The Make-Over by Beryl Ensor-Smith

The conservative South African villagers of Prentburg are troubled by the showy behaviour of Bennie Ferreira's mother-in-law.

The usual group of men met at the Sports Club at the weekend to watch their local rugby Sevens team get clobbered by the team from Boompies, a real disgrace considering Boompies was even smaller than their own village, hardly more than a hamlet.

"We need new blood," David Klopper said grimly, cradling his beer. "We should be choosing school-leavers, full of energy, instead of the breathless thiry-year-olds in our team."

"Useless," Hans du Plessis agreed, "they can't keep up the pace."

Other comments were offered by Frikkie van Wyk and Koos Venter, but the normally talkative Bennie Ferreira said nothing, staring abstractedly into his glass and looking pretty miserable.

"What's up with you, man?" Hans nudged him. "You look like you've got the troubles of the world on your shoulders."

Bennie produced a weak grin. "Not the troubles of the world; only a... an unfathomable mother-in-law."

"Ah, she's moved in then?" David queried.

"She has," Bennie looked cheerless again.

"This is Elaine's hypochondriac mother?" Hans said sympathetically.

"Ha! Not any longer. To quote her, she's 'reinvented' herself as she's starting a new life here in Prentburg. She's into weird self-improvement mantras and other funny stuff."

"When women get involved in that kind of thing, it's a bad sign," Hans said morosely.

"But why is it bad?" Koos asked. "It makes sense for her have a fresh take on life having moved away from all she's familiar with."

"Yes," Bennie agreed, "but why do the changes have to be so radical?"

"In what way?" Frikkie's interest was aroused.

"She's dyed her hair blonde, dresses half her age and has painted her finger and toenails scarlet!"

"Christina paints her fingernails," Hans offered, "but never her toenails. I asked her once why not and she said scathingly that only loose women paint toenails. It beats me. Why is it OK to do the one lot but not the other?"

Klaus van Dyk who had thus far offered nothing to the conversation grinned and said mischievously, "Perhaps because hands are attached to arms that end in armpits while feet are attached to legs that end..."

"Enough!" Frikkie van Wyk commanded, turning pink. He had a puritanical streak and could not bear even jocular crudity. He shifted uncomfortably on his bar stool wondering whether he should abandon his freshly poured glass of beer and go home.

"I wish Christina would tell my mother-in-law it's not on, Bennie said wistfully, "she looks like a Barbie doll! Before this she was respectable, you know, brown-haired and quiet. The only thing that was annoying about her was that she always had something imaginary wrong with her."

"And now?" queried Frikkie.

"Now she's all positive thinking and tinkling laughter." Bennie shrugged. "That would be alright if it wasn't so... so pseudo. To keep it up she's taken to drinking enough wine at dinner to send her to sleep in front of the TV before the nine-o'clock news!"

"Be thankful for small mercies," Hans intoned gloomily. "I wish Christina would re-invent herself and go to bed early."

He then had a pang of conscience at this criticism of his wife and fell silent.

They ordered another round but it did nothing to lift their spirits, and soon after, one by one, they left, leaving only Hans eking out his drink, putting off the moment when he would return home to face Christina's disenchantment at being left on her own all afternoon.

The widower Geldenhuys had finally reached a point in his life, after being 'retired' early through BEE staff cut-backs, when he felt satisfied with the way things had turned out. At first, feeling misused and resentful, he had become bitter, and it was only after Jan Badenhorst, the Municipal Manager for the district, had appealed to him for help with the malfunctioning water filtration plant that he felt valued again. Jan had managed, since the original repairs some two years earlier, to wrest from government a small allowance for continued maintenance. The widower Geldenhuys spent a full day each week checking to see that everything was functioning properly and twice a year 'borrowed' convicts from the prison on the Waterfontein road to service the plant. The same group of men volunteered each time and had come to look forward to the break in prison routine. This suited all parties, as with time and Francoise Geldenhuys's high standards, the prisoners became skilled, meeting new prison rehabilitation requirements, thus reflecting well on the governor.

The widower Geldenhuys earned a small wage and the gratitude of Prentburg residents, bolstering his ego to its former level of self-satisfaction, which unfortunately was not an endearing quality. He had long since become used to his own company and when occasionally he felt like socialising at the Sports Club, was treated with courtesy and respect, which was all he desired. The club, church services, and his weekly sortie to the local library were his sole contact with the human race, of which he had a rather low opinion.

