I shall make him pay for this. I shall make him smart for it, not that I imagine he will care. He says that I am indeed the corrupting influence against which he was warned in his youth, that I have taught him to like all sorts of immoral and disgraceful acts.
I have not been wasting my time, then.
There was no call, though, for him to mention this tale. None at all. Particularly not to you. When I have finished explaining to Phil why he should not have done it, I will make it clear to you that you should not have asked. I may be old, but I am not dead yet. I can manage to deal with both of you. Yes, and him too, so he can wipe that smile off his face.
Well then, pour me another glass of wine, and yes, I shall tell you, although it is not wholly my story to tell.
I was still at school; I was 16 and my sister Riana was 14. You will remember that we lived in an atmosphere by your standards very old fashioned. Compared with – well, for example, with the teenagers at Hansie’s rugby club, we were at the same time much younger and much older. Much younger in that we were still viewed as children, subject to the constraints of family and other authority figures. Much older in that we were expected to display a greater responsibility for our own behaviour, and we would be held accountable for our misdeeds in a manner no longer common. We thought of this no more than any teenager now thinks particularly of his interactions with his world; the world was as it was and we lived in it accordingly.
Part of the world was the church; Hansie will remember this also, I am certain. As a family we attended the local church. Attending on Sunday morning was the least of it; there was Sunday school on Sunday afternoon, although Riana and I were past the age for that. There was a Sunday evening service and many people attended that in addition to the morning one; there was very often some mid week prayer meeting or Bible study group. My mother belonged to a Ladies’ Fellowship circle, although she grumbled regularly about some of the other participants, particularly when they were trying to organise some event, and various women would not work with other women, or started the complaints about ‘why is she doing the teas? I always do the teas.’ My father took his turn at keeping the church in good repair, which was more of a task than you might think, because this was a country area and ours was not a big town. It was not a brick built church, it was a wooden structure, the sort of thing you would think of here as only a church hall. Indeed, a hall was really all it was. Well, in the Eastern Free State, the climate is very moderate, which is why we grow soft fruit, you know? So we did not need the big stone buildings you see elsewhere.
Well, where did this story begin? Further back than the first obvious act, I suspect. I would say it began with the conviction of Meneer Schultz that our church ought to have a choir. Ours was a relatively easy-going church; there are many churches in South Africa which are like the stricter ones in the further reaches of Scotland, where they do not sing, but ours had no moral objection to the concept of a choir. We had never had such a thing before – to tell the truth, we did not have a big enough congregation to warrant it, but Schultz (I never knew his first name) was our organist and he was obsessive about his music. He had been organist at a big church in Bloemfontein; when he retired he came to live among us in the country, and was instantly bored. It is a common enough thing in all parts of the world, I suppose, the man who says: when I retire we will go and live in the country and keep bees or grow marrows or whatever; then when he does it he finds he does not care for it. He managed without his music for six months; then he took over the organ from Mevrou Venter, who gave it up very willingly. It was not what you here would think of as a church organ. It was an electronic keyboard on a metal frame, nothing more. For a man who was a serious musician, it must have been a dreadful abortion, and now I can see how desperately he must have been regretting his retirement, how anxious he was to display his skills to an audience not particularly impressed.
As I say, he wanted a choir. He attempted to recruit among the congregation and had only a little interest; then he heard Riana sing. Riana enjoyed her music as Mirrie does now; she was a soloist in her school choir, and on occasion would be persuaded to sing, not in public exactly, but perhaps among family friends. Meneer Schultz heard her sing and he wanted her for his choir. Unfortunately Riana was not interested, not at all. She refused him, but he did not take her word for it. That again was a sign of our times. She was a child, and any adult could expect compliance from her. He wanted her in his choir and he believed that once he had managed to persuade others to it, so that the choir was a fait accompli, he would only need to ask again and she would give way. Meanwhile, he ignored her refusal, spoke to her every week of what they would sing, of what she would sing. Riana had eventually asked Mamma if she must join the choir and Mamma had said, in some surprise, that Riana might join or not as she pleased, that Papa and Mamma had no feelings on the subject.
But this did not endear Meneer Schultz to Riana; I paid little attention, I confess, for I was not involved in his plans. Yes, well, it is unfortunately as Harry said to that journalist when she asked which national anthem I sing at internationals: nobody can tell. When Pieter de Vries sings, dogs howl and small children weep.
