When Prentburg's water filtration plant threatens to break down, the Church Sisters intervene to help manager Jan Badenhorst overcome his stress headaches; by Beryl Ensor-Smith.
"You're becoming too dependent on those things, Jan. I know you suffer from headaches, but you're becoming an addict! I've chucked the lot into the dustbin, so there's no point in hunting for them."
He put up a fierce fight. "That's not fair, Charlene! You know my job isn't easy, what with lazy staff, increasing pressure from the squatters to provide jobs, free housing, grants, you name it, and on top of that, dealing with complaints about Eskom electricity blackouts every single day! You'd think I was to blame instead of Eskom." His voice became petulant. "Also, our water purification plant badly needs maintenance, which the government can't provide because they've got rid of skilled personnel to make way for relatives and friends, nepotism being rife, and people like me are left carrying the can!" He added angrily, "The stress is massive. Without Disprin I won't be able to cope." By the time his rant had ended, he was red in the face and breathless.
Charlene smiled kindly at him. "I don't intend hanging you out to dry, Jan. There are other remedies for your headaches. I've chatted to Leon at the pharmacy and he's suggested you try these homeopathic pills which he assures me are very effective, and they're far safer than swallowing Disprin like sweets." Charlene reached into the back of one of the kitchen cupboards and produced a white plastic pill container with some unrecognisable blooms and foliage on the label.
Jan eyed them distrustfully. "You think eating flowers is going to help my throbbing head? I doubt it!"
Charlene held out a glass of water and two tablets. "Try them," she coaxed, "you won't know unless you give them a chance."
Reluctantly he took them. They tasted and smelled vile and he was convinced that not only was it a waste of time, but the aftertaste threatened bad breath.
Regarding the inefficacy of the pills, he was proved right, probably because of his negative frame of mind. Charlene was unrelenting when he later complained that they hadn't worked.
"You can't judge after taking only one dose! You'd worked yourself up into such a state that nothing would have helped, not even your beloved Disprin, and I won't have any more in the house, Jan, until you've tried other remedies. Even then, I won't let you take them until you know how to limit yourself to the correct dose!"
Jan knew that Charlene was fanatical about house-cleaning and it was no use trying to hide anything from her eagle eye. During the course of the next week he sulkily submitted to swallowing the pills she proffered every four hours. After three days without any relief from pain he took to hiding a stash of Disprin at work in the bottom drawer of his desk, locking it carefully and keeping the key on the same ring as those for his office and the door of the municipal buildings where he worked. A scrupulously honest man, he was uncomfortable about resorting to such deception, but his headaches were unbelievably severe and he felt driven to it.
He may well have got away with it, but for two things. The combination of the homeopathic medicine and Disprin made him feel very weird and he found it hard to concentrate. This, and the guilt he was unable to hide after he'd furtively dosed himself, drew the attention of his two office workers, Nella Kritzinger, telephonist, and Kobie le Grange, clerk.
"Something's wrong with Jan," Nella whispered to her colleague when Jan's back was turned. "He's nearly cross-eyed and I had to ask the same question three times before he seemed able to answer me."
"I've noticed it too," Kobie admitted, and having a more suspicious nature than Nella, added, "if you ask me he's been hitting the bottle! Have you noticed that his breath smells of mints? That's a sure sign."
Nella looked stricken. "What'll we do? We can hardly tell Charlene in case we're wrong, yet Jan has to be able to do his job properly. If he goes on like this we'll find ourselves having to handle more and more of the workload."
Kobie's eyes widened; she hadn't thought of that and didn't welcome the idea. Both she and Nella did as little as possible.
"We have to find out if we're right. After that it's Charlene's problem," she said heartlessly. "After all, she married him!"
Nella nodded. She liked Charlene but had no intention of carrying Jan, who she considered to be an exacting boss. He made no bones about the fact that he thought both she and Kobie were loafers. After all, she reasoned, as Municipal Manager he was paid much more than they were so shouldn't expect so much from them. Let him earn his higher salary!
Charlene had meanwhile realised that the homeopathic pills weren't helping Jan. Being unable to resort to Disprin at home, he had to put up with the vile tablets which clearly didn't get rid of his headaches, and he was now getting to dislike the mints he took to eliminate the halitosis he was sure the horrible things caused.
