Perhaps it was the shock. After so many years of guilt (in Shorty’s mind) and anger (Alice Krotz), one might have expected things to go horribly wrong when Vetfaan unknowingly caused the two to meet again. After all, his goal had been to link Shorty up with Servaas again – how was he to know about matron Krotz? And matron, harbouring the deep hatred for the man who so ably ruined her romantic life forever, had ample reason to refuse to forgive the hapless Shorty, despite the best efforts of poor nurse Botha.
So, picture the scene:
The stage: matron’s office and the corridor in front of it.
The actors: Matron Krotz, seething with anger, staring at the closed door from behind her desk
Shorty, resting his head against the wall outside the closed door, emotionally drained, about to leave
Nurse Botha, storming out, having slammed the door, beside herself with fury
Vetfaan had been on his way to thank matron Krotz for taking such good care of Servaas, when his rather large bulk halted nurse Botha’s flight down the corridor.
People often look at Vetfaan, at his bulky frame and good-natured smile, and assume he’s this gentle giant of a man; maybe a little slow but with a good heart. And often, that’s exactly who Vetfaan is: the last one to laugh at a joke, the first at the counter when drinks are on the house. But when he took in the scene in front of matron’s office, he instinctively connected the dots – correctly. Perhaps it wasn’t so hard, given the attitude and the appearance of the two people he encountered.
Nurse Botha, who had been storming blindly down the corridor a second ago, crashed into Vetfaan with a resounding thump! – and then felt the muscular arms fold gently around her. She resisted, trying to escape, for just a second, before surrendering to a gale of sniffling sobs. Vetfaan seemed to take it all in his stride as he rocked her softly, saying over and over again that everything will be all right.
Shorty, in the meantime, froze where he stood, half-turned to leave, yet sufficiently surprised by Vetfaan’s appearance to remain where he was.
“Difficult morning, eh?” Vetfaan kept his voice level as he addressed nobody in particular. “I just hate it when a day starts like this.”
“You…don’t…understa-a-a-a-nd,” nurse Botha wailed. “Th-h-hat …woman…is the…de-de-devil!” Vetfaan had to listen very carefully to make sense of the words between the sobs.
Shorty closed his eyes. Opened them again. Gulped. Spoke. “No she isn’t.” Something inside him forced him to speak. Over the years he had so often thought about Alice and the way he had treated her, and now the words insisted that he – at last – said them out loud. Even if he said them to strangers, there would be some relief. No more silence. No more denial… “She was – is – the sweetest girl I ever knew. She can be gentle, kind, compassionate, caring. I know that. I experienced that. But what I did, was as inexcusable as it was inevitable, I suppose. I was a wild one back then: always tempting fate to see how far I could go.”
By then, nurse Botha had stopped crying as she listened to Shorty’s confession.
“Alice – matron Krotz – was different. She had a naive innocence about her, and I was on course to destroy that. Fortunately, I never got that far. Before our relationship got to the next level, Fate intervened. Or God, if you like. Or the Natural Order of Things took over. Whatever… But, had we gotten married back then, the outcome would have been even worse than it is now.
“Well, little Jacobus came along, and he taught me so many lessons. He forced me to grow up, you see? Despite his many disabilities, he became my teacher. Life, I learnt, isn’t about the silly moments of laughter – it’s about love. And I loved that boy with all my heart – eventually. Once I had made peace with the fact that I’d made just too many mistakes in my past, little Jacobus became the focus of my future. I was determined to make him as happy as I could. My focus shifted from my own needs to his – a process that happened slowly over the years. And then, just when I finally understood why he had come into my life…he died…”
Shorty smiled wryly, despite the wetness around his eyes. By then, nurse Botha had turned around in Vetfaan’s hug, and the two of them stood listening to him with rapt attention. When Vetfaan made to loosen his arms around the nurse, she shook her head. She felt safe there…
“But Alice? I can understand why she does what she does – even how she does it. That spark of kindness and compassion never died, despite my stupidity. She became a carer for the sick, living and sharing her compassion with those most in need of it. And yes, she may be difficult and obtuse and stubborn…but why?” He paused before answering his own question. “Because her work had become her escape. It had to be perfect – if only to lessen the hurt I had made her suffer.”
Shorty straightened up. Life, he told them, first had to prune away his ego before – slowly, steadily – allowing him to discover the beauty of unconditional love. “I once thought love was about being happy. How wrong I was! How stupid. Love isn’t a beggar wanting more. Love wants to give and give, even when you have nothing left.”
Vetfaan’s puzzled look didn’t worry him. If the burly farmer didn’t understand, then he will, one day. Anyway, he had said what he actually wanted to tell matron Krotz. The words were out, his burden ever so slightly less overwhelming. It was time to go.
“Thank you, nurse Botha, for trying. And thanks Vetfaan, for giving me the opportunity to talk to Servaas. At least I did that – talked to Servaas, I mean. It would have been nice to talk to Alice, but I don’t think she’d ever be prepared to listen to me, I suppose…”
At that moment the door cracked open and a flushed Alice Krotz strode into the corridor.
“This is my hospital, and I will not have people discussing their private lives in public. It’s not done, dammit! Is this a confessional? Do you think this is a psychiatrist’s office? This is…” she glared at them sternly, “…my hospital. My corridor.” She took a deep breath, forcing herself to sound more reasonable. “Now, all of you get inside my office at once. Shees! What will doctor Welman think if he found us all here? I can just imagine his shock and horror! Go on…inside!” Was there the slightest hint of a smile on her face? “And you, nurse Botha, you go and make that damn tea you’re always going on about. And then you come back here, I have to talk to you about your manners.”
Gertruida says that human nature is a fickle thing. The right word at the right time can change an explosive situation into a healing experience. Or vice versa, if one has to be honest, when the wrong thing is said at the wrong time.
When matron Krotz stared at the slammed door a few minutes before Vetfaan’s arrival, she was so ready to fire nurse Botha – even before she had time to resign. But when she heard Shorty speak to the others in the corridor, the reality of the situation settled in her mind. Shorty, as guilty as he was in wrecking her youth, was sorry! He even admitted his wrongs – in public! He had become a different man. And along the way, he had become the man she thought he would be. That meant – she reasoned – that she had been right all along, only at the wrong time. Shorty – like so many men – was a late developer. Male maturity happened to be, after all, such a different and tardy process compared to the female equivalent – which, in matron’s informed opinion, certainly proves the superiority of the latter.
And anyway, she had to admit to herself, she couldn’t run the hospital without the able help of that busybody, nurse Botha.
Matron stared at the three people – Vetfaan, silent and strong; Shorty, with uncertainty written all over his face; and nurse Botha, still visibly upset – over the rim of her steaming cup of tea.
For the first time in many, many years, Matron Alice Krotz had to wipe away a tear. Nothing in her training or experience had prepared her for a moment like this. How – in heaven’s name – was she supposed to handle this mess? But, being the woman she was, she set her jaw firmly, swallowed hard, and prepared her speech in her mind. She’d show them.…
(To be continued…)
‘And when they tell you that you’re crazy,
You’ve got to try to settle down,
You got to turn yourself around,
Life is more than just good times, and parties…’