No, my failing was plain bad manners and lack of control. It was the summer, and every summer, we would have visiting preachers. Some of them were from our own denomination and some were not; many of them were ecumenical missionaries who came to tell us of their work elsewhere in the hope that we would provide them with the funds for another year. Most of them were desperately dull. They showed us slides of poverty in whatever part of the world they had been called to, as if we had not poverty enough at home. It is unfortunately the case that people will pay for aid in what they think of as exotic foreign places, where they accuse people on their doorsteps in the same poverty of being feckless. That is by the by; we had visiting preachers.
One of them had what must have been the worst fitting dentures in the whole of the Eastern Free State. He stood up in front of us, and he addressed us: “Brothersh and Shishters in Chrisht,” and I felt Riana’s arm against mine twitch. Then he began to tell us about the work of his organisation, and I swear to you, I do not believe they went anywhere, not anywhere, with no sibilant in its name. They went, he told us, to the Shudan, to Botshwana, to Shwazhiland, to the whole of Shentral Africa. You do not want to know what he made of the Seychelles, but an umbrella would have helped. I am certain that he was a good man doing good work, but when he mentioned a Shyshtem for Shalvation, I knew that Riana would not make it to the end of the service and neither would I.
Phil knows this already: my sister is an inveterate giggler, and once she begins, she cannot stop. She is much worse than you, Hansie. Infinitely worse. Unfortunately, once she starts, the odds are that I will follow. I can remember quite clearly the night she told me a joke at dinner, and we ended up outside on the stoep, Mamma having sent us both from the table until we could control ourselves. No, Tim, I know, most of us have been sent in disgrace from the table at some point, but I was not 13 at the time, I was 23.
Anyway, Riana began to quiver with swallowed giggles and I was barely any better off. I knew quite well that fits of hysterical laughter in church were unlikely to be well received by any of the adults, no matter what the provocation, and I straightened my face and folded my arms, allowing me to get my fingers to Riana’s shoulder, which I pinched hard, to make her stop laughing. Unfortunately, all that it did was make her jump convulsively with a strangled squeak of pain, and that in turn reduced me to giggles of my own. Of course, once you have started with such a thing, the cause is irrelevant: you laugh because you cannot stop laughing, and the more you try to stop, the less you can. The poor preacher talked on about his parent organishashion, Riana shook with muffled laughter, and at intervals I put my elbow in her ribs and bit the inside of my own lip.
It was plain bad manners on our part, I do not deny it, and after the service, Papa told us so. We were both limp and helpless with laughter, and he and Mamma held us back in the hall while most of the congregation stood and shook hands with the minister, and he delivered a stinging rebuke to us both in an undertone. Nonetheless, he was not an unreasonable man, and that should have been the end of it. Should have been, but it was not, because Meneer Schultz had seen us. We had been seated to one side, and half way back in the hall, on the same side as the preacher, so his gaze had fallen on us only occasionally: his main line of sight was towards the other side. The organ, however, was placed diagonally across from where we were, and the organist faced the congregation, not the front; Meneer Schultz had been looking straight at us.
Well, and what right had he to do as he did? Some, I suppose. He had risen to his feet with the other church elders to thank the preacher; I think perhaps he had not seen that Papa had already reproved us for our behaviour, and Papa had gone with Mamma to exchange politenesses with friends and neighbours when Meneer Schultz approached Riana and me. Papa would not have permitted another man to reproach us at any length; he might have allowed a sentence or two so that we might know we had been observed, but he would also have made it plain that he had said all that was necessary. He was not there, however, and Meneer Schultz took us seriously to task for ill manners, and however badly we had already let ourselves down, we knew better than to compound the error by rudeness to him. We stood while he admonished us, we nodded obediently, and when eventually he turned away, I made a rude gesture behind him which set Riana giggling again. But that was the root of it: that we did not like Meneer Schultz, not either of us. There had been remarks about how I in particular should have known better, at my age, since I was nearly grown, which struck a little too close to home; there were remarks that Riana was not behaving as a well bred young lady should, and that perhaps she spent too much time with her brother and her brother’s friends for proper modest behaviour. I think that female emancipation had largely passed him by; I am not sure that Riana had ever given it much thought before, but the suggestion that a different standard of behaviour might be expected from her simply because she was a girl was not well received, particularly since it was not one she had encountered at home.