Charlene had also noticed that he seemed spaced out (although she didn't know the reason why) and went back to consult Leon Markowitz.
"Charlene, Jan should see Dr Ismail," he advised.
"Fat chance, Leon. You know how stubborn he can be. Can't we try something else? These things leave him zonked! He's in a daze most of the time."
"That's odd!" he frowned. "They shouldn't have that effect. Well," he added reluctantly, "we can try something else, also homeopathic, but if they don't do the trick you'll really have to persuade Jan to see the doctor."
Charlene paid for the new tablets, realising from Leon's set expression that these would be the last he was willing to supply. They had better work, as she knew from past experience that Jan, brave in all other respects, was petrified of doctors and hospitals.
Even though he realised that he wasn't able to perform his job as well as usual and suspected that the medications he was taking reacted badly together, Jan was unable to wean himself from the Disprin, and at home Charlene stood by while he swallowed the detested homeopathic "bullets". When he objected she replied:
"Jan I'm not an idiot. Now take the new pills like a man!"
He had no choice but to do so.
Kobie and Nella had meanwhile searched his office one lunch time when he was out and found the locked drawer.
"I knew it!" Kobie breathed. "This is where he hides his hooch."
Nella tried using one of her hairpins to break into it, but failed, and it was only later that the two realised that had they managed to, they'd have been unable to lock it again!
"Well," said Kobie ruefully, "even though we haven't any proof, this confirms that he's become a booze-hound."
Nella artfully placed responsibility for further action on Kobie when she asked innocently, "Are you going to tell Charlene?"
Kobie glared at her, giving the matter thought. "I'll tell Helga Swanepoel instead," she said at last. "She and the Church Sisters can decide what to do about it. After all, you and I need our jobs and it's best if no-one thinks it came from us."
At the next gathering of the Church Sisters, Helga made the astonishing announcement, "Sisters, it's come to my ears that Jan Badenhorst has fallen prey to the temptations of drink!" She nodded as there were gasps of surprise all round.
"I find that hard to believe," Mrs Merton said dismissively. "Jan is one of the few really upright men in our community."
"It's always the ones you least suspect who have most to hide," Christina du Plessis contradicted, her voice filled with spite. "I've always felt there was something wrong with that man." Glaring at Ethel Merton, she continued: "Upright indeed! Far from it."
Suzie Lamprecht said impishly, "If he's become a drunk, he's likely to be prone most of the time."
"This is no laughing matter," Helga reprimanded, "especially as Charlene may be unaware that he has a drink problem. The source of my information has asked that we assist Jan to overcome his weakness."
"What source?" Mrs Merton demanded. "Is it perhaps someone with a grudge against Jan? I'd make quite sure of the facts if I were you, before taking this on."
"It's come from a reliable source," Helga said with more conviction than she felt, not having a high opinion of the two girls in question, "but we will certainly verify... the facts... before we do anything." She thought for a moment, then said, "I'll have a tactful word with Charlene to try to find out the extent of Jan's condition."
Which she did when she unexpectedly encountered Charlene at the library the following week. After greeting her, she said circumspectly:
"We're sorry to hear that Jan hasn't been at all well lately."
Charlene, frustrated that the new tablets were as ineffective in curing Jan as the old, and were, if anything, making him more disorientated than ever, was pleased to have a sympathetic ear.
"It's the headaches," she confided. "They're so bad, they're driving him to drink. I've been trying different remedies to try to alleviate them, but nothing seems to help." She tried to smile, but it was a pathetic attempt. "It's the pressures of his job. He's particularly concerned that the dorp's filtration plant will give up as it needs new parts and maintenance. There's no-one available to do it, and we could well end up like many other small South African towns - totally without water!"
"That simply won't do," Helga said decisively. "Charlene, you're no longer alone in carrying this burden and nor is Jan. Leave it with me."
Grateful for the titbit of comfort offered, Charlene felt quite emotional and managed only to nod and say, "Thank you," though she didn't believe that Helga or anyone else could come up with a solution.
Helga informed the sisterhood of the outcome of her chat when they met for coffee at the Astonishing Café later that week. They had decided to give it another chance, as the Welcome Inn, the recent recipient of their custom, was being renovated. When their coffee arrived with the cheesecake 'on special', they took one look and realised that nothing had improved. The coffee was grey and the slices of cheesecake looked as if they'd been attacked by a saw instead of being cut with a knife; an indication of their concrete-like texture.
