"Christina will soon be bossing everyone around again," Marion Klopper moaned on bumping into some of the local ladies in the new minimarket. "We won't be able to call our souls our own."
"Perhaps she's changed," comforted the soft-hearted Sarie Blignault. "After all, three months is a long time and seeing all those wonderful places must have had a positive effect on her."
"Leopards don't change their spots!" barked that snide old battle-axe, Mrs Merton. Certainly in her case age had not had a softening effect, the other two thought regretfully. You'd think that, nearly ninety, she'd have mellowed, but...
"Christina will return as bumptious as she left, you mark my words!" and Mrs Merton threw two tins of cat food into the trolley with such force that they dented her loaf of bread. Annoyingly, as usual, she was proved right.
A week later when the Sisters of the Church were busy with their charity handwork, all grouped around the long table in the hall, who should appear in the doorway but Christina herself, larger than life.
"Sisters!" she shrieked, opening her arms wide in a collective embrace. Were they expected to leap up to be smothered by those layers of fat? Elaine Ferreira wondered sourly. Since leaving on holiday Christina had certainly put on weight but she was, as always, immaculately turned out. Surely that was a silk dress she was wearing and the double string of pearls around the plump neck real?
There was a collective murmur from the group that could have been taken as a greeting. Helga Swanepoel, who thought of herself as a shining example of goodness and mercy, managed to produce a false smile.
"How nice to see you again," she said weakly. "Do sit down."
Seeming totally oblivious of the lukewarm response to her dramatic reappearance, Christina forced a chair between Miems Gouws and Sarie Blignault, squashing poor Sarie right up against the wall in order to dump her handwork bag next to that of Miems, muttering that she wanted to keep it in full view as there was so much crime around. Who on God's earth did she expect to steal it? Marion Klopper wondered. One of them perhaps, because no self-respecting thief would want anything made by the skill-challenged Christina. They all remembered the pair of gloves that had been her last contribution before she had left. No two fingers pointed in the same direction!
Christina beamed at the wary faces around the table.
"Together again! I've missed all of you, although of course Europe has so much of interest to offer by way of culture." For the next hour she regaled the bored group with tales of all the plays and concerts she and Hans had attended whilst away. If it was so marvellous why not emigrate? Elsie Fourie was tempted to ask, but never got the chance.
At least, thought Elaine Ferreira listening to the shrill voice rambling on, it was a change from hearing Miems Gouws fret about her duties as a church deacon. If she wasn't worrying about the flower arrangements, it was the state of the church silver or the hymn books. Always something, and from the anxious frown on her face, even now she wasn't hearing a word said by Christina but was again mentally gnawing away at some non-existent problem. As if to confirm Elaine's musings, Miems broke into Christina's discourse.
"I know it's disappearing."
In answer to the blank looks bent on her, she continued defensively "The communion wine. There's less than there should be. Someone's been drinking it and I'll have to start locking it away. I think I'd better do it now while it's in my mind." She rooted around in her handwork bag and emerged with a ring of keys.
"Excuse me," she muttered and before anyone could say a word, scuttled off like a startled rabbit.
"Well!" said Christina affronted. Then, "that confirms what I said earlier about crime being on the increase; but communion wine?"
They all pondered the unlikelihood of anyone developing a craving for the cloyingly sweet wine that coated the inside of their mouths unpleasantly, long after the last hymn had been sung.
"Perhaps it was a tramp?" Sarie suggested doubtfully.
"A tramp my eye! It's just another of Miems' delusions. She's nearly as daft as her mother," Mrs Merton snorted derisively.
The other 'sisters' bridled. With her sharp tongue, their oldest member often annoyed them. Ma Gouws might be a little eccentric insisting on using an old-fashioned ear horn to counter her deafness rather than a modern hearing aid, but she was convinced she would be electrocuted and that was that. No amount of trying to explain AC and DC currents made a scrap of difference. This idiosyncrasy had its disadvantages as she not only misheard much of what was going on, but when she played the organ at services, the horn had to rest on the chair beside her which meant that she was unaware of the many wrong notes she played. By now the congregation had got used to it and there really was no call for Mrs Merton to be so foul about one of her own contemporaries.
