A planned Country & Western evening seems doomed to failure in ultra-conservative South African backwater Prentburg, until an unlikely rumour spurs interest; by Beryl Ensor-Smith.
"It'll be those dreadful singers from Waterfontein," Suzie Lamprecht said dismissively when the Sisters of the Church next met. "They're always changing their name and their way of singing, but they're hopeless."
"Country and Western?" Christina du Plessis looked down her long nose in disdain. "It hardly qualifies as music; more like caterwauling if you ask me! Why must we import the worst of American culture? I..."
"Yes," Marion Klopper interrupted hastily, trying to prevent Christina getting onto her "culture" bandwagon, as once in full stride, she was impossible to stop. "If it is that Waterfontein bunch, they're not up to much, but they're also going to show a video of some fat guy singing something that was a hit. They have a picture of him on their posters. There's one up at the Welcome Inn and Jan Badenhorst's also displaying one on the municipal notice board."
"Pavarotti?" Christina enquired eagerly. "It's probably Nessun Dorma which he sang at the start of an international football match to uproarious applause."
Marion felt annoyed. Trust Christina to try to appear more knowledgeable than the rest of her church sisters. Well, this time she was wrong!
"No. It was a rather common name actually. It reminded me of some of the nicknames they give to our rugby players. Now what was it... Beefy? Bully Beef? Something like that."
"It's Meatloaf," Sarie Blignault offered eagerly, "and the song is called 'Bat out of Hell'. It's right there on the poster. It sounds very exciting."
Miems Gouws was not the only one who was shocked.
"It sounds blasphemous! Dominee won't approve when he hears about it."
"Nothing on the programme is in the least appealing," old Mrs Merton said irritably, "and I doubt whether they'll get much support from the locals."
"I don't think so either," Elaine Ferreira chimed in. "There'll probably be dancing, which as you know isn't allowed by the church and Dominee told Bennie he'll be raising the matter at the services next Sunday."
"So that's that. No-one will go and it will teach outsiders not to bring trash to our Godfearing village," Helga Swanepoel said, almost smacking her lips with satisfaction.
For a while it seemed that the "sisters" were right in their prediction that the Country and Western singers would be given the cold shoulder, but then a rumour started circulating around the village that Dolly Parton, yes, THE Dolly Parton, would be performing with the group. No-one was quite sure where the story originated and the villagers were very sceptical until they heard that Ma Gouws was the source.
Now everyone knew that Ma Gouws was the soul of probity and would never go about telling lies. Yes, it was true that in the past she had passed on some misleading information, but that was only because she herself had been misinformed. Ma Gouws might be old, somewhat deaf and irascible, but she took great pride in the fact that she spoke the truth even when it hurt! (Besides, very little of interest had happened in the dorp lately and there was a hint of desperation in the villagers' eagerness to believe that Dolly Parton might indeed appear.)
What was more, Ma Gouws had had the information straight from the lips of an announcer on the district radio station! He would not dare joke about such an important thing, and those announcers didn't have much of a sense of humour anyway. They took themselves very seriously, speaking always in measured, sombre tones.
Mrs Merton snorted when she heard the news. "Utter hogwash! Why would Dolly Parton want to sing with a group of unknowns in the backwoods of our country? I've never heard such rubbish in all my life. If she were to come to South Africa, it would be to Johannesburg or Pretoria where she'd draw a big audience and make some money."
Miems Gouws's lips trembled indignantly. Her mother was not at that week's gathering of the church sisters as they were working on a patchwork tapestry for the church and she was no longer able to sew as her old fingers had become very arthritic.
"Not everyone is obsessed with money," Miems replied, eyes flashing. "Many entertainers give benefit concerts out of the goodness of their hearts."
"Her heart must be very good indeed to perform in the sticks where she won't even get any recognition. And you can be sure that those who benefit will not be the needy but the greedy. You don't believe that the Waterfontein lot will give the proceeds from their sing-along to the poor do you?"
