Friday, October 27, 2017

The Quilt by Beryl Ensor-Smith

In the sleepy South African town of Prentburg, the church sisters make a quilt to raffle off for the benefit of the squatters neighbouring the dorp, but the project does not go as planned; by Beryl Ensor-Smith.

"Well," sighed Marion Klopper, placing squares of white linen in the centre of the long table in the church hall, "here we go again! Our annual effort to make winters more comfortable for the squatters in the informal settlement."

"And with the same humbling result," her co-helper, Rina van Wyk muttered as she sorted embroidery threads and packets of needles into neat piles in front of chairs around the table. "All this unnecessary fiddling about," motioning with one hand, "because of one person's jealousy. It was so much easier when we could all do our own thing, but no, we must now mete out supplies so that no-one has anything better to work with than the next, and all for nothing. As always, Miems Gouws's square will outshine all the others."

"Do you know what annoys me most? That Christina has imposed this on us and will find some excuse to opt out of producing a square herself, as usual."

"It's no great loss. If she did manage to complete one it would ruin the quilt, judging from the mangled efforts of those she's found a reason to discard. No-one would buy a raffle ticket if Christina's embroidery is included."

The two women looked at one another and descended into giggles.

The husband of the subject under discussion, Hans du Plessis, arrived at the church premises an hour and a half later to bring some documents needing verification by a Commissioner of Oaths to Dominee Seibrandt, who, courteous as always, invited Hans to have a cup of tea or coffee before leaving.

"The church sisters are in the garden enjoying theirs, but you'll find everything in the kitchen, some delicious koeksisters too; I can highly recommend them!"

Having a sweet tooth, this struck Hans as a good idea. As he made his way to the kitchen on the far side of the hall he passed a window and caught a glimpse of the church sisters in the garden at the side of the church. Hans decided, on impulse, to poke his head into the church hall to have a look at their work in progress. Christina had been moping and sighing for days about the difficulties of finding a suitable pattern. More than once he'd been tempted to tell her she was fretting unnecessarily as she would invariably be afflicted by some unknown ill that would prevent her from contributing to the quilt, but he wisely thought better of it. The consequences would have been dire!

He collected a cup of coffee and a koeksister from the kitchen and made his way stealthily into the hall. Wandering around the table he realised it was a wasted sortie, as apart from a few open magazines and books of embroidery patterns, there was little to be seen; none of the women had yet started sewing, the linen material in each one's place pristine and untouched. Turning away, Hans bumped into one of the chairs and coffee splashed out of his cup onto the white square beneath. He watched in horror as two brown stains spread on the fabric, one large and one small. He did what any sensible man would do in the circumstances; fled the scene of the crime as quickly as possible, taking care not to be seen as he left through the kitchen door and snuck round the opposite side of the church from where the woman were taking their refreshments. Once home he consoled himself with the thought that a new piece of linen would be given to the woman whose square he had spoilt.

When Christina arrived back she was full of the news, gleeful in her telling of it.

"After tea we found that someone had splashed coffee all over Miems's bit of cloth." (All over? Just two stains, he was inclined to object, but bit his tongue.)

"Well, this year at last we'll have someone other than Miems producing the best work." Her voice was full of satisfaction. "We're all allocated only one set of materials and if anything happens to them, tough luck!" She omitted to add that the reason for this limitation was because of the many times she had messed up three or four of the expensive linen squares before conceding defeat and finding a compelling reason for opting out. The church sisters now took bets as to what her latest excuse would be, the money going into their charity tin!

"But surely in a case like this an exception would be made, as it was no fault of Miems'?" Hans protested in dismay.

"Rules are rules and have to be abided by," Christina said sternly.

Hans with all his faults was a stickler for honest dealing, possibly because he was a retired bank manager. Overwhelmed with remorse for causing Miems to be excluded, he rashly suggested:

"Angel, seeing you don't enjoy handcraft why don't you give your lot to Miems? After all if her embroidery is the best, the quilt will be poorer without her effort."

The moment the words were out he wished them back, but too late. Christina bent on him a look that chilled his blood.

"Thank you for that vote of confidence in my abilities," she screamed. "You'll rue the day!"