Christina decided it was time attention became focused on herself again and got back onto her hobby-horse of the importance of culture, finally coming up with the suggestion that they should hold a music soiree in the town hall.
"I hope you're not going to suggest that Willie Slabbert plays the 'cello? The locals wouldn't be able to relate to seeing Willie, of whom they thoroughly disapprove, looking all soulful bowing away at the classics!" Helga reproved.
"I had no such thing in mind!" Christina was annoyed, "besides, as you well know, he no longer plays."
"And a damned good thing too, the terrible noise he made on it." Mrs Merton really was at her most obnoxious. (It was her English blood coming out, Elaine Ferreira thought condescendingly. Although the old biddy had lived in the dorp most of her life and been assimilated into its language and life-style, that hard streak in her was surely the result of her English genes?)
Ignoring the interruption, Christina said with mounting enthusiasm,
"I would be willing to sing one of my opera arias at our soiree."
To a woman, they looked at her with mounting horror, well remembering past occasions on which she had sung in a voice of little musicality, great volume and uncontrolled vibrato.
"I don't think Prentburg is quite ready for that kind of thing," Marion Klopper said hastily. "The tastes of the dorp volk are, as you know, rather unsophisticated."
"All the more reason to try to educate them!"
"It would be a complete waste of time." Mrs. Merton said flatly, thankfully putting an end to such an outrageous proposal.
At this point Miems returned to the room with a muttered apology, sat down and dropped the bunch of church keys into her bag. Or she thought she dropped them into her bag, but they landed in Christina's instead.
It was a week later that Hans du Plessis attended a council meeting held at the local sports club. It wasn't that he was especially civic minded. If the truth be told, most of what went on at such meetings was Greek to him, but he felt that attending such meetings was an obligation for those like himself who had once held senior positions of trust in the dorp. He also liked the thought of seeing his name in the minutes as he always tried to come up with a quote from the classics that sounded pertinent even if it didn't really apply.
Quite apart from those sound reasons, there was another. His wife Christina was very loath to let him socialise at the sports club these days as she said the members were a bad influence on him and encouraged him to drink. Hans didn't need any encouragement. If anything, it was he who persuaded the others to down more than they should, the result being that the club was no longer popular with any of the wives. Christina therefore felt quite justified in limiting the time he spent there, even when he played a round of golf.
"You be home by six or else!" she would say thunderously, drawing herself up to her full height and anyone would tell you that when Christina was on the warpath she was a force to be reckoned with!
But a council meeting was something different... it was respectable through and through and how would Christina know when it ended? Some of those meetings went on for hours, but not the ones chaired by the councillor for this district, an attractive blonde named Brenda Dixon who came all the way from Slangstroom. She was ruthlessly efficient and kept strictly to items on the agenda, allowing no vague ruminations to enter the proceedings. This was a disappointment to those who liked to hear their own voices but of great satisfaction to Hans and his ilk who could enjoy the bar facilities once the meeting ended.
He was in a very cheerful frame of mind when he set out for the meeting and a near-comatose one when he returned home after midnight, still having the presence of mind to enter by the French doors at the side of the house as the front door creaked and he did not wish to arouse the sleeping monster.
Unfortunately he was very unsteady on his feet and cannoned into the small table on which reposed Christina's handwork bag, sending it to the floor with all its contents scattered. Luckily for him the room was thickly carpeted, so there was little noise. Hans got to his knees and scrabbled around the floor but after a while could not remember what he was doing there, suddenly feeling very dizzy.
The next thing he knew it was broad daylight and his wife was towering over him, a pillar of quivering fury in a green towelling dressing gown. She had collected the bits and pieces that had fallen out of her bag and now set about clobbering Hans over the head with it, which was a very uncomfortable business as it contained knitting needles and other nasty things that could leave a man maimed for life.
"You drunken pig of a dog, get up!"
Bloodshot eyes bulging, Hans tried to oblige and managed to pull himself into a sitting position. He held his throbbing head while his wife continued to rage at him.
Her last comment before storming out of the room was, "You reek of alcohol! Get yourself cleaned up and," aiming a kick at a bunch of keys that landed in his lap, "you'd better put these away before you lose them."
