A rumour takes on a life of its own and threatens the relationship of Bennie and Elaine Ferreira; by Beryl Ensor-Smith.
"I'm so sorry, Miems," she gasped. "My mind was miles away. I was thinking of Bennie."
Bennie, Elaine's husband, was a nice enough chap but Miems couldn't imagine why thoughts of him should have distracted Elaine to the point of carelessness. She placed her shopping bags on the ground and took a good look at the woman in front of her.
"What's the matter, Elaine? Is something wrong with Bennie?"
"Nooo. Not really." Elaine sighed. "I just wish, sometimes, that he wasn't so... predictable! It would be nice if, now and again, he would surprise me, but he's so set in his ways I can set my watch by him." She shook her head sadly. "Husbands are not what they're portrayed to be in the movies!"
Miems was at a loss as to how to reply. Did Elaine really expect her husband to live up to whatever image she had of the ideal man? Really, sometimes Elaine lived in Never-Never land!
On reaching home she was accosted by her aged mother.
"Why are you frowning Miems? You're packing the groceries in all the wrong places because you're not concentrating on what you're doing!"
"I was just thinking about Elaine and Bennie Ferreira, ma. I've just seen her and she's as much as admitted that she's bored with him."
Ma Gouws had recently had her ears syringed and her hearing had temporarily improved.
"Most women are bored with their husbands."
"Well Elaine's looking for romance!"
"With who?" demanded her mother indignantly.
"Leonardo DiCaprio, probably!"
Ma Gouws had never heard of the man. "Really? What does this fellow do?"
Miems thought of the trip she had made to Waterfontein with a friend to see the film 'Titanic'.
"He stands on the prow of a ship and sings love songs,'' she said nostalgically. Perhaps there was some excuse for Elaine after all! She had to admit that her heart had skipped a beat or two during the movie.
"Well," said her mother said reprovingly, "he doesn't sound much of a catch! She's far better off with Bennie, who is steady and reliable."
"Steady and reliable are not what Elaine wants, or at least not at the moment," Miems explained wryly. "She wants excitement and novelty and I don't altogether blame her."
"For shame, Miems! You should be telling her to keep her eyes on Bennie and not this foreign fellow.'
"He's very handsome," Miems teased.
"Handsome never put bread on the table!"
Miems laughed aloud. "Ma, he's far more likely to be eating caviar and drinking champagne than having bread and tea."
A week later it was all over the dorp that Elaine Ferreira was having an affair with a spendthrift dago entertainer on a cruise ship. Ma Gouws had told Marie Minaar, receptionist at the Welcome Inn, in the greatest confidence. Marie was the biggest gossip in Prentburg and soon broadcast the news.
Among the few who were unaware of the rumour was Elaine herself. It certainly reached the ears of Bennie, who overheard two women ahead of him in the queue at the bank discussing it. He was so astounded he made straight for the sports club and whatever friends might be there to console him. As he walked into the bar, he saw from their faces that they had already heard. David Klopper, Hans du Plessis and Frikkie van Wyk glanced at him, then quickly averted their gaze.
"You've heard," he said miserably, climbing onto a barstool next to Hans and staring at the row of bottles against the mirror. "I can't believe it! Not Elaine."
"Have a drink on me. Order what you like," Hans invited recklessly. He shook his head. "It's the ones you least expect to stray who kick you in the... the teeth," he amended hastily.
"Come on," Frikkie muttered, "it's doubtless a gross exaggeration. She probably just smiled at a bloke in passing and one of those suspicious church sisters put their own interpretation on it. They're a bunch of mischief-makers!"
"I didn't hear it from one of them," Bennie downed in one gulp half the contents of the whiskey Alf, the barman, placed in front of him, "and she has seemed very preoccupied lately!"
Hans snorted. "That's a bad sign! When Christina looks preoccupied I know I'm in trouble."
David Klopper spoke up. "Have you talked to Elaine about this? Frikkie's right. Without evidence you can't believe everything you hear."
"I've caught her looking at me almost sorrowfully," Bennie admitted reluctantly, "there's your evidence, a guilty conscience! But I've only just learned about... about her..." he couldn't bring himself to say the word 'betrayal'. "I don't want to lose her," he said brokenly. "She's the love of my life. We met in high school." He turned away, grabbed a paper serviette from a stack on the bar and blew his nose noisily, earning a censorious glare from Alf.
