Monday, July 17, 2017

The Feud by Beryl Ensor-Smith

Beryl Ensor-Smith takes us back to South African backwater Prentburg for another comic story of gossip and misunderstanding, this time with a cute little kitten.

"A storm in a tea-cup," Christina du Plessis said loftily, on first hearing about the upset between Helga Swanepoel and Suzie Lamprecht.

"I've always maintained that pets cause nothing but trouble, and that spoilt pig-of-a-dog of Helga's is the worst of the lot!"

Rather harsh words to say of Helga's beloved poodle, Bianca, but one with which many of the church sisters agreed. While many rather liked poodles, Bianca did the breed no favours. She, unlike most of her clan, was a dog of little brain and nervous disposition and had made the mistake, when unexpectedly encountering Suzie's newly-adopted kitten, of reacting in fright by pouncing on the much smaller animal and sinking her teeth into it.

Neither the cat nor Suzie took kindly to the attack. The ferocity with which Suzie defended her pet surprised the entire sisterhood when Helga regaled them with an indignant description of what had transpired.

"She swore at Bianca using an expression that would have shocked Dominee Seibrandt to the core and aimed a vicious kick at her! If it had connected, it would have sent Bianca flying. I couldn't believe my eyes, and when I objected, she swore at me!"

"Was the kitten hurt?" animal lover Sarie Blignault asked anxiously.

"Dot? Well, er, a small laceration needing only a few stitches." Meeting looks of disapproval from some of the church sisters, Helga continued hastily: "Despite her despicable behaviour I advised Sarie to take her feline to Dries van Blerk, seeing the Waterfontein vet has retired, not before time in my opinion, being far too fond of the bottle. What's more, I told her I'd pay Dries's bill," she added self-righteously.

"Dries is a farmers' vet and deals with big animals; bulls and horses and the like," Christina criticized. "He doesn't handle domestic pets."

"Well he handled this one," Helga snapped, "he stitched it up and it's as good as new, yet did I get thanked by Suzie for my suggestion? Not a bit of it. You'd think that pathetic waif she's taken in was a valuable, highly-pedigreed animal the way she carried on, instead of something feral that came out of the bush!"

Suzie was not normally given to bad-tempered outbursts but at the time of the fracas between Bianca and Dot she was feeling particularly fragile. She had just turned forty and it had finally struck her that she was destined to remain a spinster, when for so long her dearest wish had been to meet the right man, marry, and travel the world with him. When she was in her twenties there had been some offers from men who were nice enough but dead boring. She didn't want to spend ten minutes in their company, never mind a lifetime! Since then matrimonial opportunities had tapered off until they had dried up completely. The last man to show any romantic interest in her had been the widower Geldenhuys, but by then she'd become aware of his unhealthy fondness for the macabre and had gone off him completely. Behind that immaculate façade lurked a ghoul who gave her the creeps!

Dot had slipped into her kitchen on a dank and cold winter's morning and mewed piteously. Suzie had taken one look at the bedraggled, skinny kitten and bonded with it, another lost and lonely soul. When Bianca attacked Dot Suzie's repressed maternal instincts took over and it was just as well her aim was off when she tried to kick Helga's pet, for her intention at that moment was to kill the beast who threatened the tiny orphan who had sought her protection. Later, she was horrified by the savagery of her response and by the time she had tracked down Dries van Blerk and brought Dot to his farm surgery, she was in tears. Not the best way to launch an appeal for help from a complete stranger, with her blotchy face and smeared make-up, her blouse covered in Dot's blood, but Dries was moved to kindness by their distress and took time and care to calm both patient and owner before tackling a delicate and quite complicated repair on an animal that could fit into the palm of his hand. Dries was a bear of a man, Suzie thought, feeling quite intimidated.

The unfortunate incident would probably have assumed far less importance and the two women soon become reconciled if Christina had not got into the act. When she met Suzie in the supermarket the next day, she didn't bother to hide her scepticism when Suzie said that Dries had spent twenty minutes repairing the damage Bianca had inflicted on Dot.

