Archive for November, 2013

A Link with the Past

I met Miss Kate Champion in 1952, while working in Alpha House, a small nursing home in Musgrave Road, Durban. When I walked into her room on my first night on duty, I was struck by her appearance. Although eighty-three and obviously frail, she was still a fine-looking woman with strong features, a mop of white hair and lively, bright eyes. Propped up by pillows, she sat reading a book that looked far too heavy for her to hold.

She glanced up over her glasses as I came in. I introduced myself, asked whether she’d like tea or Milo before settling down for the night and enquired whether she would like something to help her sleep.

“Good gracious, no,” she replied, horrified at the thought. “I sleep far too much as it is. But I’d like a cup of tea and…” She paused, eyeing me thoughtfully. “And maybe a little company. Why don’t you join me when everyone else is asleep? Night duty can be very lonely. And taxing. I know because I’m a nurse too. Or used to be when I was younger.”

“Oh!” I tried to imagine her slight figure in a white, starched uniform. “Where did you work?”

“In several places—Durban, Pietermaritzburg and Ladysmith.” She drew in her breath. “I nursed there during the siege.”

I frowned, wondering whether I’d heard correctly. “Siege?”

“The siege of Ladysmith. I’ll tell you about it if you’re interested.

The siege… I’d heard about it in the same way I’d heard about the concentration camps and the battles that had been fought during the Boer war, but it had all happened a long time ago, long before I was born, and history was not my strong point. The thought of hearing about the siege firsthand, from someone who’d actually been there, sparked my interest.

“I’d like that very much,” I said. “If you’re not too tired, maybe you can tell me when you’ve had your tea.”

It took a while to settle the rest of the patients but when I got back, carrying a tray, Miss Champion was wide awake, waiting for me. I poured two cups of tea then sat back and  listened while she reminisced.

She told her story in bits and pieces, some that night, some the next, some in the nights that followed, each episode so extraordinary I could hardly wait to hear the next. This is the gist of what she told me:

“I volunteered for the front the day war broke out. I was in Durban at the time and was told to report to the station where I and other volunteers took the overnight train to Ladysmith. We arrived the next morning to find a town filled with tents—thousands and thousands, crammed together, pitched on every spare piece of land. I learnt later that there were 13,000 troops stationed in the town so it was no wonder there were so many tents.

“The hospital had been set up in the town hall. By the time I arrived, it was full of casualties. The wounded were brought in from the battlefields in ambulance wagons, at times so many that they lined up, one behind the other, waiting for hours on end before we could attend to the men.

“The siege began about three weeks after I got there, on 2nd November 1899. We were told that the Boers had taken up position on the hills surrounding Ladysmith and that, as the rail and telephone lines had been cut, we would have to survive as best we could until the army broke through and relieved us. That news was bad enough, but things got worse because soon after that the Boers began firing shells into town. The church was hit several times and one landed on the town hall, killing some of our wounded.

“The next day General White sent a message to the Boer general asking permission to move our wounded to a place where they would be safe. General Joubert agreed, and a place some five miles from Ladysmith was declared a no-man’s land. It was called Intombi Camp. We were given twenty-four hours to set up the tents we would need to accommodate our patients and staff. After that, a train carrying white flags would be allowed in once a day to bring supplies and more patients. It returned empty because, once in Intombi Camp, no one—whether it be doctors, nurses, patients or general staff—were allowed to leave.

“Intombi Camp… I remember it quite clearly—the tents, the heat, the cold, the mud, the flies, the shells screaming overhead and the stench. We had one hundred beds to start off with. That soon increased to three hundred. Then a thousand. Then two thousand. When we ran out of beds, we placed mattresses on the ground. When we ran out of mattresses, the patients lay on blankets or groundsheets.

“Nursing in those conditions was very difficult. We had no running water and only the most basic equipment. Latrines were no more than open pits. We were short of linen, blankets and worse still, medicines.

“Each day the train brought more casualties, men with terrible wounds which, in spite of our best efforts, often turned gangrenous. Then typhoid broke out—a very bad epidemic that killed more men than Boer bullets. Doctors and nurses went down with it too. When things got really bad, the deaths totalled as many as fifty a day.

“The dead were sewn up in blankets and buried in the cemetery on a nearby hill. We could see the white crosses quite clearly from our tents. As time went by, the grave diggers had a hard time keeping up with the need. When they could no longer cope, they gave up digging individual graves and dug a long trench instead. There the dead were placed side by side and covered with earth.

“We were terribly short staffed. For weeks on end, no one took time off. Doctors and nurses worked round the clock, snatched what sleep we could then got up and carried on working. When the fever was at its height, a nurse sometimes had as many as sixty patients under her care.

“News came once a day with the train. Sometimes the news was good and we had high hopes that relief was on its way. Then bad news came—our troops had suffered heavy losses at Colenso and Spionkop. As time went by, we began to think we’d be there besieged forever.