Hans sat staring at the keys in bewilderment; one big key with three prongs and two smaller ones. This was not his bunch. He managed to get to his feet and staggered to the French doors. His keys were on the outside, still hanging from the keyhole. Who then, did this lot belong to? Certainly not Christina, as she had not recognised them. Who, then?
The questioned plagued him throughout the time it took to bathe and eat some breakfast. (He had to make his own. Christina had dressed and driven off in high dudgeon to a destination unknown to him; probably to her friend Hilda van Dyk, the recipient of most of her complaints.)
Hans finally decided the keys must belong to someone who had been at the club last night, which shouldn't be too difficult to work out as there had been very few people attending the meeting and they had all sat together round one of the tables. It had to be someone sitting near him.
He racked his brains to remember who had been on his left. To his right had been the young blonde councillor, Mrs Dixon, an unyielding woman who had glared at him when his leg accidentally touched hers. She scared the hell out of him. What a waste, an attractive woman like that, so cold and unfriendly! To his left... yes, it had been Benny Ferreira and they had drunk together in the bar afterwards with Frikkie van Wyk and Koos Venter.
He remembered seeing Frikkie leave with a bunch of keys in his hand and Koos, owner of a supply store in the village, was known to have an enormous ring of keys which he clipped to a belt around his waist. So that left Benny and the councillor.
Hans said a quick prayer that the keys belonged to Benny and wasted no time phoning him. After a few pleasantries, Hans broached the subject in a round-about manner as he did not want to make a fool of himself.
"Tell me, Benny, did you perhaps leave anything at the club last night?"
"Not that I know of," Benny replied. "I didn't take much, only my wallet and apart from it being much lighter this morning, I still have it."
Hans cleared his throat noisily. "Er... how did you get home, and how did you get into your house?"
Benny hid his astonishment as best he could. "I drove my car and got into the house the usual way, by unlocking the door! What's this all about?"
Hans chose to ignore the question. "You're sure you're not missing anything?"
"Not a thing." (But you are, mate. Half of your mind!)
"Ah, I must have misheard. I thought I heard Alf behind the bar say someone had forgotten something."
Benny felt uneasy after the phone call. That Hans should talk in circles was nothing new, one of the reasons some people avoided him, but now he had Benny wondering if he had perhaps left something at the club. He called in later and spoke to Alf who flatly denied saying anything of the kind.
"Hans was three sheets to the wind long before I could get him out of here. He didn't know if he was Arthur or Martha by the time he left and if anyone's forgotten anything, it's him. He's forgotten he has a brain or how to use it!"
The two stared at one another in perplexity and Benny thought, not for the first time, that Hans du Plessis, though likeable, was an unfathomable enigma.
As for Hans, he now had to face the unpalatable fact that the keys belonged to Mrs Dixon. She had mentioned that she was staying at the Welcome Inn as she had another meeting scheduled this morning with the squatters from the banks of the vlei, who were demanding formal housing. How was Hans to explain to her that he had walked off with her keys? She would probably think he'd done it deliberately in order to be alone with her. (The look she had given him when his knee had touched hers!) No, he decided grimly, he would not be returning the keys to Mrs Brenda Dixon. He would, instead, throw them into the vlei after this morning's bible study session which Christina had signed up for him to attend, even though he would far rather have given that kind of thing a big miss.
As bible study proceeded, Hans became more and more uncomfortable. Piet Meyer, the presenter, had chosen for today, to analyse the ten commandments and it seemed to Hans that Piet deliberately spent more time on the eighth commandment condemning stealing than on any other. It also seemed to Hans that Piet kept trying to catch his eye during the discussion of this commandment, which was really quite ridiculous as not only did Piet know nothing about the keys in Hans's possession, but he, Hans, had not deliberately taken them, so he was in no sense of the word a thief.
Nevertheless guilt weighed heavily on him and he decided that he really had to make some attempt to return them to their rightful owner. When bible study ended he sat in his car and gave the problem serious thought. He could return them to the receptionist of the Welcome Inn, Marie Minaar, with some excuse, but she knew who he was and would inform Mrs Dixon, so that was out of the question! On no account did he wish the councillor to know he had taken them.