"Steady on!" he snapped, snatching the serviettes and placing them at the far end of the bar, "those are for people ordering food! You going to order something to eat? I thought not. Klaus makes me account for every cent since he became club manager," he grumbled, "and I can't have you using the serviettes to wipe your nose!"
"But where did she meet the chap?" Hans continued, ignoring the interruption. "If he's part of the entertainment staff on a ship he's probably at sea most of the time, and Prentburg's a hell of a distance from any of the ports." He shrugged in mystification. "This is also not the kind of place people come to on holiday."
"People visit family from time to time," David reflected.
"That's true, and didn't you and Elaine holiday in Durban recently?" Hans turned to Bennie.
"A few months back," he agreed, "We also took a stroll around the harbour," he added thoughtfully. "I like looking at the cranes loading the container ships."
"There you go then! This bloke and Elaine must have eyed one another and somehow made contact. He probably slipped her his 'phone number."
Bennie grew indignant. "Elaine's not the kind of woman who would pick up a stranger!"
By then Frikkie was wriggling uncomfortably on his stool. He was finding the conversation unpleasantly suggestive and decided it was time to leave. In his book a man did not discuss his wife's wandering eye with his friends - or anyone else for that matter. He left the last of his beer untouched and departed abruptly. He liked Elaine, thinking her one of the more amiable woman of the sisterhood. Apparently she was no more trustworthy than the worst of them, he decided regretfully, walking home.
By the time the other three pushed back their barstools and made for the door, Bennie's head was spinning as he had stopped counting his drinks after the second round. He was not normally a heavy drinker. David insisted on driving him home despite his weak protests.
"You can't drive in that state! I'll fetch you tomorrow and we'll come back for your car."
When Bennie got home and Elaine saw him slack-faced and unsteady on his feet, she made her annoyance clear.
"Save your excuses," she told him crossly.
Bennie wisely decided this was not the time to accuse her of being unfaithful and fell into bed fully clothed. Later Elaine climbed in beside him, wondering what had got into him. She had wanted Bennie to surprise her, but definitely not this way!
In the morning, David arrived to fetch Bennie and when Elaine opened the front door to him, could not look her in the eye. Surely a woman who seemed as carefree as Elaine could not be a cheat?
"Hi," he managed. "Bennie up yet? I'm driving him to the club to fetch his car."
Elaine was bewildered by his deliberately gazing anywhere but at her. Did she look that bad these days? She resolved to make more of an effort with her appearance. A visit to Ntebo's beauty salon was obviously overdue!
Bennie and David drove in silence for part of the way. Bennie broke it by saying:
"Hans's suggestion yesterday about Elaine meeting this cretin in the Durban docks was absurd! The only people around were stevedores, not smarmy entertainers."
"Totally," David agreed. "You know better than to take any notice of what he says. He has butter for brains!"
"However," Bennie took a deep breath, "what you said about people visiting Prentburg to see family? There's that Italian family, Faranelli. They'd no doubt qualify as being 'dagos' in some folks' minds," he added bitterly. "They also sing. Remember our concert? A whole bunch of them sang their hearts out, and all lighter stuff like love songs." (He was not to know that they had been told to avoid opera arias as Christina du Plessis would be singing some.)
"Now don't go jumping to conclusions," David warned hastily. "Listen, Bennie, you say you don't want to lose Elaine? My advice is to sit out whatever is going on with her. Even if there is a Faranelli connection, how long could it last with the singing wop cruising the ocean and Elaine here? Some affair, where there's little or no physical contact! Forget it, man; it's probably all in her mind and will stay there unless you stir things up."
"I have to know," Bennie fretted. "I need to find out who comes here to spend time with the Faranellis, and..." his eyes brightening, "I know just the person who can tell me! She's friendly with everyone in the village."
Miems had been confined to bed with flu. When she was next able to attend a meeting of the church sisters, she became aware, for the first time, of the rumours circulating about Elaine, who had taken herself off to the beauty parlour instead of attending the gathering. The sisters were in the midst of an argument.
"This is proof of her guilt," Christina du Plessis said cattily. "To excuse herself on the grounds of needing to have a make-over says it all! Who's she doing it for? I bet not Bennie!"
"Why not?" Suzie Lamprecht challenged. "A woman likes to look good for her man."
Christina looked triumphant. "The question is, which man? Her boring husband or her exciting lover?"
"How do you know he's exciting?" Helga entered the fray. "Anyway, he's not here, so it must be to please Bennie."
"Who says?" Suzie suddenly changed sides. "Her romantic stranger could be waiting for her somewhere. Perhaps at the Welcome Inn," she added wistfully.
