Friday, January 12, 2018

The Heist by Beryl Ensor-Smith

Small-town South African couple Bennie and Elaine get a taste of the big city high life in Waterfontein; by Beryl Ensor Smith.

When Bennie and Elaine Ferreira returned from their six-week cruise, there was much talk among the villagers, most of it less than kind.

"They're very full of themselves," Marion Klopper said indignantly, "not at all interested in what's been going on here, just go on endlessly about all the exciting things they've experienced since they left."

"That's probably because nothing much happens here," Rina van Wyk sighed, "and from what Elaine's told us about their cruise, it sounds heavenly."

"If you ask me," Christina du Plessis sniffed, "she was hoping to meet up with that singer from a cruise ship that she once had an affair with."

"That was just gossip," Helga Swanepoel reproved. "There wasn't a grain of truth in that rumour. Elaine and Bennie are devoted to one another."

"Perhaps," Christina replied sulkily, "but you can't deny that since they've been back they are more interested in the friends they met on the ship than in us!

Many women in the group nodded in agreement.

"And Elaine is beside herself because they took up with a posh couple from Waterfontein on the cruise and have been invited to a costume party. The way she's carrying on, they'll be mixing with royalty!" Marie Minaar sounded as petulant as she felt. How was it that the most boring couple in Prentburg was having a better social life than she, the receptionist of the only hotel in the village. It wasn't fair; she should be the one meeting rich travellers and being invited to their parties, but the hotel guests of the last few months had been a dead loss!

Bennie and Elaine were quite unaware that they were the target of such ire, he being good-natured and expecting the best from the folk he knew, she, because she had been in the front of the queue when beauty was being dished out, but right at the back when it came to brains. The party invitation was salvation as far as Elaine was concerned; she had been dreading a return to their usual hum-drum existence. She was bored with their Prentberg friends and rather in awe of the couple who had extended the invitation as they were definitely a cut above the locals.

"We have to come up with a novel idea for our costumes, Bennie. What couples from the past can you think of that others won't? We want to be original. There'll be dozens of Cleopatras and... and whoever; was it Nero?"

"Julius Caesar and later, Mark Anthony."

"Well, not them, nor any other well-known couples that are usually trotted out at costume parties."

"Napoleon and Josephine? Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette? Heloise and Abelard?" he supplied helpfully.

"Whoever," she replied, looking dazed. "None of them." Her mind skittered off in a new direction. "Sarah said they've invited sixty couples. Can you imagine having so many friends?"

"Can you imagine the expense?" Bennie replied. "It sounds a bit over-the-top to me. I'd prefer a braai to be honest."

Elaine frowned her disapproval. "This is a chance to meet new people, high-class people. Come on, Bennie, think! You're the one who reads biographies and such. Who did you find interesting, but it needs to be a couple, mind, and not some dry old sticks from history."

Bennie racked his brains. "I found Bonnie and Clyde very interesting," he said hesitantly, "but they were villains, so you won't want to go as them."

"Were they young and good-looking? Tell me about them," Elaine demanded.

"Much younger than us," Bennie replied, and gave her a brief description of the pair and their exploits during the Great Depression.

Elaine was entranced. "You're brilliant, Bennie. We'll go as them." She airily waved aside his doubts as to their being suitable candidates because of the difference in their ages.

"We're not that old Bennie. Make-up does wonders and I'm a dab hand at it! We need to find out what the fashions were when they were busy robbing banks."

"I'll call up some pictures on-line," he said reluctantly, but after that it's up to you to get us togged up in the right gear." Bennie rather regretted having come up with the idea. He was to regret it even more when he saw what Elaine produced for him to wear!

His misgivings grew as the party drew nearer. What did they really know about the Waterfontein couple? True, they had been pleasant company on board ship when they had arranged to sit together at theatre performances and participate in other on-board entertainments, but attending a posh 'do' in the wealthiest suburb in Waterfontein with fifty-nine other couples, all strangers? Mixing with the upper-crust would be interesting, but wouldn't he feel far happier with his own kind? He enjoyed the company of Hans du Plessis and David Klopper more than that of the suave Gerald Montgomery-Waterson, charming though he had been. Not wanting to spoil Elaine's enjoyment, Bennie kept his doubts to himself.

Elaine, meanwhile, browsed through clothes in the village charity shop, earning some questioning, antagonistic looks from the poor who frequented it as she was clearly not one of them. She did not notice and rummaged happily, emerging with a pair of men's wide grey flannels, floral waist-coat and dated jacket that had been in the shop for years. Regular clients watched in disbelief as Elaine triumphantly bore her booty off to the cash desk. This woman with her appalling taste was clearly no threat to any of them!

Bennie now catered for, she begged and borrowed from the aged crones Ma Gouws and Mrs Merton for suitable items of clothing for herself. Ethel Merton sent her up to the attic to dig around in an old trunk containing some of her own long-deceased mother's clothes and grumpily agreed to her borrowing a narrow, mid-calf pale green skirt and matching fitted jacket. Ma Gouws hobbled off to her bedroom and returned with a head-hugging grey felt hat with artificial foliage and multi-coloured flowers above the upturned brim. She also held out a dusty-looking fox fur and gave it a shake, while Elaine stood transfixed in the motes that emanated from its tatty coat, her eyes nearly as glassy as those of the long-dead beast. She managed a strangled "thanks" when it was thrust into her arms and fled before Ma Gouws thought of anything else she could use.