Miems shrugged angrily while Marion took up the cudgels. None of the "sisters" liked the arrogance shown by the oldest member of their group and most tried from time to time to put her in her place, usually without success.
"Even top stars suffer from burn-out. Perhaps she's taking a break from her rushed life?"
"And perhaps she's not! Do you really imagine that a woman like that would come to Prentburg for a break? That type go off to Aspen or the Alps or wherever, not to a place that's not even featured on any map worthy of the name."
The entire sisterhood bridled at this slight aimed at their beloved dorp.
"Well!" Elaine glared at Ethel Merton with undisguised dislike. "That's most unkind, I must say."
"And," Helga added loftily, "I shouldn't think she'd choose to ski anyway. It's not a sport she's likely to succeed at, is it?"
The other women looked uncomprehendingly at her and she felt bound to explain further.
"I mean... well, it requires perfect balance and it would be difficult with her build."
She continued to meet blank stares until Suzie caught on.
"Oh, you mean her big boobs? Yes, I suppose they would be a handicap when it comes to sport."
"Not swimming," Christina said. "I've heard that big-bosomed women have less of a chance of drowning because they have better flotation."
All eyes in the group came to rest on Christina's own ample proportions and a similar thought occurred to each member. Even if what Christina maintained were true, it would not apply in her own case as the rest of her body was equally "ample" and would literally outweigh any possible flotation benefit offered by her impressive bust.
Mrs Merton's lips thinned into a derisive smile.
"Dolly Parton here indeed. You're all quite barmy!"
This comment was treated with the contempt it deserved. It was totally ignored by all present.
Vijay Moodley, who owned a general store in the village, was the first to see the possibilities in the rumour doing the rounds. He and his wife Surita hauled out two large cartons stacked at the very back of their store-room. Vijay blew the dust off before opening each. In the first was a selection of saucy underwear that he had bought when he had first set up shop in the village, little realising that the local matrons were into bloomers and tentlike brassieres. Once he understood how conservative they were, he had not even bothered to display the garments. Shrugging in resignation, Vijay had cut his losses and packed them all away in the hopes that attitudes would change. Now out they came, triumphantly displayed against a backdrop of pictures of the attractive singer culled from a music magazine and a caption that read "Dolly's Partying!" It was a clever move calculated to still the consciences of the local ladies as they were able to tell themselves that if it was OK for someone as famous as Dolly Parton to wear such sexy undergarments, it was also OK for them, especially in the face of the increasing lack of interest in amorous activities being shown by ageing husbands!
The second box was one of many bought at an auction as a job lot and contained thirty Stetsons; "seconds" as they were all flawed with a dark patch just above the brims, very noticeable against the cream-coloured felt. Vijay and Surita debated about what could be done and it was she who came up with the idea of using fabric paint to emblazon the letters D.P. on the dark patches on a trial pair. This proved to be so effective that Surita became even more creative. She dyed the remaining hats different colours and used strips of coloured leather from another of the boxes bought in the job lot and stored until such time as a use could be found for them, plaited to form Dolly's initials and sewn onto the flawed patches. She also plaited longer, thicker lengths and wound these around the brim of the hats, giving them a rakish touch.
In no time at all, the underwear and the Stetsons were sold, to the satisfaction of both the Moodleys and the purchasers. Seeing the Stetsons being jauntily worn around the shopping centre by all and sundry gave the dorp a festive air and generated even more excitement about the coming event. Country and Western tickets at the hotel were being sold at a surprising rate, for who could be expected to miss seeing the famous singer and actress?
Dominee Seibrand was sought out by members of his congregation and assured that they were going only to see Dolly Parton and would definitely not be partaking of either dancing or alcoholic beverages. Hiding a smile, he replied gravely that he understood and hoped they would have a pleasant, abstemious evening.
Koos Venter who also owned a store in the village, was incensed that his rival Vijay had succeeded in moving stock and tried to do the same. The shaggy rugs from the back of his store were now hung in the windows with a sign "Dolly's choice!" The dorpvolk smiled derisively. They had seen those rugs too recently to be taken in. Koos seethed with resentment, complaining loudly to his wife Mina about the lack of loyalty in his customers. She merely raised her eyebrows, which annoyed him even more.