"Well," said Helga in resignation, pushing her cheesecake aside, "we're not here for pleasure but on business, so let's get down to it." Looking at the avid faces around her, she confirmed their suspicions.
"Charlene came right out and said Jan's been driven to drink by stress headaches caused through the difficulties of his job."
"If you ask me, you've put the cart before the horse," Christina sniffed. "The headaches are because of his drinking, not the other way round."
There was silence as all considered the position, then Marion Klopper said, "Working with those two dimwits in his office can't be easy."
"It's a great deal more than his usual challenges." Helga went on to explain about the ineffectiveness of the medicines Jan had been taking for his headaches.
Christina du Plessis was not in the least sympathetic. "Hangovers are the price for heavy drinking. He fully deserves to have a thick head."
"But his imbibing is the result of tension from his job concerns!" Next came an explanation of the imminent failure of their water purification plant and that they would well be without water in the very near future. This caused consternation in the ranks. Even the inattentive members who were battling with the cheesecake sat up and took notice.
"That's terrible," Miems muttered, wide-eyed. "We can't do without water."
"No we can't," Helga agreed. "Those of you who are married, please talk to your menfolk. They're more likely to come up with ideas than we ladies who don't know much about that kind of thing."
Surprisingly she was proved wrong. Miems, gravely concerned, discussed the matter with her mother. Or tried to, but it was again proving difficult as Ma Gouws's deafness was at its worst. So great was Miems' consternation that she persevered.
"THE SITUATION IS VERY GRAVE," she yelled, after having managed to apprise her mother of the situation.
"You've gone blue in the face, Miems," the old girl complained. "You should eat prunes; you're obviously constipated."
"Oh, ma," Miems replied, shoulders drooping , "Prunes, when we need an answer to the problem!"
Ma Gouws got the gist of this. She clucked impatiently. "Talking of graves, why don't you lot ask that ghoul, the Widower Geldenhuys, for help? He's had to take early retirement from the engineering firm where he worked and is looking very glum these days. He'll probably jump at the chance out of sheer boredom, never mind the knock his ego has taken. He needs to feel important, that one."
Miems first looked hopeful, then dispirited. "He'd expect payment and Jan's budget is tight. Besides, he's not the type to get his hands dirty, with his silk cravats and men's cologne."
"From what I've heard, he got a fat layoff package so payment mightn't be as important to him as recognition. Daughter, have you learned nothing about men? Use flattery. Get pretty Elaine to bat her eyelashes at him and tell him he's the only man who can save the dorp. Make him feel like Superman. That should do it."
"But he still isn't likely to do the actual work!"
"One thing at a time, Miems. Put him in charge. Perhaps he'll find labourers."
Pigs would fly first, Miems was tempted to say, but it was certainly worth considering. She beamed at her mother; the old girl might be ninety-one but she was still as sharp as a needle.
Jan thought it definitely worth considering when Helga put the suggestion to him.
"I should have thought of him," he said enthusiastically. "My thinking is not very clear these days! He's the obvious choice, wandering round like a lost fart feeling useless since he's been 'let go'. I'll get him on board with some cajoling."
"Er, yes." Helga was momentarily thrown by Jan's colourful language and would have reprimanded him but decided to put it down to his relief and/or the alcohol in his system. She could smell mint on his breath!
"But you'll also need some labourers. The Widower Geldenhuys would probably work on the engines himself, but he'll expect menials to do the cleaning up and unskilled tasks."
"Hmm," agreed Jan, pondering. "I know the warden of the prison on the Waterfontein road. He's a progressive chap who's amenable to letting prisoners work in the broader community rather than have them loafing around bored. The problem is," sounding deflated, "the prison is very short-staffed and even if I can persuade him to let us have a small workforce, he'd spare only one warder and we'd have to undertake to prevent any attempted escapes. Can I put the public at risk?"
"Perhaps old Davenport would lend you that savage Doberman he owns," Helga said dubiously. "It's a vicious beast. My Bianca yelps and runs for cover if she so much as catches sight of him."