Well. We did not like Meneer Schultz. That does not excuse what we did. Nothing more would have come of it, had he not captured Riana the next Wednesday after some church event, and started to go on again about his choir. Riana said once more that she did not wish to join the choir; once more it was as if she had not spoken. Me? I meddled. I said to Meneer Schultz, in my most reasonable tone, that my sister had said quite clearly that she did not wish to sing in his choir, and that it was not the act of a gentleman to press her against her will. I was right, but that was not something a man of 65 would take from a boy of 16, and he said he would complain of me to Papa if I did not apologise. So Riana and I were both annoyed again, each of us on the other’s account as well as our own. We were always close, although we would never have admitted it. My silly baby sister? Her horrible bullying big brother? It rankled with us both, until on Saturday his name came up in conversation and we spoke to each other of him, and our desire to pay him out.
There was no inequality of blame for what we did. I thought of what we could do; Riana worked out how we could do it. We deserved all that we got for it.
We went to church on Sunday, and we sat in our accustomed places, and turned innocent faces upon the world, although Riana suddenly leaned to me to whisper, “We did not think that he sometimes plays beforehand. He will notice.”
I shook my head. “He plays gentle things beforehand; it will not happen until he becomes animated. But we must not laugh, Riana. If you laugh, then Papa will know and he will kill us both.” I did not know then what I know now about how one may distinguish precisely who was responsible for wrongdoing. These days I know that whatever it was, Hansie will have dreamed it up and Phil done it, and I should spank you both, and Tim just in case.
I must make a note to do that later anyway. Of course you have done something to deserve it; you have always done something. You may perhaps buy me off with another glass of wine. Perhaps.
Well, the service began and it went as normal until the first hymn. I can remember it even now, although I have not heard it in many years; I do not think it is known in England. It was usual for the last verse to be taken very loudly and Meneer Schultz did indeed become animated: he crashed his hands down upon the keys, with his weight behind them – and the metal frame underneath began to come to pieces. It simply fell slowly and inexorably to bits, and the organ itself slid from the trestle top and Meneer Schultz snatched at it, grabbed the keyboard, which bleated like a cross between an amorous foghorn and a dying camel, and then the whole thing hit the floor with a noise like a car crash.
Frankly, I do not think it would have mattered whether Riana laughed or not: half the congregation was in fits; the other half was shocked and horrified. Several people sprang forward to assist Meneer Schultz to his feet and to retrieve the organ; I was one of them, collecting the struts of the frame and gathering them tidily to one side with the nuts and bolts. It was a good ten minutes before we could continue with our worship, which we did without musical accompaniment. Both Riana and I were solemn and innocent, although I was beginning to be a little disturbed by the way Papa was Looking at me. He could not possibly have known – not known – that I had done anything I should not.
Apparently he could. We went home together, and as we turned through the door, Papa said evenly, “Pieter, Riana, go to the office, please.”
That was not good. The office was a small lean-to built onto the side of the house, in which Papa habitually dealt with his paperwork; it was also where he dealt with us. We were marched inside without any opportunity to agree the detail of our story (Papa was not stupid enough to leave us together without a witness).
“How did you do it?”
That did not leave much in the way of wriggle room. We went for silence in the hope of discovering how much he knew. He helped us.
“I am perfectly well aware that you did it; you were not surprised when it happened, not either of you. I wish to know how you did it.”
Riana raised innocent eyes to his face; he lifted a hand to forestall her. “Please do not lie to me, do not try to tell me that you were not involved. Had you been innocent, you would have laughed yourself sick, not looked plaintively concerned. There was no need either for your brother to participate in picking up the pieces; there were plenty of people closer to the front than he was. You were both responsible for that and I intend to know the details.”
Well, I think we had both enough sense to know when to run up a white flag. Indeed, I think we had both experienced what happened when defeat was inevitable and we chose to fight on to the end – and we had enough sense not to repeat that mistake. I looked at Riana and saw capitulation.
“We removed the bolts from the frame and then rebuilt it without them,” I confessed.
Our confession was rather garbled, between the matter of the choir and the scolding we had had for laughter.
“I see. You dislike the man because you do not share his enthusiasms?”