“Everyone had the same rations dished out each day—a little mieliemeal, two slices of bread, a few tealeaves, a spoonful of sugar and half a pound of meat. The rations were later cut to half and then a quarter. When food began to run out, the cavalry horses were killed and we were reduced to eating horsemeat. A soup made from this meat was fed to the patients.

“A few days after New Year, we woke to the sound of gunfire and rushed out of our tents to see a fierce battle taking place on Wagon Hill, about two miles away. This made everyone very nervous for it seemed the Boers had attacked and were trying to take the town. The battle raged on for about eight hours, until the Boers retreated. The next day, when the supply train arrived, it was full of men with the most dreadful wounds. We knew that many of them had little chance of surviving.

“Towards the end of February we heard the sound of heavy battles taking place to the south. Then, one morning, we woke to an eerie silence. Later that day a group of horsemen came riding into Intombi Camp to tell us that the Boers had fled and that the relief column was on its way. After four long months the siege was over.”

I lost touch with Miss Champion when I left Alpha House, but I never forgot her or her amazing story. Years later, when visiting the battlefields of KwaZulu-Natal, I stood for a long time on the site of Intombi Camp and stared out at the white crosses that marked the cemetery. In my mind’s eye I could see the tent town that had housed the field hospital and the staff who’d worked there. I could almost hear the whistle of the supply train and the shriek of shells as they flew overhead. And, for just a moment, I fancied I saw the white-uniformed figure of Nurse Kate Champion making her way towards the big marquee where her patients lay.


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Sister Amelia was our Catechism teacher. She told us about Adam and Eve, Noah’s Arc, the Tower of Babel and every other story in the Old Testament, then worked her way systematically through the New. In between, we learnt about popes and saints, the miracles they worked and why martyrs went to heaven. We also learnt a great deal about hell. Sister Amelia’s description of what took place down there gave me nightmares for months.

Sister Amelia made sure we knew all we needed to know about going to Confession. She explained why it wouldn’t do to pop into the confessional any old time, and blurt out the first sin that happened to come into our heads. Such a hit-or-miss way of going about things would not do at all. People so slapdash ran the risk of committing the most deadly sin of all.

“What’s that?” I asked.

Sister Amelia drew herself up and shuddered, as though just thinking about it was enough to give her the horrors. “Omitting a sin. If you don’t confess all your sins when you go to confession, it’s as good as taking a ticket straight down to hell.”

“But suppose we forget one?” The thought of ending up in hell because of an oversight was alarming.

Sister Amelia smiled. My question was the exact one she’d been hoping to hear. “You won’t forget if you examine your conscience carefully and methodically.”

No one wanted to go to hell so we listened attentively as Sister Amelia explained how to avoid this awful error. It was a relief to discover that all we needed to remember was the Ten Commandments.

“Every sin, from murder down to a tiny one such as stealing a pin, is mentioned in the Ten Commandments. And, what’s more, they’re all numbered. So, when you confess your sins, make sure you keep them in numerical order. That way you won’t leave one out. And, besides, it’s less confusing for Father Zimmerman.”

Father Zimmerman was a short, podgy man who spoke with a strong German accent. His Sunday sermons were, for the most part dull and boring, guaranteed to put the congregation to sleep. Occasionally he woke them up with talk of hellfire and damnation. I liked those sermons best. One minute he would be droning on and on, the next shaking his fist in the air and shouting at the top of his voice.

Sister Amelia went to a lot of trouble to make sure we knew how to peg each sin to the right Commandment. Except the sin of adultery. When she came to that commandment she simply waved a hand and said; “Adultery is a sin of impurity. Don’t worry about it now. You’ll find out all you need to know about impurity when you grow older.”

I puzzled over that a bit, wondering how we would find out, and when exactly, then shrugged the thought away. Impurity was just another puzzle to add to a long list of questions without answers.

As time went by, my nervousness disappeared. Confession became no more than another routine, weekly event. My sins were few and insignificant. This was not because I was angelic by nature, but because the chance of doing anything really wicked did not occur. At St Dominic’s, we were under surveillance from the time we woke in the morning, till we went to bed at night. Every book we read was censored. Home was a forest-station where activities were restricted to board games, reading, or taking leisurely walks. The sins I whispered into Father Zimmerman’s ear must have bored him to tears.

Things may have gone on the same way for ever had Sister Agnes not taken ill. When she failed to appear at bedtime, we milled about the dormitory, whispering, wondering what could have happened to her.

“Something awful,” Betty whispered. “Sister Agnes is never late, not by a second.”

“Maybe she’s had an accident,” someone suggested.

“Maybe she’s dead.”

“Maybe she ran away.”

“Like the headless nun.”

“With a man…”

The last idea was so ridiculous, we burst out giggling. And once started, couldn’t stop. We looked around guiltily, half expecting Sister Agnes to sweep through the door and pounce on us. When it became plain our fears were groundless, the giggles became louder and turned to laughter.

Betty picked up a pillow and threw it at me. I picked it up and threw it back. In no time at all, pillows were flying every which way, accompanied by squeals of laughter. At last, hot and sweaty, but still giggling, we flopped onto our beds.

