Friday, August 17, 2018

The Threat by Beryl Ensor-Smith

In the sleepy South African dorp of Prentburg, the Church Sisters face a mutiny by a group of younger local women; by Beryl Ensor-Smith.

The Sisters of the Church were surprised to receive an urgent call to an Extraordinary General Meeting. While some grumbled at the disruption of other plans, curiosity ensured a full turnout and they fixed their eyes on the chairwoman, Helga Swanepoel, as she walked to the podium. She shuffled papers, put on her spectacles and stared back solemnly before declaring: "Sisters, we are in danger of being ousted!"

Once the hubbub had died down, she explained further.

"There is a group of younger women in our church who have been voicing the opinion that the sisterhood is, to quote the ringleader, 'An ageing bunch of dithering has-beens who should retire and let a younger generation with fresh ideas introduce the changes needed to meet the challenges of a new age!'"

This time there was no quelling the storm of outraged protest that resulted.



Later, describing the scene to her mother, Miems Gouws said that there could not have been greater fallout if a nuclear bomb had hit the hall where their meeting was held.

"Suzie used language that would put a navvy to shame and no-one raised an eyebrow, and Christina was apoplectic with rage."

"I can just imagine!" old ma Gouws said with something akin to glee. "You have to admit, Miems, whoever made that comment was not so far off the mark. There's probably not a woman younger than forty in your group and some so set in old-fashioned ways that they need a shake-up." She was silent for a beat before adding sadly, "Others like Ethel Merton and myself are completely past it and moulder away in our homes, no longer able to attend meetings or go on the outings. Mind you," with a flash of her old fire, "they've been so dull lately, we haven't been missing much! Perhaps it is time to make radical changes and hand over to younger women with new ideas."

"Ma!" Miems shrieked in disbelief. "You're not siding with them?"

"No, of course not, Miems. They should have approached Helga and been more tactful in voicing their criticisms, justified though they might be."

Miems stared at her mother in stunned silence.



There was nothing silent about Helga when she stalked into Dominee Seibrand's office to express her indignation about the group of would-be usurpers. He sat aghast as she vented, wishing his wife Anna had not chosen that time to decide she needed to lose weight and take herself off to a health spa for a fortnight. When it came to matters of disagreement between the women of his parish he usually enlisted her help; now he was entirely on his own.

"I'm sorry to hear that the church sisters are so upset," he said soothingly, "but we'll probably find that what Sonja Kleinveld said (for it was she, Helga maintained, that was the instigator) has been greatly exaggerated."

"I have heard too many derogatory comments from too many different sources for it all to be hot air, Dominee," Helga replied, determination bristling from every pore, "and the matter needs to be addressed now, before the rot spreads! My informants claim that Sonja is behind it all and the church sisters will not suffer such insults from a group of inexperienced younger women who have little knowledge of the extent of our pastoral care of the less fortunate and even less of the work that goes into it!"

"Er... I don't think we can say that," Dominee Seibrand objected mildly, "bearing in mind that the group of women you speak of are very involved in both church and outreach programmes. Their guild for our teenagers has a growing membership, the choir has improved a hundredfold since they've taken it on and the Saturday soup kitchens for the homeless keep many from going hungry."

"Well then, they should expand on their own good works instead of trying to take over ours," Helga insisted, "and if you don't want the church sisters to go on strike, Dominee, you need to make this clear to Sonja."

Filled with alarm at the prospect of being landed without help with the many everyday chores the sisters of the church sisters undertook, from supervising the cleaning staff to organising church functions, seeing to everything ranging from seating to providing refreshments, he hastily agreed to speak to Sonja. Once Helga had left, he put his head in his hands and wished that his wife would return! The health spa she was at was so strict they had confiscated all cell phones from attendees when they arrived, allowing each only one phone call limited to five minutes over the weekend, routed through their land-line at a cost that made some forego the pleasure! Only in an emergency could family members be contacted, again through their land-line. Dominee Seibrand knew his problem would not be considered as one.