Riana shook her head. “Because he will not leave me alone. Papa, I do not wish to be in his choir; Mamma has said I need not; I have told him again and again that I will not and he does not believe me. And last week, Pieter said. . .” She ground to a halt, having perhaps thought that a repetition of what I had said was not the most sensible.
“Last week, Pieter was less than civil, and Meneer Schultz told him so at the time, if I understand you. We need not revisit what your brother said and did last week. Very well. You feel that he is a bore.”
“No! Yes, I suppose so. But it is more than that, Papa. He will not leave me alone and nothing I say. . .” She broke off, biting her lip.
“And if you were so distressed by him, it did not occur to you to speak to me or to Mamma? To tell us that you felt bullied by him?”
She looked at the ground. Papa turned on me. “Did you know the extent to which this man was causing your sister distress?”
I nodded. “And I tried to defend her, only. . .”
“Only you did it discourteously, inappropriately for dealing with a man of his age. That was bad judgement, Pieter; better to have told me. And your own complaint against him was that he reproved you for another discourtesy, to a visitor to our church. Was his reproof not deserved, that you should have resented it so?”
Only of course it had been, so I had nothing to say.
“Very well. You two children felt yourselves aggrieved and so you wished to strike at a man who has done you no real harm other than to annoy you. You took to pieces the stand of his instrument. And of course you thought that dropping an electrical device onto the floor from three feet might well damage it beyond repair?”
Of course, we had not.
“Or that it is a heavy thing, and that if it fell on Meneer Schultz’s foot, he might be seriously injured?”
No, nor that either.
“Or that to play a practical joke in church is neither respectful nor reverent? I do not require of you that you profess a faith which you may not have,” that was surprising, it suggested that he perhaps did not have such a well founded faith himself, “but I do require good manners.”
That we already knew. That we had both known all our lives.
“How did you gain access to the church?”
I had rather been hoping that he was not going to ask this; I had a nasty feeling that he was not going to like the answer. I took a deep breath.
“I took the key to the toolshed from your desk.”
The silence told me that he did not like it; I think that was the point at which I accepted that I at least was not going to get away with a week confined to the house.
“I cannot trust my son – my son! – enough to leave my desk unlocked, then.”
That was very cold, and I bit my lip hard.
“And access to the toolshed helped you how, precisely?”
The toolshed was attached to the side of the church; it contained the equipment for maintaining the shrubs and bushes along the path, and for church cleaning. There were half a dozen keys in the hands of various members of the congregation. The church itself had two keys, neither of them accessible to us.
“The hatch in the floor.”
This time the silence was so loud that eventually I could not bear it and I looked up at him. His face was like stone; I had rarely seen him so displeased.
“The hatch. The hatch which takes you under the floor of the shed. And presumably under the floor of the church and up through the trapdoor there.”
His voice was icily soft. I nodded.
“But you would be too big for that, Pieter. You would hardly fit. You are telling me that you sent your sister through the gap?”
I nodded again.
“No,” said Riana, shakily, and again rather more strongly, “No. He did not ‘send’ me. I thought that we could get in that way. He took the key but it was my idea. He wanted to go through the hatch but he is too big, so I went, and I opened the church door from inside.”
“You went. You went into a crawl space under the floor. Tell me, juffrou, did you think before you went that at this time of year, there might be snakes? Or that we have in this part of the world insects which might injure you?”
Actually we had thought of that. My sister has a marked lack of enthusiasm for the larger arachnids. There had been five minutes spent with a torch, examining all parts of the route, before Riana had ventured inside. Saying so produced a sigh of some relief, although it was merely absence of a further charge, not any mitigating factor. In retrospect I can see that it was the danger of that part of the offence for which we were truly punished, to ensure that we would never do such a thing again.
“So I cannot trust either of my children. I cannot trust you to the extent of leaving my keys unattended. I cannot trust you with the care of someone else’s property. I cannot trust you not to take a malicious revenge on a man who has, in fact, done neither of you any real harm.”
I could hear the blood rush in my ears; I bit my lip again.
“Very well. When I have dealt with this, you will return to your own rooms and you will spend the rest of the day there. Tonight, you will attend church with me; you will sit still, both of you, and you will pay attention, because afterwards I may wish to have you repeat to me what Meneer Sebastian says in his address.”