"Of course he's exciting," Christina glared at Helga. "He sings, doesn't he? A man with musical talent is a vast improvement on Bennie, whose idea of culture probably doesn't go beyond watching a TV drama!"
"Well, he's not very happy at the moment," Sarie Blignault said so softly they had to strain to hear her. "He looks miserable and has been saying funny things."
"What kind of things?" Christina demanded.
"Well, we chatted after church last Sunday and got onto the subject of Fiorella's family. Fiorella Faranelli. They performed at Jan Badenhorst's concert last year? Bennie wanted to know if relatives visiting them were also talented. I said only Cousin Marco, and Bennie got interested and asked what he did." Sarie looked pensive. "I told him Cousin Marco is a bareback horse rider in a circus and he looked awfully disappointed. When I asked why, he got flustered and mumbled something about it always being his dream to perform on the high wire."
"Bennie Ferreira?" Helga queried, her voice rising in patent disbelief. "On the high wire?"
"Do you think that now he's discovered Elaine's got a lover, he's planning on joining a circus and fulfilling his lifelong dream?" Suzie asked hopefully.
"You're all barking mad," Mrs Merton snorted. "Bennie Ferreira a funambulist? Ridiculous!"
"A what?" Suzie queried in an aside to Marion, who looked at her doubtfully. She shrugged.
"I think it means sleepwalking."
Suzie's eyes grew enormous. "Bennie aims to walk the high wire while he's asleep?"
Mrs Merton's raspy voice overrode their whispers. "I don't for one moment believe that Elaine is being unfaithful or that Bennie will be entertaining us on the high wire in this lifetime or any other! Neither of the two is that adventurous."
The meeting disintegrated into chaos. Miems, who had listened to the exchange in growing dismay, slipped away. On reaching home she sought out her mother who was in the kitchen sipping tea.
"You're responsible for this latest piece of gossip, aren't you?" Miems accused hotly.
"What gossip is that?" Ma Gouws prevaricated, quickly marshalling her thoughts.
"Ma, you know darned well! I told you the other day that Elaine seemed bored with Bennie and suddenly now she's having an affair with a foreign singer on a ship? Too much of a coincidence, wouldn't you say, for it to have come from anyone but you!"
"On the contrary, it was your lips that said she was looking for romance with an Italian playboy called Leo," was her spirited retort.
"For heaven's sakes, ma," Miems said despairingly, "Leonardo DiCaprio is an actor in Hollywood! You've got it all wrong again, and now there's talk of Bennie Ferreira being so depressed he's going to join the circus as a high-wire artiste. He probably intends hurling himself to the ground to end it all! Now," she added crossly, "I'll have to visit Elaine and try to conjure up an excuse for your loose tongue!"
Looking at her daughter's set face, Ma Gouws decided this would be a good moment to opt out of the conversation.
"Miems," she said, feigning dismay and capping her right ear with her palm, "I've gone stone deaf again! I'm feeling dizzy and am going to lie down for a while."
Elaine came home from the beauty salon feeling well-groomed and confident of a positive response from Bennie, who noticed such things and was always complimentary. This time, however, he stared at her with... disillusionment; she was sure of it!
She was right in her assessment, but wrong about the reason. Bennie took one look at his exceptionally pretty wife, all done up to the nines, and was sure her lover must be back in town and all this effort was for his benefit. Elaine did not normally go to so much trouble even when visiting the beauty salon, yet clearly she had not only had her hair and nails done but had this time had her face done too! Without a word he turned on his heel, walked out the back door to his car parked in the driveway and drove off, not knowing where he was going.
Elaine spent the next half-hour tearfully trying to fathom what had caused Bennie's negative reaction. Was it that she was no longer attractive despite Ntebo's best efforts? Was he fed up with her for being impatient and unappreciative of him this past week? Oh, how she regretted wishing he would surprise her by being less complacent, and what wouldn't she give to have the old Bennie back; her best friend and staunchest supporter! She was still lost in self-recrimination when Miems arrived.
She took one look at Elaine's face and was thankful she had come.
"Listen, Elaine, there's been a big misunderstanding doing the rounds. I've only just found out about it because, as you know, I've been ill. My mother owes you and Bennie an apology as she accidentally set it in motion."
Seeing how upset Miems was, Elaine pulled herself together, curiosity getting the better of her and invited Miems inside, leading the way to the sitting room.
