A Present at the Hospital Christmas Day Tea (an excerpt from the novel)

 

This short, short story, condensed from my novel, is set in the small fictitious town of Umzimtuti, Southern Rhodesia just after WWII.  Suddenly Southern Rhodesia has an attraction for people wanting to distance themselves from war torn England and Europe.  This excerpt introduces you to a sample of the colorful characters that were arriving.

Please share your reaction and your own stories with me.

A Present to Remember at the Hospital Christmas Day Tea

The Hospital Christmas Day Tea was a must.  Anyone who was anyone came to join the jollification: the long term mayor accompanied by the mayoress, the chief of police, the old Government Medical Officer of Health (GMO), the two private doctors in town, chubby Dr. Eckhart and his wife, Dr and Mrs. Rubenstein and their young family along with the mine officials.  Included too, were the staff’s husbands, and of course the patients families.

The hospital was decorated for the season by the sisters, Sunshine girls come out to Africa from England ostensibly to nurse, but also to look for a husband. The Fracture Room was raided as they tackled the decorating task with gusto.  Rolls of plaster of Paris were formed into snow-covered hillsides with figurines of snowmen and children sledding.  These tableaus stood on tables along the hallway beneath loops of woven crepe streamers in red and green.

A Present to Remember at the Hospital Christmas Day Tea

The Christmas tree filled a big corner of the tea room adorned with Christmas crackers, and strings of tinsel.  They requisitioned Casualty Stores for an unusual number of rolls of cotton wool and blobbed it on the tree for snow.

Tea, of course, was served in thick hospital issue cups. Offered were cucumber and  Marmite and egg sandwiches, crustless, cut into fingers, and sprinkled with shredded lettuce.  Hot scones with a dollop of lemon curd were in big demand while Matron’s special, Scottish short bread, wasn’t to be missed either. The centerpiece, though, was the Christmas cake entombed in a thick layer of marzipan overlaid with royal icing whipped up into permanent flows of snow with yet more winter clad figurines.

Everyone moved onto the convalescent verandah in the hope of catching the breeze.  Dr. Eckhart, ruddy faced in the heat, was uncharacteristically disconsolate.  “I’ve been appointed head of the Leper Hospital run by my Dutch Reformed Church Mission,” he said.  “I cannot refuse.  This is my calling.”

Congratulations were definitely in order.  Dr. Rubenstein set down his cup and saucer and shook his hand.

“But you see,” Dr. Eckhart continued, I can’t find a replacement for my practice here.  I’ve tried and tried.  Won’t you take it over from me?”

“Well I’m hardly settled in myself,” answered Dr. Rubenstein.

“I’m desperate.  It’s not a large practice.”

“I’m almost overwhelmed as it is.”

“It’s only two small gold mining appointments, along with the Limeworks contract which has been extended to the new Iron and Steel complex.  It hasn’t really got under way yet.   You’ve time to find a partner before it takes off.”

Dr. Rubenstein knew this could be big!  But he replied, “I’ve been advertising in the BMJ too, for a partner, for months: I’ve had some leads and referrals but haven’t had any takers.”

“Please.  I’d be forever grateful.”

Just then, a pukka sahib from Poona India, with all the pips and stripes of a major, arrived on the threshold of the verandah with a blonde bombshell on his arm.

Matron announced, as all eyes turned, “Let me introduce you to a new member of the medical community Dr. Wolseley.  He’s just set up his brass plaque on Main Street.”

Taken aback Dr. Rubenstein stared.  Of all the nerve!  Dr. Wolseley was a job referral.  He had not even acknowledged the introduction and was setting up in opposition!  He turned back to Dr. Eckhart. “Alright, let’s shake on it,” he said.

Doctor Eckhart was staring too at the glamorous newcomers.  Then, quickly he put down his cup and saucer.  Beaming, he turned to clasp Dr. Rubenstein’s hand firmly in both of his.  The Lord works in strange ways. Who was he to question it?  “Thanks very much.  I’m grateful.  Forever grateful.  You are my salvation:  a Christmas present to remember,”

As Dr. Rubenstein nibbled at his shortbread he wondered if he had bitten off more than he could chew.  Already, his days were eighteen hours long.

12 Comments

  • Peter E Ward

    Reply Reply May 7, 2010

    It is funny, Diana, how childhood memories of places can sometimes supplant the adult ones. Gaika, House for instance, retains an air of enticing mystery disappointingly absent, when seen through later teenage eyes. I believe it was dismantled section by section and reassembled (on somebody’s farm??). Standing up for ‘God Save The Queen’ at the Globe and Phoenix Cinema, until UDI and anti British sentiments turned my mother and embarrassed my father (because she refused to stand). The slag heaps where a boy was smothered, when a tunnel he and a friend had dug collapsed. And the almost primeval feel of Sebakwe Port, that spooked me a little as a child. These are still magical in a way. I know very little of the history of the practice, which you may be hinting at in this your latest extract.