"Dolly's choice!" Marion scoffed. "Who does he think he's kidding? The only place she'd use those rugs would be in her dog kennel and then only as a last resort."
Other businesses were quick to follow Vijay's lead. The Astonishing Café abandoned the cake menu it had stuck to for years and now offered an assortment of cream cakes to its very astonished customers under the daring heading "Curves like Dolly P's? Then you simply must try these!" The café's clientele were quick to oblige, not so much in hopes of acquiring more alluring curves, as in the knowledge that the change for the better in the menu was unlikely to last and they had better make the most of it while they could.
Even the Welcome Inn got in on the act. They obtained from some undisclosed source a number of life-sized cut-outs of the popular singer which were positioned in the entrance hall and bar. Marie Minaar, the hotel receptionist, not to be outdone, took to wearing cowboy boots, denims and striped shirt along with her new purple Stetson while she was on duty. This occasioned much comment among the church sisters.
"Those jeans are stretched to the limit," Christina said scathingly. "Her panty-line is clear evidence that she's been buying undies from Moodley!" The other members of the sisterhood avoided looking at her as it was common knowledge that Christina had also visited Moodley shop with the intention of upgrading her "smalls" but had been unable to find anything in her size! She was understandably upset at seeing Marie flaunting her new purchases so provocatively and with such self-assurance.
"If she undid another shirt button we'd see the rest of it," Helga agreed disapprovingly. "Who'd have thought it of a woman who goes to church every Sunday looking as if butter wouldn't melt in her mouth?"
"I would," Miems said bitterly, recalling an incident in the past concerning Marie Minaar and the communion wine. As she had never divulged her suspicions... nay, her certainties... to anyone through pure Christian charity, being a deacon in the church, the other women present at the gathering looked at her in bafflement. Really, both Miems and her mother could be downright peculiar at times!
In view of the number of tickets sold for the Country and Western evening, the Welcome Inn abandoned its intention of selling only boerewors rolls and ordered a supply of chops, steak and chicken for a full-on braai with an assortment of salads. Both the local butcher and the market gardener who supplied the Inn with produce were full of smiles at the big orders placed for the occasion.
The brewery that supplied the hotel was also pleasantly surprised to receive an order for double the normal amount of liquor.
Hans du Plessis saw the truck being off-loaded at the hotel and told his wife, Christina.
"Who will they sell it to?" she snorted. "Most people who've bought tickets are members of the church and you know we've all promised Dominee not to imbibe!"
Hans looked thunderstruck. "But Angel, there's a big difference between hard liquor and drinking a pint or two of beer! When Dominee said we weren't to drink, he didn't mean beer."
"Alcohol is alcohol," Christina retorted, but without much fire as she too had been infected by the air of expectancy gripping the village. She decided that she'd turn a blind eye and allow Hans a bit of slack on this occasion.
There were those who were not so fortunate as to benefit from Dolly Parton's anticipated visit. Ntebo Dlamini, owner of the dorp's beauty and hairdressing salon, lived through a frustrating week before confiding in her friend Sarie:
"They're driving me nuts, Sarie, these women who come in and demand "big" hair! They all want to look like Dolly Parton, but some hardly have enough to cover their bald spots, never mind "big" hair! Others want cupid lips, beauty spots and long eyelashes and are disappointed to find that even when they get them, they don't look anything like her and it's all my fault. Eish! Honest to God there are days when I feel like packing in this business!"
"Oh, you mustn't do that," Sarie said in concern. "You know they usually think the world of you. After next week everything will be back to normal and they'll be themselves again. It's just that, well, people need to dream a little, you know? Especially when life goes on and on without anything much happening."
Ntebo smiled fondly at Sarie who had the reputation of being ingenuous, but there were times when her simplicity saw right through to the core of a problem, as now.
