Friday, October 12, 2018

The Backlash by Beryl Ensor-Smith

In a previous Prentburg misadventure, Christina du Plessis mistakenly kidnapped geriatric mischief-maker Malan Bester - now he sees his opportunity to get revenge; by Beryl Ensor-Smith.

When the oldest resident of Prentburg, Ma Bets, met her maker at the age of one-hundred-and-six, most of the dorp's residents wished to attend her funeral. Even some who had never clapped eyes on her, like Malan Bester.

"He shouldn't be allowed to go," Sister Marchant protested to the matron of the old age home, "he has no right to!"

"We can hardly prevent him from doing so," Matron pointed out, "especially as half of the squatters in the informal settlement will be there. They asked Reverend Motsepe to go, being full of admiration for someone reaching such a ripe old age, and the family has said they're welcome."

"Their motives are admirable," Sister Marchant argued, "while Malan's are highly suspect!"

"He's simply bored and looking for distraction," Matron countered, "and as for the squatter's motives, I'll wager they're as interested in the refreshments that will be served after the burial as in paying their respects. Malan can go as long as he travels in the Kombi with other residents who wish to attend. He can hardly get up to much mischief in a church now, can he?"

Sister Marchant shook her head in disagreement. She wouldn't put anything past Malan, who was a handful at the best of times.

Christina du Plessis was equally disapproving when she learned from her husband Hans that Malan would be present at the service and the interment. Hans had intended fetching the old man and taking him with them.

"Over my dead body!" Christina's nostrils flared with ire. "I will not have him in the car with us. You know I distrust the man and it's quite wrong that he should be at the funeral of Ma Bets. She would have found him despicable!"

"Those are harsh words from someone who drove off with him in the boot of her car," Hans replied mildly. "He has more cause for finding fault with you than you bad-mouthing him, Christina." Seeing the thunderous look on her face he added quickly, "Anyway, that bossy matron insists that he must travel in the Kombi with the other residents from the home, so you can relax, he won't be coming with us."

"I should hope not, and thank you for reminding me of a thoroughly unpleasant experience. Can you blame me for thinking him a hijacker, looking as disreputable as he does?"

Hans chose not to reply, deciding discretion was the better part of valour.

Malan's reputation as a trouble-maker was not unfounded. His latest act of defiance, and one that gave him much satisfaction, was to escape from the old age home through a hole in the hedge at the back of the property after lunch when residents were shuffled back to their rooms for a compulsory sleep. Sleep? When all too soon, as for Ma Bets, it would become a permanent state? Sod that. So, being on the ground floor, he snuck out of the fire door at the end of the passage, through the hedge and out into the road where, with the aid of his walking stick, he walked two blocks into the town and would hide in the bar of the Welcome Inn where he would down a few beers. It wasn't much of a place but better than nothing and his act of defiance was the prime motivator, not the beers. He knew that sooner or later he'd be found out, but it would be fun while it lasted. If the home threatened to evict him, he'd threaten to go to the press and expose their lack of security for old, frail, confused residents in their care. Tit for tat, after which they wouldn't dare!

Three days before the funeral he was drinking his beer, peering through the manky dirt-smeared windows of the bar fronting the main street when he spied the wife of his friend Hans going into the door of "Freda's Fresh Fruit and Flower Emporium" opposite. Sun flooded into the shop and he could see Christina in earnest conversation with a woman whom he assumed was Freda, standing behind the counter. She pointed to a row of wreaths on a shelf above. More chatter between the two and Christina browsed through the contents of a file. Malan grinned as an idea began to form. He'd been waiting for an opportunity to get his own back after being tossed into the boot of her car and being driven in dark discomfort all the way from Waterfontein to Prentburg before being rescued by Hans. It wasn't much of an idea, not nearly enough to balance the scales, but it was a start and Christina would be mightily pissed off! He waited until she had left the shop, waddled to her car and driven off, and then made his move. He paid for his beer and crossed the road into Freda's unimpressive establishment.