That was not going to be entertaining either. There was the ‘dealing with this’, and we both knew what form that would take; then there would be evening service. Meneer Sebastian was our own pastor; he was an intellectual man. The morning service was the family service; the evening was his time for a philosophical and theological address, very difficult to follow, and as a family we did not usually attend. The sitting still would be a penance too, for the church did not have cushioned pews but only wooden folding chairs.
“Go, both of you, and change your clothes.”
That was an order we had both heard before. Papa was a scrupulously fair man; his daughter was subject to precisely the same penalties as his son, the only difference being the degree of severity imposed on me as the elder. He thought it improper to require her to remove her clothing; therefore he would not require it of me either. Mamma, unfortunately, did not share this notion; either or both of us, caught in a misdeed, would be directed outside to cut a switch from the cherry tree in the knowledge that it would be applied to bare skin. Papa allowed us the minimal protection of thin shorts to preserve the decencies; believe me, the protection is indeed minimal, is it not, Hansie?
We did not dare delay; we went, we dressed ourselves as we had been bid, we presented ourselves back at his office. The cane lay across the desk, retrieved from its place on the back of the door.
“So. I wish you to understand this: your action against Meneer Schultz was ill-mannered, and I am displeased about that. However, I am more displeased that you should have done something so potentially destructive with no thought for the consequences. I am extremely disappointed that either of you should have shown yourselves not to be trusted, and I am frankly amazed that you could do something so dangerous as to go underneath a floor in an empty building. You will not do that again.”
We would not, fersure.
“Riana first, then. Fourteen.”
She lifted her eyes to him in shock, but she said nothing, stepped forward and bent nervously over the desk. That was his most severe punishment. See, I had always known, although I cannot remember ever being told, that Papa had a view that no child should ever receive more strokes than the number of their age. Even when we were small and subject only to being turned across his knee, that was his invariable rule. It was a maximum, too, not a standard application; once I was – the word is hardly ‘promoted’ – to the cane, when I was about ten, my introductory award was only two or three, increasing to six, and as I grew, to a dozen for serious offences. Still, Papa caned hard but not viciously; there was a master at school who was known to draw blood with only six. If Riana had fourteen to come, I had sixteen, fersure; I had never had more than twelve, and I did not believe that Riana had either.
She was brave: she fidgeted only a little, rising onto her toes with every stroke from about half way through. She was all but silent, too, making no more sound than little breathy whimpers, although when she stood up, her face was wet, and her hands went at once behind her. That had hurt: it was a matter of pride for both of us that we did not squeeze or rub where anyone could see, whether we were punished at home or at school.
“You, sir. Sixteen.”
I took her place. She had indeed been weeping, the leather of the desk was damp in front of me. I shut my eyes.
Fourteen strokes were delivered across my backside, slowly enough that every one cost me something in silence, and I twitched and flinched as much as Riana had done. The last two he placed hard across the tops of my thighs and I cried out both times. When I stood up, I clutched my backside too.
“You may go. Straight to your rooms, please, and stay there.”
We went, although we did not obey him absolutely. We stopped on the landing and hugged each other silently, giving what comfort we could; I do not think Papa would have counted it disobedience. It was a very dull day. Our meals were delivered to us on trays: Papa would never see a child go hungry, although I at least had no appetite for mine. At six o’clock I made myself respectable for church again so that Papa would have no call to reprove me. He called to us from the front door; Riana was as prompt as I was in answering him, and as tidily dressed.
That was a dreadful evening. There were no other children present, although fortunately Meneer Schultz was also absent; the address was absolutely incomprehensible and therefore unmemorable. Riana, I could see, was close to tears, and I slid my hand between our chairs to wind my fingers into hers and squeeze as comfortingly as I could.
Afterwards, at home, we did not know if we were to return to our rooms, or if we might be considered to have atoned: Papa called us back to the office.
“Did you attend to the address?”
I felt Riana’s fingers convulsively in mine again; I mustered my courage.
“Yes, sir, but I understood none of it. I’m sorry.”
He looked at me for a moment; then he turned to Riana. “You need not cling so to your brother. I helped this afternoon to rebuild the music stand. There seems to be an opinion that it must have been assembled incorrectly in the first place; I said nothing to contradict that view.” His eyes came back to me. “Do I need to lock this room when I am absent?”