On the most recent of his excursions to the library he left feeling decidedly grumpy, having read their limited stock of books on his favourite subject - medieval crime and punishment and anything related thereto - more than once. He now had no choice but to widen his net and was ploughing his way through crime novels, most of which he found disappointingly tame; not nearly gory enough to please him. His head bent as he walked to his car, he bumped into a woman of the kind he found despicable, a bottle-blonde in high heels and a skirt displaying far too much thigh. He brushed past her contemptuously, not giving her a second glance. She was rooting around in a carrier bag and lost her balance, just managing to avert a fall.

When she got to the place she now called home, Elmarie Nieuwoudt complained to her daughter about the oaf who had nearly sent her flying.

"Who was he?" Elaine asked.

"I don't know, do I, being new in this dorp," Elmarie replied querulously. "I never even saw the man 'cause I was too busy trying to stay upright!"

"Mom, those shoes you're wearing are downright dangerous with their stiletto heels."

"I expect you'd rather see me tattily dressed and in loafers?" huffed Elmarie and took herself off to the privacy of her room where she spent the next hour trying to fathom the intricacies of her new cell phone which had enough complicated apps to make her head spin. Her last one, a very old model, had been simple to use but this new one was, to put it mildly, downright frightening! Fiddling round on it, she found Google and just to try it out, requested a good chocolate cake recipe. While waiting for it to appear, an advert popped up on the screen and Elmarie looked at it thoughtfully. Why not? she thought, feeling elated. She should embrace her new life with courage, shouldn't she? After a second's hesitation, she clicked onto it and set in motion a sequence of events that would shake not only her world to its foundations, but many women in the dorp who she had not yet met completely out of their comfort zone!

The sisters of the church, when next they met for tea at the Astonishing Café (still failing to live up to is name) Elaine was absent from their midst. "Something's not right," Marion Klopper said decisively. "Elaine's missed the last two Sunday church services and our social get-togethers. It's not at all like her as she loves company."

"Well, her mother's now living with them and perhaps she's taking time to settle," Elsie Fourie offered, "so probably Elaine's reluctant to pick up her old routine until her mother feels more at home."

"We've seen neither hide nor hair of this mother of hers," Christina du Plessis's voice was aggrieved, "I'm beginning to wonder whether the woman even exists. What harm in bringing her to church on Sundays?"

"Perhaps she isn't religious or belongs to another faith?" Sarie Blignault offered ingenuously, earning looks of reproof from many in the group.

"Most unlikely," Helga Swanepoel replied loftily. "Elaine is firm in our faith and I can't imagine her with a traitorous mother! It is quite wrong of Elaine to keep her away from us. She must realise that we're all eager to meet her. If she doesn't bring her to church soon, we'll have to give her a prod."

That, of course, was the problem as far as Elaine was concerned. How could she possibly introduce the new, flighty stranger her mother had become to the conservative church sisters, who would thoroughly disapprove of someone so defiantly flashy? She suppressed a shudder at the mere thought of doing so, but how much longer could she prevaricate?

Her indecision was overtaken by events over which she had no control. The following Saturday evening when Bennie was away attending a meeting chaired by Jan Badenhorst and her mother in her bedroom, the front doorbell rang.

Elaine was surprised to find a complete stranger standing on the welcome mat, a very suave and self-confident man whose face lit up at the sight of her, nothing new to Elaine who was exceptionally beautiful. She looked him up and down from the silk cravat carelessly tucked into his open-necked shirt to his expensively shod feet. At 7:00 at night he could hardly be a sales person and certainly wasn't a religious nut in his costly, rakish attire, so who was he?

He answered the question himself, with a beguiling grin. "I'm Jason, and you, I take it, are Elmarie?"

"You take it wrong," Elaine replied drily, "Elmarie's my mother. Mom!" she yelled, turning away and missing his dismayed expression, "there's someone to see you. Wait and I'll fetch her," she bade, and with warnings flashing through her mind of unscrupulous villains gaining unlawful access to homes, closed the door in his face. She wasted no time knocking on her mother's bedroom door but opened it and said, "there's a smooth charmer outside wanting to see you."

"Oh," replied Elmarie breathlessly, fluffing her hair and spraying herself with perfume, "that will be Jason, my date."

"Your what?" Elaine demanded incredulously.