He already did.

A miserable Hans reckoned without Ma Gouws, mother of Miems. Feisty as ever in her nineties, when Miems arrived home, cheeks streaked with tears that had got the better of her once she was alone, her mother demanded:

"What's the matter, daughter?"

Miems told her what had happened.

"Who's responsible?" the old lady urged.

"We don't know, but what does it matter?"

Ma Gouws had finally conceded to wearing hearing aids instead of battling with the ear horn she had insisted on using for so many years. Once she got used to them she was delighted at the difference they made, her hearing much improved.

"When I find them, I'll fix them!" she said darkly.

Miems looked at the frail old woman with the heart of a lion, love welling up in her. "Ah, ma, I'll just have to accept what's happened."

"No you won't. Let me look at that piece of cloth."

After inspecting it, she said: "Miems, the big stain looks like the head of a donkey; you could do something with that."

"Ma, our squares are all on biblical themes."

"So, there was a donkey on Palm Sunday! The folk who win the raffles for the quilts must be heartily sick of sleeping under burning bushes, crowns of thorn, pestilences, avenging angels and other scary things. Give them something cheerful. Give them a donkey with Jesus on its back!"

Miems looked at the stained cloth again, then said despairingly, "It's too high up. If I design a donkey in proportion, there'll be no room for Jesus unless I have Him crouched over like a jockey and that isn't an option ma, so don't argue!"

"There's room on the left of the stain. You could have Him standing there, looking at it," Ma Gouws objected obstinately.

"There's nothing in the bible about Jesus inspecting donkeys; He had more important things to do! Besides, the small stain is too low down to fit into the donkey's legs without making them too long. Face it ma, it's just no use."

"Daughter you give up too easily. Think of the strong lady Prime Minister in England. When she lost support after calling an early election, did she wring her hands and wail? No, she set about fixing things and that's what you should do, Miems."

"And that went well, didn't it?" Miems mumbled beneath her breath, giving her mother a wry look, wondering whether it was because she was an ex-school teacher that she kept up with international news or whether it was just because she was nosy. Probably the latter, she decided.

"Ma, I doubt even Theresa May could do anything with this stained bit of material," she pronounced, tossing it aside.

It was not in the nature of Ma Gouws to be beaten by something so trivial as a quilting square. She brooded about it long into the night, which at least gave her something to do other than read or get up to make tea. In the morning she had another look at the discarded piece of linen. Once she and Miems had eaten breakfast she took up the cudgels again.

"You are right in everything you've said, Miems, but what if you design things so that only the top half of the donkey shows, putting other animals in front of it; sheep, goats, pigs, a calf, whatever; that way you could make the small blotch into a tiny animal. You've a good brain, Miems, and you're artistic," she encouraged, "and there are lots of animals mentioned in the bible."

"Yeah, like lost sheep, fatted calves, slaughtered goats, unclean pigs and even an evil snake," Miems agreed, her sense of humour having returned. "You never give up, do you, ma?"

The church sisters were divided in their opinions as to the exclusion of Miems from contributing to their charity quilt. Most felt it unfair that she not be given another square to work on, but almost to a woman, knowing that for once the playing field had been levelled, they were motivated to produce something special. Ma Gouws would have been impressed with the ingenuity displayed in coming up with fresh ideas for their embroidery. All kinds of floral designs were incorporated, for "surely the garden of Eden had flowers as well as fruit?" Marion argued. Others included in their patterns rainbows, mountains and other scenic phenomena. There were even squares with Joseph in his coat of many colours, a voluptuous Salome striking a pose in her seven veils, eliciting from Mrs Merton a grumpy: "It's as well she hadn't got rid of them yet!" and an unsettling one of Judas Iscariot clutching silver coins in his hands, looking at them despairingly.

Only Sarie Blignault and newly-wed Suzie van Blerk paid visits to Miems to commiserate with her, Sarie because she was naturally sweet-natured, Suzie because marriage had had a softening effect on her usual perky indifference to the dramas in other people's lives.

"Sod them all for being so small-minded in not allowing you to contribute," she told a rather shocked Miems, "and whoever is responsible for the stains deserves a thrashing!"

