originally in Botsotso, no. 16

Velislav Milov started his own religion on the first day of March. Of course he never planned such a preposterous thing. It happened in a fit of pique.  Nevertheless, the signs were there to see. A stomach bug two days earlier all but forced a fast upon Milov. The night before that, there’d been a truly terrible storm, his dogs pissing themselves as thunder banged and rolled.

Sitting on his balcony on the first day of March, the wood still soggy after the deluge, Milov pondered the state of his life. He was sixty-six and the first year of his retirement was a disappointment. His health was failing. All the fantasies he had stored up, hoping to act upon at this stage of life, fantasies cherished, taken out from time to time during a working day, like a matchbox car still in its cellophane covering, excitedly considered from all angles, these fantasies were slipping beyond his reach.  He was stuck in a decaying city living a disintegrating life.

If it were not for its all year surfing, Milov would hardly have chosen Durban as the place to live on emigrating from Bulgaria as a young man.  That activity was now impossible with the slipped disks. If it were not for the sultry Indian salesgirls around every corner of the city, he’d long have married a nice white lady and had children to amuse him. Consummating those cravings was now impossible too, notwithstanding the efforts of modern chemistry. Poor health had robbed a bitter Milov of his earthly rewards for working so hard and getting so rich.   It was too late to do anything about it.

Velislav Milov had run a paint company with outlets all over Durban. Eleven years before, his driver stopped to pick up a guy looking for a lift. There was an accident and the passenger was flung from the back of the bakkie into oncoming traffic. Milov needn’t have taken responsibility. The dead man was a togt-worker and the Road Accident Fund was there to sort the family out. Milov paid bribes, so if anyone tried to sue, he was sure he could quash the case.

The wife came to see him a few months after the accident, with three serious little girls, the youngest barely walking. She came to ask her husband’s boss for his effects. The police gave the paint shop address on Stamford Hill. There was obviously a mix-up. The dead guy never worked for him, he just died off one of Milov’s bakkies. Milov was not a generous man but he did make up his mind quickly. He decided there and then to pretend that the dead man had worked for him. By the time the woman and the six large accusing eyes left, Milov had given orders for the monthly salary of the lowest paid worker in his factory to be sent to the widow.

“For how long, Mr Milov?” his general manager asked.

“For fucking ever,” Milov replied, why he never knew, it was not a lot of money.

Over the next decade, there was sporadic contact with the family. Mostly the widow came alone to the office for extra money for this or that emergency. An appendix, school fees every January and a deposit for a new outbuilding when the family was evicted once. He enjoyed these visits immensely, although Milov could not help adopting an irritable tone from across the table when the widow was shown in. He thought it stripped his charity of schmaltz. It made giving and taking easier to bear for all concerned. The brusqueness discouraged excessive thank yous which Milov hated.

At the end of each year, Milov was treated to a visit from the girls. Their mom spoke to them rather sternly in Zulu in his presence, the two littlest ones sharing a chair, feet dangling.  Then Milov smoothed his beard to a point and gruffly shoved some petty cash across to the kids, saying, “share”.  They beamed without smiling, stood up and the girls filed merrily out of the office till the following year. Milov was in such a good mood the rest of the day.

There was only one unsatisfactory moment. The elder girl hooked up with some township riff-raff. Accompanied by the girl, the much older man came asking for a job a few years ago.  Through the one-way glass of his office Milov took a look at the guy and did not like what he saw: lopsided hat and gold tooth.  He refused to see them. He would have raised this unwelcome visit with the mother, except that December, she brought only two daughters.

After selling the business, Velislav Milov had no more control over the pay-roll. He’d not considered that the payments would stop with all the hundred and one other things he had to do when handing over to the new owners. In time, the dead man’s wife arrived at his house in Umhlanga. The gate-guard was in the process of chasing her away, a diligence, Milov found out, he had shown twice before. Milov was nudging his Jag into the driveway this time. He told the guard it was okay and leaned over to open the passenger door for the widow, but she took too long to get in. Milov drove slowly down the milkwood lane to his front door with the woman following on foot behind.

And so began the monthly collections of envelopes of cash. Milov decided against a stop-order. It wasn’t too much trouble drawing the money himself.  He didn’t mind handing the money over personally, although they said you shouldn’t. The visits were a distraction.  It was so quiet about the house.

On the day he unwittingly started a religion, the first of March, Velislav Milov was in a foul mood. The storm caused his dogs to wet the carpets, his back was sore and he came to see that his retirement plan to surf all morning and seduce Indian waifs all evening was impossible. He stood alone on his balcony, a stash of sunflower seeds in a carved bowl balanced on the railing.  Around his feet lay husks stripped expertly from the seed, as only a born Bulgarian knew how.  From his balcony he could see the ocean. About a mile out it was a churning brown and gooey green. The Umgeni River dumped all the up-country filth into the sea with the big rain, not only sand but sewage and litter and industrial detritus. What evil man does on land, the ocean collects, Milov was thinking when the gate buzzer rang. It was the day the widow came to collect her money.

