The innocent and prudish Church Sisters of a backwater South African town are shocked to learn that one of their number is reading Fifty Shades of Grey; by Beryl Ensor-Smith.
The new outreach programme needed a name and suggestions had been invited from the broader church community, the only requirement being that the name be alliterative. That had not seemed too much to ask, but some of the proposals received had led to heated argument among the Sisters.
The purpose of the programme itself was to make up parcels of basic necessities for the poor, many to be found in their own community and even more among the squatters along the banks of the vlei. Who would have thought that giving the programme a name would prove so difficult? Some of the suggestions received were nothing short of ludicrous; take, for example:
Charming Charity. Mrs Merton snorted that this was an oxymoron. Few of the Sisters knew what the word meant, but many were of the opinion that she was the moron.
She also shot down the suggestion of 'Caring Comforters' with the stark comment:
"We're offering practical assistance to the needy, not psychological support for the emotionally wrecked! Choose that name and be prepared to be on call at all hours of the day or night for those needing a shoulder to cry on or words of wisdom for the distraught." The sisters quickly abandoned this idea and went on to the next offerings:
Daring-Doers. This gave the impression, Elaine Ferreira objected, that helping the destitute was a risky business. Some of the Sisters secretly felt that this could indeed be the case, working with the ill and unwashed.
Gracious Goodness. A well-intended name, Helga Swanepoel opined, but it sounded like the utterings of a confused drunk!
Freebies for Feeblies. Grossly insensitive, they all agreed, affronted, and some argument ensued as to whether the last word related to the frailty of the recipients, or their lack of moral fibre.
It was at this stage of the proceedings that Christina said loftily: "Surely we should first concern ourselves with the fact that one of our own has lost her moral compass? She has no excuse whatever for her leap into the gutter!"
While most were still staring at her, mouths agape, Marion Klopper asked breathlessly, "Who are you talking about?"
"Suzie Lamprecht, of course! Did you really believe her excuse for not being here? Tummy gripes my foot; she's in the grip of something far worse. Lust!"
Helga waved a dismissive hand. "If you're referring to her desire to be married, that's nothing new, and marriage is honourable and has the blessing of..."
"I'm referring to the fact that she's got hold of a copy of the book 'Fifty Shades of Grey' and is devouring it even as we speak!"
Elsie Fourie turned in bewilderment to Rina van Wyk, seated next to her. "What's it about? A mottled horse?"
"Chains and leather, whips and things," Rina replied, "so it's highly likely there's a horse somewhere in the mix!" Elsie's eyes grew huge and she fell into shocked silence.
Sarie Blignault had been trying to follow the exchange and her face screwed up in anguish. All she could fathom was that it was a book about cruelty to animals. She gathered up her things and left the room quickly, with bowed head.
"Now see what you've done!" Helga rounded on Christina. "Your indiscrete talk has driven innocent little Sarie away. Shame on you!"
Sarie sought comfort from her best friend and owner of the local beauty parlour, Ntebo Dlamini, who, on seeing her distress, left a customer with a cup of coffee so that they could talk.
"Suzie's reading a nasty book," Sarie told her tearfully, "all about a horse that is chained up and whipped! The Sisters are very cross about it."
"It's only make-believe," Ntebo comforted, somewhat surprised, as she'd got the impression that the church sisters weren't overly concerned about animal welfare; certainly not if their reaction to two of Sarie's pets was anything to judge by. Wendy the white rat and Vonkel, the pink pig were both animals they avoided like the plague. "It's just a book," she added consolingly, "Not really true."
"Well, all I can say is that if Suzie enjoys that kind of book, perhaps the widower Geldenhuys is the right man for her after all! He's keen on reading about torture so they'd suit each other very well."
Suzie, meanwhile, was deeply engrossed in what was the most sexually explicit and thrilling book she'd ever read. It was a pity Christina had seen it just after Suzie had emerged from the bookshop in Waterfontein awkwardly clutching her parcels, and the packet containing the book fell so that its contents spilled out onto the pavement at Christina's feet. Still, she wasn't overly bothered; that uptight old trout had probably never heard of Shades of Grey, and if she had, probably imagined it referred to interior decorating.
Suzie couldn't have been more wrong. The book, which had hit the headlines and was much discussed, was a hot topic of conversation in all the places women meet. Christina overheard two ladies in Ntebo's beauty salon talking about it, and tuned her excellent hearing their way. They were both under hair dryers and unaware that they were speaking rather louder than they thought. Consequently Christina knew more about the titillating book than all the other church sisters put together. And she thoroughly disapproved of it! Subjugation and domination were concepts she could only relate to if she were the one doing the bullying, and certainly not in any sexual sense. Sex, as far as she was concerned, was intended first for procreation and second, for women to use as a bargaining chip within the holy estate of matrimony.
Miems Gouws returned home with a frown on her face, which quickly drew her aged mother's attention.
"What's the matter, daughter?"
After a moment's hesitation, Miems gave in. "It's Suzie, ma. She's reading something bad. A SEXY BOOK, MA," into her mother's earhorn, "ONE THAT WILL CORRUPT HER."