"Please have a seat, Miems. What misunderstanding are you talking about?"
Miems sat on the edge of an upright chair. "Well," she said reluctantly, trying to minimise her mother's culpability, "as you know, my ma's hearing is pretty poor and she sometimes gets hold of the wrong end of things."
The understatement of the year, Elaine felt like saying, but refrained from comment.
Miems ploughed gamely on. "Someone said something that ma misunderstood and she unfortunately told someone else in confidence."
Gossiping old trout! Elaine again suppressed her thoughts.
"Well, it got passed from one person to another and it is now believed, only by those who do not know you well of course..." Miems took a deep breath and said in a rush, "that you are having a romantic liaison with an entertainer on a ship and that as a consequence of his heartbreak on learning this, your Bennie is planning on joining the circus. Oh, Elaine, I'm so very sorry!"
Elaine blinked while trying to assimilate what she had just heard. "I'm having it off with a... a..."
"Singer," Miems provided, "he sings love songs."
"On a ship?" Elaine was totally bamboozled. "How am I supposed to hear them from here?"
Not for the first time Miems reflected that while Elaine had been blessed with exceptional good looks, the same could not be said of her brains. "The story is that you meet from time to time."
Elaine had, however, moved on to the second part of Miems' explanation. "Bennie's going to join the circus because this singer has the hots for me?"
This was becoming a real nightmare! Elaine's thoughts were inclined to take off like birds in flight, losing all touch with reality. Miems tried again.
"That's what's being said, but just as you are not really involved with the Italian entertainer, Benny has no real intention of walking the high wire. It's all just rumour, Elaine."
Again Elaine took in only part of what Miems had said. "The high wire?" she gasped. "He'll kill himself; his balance is terrible. He falls off the small kitchen ladder every time I need something from the top cupboard!"
Miems gave up. She had tried to put the record straight. "It's just talk," she said helplessly.
"Yes, I'll talk him out of it. Thanks for letting me know Miems. He's been acting pretty strangely and now I know why! The circus? What's he thinking?"
"That you're unfaithful! Goodbye, Elaine."
When Bennie returned from driving around the countryside aimlessly, he was met by an emotional Elaine who flung her arms around him.
"Bennie, I don't know what you've heard about the singer but I promise you I knew nothing about it! Miems has just told me. I certainly wasn't having it off with him and didn't even know he had a crush on me. Who is he?" she was clearly bewildered. "I can't remember even meeting him!"
The relief was so overwhelming that Bennie was incapable of replying. He hugged Elaine fiercely. While driving round he had done some serious thinking. He had got into a comfortable rut and stopped considering Elaine's needs. He would be less selfish in future and take her into Waterfontein to the theatre and concerts... as long as none featured singers of love songs! He told her of his decision, his cheek against hers.
Elaine too, had done some thinking. She would never again wish Bennie to change in any way. She loved him just the way he was and had just needed a bit of reminding!
"Bennie," she implored, "Please don't ever consider the circus; it's far too dangerous! Promise me you'll never think along those lines even if we quarrel."
Mildly surprised, he replied contentedly, "OK. We'll stick to going to concerts and plays. I know you like that kind of thing and we'll do more of it in future, but no circus, I promise."
The church sisters were quick to notice the difference in the Ferreira relationship.
"They're all lovey-dovey and smoochie-woochie these days," Christina said contemptuously. "I suppose Elaine's found a long-distance relationship too difficult to maintain, even with someone with a bit of class!"
"I suppose this means we won't be seeing Bennie in tights leaping along the high wire while sleeping? He's likely given up all thoughts of joining the circus," Suzie sighed regretfully.
The church sisters looked at her blankly while Marion replied kindly, "It wouldn't have been much of a turn-on, Suzie. Exercise and Bennie are not well acquainted and he hasn't got the body of a Chippendale. His is better covered up!"
"A lucky escape," Mrs Merton chimed mockingly. "Whatever it was that caused their upset has obviously been resolved. It's a relief to see them both looking happy again," she added grudgingly.
A relief indeed, Miems agreed with silent gratitude. She had tossed and turned at night since getting nowhere with Elaine, wondering what else she could do to put matters right with the Ferreiras.
Her mother had been very subdued since their outburst and Miems could only hope that she had learned her lesson and would refrain from gossiping in future. Fat chance, she admitted in resignation. Old habits die hard and she'd be foolish to expect her pig-headed, much loved mother to desist from thumbing her nose at the ills of old age by resorting to whatever means of distraction came her way!