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Maya Fowler

@ Sunday Times Books LIVE

Izak’s blue dress, for Women’s Day

Sometimes you find a short story so brilliant, so shocking, but so true, so full of compassion and so heart-wrenching that you need to share it with the rest of the world. Izak de Vries’s “Die blou rok” (“The Blue Dress”), from his 1998 anthology Kom slag ‘n bees (Tafelberg Publishers; ISBN 0 624 03671 5) is such a story. Today, on the eve of Women’s Day, I translated it because I believe in it and I wanted to make it accessible to people who can’t read the original.

This is because Women’s Day is not about buying a new pair of shoes, nor indeed a dress. Although dresses matter, as you’ll see.

The Blue Dress

Izak de Vries

Translation: Maya Fowler


I couldn’t ask Ma for a new dress. It was hard, because my church dress was getting all worn and I’d long outgrown it.

Ma always told us to pray. She said it was fine to pray for material things too, because the Our Father talks about our daily bread. I prayed, but always quietly. I couldn’t say this thing during our evening prayers, because then Ma’d hear. And I couldn’t tell Magda or Ronnie anything, because what if they told on me? That’s why I’d pray quietly.

Some days I’d really wonder if Jesus ever heard me. I know it’s bad, but Ma was always praying for Dad. Often, at evening prayers, Magda and Ronnie and I also prayed that Jesus would put an end to the devil’s hold on Dad, the spell of drink. Ma taught us to pray like that. She’d always say you must respect your parents, even if they drink like Dad. Ma also said that one of the best ways you can show your respect for someone is by praying for them.

It’s easy to respect Ma. She’s kind and always talks nicely to us, and she buys food with her money. But it’s hard respecting Dad. Especially when the other kids started talking about confirmation dresses, which in our church happens around the last year of high school.

Liezl’s dad phoned Tant Bessie and told her to go ahead, charge it to the account. Liezl could ask for any kind of dress.

Annelise’s dad took her and her mom to Worcester to go choose the prettiest dress. Whatever she wanted, that’s what he said.

Marlene said her dad just gave her mom some money and told her to go buy. His little girl had to look good on her big day. When it came to dresses, he just didn’t know though, that was girls’ stuff.

Annelise let us know that her shoes alone cost over a hundred. She said we had to see the dress first, then we could guess how much it cost, but we should just know it was a lot. And it was lilac, she said.

Then one day Ma said: We need to get you a dress for two weeks’ time. You can’t go in that one.

My heart got going. When can we go buy, Ma? I asked.

No, Ma said, buying is too expensive. But Mr Bruyns had told her she could get some material at cost: less than half the price. And the cotton and buttons Ma could have for free, he said.

When can we go buy the material, Ma? I asked.

End of the week, when I get paid.

But then Ronnie fell and there was the doctor, and the medicine, and we’d already run up an account at the pharmacy, so Ma couldn’t buy on credit. So when the end of the week came, Ma had no money. So all weekend we had to eat potatoes, the ones Magda and Ronnie and I planted, because Ma didn’t buy any other food. She bought Sunlight soap, because, Ma says, a person can have it bad, but your body and your hair and your clothes must be clean.

The Monday morning Ma went to Mr Bruyns to ask him for a little advance on Dad’s pay. The rest he could pay out when Dad got back.

Mr Bruyns wasn’t there, but he phoned Ma at the co-op later to tell her she could come fetch it after work, but wasn’t she scared?

Ma said no, my girl needs this dress, Mr Bruyns, and then he said OK. This is what Ma told me.

Mr Bruyns is good to us. He’s the one that asked Ma to take the job at the co-op so she could earn a little something for us. Mr Bruyns is Dad’s boss, too. He’s the one that owns the big lorry. Mr Bruyns has told Dad before that he’ll fire him if he doesn’t stop his drinking, but he won’t, because when Dad sits at home, then he really gets drinking. And at least he and his friends don’t drink it all away: he always holds onto a bit. And when Dad isn’t at home, it’s actually quite nice, even though Ma says it’s not respectful to say so. And sometimes Dad tells us sorry. Then he’s really nice for a few days. Then we never know quite how to speak to him.

And Mr Bruyns has told Ma many times that Dad never drinks out on the road. He’s definitely the best driver he’s ever had. He’s tried to catch him out, even told his agents in Johannesburg to keep an eye on him, but no-one could ever, not once, catch a trace of liquor on his breath while he was working.

It’s the devil’s evil hold, Ma would always say. The man I married wasn’t like that. It’s the devil that does this thing to him.

