To eternity…and back (#4)

caregiverhandsFor a while after Gertruida had left, nurse Botha thought that Servaas suffered a relapse. The old man sat upright in his bed, staring into the distance with a completely vacant look. She approached the old man cautiously to fold her hands around his shrivelled hand, ever so gently. To her surprise, he started crying.

“I…I’m sorry, nursie. I just don’t know what to do.”

She sat there, listening to his account of his conversation with Gertruida, nodding as if she understood. Some people are natural listeners, making it easy to impart even the most painful thoughts. Nurse Botha was just such a person. She was neither old nor young, in between overweight and chubby and had the soft eyes of a Labrador. The words tumbled from her patient in an unstoppable torrent until at last he sank back in his cushion with the most distraught and fatigued look. She never interrupted, never asked a single question, knowing he had to hear himself  tell his story to work through this thing.

“So…you think you had this dream about Shorty de Lange for a reason?”

“Y-yes. I…I suppose so. It was too real to ignore and yet it sounds so stupid to take it seriously.”

“And yet you had this near-death experience, didn’t you? Did you take that seriously?”

Servaas blinked. “I did…I do, I mean. Yes. Siena was there, I’m sure. And something…more.”

“Then maybe you shouldn’t hesitate to do the same with the dream? I mean, what harm can there be to find out where this…Shorty is? Maybe he’s dead already, and you’re worrying all in vain.”

The old man’s face brightened. He hadn’t thought about that! “But how do you go about finding somebody you last saw half a century ago? I don’t know where to begin.”

“Well, Oom Servaas, I might just be able to assist you with that.”

***

Wilhelm Röntgen's X-ray of Anna Bertha's - his wife - hand. 1895

Wilhelm Röntgen’s first X-ray. Anna Bertha’s – his wife’s – hand. 1895

Coincidence? Fate? Chance? Serendipity? Divine intervention…or divine planning? History is littered with hard-to-explain coincidental discoveries, ranging from penicillin, Viagra, anaesthesia, LSD, the microwave oven and – of course – X-rays. Even Alfred Nobel’s discovery of dynamite was the result of an accidental observation. Although mankind often benefitted from these ‘lucky’ incidents, we must also remember the iceberg that sunk the Titanic or the Curse of Tutankhamun which apparently killed Lord Carnarvon.

Still, the fact that portly nurse Botha had a brother working in the military archives in Pretoria could be considered a stroke of good luck – or an improbable inevitability in the strange set of events surrounding Servaas’s illness  during his stay in hospital.

Within an hour of her telephone call, Herman Botha reported that Jakob Arnoldus de Lange finished his stint as conscripted soldier in 1972, did the obligatory yearly call-up duties until 1986, and then was discharged from any further service. No, he didn’t know his present whereabouts, but he did supply the next link in the chain: the man’s ID number.

Enter Gertruida, our dear know-it-all with her contacts amongst the small but select group of people involved with the intelligence community. The ID number was  given to a retired colonel in the erstwhile National Intelligence, whose  son happened to be a professor in Computer Sciences (cost: 1 bottle of brandy and the promise of Kalahari biltong). and so the hacked records of the Office of Home Affairs supplied an address.

Much to everybody’s surprise, Shorty de Lange’s home address was a smallholding near Prieska, the town he used to represent as flanker on the rugby field.

***

“You mean you found out all that in the matter of about twelve hours?”

Gertruida stared at her shoes for a moment, slightly embarrassed. “Um…yes. I’m sorry it took so long..”

Servaas laughed at this – his first bit of mirth since his chat with matron Krotz dumped them both under a cloud of depression. Matron, by the way, had not reported for work that day; the first time – ever- she had missed a day on duty. Nurse Botha tried to phone, got no answer, and promised herself to visit her stern and unapproachable boss after her shift was over.

“I’ve thought about it.” Servaas sounded the way he looked: completely defeated. He didn’t want to be reminded of the one time he felt as if the devil had taken over his soul and he beat a friend to pulp. During the sleepless night after Gertruida had left the previous afternoon, he had forced himself to relive that incident. In the early morning hours he decided that his religious conviction had been the result of fear (that he might have such an ‘attack’ again) coupled with guilt (that he acted like a complete and demonic lunatic). Did Christ not heal such men through faith? Yes, he decided, Christ did; but he – Servaas – had used his faith as selfish protection against himself. He shielded behind religion to prove to others how righteous he was. That convoluted argument did absolutely nothing to improve his mood. “And I’ll have to see the man as soon as I’m better. Doctor Welman said my recovery will take several months. Maybe after that…”

“No, Servaas.” Gertruida – who knows everything – used her stern voice. “This thing is going to do more harm if you keep on postponing it. It’s not going to go away.You are obviously upset about meeting Shorty, and I understand that. You’re not, however, going to forget about it while you’re recovering. You’ve managed to bury the incident with Shorty under a layer of time – and had you not had that dream, you might well have lived out your life in denial. I don’t know why you had the dream, Servaas, but I think it’s the best thing to come out of all this.” She swept a hand towards the chart on the wall, showing his vital signs and progress. Seeing Servaas’s distress, she sits down on the bed next to him. “I need you to relax now. Breathe deeply and let go of the feelings of fear and guilt. Promise me that.”

“O-okay.” Hesitant, unsure.

“Okay then. Now I must ask you to prepare yourself. I sent Vetfaan to talk to Shorty. I expect them any moment now.”

Servaas’s eyes opened wide, his breathing shallow. “No! For goodness’ sakes, Gertruida. You can’t do this to me! I’m a sick man! I’m not ready, not ready at all!”

Nurse Botha entered the room with an uncertain smile. Her soft brown eyes took in the scene before she shot Gertruida an accusing look.

“I…um…well, the gentlemen are here. Shall I send them in?”

At that moment the door swung open.

Servaas closed his eyes in desperate prayer. Please, Lord, if it be Your will, let this cup pass from me…

(To be continued…)

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