope, cast her eye down the page and started to smile. So far, so good! Frikkie's relief vanished as quickly as it came when she said drily, "You want to build me a cupboard... and," tapping the quote beneath, "charge me for it?"

"Oh my God!" Frikkie paled as realisation dawned. "Rina, I gave the note intended for you to Helga Swanepoel and that's her quote you're holding."

Seeing how intensely distressed he was, Rina wasted no time. "What did you write to me? Can you remember the exact words?"

Frikkie nodded. "I wrote... I said..." his voice broke, "'I can't stand the distance between us. I love you. Kiss me!'"

Rina's eyes widened. "That's it? Anything more?"

"It's enough, isn't it?" he said despairingly.

"Did you write my name anywhere?"

He shook his head miserably. "Just those few words."

Rina could see how appalled her reticent, gentle giant of a husband was at having the most prim spinster in the village believe he was making advances to her.

"Your handwriting's practically illegible," she comforted, "perhaps she couldn't read it?'

"She could. She did. Rina, what am I to do?" staring at her in fright.

She thought for a minute. "Did you sign your name?"

"Only my initial, at the bottom. She knew it was from me." His voice was hollow.

"Well, Frikkie, you have to go back right away and explain what happened. Helga is a very strait-laced woman who would never welcome attentions from another woman's husband. Take this quote back, look her in the eye, tell her about our quarrel and how this came about." She made shooing motions with her hands. "Go now, before she ruins your reputation forever by passing on the news of your indecent declaration!"

Frikkie fled. Rina stood at the window and watched him pull out of the driveway. She thought of the intimate message he had written to her. "Oh, Frikkie!" she said aloud; then burst into unrestrained laughter.

But Frikkie knew something his wife did not. He knew that the Swanepoel woman had a crush on him! When he and Rina had been estranged and he had been trying to win her back, one hot day he had stripped to the waist, climbed atop the roof and set about fixing it. At one point he had looked down and saw Helga jogging on the spot in Spandex staring up at him hungrily, positively ogling him! A man did not forget such an unsettling thing in a hurry. Ever since then, when they met she was girlishly flirtatious with him.

Yet Rina was correct in saying Helga was an upright woman who would never act on such impulses and the last thing he wished to do was humiliate her. Frikkie groaned and pulled over to the side of the road. He needed to think. If only he could find a way out of this mess that got him off the hook and put a positive spin on things for Helga. He went over his conversation with Rina, thinking of all its ramifications. An idea began to blossom. It was not a very good idea, but one that just might muddy the waters a little? Frikkie spent the next five minutes thinking furiously and wishing his mother had given him an ordinary, common name instead of Frederik, from which his nickname arose. As it was, even after racking his brains he found his options very limited.

Gathering all his courage he knocked on Helga's door and when she opened it, before she had a chance to react, thrust the envelope containing her quote at her and said in a rush:

"Helga, there's been a mix-up. This is the design and quote for your unit. The other envelope I gave you earlier was handed to me by an acquaintance in the queue at the supermarket this morning. When he heard I'd be calling on you, he asked me to pass it on. I'd forgotten all about it!" He stopped to take a breath. "It was only when I got home and found your quote in my pocket that I realised we were talking at cross purposes this morning." (Thank heavens only one shop in the dorp stocked envelopes and they were all the same kind!)

Helga regarded him with deep suspicion. "Oh yes, and who is this person?" She was clearly sceptical.

Frikkie had anticipated this and pretended to be confused. "Did he not say in his correspondence?"

"He did not. If there is such a person, name him!"

"I hesitate to do so if he wished to remain anonymous."

Helga remained unconvinced. "The... communication was signed with your initial, Frikkie!"

"Was it? Well," Frikkie feigned cheerful unconcern, "off the top of my head I can think of at least two other men in the dorp whose names begin with an F in addition to the chap who wrote to you; three if we're thinking surnames too." Meeting her disbelieving eyes he went on gamely, "There's Fergus McKilroy who farms outside of the town, Oom Fanie, leader of the rock band and Bennie Ferreira if we're talking surnames."

The slightest shadow of doubt crossed Helga's face.

Frikkie pressed home his advantage. "There must be others too, if one takes time to think about it." He shuffled his feet. "I've a few things to buy at the hardware store and must get there before it closes. Let me know what you think of the design when you've had time to consider it." He forced himself to walk nonchalantly back to his car, fighting an impulse to run!

On reaching home and meeting Rina's questioning eyes, he prevaricated. "Helga has the quote, the other matter has been handled and I don't want to talk about it!"

Rina was tempted to push for more information but decided, with a mental shrug, that there had been enough unpleasantness between herself and Frikkie. She would soon know from Helga's attitude when they next met whether she had been placated or not, and could only hope Frikkie had been tactful with her. Tact was not one of his strong suits. Which word made her try to imagine Frikkie as a suitor of other women. It was impossible! He had been so awkwardly bashful when courting her that she had taken the initiative, else they would never have reached the altar. He also had a puritanical streak that kept him on the straight and narrow and highly disapproving of any behaviour in others that offended his sensibilities. It must be agonising for him to have given Helga the idea that he fancied her! Rina started to giggle. Her poor, innocent Frikkie taken for a lecher? The giggle turned into breathless gusts of laughter.