"I've come to buy a wreath for Ma Bets' funeral," he tried a winning smile, but the effect was not quite what he'd intended as he was missing a front tooth, and Freda took a hasty step backwards. "You do keep them?"

"Indeed yes," she said, recovering. "In fact my last customer has just ordered the most flamboyant, expensive wreath in my catalogue. I make them myself. Those you see on the shelf are all orders for the funeral you'll be attending."

Malan congratulated himself on being correct in calculating that Christina would try to outshine all other floral contributions with her own. He pretended interest in the wreaths on display, then said:

"I had in mind something more showy, the deceased being a dear friend. Perhaps I could look through your catalogue?"

She handed him the file Christina had earlier perused and he paged through it, shaken by the prices, particularly of the most expensive, a huge, pure white concoction. "I rather like this one," he tapped the photograph.

"Oh," Freda was a bit taken aback, "that's the one mevrou has just ordered."

"I can well understand why. I'd like one just like it please," pretending to wipe a tear from his eye with a grubby handkerchief.

Freda hesitated a nanosecond, but business was business! Abandoning uncomfortable scruples, she plucked a card and envelope from a pile on the counter and offered Malan a pen. "Just write your message and I'll attach the envelope to the wreath so that the family know who it's from."

Reeling from the amount of notes he had to pay into Freda's outstretched hand, Malan decided to make Ma Bets more interesting than her family had realised. He hid a grin, printed his message clearly and signed an indecipherable name with a flourish, sealing the envelope with a globule of spit and pressing the overlap down firmly. From the look of distaste on Freda's face he was sure she wouldn't try to open it to peek at his message. She looked the type who might, he thought uncharitably. Having had to pay so much for his prank, he hoped the expense would be worth it and intended to keep Christina in his sights to enjoy her reaction when she saw an identical wreath rivalling hers!

On the day of the funeral Sister Marchant inspected the troupe of mourners from the home to make sure they looked respectable before allowing them to board the Kombi. Malan was sent back to put on a tie, change his mismatched socks and polish his scruffy shoes which should long since have been retired.

"I'll have my eye on you," she told those assembled. "Remember your behaviour reflects on this institution. Have you all got tissues or a hanky?" knowing most were likely to become emotional, especially if it were an open casket and the body on display.

To Malan's disappointment, this was not the case. He would have liked, at least, to see the woman he had forked up so much money on, but throughout the church service, the coffin remained up front on its pedestal with the lid tightly closed. He caught a glimpse of Christina and Hans sitting just behind the deceased's family - typical of Christina to claim close kinship where none existed - and let them get ahead of him as they filed through the door to commiserate with Ma Bets' family standing in a group just outside the church. Malan skirted round them and found a shady tree alongside the driveway, where he stood observing Christina, who was, of course, making a meal of her condolences, holding up other mourners wanting a moment with the family. The squatters from the township stood apart in another group, interested in all that was happening.

While Christina was still talking, the coffin, on a trolley with wreaths stowed beneath on shelves, was wheeled out of a side door of the church and pushed towards the hearse parked discretely further away, facing the exit. Malan was elated to see that his and Christina's identical wreaths were placed side by side and he kept his eyes fixed on her as she, too, noticed. She stopped talking mid-sentence, walked away from the crowd and stared in disbelief as the coffin was lifted carefully by two men dressed in black into the open doors at the rear of the vehicle. A step was released from a bracket below the doors and dropped down. One of the funeral attendants climbed onto it and secured the coffin on a stand inside the vehicle. The wreaths soon followed, after which the attendant waiting in the driveway started to wheel the trolley away, calling out, "We'd better fetch the rest of the wreaths." He received a nod of acknowledgement from his mate, who climbed down from the step and walked back towards the church leaving the hearse doors open.

Once he had disappeared into the church, Christina walked towards the hearse unnoticed by anyone except Malan who ducked behind the tree. She came closer, trying to peer into the dark interior of the hearse. Frustrated, she took a furtive look around to see that no-one was watching, gingerly climbed onto the step, hesitated briefly to check that she was still unobserved and vanished inside.