    • Diana

      Reply Reply May 8, 2010

      Peter,
      Yes, there is a magic about childhood; everything a wonder. There is a yearning to return to those days of awe not the least of which was the incongruity of all the trapping of England transported to the tropics. I don’t remember your Gaika House really…do you have a picture of it? My Mom was a true royalist, and we all had such mixed loyalites after UDI. It was a huge tragedy. A tragedy of another sort was the slag incident, but dont know the details. Children had tremendous freedom then (unlike today) but there was occasionally a very heavy price for it. As teenagers we used to go to Sebakwe Poort on New Years Eve after a dance at the Fortheringham Hall in our party dresses! I remember the moonlight and the echo off the kloof made it really erie. I’m hoping the novel does have a voice of its own as I share more of it. The novel begins rigtht after the war and I dont think your Dad joined the practice until some time in the 50’s. Still I hope it rings true to the times.
      Diana

  • Pat S.

    Reply Reply May 8, 2010

    Diana, I can visualize the setting so well and love the character descriptions. Pat

    • Diana

      Reply Reply May 8, 2010

      Pat,

      So glad you are still reading! Thanks for the support.

      Diana

  • sandi

    Reply Reply May 8, 2010

    Diana,
    I am intrigued and look forward to continuing with you on your writing journey. I do find that my lack of knowledge of the times and the places of which you write and I would love a little more explanation of some of the terms: pukka wallah and marmite for example. Would a brief appositive distract from your narration?
    Sandi

    • Diana

      Reply Reply May 8, 2010

      Sandi,
      I want to retain the languange and sense of place as much as possible. You are right, I should use a qualifying phrase the first time I use a colloquial or foreign word so that it’s self explinatory to the reader. Thanks for reminding me of that. Pukka means the “real thing.” A wallah was a British East Indian term for someone whose job it was to fan the rajah (before fans) but in this sense I’m using it as “he was just the goods from the Indian Army”.
      Marmite is a yeast extract of beef. It is a thick very salty savory paste you spread on bread, or it can be mixed in with chopped egg to bind it (instead of mayonaise) and then spread. British and colonials think its marvellous stuff but most Americans find it really repulsive. Australians make a similar thing called Vegemite (which isn’t so good. Its a yeast extract of vegetables). You can use either to make a bullion or flavor a stew. If you find either when you go to Portland do buy me a bottle and I’ll reimburse you.

  • Ed Goldberg

    Reply Reply May 8, 2010

    Actually Marmite is not a beef extract – it is made from yeast extract, a by-product of beer brewing, and is suitable for vegetarians and vegans. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marmite.

    • Diana

      Reply Reply May 9, 2010

      Ed,

      Glad to see you are still reading! Thanks for the correction. Can’t take anything for granted! I’m counting on you to be my fact checker. Bovril is the smiilar tasting pdt but a meat extract. We’ve always prefered Marmite in our family and didnt know what we were eating. With vegetarian and vegan popularity these days their origins are important distinctions to make.

      Thanks again for reading

      Diana

  • Betty

    Reply Reply May 10, 2010

    Diana, again I am amazed at the use of language and your ability to take me back to all the things I loved about living in England. Your descriptions of the food and decorations made me yearn to return to the British way of doing things….marzipan, royal icing, and crepe streamers for every occasion. I especially love that the elder doctor would find it a wonderful calling to be sent to the leper colony. A horrible assignment to me, but a staunch doctor would do anything to continue to show true devotion and “love of country” no matter the hardship. Bully for him! Dr. Rubenstein will have too much on his plate now….was your dad gone most days and nights for his practice?
    I conitue to love and hang on your every word!

    • Diana

      Reply Reply May 10, 2010

      Betty,
      You got it! It was England transported to Africa and I’m so pleased that came through. Yes, the Dutch Reformed Missionionaries (originating in South Africa), despite their austerity, did a lot of good. Leprosy was only occasionally encountered in the white population but was one of the commoner diseases of the Africans. The old family doctors, besides covering every aspect of medicine, were called upon day or night, weekends, holidays, whenever, to defuse a domestic quarrel, solve a financial crisis, intervene in an acute alcoholic episode, you name it. They were really the servant of the community doing middle of the night calls to homes as well as the hospital. He was really privy to humanity in the raw!

      I’m thrilled to still have your attention. Thanks again.

      Diana

  • John Nee

    Reply Reply March 30, 2011

    too true about doctors in those days being servants of the community – try and get a doctor to make a house call now… “You want me to do what?”

    • Diana

      Reply Reply March 30, 2011

      John,

      You said it! Wonderful medical advances but the personal interest and caring that is so much a part of recovery are a thing of the past.

      Diana

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