Prentburg's Sisters of the Church notice that Christina du Plessis is feeling abandoned by her newly married best friend, and they try to make things right; by Beryl Ensor-Smith.
"What's up, Hans?" Bennie Ferreira queried, "you're not your usual self."
"Neither is Christina," Hans replied hollowly. "That's the problem. She's moping. She's pining, and I don't know how to handle her."
His friends lining the bar tried to imagine a moping Christina, which was difficult. Obnoxious, yes; bossy, yes; bloody-minded without doubt, but pining?
"What's her problem?" David Klopper asked, trying to dredge up some kindness, as while he had little time for Christina, he liked well-meaning Hans.
Hans looked up and was warmed by the concern he saw in the faces round him. He knew it was not for Christina but for himself, and needed to win some sympathy for his awkward wife.
"Christina doesn't make friends easily," he explained. All present nodded in agreement as they considered it a miracle that she had any at all! Hans read their expressions correctly.
"People don't understand Christina," he said defensively. "They see only her faults and none of her virtues."
"Which are?" Frikkie van Wyk queried brusquely, tact not being one of his.
"She's a fighter, is Christina. When I met her she was a real fire-brand, and even now, she can put up one hell of a fight for a cause she believes in." He should know. She had dragged him into many an escapade he'd rather have avoided! "She rises above difficulties, does Christina, but not this time. She's been crushed by her friend Hilda's marriage to Klaus. She feels neglected and depressed."
David could imagine that a depressed Christina must be the pits! Even at her best she was a handful.
"You should get her to Dr Ismail," he suggested. "He'll prescribe something for her."
Christina wasn't interested in seeing Dr Ismail. All she was interested in was having Klaus disappear so that she could regain the companionship of her friend Hilda, but the wretched man had settled into marriage and life in Prentburg very contentedly. She had hoped that he would feel caged and do a runner, but he seemed genuinely fond of Hilda and she clearly adored him, lavishing time and attention on him. The time and attention that had previously been hers! Christina felt helpless and miserable, beyond even trying to exact revenge. In any event, hurting Klaus meant hurting Hilda and she did not want to do that. Hilda had been a good and loyal friend. A good and loyal friend who no longer had time for her, Christina! She did not know what to do with the anger and betrayal she felt and became sad and listless.
Her distress did not go unnoticed by the Sisters of the Church. They were also fully aware what was causing it, but at a loss as to how to alleviate her hurt.
"We could try talking to Hilda," Marion Klopper suggested.
"Which of us is that brave? She'd take it as criticism," Miems Gouws objected, "or think we were interfering where we shouldn't. It's not wise to make an enemy of Hilda!"
"She'd certainly take umbrage at the inference that she was short-changing Christina," Mrs Merton agreed, "and it's perfectly natural for a newly-wed woman to lavish attention on her husband and expect her best friend to understand that her priorities have changed."
"Perhaps, but meanwhile we're faced with the problem of trying to cheer Christina up!" Helga Swanepoel complained.
"Well, putting on weight isn't going to do it and ever since she's been displaced by Klaus she's been gorging herself on cakes and the like," Marion said, "which she can ill-afford, being plump already." Nods of agreement all round.
"Sisters, we have to try, somehow, to help her get over her disappointment. We'll start by thinking up a healthy-living programme, getting her to exercise and eat properly. Her looks will improve and she'll feel fitter. Surely that will give her the motivation to... to buck up!" Helga sounded as dubious as she felt.
"And good luck to you with that!" Mrs Merton retorted sourly. "Just how do you hope to get her to agree to your austerity programme?"
"We'll have to resort to guile," Marion said thoughtfully. "Ideas, please?"
The following day Christina was obliged to move from the couch onto which she had, with difficulty, managed to heave her fat legs and bare feet and lie stretched out watching a gecko meander across the living room ceiling. When the doorbell rang she filled her lungs preparatory to yelling for Hans to see who was there when she remembered he had gone to buy groceries. She had lost all interest in stocking up on anything but comfort food.
Muttering to herself she made her way to the door, which opened onto the falsely bright faces of the more agile of the sisterhood.
"We're going on a ramble and have come to collect you," Helga said firmly. "It's a lovely day and we're doing a gentle walk and will then have a picnic."
Christina looked unenthusiastically at the assembled ladies. "I don't like walking."
"Ah," Elaine Ferreira said craftily, "it'll just be a stroll to our picnic spot. Mrs Merton's provided chocolate brownies and Miems here has made a delicious melktert. There are other treats too!"
Miems looked dumb-founded. What melktert?
Christina wavered at the thought of the mouth-watering food. "Well, I suppose if Ethel Merton's coming, it can't be too exacting." She looked around. "Where is she?"