When he met with Sonja Kleinveld he approached the matter as delicately as he could, talking of the hurt feelings of the Sisters of the Church at the perceived insult, the sterling work they did (Sonja bridled defensively) and, hastily changing tack, complimenting her and the young women in her group for their supplementary and highly valued contribution. (She turned pink with affront. Supplementary?)

Floundering to find something to appease her, he then suggested rather desperately that they give themselves a name, something like "Sisters in Waiting" perhaps? Sonja got up and walked out of his office, indignation wafting from her in palpable waves that formed a negative force-field around him. Given time she would probably have realised that the Dominee's intentions were good and acknowledged that she was largely to blame for the stand-off, but events got ahead of themselves.



Christina du Plessis' best friend, Hilda van Dyk, got wind of the fact that someone in Sonja's group had passed rude remarks about the flower arrangements at church services (Hilda's domain) saying they were boringly predictable and old-fashioned and that there were people better qualified to do the job. Christina, witnessing the fury that erupted from Hilda, was reminded that she was the wrong person to cross. She had calmed down since marrying Klaus, but the gleam in her eye boded ill for the person who had bad-mouthed her arrangements. Alarmed and thinking it her Christian duty to alert Sonja, Christina phoned her anonymously, adopting a guttural German accent, and warned that when Hilda's ire was up she was quite likely to reach for her meat cleaver to show how seriously she would react to any attempt at being supplanted.

Sonja was shaken but determined not to display weakness.

"They're mental!" she told her astounded group after the following Sunday service when they were having tea in the courtyard. "We're under attack. I think there's a possibility," lowering her voice as Sarie Blignault wandered towards them, "that at next Saturday's soup kitchen we'll have violence." She waited until Sarie had passed before elaborating.

Sarie, meanwhile, was bewildered by what she had overheard. Aware of the bad feeling between the two groups of women, she sought clarification from Rina van Wyk.

"Sonja was whispering that at Saturday's soup kitchen they're having violins. Do you think that's the kind of music homeless, hungry people enjoy? I don't!"

"Not if they're sober," Rina replied drily.

Word soon reached the ears of Christina, who predictably took umbrage.

"They're trying to upstage us now. Where have they found these violinists, and what funds are they using to pay them? I should go there on Saturday and sing some of my opera arias to level the score!"

There was a chorus of dismayed protest from the sisterhood, Helga shushing them with an imperious gesture. "We will not sink to those depths," she said, oblivious of the implied insult to Christina who fortunately didn't catch on either, both ignoring sniggers from some of the sharper members.

"And a good thing too," Suzie said beneath her breath, "the poor have enough problems without being subjected to her caterwauling!"



Dominee Seibrand was on the receiving end of another unwanted visit, this time from a delegation of the younger women, highly annoyed at "the attempt at intimidation", an annoyed matron, Truida Spies, spluttered. (He was beginning to feel like a trapped animal!)

"I can assure you, Dominee, we'll come prepared on Saturday, and let the chips fall where they may. The Sisters of the Church are asking for trouble and they'll get it. We won't be bullied into submission!" Nods of furious agreement from her cohorts.

"Ladies, ladies, calm down! I don't believe for one minute that the church sisters would resort to aggressive behaviour," he countered with a hint of desperation. "They are far too sensible and dignified, but," hastily, faced with their uncompromising glares, "of course I'll look into it."

Which he did, only to be met with total astonishment on the part of the sisterhood.

"They're accusing us of intimidation? This is beyond a joke now, Dominee. We haven't put a foot wrong and I can't believe that these conniving... witches... are blaming us when the fault lies entirely with them! These are blatant lies," Helga was breathless, she was so incensed; "We haven't even raised the issue of the rude comments they've passed about us with them, never mind used threats."

No-one noticed Christina squirming uncomfortably in her seat. She now bitterly regretted her well-intentioned warning to that snake Sonja, with her one-upmanship and violinists!

"It'll be a waste of time and money," she said ferociously, "having live chamber music played at next Saturday's soup kitchen!"

Dominee looked from one to another of the assenting sisters, his thoughts a jumble. Violence and chamber music at the Saturday soup kitchen? What next?



