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Koppies, muted brown and dusty, fell off in gentle folds on both sides of the steep road they'd just ascended. Even with her sunglasses, Monica found the warm summer daylight achingly bright as she climbed out of the rental car and hopped onto a large boulder for a better view.
"Henry, you have to see this!" she called to the cameraman shooting the footage for the story she hoped would be her entrée into television journalism. Henry was asleep on the back seat.
Below lay a small town that was almost hidden from view by great swathes of colorful flowers.
"Bougainvillea!" exclaimed Henry, joining her on the boulder. "Like I've never seen them before."
Cerise, burnt orange, brilliant pink and sunshine yellow, they billowed over fences, walls and gates, weighed down veranda roofs, scaled tree trunks to take up residence in the branches and crept along telephone lines. What appeared to be a main street was lined with palm trees, as well as the persistent bougainvillea. With the sun reflecting off the green, blue and deep red tin roofs, the whole town had a bright glow, almost like a halo.
"I feel as though I'm in a glass-bottomed boat looking at a coral reef," said Monica, and Henry murmured in assent.
The sight was unexpected, especially as, since leaving Cape Town, they'd spent an hour and a half passing stubby clumps of reeds with small brown florets and shrubs with thin, leathery leaves. "Fynbos," Henry had explained, reading aloud from Monica's guidebook. It literally meant "fine bush" in the Afrikaans language.
On the western edge of the town a pile of rocks signaled the end of land and the beginning of the Atlantic. Large, jagged and precariouslybalanced, they were a sign that the ocean was not always this placid. Before Henry had fallen asleep he'd told her that less than a few hundred yards off the coast many wrecks lay covered in seaweed—breeding grounds for tuna, snoek and the great white shark.
On the northern edge of the town a lagoon stretched inland in the shape of a giant horizontal question mark. The tide was out and the mudflats surrounding it glistened in the sun.
Monica and Henry got back into the car, and as they began the descent past limestone outcrops, Monica opened her window just an inch to breathe in a grassy, lemony scent that was unfamiliar but quite pleasant. More than two years ago she'd been attacked by a carjacker, shot and left for dead. Like a stubborn stain, she could not erase from her mind the vision of those mirrored sunglasses and the drops of sweat sliding down the man's shaved head. The limp she had been left with in her right leg was a constant reminder. He had not been captured and she'd given up all hope that he ever would be. Her anxiety seemed silly in this bucolic place—after all, she'd been carjacked in Soweto, a sprawling dormitory town adjacent to Johannesburg, the largest city in South Africa—but it was almost involuntary, like her heart pumping blood.
The main street of the town was flanked with open ditches carrying streams of fast-running, clear water. Storefronts faced outward, their display windows shaded by tin roofs that covered the entire sidewalk. Potted pink and orange geraniums stood sentinel at uniform intervals. Outside the Lady Helen General Store, two white-haired men lounged on a bench, reading newspapers, a scruffy dog at their feet. A little farther along, a woman sat straight-legged on a blanket, rows of beaded jewelry and hair ornaments spread out in front of her. An infant lay cradled in her lap, nursing under a light, crocheted shawl.
"That's strange," said Henry, shaking his head. "There's no litter."
He was right—not even a single cigarette butt. The town gleamed like a much-loved home.
It seemed to Monica that many of the stores housed art galleries. Watercolor renderings of the local landscape dominated the displays, but there were also vivid abstract works, folk art, curvaceous stone sculptures and black-and-white photographs.
In Mama Dlamini's Eating Establishment people hunched shoulder to shoulder around a counter.
"Let's stop," said Henry.
"Dr. Niemand's expecting us," said Monica, trying to ignore the aroma of strong coffee.
Niemand. What a strange name. In Afrikaans it meant nobody.
Then she saw a sign for the hospital and concentrated on maneuvering her car around a donkey cart piled high with firewood. The driver tipped his faded black fedora at her, shook the reins and whistled at the donkey. The beast cocked its head as though it understood and then resumed its slow steady clip-clop.
