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Authors: Anne Landsman

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BOOK: The Rowing Lesson
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DO YOU FEEL THE SPLEEN? No, sir, you whisper, and you can almost hear everyone behind you begging, Just say you feel the spleen. Tell him you have it. She’s going to die anyway. We’re all going to die. Just tell him you feel the spleen!

Mr. Klein! You’ve got to be able feel the spleen! He’s hissing now, and you’re the one who is being drawn and quartered, whose insides are spilling out all over the floor. That’s your gallbladder rolling under the bed, and a nurse just stepped on your pancreas. All that’s left standing, is your penis, and it bobs its circumsized head at the housemen. I’m sorry, chaps. You wish someone would pick you up, put you in Dorothy May’s handbag and take you out of this glinting, evil place.

More than anything, you hate the spleen, this stupid mouse of an organ hiding behind the stomach somewhere, tricking you like this. You’d like to pull it out and squeeze it to a pulp between your fingers, then trample it to death. Maxie catches your eye and he looks like he’s struggling to breathe. All the housemen look like they’re drowning, like their bloody ship is sinking. You hate all of them, and you want to scream and cry at the same time.

Mr. Klein was the only honest one, Man-Bird intones. The patient does not have a spleen. The woman in the bed bursts out laughing, suddenly, a mad noise from a completely unexpected source. She turns her head into the pillow, overcome with embarrassment, as she tries to stifle her cackles.

Now it’s Maxie’s and Sam’s turn to feel the rack and the screw, Man-Bird’s talons around their necks. He talked them into feeling an organ that wasn’t there and now they’re sitting in the stocks, two chumps on a log. Man-Bird is flying high, dropping diseases down on all of you, malaria, tuberculosis, leukemia, thalassemia.

Schistosomiasis, anemia and glandular fever. All of them cause the purple mouse to grow into a purple kitten. But why isn’t it there, Mr. Klein? Why is this spleen not enlarged but entirely absent from the scene? What happened? All you can think of is the train, the colon-train and a terrible accident, sir. She must have suffered a fall from a dizzy height. Or something must have fallen on her, like the bad hand of a bad husband. A train or a car, a big mistake and she came in to the hospital bleeding like mad and she almost died, sir. But she was spared because her spleen was removed and the artery supplying it was tied off. She was saved!

You’re tap dancing down the wards one week later, long after even the nocturnals have turned in. “Hey,
tjoekie
, it’s a quarter to four . . . there’s a stripe of moonlight pointing right at my door . . .” You’re dreaming of taking Matron in your arms. . . “
Tjoekie
, don’tcha know that I’m nude . . . You mustn’t keep me waiting when I’m in the mood. . . .” You haven’t slept for days and days, and even the windows have started to dance.

The lights are ringing all over the world, the doors are flying all over the world. The Coloured nurse collars you because you’re the house officer on duty. What? You’re watching her mouth move, and you can’t figure out if she’s speaking English or Afrikaans. But then she makes a choking gesture and you follow her like the wind down the corridor to outpatients, where there’s a brown man going blue, his lung collapsed, pneumonia squeezing him to death. The senior house officer has taken a powder. The non-White wards are too much for him, especially on a Saturday night. Too many knife wounds. It’s like a bloody abattoir, you heard him tell one of the other senior chaps.

But you wanted moonlight in the hardest part of the hospital. You’re right in the broken heart of Groote Schuur feeling the glimmer of war, something huge you can help to fix.

The button of a nurse whispers trake, and you take the scalpel from her. You’ve never done a tracheostomy before. Yes, the metal tube is there, you have the scalpel in your hand, the lights are burning bright. You’re ready to jump into the forests of Normandy, the valley of the Rhine. Your parachute is sharp and it glows in the dark. “When the lights go on again all over the world . . . and the boys are home again all over the world. . . .” The song leads the scalpel into the trachea, breaking and entering, a full-scale invasion. The body shoots back, a stream of blood that leaves you drenched, right down to your socks.