As it turned out, the hungry were fed without the disruption of either distraction. Dominee Seibrand had arrived with some of his male deacons, not knowing what to expect and giving as the reason for their attendance the wish to become acquainted with some of their "guests". The indigent diners stirred uneasily at this unexpected invasion of their territory, but once food was served, ignored the visitors and got stuck into their meals with gusto. The group of women serving them seemed less attentive than usual, their minds on other things, but the grub was up to standard and they cleaned their plates.

Clearing up afterwards, the women were highly embarrassed. They had all come with walking sticks which had been hidden under the serving counter, ready to defend themselves against attack.

"The church sisters must have heard that we were taking measures to protect ourselves," a subdued Sonja suggested, which comment was met with shame-faced nods. They felt extremely awkward about Dominee Seibrand and his group of merry men remaining to the bitter end to counter the possibility of a last-minute sly onslaught. When it was clear that none was forthcoming, greatly relieved, he smiled cheerfully at the silent group of young women as he walked them to the car park, saying benignly, "It was a wise decision to cancel the musicians. All things considered, it's in the best interests of all parties to keep outsiders away until we've, er, settled our differences."

Meeting a sea of blank stares he beat a hasty retreat, thinking, not for the first time, that the female species was completely unfathomable!



In the few days remaining before Anna Seibrand returned, feeling as hungry as frequenters of the soup kitchen and highly disgruntled at losing very little weight, the fighting factions of church sisters and those hoping to displace them kept a low profile. Both groups were at a loss how to proceed and limited their hostilities to glaring icily at one another at the following Sunday's church service. The only exceptions were Christina, who was heard to sniff disdainfully after the choir had sung their solo item, and Hilda. Before the service she busied herself in the foyer, snipping away at the imposing floral display with a pair of sharpened secateurs, seeming to wield them with greater ferocity when any of the women from the opposing set walked past with quickened footsteps.

Despite receiving an ecstatic welcome from her husband on her return, Anna was clearly out of sorts and Dominee Seibrand resolved to postpone regaling her with his problems with the two groups of women for a day or two, hoping that being home would cheer her up. He should have known that nothing much escaped his Anna. She shared secretarial duties with one of the church sisters on alternate weekdays and after dinner on the night of her first working day, looked Dominee Seibrand straight in the eye and demanded:

"Hendrik, what on earth is going on in the parish? From all accounts war has broken out among the women. Why haven't you told me? Describe to me in detail exactly what's happened, step by step."

Which he did, answering some uncomfortable questions as the tale unfolded. At the end of it all Anna sighed heavily.

"Men!" she declared. "Don't you realise that you went about things completely the wrong way? What should have been a minor disagreement has turned into a spiteful cat-fight!"

"Where did I go wrong?" he asked so humbly that she stretched a hand across the table and took his. "You couldn't help it; women are more complicated than men. What was needed, Hendrik, was to unite them in a common purpose. You had some good ideas, like suggesting that the active, younger group would feel more appreciated if they were given status and had a title, but "Sisters in Waiting? No wonder they took umbrage when what they want is to be on a level with the present church sisters, not a rung or two below!"

He looked so crestfallen that she said briskly, "All is not lost. What I suggest is..." and spent the next thirty minutes outlining a course of action."

He agreed readily but said, "I'll need moral support Anna. Will you attend the meeting with me?"

"Yes, but as a member of the audience, Hendrik. You need to exert your authority."



Thus it was that the two opposing groups of women found themselves together at the meeting Dominee Seibrand called. Neither was happy about it and sat on either side of the aisle of the church, his chosen venue, looking like wedding guests of bride and groom at a church ceremony, one lot on the left and the other on the right, eyeing one another uneasily. Anna sat at the back of the hall against a wall, a neutral observer. Dominee cleared his throat and plastered a smile on his face before beginning. He had written out and tried to memorise his speech, testing it on Anna and spending more time on it than on the following Sunday's sermon!

"Today we start anew; yesterday has come and gone, and with it, all ill-feeling and perceived injustice. I want every one of you to agree to that, as the church and community need the special talents and abilities that every woman here offers as her gift to a higher cause. In that spirit, from now on you will unite as one body, all of you being known as 'Sisters of the Church.'"