I shook my head. “No, sir.”
“Go then to your mother, and beg her pardon for having behaved like a pair of hooligans, and we will say no more.”
Indeed, there was no more said, although Riana and I were very subdued – well, let us give the thing its proper name, we sulked – for several days. We were both old enough to understand that we had received no more than our due, but that did not stop us resenting it. I do not believe these people who claim that a child never feels bitter about deserved punishment. Papa never gave me a whipping I had not earned one way or another, but sometimes I felt better for a clear conscience and other times I begrudged it. Ach, not for long, and I was not stupid enough, and nor was Riana, to behave badly towards Papa, but we stood on our dignity and kept ourselves to ourselves for a day or two. Nonetheless, we were strongly disinclined to have anything at all to do with Meneer Schultz; we avoided him as best we could for several weeks, although still he chased Riana for his choir: the recollection of the dreadful smart of that punishment kept us civil and well-behaved. It must have been a month past when he trapped Riana again after church with word of how many volunteers he now had, and how soon they would begin rehearsals, and I saw her angry frustration and took a step forward, willing to take the risk again to rescue her.
Papa’s hand closed hard on my wrist; “No, my son, say nothing. Watch.”
So I watched, and Mamma, who is only a small woman, but fierce, came after her daughter. “Meneer Schultz, my daughter is becoming distressed by you. She has told you, repeatedly, that she is not willing to join your choir. It seems that she can say nothing to convince you of it. Perhaps, then, you will understand it if I tell you myself: Riana will not sing for you. She wishes not; I have said that she need not. If she should change her mind, she may come to you, and you may accept her or not as you please, but for now, I will not have her harried and bullied. I will ask you, please, not to mention it to her again.”
Meneer Schultz made a face like a goldfish: his mouth opened and closed for a moment, and then he turned to Papa with the ‘all men together’ air which annoys women so much.
“Meneer de Vries, I appeal to you – your daughter has a talent which should be used for the greater glory of God. Come, Meneer, persuade your wife.” There were quotation marks around that ‘persuade’: he meant ‘overrule’. But Papa was shaking his head.
“No, Meneer. I do not believe that it would please God to have my daughter made unhappy, talent or no, nor do I believe that the primary aim of this choir is the glory of God.” He let that one hang. “ She does not wish to sing for you.” That one sentence made it clear what he thought the aim of the choir would indeed be. “My wife is correct; Riana does not join your choir and the subject is now closed.”
It was not closed, apparently. He turned back to Mamma. “Come, Mevrou, be reasonable. The child has a duty of reverence to her church and to her Maker, although at her age it is of course more important that she recognise a duty of submission to her elders. Her personal inclinations do not come into it. If you instruct her, she will obey you, will she not?”
I opened my mouth to say something, I do not know what, enraged by such emotional blackmail, and Papa slapped me lightly, no more than a touch to have my attention, and shook his head at me again. Mamma was Looking at Meneer Schultz.
“She will obey me, yes,” she said, eventually. “Is that not so, Riana?”
“Yes, Mamma,” whispered Riana miserably.
“As your mother, Riana, I forbid you to join Meneer Schultz’s choir. Is that clear?”
There was a silence, and Mamma fastened her coat. “Come, Riana. Come, Pieter. Good morning, Meneer.” She started for the door; Riana and I followed her like ducklings and Papa brought up the rear. Half way home, Mamma spoke again. “Riana, the Ladies’ Fellowship holds a supper meeting next month for the Ladies’ Fellowship from the United Congregational, and we would wish to entertain them a little. May I say that you will sing?”
“With pleasure, Mamma.”
“And Pieter, will you help make ready the hall?”
“And you will ensure that the tables will not collapse under us?”
And thus for years afterwards, it was a family joke that a sensible man did not mess with Martje de Vries, not if he were generally satisfied with the current location and condition of his balls, not unless he wished to sing treble in his own choir, and also that anyone who thwarted either Riana or me would fear to lean on any piece of furniture lest it should come to pieces. I had not thought of it in years, though; still, I am good with my hands. Displease me, Timmy, and you will find yourself on the floor surrounded by loose nuts.
Well, by Hansie and Phil, and if they are not nuts, they will do until nuts come along.
Click on Idris the Dragon to go back
© , 2006