THE RENT-A-CROWD TWENTY-FIRST BIRTHDAY

“It’s purely a rent-a-crowd situation, but we feel obliged to go,” Mary explained softly, her face revealing more clearly than her voice the dilemma she was in. She turned in her chair to face the rest of us having tea in the teacher’s lounge. “Theresa’s aunt ‘phoned during the holidays to invite me to her twenty-first birthday on the farm. I was taken aback, but I had been her tutor so how could I refuse?” For a moment her eyes clouded, then she shrugged her shoulders and looked up. “You know how some people like to invite those who were significant in one way or another – not that I think I was ever that important in Theresa’s life. It was such a relief to discover they had also invited Helena and Erin, and so we decided to go together –“

“Except,” Erin broke in, “she then wanted us to bring our families: husbands, children – even their children if they had any!”

“At that point I lied and said Stefan would be away and none of my children live at home anymore.” The defiance in Helena’s whole stance, even though she was enveloped in an easy chair, was evident. We could tell from her body language that she was steaming. “That horrible spider of a mother keeps her poisonous tabs on everything – her web must reach from the farm to every corner of the district and this town. She almost hissed her knowledge that Theuns has been around for a few weeks. ‘Bring Theunsie’ she said. ‘Theunsie!’” Helena’s face was puffed and blotchy with indignation. “She’s never known him well enough to call him anything, never mind ‘Theunsie’! Even I have never called him that!” She settled back into the chair as if it was the source of comfort and power. I imagined her battery charging.

“They kept on ‘phoning with extra information, changing our plans completely.” Erin fingered the card she had been writing in. “We planned to drive out there at six and be ready to leave by eight.”

Then,” thundered Helena, her energy restored to a higher level. “Then the old spider tells me sweetly to come at four. Lekker, I thought. It will be a deftige tea party. ‘Sure’, I told her and warned that I would have to leave by six to get home before dark.”

“That’s when she offered us beds, said to bring a suitcase because there’s to be a spitbraai and they’ve even arranged a DJ to provide music.” Mary shook her head sadly while the rest of us guffawed.

“A DJ?” Delia asked loudly. “Are they going to be playing tunes from 1910 or something? I would never have guessed that Theresa’s mother – or aunt – even knew what a DJ is. I mean, the way they live their lives it is surprising they don’t still travel around by ox wagon!”

“That’s mean, Delia.” Mary still looked worried. “Surely a DJ means there will be a lot of young people there. What difference would it make if three teachers weren’t there?”

“It’s not three teachers they want, Mary, it’s another three families with all their hangers-on.” Helena was in good form.

The nature of the rising argument had become clear. Theresa van der Walt had always been an oddly placed child while at school, who was seldom allowed to participate in extra-mural activities for her mother would wait at the school gates after lessons and whisk her back to the farm in her large grey car.

“She has no friends,” Helena was insisting. “Now her mother wants to make a show for the farming community – the more food, the more people, the more successful the party will appear to be in her eyes. It is numbers she wants. I hear she has even invited Professor Emslie. He’s the one who helped Theresa get through her final year Geography and Afrikaans-Nederlands examinations by letting her board with his family for two weeks at the end of her final year.”

“She is making the effort a bit late in the day,” Mary ventured. “We’ll have to go – and we cannot really leave just as they are about to serve the food.”

Helena almost leapt out of the chair. “But to be there at four o’clock! Are we supposed to watch the spit go round?”

“A spitbraai can take four or five hours.” Erin signed the card and slid it along the table towards Mary. “No ladies, we must stick to our plan. Mary has a point. It would be rude to leave – “

“I am not spending my entire Saturday out on a farm in the middle of nowhere with people I don’t know from Adam watching a beast being braaied on a spit and listening to people wondering what to say until they have had enough to drink not to say anything anyway!” The air seemed to leave her for Helena sank back into the chair like a limp balloon. “I really want to spend the evening with Ollie and Retha,” she whispered, no longer her usual formidable self. “They’re driving down from Johannesburg and I haven’t seen them for months.”

“Then we’ll stick to the four o’clock idea.” Erin and Mary spoke in unison.

“Mary, are we not down to be on chaperone duty at the school dance on Saturday evening?” Erin cast her eyes towards the duty list on a board too far away to read from where she was sitting.

“There’s no school dance,” Mary looked puzzled.

“Yes, there is,” the rest of us chorused.

“As of now there is,” I said. “Helena’s spider won’t know about what goes on at school anymore.”

“In fact,” Harriet chimed in, “I see Helena is meant to be chaperoning a group of girls to a debate at the university on Saturday night!”

“Tea it will be then,” Helena smiled broadly.

“Tea it is,” Mary and Erin echoed.

A rent-a-crowd twenty-first birthday celebration for a mild-mannered, isolated child who had been denied the opportunity to be young. She had been old-fashioned from the beginning, so much so that it seemed to someone who had seen her recently that she would never change: her short curly blond hair wisped about her pale face, her blue eyes slightly bulging and her pretty pouting lips still suggesting a softness and tenderness to be unlocked. We were all silent for a moment, caught up in the same thought that Theresa would have a new world to discover once she gained the courage to move away from the farm. We all hoped her party might be the catalyst for just that.

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