The main street ended in a park that ran along the beach-front for about a quarter of a mile, palm trees forming a natural break between the neatly mowed lawn and the white sand. In the middle was a gently sloping grass amphitheater with a stage at the lowest level, and behind it a rock garden of poker-red aloes, dusty-pink pincushion proteas and delicate red African heather.
Monica slowed down as she passed the cemetery, as much to look at it as to give Henry time to finish combing his hair. There were few tombstones; instead, most graves were marked only with a pile of rocks. A wrought-iron fence of curlicues and ornate shields ran all the way around the perimeter, ending in an arched double gate topped with a row of fierce-looking spears.
Monica thought it strange that no expense had been spared on the gate and fence and yet there were so few tombstones. Could the cemetery have historical significance? In any case, she found it disconcerting that the cemetery was next door to the hospital.
The Lady Helen Hospital was an old farmhouse that had a wide covered veranda with a polished green concrete floor, a heavy wooden front door with a stained-glass inlay and a large brass knocker. A ginger cat lay sleeping on a canvas cushion atop a riempie bench whose crisscrossed leather straps sagged from years of use. As Henry stretched, groaning loudly, the cat opened one eye, then went back to sleep.
Monica lifted the brass knocker and let it fall. A minute went by and nobody came to the door. Inside they could hear loud, urgent voices.
"Give it another go," said Henry.
She did. Still nothing. Henry opened the door and put his head in.
"Take a seat on the left. I'll be with you in a minute," called a woman's voice.
Monica closed the door behind them. From the outside it may have looked like a farmhouse, but inside the smell was undeniably hospital, and immediately Monica thought of her own time in one. When she'd awakened in that crowded ward, she didn't think she'd be able to stand the pungent hospital smells. But the odor wasn't the only reason she'd wanted to be transferred: the hospital her taxi-driver rescuer had taken her to was in Soweto, and she'd been the only white patient in it.
A small boy shot past them, threw open the door and bounded across the veranda. From an office off the waiting room a nurse appeared and watched him disappear down the road.
"He'll never make it," she muttered before closing the front door.
Monica wished they'd gone into the café so they would have arrived after this crisis had played itself out.
"Excuse me," she said. "I'm looking for Dr. Niemand."
"We have an emergency," said the nurse. "You'll have to wait."
"No problem," said Henry, selecting a typist's chair from the motley assortment that lined the walls.
Monica chose a hard-backed kitchen chair and laid the bag with the mike, cables and recording paraphernalia at her feet.
The piece she was about to do for the newsmagazine program In-Depth needed to be her tour de force; the reporter Monica was filling in for had decided not to come back from maternity leave, and the editors were looking for a permanent replacement. If Monica was chosen, she'd have to resign from the reporting job she loved at the radio station, but for as long as she could remember her dream had been to work in television—and now, especially, the bigger salary would be welcome, because of her two adopted boys. Sipho and Mandla: her boys. She hadn't ever called them her sons and probably never would; they would always be Ella's sons. The dear friend Monica had made while in the hospital in Soweto had been gone a year, but not a day had passed in which she had not thought of Ella and her brave fight against the disease her husband had passed on to her.
Monica had wanted to do a story on crocodiles being airlifted out of Lake Saint Lucia because of the ongoing drought, but, after casually mentioning it to a cameraman, one of her colleagues was suddenly booking a ticket to Durban and arranging a four-by-four transfer to the Nibela Peninsula. Then a letter had arrived at the office, addressed to Monica, with an invitation to see the new burn unit at a rural hospital in Lady Helen, an hour and a half's drive north of Cape Town. Monica had been touched by Dr. Niemand's frank admission that through television exposure he hoped to attract the funding needed to keep the unit going.
The nurse approached Monica. "Can I talk to you later, when this emergency is over and you're finished with Dr. Niemand?"
Monica nodded. "Of course."
"Hey, this would make a great dolly shot," called Henry, wheeling himself across the floor with the camera balanced on his shoulder.
The nurse stared at him as though he were an unruly student. Soon it became clear that she hadn't had much experience with anyone who didn't shrivel under her scrutiny, because she merely pulled her face in disgust and left the room.