"My date," Elmarie said firmly. "I didn't tell you before because I knew you'd react this way. I went onto a dating site, quite an acceptable thing to do, so get over yourself, Elaine!" She picked up the beaded evening bag that went so well with the new, modish dress she was wearing and flounced out of the room. Elaine followed, looking stunned. When Elmarie looked round the hallway with raised eyebrows, Elaine said tersely, "He's outside."

Jason, narked at the treatment he had received and greatly disappointed in Elmarie's appearance (she looked common and was old enough to be his mother!) nevertheless managed a courteous "hello." Overcome with shyness (she thought he was gorgeous; elegant, and so handsome!) Elmarie plucked at her dress, fiddled with her earrings and was lost for words. Jason took charge of the situation.

"Did you have in mind having a drink here first, and where will we be dining? I didn't see any restaurants driving through the main street." A complete shit-hole, this place, so he was hardly surprised.

"I, er, well, this is all new to me. Should I have booked somewhere?" Elmarie stuttered, looking abashed.

"Only if you're hungry." Best to get this over and done with as soon as possible, he thought, conjuring up a false smile. "If not, we can make our way straight to the hotel, or," looking hopefully, eagerly, at Elaine, "did you perhaps intend having a threesome here?"

The posse of church sisters arrived fifteen minutes later, intending to initiate a meeting with Elaine's mother. Helga rang the bell imperiously. There was shuffling before a clearly distressed Elaine yelled through the locked door, "I've given you every cent in my purse, you swine; now go away and leave us alone!"

The women looked at one another in astonishment.

"Elaine... it's us, the church sisters," Rina van Wyk called tentatively.

A few seconds passed before the latch turned and the door opened a crack. Elaine took one look at the group of women standing on her doorstep and burst into tears.

They were not to meet her mother that evening. After the fiasco, Elmarie had let out a wail of disbelief and run to her room, locking herself inside, Elaine told the sympathetic group.

"She thought she'd found a dating agency on line, but it was a... a..."

"Yes, we get the picture," Helga intervened hastily.

"The man was a temperamental bully; charm itself until he realised it was all a mistake, then his true colours showed. He screamed at us demanding payment not only for his 'fee', but for petrol for his wasted journey from Waterfontein. He wouldn't leave until I'd handed over all I had; wanted to get the rest from mom, livid that she just stood there gaping at him. She was broke, having paid a registration fee and bought a new outfit for the occasion." Elaine looked shaken. "He only left after I handed over this week's grocery money too, kept in a jar in the kitchen." A thought struck her, "How can I explain that to Bennie? Mom will die of shame if he finds out what happened."

"He mustn't," Christina said hysterically. "The fewer people who know about this sordid business, the better! We don't want it to get around that women in our dorp hire male prostitutes." Her voice rose an octave, "this must not get out! Our good name is at stake." She glared at Elaine. "How could your mother be so stupid?"

Ignoring her, Helga said soothingly, "This will go no further than this room, Elaine. Every woman here is honour-bound by friendship not to breathe a word." She fixed her eyes on each in turn, eliciting a nod of agreement before moving on to the next.

"Don't worry about the grocery money. We'll let you borrow what you need from our charity funds and you can pay us back as and when you can."

"What?" spluttered Christina, outraged, "things have come to a pretty pass when our charity money goes to support a gigolo!"

"We are lending the money to Elaine," Helga corrected her tartly, and turning to Elaine continued, "You need say nothing to Bennie as long as you can persuade your mother to keep quiet about this unfortunate business."

"You don't have to worry about that! She's totally mortified."

"The poor thing," Sarie said softly. "Don't tell her we were here."

Suzie van Blerk smiled at her fondly. "You're right, Sarie. When she meets us, it should be with no shame, no awkwardness," looking pointedly at Christina, who glared back defiantly.

Elmarie stayed in her room until the next morning, appearing only after Bennie had left for work. Elaine told him her mother wasn't feeling too well and indeed, when Elmarie finally made an appearance, she looked pale and defeated.

Elaine tried to cheer her up by making light of what had happened. "Mom, as time passes we'll see the funny side of this. We're probably the only women in this strait-laced village who can boast of having had a man of ill-repute in their house!"

"You can rest assured that nothing like it will ever happen again," Elmarie said sadly. "I was intending to give all my conservative clothes to your charity shop, but they'll be getting all the new things I've bought instead. I couldn't bear to wear any of them again as they'd remind me of my foolishness. No more 'brand new world', just the same old me!" she said brokenly.

