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U3A Writing: Letters For Hester

...But, some months later, on a day that I can still clearly remember, something awful happened at school. Meneer, the principal, had just finished reading the prayer, when Siena began to weep loudly. She was sitting at her desk at the back of the classroom, shaking uncontrollably, her head in her arms. Meneer, a big, stern-faced man, still holding the Bible, walked briskly over to her...

Siena has heard the news that the husband of her sister Hester has been killed in an accident. But did Hester really have a husband? Ida Smith tells a deeply intriguing South African story.

It’s been a long time, but I still remember the van der Merwe family. Their house stood way beyond the furrow partly filled with smelly green brackish water which led from the large dam beyond the bult to the vlei where the water lilies grew.

To reach their house, one had to cross the furrow, balancing carefully along a thick tree-trunk which had been placed across it as a make-shift bridge. From there a narrow footpath ran through a cornfield to their home. It was a small, poorly built little house, of raw brick with a flat roof consisting of zinc sheets, and I remember the row of fat yellow pumpkins on the roof above the weathered front door.

The youngest of the van der Merwe’s four daughters was Siena. She was in my class at the little farm school, and she was the one who was usually sent to my father’s farm-store, carrying a tall, narrow tin can inside which ten or twelve eggs had been carefully placed in a thick layer of mealie meal to guard against breakage. For their meagre worth, she would perhaps buy some sugar, matches, or a candle or two. The van der Merwes were among the poorest families on the farm and my mother, as well as a few other women of the Church Committee, would send them parcels of food and old clothing quite regularly to help them out.

In the shop, a small section of the floor had been converted into an area to deal with the post, for the farm-store had a postal agency as well. A large yellow cupboard stood there, its interior divided into many pigeon-holes into which the postal items were sorted. At a desk, all the paraphernalia associated with the receipt and despatch of mail could be found. The real symbol of the Postal Agency however, was the telephone. This was attached to a wooden board nailed against a wall. Outside, across the narrow sand road, the two strands of wire carrying the power were supported on what seemed a row without end of carefully spaced telephone poles, standing like alien beings in the dusty veld.

Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays were the days on which Piet Pos, the postman, delivered the bundle of letters in a thick, sealed canvas bag strapped to his bicycle carrier. On those days, the shop would be filled with many of the farm people waiting for the mail to be sorted.

One cold post day, in winter, among the assortment of mail, there arrived a letter for the van der Merwes. This was very rare; it was addressed to Hester. She was their eldest daughter, a pretty, round-faced girl with sparkling grey eyes and a beautiful braid of thick brown hair. She had, after passing all the classes at the farm school, remained at home, as had so many of the other pupils, for few of the parents had the resources or the transport, to place their children in the nearest high school at Ventersbult, a good distance away.

A little while later, after receiving her letter, in a great babble of excitement, as though blown in by the icy wind, Hester, her three sisters, and her mother entered the shop. Waving the letter in her hand, Hester approached my mother who was sitting at the desk.

“Good afternoon, Miesies Ketz. We have come to ask you to please make a phone-call for us to speak to cousin Betty. She says, in this letter, that there is a job for me in Johannesburg – to look after two children. She mos also looks after children.”

“Ag,” said Mrs van der Merwe, a meek, sad-looking woman, “Me and my husband are so happy for Hester. To go to a big city! Here, Miesies Ketz is the money for the phone and the telephone number. Thank you, hey!”

I watched their expectant faces as my mother walked to the telephone and vigorously turned the handle on the side. Round and round it went, until we heard the irritated voice of the operator at the exchange, saying in a thick Afrikaans accent, “Nommer Asseblief”. So, the call to cousin Betty was booked and after waiting impatiently for a while, two long rings and one short indicated that the call to Johannesburg was on the line. My mother answered, and Hester’s mother, being unschooled in the use of the telephone, took hold of the receiver. She had to be helped to place the earpiece firmly against her ear and was told to speak clearly into the black curved tube-like mouthpiece.

After the loud conversation had been concluded, she repeated all that Betty had told her, that Hester was lucky to have been offered a wonderful job, with such a rich family, with two little boys and good pay too! Her new employers would meet her at the Johannesburg station one week from that day.

Everyone was happy for the family. “What a lovely opportunity for Hester,” my mother told my father, “and perhaps they will all benefit!”

Within a week Hester left, carrying a small tin trunk. All of the family were in tears at her departure, but were grateful that she had been offered a lift to the station by one of the neighbours.

Hester didn’t write often after she left. Occasionally a letter would come for the van der Merwes telling them that she hadn’t forgotten them and that everything was going well. She sometimes included a little money which the family gratefully received.

But, some months later, on a day that I can still clearly remember, something awful happened at school. Meneer, the principal, had just finished reading the prayer, when Siena began to weep loudly. She was sitting at her desk at the back of the classroom, shaking uncontrollably, her head in her arms. Meneer, a big, stern-faced man, still holding the Bible, walked briskly over to her.

“What’s the matter with you, eh? Are you sick?” He had never shown much patience and was clearly irritated.

“Meneer,” she said quietly in a mournful little voice, in between great sobs and fresh outbreaks of tears, “We had bad news. It’s Hester’s husband! He is dead! He was killed in a car accident!”

“Hester’s husband, did you say? I didn’t know she was married!” Meneer’s lips were compressed and white. “Siena, you had better go home.”

When I came home from school later that afternoon, I found that my parents and everyone else had already heard the sad news and were very surprised that Hester’s had got married so quickly and secretly.

Then, a few weeks later we learnt that Hester was back on the farm. After a few days, Kotie Buys, a nosey, coarse-looking woman came into the shop. “I’ve got news for you, Miesies Ketz,” she said tweaking her pink straw hat with the faded blue roses, and pushing her glasses up her nose.

“Oh ja,” she began, “I’ve seen her. She calls herself now, Miesies Hester Brink and ag, she’s dressed in black, pitch black! Ag foeitog, and crying non-stop.” With a little smirk she added, “And you know what – I can swear she’s …” and Kotie Buys, raising a meaningful eyebrow, swept a cupped hand deftly across her bloated stomach.

Of course, no-one had believe the story of the death of a supposed husband, and, within a few months, as predicted, Hester gave birth to a boy.

With the passing of time, people on the farm were still talking about the incident. Those days a happening such as this was a dreadful disgrace, bringing much personal anguish to the family and Siena had to endure many snide remarks from the other children at the school and regular beatings from Meneer who claimed her work was not up to standard anymore.

But, for several years afterwards, letters addressed to ‘Miss Hester van der Merwe’ arrived from Ventersbult each month and in the letters were postal money-orders from an unknown donor. No one ever knew who sent them, but Meneer’s unexpected transfer to a high school in the Free State only helped to fuel the rumours circulating in the community, until some time later, the letters with the money stopped coming. Gradually the community settled down and the community found somebody else to discuss.

Of course, only Hester knew the truth and often at sunset she was to be seen, softly brushing her lips with her long brown braid, as she watched the swallows skimming over the still waters of the farm dam beyond the bult, her sparkling grey eyes clouded with thoughts and her hand absently stroking her breast.


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