Malan stood open-mouthed. He had no doubt that she had every intention of ripping open the envelope on his offending wreath to see who had sent it; a wasted effort as she'd be none the wiser! It suddenly dawned on him that Christina had presented him with an ideal opportunity to take even greater revenge for being kidnapped. Unable to believe his luck, he made a beeline for the hearse and slammed the doors shut, then scuttled with the aid of his walking stick to re-join the mourners, managing by the grace of God (or perhaps the devil?) to do so without attracting attention.

Of course Christina would start performing once the shock of finding herself in the dark with a dead body kicked in, but it would be long enough for her to learn how unpleasant it was to be in a dark, confined and frightening place. He waited for the commotion to begin and watched as the two funeral attendants left the church, arms filled with wreaths, looking annoyed as they approached the hearse and saw that someone had closed the doors.

"Leave it," one said to the other, "We can put these in the back of the funeral car bringing up the rear," and off they walked towards a black Mercedes parked near the gate. Malan watched them change direction in bewilderment before staring in growing concern at the hearse. Why was the woman not screaming her head off?

People were now heading for their cars to drive to the cemetery. When Malan next looked, the hearse was on its way, cars bearing the family close behind. What had gone wrong? Had his nemesis died of fright? Before he could decide what to do, Sister Marchant had him by the arm. "There you are! Come along now, all the others are already in the Kombi waiting to drive to the cemetery," and she hustled him off to join them.

Christina, on realising she was closed inside the hearse with a corpse, had promptly swooned, falling and hitting her head on one of the corners of the stand supporting the coffin. She remained out for the count for the time it took the slow procession to reach the cemetery, only emerging from her stupor when the hearse came to a stop and the doors opened so that the coffin could be lifted out. Light flooded in, assaulting her fluttering eyelids. She groaned and sat up, frightening the funeral attendants witless and it was some time before any of the three was in a fit state to give a coherent account of what had happened. Christina pretended confusion after she had come to her senses, to give herself time to think of a credible explanation for being in the back of the hearse. The best she could come up with was that she wanted to pay her private, last respects to a woman she greatly loved, and she stuck doggedly to her story.

Malan, frightened by what he had set in motion, was deathly silent on the journey to the cemetery and once there, in a blue funk watched the unfolding drama as Christina was helped out of the back of the hearse by the shaken men in black. Overcome with guilt he forced his way to the front of the group of oldies once they had descended from the Kombi, grabbed Sister Marchant by the arm and demanded in a panic:

"Is she OK? Is she hurt?" Seeing Christina clutching her head which was bleeding copiously, his clasp on Sister Marchant tightened and he gave her a shake. "She needs a doctor!"

Thoroughly astonished and rather indignant, Sister Marchant detached herself from his grip. "Calm yourself, Malan, what's got into you? Mevrou is receiving every attention." Noticing that he was chalk-white and trembling, she assisted him back into the Kombi, rooted around in the medical kit taken on every excursion and handed him a sedative and a drink of water.

"Mevrou will be fine," she said soothingly. "Her husband will see to it."

"Where is the blasted man?" Malan quavered.

Where indeed, she wondered, looking round fruitlessly.

Hans, who had been talking to Elaine and Benny Ferreira outside the church, had looked in vain for his wife when it was time to drive to the cemetery. Long after the last car had departed he was still searching for her. He had finally given up, deciding she must have got a lift with someone else, and arrived at the graveside to join a subdued crowd of mourners, his wife perched on a folding chair someone had provided, her head swathed in in a bandage. The interment was at last able to proceed without further interruption, even Dominee Seibrand seeming distracted and Ma Bets' family looking decidedly put out.

During the course of the following week, when the church sisters next met to work on their charity knitting, Christina was absent, using as an excuse her 'shattered nerves'. This was a relief as watching her ineffectual attempts with knitting needles, pulling out most of what she produced, was highly frustrating as she refused any help. The new young members of the sisterhood were vocal in their scepticism of the reason she gave for being in the hearse, Poppy Olifant saying outright that it was "a load of bull," adding:

"She just wanted to grab the limelight, as usual."