"Who? Suzie?" At Miems's nod, Ma Gouws became dismissive. "I doubt it. My generation read Lady Chatterley's Lover under the blankets by candlelight, and if anything, our menfolk still found us too inhibited!" She broke into a reminiscent chuckle. Miems stared at her mother aghast.
Ma Gouws may have seen little harm in Suzie's reading matter, but the church sisters found it so disturbing that they resolved to take the matter up with Suzie. They were too busy to do anything about it the following week as Harvest Festival was to be celebrated that Sunday and it fell to them to sort and distribute the offerings brought in by the local farming families. Suzie was noticeably absent from all the activity taking place in the church hall where the bounty was being stored.
A pair of high-heeled red shoes presented Helga with a problem. She held them aloft and asked her co-workers: "What should I do with these? They came in a box with some pumpkins." She considered them dubiously. "They don't look very practical."
Christina eyed them thoughtfully. "They remind me of something! Oh, it's the dust-jacket of that book of Suzie's. It featured a pair of scarlet stilettos next to a black lace camisole."
The next few minutes were spent in silence as each of the women present pondered the role of the stilettos. The black lace camisole they could understand, but scarlet stilettos? Eyeing the heels on the pair in Helga's hands, they thought them downright dangerous as a tool of seduction. Rina saw Marion and Elsie exchange a shamefaced look, their curiosity apparent. She grinned wickedly and whispered in Elsie's ear, "Perhaps the horse wears them?"
It was the following Tuesday before a delegation of the sisters had the time and energy to call on Suzie. Christina led the posse and rapped imperiously on the door of Suzie's house. As soon as she opened it and saw their condemning expressions, Suzie knew the game was up and decided to brazen it out.
"Yes?" she asked sweetly. "Have you come to see if I'm feeling better?"
"We know exactly what you've been up to and find you disgusting." Christina spat out. Her vehemence made Suzie blink. She was somewhat at a loss as to how to handle things and decided to take the line of least resistance.
"Goodbye," she said, surprising them, and closed the door in their faces.
Helga thrust her way in front of Christina, who was still spluttering with indignation. She banged on the door and yelled, "Suzie Lamprecht, open this door immediately or we will expose you to Dominee Seibrand!"
Elaine stifled a near-hysterical giggle. No-one else seemed to have caught the unintended double entendre and she was on the receiving end of some odd looks. She subsided into mortified silence.
Suzie, meanwhile, was considering what she should do, finally deciding rather mutinously that it was her door and she was under no obligation to open it if she didn't want to. She waited until she heard the group of women tip-tapping their way back down the brick path, muttering as they went, and breathed a sigh of relief. Which was short-lived. Helga would more than likely carry out the threat to reveal her indiscretion to the dominee.
The more Suzie thought about this, the less she liked it! It was one thing having the church sisters know about her salacious reading matter, but quite another having Dominee Seibrand think about it every time he glanced at her. He would consider her an indecent woman and perhaps even go so far as to ban her from the church! Her defiance gave way to misery. What now?
After a sleepless night, she decided she had no choice but to eat humble pie. This would mean placating the sisterhood and convincing them she was penitent (she wasn't; she was just desperate!) and had no intention of succumbing to the temptation of reading smutty literature ever again (which meant only until she was able to get her hands on the sequel to "Shades"). As an indication of her good faith, she would offer to dispose of Shades of Grey. A pity, she really would have liked to refer to it if ever marriage came her way. Oh, well, not much chance of that happening soon, she thought sadly. There'd been many Mr Wrongs in her life, but no sign whatever of Mr Right.
Having made her decision, Suzie played her part to the full, arriving at the next sisters of the church meeting soberly dressed and with bowed head. She sidled apologetically into the room with a hanky pressed to her eyes, and even managed a hiccupping sob. The uncompromising expressions of the sisterhood immediately softened.
"I'm sorry!" she said, and her eyes filled unexpectedly with genuine tears. "I didn't mean to offend." Nor had she, and this must have been clear, as she was quickly forgiven. With a few provisos.
"You must read only cleansing religious books for the next month," Christina insisted, "and do a double shift of duties to make up for those you missed."
"And limit yourself to less... stimulating novels in future so that you don't neglect your religious chores in future," Helga said sternly, rubbing salt into the wound.
"And burn that damned book," Mrs Merton instructed grimly. "Take it with you when you next visit the old folks' home and put it in their incinerator. It'll provide suitable company for the adult nappies and other human detritus that gets shoved in there." Unlike her contemporary, Ma Gouws, she found Suzie's choice of reading matter beyond deplorable.
Christina pounced on the idea gleefully. "You're to promise, and you have to tell us once it's done, hear?"
Suzie promised, with mixed feelings.
True to her word, the following week when it was her turn to work with the craft group at the oldies' home, she placed 'Shades' in the biggest of her handbags. While she sat waiting for the old folk to join her (they were late) she sat in the lounge in one of the easy chairs, and, making sure she was alone, surreptitiously removed the book from her bag and paged through it one last time. So engrossed was she in this furtive reappraisal that she failed to hear Sister Marchant come into the room until she was right behind her.