Marion motioned vaguely behind the group with one arm. "Let's get going before it gets too hot. Get your hat, Christina, and rub on some suntan lotion."
"Quickly, now," Helga bade peremptorily.
The "stroll" proved to be a three kilometre uphill trot to the dorp's reservoir, with Helga leading the pack. She was a keen runner and took to the streets every afternoon in appropriate clothing and the proper trainers. The rest of the sisterhood wore a motley assortment of garments and inadequate footwear so that by the time they finally reached the reservoir, they were out of breath and out of sorts, with Christina bringing up the rear too exhausted to give immediate vent to her anger at being deliberately duped.
Helga, still full of energy, cheerfully passed round plastic cups filled with fruit juice unearthed from her backpack, which the group gulped down thirstily.
"Now," she said, "perch yourselves on that concrete slab and," motioning to Marion who had not yet recovered enough to remove her backpack, "we'll have some sustenance. Marion has the delicious food Sarie has kindly provided for the occasion. Sadly she couldn't come too, having to take her turn at the Old Age Home helping lay out stuff for their art classes."
For the only time in her life Sarie Blignault had been delighted that she was on duty! Setting out trays of paints, brushes and containers of water, cleaning up afterwards and providing a few snacks for the 'sisters' seemed a small price to pay for avoiding the long trek to the reservoir in the shimmering summer heat!
Christina had sucked in enough air to demand querulously, "Where's Ethel Merton with the chocolate brownies?"
"Now you didn't expect her to come too, at her age?" Elaine asked in feigned surprise. She was in better shape than most of the other 'sisters' and had bought herself a pair of takkies from Moodleys for the hike; not as good as trainers but quite comfortable for one wearing, which was all she intended to give them! Rina van Wyk and Suzie Lamprecht had found excuses to absent themselves and she had every intention of doing likewise if Helga should try to inveigle the sisterhood into participating in any other strenuous activities. As far as she was concerned, Christina could stay fat and flaccid.
"We'll be having tea with Mrs Merton when we get down again," she told Christina soothingly, "and then you can have a brownie. Or a few," she added hastily on receiving a glare of unconcealed aggression from Christina.
Seeing that Christina was about to explode with pent up anger, Marion thrust a plastic bag at her.
"Here's your portion of Sarie's fare. There's a packet for each of us. Enjoy!"
Helga had given Sarie money from the kitty and tasked her with providing lunch, knowing that a vegetarian ate healthily. However, she hadn't taken into account that Sarie was pretty-well indifferent to food and her contribution (dry carrot and celery sticks, squashed baby tomatoes and chunks of grey-looking cheese) looked anything but appetising. Gazing at it, the sisterhood joined Christina in her gloom. They were all ravenous!
"Where's your melktert?" Christina rounded fiercely on Miems.
"I... I seem to have forgotten to bring it," Miems faltered, "but you can have my lunch," thrusting her plastic bag at Christina, who bared her teeth in a savage snarl.
Afterwards it was generally agreed that despite good intentions, their efforts had been a disaster and the church sisters temporarily abandoned Christina to her fate until they could come up with a better solution to her problem.
Christina, meanwhile, was so furious with all of them (despite having sweated off a whole kilogram) that she would not speak to any of the women who had been on the "ramble" and looked right through Mrs Merton at the Sunday church service. Mrs Merton was herself miffed as, when the 'sisters' made their way down the hill after their outing, totally whacked, they all opted to forego tea and went home to shower and rest, leaving her with a tray full of uneaten chocolate brownies. Her annoyance was equalled by the delight of the residents of the Old Age Home on being the beneficiaries of her baking!
Suzie, who had feigned illness on the day of the hike as she had no intention of undertaking anything so arduous, smiled in contentment at having escaped Christina's wrath; until she met Helga's baleful glare and hastily conjured up a hacking cough.
Hans, having heard Christina's exaggerated account of the 'torture' she'd had to endure, was annoyed that his wife, already unhappy, should have been subjected to such unkind treatment and glowered angrily at the 'sisters' serving tea after the service. They promptly abandoned any further thoughts of helping the ungrateful Christina. To think they were still suffering from blisters and sore muscles incurred through their charitable act and were now being regarded as villains! They seethed with indignation.
Christina seethed too, with resentment and anger at being conned by women she had considered her friends. Those kind of friends she could do without, she decided defiantly, and rejected even the friendly overtures of women who had not been present, such as Suzie, Sarie and Rina, who had been visiting her mother. Not even old Ma Gouws was exempt from being ostracised.
"What's got into Christina?" she asked Miems, spilling her tea in the process of lifting her ear-horn, bewildered at having been given the cold shoulder.
"She's fed up with us women-folk. SHE'S TAKEN OFFENCE," Miems yelled into the ear-horn, her mother's deafness worse than ever these days.
