Carmel Rickard

Dominee (1998)


I’m at the garage, filling my ancient green Renault. Then I’ll take the letter to the council secretary and that will be that. I’ll go home and start packing.

“Morning Oom Bernard.”

 “Dominee. I was looking for you. When you’ve finished, come round for a cup of coffee.”

Bernard’s office is a boarded-up corner of his second-hand furniture shop, where he keeps three chairs and an imbuia radiogram he never uses. From his desk he watches everyone who comes in: soiled mattresses are his speciality, but he also keeps odd things like a donkey boiler that doesn’t work.

“Dominee, good, you’ve come.” He points to a brown vinyl chair. “Coffee – and beskuit Elsabet made?”

Elsabet is one of my severest critics: scriba of the council, she handles complaints against the minister. She’s been busy recently, with all the calls for me to go.

We dunk and sip in silence, putting off what is to follow.

“Look Dominee, about last Sunday – ”.

“I’ll leave by month end,” I say. “I’m on my way to Dolf Jacobs to deliver the letter.”

 “Don’t get us wrong,” he makes another move. “People were excited when you arrived. We bragged that we had South Africa’s first woman dominee. We thought you ….”

Someone comes into the shop.  “Elias,” yells Bernard. “Kom!” Elias, a thin, one-eyed man who has worked with Bernard for 42 years, emerges from the workshop where he is fixing a lawnmower. Bernard returns to higher matters.

“The problem is that we want you to be like us. When you do things differently it feels as though you are saying that your way is better.”

I liked Bernard – he reminded me of interesting characters I’d met in old books. Often he spoke just like someone on a page. But this was a page I didn’t want to read.

“We brought you here. We pay you and we expect you will attend to us first. And last. Instead we see you with the Rietpoort people.”

“But Oom, you know why. I explained it all to you and the council. The Dominee from Bethulie only goes there once a month and the Rietpoort people need help.”

“Still, we don’t like to see you there so much. We feel you prefer to be with them – and that somehow we have failed.”

Failed. That’s what I wrote this morning: “I have failed.” I arrived 18 months ago, full of plans and energy. Now I was leaving, a failure.

”Did you see the Sunday night news?” he asks. Did I see the news? Everyone in South Africa saw the news.

It was Pentecost and the Bethulie minister couldn’t come, so I invited the Rietpoort people to join my congregation: 80 of them in a church built for 400.

I preached with passion: we are all one. Some walked out; many shook their heads. The little Rietpoort party huddled at the back while their white neighbours congregated for safety up front.

It got worse: TV reporters outside the church. Anna Potgieter’s face shrivelled in anger, her words venomous spittle on the reporter’s jacket. “How DEHH she bring them to our church. This so-called dominee is a witch. Weg met haar!”

“Yes Oom, I saw the news.”

“We were not happy with how Anna spoke. But many share her feelings. You feel we are no better than Anna. That we are pushing you out. And you are right. But my girlie, that doesn’t make you a failure.” I look up, interested. “You are a woman ahead of your time; we couldn’t hear you. Besides ….”

He is quiet for so long that I lose my nerve. “No, Oom, I’m at fault. I’ve been impetuous and intolerant of my congregation’s need to change slowly. But it’s hard to do nothing when others suffer.”

“Ja,” he continues, as though I haven’t said a word, “you’ve been doing the right thing, although we could not accept it from you. If you had been a man we would have said you were charitable to look after them. If you were a tannie like my wife, we’d have called it kind-hearted. But in you – we cannot stand it.” Again a pause. This time I know better than to speak.

“We hoped we could find you a fine young farmer to marry. Instead we see you choosing to spend yourself on those – kleurlinge. We don’t like that in you, so attractive, so … sexy, Dominee. A sexy woman like you belongs here, with us.”

It is a completely unexpected, bizarre absolution. I start laughing, embarrassed at first. Then through my laughter I see Bernard change from earnest suitor to scorned lecher. Liberated, I am still laughing as I drive back from giving the letter to Dolf, and start to pack.

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