"You're a very wise person, do you know that?" she said affectionately.
"Oh no," Sarie blustered, "it's just that you're my friend so you don't see how silly I am. Christina does; she's always telling me so."
"And we all know that Christina's the brightest star in the firmament, don't we?" Ntebo retorted. "Can you think of anyone at all that she speaks well of?"
Sarie gave the matter a moment's thought. "Not really."
Sarie started to laugh and Ntebo soon joined in.
Another person who felt hardly done by was Petrus Willemse, a farmer from the outskirts of the village. Carried away by the spirit of things (as well as by the alcoholic kind) he had saddled up one of his farm horses, donned a cowboy outfit and come roaring into town in great style, wielding a lasso and yelling "Howdee-Doodee!" at the top of his voice.
The horse was unused to traffic and when a car backfired, had reared up and thrown Petrus. The result was a badly broken leg, a plaster cast and a resultant limp. Petrus's pride was sorely wounded by the amused contempt of his fellows who promptly called him 'Hop-Along'. What was worse, from then onwards, despite his leg healing completely, the name stuck and caused him great embarrassment when strangers queried its source. There were all too many of his so-called friends eager to tell the story, greatly embellished, making him look a complete fool. For ever after he flinched whenever Dolly Parton's name was mentioned and looked back on the time of his accident with great resentment.
Then there were those who remained completely oblivious of the cause of all the fuss. The residents of the informal settlement on the banks of the vlei watched the strange antics of the whites in their peculiar outfits in bewilderment.
"Why are they suddenly all wearing big hats?" Mrs Shilowa asked her husband, Moses.
He hesitated, loath to admit that he didn't know. "I think it's something to do with politics. A rally taking place here soon, perhaps."
"You could be right," said she, deftly peeling a potato taken from a heap on the table. "Those hats all have the initials D.P. on them. Well, if the Democratic Party is going to parade, then so must the ANC! I'll start spreading the word so that we can get banners made, and you, Moses, must find out when all this is going to happen."
Another group totally unaffected by the excitement gripping the town were the inhabitants of the old folks' home. Their lives followed the usual course of meals, cat-naps and, for the luckier ones, visits from family and friends. Most had never heard of Dolly Parton as their taste inclined towards boeremusiek.
The night of the Country and Western celebration at the Welcome Inn drew nearer. Christina enquired of her "friends" in Waterfontein whether they had heard anything concerning the arrival of Dolly Parton. None had and seemed most surprised to hear she was expected. In fact, those she approached were patently disbelieving. One asked whether she was joking; another ticked her off for spreading outrageous stories (she was promptly struck off Christina's Christmas card list!) and a third contacted Christina's best friend in Prentberg, Hilda Jacobs, and asked whether she had lost her wits.
Christina was greatly incensed at the response to her enquiry and complained loudly to Hans about the fickleness of friends, whether they could possibly be right, and if so whether it was worth attending the event. He was looking forward to an evening when he could openly enjoy the company of his mates and get as many beers under his belt as Christina would allow, so Hans was quick to reassure her.
"Don't take any notice of that lot! It's just jealousy because she's coming here and not performing in Waterfontein, that's all."
"Perhaps," Christina agreed dubiously. "Though it does seem rather odd that she should, don't you think?"
"Not at all," he replied quickly. "Our village is far nicer, far more beautiful than Waterfontein. I've heard it called the jewel in the crown!"
Christina looked at her husband above her half-moon reading spectacles. "Don't push it Hans. Jewel in the crown my eye!"
When the Waterfontein singers arrived on The Night (for indeed it was they), they were somewhat surprised to find a demonstration taking place outside the Welcome Inn, the squatters from the informal settlement giving full vent to their feelings by chanting, toyi-toyiing and waving banners. Their new lead singer, a dark, stringy type of highly nervous disposition went into panic mode.
"Why are they here?" he breathed. "What could we have done to provoke them?"
"Relax, Donnie. It's got nothing to do with us. How could it?" The keyboard player was calmly reassuring but Donnie was having none of it.