Hans sighed heavily, looking at the offensive keys. They didn't even have a tag indicating the room number, but that was no surprise as the Welcome Inn was a fleabag of a place that didn't even deserve the one star rating it had been given. He brightened suddenly as the thought struck him that Brenda Dixon would surely still be at her meeting with the squatters. He would phone the hotel and enquire in a disguised voice as to whether she was in and obtain her room number, then make his way there unobtrusively and stick the keys in the keyhole of her door. The big one was surely the door key, the other two smaller keys probably being for the wardrobe.
While his courage was still high, Hans stopped at a public telephone booth and carried out the first part of his plan, which went successfully. He learned that Mrs Dixon had not yet returned and was staying in room 11 on the first floor, fronting the main road, which was all to the good as it meant he could get there via the fire-escape at the back of the building, so circumventing the front reception desk.
This part of the plan would have gone well too, but for one thing. Despite the care he took to peer around the corner to ensure the route was clear, and despite the fact that he crept stealthily along the covered passageway exposed to the street, just as he was about to put the key into the door of Brenda Dixon's room he felt that he was being watched. He peered over his shoulder and saw that on the opposite side of the street, Helga Swanepoel was standing in front of the Pet's Parlour with her spoilt poodle Bianca clasped in her arms, watching him in astonishment.
In his fright he acted purely on impulse, fleeing the scene the same way he had come and it was only once he was safely back in his car that he realised he still held the cursed keys. Dared he hope that Helga would forget what she had seen, or make no sense of it? This may well have happened, but here too, Hans's luck ran out.
The following Sunday when the congregation was having tea in the church courtyard after the service, Rina van Wyk observed to the ladies standing near her:
"Hans du Plessis looks decidedly unwell today. He couldn't keep still in church and look how he keeps mopping his face with his hanky."
They all glanced across at Hans who was standing next to Christina while she shrieked into the earhorn of old Ma Gouws. Hans was fiddling with his tie when he caught sight of them staring at him, gave a nervous start and turned his head quickly away.
"Now that," said Marion Klopper, "is the action of a guilty man if ever I saw one."
Helga Swanepoel began to look thoughtful.
"How unkind!" Sarie protested. "Poor Hans just looks sick!"
Elaine Ferreira also began to look thoughtful.
"Hans has always had a shifty look," Mrs Merton rasped, ignoring Sarie, "so what's new?"
"I think Marion may be right," from Elaine. "Benny says Hans has been acting very strangely lately."
"Hans is very strange!" Mrs Merton again.
"Yes, but I mean really, really strange. Benny says Hans phoned him and asked a lot of daft questions and then told a pointless lie about Alf the barman."
"Well he's had plenty of practise, being married to Christina, although no doubt he calls them excuses, not lies." Marion Klopper this time.
"He's just ill, that's all," Sarie said miserably.
"Actually that's not all! Marion's right, Hans has definitely been up to something," Helga leaned towards them and told them about Hans's furtive behaviour at the Welcome Inn.
"Sisters, if you could have seen him! He was just about to put a key in the door when he saw me and jumped a foot into the air. Who do you suppose he could have been visiting?"
It didn't take much to find out. Just an innocent enquiry from Elaine to the Marie Minaar as to who had been on that floor on Tuesday last.
"Only two people," she confirmed. "The tractor salesman booked out right after breakfast. That lady councillor left after lunch. I remember because she said she was quite exhausted and wasn't looking forward to the long drive back to Slangstroom."
I'll bet she was exhausted, Elaine thought disgustedly, after her carryings-on with Hans, and she would have been even more exhausted if Helga had not put a stop to yet another furtive frolic among the sheets. For shame, Hans du Plessis!
She spent the next half-hour spreading the news to the other 'sisters'. It was received with a pleasing amount of shock and dismay by all except Mrs Merton.
"You can't really believe that an attractive woman like Mrs Dixon would take up with a slug like Hans? Wake up and smell the roses, Elaine!"
Elaine was not going to be put off by the doubts of that senile old misery, for it was clear that Brenda Dixon must have given Hans the key to her door. How else could he have got it?
"We have to do something," she told the other 'sisters', "before Christina finds out. She'll murder him!"