Jan had to search his memory to recall Helga's poodle, a highly-strung animal with a decidedly yellow streak. He got his mind back on track. "I'll enlist both Davenport and his dog," he said decisively. "He can patrol the perimeter of the waterworks with Snarl on a leash. That dog would frighten the most hardened criminal! However," with a sigh, "I'd be expected to provide meals for the prisoners and, at the very least, probably have to pay the warder's wages. I simply haven't the means on my limited budget." His disappointment was so acute that Helga took a quick decision.
"If you can get the job done in a week, the Church Sisters will undertake to provide breakfast and lunch, if that will help? We'd also lay on tea between meals."
Jan could have leaped up and kissed her. He managed to confine himself to restrained gratitude.
"I'm very obliged to you ladies and accept with alacrity." As he watched her depart, her back ramrod straight and her gait determined, he regretted ever slating the church sisterhood as being a bunch of interfering busybodies. This was the second time they had come to his rescue!
Old man Davenport, when approached, proved more than amenable to being involved. Left on his own day after day on his smallholding, he grew lonely. Rising early each morning, he tended his poultry, small flock of sheep and goats, milked his two cows and, when he felt like it, pottered in his vegetable garden. After that, the day stretched endlessly ahead until evening when he milked his cows again. Then to bed. Some weeks he never got to see another human being. He jumped at the chance to guard the eight prisoners Jan had been able to recruit, especially relishing being able to swagger round importantly, issuing commands to Snarl and putting the fear of God into the miscreants.
Jan was somewhat alarmed when Davenport arrived on the second day of proceedings with an old WW1 pistol strapped to his hip, prominently displayed. When he told Charlene about it that evening, she said:
"He's a frail old man; aren't you worried that one of the criminals will grab the gun?"
"That beast of his bares its teeth at anyone who so much as glances at Davenport," Jan retorted, "I'm more concerned about him being trigger-happy and shooting one of the convicts, especially with the Widower Geldenhuys egging him on! He was very put out to discover his workforce was made up of felons and, in their hearing, urged Davenport to shoot at the first sign of trouble." Jan shook his head in amusement, "The prisoners are far more scared of that dangerous trio than of the warder assigned to guard them, I can tell you!"
The Widower Geldenhuys was also in his element, involved in doing something important and doing it well. He was determined that the Prentburg filtration plant would be the leader in its field and kept an eagle eye on every aspect of the repairs, insisting on excellent workmanship.
Between him and Davenport, half of the prisoners assigned to the job regretted volunteering. They had certainly not expected to work so hard. Conversely, the other half found they enjoyed the challenge, the sun and the exceptional food; not to mention restrained praise from their hard task-master for work well done.
Helga reported back to the sisterhood on the satisfactory resolution of their biggest problem at their next charity drive. They had all played a part in providing meals for the prisoners for the week it took to repair the waterworks, and as usual, rose to the occasion handsomely.
"The Widower Geldenhuys has resolved to check the filtration system regularly and to work with Jan to keep it in good condition. I suspect he also enjoyed your cooking; well done, ladies!"
They basked in her approval, knowing it was likely to be short-lived.
"Now we have to sort Jan out," she said forthrightly. "Any ideas?"
Elsie Fourie raised a tentative arm. "I came across a remedy for hangovers in a recipe book of my deceased ouma. The ingredients can be found in our gardens mixed with a few things from the pharmacy. The only drawback," she added hesitantly, "is that it is also designed to cause illness in the... the patient, if he drinks alcohol while taking the cure. In fact, according to the label - my ouma was not one to mince words - he'll spend a good few hours with his head down the toilet wishing he was dead!"
"Poor Jan," Suzie said sympathetically, "it sounds a bit drastic."
"Drastic my foot," Christina scoffed. "It's the very thing. Let's go for it!"
After a bit of argument a vote was taken and Jan's fate was sealed.
Charlene was delighted, and Jan surprised, to find that Elsie's ouma's remedy eliminated his stress headaches even more effectively than Disprin. After a reluctant start, he took to the medication enthusiastically and, much to the relief of his co-workers, was soon his usual efficient, hard-working self.
Jan was by no means a heavy drinker but from time to time enjoyed having a beer at the club on the way home from work. On the few occasions he did so after staving off a stress headache with ouma's cure, he spent hours on his knees 'talking' long and earnestly into the Great White Telephone, wondering what on earth he had done to deserve such misery!