Elaine, usually undemonstrative, put her arms around her mother and hugged her.

"It'll be all right," she consoled, "just you wait and see."

Bennie returned home later to a very changed mother-in-law. She had made an appointment at the beauty parlour owned by Ntebo Dlamini, had her hair restored to its original colour and was once again wearing one of her matronly dresses. Bennie was so relieved he beamed at her. "You look wonderful," he said enthusiastically. Elmarie blinked at him uncertainly before giving him a watery smile.

He wasted no time imparting the good news to his friends when they met at their usual time the following weekend.

"She's come to her senses," he told them contentedly; "my mother-in-law," seeing their blank expressions. "She's like she was before, no longer mutton dressed up as lamb."

"Probably just wanted to be up to date fashion-wise," David shrugged.

"Or got a bee in her bonnet. Women do, from time to time," Hans said sagely.

"Especially his," newcomer to the group, Malan Bester, thumbed at Hans, who had fetched the old boy from the retirement home as a treat, telling Matron they were going for a drive. No fool, she had fixed her gimlet eye on him and said, "Yes, straight to the pub! Just make sure he's lucid and able to walk straight when you bring him back."

Elmarie was gradually regaining self-confidence, if not self-esteem, and, on the morning she was to meet the church sisters for the first time at the Welcome Inn where they had all arranged to have lunch, told Elaine she'd wander into town a little earlier to browse around before joining them at noon. Elaine imparted this to the ladies when they arrived, a larger turn-out than usual, as all were now curious to meet the hapless victim of an intriguing, if despicable, cad.

Elmarie arrived breathless and rather flushed, later than expected, and after being introduced, apologised for not being punctual. She looked fresh and neat in her calf-length, floral dress and cream court shoes, earning glances of approval. "I landed up at the library," she explained. "I enjoy thrillers and was pleasantly surprised how well stocked your little library is."

Some of the sisters thought her use of the word "little" rather condescending, but forgave her because it was couched in a compliment.

Unaware of being weighed and measured, Elmarie continued, guilelessly:

"You have some intriguing residents living here. I met such an interesting man when I was checking out my books. He also enjoys murder mysteries and we got into quite a conversation. He's invited me to have tea with him later this week. Perhaps you know him; Francoise Geldenhuys?" she laughed self-consciously, looking down modestly, thus missing the glances of consternation passing between members of the sisterhood.

"Oh shit, that creepy weirdo?" Suzie van Blerk whispered to Marion Klopper seated next to her, "She's jumped straight from the frying pan into the fire!"


  1. Another fond encounter with the folk of the dorp - each story is tickelishly amusing yet astutely rendered. Thank you so much, Beryl,

  2. A wonderful human-interest story full of warmth and humor. But then the ominous ending. At first I thought Elmarie and the widower Geldenhuys might be good for each other...till I reread the part about the latter’s opinion of crime novels.

  3. Another fun romp in Prentburg!! Soooo many nice little turns of phrase - i.e. the Astonishing Café (still failing to live up to is name) - and a great "twist" at the end. I know at one point you were considering putting these together in an anthology or "novelish" like format, is that still on your "to-do" list?

  4. Thank you Ceinwen, Dave and Jim. Always good to hear from you. Jim, I've so many Prentburg stories and still writing and you're right, I should sort out the best and try to have them published.... one of these days, perhaps?
    Best wishes,

    1. Just my humble opinion, but I think you should do that very thing. Prentburg seems to evoke a smile (or even a deep thought a time or two) and the world can always use a couple more smiles here and there. Wasn't it fun seeing "The Debacle" in Charlie's book? Imagine ten or twelve more of those stories in your own book ;-)
      Happy writing!

  5. Thank you so much Jim. I'll stir my bones and give it a go! Yes, I've thoroughly enjoyed reading the stories in "The Best Of ..." What an amazing variety of talent, yours among them. "The Bridge" was a lesson in how easily everything that makes us feel secure can be stripped from us; very thought provoking. Ceinwen, well done, also, with your contribution. I was so pleased to find your story there too. Feels like meeting old friends! Hats off to Charlie for all the work he put into publishing such an impressive tome and donating the proceeds to such a good cause.
    Look forward to reading more stories by both of you on his site.