Unfortunately Dad got home that same night, because the Laingsburg cargo was arriving later only. Which meant that he didn’t have to spend the night there. When he got home, he shouted at Ma: Where’s my money? When Ma didn’t answer, he gave her a smack and tore her dress apart completely. He yanked her bra off, because he knows that’s where she hides her money.

No Dad, no, Ronnie screamed, but Dad just took the money and left.

Ma said we’d just have to wait for the weekend of my confirmation. She’d work all night long, and we knew that Dad had to leave again on the Friday. Johannesburg, Durban, Johannesburg, Richard’s Bay. It was going to be a long shift. He’d only be back in ten days.

But that Thursday morning Magda’s first period arrived. There was a lot of blood. Ma and I also bleed like that, and so Ma had to go ask Mr Bruyns for an advance, because we’d run out of pads. Magda couldn’t even go to school that day. All morning she sat there with a piece of cloth to keep the bed from getting stained, until Ma got home at lunchtime. The two of us share a bed. First she used to sleep on the floor, while Ronnie shared with me, but a few months ago Ma said Ronnie was getting too big for that. Now us two girls have the bed, and he gets the floor.

And then the place where the bra cut Ma’s breast got infected and she had to go off to the doctor again, and the medicine cost so much, Ma couldn’t even get the whole prescription.

Ma still said: I don’t know why it’s gone infected, because I kept it so nice and clean. Every morning, every evening I wash it with Sunlight soap.

So Ma got here on the Friday evening without any material. But then she said to me: As God is my witness tonight, my daughter’s confirmation is more important than a drunk man’s chickens!

And off she went to catch Dad’s three show Leghorns, and next she sold them to Oom Dolla. He’d told Dad many times, if ever he wanted to sell …

Oom Dolla felt sorry for Ma, and gave her much more than she asked. Far more even than they were worth, Ma said.

So the Saturday afternoon, Ma got going. These days she works with a needle and thread, because one day Dad went and sold her Singer. He’s said he was sorry, he’d buy another one. But he hasn’t yet.

And I bought a bar of Lux soap. Thalitha, tomorrow morning I’ll go milk the cow, then you sleep in. Magda, you go chop the firewood and make us a nice fire. Ronnie, you’re big enough. You need to make sure there’s enough water in here, so that you and Magda can heat a big tub of water for Thalitha. Then the two of you can also wash with the Lux afterwards. Now Thalitha, you need to wash nicely tomorrow. And then you go use some of the Impulse spray you’ll find in my cupboard. And your hair, wash well. Lux isn’t as strong as Sunlight. Your hair should look good after that. Then, when you’re finished, but now remember, you’re not rushing, tomorrow’s your day, when you’re finished, you get into your bra and panties, and you come sit on the porch. Brush your hair till it’s dry. Then we can eat. I’ve bought special Oats porridge. I know you like it. We even have some of that honey that Oom Karel brought us left. Then I’ll brush your hair nicely. Once everything’s done, you put on your dress. My girl is going to look very pretty for the Lord. I’ve polished your shoes already, nice and shiny.

Those were my school shoes Ma polished like that. Ma does so much for us. I can’t tell her that Annelise started laughing when she heard I wash my hair with soap. Annelise said she uses shampoo and conditioner, which costs more than eighty rand altogether. That’s more than half of what Ma earns at the co-op every week.

Just before I left to go deliver the milk, Ma got me to try it on. The dress wasn’t done yet. No, Ma said, I know my girl’s body. I’m the one that carried her. Just one fitting and all the seams will be right. Tomorrow morning just before church she’ll put it on, finished.

Then I set off for the parsonage. As long as there’s a cow with milk, we always deliver some for Sundays’ tea after church. When I got to the house, the minister’s wife, we call her Mevrou Dominee, opened the door.

Suddenly Mevrou said: I was still meaning to ask you, but it really slipped my mind, I’m sorry. Do you have a dress for tomorrow? You know, I’m sorry, I have a beautiful white dress upstairs, and we’re about the same size. I’m sure it would fit.

And I said no, my mother’s making me one, and she said sure, but don’t you just want to try it on? So I said yes. But I shouldn’t have. I just wanted to see myself in a beautiful dress so badly. And white, too. Ma had said herself it was such a pity she couldn’t make a white dress, but it just wouldn’t be right.

That Friday Annelise, under the shower after PT, still ran her hands over her body and sighed. Oh, to have this old body showing up at the altar in lilac. A disgrace!