You’re suddenly wide awake, more awake than you’ve been for weeks and weeks. Jesus Christ, Harry, you forgot his thyroid! You sailed straight into the isthmus and punched a hole in his superior thyroid artery!

The patient’s painting the whole town red! Streaks of scarlet stripe the walls, the floor, the ceiling. The nurse’s uniform has gone from white to ruby. She’s in a bright evening gown now. You’ve slid through the Valley of the Shadow of Death on your bottom right into the jaws of hell, into the howling flames. The man on the stretcher reaches for you, his face twisted in agony and surprise.
Dokter!
You hold him, trying to close the hole in the dyke with anything you can lay your hands on but this leak is impossible. His life-force sweeps over you like a tidal wave. He’s taking away everything you’ve learned. You’re going with him into the abyss.

With a gurgle and one last spluttering sigh, his dinghy capsizes and he sinks like a stone. He didn’t even make it to Ebb ’n Flow.

You’re still here. Pinch yourself but don’t look at the nurse. She’s dead quiet and you want to kill her. It’s all her fault. She should have called someone else, not you. Didn’t she know that you’re so tired and so small that all you can do is clappety-tap down the halls by yourself? Didn’t the nuns tell her that you still shit in your pants?

There’s a group of Coloured nurses in the room now and they’re all over the place with buckets and mops. The water is soapy and red. They don’t tell you what they’ve seen before, that the isthmus of the thyroid is a trap, a bridge over the throat that comes in many shapes and sizes. Even if you hadn’t forgotten all about the thyroid, even if you’d found the isthmus, you still could have jammed right into it. You’re going to have to pay for your mistake like everybody else does. A bubble of blood trickles down from the corner of the dead man’s mouth, and pops on the way to the floor.

The man’s name is Fanus Meintjies and his wife, Sara, is on the other side of the swinging doors. Go tell her that her husband is gone, that his temperature flopped from low to high, from high to low again, that all he wanted to do was go back to the shop because he had that institution on the brain. Tell her any story you can think of but just don’t tell her that you killed him. You wash off the blood that’s caked your eyebrows and you change your coat for a fresh white one before you swing through the swinging doors.

You’re pretending to be Trevor Howard in
Brief Encounter,
taking soot out of a beautiful woman’s eye, passing a camel through the eye of a needle. Sara Meintjies is crying and you’re floating just an inch or two below the ceiling, bumping the back of your head occasionally. He said he loved you, and goodbye. So sorry, Mrs. Meintjies. Bump goes your head every time you tell a lie. Bump bump.

She’s blinded by your fresh white coat, so blind that she’s saying
Dankie, dokter. Baie dankie
. Thank you, doctor. Thank you very much. She’s a small Coloured woman, smaller than you, and you could pick her up and carry her out of here, and it would be over, at least this part anyway. But you have to keep acting and telling her about his collapsed lung and how it was all too late. Even though you did the tracheostomy he had already stopped breathing.
Ek is baie jammer, mevrou.
I am very sorry.

Maxie likes to say that these are the people we get to practise on, the poor people of Africa. The Strandlopers, the Hottentots, the Xhosa and the descendants of Malay slaves. The Cape Coloureds, the Bantu, all the shades of non-White, all the different language speakers who come here and bleed here and die here. You might as well have pulled your wagon into the
laager
at the Battle of Blood River and shot your own Zulu. At least you wouldn’t have had to lie to his wife that he’d died before you killed him.

You might as well have joined the Ossewabrandwag and marched across the Great Karoo reenacting the Great Trek with a flaming torch in your hand. You could even be in Hitler’s Army right now, killing your own people all over Europe. There is no pit deep enough for you, no jail that will hold someone who forgot about the thyroid gland.

Chapter 13

THE SUN IS slipping, laying a place for itself at Bertie’s table, ready to dress his house in dazzling colors. We’re on the other side of the mountain, in the shadow of Devil’s Peak and the light is fading on us, the day is almost done.

