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Chapter Five >>
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A SOFT WHITE CLOUD
THROUGH A GLASS DARKLY
In the depths of her despair Karen felt a hand on her shoulder. Through the mist of tears she could make out Nurse Sinclair sitting on the bed beside her. Without realising what she was doing she flung herself into the nurse’s arms. “I’m sorry, so very sorry I said those things to you,” she choked. Nurse Sinclair gently drew Karen close to herand stroked her hair. “Let both of us forget it ever happened,” she said softly, “but remember one thing Karen, when we find ourselves walking down the wrong road we must have the courage to turn back.”
Karen looked at the nurse’s smiling face and nodded.
“Hey, Karen!” someone called, “Like to play ‘Battleships’ with us?”
“Yes, I’d love to,” she replied, eagerly. “I’m not really allowed off the bed, but I’ll take a chance.” She quickly wiped her eyes with a tissue, climbed off the bed and hurried to where the girls were sitting at the table.
Later a nurse came into the ward, looked around, smiled, and walked out again.
That night she lay in bed pondering the events of the day. It had indeed been a day of contrasts. Her throat constricted when she recalled the difficulty she had experienced when swallowing the slimy porridge at breakfast. At the time she had been convinced that Nurse Sinclair had set out intentionally to create a diversion by speaking about her brother. Then she remembered her rudeness and the look of pain in the nurse’s eyes. Yes, she had genuinely sought Nurse Sinclair’s forgiveness and it had been so readily forthcoming.
It was strange how, albeit temporarily, all the anguish and the torment had left her when Nurse Sinclair had put her arms around her. What was it the nurse had said? Something about having the courage to turn back when we find ourselves walking down the wrong road. Perhaps Doctor Manning was saying very much the same thing when he asked her if she accpeted that she had anorexia.
It was then that she remembered Wally Ferghuson, a farm manager whom Dad had employed several years ago and who had a drinking problem. Dad had only discovered he had a problem about two months after he had started working at the farm, when he found him in a drunken stupor lying on a pile of sacks in the potato shed with an empty bottle beside him.
Dad tried to help him. He even put him in touch with the local branch of Alcoholics Anonymous but as Dad explained to Mom over supper one evening, it was quite obvious that no one could help the poor man until he accepted that he had a problem. He refused to do this and his drinking became worse until finally one morning he drove Dad’s new tractor over an embankment and was crushed to death. For a long time afterwards Dad had blamed himself for what happened. He had spoken to Wally early that morning and he had seemed fine.
“Am I also walking down the wrong road?” she wondered, tentatively. Petra had asked her quite bluntly if she was happy. She had enjoyed playing ‘Battleships’with the other girls. They had made a place for her at the table and had accepted her into their midst as though nothing had happened. During the game she had laughed and joked with them just as she had done when she had played with Mom, Sue and Philip.
When Nurse Sinclair had brought the supper tray that evening she had merely smiled, placed it in front of her and nonchalantly walked over to where Lee-Ann was sitting at the table eating, and asked, “What shampoo do you use, Lee-Ann? Your hair’s so glossy.” It was as though she was trying to show her that she trusted her.
She had toiled laboriously through the meal solely to please Nurse Sinclair. The look of pleasure on her face when she collected the tray was reward enough for Karen. Smiling contentedly to herself, she dropped off into a deep sleep.
During the next few days, in spite of her continued revulsion of food, she managed to eat all the meals Nurse Sinclair placed in front of her. The Nurse, in her tactful way, would remain in the near vacinity of her bed until everything had been eaten.
A week later Sister Rose was elated when weighing Karen, to find that she had put on three kilos. Matron made a point of coming to the ward to tell her how pleased she was with her improvement. As a reward, Karen was allowed to swim in the pool that afternoon.
After lunch she received the first letter from her parents. Trembling with excitement and trepidation she tore open the envelope and began to read. It was a happy letter about the farm. Tess, her German shepherd dog had her leg stitched after jumping over a barbed wire fence while chasing a rabbit. Karen shuddered. Poor thing, but she really was a clumsy animal, she mused, and this was not the first time she had hurt herself. Only a few months ago she had barked at Clarabelle Ursula, the cow, who had turned on her, ripping open a small part of her stomach.
It was the last part of the letter that made Karen’s heart beat excitedly. It read: ‘Sue and Philip will be going to Johannesburg the weekend after next so if there’s anything you want from home, just let me know and they can take it for you.’
Karen’s eyes lit up. “It will be wonderful to see them again,” she thought, as it seemed like years since she had left Kimberley. She smiled with relief. No mention was made of that dreadful telephone call.
Her thoughts were interrupted by Petra rushing into the ward. “Karen, Karen, I feel sick!” Her hand flew to her mouth and she ran out of the ward to the bathroom.
Karen hastened after her to find her retching violently into the toilet.