"Really?" Christina queried, her voice rising in disbelief, "Helga said it was a minor injury needing only one or two stitches." She looked reprovingly down her long nose at Suzie, whom she considered a flighty piece, liberal with the truth. "If Dries spent so long fixing things it was probably because you distracted him with your inane chatter, Suzie."

"Well, you're wrong! The reason it took so much time was because Dries spent a good five minutes hunting for a needle small enough to sew Dot up and then had to put in twelve stitches, so it just goes to show," with an angry toss of her head, "that Helga is a big fat liar! I'll give her 'one or two' stitches when I next see her."

Christina, being who she was, spread the word, not with malicious intent, but simply because she was quite unable to hold her tongue. As happens when a story is passed from one set of lips to another, the facts became distorted. It was only a matter of time before Helga heard through the grapevine that Suzie had threatened to harm her physically as well as calling her fat and a liar. Both labels hurt. She was big-boned and slightly overweight but spent a good two hours daily running around the district in her sports gear, often uphill to the reservoir, so she was fit rather than fat! She also considered herself to be a woman of impeccable moral standards; one who would never deliberately lie.

"Suzie's mental," she said bitterly when some of the church sisters dallied after the next Sunday service, which Suzie had failed to attend.

"It wouldn't surprise me at all," Christina agreed. "If I were you, I'd watch my back!"

Helga looked at her in growing alarm.

Suzie, meanwhile, was in the throes of her mid-life crisis, full of self-doubt and confusion. Her new pet was on the mend and doing better than she was. She had even managed to make a fool of herself at the vet's surgery. While Dries was stitching up Dot, sedated with anaesthetic, he had advised Suzie to have the cat neutered when the time was right.

"Spayed? I never thought of that, but definitely yes. The last thing I need is the arrival of a litter of kittens," she had replied, wide-eyed.

"That's hardly likely to happen." Bent over his task, she could hear the amusement in the vet's voice. "Your cat Dot is a male. Perhaps you should change his name to Don?"

"Perhaps," she had muttered, acutely embarrassed, wondering how she would be able to face Dries again when Dot's stitches needed to be removed. She had never before felt at such a disadvantage with a man. Usually she flirted with them, maintaining the upper hand, but apart from the fact that she was in no mood to flirt, this was hardly the right setting and Dries clearly thought her an idiot. But how was she supposed to be able to tell with a cat? It wasn't like a dog, with everything hanging out. Feeling more inadequate than ever, when she got home Suzie wept into Dot/Don's furry neck.

Her absence at the church service had been noticed. Normally Helga, as Chairwoman of the church sisters' guild, would have been the one to call round to find out why. In the circumstances this was not going to happen. Helga, to put it mildly, was livid at the slurs Suzie had cast on both her appearance and her character. She was also somewhat fearful about the threats Suzie was said to have made to maim her and had lost some sleep wondering what form the attack would take. She had no intention of courting danger by calling at Suzie's house. Suzie's absence at church could be part of a diabolical plot to lure her to do just that, and once inside, who knew what weapons Suzie had gathered or fashioned to carry out her threat? The fact that Suzie was half her own size, small and slender, did not reassure Helga. It didn't take a giant to throw acid into someone's face or inject them with something nasty, as had recently happened to Kim Jong Un's half-brother, Kim Jong Nam. After all, if the North Korean president could be suspected of orchestrating the murder of his half-brother, what chance of mercy could she expect from unpredictable Suzie, who was no relation at all?

While Helga fretted herself into a state of fright, Suzie resorted to self-help books to try to lift the gloom that blighted her usual chirpy spirits. She was seen in the queue of the local library by Marion Klopper, both waiting to have their books stamped.

"Remember when she consulted a psychic in Durban?" Marion whispered to the group of women at their next gathering for tea, this time at the Welcome Inn, all being heartily disenchanted with the dismal standards of the Astonishing Café where they usually met. "Well, she's up to the same tricks again. One of the books she chose was 'Disabling your Disability', whatever that means, and the other was 'Mind Control through something-or-other', I couldn't see what, because it was under the other book." (The part she had missed was "through meditation"; an important omission in the circumstances.)

