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.