Simon’s outside your room and he’s shouting in the corridor at someone about your IV. Is it morphine and is it too much because now your breathing is getting harder and harder and the old
chorrie
is fighting to get up the hill, even though you’re in first gear. Ma gives me a full tray and I’m eating brown meat and gravy and a tower of mashed potatoes as Simon’s voice starts to sound more and more like yours.

Ma’s talking about the night and the carjackers and the thieves and the
skollies
that come out in the dark and I’m staring out at the hunched mountain, with its baboons folded into the crevices, waiting for the spray of stars to come out. I remember how you tumbled down at the end of the day William and I got married, how you lay on the ground and I thought you were dead. I ran away from you into William’s arms. Protect me, protect me, I said, pulling his arms around me like a cloak. His lips were on my hair, and he held me until I was calm, until you got up and brushed bits of gravel from your wedding suit, laughing as if you’d just heard a good joke. Now William’s on the other side of the world and you’re not getting up this time. I’m hugging myself in the half-dark, hugging the baby floating inside me, wishing William was here to hold me and steady me, in the storm that’s beginning to break right over our heads.

He didn’t want an endotrachial tube, I hear Dr. Daniels saying. And the laryngeal mask usually works perfectly well. Simon’s voice is getting louder and louder, And you listened to him!

Look here, I don’t know how you chaps do it in America, but we were working with him, we were doing what he wanted. He’s practiced medicine for over forty years! We had to take that into account.

He was his own doctor! And you didn’t think there was something wrong with that?

Ma gets up and she’s shouting too. Simon! How dare you! And the two men are in the room, the row is moving right to your bedside. You always liked a
lekker
fight and now it’s happening right here and this time I’m sure you’re going to wake up. You wouldn’t want to miss it for anything in the world.

He didn’t want the tube, Simon! He was terrified! Ma’s almost spitting. Why don’t you leave your father alone? There’s nothing more we can do!

That’s the point! Simon shrieks. He was operated on and he struggled through the night without getting enough oxygen and then Dr. Daniels moved him here where they could finally intubate him! But by then it was too bloody late!

How do you know what happened? You weren’t even here!

We were following your father’s wishes, and with that, Dr. Daniels swirls in his white coat and is gone.

Is that true? Simon’s eyes are burning and his voice is thundering and you’re still quiet as a mouse, even now.

Ma’s crumpling and she’s telling us that she has angina. We’re ringing for the nurse and by the time a new one comes, with greasy hair this time and mottled skin, she’s bent over in the chair moaning. The pain is here, and here, she says, pointing to her own heart.

How does that song go again? I whisper, as the nurse takes Ma’s pulse. “Love, love, falling in love. I wasn’t thinking of you but now I am. She loves me, she loves me not. She loves me?”

* * *

Stella Sacks’ arms, face and throat are covered with tiny brown freckles. She wears her reddish-brown hair twisted up and there’s always a halo of cigarette smoke above her head because she smokes like a chimney. How far down do the freckles go? You whisper to Maxie in the Groote Schuur student dining room, as the fat lady behind the counter pours gravy on your chop. He shrugs, makes a quick calculation, as you both watch Stella sit down with her tray, rummage in her handbag for her cigarettes. Oops! She dropped something. She looks at the chap who’s with her and now he’s bent under the table looking for her matches. She has them all over, Maxie breathes. I’m not so sure, you tell him. But I’m going to find out.

You make a bet. If there are freckles inside her brassiere, or folded between her thighs, you owe Maxie a shilling per freckle. If she’s lily white, he owes you. C’mon, old man, you say, how do you expect me to count them all? Okay, he says. A shilling for the first five you see. You can keep counting if you like, he grins, his mouth as damp as a puppy’s.

Stella’s laughing now. Maxie’s craning his neck, telling you that the chap next to her said, Can I eat while you smoke? He’s one of the senior men, going into pathology. She’s still laughing, her mouth wide, her head thrown back, a big, open laugh that makes you want to see her laugh again and again.

