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U3A Writing: Hester

Ida Smith tells the story of Hester, the daughter of poor parents, who goes off to work in Johannesburg, only to return with – ahem – a bloated stomach.

It’s been a long time now, but I still remember the van der Merwe family. Their house stood way beyond the furrow which was partly filled with the smelly, green, brackish water leading from the large dam at the top of the hill.

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 wilted pumpkins which had been placed just 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 fairly large, yellow cupboard stood there, with 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 the postman, Piet Pos, 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 rotated the little handle on the side. Round and round it went, until exchange at Ventersbult answered. So, the call to cousin Betty was booked and after waiting impatiently for a while, two long rings and one short one 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 announced all that Betty had told her, and that was 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 bit of money which the family gratefully received.

But, some months later, on a day that I can so 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 intakes of breath as she sobbed, “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 that 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 had got married so secretly.

Then, a few days later it was told that Hester had arrived back on the farm. Later in the week, Kotie Buys, a nosey, coarse-looking woman came into the shop. “I’ve got news for you, Miesies Ketz,” she said while adjusting her pink straw hat with the shabby little blue roses.

“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 pupils at the school.

However, for a number of years afterwards letters addressed to ‘Miss Hester van der Merwe’ arrived regularly each month, containing postal money-orders, which must have been of great help to her. They came, no doubt, from someone who had felt the need and the obligation, to contribute towards the raising of the child, but, from whom they came, no one ever discovered.

Of course, only Hester knew the truth of the matter, and she wasn’t saying anything.


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