"Are you sure all our songs are politically correct? Look, there's one protester with a placard denouncing me personally!" His voice became shrill with consternation.
"Come on, you're imagining it."
"No I'm not. It says 'Down with D.P.' What could I possibly have done to annoy them?"
His fellow bandsmen carted him off to the nearest pub to bolster his courage before the performance, wondering whether he was worth all the coddling as his anxiety neurosis, in the opinion of many, exceeded his talent.
However, on entering the public room where they were to play, Donnie Parkin perked up considerably. The place was crowded, the audience enthusiastic and dressed suitably for the occasion in cowboy gear. Many of them were wearing hats with his initials blazoned on the brims. This was more like it! So heartened was he by the exuberant welcome the band received that he exceeded himself and gave his best performance ever. So good was he that the audience forgave him for not being Dolly Parton and Ma Gouws for having got things wrong yet again! After his sterling performance, Donnie's fellow musicians decided that he was, after all, worth the headaches he gave them from time to time with his temperamental outbursts.
During the time the band took a break, the video of Meatloaf was shown. Donnie, carried away by euphoria, hunted for the receptionist to make a booking for the following year and tracked her down in the reception room. Marie heard him out and took pity on him.
"Listen, Donnie, this," waving a hand towards the noisy audience in the other room, "is a one off. I don't want to rain on your parade, but this has nothing to do with you! It's too complicated to explain, but take my word for it, if you come again next year you'll be lucky to have ten people at your do."
"But... " spluttered Donnie, then his eyes widened. "It's that mob out there, isn't it? They've taken against me for some reason and ruined our chances!"
"No, no," Marie soothed, beckoning to a passing musician who took Donnie off to the bar for another stiff brandy as the second half of the programme still lay ahead.
Everyone was having a grand time. The braai was done to perfection, memories of assurances given to the Dominee were quite forgotten, drinks flowed steadily and the mood grew more mellow as the evening wore on.
Even the squatters outside, after some initial confusion, began to enjoy themselves. When the musicians first started up, Mrs Shilowa quizzed her husband, Moses.
"Are you sure this is the right place? What kind of political gathering has music and food?" (They could all smell the meat braaing.)
"Of course it's the right place, woman," Moses blustered. "I was told by two people that this is where they were gathering. What's so strange about music at a political rally? We sing at ours!"
Mrs Shilowa gave him a penetrating look but said nothing further, and when Marie Minaar sent the remains of the braai out to the squatters, they were happy to discard their banners and placards and tucked into the food hungrily. A few even wandered inside in time for the second half of the performance.
After the video, Sarie turned to the women on either side of her.
"Oh, Meatloaf was lovely," she breathed.
Helga was quick to reply, "He was a fat, sweaty man, Sarie!"
"But I could see the whole story unfolding," Sarie protested.
"He was certainly passionate," Christina agreed reluctantly. "Quite an operatic performance, really, although the subject matter was rather gory."
"Not unusual for operas," Elaine said, grimacing.
Christina chose to ignore this comment from someone she would bet had never set foot in an opera house!
"Yes, he was convincing, let's give him that. The motorbike ride and crash were very realistic.
"And very sad," Sarie whispered. "I could just see his heart being ripped out of him and flying into the night like a bat out of hell!"
Her "sisters" eyed her uncomfortably, seeing she was close to tears.
"It was only a song, Sarie," Marion Klopper said kindly. "Not real, you know? Only pretend."
Christina suddenly realised that Hans was swaying on his feet and had become very loud.
"There's someone here who's about to learn the difference between pretence and reality," she said, getting to her feet. "His bubble's about to burst as he won't be staying for the second half. I'm taking him home right now. If I wait any longer, he'll have to be carried out feet first!"
For months after the event, the Country and Western evening provided a talking point for the villagers. Years later they were still to refer to it as "that time Dolly Parton came to town," much to the mystification of outsiders who had been completely unaware that the singer had been to South Africa, never mind visited a dump like Prentburg!