"It wasn't a psychic," Christina corrected haughtily, "it was a fortune-teller. It's also quite clear to me what those books are about. The disability that Suzie intends disabling is Helga, and she's going to do it through mind control!"

Mrs Merton, well into her nineties, had that day decided to join the other 'sisters' for tea. Nowadays she found it difficult getting around, driving being a real challenge with her poor eye-sight and slow reactions, and walking now required the aid of a stick. She was, however, mentally as sharp as ever and quick to put someone in their place when she thought they needed taking down, as on this occasion.

She glared at Christina. "Hogwash!" she declared scathingly, "I've never heard such nonsense in my life. This is Suzie you're talking about; butterfly-brain! She never knows what she wants from one minute to the next, never mind plotting and swotting up how to exact retribution." She pondered a moment before adding grudgingly, "to give her credit, at heart she's a kind woman and quite harmless."

"The very type that needs watching," Christina retorted acidly. "The neighbours and friends of most murderers are always surprised and describe them as being kind and harmless!"

Meanwhile Suzie moped while Dot/Don showed his gratitude for being given a home in the only way he knew how, by depositing offerings of his daily catches at Suzie's feet; lizards, mice, birds, and when the pickings were lean, grasshoppers and even a chameleon.

"I wish you'd stop," Suzie told him sternly, "I know you mean well, but I'm warning you, the day you bring a snake home is the day you hit the road again!" The cat stared lovingly at her with his green eyes and wound himself around her legs, purring.

On the day he was to have his stitches removed, Suzie, who normally took pride in her appearance, didn't bother. It was too late to make an impression on Dries who had seen her at her worst, so she wore her old jeans and a T-shirt, slapping on a bit of lipstick at the last minute purely out of habit.

"Let's get this done," she said to the cat, settling him in the front passenger seat. Living wild had taught him to accept new experiences, but with caution. He had grown to trust Suzie so stretched his long neck and looked out of the window, interested in all he saw.

"A lot more lively now than the last time we came this way," she teased.

Dries van Blerk certainly found the cat more difficult to handle this time around and came close to being scratched before the last stitch was removed.

"He's pretty feisty," he said with a rueful grin. "Much harder to handle than a cow, that's for sure. What have you decided to name him, Dot or Don?"

"Neither," Suzie retorted. "I've decided to call him Marco. He's brave and adventurous so I've named him after Marco Polo, the explorer."

Dries burst out laughing. "My word. I hope he can live up to your high expectations!"

"What do I owe you?" Suzie asked frostily, glaring at Dries who towered above her, resenting the fact that he found both her and Marco so diverting.

"Tell you what, " he replied, eyes twinkling, "have dinner with me one evening next week and we'll call it quits."

"Your wife would love that," her voice dripped sarcasm, "and I don't go out with..."

"I'm a widower," he interrupted gently. "Will you have dinner with me?"

Meanwhile the sisterhood had decided that Rina van Wyk was the right person to call on Suzie to persuade her to apologise to Helga and come back into church again. The two women had always got on well. Truth to tell, Suzie was feeling ashamed of the way she had behaved and the names she had called Helga, who might be a self-righteous bore but was sincerely devout and well-meaning. She put up a show of reluctance before agreeing to visit Helga, show regret for over-reacting, and attend the next Sunday service.

"You have to be sincere when you see Helga," Rina insisted. "You've really upset her. I've never seen her so distracted. It's like talking to a brick wall; her mind's far away and nothing registers."

"I'll go this afternoon," Suzie promised contritely, surprised that anything she could say or do would have such a profound effect on Helga.

True to her word she drove to Helga's house in the late afternoon after a fruitless day spent dithering and doubting her wisdom in agreeing to have dinner with Dries at a posh restaurant in Waterfontein the following week. Why had he asked her? Certainly not because he found her attractive! They'd met only twice; the first time she was an emotional wreck with swollen eyes and running mascara and the second, she'd been downright rude to him. He was an attractive man so couldn't be hard up for a date, so what was his case? Suzie was deeply distrustful of his motives. She also wondered why she had accepted his invitation just when she was becoming resigned to spinsterhood and wasn't even sure whether she liked him or not.

"OK," she had said, then added firmly, "but don't think that means you're going to get lucky!"