In the end, they resorted to two strategies. First of all they put a notice on the sports club bulletin board which seemed a safe option as Christina would never see it and all of the men frequenting the club would. It read:
To Whom It May Concern... we know who you are and what you're up to. Stop your lecherous ways, or else face the consequences!
'Sisters of the Church.'
Frikkie van Wyk was the first to see it. "Come and read this," he called to Hans who had snuck in for a quick beer while Christina was grocery shopping. "Some of those women are pure poison," he added, shaking his head, "and the rest are raving mad!"
Hans read the notice listlessly. It was comforting to think that some other poor sod had an even bigger problem than his own. What Helga had made of his visit to the hotel he didn't know, but that she was suspicious was very clear. Whenever she saw him she lifted an index finger and waggled it from side to side in a 'no' movement.
Which reminded him that he still had the evidence of his misdemeanour, the keys, in the pocket of his brown jacket. He really had to get shot of them. On his way home the answer came to him. It was really very simple. He didn't have to risk being seen throwing them into the vlei; he could post them back to the Welcome Inn. Why on earth hadn't he thought of it before? Hans sagged with relief, then remembered to suck a peppermint so that Christina wouldn't be able to smell beer on his breath.
The second strategy resorted to by the 'sisters' was a bit more taxing (embarrassing really) and it was finally decided that Sarie was the best person to tackle this. She protested vigorously but to no avail; the other women finally wore her down.
Leon Markovitz, local pharmacist, was very surprised when Sarie lent over the counter and whispered that she needed something to quell sexual appetite. Did he have anything? Perhaps, he replied.
"Just how, er, strong are these desires?'
"Very strong, quite uncontrollable" she replied earnestly, and crept away with the unmarked packet of blue pills, leaving him scratching his head. Of all the women in the dorp she was the last he would have suspected of such urges!
Sarie then visited Christina and nervously handed her the pills.
"We've all noticed that Hans hasn't seemed well lately and while I'm sure you've been dosing him (Christina hadn't noticed anything amiss with Hans), this is a really good tonic. It will calm him down," she parroted, having been well coached. "The anxiety, you know?"
Christina didn't know, but now she came to think of it, Hans had been rather restless and lacking in concentration lately.
"One pill in the morning and another at night, that's the dose."
Christina closed the door on the hastily departing Sarie, thinking that it was a bit of a cheek, but no doubt kindly meant. The 'sisters' sometimes over-reached themselves, but it would do Hans no harm to take a tonic. He could start taking the pills that very night.
Sarie reported to the sisterhood that her mission had been accomplished. They expressed great satisfaction and each spent an enjoyable minute visualising a calm and controlled Hans du Plessis, all sexual heat drained from him. The only one who had any doubts about the wisdom of their action was Rina van Wyk, for it suddenly occurred to her that this meant Hans would also be unable to have sex with Christina! The thought made her clap a dismayed hand to her mouth ... but it was now too late to anything about that, so she decided not to mention it to any of the others.
Marie Minaar, hotel receptionist, was totally at a loss when she opened the padded envelope that arrived in the mail, finding only a ring of keys within its depths. She looked inside the envelope for a note, but there wasn't one. She stared in perplexity at the keys, never having seen them before. Perhaps someone was meant to collect them from her? She left them on the desk in full view of any visitors and went into the back office to see to some paperwork.
It was while she was there that Miems Gouws called round with the week's supply of eggs produced by her hens, which the hotel bought from her. She was just about to ring the bell to summons Marie when her eye fell on the bunch of keys. Her mouth dropped open in astonishment while her mind worked overtime. She had turned her house upside down looking for those keys and here they were!
"Well!" she breathed, dumped the eggs on the counter, grabbed the keys and made for the hotel entrance. She now knew who had been at the communion wine. A woman who professed to be a teetotaller, but who wasn't above stealing the church keys to get at it!
It was only later that she felt pity for such a lost soul and decided that in her responsible position as a church deacon, it was her Christian duty to overlook this weakness, to say nothing, and to remove all temptation by taking better care of the church keys in future.
She nevertheless spent many a sleepless night trying to work out exactly when and where Marie had found an opportunity to filch them but was quite unable to come up with an answer!