Velislav Milov had maintained the ritual of the desk. He invited the prim woman into his dining room and showed her a chair. He disappeared into other rooms as if to get the money, when it was already in a folded envelope in his pants pocket.  Returning, Milov faced the black woman sitting across from him and asked,

“So how are the girls doing.  Well, hey?”

Dolly (that was her name) nodded and smiled, “Ja, baba.”

“So Dolly, we haven’t spoken about an increase in a long time. What do you say?”

On any other day, Milov would have slipped another hundred or two into the envelope but not today. Today, he’d make her ask him.

“Really, things are so hard at home,” Dolly exclaimed more pointedly than ever.

            “But how much extra do you want, Dolly, R20, R50, R100,” Milov pushed her.

            “I can’t say baba.”

            “Then tell me what you need the extra money for, then I will know how much you want.”

Dolly eyed Milov for a second and then blurted, “The women in the church are going on a trip and it is costing 350. The food too is covered. But people who are going must pay by next Friday.”

Milov had never before considered the possibility that the money he gave Dolly was spent on anything other than bare essentials. It was not a lot of money in the first place.  In his mind, all these years, he imagined their rent being paid first, then his largesse putting vegetables and macaroni and maybe some chicken on the table of ‘his’ dead worker. Any spare cash would go for second-hand clothes and the stuff women needed. Now, in an instant, it occurred to Milov that Dolly and the girls might be entertaining themselves and others on his money. By her own admission, Dolly was part of a church group. By township standards, Dolly might actually be quite well off.  She had a regular salary coming in. What if she was giving money out to undeserving causes? These ideas fired through Milov’s mind in an inchoate way, more as a vague feeling of being taken for granted than an express objection to any specific spend.

“A church group?  Are you part of a church?”

Dolly misread Milov’s tone as enthusiasm.  She showed her teeth as she said, “Yes, baba, since my husband died, we go to church together. We have no-one to help us. We were crying all the time and the pastor he did help us. We go to church every Sunday, me and my children.”

Milov felt blood rise to his face. When he spoke he heard his voice sharpen with indignation.

            “What do you mean, the pastor helped you …?  Tell me Dolly, please be honest, how much do they charge you to be part of that church of yours?”

Dolly was flummoxed. “They don’t charge nothing sir.”

Dolly looked worried now. She was a clever woman. She had caused offence, but was struggling to see what she must do to rectify the situation.

“So you don’t give any money to the pastor?”

“No, nothing.” Dolly was categorical.

Velislav Milov felt a pang of relief and the beginnings of embarrassment set in. He had over-reacted. He was being silly.

But then Dolly added, “We only give tithes, (she said the word in two syllables).  But the ti-thes is not for the pastor, it is for the church.”

Ah you stupid woman, Milov felt like screaming. This unusual anger was back but somehow Milov kept from exploding.

“Tell me Dolly, how many people come to your church?”

“About thirty, no, more now, fifty.”

“Yes, fifty, and where do you go for church?”

“In a garage. They stole our tent so we have service in the pastor’s garage.”

This time Milov could not help himself, “Ah, you stupid woman!”

Dolly was terrified. She was quaking in her chair.

“I’m sorry Dolly, I shouldn’t have said that. Look at me. I’m not cross with you.” Milov took a deep breath.

“I just want you to answer me one more thing. How much do you give the church every month?”

Dolly had an answer she could give, a factual answer, amidst this fury which she didn’t understand.

“A ti-the, I give a ti-the.”

Milov rocked back in his chair so hard it scraped.

“You have been giving some two-bit pastor ten percent of your money, my money, for the last ten years?”

Dolly’s head was on her chest. She may have been weeping. It only encouraged Milov’s rage.

“What the fuck for?”, he continued. “What has he ever done for you?  Are you crazy, Dolly. It’s a scam. Your bloody pastor should be locked-up.”

And then a thought struck Milov.

“And he’s probably been saying that your good luck in getting money, money from the white man, is because of him. That’s what you think, isn’t it, isn’t it Dolly? Huh?

She did not answer.

“Today’s Sunday. Did you pray at church with the pastor that the mlungu will give you an increase, Dolly? More ti … thes! Jesus Christ, what a joke”.