“Petra, why? Just when you were coming on so well.” Karen was heartbroken for her friend. She was to be allowed out in a fortnight’s time to attend her brother’s wedding.
With tears streaming down her face, Petra wiped her mouth with a tissue and between sobs, blurted out, “Oh, Karen, I don’t know what happened. I didn’t force myself to vomit. It happened suddenly. Please Karen,” she implored, “don’t tell Sister. You know what they’re like. I’ll be forbidden to go home for the wedding.”
Just then they heard footsteps on the landing outside the bathroom. They stiffened; then, as the footsteps receded they breathed a sigh of relief. Karen quickly closed the door and locked it.
“Petra, maybe you’ve something seriously wrong with you and need help,” Karen said, anxiously.
“No, I’ll be all right. I feel better now. Please Karen, will you keep quiet about this?” Petra pleaded.
“Petra….I’m… I’m not happy about this,” Karen stammered. She could not suppress a little shiver.
“Please. If it should happen again, I’ll…I’ll tell Sister,” Petra said, looking at her friend with large, frightened eyes.
“Promise?” begged Karen, but there was a nagging doubt in her mind over what had actually caused the vomiting. She wanted so much to believe that Petra had not induced it.
“Yes, I promise,” said Petra, firmly.
“Well,” Karen said awkwardly, “I guess it’ll be all right.”
“Thanks friend,” Petra’s whisper was barely audible. Then, as if to dismiss the subject, she smiled weakly and said, “Come to the pool, Karen, it’s lovely out there.”
“I will. I want to write a quick letter to my folks, then I’ll come.”
Sitting at the table with her writing material, Karen was about to put pen to paper when she heard a groan at the door. She jumped up.
“Petra!” she screamed as she ran to her.
Petra, ashen-faced, was standing at the doorway doubled up with pain. “My stomach,” she gasped. “It feels as though it’s being torn in half. Please call Sister.”
Suddenly she collapsed in a heap on the floor, writhing and groaning in agony.
Panic-stricken, Karen raced to the duty room. Fortunately Sister Rose and Nurse Sinclair were there.
“Come quickly, Sister, Petra is in great pain,” Karen said breathlessly.
Sister Rose jumped to her feet and dashed past her, closely followed by Nurse Sinclair. They soon had Petra in bed and Karen heard somebody paging Dr. Pelser. Within minutes he was at Petra’s bedside. A kindly old man with thin greying hair, he wore horn-rimmed glasses through which twinkling grey eyes could be seen. He had a quiet air of authority about him that could not be defied, and was gentle and soft-spoken for so large a man. A typical father figure, someone you would go to if you had any personal problems, thought Karen.
“We must give her a stomach wash immediately,” he said. “I’ll take her to the medical ward.” With that he picked Petra up and rushed out of the ward.
Karen sat listlessly at the table. “What could be the matter with Petra?” she wondered. She had been well and happy when she woke up this morning. Maybe she was going to die! Karen had never seen anyone looking so ill before. She was so deep in her dismal thoughts that she jumped when she heard someone enter the ward.
It was Cheryl.
“Why are you here, Karen? I thought you were allowed out today. It’s super at the pool.”
“Petra’s very ill,” Karen said tearfully, stricken with grief.
“Why? What happened?” Cheryl was surprised. “It must have been sudden, as she was at the pool with us not so long ago. She went to help Veronica with the tea. There was nothing wrong with her then.”
Karen shook her head. “I don’t know what could have happened.”
They looked at each other in silence. Just then Sister Rose walked past.
“Sister!” Karen called out fearfully, “How’s Petra?”
“She’s a very sick young lady,” replied Sister Rose gravely. “We’ve just managed to piece together what happened. She went to help Veronica make the tea and ate a piece of poisoned fudge. It had been left in one of the cupboards to kill mice. A silly thing to do. We’ll know by this evening if the treatment is successful.”
The shock of Sister’s words left Cheryl and Karen numb with anxiety.
Seeing their distraught faces, Sister Rose added, “There’s a good chance that she’ll get well. In a case of poisoning, speed is important.”
A shadow flickered across Karen’s face. “Sister,” she began and burst into uncontrollable sobbing.
“Karen, dear, it’s all right,” Sister Rose said soothingly.
“But…but…” Karen then briefly told her the story of how Petra had pleaded with her to keep quiet about her illness.
“That was very wrong of Petra to ask you to do that, Karen. Speed could make the difference between life and death.” Sister Rose’s face was dark with worry. “How long was it between the vomiting and the pain?”
“Not long, sister. Only a matter of minutes,” Karen told her, terror in her eyes.
“Mmmmm…Come, now. There’s nothing anyone can do, so out you go into the fresh air.” Sister insisted.
Unwillingly, Karen and Cheryl, exchanging frightened glances and walked towards the pool.