The culprit, Hans, moped in a welter of guilt trying to think of a way to put things right. He decided, after much internal conflict, that he would have to own up and plead that Miems be given another piece of cloth to work on as the fault was entirely his. These plans were thwarted by his wife's, for Christina suddenly insisted that they had to visit her sister in Johannesburg without delay; her excuse for copping out of contributing to the latest quilt.

"Immediately, Hans," she instructed when he objected. "Hetty could hardly speak when she telephoned, her throat so sore and her chest so bunged up. She clearly needs my help while she's ill!" and she dragged him off before he could say "Jack Robinson", after sending an e-mail of apology to Helga for not being able to participate.

"She deserves a star for coming up with fresh excuses every time," Helga exclaimed in exasperation, faced with the derisive grins from members of the sisterhood.

Their quilt this year would be the best by far and tickets were selling fast in their community, with many more to come when they held their annual autumn fete which was open to the general public. They would be able to buy many more warm blankets for the poor than ever before and felt smugly satisfied with themselves for producing work of quality and imagination.

Miems continued to attend to her church duties, taking her job as a deacon very seriously. She called in to see how the 'sisters' were faring and was big enough in spirit to praise their efforts warmly, which made most of them squirm with guilt for not putting up a fight on her behalf. After a while the guilt turned to disquiet. They had all noticed that when Ma Gouws turned up on Sundays to play the organ (still very badly despite her hearing being better, her arthritic fingers striking many wrong notes), there was an enigmatic smile on her lips and a complacent gleam in her eye. Marion dismissed this oddity with a flippant:

"Don't read anything into it, she's old and decidedly odd these days."

"She's always been odd," Hilda van Dyk said wryly, "but this is something more. Something's going on here."

"Perhaps," Rina agreed, "but with Miems out of the picture, we have no reason to be concerned surely?"

They looked at one another in perplexity, their anxiety growing.

Three days before the squares had to be handed in, Christina and Hans arrived back to the news that Miems would, after all, be participating in the making of the quilt.

"She told Helga she has managed to salvage her square and has nearly finished her embroidery," Hilda, Christina's best friend, informed her.

"How?" Christina screeched. "Those coffee stains had set by the time we came back to the hall and I can't believe they came out even if she tried bleaching them." She wasted no time in phoning members of the sisterhood to try to find out more. They were as ignorant as she and could add little to what Hilda had told her.

"If she did use bleach," Marion said crossly, "it has probably altered the colour or texture of the material and won't fit in with ours."

"Then it has to be rejected, no doubt about it!"

Marion considered this to be strong opposition from someone who hadn't made any effort to contribute, but her disappointment stopped her from saying so. Christina, on the other hand, was unable to keep quiet and once home, told Hans:

"If I don't put a stop to it, Miems will weasel her way back into handing in a square!" Hope rising within him, Hans asked what she meant but Christina quickly changed the subject and refused to talk of it again. He decided to wait a few more days before revealing that he was the guilty party as maybe, just maybe, there would be no need to come clean?

There was much speculation among the 'sisters' as to how Miems had managed to eliminate the stains and they bombarded Helga with questions when she collected their handiwork.

"You'll be able to ask her yourself once Marie Minaar has stitched the squares together and the quilt is on display in the hall," she said annoyingly, "and you'll have to wait until then as I've told Marie that she is not to allow anyone to see it beforehand."

"Surely you didn't accept the one Miems made?" Christina objected vehemently, "whatever she did to that material must have altered it in some way, which is unacceptable!"

Helga, unlike Marion, was quite up to putting Christina in her place.

"Even more unacceptable is the criticism of someone who has yet to contribute to the making of a quilt," she said scathingly, "and I can assure you that the work Miems has produced cannot be faulted."

Christina stood with mouth agape and rushed home to tell Hans of this insult to her dignity and the reason for it. His response was infuriating. A look of profound relief crossed his face and he shouted, "Hallelujah!" pumping the air with one fist. He immediately realised he was in for it from Christina's baleful expression, but even that did not outweigh the gratitude that overwhelmed him for being let off the hook. When her back was turned he grabbed his car keys and made for the sports club, not caring that it was too early in the day for any of his mates to be there. He would celebrate his good fortune on his own!

