From British Honduras to Belize: one family’s drama – a novel written by the late Chrystel Lynwood Hyde Straughan
As a result of soreness at Gertrude’s disloyalty, and shame for her part in their suspension, Jewel had displayed a troubled and sober appearance for several weeks; and being so different from her usual focused and energetic demeanour, it had been noticed by her colleagues and the staff in general, most of whom had reacted with sympathetic gentleness, for she was well-liked. Fortunately, she had been successful in keeping Safira from finding out, and at the end of the week had continued in the Children’s Ward for six months while Gertrude had been posted to Maternity.
The better I got to know Lucille’s children, the more impressed I was at the loving and caring climate in which they conducted their lives. They not only spoke kindly to and of each other and were solicitous of each other’s welfare, but applied the golden rule to their interactions with all those around them. To witness their treatment of Sonia and Emerson, outsiders were often surprised to discover that they were not all related by blood; and both older girls were complimented at times about their “nice little boy,” with reference to Emerson.
Jewel was in her element with children and, working with them she soon regained the special rapport with her patients that was her trademark.
September 1st was Jewel’s incremental date, and at the end of that month she had asked me to hold the amount of her increase of $14 for her, promising to add to it at the end of each period in order to be ready for the arrival of the next shipment of refrigerators.
Not unexpectedly, the subject of the suspension never came up in conversation when Jerome visited us, as we both made it a policy to keep separate our private and our work relationship; but one day in early November he had asked me if I thought my protégé would be interested in earning some extra money by accompanying him on a professional visit to her grandfather’s home.
In those days doctors employed in the government service were allowed to have private patients when not on duty at the hospital provided they did not receive financial compensation for it, as, being public officers they were subject to its demands on all their time.
Very few secrets could be kept where so many people worked closely together, however, and I assumed from this offer that Jerome had been made aware of Jewel’s financial constraints regarding the purchase of the refrigerator for her mother and wanted to provide her an opportunity to earn extra money as, unlike doctors, nurses were allowed to charge for services rendered privately.
I suspected, also, that he was attempting to kill two birds with one stone by giving assistance to Mr. Hendricks in his pursuit of having a closer relationship between his wife and himself and their grand-daughter.
I agreed to pass his enquiry on to Jewel, and when I did so had advised her to give her answer directly to him; and they must have worked out a timetable as by the time we had spoken again she had made two visits to the Hendricks’ home. She had not said how things had gone, and I had refrained from asking; but one day she had given me $25.00 towards her refrigerator fund, which I had assumed to be proceeds of her earnings. She had mentioned that some of her work involved treatment ordered by another doctor besides Jerome, which I had understood to mean that the husband and wife had different professionals attending to them, but Jewel was serving on behalf of both.
Affairs progressed on an even keel for some time, with Jewel continuing in the Children’s and Gertrude in the Maternity Ward, when, in mid-December, some of us were gathered in the Nurses’ Lounge during a break and Gertrude, seemingly in an effort to reinstate herself in Jewel’s good graces, offered to sew a dress for her free of charge. All she needed, she said, was the cost of the material and for Jewel to make her colour choice, and she would take care of everything else, including the selection of the style, for a Sunday dress.
When Jewel had asked about cost, and Gertrude had answered “$2.10 per yard,” her immediate response that from the time she knew herself she had never paid more than $1.00 per yard for any dress material, had been met with great amusement from those present, most of whom were very clothes-conscious, as young nurses are reputed to be.
Gertrude had refused to give up, raving about how “smashing” she would make her look in the style she had in mind for the material she had seen at Brogan’s the Saturday before, urging that since she wasn’t charging for the sewing and trimming, Jewel should be willing to give herself a treat.
As an aside, and of some significance, Lucille, who usually made all her children’s clothes except for the boys’ pants, sewed simple garments, with very little decoration; while, on the other hand, Gertrude, besides being a very skilful seamstress, had her paternal grandmother’s creative gift, which she expressed in the designing and sewing of stylish and artistic clothes for those able to afford her services such as senior administrative staff and most of the doctors’ spouses.