Meanwhile Helga Swanepoel had considered the other possible culprits suggested by Frikkie as the writer of the suggestive message and discarded all three. Fergus McKilroy was someone she hardly knew and on the few occasions they had met, his attitude to the world in general had struck her as surly and to herself in particular, as coolly uninterested. She doubted that such a steely individual was capable of any tender emotions, even to his nice little wife!

As for Oom Fanie, it was ludicrous to imagine that a man recently turned eighty, one who was suspicious of every intention and hadn't a good to word to say of anyone, would regard even the Virgin Mary with anything other than deep mistrust. He was, in any event, way beyond lusty notions, never mind carrying them out!

Bennie Ferreira was, in her opinion, one of those bland men without any sparkle. Helga suspected that his wife Elaine compensated for his lack of charisma with her sentimental streak, probably in a desire to inject a little excitement into her life. Helga was convinced that Bennie was quite happy in his cocoon and had neither the desire nor the gumption to kick over the traces!

However, musing on Frikkie's assertion that there were other men in the dorp whose names started with an F, she had come up with another, and the more she thought about it, the more likely it seemed that he was the guilty party. He certainly had the arrogance to write such an offensively suggestive note. Yes, she decided, it could only be... the Widower Francois Geldenhuys!

Helga shuddered with distaste. Creepy creature, with his obsession with the macabre! Kiss him? Kick him, more likely! Who knew what depraved practices he expected her to indulge in? Well, she would soon disabuse him of the idea that she wanted anything to do with him when they next met. So thinking, she tore "his" offensive missive into shreds and put a match to the scraps, thinking wistfully as she did so that it was a pity Frikkie had not penned it. She would, of course, never have taken him up on his offer, but it would have been flattering to think such an appealing, attractive man wanted her; something to fantasize about when she felt unloved. But the Widower Geldenhuys? Never!

The following Sunday the Widower Geldenhuys prepared himself for church. He wore the new suit he had bought in Waterfontein, teaming it with one of his trademark bow-ties. He brushed his Fedora before donning it and surveyed his appearance in the mirror, twisting to each side, making small adjustments to his clothing. Very satisfactory, he thought, reaching for his Malacca walking stick. He had no practical need of it but thought it gave him an air of distinction.

He walked the short distance to the church and instead of going straight inside as was his usual custom, stood at the top of the steps leading to the main entrance, inclining his head graciously to those who arrived after him, revelling in the appreciative looks the ladies bestowed on him. He spent a good ten minutes in this pursuit and was just about to turn to go inside when he espied a late arrival ascending the steps. It was the unattractive Swanepoel female, he noted, but he might as well give her the thrill of revelling in the sight of someone far out of her reach, poor woman!

Helga, eyes downcast, reached the top step before she saw the Widower Geldenhuys. She could hardly believe her eyes. Everyone else was already inside the church, but here he was, waiting brazenly for her to arrive! She drew herself up to her full height and strode purposefully forward. As she drew abreast of him he doffed his hat rakishly and gave her a supercilious smile.

Helga bent on him a withering look of disdain, of undisguised contempt, muttering beneath her breath "degenerate!" but which he heard as "effeminate!" The Widower Geldenhuys was so incensed that he bared his teeth in a snarl, but she sailed past with her nose in the air without giving him a second glance.

He seethed through the entire church service, telling himself that the admiring looks he'd received from so many other women more than compensated for the disapproval of a frustrated spinster. Yet try as he would, the word she had spat at him lodged itself in his consciousness. Effeminate indeed! The sad cow wouldn't know elegance if it hit her in the face!

All the same, Francois Geldenhuys spent the next few days fretting. Was it the cologne he had splashed onto his cheeks? The handkerchief tucked into his suit pocket? His cuff-links? Silk bow-tie? Fedora? He had not until then spent a second's thought on Helga Swanepoel, but could now not erase from his mind this ghastly woman he had come to detest, who had made him doubt himself!

5 comments:

  1. Frikkie and Rina are superb and they dance off the page before our very eyes. They are so believable and likeable as well, as you observe the warp and weft of their relationship and daily lives. Helga and Francois make great foils for them. I couldn't stop chuckling all the way through. Thank you so much, have a lovely Christmas and a peaceful New Year,
    Ceinwen

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  2. The two real guffaws for me were i.) the mix up with the note - funnier than ever because the mechanics of it are so clearly hinted at that the reader knows its coming, ii.) the mishearing by the widower Geldenhuys...the insult of 'degenerate' is bad enough as it is, but to mistake it for 'effeminate' takes the situation into the realms of the absurdly funny.
    An ingenious plot, with a sad figure of Frikkie. A very human story.
    Brooke

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  3. Thank you Ceinwen and Brooke for your comments. I hope you both had a great Christmas and wish you all the best for 2015, with lots of successful writing.
    Beryl

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  4. A twisted treasure chock full of hilarious misunderstandings. The first sentence had me hooked and the second sentence made me laugh. Everyone loves a good in-law story, but this developed into much more.

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    Replies
    1. Thank you, Margi. So pleased you enjoyed it. Happy New Year!
      Beryl.

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