Liezl, who was standing next to her, choked and said: Why do you think I chose black?

Everyone stood in the shower laughing. I was done showering, and wanted to get into my panties in a hurry, because they already had a little hole showing.

Marlene, who was also done showering, just pulled up her nose and said, Well, I’m going to be standing there in white, because I deserve it.

Benita shouted: Snob! And everyone laughed some more. Benita was still a virgin too, but she said cream is more sophisticated. She’d save white for her wedding, one day.

I still remember when Annelise told us last year how Johan had asked her to sleep with him that weekend. She’d said yes. Johan was headboy then. He’d said it was his first time too, she told us. Everyone was jealous.

How big is his dick? asked one of the matrics. She’d had a huge crush on Johan. Ma says we mustn’t talk dirty like that. We must say thingy, but at school they don’t say it that way.

This big, Annelise explained, from the tips of her fingers up to her wrist. Marlene took a ruler and measured, 18 cm.

I’ve had bigger, Liezl said. Liezl was terribly jealous of Annelise.

Yes, but you sleep around like a whore, bitched Annelise. Then Liezl scratched Annelise in the eye. If you look carefully, you’ll still see the mark. These days they’re great pals.

Look, says Mevrou next to me. Don’t you think it’s pretty? Don’t you want to try it on?

She went out and let me try on the dress.

After a while she came back and handed me some matching lace gloves. I’d never looked so pretty.

If you want it, I’ll give you shoes and stockings to match. I’m sorry. Last week I was so busy, I clean forgot.

I must have spent a long time looking at myself in the mirror, because after a while she left.

Just let me know when you’re done, she said. The dress was terribly pretty. She was right. We’re the same size. But I was thinking of Ma, with the three Leghorns under her arm. And there she was at that very moment, sitting on the porch with the old reading glasses, working away at the blue dress I was only allowed to see the next day, when it was done.

I couldn’t do it to Ma.

So I took off the dress, folded it neatly, put the little gloves beside it and told Mevrou thanks, but my mom was making me a dress.

On the way home I kicked a stone so hard it made my toe bleed.

Back home, Ma and Magda were busy peeling potatoes. The dress must have been done, or Ma would finish it by candlelight later.

That night I lay there thinking of my confirmation, how I had to answer yes when the minister asked, and what I’d look like next to Annelise. We’re next to each other, alphabetically. At school too.

I wondered what the dress Ma was making would have looked like in white – if I’d still been a virgin. Ma says I mustn’t think about that day too much, but I can’t really forget.


I was thirteen, and had just finished standard five. Dad and his friends were here to see in the new year. He sent me to go get some more brandy. When I got back, he was taking a slash with a few other guys and told me to go wait under the canopy of his bakkie so long. That was before Dad sold the old pick-up truck.

When I got there, there were two other men sitting inside, paging through a Scope magazine. They opened the door so that they could see better.

I wish they weren’t covered in stars, said the one.

I went to wait in the back of the truck.

Well, you could show us what a girl looks like without little stars, said the other one.

Yes, how about a full frontal, said the first one.

They said I had to take off my dress. I didn’t want to, but then one of them said he’d give me a smack if I didn’t.

I took off my dress.

Come sit here in front, between us, said one.

I went to sit there.

Then they said: Nice. That looks very good, and you don’t even have stars.

One touched my chest. Kiss me, he said.

I’d often kissed uncles and so on, on Ma’s side of the family, to say hello, and so I kissed him that way.

No, he said. Make it longer, a much longer kiss. And open your mouth. His mouth tasted like brandy and he pushed his tongue far back into mine. The whole time he was touching my chest.

Come, let’s take of her panties, said one. She’s got hair under her arms already.

He used both hands to pull off my panties. Come, lift that pretty little arse.

The gear lever got in his way, and he said some bad things. Don’t be difficult, he said.

I lifted my feet so that he could take off my panties. I sat there in the bakkie between them, naked. The one who took off my panties pushed his finger up my froggie. He pushed up and down. I know at school they call it something else, but Ma says we mustn’t use dirty language. We must say froggie, and Ronnie has a thingy. Otherwise ma says just plain dingaling.

The other one kissed me again, one of those long kisses.

Quick, let her lie down, said the one who took off my panties.

They got up. Both of them came to stand on the passenger side. They made me lie down on the seat.

Open your legs, girlie, said the one that took off my panties.

Do you think Gert will mind if we screw his daughter? asked the one who kissed me.