Finally, under heavy pressure from everyone present including myself, Jewel had half-heartedly passed over eight dollars and forty cents for four yards of material, although three yards was the standard amount, chosen the colour blue, and put herself in Gertrude’s hands for the production of the promised miracle garment.
The gifted seamstress had her own method of operation, which did not involve fittings, only the taking of precise measurements, to which Jewel had submitted without complaint.
Two weeks later the dress had been delivered to Jewel in the Nurses’ Lounge, and to describe it as beautiful would be an understatement; suffice it to say that those members of staff viewing it, and who could afford to, had immediately commissioned Gertrude to produce one for them under similar conditions, but paying for the sewing.
Jewel had taken the dress home still wrapped in its white tissue paper, and everyone had looked forward to seeing or hearing about her wearing it to church the next Sunday.
But, when some three weeks had passed with no word about the dress, I had ventured to ask Jewel why this was so, only to be told, as somewhat of an anti-climax, that she was saving it for some other type of outing as, being sleeveless, her Mam had reservations about it being suitable for churchgoing.
How had she found out about it? Safira, who was not required to make an equal contribution to their rent, was able to invest in a telephone call to Lucille every other Sunday, when she updated her on all the happenings in the capital concerning her daughters; and her enthusiastic description of the dress, in every detail, had brought forth Lucille’s question to Jewel.
I can say this, the dress had become celebrated weeks later, but not before another of Jewel’s momentous experiences had taken place.
Javier Betancourt, nine years old and son of the Treasurer of the Hospital Auxiliary Board and her bank-manager husband, had been rushed into hospital for an emergency appendectomy one weekend, and had stayed for extra days when his appendix had ruptured on the operating table.
Aurelia Betancourt, attractive, light-skinned and of Hispanic extraction like the majority of female bank employees, had caught the eye of Javier Betancourt, Sr., when, transferred from the headquarters of a large commercial bank in Venezuela, he had become manager of the local branch at which she had been employed since leaving high school.
After a short courtship they had been married and had one child, his father’s pride and joy. Between his parents, the little boy had received at least four visits per day while in hospital, the majority from his father, of an earlier generation than his wife, whose first and only child he was, since a prior marriage had failed to produce any offspring.
Javier, a charming child, was popular with all the nurses in the ward but, not surprisingly, became very attached to Jewel in particular, thereby causing displeasure to his mother, unused to sharing centre-stage in the attention and affection of her son.
Mrs. Betancourt took her role on the Hospital Auxiliary Board very seriously and, whenever she visited her son, often took over some of the nursing staff’s duties of sponging him and administering medication, although the latter was strictly against regulation.
One evening, just before her arrival for a visit, Jewel, who was at Javier’s bedside, was called away by the Sister in charge to facilitate the medication of another patient, who had to be cajoled and coaxed each time, and she, being skilled at this, often assigned the task.
At the interruption Jewel had placed Javier’s medicine on the tray at his bedside until she had completed her mission; but when she returned it was to find the child cringing away from his mother, who had the small medicine cup in her left hand while her right was holding her son’s shoulder tightly and pulling him towards her.
Joining Mrs. Betancourt she had held out her hand for the cup, observing that she could now take over and mildly commenting that what she was doing was against regulation.
Taking offense at the remark, Mrs. Betancourt had protested loudly about her special relationship with the institution as a well-known supporter of its work, citing her prominent and committed membership of its Auxiliary Board which, among other things, had been instrumental in raising funds for the construction of the very building in which she, Jewel, was presently employed.
Although Jewel had said nothing in reply, things had gone from bad to worse when the Sister in charge had attempted to intervene, enquiring into the cause of the commotion. Charges, complaints and protests had continued at length before she had been able to mollify the visitor, promising to refer the matter to a higher authority for resolution before the parent left, threatening that Jewel’s insult would be brought to the notice of Dr. St. John, who was her neighbour, and who had full knowledge about all her efforts on behalf of the hospital.