As she left the premises she could still hear him guffawing in his surgery. Was she stupid to have agreed or what?

Her mind still taken up with the oddness of it all, she strode down the path to Helga's front door, catching a glimpse of a curtain in the sitting room moving as she approached the house. Good, Helga was home. The sooner she got this stupid apology over and done with, the better. Suzie rang the bell and waited. No response. She rang again, impatiently, and called out, "I know you're there, I saw the curtain move. Open the door, Helga."

She heard scuffling from inside before a tremulous voice called out:

"Go away! I have a gun and intend to use it."

Baffled, Suzie retorted, "Why?"

"Why do you think? Go away. I'm taking aim this very minute!"

Surely she didn't mean...? Suzie went cold. How did one prevent a potential suicide? She hadn't a clue how to handle the situation tactfully and didn't try.

"You cut that out right now, Helga!" she bellowed. "Think of all you have to live for, the people who care for you."

It was now Helga's turn to be nonplussed. "That's precisely what I'm doing. Go away or I'll shoot! You've got one heck of a cheek even coming here," she added, filled with indignation at such effrontery.

"But I've come to apologise," Suzie sounded injured. "I'm really sorry that I upset you, Helga. I know I was out of line calling you names and didn't mean anything I said."

The door opened a fraction and one eye sized Suzie up. As she wasn't armed Helga decided to risk it. "You'd better come in," she sighed, opening the door fully, no sign of her non-existent gun anywhere. "We clearly need to talk."

And talk they did, at the end of which both parties felt mortified at their total misreading of the situation.

"I won't tell anyone that I thought you were going to assault me if you won't tell anyone you thought I was suicidal," Helga bargained.

"Done, and we never mention this again!"

Nor did they.

Once the church sisters realised that the rift between Helga and Suzie had been mended, they complimented Rina on her part in bringing this about. She basked in their praise while some of the sisterhood rather regretted that it had all proved to be the 'storm in a teacup' that Christina had predicted. Sometimes life in Prentburg could be very boring! However, their disappointment was short-lived as they soon had something new to gossip about; the growing romance between Dries van Blerk and Suzie.

"She always had an eye for the widowers," Christina bleated. "It's not that long ago she set her cap at the widower Geldenhuys and he was lucky to escape her clutches."

"That's not true and you know it," Marion chastised. "Once she realised he was obsessed with medieval forms of torture Suzie dropped him like a hot cake."

"Whatever," Elaine Ferreira got them back on track. "She obviously learned from that experience as she's certainly taking it slowly with Dries. She's being almost girlishly coy about getting involved."

"Just one of her tactics to keep him interested," Christina sniffed.

"Well I think it's lovely," Sarie said dreamily. "Perhaps there'll be a wedding soon."

"Not before time," Mrs Merton muttered. "That scatterbrain needs the guidance of a strong husband and Dries needs to lighten up a bit. Suzie's brand of nonsense will bring fun to any marriage!"

Only one woman present disagreed. In her opinion Suzie was a loose cannon, but being outnumbered, she resorted to aloof silence.

5 comments:

  1. another brilliant visit to the ladies, Beryl, carefully plotted misunderstandings and pomposity punctured, but all or most friends again. Till the next time!

    Great stuff

    Mike McC

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  2. An excellent return visit to Prentburg and the sisterhood - human foibles dancing to the musical beats of complex tunes. Thank you,Beryl,
    Ceinwen

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  3. It made me laugh a lot, and when one puts oneself in Suzie's shoes, quite touching really. I enjoyed the incongruity of the guffawing vet, and the subtlety of the misunderstandings.
    B r o o k e

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  4. You really need to string these together in some sort of compilation/collection/maybe an anthology (though, really more a collection as they follow the same characters and theme...). They are always a fun read and, more lately, offer a hidden gem in their subtle message. Keep 'um coming.
    Thanks
    Jim

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  5. Thanks Mike, Ceinwen, Brooke and Jim for your comments. Always good to hear from you and your feedback motivates me to keep writing. Perhaps I'll do as you suggest, Jim; an interest prospect.
    All the best,
    Beryl.

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