He’s so drunk he won’t even know, said the other one.

Who’s first? asked the other one.

The first one out of his pants, said the other one, who’d taken off my panties.

He was clever, because the whole time he’d been wearing just a pair of tackies and tracksuit pants. He fell over his own feet and landed on top of me.

His thingy was very big and thick and stood right up. He pulled me over to him so that my bum was on the edge of the seat, and he pushed his thingy all the way into my froggie. It was sore and I must have screamed, because then the other one covered my mouth with his hand. His hand tasted bad. The other one carried on pushing his thingy into my froggie and pulling it out again. It was very sore and I was sure he was pushing it right into my tummy.

After a while, he said: I’m coming.

About time, said the other one. Then the one who pulled my panties off groaned.

It was sticky.

Keep her mouth shut so that I can get a turn, said the other one.

The one who pulled off my panties climbed over me and came to sit on my face. His thingy was full of blood.

Come on, he said, lick it clean. This is your blood.

I started to cry.

If you make a racket, I’ll bash your teeth in tonight, he said.

The other one pushed my knees apart and it started again. I had to bite down on my teeth to not make a sound.

Suddenly Ma was there. She always says we mustn’t use bad language, but that night she screamed and swore terribly. She hit the two men and threatened to phone the police.

Then Dad told everyone to go. The two of them fought for a long time, right there next to the bakkie.

Ma shouted. Dad begged. Usually it’s the other way around.

Eventually Ma got me out of the bakkie and washed me.

The next day we went to the doctor. He looked me over a few times after that, and the Welfare came to speak to me, but Ma and Dad both said: No police. Then we’ll deny it. And we’ll tell her too, to say it never happened.

Dad’s friends never came drinking at our house again.


The morning of my confirmation Magda was annoyed when Ma told her to get up while I was allowed to lie in. She went out just like that, in her nightie, to go and chop wood and make a fire.

Ronnie went to fetch water from the pump and by the time Ma was done milking, there was a big tub of hot water in the kitchen.

Now we’re going to see my girl enjoying her wash, she said.

I took off my nightshirt, one of Dad’s old, tattered ones, and went to stand in the tub.

Ma poured the hot water over me carefully. Then she took the bar of Lux out of her apron pocket and gave it to Magda to open.

Ronnie sat there wide-eyed, watching me wash.

Carefully, Magda opened it and handed the soap to me.

Ronnie, said Ma. Come sit here in front of Thalitha and hold the soap for her. Magda, come and pour the water. I’m going to finish making the porridge.

I soaped my hair and my body. Magda was still annoyed, but poured the water over me quite merrily. Ronnie was more than happy to hold the soap and then hand it back again.

Liezl had said she was going to tell everyone to use her mom and dad’s bathroom that morning. She wanted to lie and soak for an hour.

Marlene has her own bathroom. No-one besides her ever takes a bath there, except when she has friends staying over. I’ve been there, but I’ve never slept over.

I’d only ever had one bath. We went to Cape Town on tour and stayed in a big university res. That time I stayed up late one night, drew a bath full of water and lay there for a long while.

As I soaped my froggie, I suddenly wondered what the dress would have looked like if it had been white. If it had been allowed to be white.

I must have been dreaming, because all of a sudden Magda, all pert, said: You can’t stand there fingering yourself like that on the Sabbath.

Ronnie wanted to kill himself laughing, because he’d been there when I showed Magda one evening how to do it. The kids at school had been talking about it.

Magda is still a virgin. Maybe one day she’ll wear a white confirmation dress.

Done with my bath, I went to comb my hair.

We ate, Ma combed my hair some more and said: And now! And she went to fetch the dress.

It looked like a little sundress, just a bit longer, and with sleeves.

First I put on the dress, then my socks and my shoes, all polished.

Ma said: You have rings under your eyes. Didn’t you sleep well? It’s a pity I couldn’t buy any make-up.

She took me to their room and let me take a look in the full-length wardrobe mirror.

I couldn’t help it. I burst into tears when I saw myself. It was so common, compared to Mevrou’s dress.

But I couldn’t tell Ma that.

What’s wrong? Ma wanted to know.

O, Ma, it’s so beautiful, I lied.

Ma brushed my hair once more, and we walked to church. At the door, Ma said to me: Now remember, say yes nice and loudly. You’re not ashamed in front of the Lord.


Recent comments:

  • <a href="" rel="nofollow">Helen</a>
    August 8th, 2013 @23:12 #

    Oh Maya.


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