Milov was aware that his behaviour was off the wall. But something inside him had obviously snapped.  The thing was, it felt so good. Living alone, working in a professional environment all these years, he hardly ever had the opportunity to really vent. Milov was not a militant atheist. Chances were he was no atheist at all. He would never have bothered with anyone else’s religious beliefs if he wasn’t funding them. But there was no use screaming at Dolly.  These people were so easy to fool. Look at what the missionaries had done to them and now their own politicians.  Nothing had ever changed in four gullible centuries.

While Dolly quietly sobbed, Milov went to the kitchen, pressed one glass against the water dispenser on the door of the fridge and then another. He returned to the dining-room.  Dolly looked up, a fat, pathetic tear running out from under her glasses. He pushed a glass of water over to her and sat down. The storm was over but Milov was as engaged as ever.

“I am sorry Dolly. I should not have shouted at you. You have done nothing wrong. It’s your money. You can do what you want with it.”

Dolly made as if to get up. This scene had really frightened her. God knows what the security guard would think seeing her leave in this state.

“Before you go, Dolly, I want to explain something to you.”  He took a deep breath then sighed it out. “It is not your pastor who has looked after you and your girls for ten years. It is me. I am your pastor, Dolly. On Sundays when you get up and dress nicely, and take a taxi, (do you take a taxi to church Dolly?), ah yes, when you take a taxi to church and sing nice songs and pray and smile, it should be to me that you are coming by taxi to sing songs in your nice clothes.”

Milov meant to be sarcastic but he found the words he spoke to be perfectly sincere.

“Think about it, who is giving you something and getting nothing, nothing in return?”

Dolly was staring at Milov and he saw the words hit home. She seemed to nod as she listened to him speak. The tears dried.  They looked at each other for a while.  She stood up.  She greeted him and left.

The following weekend Milov went to a House and Home show in Jo’burg.  He’d been invited by Dulux. They probably didn’t know he’d retired. On the second Sunday after his outburst, Milov’s first congregation arrived. The security guard buzzed him from the gate to ask if he should let them in. They were asking for Pastor Milov. It was Dolly, two girls and an elderly couple, maybe man and wife, dressed very nicely. Milov met them outside and led them to seats at the dining room table.  He found himself standing at its head.  And then there were the words.

At eleven o’clock in the morning, Milov finished talking. It was an easy, if uninspired sermon, consisting of a list of predictions. The economy was bad, jobs would be lost, violence ahead of elections would increase. The one specific unexpected prediction Milov knew would impress them for next week was that the lotto price would go up to R3.50 (he’d heard this from a guy at House and Home who was a big shot in the Lotto). He ended by saying that everyone should love their neighbour and not envy them too much.

Milov’s was going to be a practical ministry. After the sermon, he took everyone into his triple garage. There was so much stuff that he had no use for. A lawnmower, TV sets, two dusty computers, golf clubs, surfboards, toolboxes, a settee, antique light fittings (an old girlfriend was obsessed), books, CD’s, litres of paint, shoes, boxes of clothes and linen, including three new Armani suits and a motorbike that needed a mechanic to give it the once over. Milov stood with his congregation in front of these earthly goods. They could each take what they could carry away. In time, when the garage was empty, there’d be food and there’d be cash.

Truth be told, Milov found the first service he gave quite stilted. He was unprepared. He and his congregation still had to figure out properly how they would arrange the singing and praying. They might have been bored, especially the old man. But worshipping at Velislav Milov’s church was still new to them all.  He knew the innate African musical ability and sense of occasion would soon come to the fore.  He knew that future church gatherings would be emotionally moving events. He’d also like to see the congregation grow. Thirty to fifty was a good number to aim for. Once all of these things were in place – his congregation praise and worshipping on the one hand and his bestowing real and immediate blessings on the other – Pastor Milov would start working on some new material for moral guidance. There were lessons to be learned from waiting for the right wave and mixing paints. The Bible was getting outdated.

Before they left with bulging black bags of their chosen blessings, Milov thought it would be a good idea to let them make a circle outside under the big tree. He thought of Dolly and how she ended up enriching his life. At first, in a very small way.  Through her Milov got to play the role of grandfather or uncle to her kids. Later, their intense discussion put him on this present religious path, for which he was very grateful. He knew it.  His life would have new meaning, just when he thought all meaning was lost. He decided he would close off in prayer.  He said thank you for the rain.  He asked for luck with the Lotto.  And Milov also asked that God protect the soul of Dolly’s dear spouse who had been such an excellent employee.

The security guard looked bemused and just a little jealous as the group of five walked up the drive with their bags. The old man had difficulty carrying his sack of clothes. Milov asked if he needed help as he lagged behind. The old man smiled brightly and said thank you, but no, they had transport waiting just around the corner. It was Dolly’s husband in his taxi.

© Heinrich Böhmke, published in Botsotso, No. 16