Ma Gouws shrugged dismissively. "She offends easily, that one! Ignore her."
Someone who had observed the coldness between the women at the Sunday church service was the Dominee's wife, Anna. Her husband Hendrik had not officiated at the service that day, being a speaker at an ecumenical conference in Durban, a singular honour for a country pastor.
Koos Venter, senior church deacon, had taken the service in his place and made a dull job of it in her opinion. She had found her attention wandering and soon picked up on the body language of the ladies of the sisterhood. Later, at tea, she observed Hans du Plessis, usually so easy-going, giving them dirty looks and Christina, clearly miserable. If Hendrik were here he would have undertaken to get the bottom of it. In his absence she felt obliged to step in; perhaps not a bad thing seeing she had a better understanding of women, being one herself.
The following afternoon she called on Helga, who was running-on-the-spot in her driveway, warming up for her afternoon jog. Seeing the Dominee's wife bearing determinedly down on her, she realised regretfully that she would not be having one that day. What now? She led the way back inside the house.
After a few pleasantries, Anna, trying to swallow a scone so hard that it needed gulps of coffee to help it down, raised the subject tactfully, explaining that she had seen at the Sunday service that there was a coldness between the 'sisters' and Christina, and asking what had caused it.
Rather peevishly Helga went into detail about their efforts to help Christina who was feeling rudderless without the friendship of Hilda, and how poorly she had responded to their healthy-living initiative.
Anna struggled to hide her disbelief while she chose her words carefully.
"Your wish to help Christina feel better about herself and the future is commendable, but," her voice taking on a hard edge despite trying to sound conciliatory, "do you really think that making her aware how unfit she is - you said she straggled breathlessly behind the group - and highlighting the fact that she's overweight by feeding her rabbit food, will do anything for her self-esteem? You could also have caused her to have a heart-attack!" Such insensitivity; Anna empathised with Christina in that she herself battled with weight problems and the temptation to overeat.
"What she needs is to feel valued, that she has friends who care about her," she said sternly.
"But," blustered Helga, "that's exactly what we were doing!"
"That's exactly what you intended, but you went about it the wrong way!" Anna wasn't one to mince words. "Visit her. Tell her she's your friend and you care about her. Rally round and meet up for tea, lend her a good book, listen to her! She needs warmth, not punishment, which is how she views what you did."
Helga's jaw dropped and started to wobble. "Oh, no! We must put this right."
"I'm sure you will," Anna said kindly. "An apology will go a long way," she suggested tactfully. "I leave the matter in your capable hands. Hendrik has the highest respect and affection for all of you hard-working ladies."
Anna then thought of tackling Hilda about her failing Christina as a friend, but decided to wait and see how things panned out after the 'sisters' had apologised. Nothing much scared her, but the thought of the possible consequences of remonstrating with unforgiving Hilda sent a chill down her spine!
She wasn't to know that the woman who so unnerved her had also noticed the rift between the sisterhood and Christina the previous day and how unhappy she was. Driving home from church with Klaus, Hilda was very quiet.
"What's upsetting you, my girl?" he asked, taking his eyes off the road and looking at his new wife, who he was fast realising was by far the best thing that had happened to him.
"It's Christina. I know you don't like her much, Klaus, but I do! She doesn't beat about the bush or hide her true feelings and she's generous beneath that hoity-toity façade."
"She's tactless, tasteless and trite!" he retorted amiably.
Hilda smiled appreciatively at his quickness but said drily, "Well, get used to seeing more of her! I've been investing all my energy in you and you're getting spoilt. It's time I spent time with my friend."
He grinned. "Fine with me, as long as you get together while I'm at work. She won't want me to make up a threesome any more than I want her anywhere near me, and," he added cheekily, "you'll have to be extra nice to me seeing I'm being so accommodating!"
"You'll get a flea in your ear any minute," Hilda threatened mock seriously, but her lips twitched as she turned away.
When the men met up at the Sports Club the following Saturday morning for what they dubbed "choir practice", lubricating their throats with a few toots, they were pleased to see Hans in a good mood.
"Christina OK?" Bennie asked astutely.
"Happy as Larry," he boomed. "Those church sisters came round in a group and apologised for offending her and can now not do enough to make up for it. Even better," and his relief was obvious, "Hilda, her best friend, has torn herself away from Klaus long enough to take up with her again! Christina's back to her old self."
A pity it couldn't be a new one, they thought to a man.
"She's even gone on diet, but my suggestion that she join the Waterfontein gym resulted in hysteria." Hans was mystified. "You'd have thought I'd proposed that she climb Everest!"
As far as Christina was concerned, that nightmare struggle up the hill was her Everest and had provided all the taxing exercise she intended taking for the rest of her life. In telling her she should go to the gym Hans had inflamed her to the point where he had come perilously close to having his own cut short!