"Look at this!" she cried on returning home, holding it out for Bennie's inspection, "have you ever seen anything so... so ghastly?"

Bennie eyed the sad object and smiled complacently. "It's just the ticket, exactly what was worn by ladies of that era." Seeing his wife's crestfallen face, he felt ashamed of his desire to punish Elaine for the manky items she had produced for him to wear. (Who knew what unwashed bodies had last worn them?)

"I'll cart everything off to the dry-cleaners," he consoled. "That fur will look heaps better once it's been cleaned."

They had decided that as the party was likely to continue well into the night and the trip home from Waterfontein quite a distance, it would be wise to sleep over at an hotel there, especially after a few drinks. It was to be held in a gentlemen's club, The Athenian, where only the elite qualified for membership.

"Do you suppose that after a certain time we'll be expected to buy our own drinks?" Bennie fretted when they woke up on the day. "I should have drawn more cash."

"Let's leave this morning, get some from a bank in Waterfontein, go to our hotel for lunch and take our time changing into our outfits," Elaine suggested.

This excellent suggestion went out of the window when they received a summons from her mother in Boompies, a town the other side of Waterfontein.

"She's had another of her funny turns," Elaine told Bennie, her hand over the receiver while her mother vented, "we'll have to pop in to reassure her, Bennie." Divining that he might use this as an excuse to opt out of attending the party, she quickly added, "it just means changing into our costumes here before we leave. We'll still be able to get to the bank in Waterfontein before Saturday early-closing and go straight from there to mom's. We can spend as much time with her as she needs. Once she's OK we can either go to the hotel or to the party, depending on how late it is."

"What if she needs hospitalisation?"

"She doesn't. The doctor's been and left some pills. She's more lonely than sick, Bennie, and has too much time to think scary thoughts."

"It's time she moved into a retirement home. She has the means, and she would have company."

"We'll discuss it later, but now we'd better get a move on."

The journey to Waterfontein was uneventful and they arrived at the bank half an hour before it was due to close. While Bennie hunted for a parking space Elaine went ahead of him into the bank and was dismayed to see long queues at the ATMs just inside the revolving doors. Walking from the foyer into the bank, she saw that the queues at the tellers were equally long. Why did people leave everything till the last minute, she wondered, gazing around and summing up the situation. Well, she and Bennie certainly weren't going to hang about waiting in ATM queues; they'd just have to hope the party drinks were on the house! She turned and made her way back towards the foyer, bumping into a man as he brushed roughly past her. She had left the awful fox fur in the car, but even in her old-fashioned outfit Elaine's exceptional good looks made her the focus of attention of all whose eyes settled on her, the clumsy oaf included. He hesitated in his stride, bold admiration in his glance as he leaned into her and murmured, "You're lovely, but take my advice and get out of here."

"What do you mean?" she asked wide-eyed.

"Just go!" he said, giving her a push towards the door.

Meeting Bennie at the bank's entrance, Elaine grabbed his arm.

"Let's go, Bennie. The bank's full of people, we can't get near the ATM's and I've just been jostled by some weirdo with toothache."

"Toothache?" he echoed, bemused, his mind on her comment about the crowds.

"He had a scarf wound round his mouth and chin. He should be at the dentist, not the bank!"

"We should have remembered it's month end," Bennie replied, "and many workers from the oil refinery will be drawing cash. We'll just have to hope tonight's drinks are paid for," echoing her earlier thoughts.

They descended the stairs from bank building to pavement just as another influx of people pushed past them, crowding them against the wall in their hurry to get into the bank.

"How rude!" Elaine gasped, while Bennie turned to stare at their retreating backs.

"All men in bulky jackets," he said, puzzled.

"All pigs!" she amended. "Where did you park the car?"

Later Bennie was to recall their conversation and the events leading up to it, but at that time they were intent on getting to Elaine's mother's house, after which the party loomed large.

All in all it proved to be rather disappointing. The Montgomery-Watersons were warm and welcoming, but seeing the ornate costumes worn by the other guests Elaine soon regretted that she and Bennie had not chosen a more glamorous couple to portray, however hackneyed. They were like fish out of water and were treated with polite condescension by other party-goers rather than with genuine interest. Like Bennie, they, too, felt more comfortable with their own kind!

"You live and learn," he said while driving back to Prentburg. "We should have had the common sense to know that some relationships are transitory; ships passing in the night. Our real friends are our old friends. We put up with their nonsense and they put up with ours!"

Elaine pouted. "Let's hope so. They're thoroughly fed up with us at present." Meeting his questioning gaze, she added, "They feel let down Bennie, and with some cause. All we've talked about since getting back is the party and it turned out to be a bummer. I'm going to tell them so. It'll make them feel better and more forgiving."

