Wednesday, August 29, 2007

The Conference

I don’t know why, I just have to post this.

I was twenty when this happened.

Way back in the distant eighties I was in Africa. I was living in a place called Umtata, an outpost capital of a South African homeland known as Transkei. Transkei is where the Apartheid system of the National Party sequestered the members of the Xhosa people in a semi-arid overly-farmed corner of southern Africa. People were poor. I was a volunteer at a school run by the South African Catholic Archdiocese that gave poor disabled children an opportunity for an education. I taught English, music, and art, but more importantly, I drove the van.

The regular school driver was unreliable. No stones shall be cast in this glass house, but let us just say that at eight in the morning he wasn’t at the top of his form, more like he was at the bottom of a bottle. I was awakened more than once to find someone knocking at my door before daybreak claiming that I needed to get my things right away because I would be driving to East London that day. Driver was drunk again. He had a name, but we all knew him as Driver.

I took many trips south to East London where a relatively modern prosthetic clinic was located. Many times I was fortunate to go north, to Durban, but this was usually for more administrative purposes. Often I would be carrying an assortment of passengers: students, nuns, adults with disabilities, and occasionally a low-ranking government official. It was on just such a journey to Durban where this story takes place.

The school charged me with taking two of their most prominent nuns to an ecclesiastical conference of Christian religions from all over South Africa. I want to speculate that this was an ecumenical meeting, but I doubt it is that easily defined. The conference was three days, and at the reception I witnessed a different, more multi-cultural Africa, but one with more trappings than I felt comfortable experiencing. I remember spending hours in the guest room of the conference-center reading Donald Morris’ The Washing of the Spears.

On the first night was a reception, followed by a dinner at the host minister’s house. It seems that only a few of us were invited to the dinner, because the number of participants declined noticeably by the time we entered the man’s main parlor. An African served some sort of preliminary drinks and hors d’oeuvres, and I began talking to the minister’s wife. I’m not sure of the denomination of this particular man-of-the-cloth, but I will just claim him as Anglican which is broad enough for me not to feel as if I’m offending anyone.

The wife succeeded in making me feel quite comfortable in this unfamiliar environment. She did what always eases my apprehension, she asked me about myself. Her questions were polite and she listened with an attentive ear. As the minister invited us over to the dining-room table, we continued our conversation.

The minister’s wife sat opposite me. The preliminaries of the meal required a few prayers from each representative of faith, and as the final prayer was being amen-ed, I felt a prodding on my lower leg. It was a gentle brush at first, and I ignored it as something unexplainable but insignificant. I followed the polite conversation and spoke when spoken to, but, in a moment, I found that the prodding had come back. I couldn’t quite verify it, but there was a general feeling that someone was rubbing my leg with their foot.

I looked to my left and realized that the gigantic and forbidding nun who I had driven to the conference was the least likely candidate to be rubbing my leg with her foot. On my right was a man, and though it wasn’t out of the realm of possibility, I scratched him off the list. Only one person was left—the minister's wife.

I took a quick glance at her. She was listening attentively to the conversation, but there was no mistaking it, she contained a coy twinkle in her eye. I could tell that she wasn’t listening fully, that it was just a ruse and that her attention was on my ankle and my ankle only. A crises of faith swept over me. A married woman? And a ministers wife at that? No way was I going to take that double lightening bolt. But then again, I was twenty-years-old.

The dinner continued and the rubbing of my leg persisted. At one point, when I was required to give my much practiced speech about my plans for the future, the rubbing got more intense and I could barely concentrate on the part about how I planned to become a journalist and everything. I wondered what would happen now. How was I to handle this? This was way beyond my area of expertise, hell, at that age, everything was way beyond my area of expertise.

When the meal ended and we stood up I was in severe crises. I did not know how to comprehend the situation, much less react to it. I did what I always seem to do given mental stress, I waited.

As we bowed our heads for the final prayer—there was so much praying going on at this conference—I quickly looked up at the minister’s wife and she made brief, reassuring eye-contact. I must have shown my confusion, but at the same time I may have decided just to follow her lead. As the minister launched into a lengthy prayer thanking the host for the divine gift of fellowship and nourishment, I happened to open my eyes and look at the place where the table cloth met the floor. From beneath the table appeared a cat. It started rubbing up against my leg.

8 comments:

linser said...

This is great. I never heard that story before. Of course, I was totally ready to believe it was the minister's wife.

imichie said...

I've been reluctant to tell this story for some reason, but I think there's a lot in it about my imagination and perception. Not really proud of it, but I think its funny never-the-less.

Emily Barton said...

I agree. It's VERY funny. It's amazing how we can read so much into things like others' looks when we're interpreting them a certain way.

Sarah said...

I needed a funny story to start my day, so thank you!

imichie said...

I'm glad this story is coming off more as funny than pathetic. That's a good sign.

Charlotte said...

Oooh that saucy cat! Don't be too hard on yourself Ian - at 20 it was perfectly understandable that you thought the minister's wife was hitting on you. Definitely funny rather than pathetic.

imichie said...

Hey Charlotte, very encouraging. I'm going to give myself a break due to temporary hormonal insanity.

Froshty said...

This story had me laughing out loud. Fortunately, I'm alone in my hotel room and no one heard me. I was hoping that it was a dog or a cat as I read, because I really didn't like the idea of a married minister's wife playing footsie with my brother. We big sisters are like that.