The older group felt obliged to rise to her defence but couldn't come up with anything plausible, especially as Christina had not seemed particularly fond of Ma Bets!

Staff members of the old folks' home were quite concerned about Malan in the days that followed the incident, as he was in a very pensive mood.

"We've sold him short," Matron told Sister Marchant, "his distress over Mevrou's horrible experience is genuine. He clearly cares for her more than he likes to admit. Meneer Du Plessis was moved to hear how profoundly affected Malan was and said his wife would be touched."

Malan had been shocked at the outcome of his prank and decided that he would mend his ways, or at least, moderate them. He no longer escaped through the hole in the hedge and the next time he looked, it had been blocked with a prickly new shrub. Probably as well, as he knew his good intentions were unlikely to last; but he had learned that revenge was a dangerous animal that could turn and bite you in the bum!

Christina was suspicious when she heard from various sources that Malan had been very worried about her, and didn't know how to cope with the news. When Hans suggested they invite the old man to dinner the following Sunday, she felt obliged to agree. Malan was on his best behaviour and the two eyed one another uneasily, thinking that their old animosity was far preferable to this uncomfortable détente!

Christina felt chastened, well aware that being found in the hearse alongside Ma Bets was not cool and would be remembered for years (if not forever; Ma Bets' family were giving her the cold shoulder these days). She was no longer interested in who had sent the wreath that had made her act so rashly and just wished to forget the whole ghastly affair. Her nosiness had been her undoing and she resolved to act with greater forethought in future.

The squatters returned to their township to face many questions from those who had not attended the funeral. White funerals, they explained, were very different from black in many respects. They were far more formal; dull even, in comparison. There were no wild displays of emotion, wailing and unrestrained grief at the service; no family members being prevented from throwing themselves onto the coffin at the graveside, only sombre expressions and quiet tears.

There was one white custom, however, that they found very interesting. Someone was appointed to accompany the dead in the hearse during the drive from church to cemetery. If the spirit of the deceased disapproved of the chosen one, it rose and smote the head of the offender. In the case of this funeral, the spirit of the deceased had clearly been very displeased with the lady sent as a companion as it had struck such a heavy blow to her head that she bled and had to be bandaged up. She also needed a chair to sit on before the burial could take place!

But those who were most affected by Malan's resort to retribution were Ma Bets' three married daughters; prissy, rather austere women. When they were sorting through the notes of condolence attached to wreaths in order to thank the senders, they were profoundly shocked by the one from Malan.

In bold print were the words:

"I'll never forget you. How many 17-year-old boys have been tutored so expertly by a much older woman in the arts of love? Ever grateful," followed by an unreadable scrawl.

The three women looked at one another and decided they really did not want to know who had sent it. They burned the card in an ashtray and vowed never to breathe a word to anyone about the words that muddied their memories of a prudish mother who had instilled in them a strong sense of propriety, which seemingly she had lacked herself!

5 comments:

  1. Backlash, indeed! Nicely done, and a fun re-adventure with Malan and Christina. But the ending caps it off nicely, can't help but smile at what those women must have been thinking when they read that !!
    Thanks!
    Jim

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  2. Bristling with humour and droll reflections on human frailty, many thanks, Beryl,
    Best wishes,
    Ceinwen

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  3. A good human interest story with gentle humor and a lesson learned by Malan about not giving in to a desire for revenge. I loved the squatters’ interpretation of Christina being in the hearse. Malan’s note discovered by the daughters topped the story off perfectly.

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  4. Christina and Malan--self-examination and changed attitudes--great characterizations. Humor and fun! Thank you.

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  5. Dear Jim, Cenwein, Dave and Nancy, thank you for your comments. Feedback is always valued (both positive and negative) and taken on board. I appreciate your taking the time to read my stories.
    Best wishes and keep well!
    Beryl.

    ReplyDelete