She’s a radiography student, learning how to tell patients to lie absolutely still, and hold their breath, until she takes a shadowy picture of the oceans and continents inside their bodies. Suddenly she catches your eye, and you swear she has X-ray vision because she can see inside your cowering heart, to that silly bet you made with Maxie, all the way down to Fanus Meintjies shooting his blood all over you. You want to back out now, forget the whole damn thing but it’s too late, old chap. A deal is a deal. She seals it with a look into her powder compact, a dash of scarlet onto her lips, and click, the mirror snaps shut and lunch is over. The serviette on her chair has the red trace of her lips on it. You’re up the river all over again, with the stained tablecloth and the yearning burning, all over the world.

Look down when she passes your table, pretend you’re talking about the war. Maxie’s checking his teeth in the butter knife. Watch out in case she sprinkles you with her cinnamon dust, her brown paper freckles. Her legs are pencil thin, and her brown shoes have straps around her narrow ankles. She’s nervy, and slim, with buttons marching all over her breasts, wearing a tight-topped dress that’s closed up like a soldier’s uniform. Maxie looks up, as she stops a few feet away from you, and the senior chap lights her cigarette. Du Maurier, my dear Watson, in case you didn’t see. But she’s gone now, freckles and all.

It’s only two days later, a slow Saturday afternoon slipping into dusk. You just got off duty, and Stella’s climbing into the front seat of Charlotte. You can’t help noticing the tiny brown spots all over her feet and her calves, marching into the car with her like an army of ants. In the house called Chantry, she was all flurry and promise, a scarf fluttering between her hands, dropping her du Mauriers in her handbag, kissing her ma goodbye, a mother bun sort of mother, solid and greying, floating a wan smile in your direction. There were boys all over the place, taller than you, one young and soft, one on leave, the infantry man, and another freckled one, the oldest, studying to be a surgeon. The father, you were told, was in shul, a
macher
, a Zionist, a religious man from a religious place, practising his religion religiously. He stared at you from his wedding picture, next to his much younger bride, new missus Bun before all the boy babies got to her. Stella is the rose among the thorns, the one and only kitty cat, the prize girl.

You leave the double-storied house with its pile of rooms and Persian carpets, the aura of something immoveable your house never really had, the commercial travellers coming in and out, and ma’s flying bells and bad moods. Stella’s lighting a cigarette again and you lean towards her, mock-whispering the advertisement, Didn’t you give me my first du Maurier? I shall always think of you, who-who-who, you hoo-hoo-hoo. She’s not quite Jeanette MacDonald and you’re not Nelson Eddy, but wait, she’s calling you, who, who, who, that Indian love call across the Canadian gorge. You shade her with your Mountie hat, then you slip the clutch and Charlotte lurches towards Paarl and beyond, to the secret place you’re taking her to, almost as good as Ebb ’n Flow.

This isn’t what she was expecting, she tells you, a bit cross. It’s not the Bohemian Club in the misty dark, an omelette or a sandwich before midnight, giggling with the other powder puff girls in the cloakroom, a long dance in the arms of a new stranger. You can’t really tell her about the freckle-hunt, how you need light to see, and a reason to go swimming. I hope you brought your bathing costume, you say, as smoke streams out of her nose. What? She’s not really laughing now, a play-play sneer curling her upper lip, a funny spoiled girl attractive. You brought Maisie’s costume just in case, you tell her. Maisie who? Maisie, my sister, you tell her.

The road winds through vineyards, the Hottentot’s Holland mountains retreating into the far distance, Du Toit’s Kloof up ahead, where the Italian prisoners of war are helping to blast a road through the mountain, which will replace the old Bain’s Kloof road. They’re the chaps captured in North Africa, you explain. I saw one once in casualty. She’s interested, suddenly, and her half-sneer drops into a half-smile, not the full-blown rose you saw in the cafeteria, but a smaller flower.