The front door opened again and the little boy was back, wild-eyed, breathing hard and pulling on the hand of a woman who wore a man's shirt over her nightgown. She stumbled as they made their way across the room, but the boy did not slow down.
Ten minutes later a man wearing green scrubs appeared and stuck out his hand. "Monica Brunetti, I presume," he said. "I'm Zak Niemand."
Monica stood up to take his hand. "Pleased to meet you." She turned to Henry, who was drumming on the windowsill with two pens. "This is Henry Radebe, our cameraman."
The doctor was tall, about six foot three, with dark hair cut so short he could pass for a military man. He took off his small, rectangular glasses and rubbed his eyes. They were red-rimmed.
"I'm sorry, I don't have much time this morning. We just lost a patient. He was tending to a sick ram and reached into his bag to get out a medicine dropper when a snake bit him. Must have crawled in to get some shade. From the boy's description, we think it was a black mamba." The doctor shook his head. "The little fellow got his mother here just in time to say goodbye.Anyway, Sister Adelaide will show you the new burn unit—I have to speak to the family, make the arrangements."
A child had just lost its father, a woman her husband; what did a news story matter? Impressed at the way the doctor was prepared to give up the limelight, Monica shook his hand and thanked him for the invitation to Lady Helen.
Sister Adelaide was in her late thirties, of medium height and rather stout. Her white dress looked overly snug, suggesting a recent weight gain, but if she was at all uncomfortable, Sister Adelaide showed no outward sign of it. Quite the contrary, her movements were fluid and graceful and she seemed to glide across the room as she led them out the back door, across a patchy lawn and into the first of a jumble of prefabricated structures.
Sister Adelaide waved her hands as she talked, and the numerous silver bracelets she wore rode up and down her arm. Henry was mesmerized, and Monica had to remind him to set up his camera so they could begin filming. She quickly saw the advantage in using charming Sister Adelaide on camera. With her long braided hair and demure smile, she would be far more photogenic than the obviously exhausted Dr. Niemand.
After the interview they would film a few of the patients and then wrap up with a couple of exterior shots of the hospital. It seemed straightforward, but when Sister Adelaide led her to the first patient, Monica was shocked; she hadn't expected to see children in the ward. Why on earth hadn't she asked Dr. Niemand all the relevant questions in their preliminary telephone interview? And why had she assumed all the patients would be adults? Of course there would be children in a burn unit.
The little girl appeared to be watching her, but when Monica approached, she lowered her eyes as a sign of respect.
"This is Zukisa," said Sister Adelaide. "Her name means 'be patient.' She has third-degree burns from her chest down to her knees. The little angel hasn't shed a single tear since coming here."
Monica put out her hand to stroke the girl's forehead, but the fear in Zukisa's eyes made her withdraw it.
"Boiling water," said Sister Adelaide, anticipating Monica's question. "She was making the family's pap for the evening meal and tripped over a dish towel."
Monica looked at the small figure swaddled in gauze and thought of the children hanging upside down on the jungle gym at the park near her house, their smooth, pink bellies peeking out from under bright T-shirts.
"Where was her mother?" asked Monica, and then, realizing how accusatory that sounded, she made a mental note to edit it from the footage.
Sister Adelaide shook her head sadly. "Collecting mussels to sell to the restaurant at the golf course resort just north of here. They serve them in a white-wine sauce and charge eighty rand." She shook her head. "Imagine paying eighty rand for a plate of food! I can get a week's groceries for that. Zukisa's father works for a pilchard-canning company in Cape Town. He comes home on weekends, which is more often than when he worked on the mines in Johannesburg. Then he lived in a compound with hundreds of men from all over the country."
"You must know the family well," said Monica.
Sister Adelaide looked surprised. "Lady Helen is not a big place. You'll see." She stroked the child's arm as she spoke. "The skin grafts have taken amazingly well. Zukisa will be scarred, but she will have full body movement and be able to live a normal life."
She turned to the child and said something in Xhosa. Her words must have been encouraging because the girl smiled.
Posted May 11, 2011
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Posted January 6, 2011
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