The day came when the quilt was displayed in the church hall for all to view. Every one of the church sisters was there, agog to see what Miems had done with her stained material. They didn't have to search for it, for Marie had placed her square in the very centre of the quilt and even the most grudging member, Christina, could understand why. Not only was it unaffected and un-bleached, but Miems had used the tainted parts very cleverly, matching her embroidery threads with the colour of the stains and incorporating them into her design.

"It was my mother's idea," she said modestly, when showered with compliments. She had done as Ma Gouws had suggested, using the big stain as the head of a donkey with only part of his back on display, the rest of his body hidden by animals huddled together in front of him, looking fondly at St Francis of Assisi standing to one side, arms opened wide as he blessed them. (Miems had included a road sign with an arrow showing the direction to Assisi, to avoid any confusion as to who was doing the blessing!) Her embroidery was a work of art, each animal having its own personality.

"There's my Vonkel," cried Sarie, enraptured, pointing at the pig in the centre of the picture. She was speaking of the pink pig that was part of the menagerie she kept on her one acre property at the outskirts of the village. He was a talking point of all who saw her walking him daily along the lanes in the area, each time wearing one of the bow ties she had collected for him over time. "Oh, Miems, this is the best work you've ever done!"

"And there," breathed Suzie, pointing at the spot that was formerly the small stain, "is Marco, my kitten!" All gazed at the sleeping cat, curled into a ball, looking so lifelike they wanted to stroke him. "Put me down for fifty tickets. I want this quilt!"

The 'sisters' stared at her in bewilderment. Suzie had always been careful in her spending, despite having a rich inheritance from her father. Since marrying Dries this was another of the changes they had observed in her, an almost reckless abandonment of her former frugality.

When the quilt was raffled after the fete and she won, they were even more astonished when, after a moment's rueful hesitation, she handed the quilt to an astounded Sarie, saying, "You deserve this more than me. You're a much nicer person."

Sarie was speechless; her eyes widened and filled with tears. She reached for Suzie and clutched her in a fierce hug.

"Hey, don't go all soft on me now," Suzie said gruffly, hugging her back, "just enjoy the quilt."

In telling Hans about it later, Christina said in mystification: "I don't know what's come over the woman, giving that beautiful quilt away on a whim. What little sense she may once have had has deserted her completely since she's been married!"

"Well, my angel," he replied serenely, turning over the page of the newspaper he was reading, "who better to give it to than Sarie? She has so little."

"Perhaps," Christina agreed dubiously. "She said it was the best present she's ever received, but will she appreciate it?"

"It's probably the only present she's ever received. She has no family."

"I suppose it can't have been much fun being raised in an orphanage, but giving her that lovely quilt? She'll have all of her animals under it in no time, including that awful white rat she owns!"

"Look on it as being a happy ending," he advised contentedly. And the one who was happiest of all at the way things had turned out, was Hans himself!

7 comments:

  1. A refreshing and hilarious romp with the church sisters and the baleful Hans. Many thanks, Beryl,
    Ceinwen

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  2. once again a clever idea exposing the foibles of the ladies and gentleman, best of all nobody is really hurt, apart from their pride!
    Nice one Beryl

    Mike McC

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  3. Another entertaining visit to Prentburg, where the Sisters never fail to elicit a smile, if not an outright chuckle. I don't recall any of my bumbles quite working out as well as Hans'. ;-)
    Keep 'um coming
    Jim

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  4. The plot is rather like the quilt; intricate,ingenious, multi-layered, multi-stranded. The dialogue technique is a joy, and I enjoyed the humorous bible studies featuring Jesus adopting the posture of a jockey, and hapless Hans 'moping in a welter of guilt.' Well, I'm off to the Theatre Royal now for a coffee, bet they don't serve koeksisters there, pity!
    B r o o k e

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    1. Thank you Ceinwen, Mike, Jim and Brooke for your comments. Always good to hear from you.
      All the best,
      Beryl.

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  5. The idea you have posted is quite amazing and good from the Jesus point of view and I think this topic needs a more research work. Great share!

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    1. Thank you "Rush". Glad you enjoyed the story.
      Beryl.

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