Bennie smiled at her. He knew something about Elaine that others didn't. While in the conventional sense she wasn't particularly bright, she could be surprisingly astute and knew instinctively just how to soothe ruffled feathers.

"I'll also tell them that while I was decked out in Ma Gouws's flea-bitten fox fur, the high-society ladies were swanning around in diamond tiaras and ball gowns. That'll make them laugh," smiling ruefully. Bennie felt a rush of affection for his unusual wife.

She was proved right in her predictions. Even Christina du Plessis' attitude softened when Elaine described what a humbling experience it had been for her and Bennie, sparing nothing in the telling of the tale and reducing the church sisters to giggles.

"Well you learned a valuable lesson," Christina said reprovingly. "Birds of a feather!"

Bennie was more economical in describing what had happened to his mates but taking his lead from Elaine, made no bones about how disastrous the whole venture had been. He started with their frustrating and abortive visit to the bank, went on to say how out-of-place they had felt at the party and concluded with the news that Elaine's mother would soon be coming to live with them.

"Hey man, that's tough," Hans du Plessis commiserated. "One woman in the house is enough of a challenge, but two?"

David Klopper was more interested in what Bennie had said about the bank.

"That's the bank where the heist took place," he exclaimed, "on the same morning you were there. You must only just have missed it!" Seeing Bennie's blank look he went on to tell him news that had not yet reached his ears. The bank he had been hoping to draw money from had been cleared out by a group of well-organised robbers who had held customers and staff hostage while looting the tills and vault. No-one had been hurt, but the perpetrators had got clean away with vast sums of money.

"What time did it happen?" Bennie wanted to know.

"Shortly before it was due to close. Apparently a couple cased the joint before the main flank of gangsters moved in, a man with a scarf hiding his face and a striking woman dressed in an old-fashioned suit, possibly green. They conferred after looking around and left separately."

Bennie's brain worked overtime. He remembered Elaine complaining about a man with toothache jostling her and mentioning something about a scarf. As for the striking woman in the dated green outfit... he had a horrible feeling it might be Elaine!

"Were statements taken from witnesses?" he asked in alarm.

"Yes and they only added to the confusion. The bank was full of customers drawing money and their descriptions differed wildly. Some said the man was short, some claimed he was tall; that the woman was dressed in green, turquoise, grey, and so on. The only things they agreed on was that she was a looker and that when their thieving buddies arrived, they tugged balaclavas over their heads and drew guns from their jackets as they came in from the foyer."

"Oh," said Bennie, deciding that it would be best to keep quiet about his suspicions until he'd talked to Elaine, which he would do very circumspectly so as not to alarm her. After all, he could be totally wrong. He hoped to God he was!

She, too, had heard the news from the church sisters at their AGM.

"Bennie, you'll never believe it but there was a robbery at that Waterfontein bank we went to! Helga says they got cleared out on the very day we were there. Men touting guns and hiding their faces terrorised the customers and locked the staff up in the men's loos. How disgusting is that? The police are asking for information from the public to help catch them."

Bennie swallowed. Thankful that she had introduced the topic, he cleared his throat and asked, "Did they say anything about a couple casing the joint beforehand?"

"Yes, a man and a woman apparently came in and sussed out the situation before their mates arrived to rob the bank."

"Do you think the fellow with toothache who bumped into you had anything to do with it?" he asked innocently, holding his breath. So much depended on her answer; he would feel duty bound to report their presence at the scene if they could add anything to what the police already knew.

"Him?" Elaine retorted scathingly, "never! He was only interested in giving me the eye."

Bennie breathed out in great relief; they were off the hook!

"He was a cheeky so-and-so," Elaine mused, stirring the pot of tea she had just made, "hustling me out of the bank, telling me to go. Who was he to throw his weight around? Some people! " She shook her head in wonderment and passed him the cup of tea she had just poured.

Bennie groaned, too distracted to take it from her. He gave way to a fit of depression. Their lives were about to become a lot more complicated, and the gossips in the village would have a field day at their expense. He and Elaine would pay a high price for their pretensions! Add to this that his hypochondriac mother-in-law would soon be moving into their spare bedroom. He reached for the tea Elaine was still waiting patiently for him to take, gulped down some of the scalding liquid and let out a yell of pain. Could life get any worse?

6 comments:

  1. Oh dear! A reinvigorating visit to Christina and her community - a brilliantly humorous tangle of aspirations, assumptions and human frailty. Many thanks, Beryl,
    Ceinwen

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  2. Ceinwen beat me to it! Her comments ring true - and I might add another fun romp with this ongoing wonderful series. The undertone of the human element, all the while the tickle of the funny bone. Great story, Beryl!

    Jim

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  3. as usual, totally convincing characters with their inherent weaknesses caught up in a wonderfully inventive situation.
    Exceellent, Beryl
    Mike McC

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  4. Engaging story and characters. It could have been over the top, but turned out to be very believable.

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  5. Thank you Ceinwen, Jim, Mike and Dave for the kind comments. Much appreciated.
    Beryl.

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  6. This is the first of the series that I've read, but it was fun and I'll see if I can find the earlier stories. Thank You.

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