You’re driving towards your story, the place where your Italian prisoner of war, Enrico Carretoni, helped four of his friends carry a painted wooden cross to the top of Huguenot Kop, a mountain near the farm where they are stationed. If you squint on a clear blue day, you can see the cross glinting white at the top of the mountain, small as your thumbnail, the Holy Ghost sitting up there all by himself. Of course you don’t believe in the Man, the Ghost or the Cross but there it is, and those chaps carried it all the way up to the top of the mountain. A couple of the farm boys went with them, chaps they’ve befriended since they’ve been living in the barracks near Keerweder. The Afrikaans boys bring them fruit and fresh eggs and the Italians teach them to swear. Eat my fig. Your mother’s pancake. Stuff ten birds with your goat.

She’s laughing now, and you could almost do it, one fell swoop, off with the white shirt she’s buttoned up to her nose but Charlotte would mind, and drive herself off the side of the road. Instead, you tell her that one of the farm boys, Hendrik, brought Enrico into casualty the day it happened. What happened? You tell her about the baboon that climbed up Huguenot Kop behind the Italians and the two Afrikaans boys, the baboon that grabbed their sandwiches, stole their cigarettes and gave Enrico a swipe on the arm that peeled the skin and muscle off the bone like someone rolling back the lid of a can of sardines.

The baboon was almost as clever as Professor Skullfinder. He exposed all the woven parts, the warp and weft of nerves, the long head of the biceps and its smaller brother, the short head. You could see the humerus and it wasn’t even funny. You slowly park Charlotte at the side of the road. He wasn’t the usual Friday night pile of stab wounds, the chronic ones with TB, syphilis, kwashiorkor, beriberi. (She smiles when you say beriberi.) Roma, he said, when you asked where he was from, and his black eyes flashed with pride. It took you hours to stitch and clean up his arm, and you worked slowly, and carefully, the saliva pooling in your mouth. She’s smoking again, and you climb out of the car, looking up at Du Toit’s Kloof. See what those chaps built, you tell her. Look at the new road! I want to know about his arm, she says, and you’re the baboon now, chasing her and holding her thin upper arm between your teeth. She’s screaming and laughing, a last hint of smoke escaping from her mouth.

You see freckles on top of her shoulder, a line of them on her acromion, two or four or forty nestled in her scapular notch, and at least a dozen lurking in her supraspinous fossa. The sleeve of her dress balloons up above your hands, and you can see right in. She jerks her arm back and away, with a sharp snapping motion. I have four brothers, she says, with that snarling smile she has, spoiled silly with boys.

You point up to the cross, white as your nail. You lunge again, and she dodges, almost falling off those strap-happy shoes. Let’s climb to the top, Stella Bella. The wind has started sighing and whistling through the protea bushes, silver trees and pincushions, above the jagged line of the new road. There are fir trees below the line, a windshield for the farmers protecting the vineyards in the valley. You tell her what Hendrik the farm boy told you, his flat blue eyes watching you as you sewed up his friend’s arm. When you stand and look out across the valley, the mountains make the shape of a man’s face. You see small buck hopping over the bushes, and beautiful flowers you’ve never seen before.

I was stuck on a mountain once, she says. And I couldn’t go up or down. I was frozen. They had to carry me. She can barely light her next cigarette the wind is so strong. There’s a big grey cloud covering the cross. You’re thinking of the Wilderness and Wolfie’s boat and raindrops in the river. Your boyhood comes tumbling out, faster than the blood spurting out of Fanus’s neck, stories to patch up the broken faces and oozing limbs, your mother’s tablecloth to mop up the pus, Nettie and the chicken called Harold, the house on the corner of Meade and Hibernia, Ebb ’n Flow and the rocks under brown water, golf balls in your pockets when you least expect them.

Stella can’t believe how much you miss the Outeniqua Mountains, the waves at Victoria Bay, how many orange fan shells you’ve collected at Lentjiesklip and how you know the difference between spring tide and neap tide, and which moon is which. Let’s go to Ebb ’n Flow, you tell her. I’ll take you to the source. She pretends to know what you’re talking about, the way girls do sometimes, when they like you.

BOOK: The Rowing Lesson
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