And then, taking us by surprise, Rita told a joke, the first smutty joke I had ever heard in my life. It was so outrageous that I listened in shocked silence. Then, quite suddenly, laughter burst from me in great, shaking waves.

“Oh no!” I cried. “Oh no. How could you, Rita? How could you? Wherever did you hear such an awful, awful joke?”

Rita was not in the least put out. She grinned. “Do you want to hear another?”

“Another?” My mouth dropped open. “You know another?”

She did. And another after that. And another, and another, each a little more outrageous than the last. Then someone else told a joke. I held my sides, rocking with laughter. It was the best fun I’d had in my whole life.

Everyone in the dormitory was hooting with laughter when Betty gave a warning whistle. “Shh…” she whispered. “Someone’s coming. Put out the light. Quick. Hurry!”

By the time Sister Thomasina walked into the dormitory, everyone was in bed with eyes closed. She snapped on the light, stared around for a couple of seconds, then switched it off again. The next morning, we learned that Sister Agnes had been rushed to hospital for emergency surgery.

“You must pray for her,” Sister Thomasina said. “Pray she makes a speedy recovery.”

The days passed, one after the other. As they did, memory of the fun and laughter slipped from my mind. Until Friday. Confession day. That was when memory came back with a bump. And with it a gut-twisting panic. How was I…how could I kneel in the confessional and tell Father Zimmerman that I’d listened to dirty jokes? And worse—that I’d laughed at them? How could I possibly? I squirmed at the thought. Suppose he asked for details? Suppose he wanted to know about the old woman locked in the lavatory? Or the man who ate baked beans on the train? Or what happened when the outhouse was struck by lightening? I pushed the thought away. It was too awful, too ghastly, to contemplate!

But more ghastly still, was the thought of what might happen if I didn’t confess. I shivered as memory of Sister Amelia’s words came back: “Omitting a sin when you go to confession is as good as taking a ticket straight down to hell.”

The sin had to be confessed—there was no way around that—but there had to be some way of slipping it in so Father Zimmerman wouldn’t notice. I wracked my brains, only to come face to face with another problem: where in the Ten Commandments did the sin I’d committed fit in? Which numerical slot? I knelt for a long time, screwing up my eyes, and prayed for guidance.

The answer came quite suddenly, and once again, Sister Amelia’s voice came floating back. “Commandment number seven…adultery…the sin of impurity.”

I felt quite weak with relief. Of course! Of course! Not only was that the exact word I’d been searching for, but the correct numerical slot. Problem solved!

When my turn came, I walked into the confessional, knelt down, made the sign of the cross and murmured, “Bless me Father, for I have sinned. It is one week since my last confession.”

The words and Father Zimmerman’s softly spoken reply were comfortingly familiar. On the other side of the screen, his head tilted to one side as he waited for me to go on. His eyes closed. He wasn’t actually asleep, but I was pleased to note that he didn’t look wide awake either.

I began with sin number one, went on to two, then three… At seven I murmured, as softly as possible, “and Father, I have been impure.”

Father Zimmerman’s head jerked up. He coughed, then his chair scraped against the floor as he leaned forward to ask, “I’m sorry…I don’t seem to have heard. Would you mind repeating that?”

I shifted from one knee to the other, swallowed hard, then took a deep breath and raised my voice to a hoarse whisper. “I said…I said…Father, I have been impure.”

This time there was no doubt that Father Zimmerman had heard. He gasped. His mouth opened and closed a couple of times then, with an obvious effort, he pulled himself together and asked, “Impure? My child, with who?”

Sweat broke out under my armpits and prickled the small of my back. I wanted to get out of that dark, stuffy room as quickly as possible, so I told him straight. “With all the girls in the dormitory, Father. That’s who.”

For a moment, I thought he was having a heart attack. He swayed in his chair, and went quite purple in the face. His glasses must have misted up because he took them off and rubbed them with his handkerchief, then put them back on again.

“Tell me, my child,” he said sternly. “Tell me exactly what you…and all those girls in the dormitory did.”

I knew that telling a lie would send me to hell. But I also knew I was not going to tell Father Zimmerman those jokes. Not one. Wild horses could not have dragged them from me.

“Sister Agnes was away, so we had a bit…a bit of fun,” I told him grudgingly. “We laughed most of the time.”

“Laughed? Laughed?” His voice was shocked, as though he could scarcely believe his ears. He made the sign of the cross, pulled his chair closer, and began asking questions. They were the strangest, weirdest questions I had ever heard. I had no idea what he was getting at, but that made us quits because I made sure the answers I gave were so vague that he couldn’t possibly understand what I was talking about either.

It was a long while before it dawned on me that we were talking about two different things. Completely. My face went hot, then cold, then hot again. There was a roaring in my ears. The roar grew louder and louder, till I could stand it no longer and rushed out of the church.

Sister Amelia saw me, and did her best to persuade me go back in again. She begged, pleaded and threatened, but nothing she said made the slightest difference. I’d made up my mind. I wasn’t going back into that confessional. Not then. Not ever.

I never did. That was the last time I went to confession.

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