Fiction Friday | 'Father Michael's Lottery' by Johan Steyn

29 November 2019 - 12:00
'Father Michael's Lottery' is a tale of passion and hope in the face of death and bureaucracy.
'Father Michael's Lottery' is a tale of passion and hope in the face of death and bureaucracy.
Image: Pan Macmillan

“Father Michael’s Lottery is a great-spirited novel that tells its tale — about a committed doctor’s search for more 'happy endings' in all-too-unpromising circumstances — with heart and passion and hope.” 
— EDWIN CAMERON

“An important, must-read book”
— IAN McEWAN

The doctors and nurses at a small hospital in an African town are fighting an uphill battle against the Aids pandemic, made worse by the interventions of Holmes, the budget-conscious superintendent, and his bungling sidekick, Thunderbird.

The rebellious and profane Morgan thwarts every new rule in his quest to save his patients, most of whom are dying because they lack the resources to buy back their lives with over-priced drugs.

His efforts are valiantly supported by the enigmatic Oumar; the likable Kenyan, the beautiful Violet; and Rebecca, the battleaxe with a heart of gold.

Then there is Mary, with her passion for birds, holding Morgan’s heart in her frail hands; Naledi, the success story, who is brought back from the brink of death; and Rastodika, the untameable spirit.

When funds are needed for a kidney transplant, Morgan conspires with Father Michael; Dorcas, the shebeen queen; and Rachel, the whore, to make the rich Mr B organise a beerfest to pay for the operation. But then things don’t work out exactly as they had planned.

Johan Steyn was a medical doctor who worked and travelled extensively in Africa, preferring to live in the continents more remote corners. His interests included flying, painting, photography and mountaineering.

Extract: 'A Question for Father Michael'

Father Michael crossed the road to the mall and wondered what had possessed him to wear a cassock on such a hot day, but he could not turn back since he was already late for his appointment. He avoided the dust blown up by a bus loaded to capacity, starting its journey to the north. On its roof were suitcases, cardboard boxes, brand new toilet bowls, a bed complete with mattress, and a tethered goat.

Vendors selling their wares on the verandas of the shops greeted him as he walked past and weaved his way among canvas shelters, where women sold fruit that ripened rapidly in the stifling heat.

Outside Mr Chiremba’s beerhall, patrons sat under the lover’s tree, where an unsuccessful lover had tried to hang himself one night with a frayed rope, and ended up with only a fractured ankle. A man called to Father Michael and offered him a drink, but he dismissed him with a wave of his hand and a forced smile.

Onwards he walked up the hill as fast as the heat would allow him and stopped halfway to catch his breath and wipe the sweat off his glasses. He looked down on the river that had receded to a silver line in the middle of its bed. Women washed clothes and spread them on the gravelly sand, making a multicoloured mosaic amongst which ran children, dogs and goats. Skinny, naked boys played in the shallows away from the deep pools.

Father Michael continued his journey.

Near the top of the hill he stopped to catch his breath once again, before he entered a lush garden where tomatoes, cabbages, potatoes and mealies grew in neat rows. He knocked on the open door of a house that was tucked away between huge banana trees.

‘Come in Father!’ Dorcas, the shebeen queen, called out from the living-room. Father Michael’s eyes took a moment to become accustomed to the darkened interior of the house. He noticed her white headscarf first, then the blue dress and then her dark face. She was smiling at him.

‘Sit down Father.’

She grabbed his arm and led him to a chair. She opened a window but no breeze came through it.

‘A beer, Father?’

Father Michael wiped the sweat from his brow as if to justify his indulgence. As always, he was overwhelmed by her presence.

‘Yes!’ she made up his mind for him, disappeared through a bead curtain and Father Michael could hear a fridge door open and shut.

Dorcas was a formidable woman. She had built the house herself and cultivated the soil with manure that she carried up the hill from the municipal corral. At night she ran a shebeen that was the most respectable establishment in town and had the tacit approval of the Constable, who dropped by for a sedate beer when his busy schedule allowed him to.

Nothing escaped her.

She knew everyone in town and listened attentively to the conversations of her customers at night. She knew about every scandal and every tragedy before it became public knowledge. She attended every wedding, every christening, every funeral, offered valued advice to her customers on matters ranging from finances to unrequited love, shared their triumphs and sorrows, and scolded them if they drank too much.

Dorcas had never re-married after the death of her husband whose picture, taken in the only suit he had ever possessed, hung on the wall above Father Michael's head. She came back through the curtain and handed him an ice cold beer.

As on other occasions, he noticed her forearms, which were strong and lean, almost like those of a man. From her dress pocket she took a plastic bag with tightly rolled banknotes. He stared at the bag, removed his glasses and scrutinised Dorcas’s face.

Dorcas laughed and sat down opposite him.

‘You will see there is more this month,’ she said. ‘I am busier than usual; it must be the heat.’

Father Michael expressed his thanks, put on his glasses, carefully pocketed the money and took the first sip of his beer.

‘And how are the orphans?’ Dorcas asked her standard question, as if to make sure her money was well spent.

‘The school is going well,’ Father Michael gave his standard answer.

‘But there are more and more orphans.’

The school had been her idea. She first noticed the orphans begging on the streets and did not leave a stone unturned until two teachers were hired and a building was found. The children received one good meal a day and at night they stayed with their extended families. Father Michael was philosophical about the finances. Somehow donations always arrived when they were needed most and the school had been going for a year now.

‘Soon you are going to need more help,’ Dorcas commented.

Father Michael knew that only too well. He conducted funeral services every week and was alarmed by the increasing number of freshly filled graves.

Dorcas looked out of the door into the street and her eyes flashed when a pick-up truck roared past in a cloud of dust.

‘There,’ she said with sudden inspiration, ‘is your answer!’

Father Michael had recognised the truck, on the side of which was painted ‘B for Best’. The owner was known all over town as Mr B: ex-cattle smuggler, farmer and businessman. He was a benevolent giant with a booming voice that seemed to escape from a loudhailer.

‘Mr B?’ he asked incredulously. ‘He doesn’t even belong to the church.’

‘I am not surprised,’ said Dorcas. ‘But he is the richest man in town and all he ever thinks about is how to make more money.’

Father Michael didn’t enquire as to how Dorcas intended to enlist Mr B’s help. He decided to leave matters in the hands of providence. They sat in silence for a while as Father Michael sipped his beer and relaxed.

He gazed up at the wall in front of him; a picture of a blond, blue-eyed Christ hung between a Coca-Cola advert and an Aids awareness poster. To the right of the poster were framed pictures of Dorcas’s three children. In the corner of the room, next to the curtain, stood a fishbowl filled with condoms.