Panic-stricken, Suzie shoved the book down the side of her chair and spread her skirt.
"Suzie, dear, we're holding craft class in the tea-room today as the carpet cleaners will soon arrive to do the carpets in here as well as matron's office. Your group's waiting for you; my fault entirely for forgetting to tell you! Come along now, or they'll get restive."
Suzie had time only to push the book further into the folds of the chair and hoped that it would be a while before it surfaced. She consoled herself with the thought that once the carpets had been cleaned residents were unlikely to be allowed to use the lounge for a day or two until they had dried completely. Also, the eyesight of most of the oldies wasn't all that keen so, with luck, it would be a while before 'Shades' was discovered, by which time no-one would associate it with her.
It was a fortnight later that one of the staff found the book in the possession of octogenarian Mrs Lane. The Assistant had been alerted to her shell-shocked condition by one of the other residents sitting in the lounge, who had twice spoken to the old dear without receiving a response. Nurse Marchant was called, administered a sedative and was handed the book by the speechless staff member. Her eyes widened when she realised what it was and her cheeks flared with fury. No wonder poor Mrs Lane was so shaken! Which of her visitors had deemed this filthy book suitable reading for the aged?
Later, when Mrs Lane had recovered, Sister Marchant quizzed her gently. She was adamant that she had found the book squeezed down the side of a chair. Sister Marchant was inclined to dismiss this as an effort by Mrs Lane to protect whoever had given her the book, until something tugged at the edge of her memory.
A few years before, a gun had been found in the home. The resident in whose possession it was, insisted that it had been stuck down the side of one of the chairs in the lounge. Could there, after all, have been some truth in that assertion? Matron had dismissed the story as the product of a wandering mind.
Sister Marchant sought out Matron and told her about the book Mrs Lane was caught reading and her insistence that it had been squeezed down the side of one of the upholstered chairs. She also reminded her of the gun of a few years back. Matron gave the matter thought.
"It must have been brought in by a visitor of Mrs Lane, though who would give her something so unsuitable, I cannot imagine! As for it supposedly being found in a chair, well, everyone here got to hear the story of the gun, so it's not so surprising that an ageing mind would latch onto the same hiding place for her book." She hesitated before adding reluctantly, "The only thing that bothers me a bit is that Mrs Lane's a new arrival. She's only been here a month and hasn't made many friends yet. Where could she possibly have heard about the gun's hiding place?"
The two women exchanged a baffled look, Nurse Marchant thinking that a lot more went on in old age homes than the general public dreamed of! She agreed with matron that it was in the home's best interests not to broadcast the fact that such a book had found its way there, and the staff member who had discovered it was sworn to secrecy.
"We'll burn it in the incinerator and no-one need know about this," Matron told them. "In a day or two Mrs Lane will not remember the name of the book, but I fear the poor woman will never be able to forget whatever it was she read that sent her into that trance!"
Once the church sisters stopped admiring themselves for their great magnanimity to one of their own who had fallen from grace, each began to wonder about the smirk they occasionally saw on Suzie's face. She quickly erased it once she caught them looking at her, but had again aroused their interest.
Some of the braver souls ventured a cautious question or two about the book she had read, such as, was it as bad as it was made out to be? Suzie wasn't fooled by their seemingly offhand enquiries, well aware that they were dying of curiosity.
"It's a matter of opinion. You'd need to read it yourself to decide," she replied meekly, knowing this would frustrate them. But there was one question that stymied her completely.
"What," asked Sarie pathetically, "happened to the horse in the story? Was he rescued?" Seeing the anxiety etched on the face of the church sister of whom she was most fond, Suzie replied earnestly that the horse had not only been rescued, but lived happily ever after. Nevertheless she spent quite a while puzzling about Sarie's baffling conviction that the book was about a horse.
Later that same day Sarie encountered Helga in the queue at Quikserve and told her happily:
"Helga, you know that bad book Suzie was reading? Well, she told me that the horse survived!"
She turned back to take her place at the till, quite missing the glazed expression that filmed Helga's eyes as she absorbed this unsolicited and unwanted piece of information.
All that, however, came later. In the meantime, the cause of all the trouble was not so confident about her re-acceptance into the fold that she wanted to talk about "Shades" at all, or risk confessing that the book hadn't reached the incinerator. (She was never to learn that it was burned anyway.)
She returned from the old age home reasonably sure that she was safe from suspicion even if the book were found. Apart from the fact that the home was unlikely to think she had anything to do with it, an institution that depended on its good name and reputation to attract paying 'guests' could not afford to have even a hint of scandal, she calculated shrewdly. She'd take a bet that the book's appearance would be an embarrassment they would move heaven and earth to keep hidden from the public.
When she had been quizzed by the church sisters after her stint of duty at the home, she had assured them that she had disposed of the book before supervising the craft class. She kept her fingers crossed behind her back while doing so and said a fervent prayer that these particular 'grey shades' would not come back to haunt her.