He held up his hand to still the ensuing agitated whispers that broke out either side of the aisle.

"By working together on every project you will be sharing the workload. As an example, I can say first-hand after my visit to the Saturday soup kitchen that those of you involved were run off your feet and could certainly have done with more help. The same applies to the current church sisters; they, too, are stretched to the limit. Together you can achieve more and do great things. You younger ladies will bring energy and fresh ideas to each undertaking while the experience and wisdom of those involved for many years in church outreach programmes will provide a guide for you in your joint ventures." Seeing some mutinous looks on a few of the faces before him, he added kindly but firmly:

"That is how it is going to be ladies, and I know I can rely on your co-operation."

Later, in discussion with Anna, Dominee said drily, "Not exactly a roaring success was it? I can only hope they will find the grace to work peaceably together."

"Don't underestimate them, Hendrik. Where's your faith?"

Where indeed? he chastised himself. It would be another matter entirely if he were dealing with men!

As for the women...

Sonja, to her followers: "We'll have to lump it. At least that lot will now have to give us our due as we'll all be equals. In fact," brightening, "it's true that we could do with some help with the soup kitchens, preparing, serving and cleaning up afterwards. They can take on some of the donkey work, like peeling vegetables!"

"Ja," Darleen Jansen conceded, "but what about the choir? Christina will try to take over and she's about as musical as a plank despite her pretensions."

"No problem," cheerful little Mimi Viljoen chimed, "just tell her that as an opera singer her voice is too powerful to blend with a choir and give her the job of turning pages for the organist."

"Diwald Oosthuizen doesn't deserve that," Poppy Olifant snorted, "she'll probably turn two pages at once out of pure spite and he's still an innocent, new to the job and with illusions."

"A lamb to the slaughter," Sonja agreed.

They dissolved into helpless giggles.

And Helga, to her followers: "Dominee has spoken and his word is law. Let's look on the bright side. We can pass on some of the more physical tasks to these younger bodies; lifting boxes of donations for Harvest Festival, for example, and replacing chairs after meetings, that kind of thing."

"Yes, let them work off some of their enviable energy!" Suzie van Blerk said sarcastically.

"We can also steer lots of the less savoury jobs their way, like sorting through donations of second-hand clothes for the poor; I hate that job. Some of those garments are downright smelly!"

Christina nodded and said triumphantly, "That'll teach them!"

"That's a bit unfair," from Sarie. "They're nice women, really. There's just one that's rather nasty. I asked Pat Duvenhage if the hungry people they feed enjoy violinists and she gave me a funny look and said, 'They're not cannibals, Sarie!' Does she think I'm simple or was that supposed to be a joke?"

"If it is, it'll be on her," Hilda said grimly. "She's the one aiming to take over my flower arrangements. I'll show her what can be done with a violin string. She'll soon be able to hit high C, after which she'd be better suited to join the choir than fiddle with my flowers!"

6 comments:

  1. Another fine and fun adventure for the Sisters (and, in this case, the "Sisters to soon be" ;-) Poor Dominee caught right in the middle, the tide closing in on either side. Some fun phrasing (once again), " "Sonja was whispering that at Saturday's soup kitchen they're having violins. Do you think that's the kind of music homeless, hungry people enjoy? I don't!"

    "Not if they're sober," Rina replied drily. "
    A prime example.
    Thanks for the smile, Beryl
    Jim

    ReplyDelete
  2. Gentle humor, engaging dialogue and a very believable storyline. Nicely done.

    ReplyDelete
  3. A tender, humorous story . Thank you, Beryl,
    Ceinwen

    ReplyDelete
  4. Thanks Dave, Anonymous and Ceinwen for your kind comments.
    Best wishes,
    Beryl.

    ReplyDelete
  5. Jim, I missed your name in my thanks! I really appreciate your taking the time to read my stories. Thank you.
    Beryl.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. No prob, Beryl. I'm easily overlooked. ;-) (Your stories are always a fun read. Here in the states there is way too much spite and hurt and, well that list goes on and on. We need a bit less of that and a lot more whimsy and fun.)
      Jim

      Delete