Miss Conradie and the angels
We knew that angels existed because Miss Conradie told us they did. We had no reason to doubt her because like nurses and traffic wardens, Sunday school teachers have direct access to God.
Miss Conradie was new to Greylingstad but it didn’t take my mother long to get the low down from Bessie van Deventer, who ran the hair salon from her garage. She added her own spice to Bessie’s version until Miss Conradie’s story took on dramatic twists that made her divorcee life sound so unbearably tragic that she reminded me of the scrawny women on my mother’s television programmes, but without the glamour.
Miss Conradie took a different approach to the Sunday classes than her predecessor, Joseph Muller, who let us sit under the shade of the old Acacia tree where he pointed out different species of bird and encouraged us to call him Joe. Things were definitely more formal with Miss Conradie. Each Sunday morning she laid out three short rows of chairs in the prefab room behind the church. Used mostly as a store, the room was dusty and crowded. Small windows set high into two of the opposing walls cast strips of light across the floor and it was in this crossbeam that Miss Conradie took to standing.
What made Miss Conradie an expert on angels, and whether she had actually seen one, I could never establish. However, that Sunday, when we all dragged our feet out of the clear morning that was already warming up into another scorcher and into the prefab room, she asked who had ever seen an angel and where.
Thirteen arms shot straight up, stirring the air like wisps of grass.
Fransie Becker started off. His story was complicated and full of twists that jerked around his stutter in a drunken loop. It was agonising to watch the dying words fumble off his tongue but we knew it was rude to interrupt so we all looked on, following the path of Fransie’s small hands as he emphasized the words he couldn’t say. The best we could make out was something about ghosts and singing. I was beginning to think that the poor boy was talking in tongues when Betsy Vermeulen knocked him on the back of his head, and told him to shut it. “He’s talking about last year’s Christmas concert but that doesn’t count. Anyone’s mother with a metre of Mr Pillay’s cotton sheeting and some gold tinsel can turn their kid into an angel!”
Miss Conradie fixed Betsy with a withering stare. But Betsy, being Betsy simply stared back until Miss Conradie’s mouth became a thin line holding held the breath she’d sucked in hostage. Eventually Miss Conradie’s chest deflated, the air rushing out of her nose in a soft whiny.
“Its not true Fransie,” she said to the boy whose head was hanging tightly against his chest, his hands twisting and unwinding an invisible piece of rope. “Some children are beautiful angels.”
“And some are made of stone.” We all turned to Hans Grundling. “That’s what happened to my brother Eric when he fell out of the tree. He turned to stone and grew these little wings.” His hand pointed idly over his shoulder, indicating where the wings were. “We go and visit him every Sunday after here.”
Hans’ declaration, delivered in that slow casual way of his, caused a murmur in the ranks. I could picture Eric made of stone because some of us had snuck into the Grungling’s back room where they had laid his broken body on the work bench for people to pay their respects. When I thought no one was looking I’d reached out to touch Eric’s hand, which was cold and waxy. I could imagine him as stone but nowhere on that blue grey body could I place wings.
“True, that’s what happened to my granny! Only she turned into a vase because her life was lived skew. That’s what my dad says.” Betsy’s voice crackled in the fuggy air. “We never go to visit because my dad gets grumpy if he hasn’t eaten.”
“Charlie’s Angels!” Bertus Malherbe is an authority on anything and everything that doesn’t happen in Greylingstad. His dad owns DVDee’s so Bertus knows all about life on the outside. “They may be on TV and famous and able to deliver a karate chop from 30 feet but they do it for the good of mankind, so it’s a noble thing I guess.” Bertus ended his oration with an impressive mock kick at the door, which left us shrieking with glee.
“Children, behave!” Miss Conradie’s command, shrill and loud collided with the walls of the small room and bounced back at us. We turned to Miss Conradie, watching the colour creep out of the folds of her neck and across her face.
Miss Conradie glared at us, and we stared back, our eyes big as saucers, mouths gaping like Barbel. The air felt as stodgy as my mother’s dumplings and I sucked in hard till my lungs hurt. In the thin shafts of light that fall across Miss Conradie’s shoes I could see dust particles dancing off the leather. The silence strained against the thick air but was soon bruised by organ music floating across from the church.
We all knew that signalled the final hymn of the service but Miss Conradie wasn’t giving up easily. She started slowly, her voice even and low, gathering momentum with the dips and swells of the music in her head.
Later that afternoon, when we burrowed in the mud for water rats to feed to Bertus’s snake, Fransie said he didn’t understand adults. “That bit when Miss Conradie was talking about eternal Dalmatians…”
“It’s no big deal Fransie,” said Bertus, laying a grubby hand on the boy’s shoulder, looking him straight in the eye. “It’s Father Christmas you’ve got to watch out for. If you don’t behave before that guy gets here, there’s hell to pay.”