When I had asked Jewel about the incident, which had been aired throughout the hospital since it involved an active member of the Hospital Auxiliary Board, comprised of the spouses of most of the doctors along with many well-to-do, prominent and concerned female citizens, she had calmly related the details to me in a factual and unemotional manner, yet, knowing her well, giving me the impression that she was holding something back.
The feeling among senior staff seemed to be that Jewel should be willing to apologise to Mrs. Betancourt who, besides being a member of the Board which was generous in its gifts to the institution, continued to work in the bank, at which she had achieved wide popularity with the public.
It always seems to me that people who have lived under a colonial regime are inclined to a peculiar reverence and leniency towards persons closely associated with financial institutions, as if thereby they had become invested with some magical power to be of benefit to them; and, further, often exempted them from ordinary rules of conduct and considered them to be above the law.
When I had dared to express the opinion that I saw no need for Jewel to apologise to Mrs. Betancourt for calling her attention to a well-known regulation, especially espoused by Dr. St. John, who held that while the patient was in the care of the institution no outsider should be allowed to compromise its responsibility in any way, no one had agreed openly, although I knew many were of that opinion, including Matron Ebanks, who was what members of staff described as a “law-to-the-letter” person.
I had learnt, however, that at the strong urging of some senior members of staff she had taken the precaution of mentioning Mrs. Betancourt’s complaint to Dr. St. John, who had promised to look into the matter the next day when husband and wife were coming to receive the child, who was then being discharged.
I learnt that at three o’clock the following afternoon Mrs. Betancourt had had a meeting with Dr. St. John in his office lasting about ten minutes, after which they had walked together to the Children’s Ward, and on the way there had been joined by Mr. Betancourt.
They had found Javier sitting in a chair near his bed, awaiting the arrival of Jewel with the wheelchair to which he would be transferred for the trip to the checking out area. She had appeared soon after and positioned the chair to receive her patient after politely wishing a good afternoon to the trio present.
After checking whether he had everything in his bag, she had wished him goodbye, saying that everyone would miss him. He had asked her to bend down so that he could whisper something in her ear; and, after doing so, she had raised her head and made a quiet reply, inaudible to those nearby, at which Jerome had lightly enquired, concerning the popular saying about secrets in company? Jewel had relieved those present by explaining, with her usual half smile, that she had been reassuring Javier, who had questioned whether he would really be missed although some of the nurses had told him earlier to go and not come back, that they were only making a joke with him since, being under fourteen, he could only return as a patient and not a visitor, so this had been their way of wishing him good health.
Javier’s father had handed him a bouquet of flowers he had been carrying, along with a gift-wrapped package and envelope, at the same time saying something to him in Spanish. Again he had motioned to Jewel to bend down, said something in her ear, and passed them on to her. Jewel had thanked him, holding on to the bouquet and card but attempting to return the package. Before she could speak, however, Jerome had reached into his tunic pocket and, producing a small package similarly gift-wrapped, had handed it to her asking her to deliver the two gifts into my custody.
Turning to the couple he had thanked them and explained that hospital policy in the past did not allow the staff to accept personal gifts, but that it had been decided that in the future these would be accepted on behalf of the institution and auctioned off at the annual staff party, the proceeds to be used to provide toys and treats for the patients of the Children’s Ward at Christmas. He had then wheeled the patient to the departure door flanked by the parents, one on either side.
Needless to say, I had not been forewarned about the new hospital policy or of my appointment as gift custodian; but was familiar with Jerome’s talent for diplomacy, so gave nothing away in receiving and storing the two items carefully, where they had been joined by all future gifts.
And, knowing how Jerome operated, always doing his homework, I had kept my ears open, eventually learning through a member of the clerical staff that the Chief Medical Officer had been in agreement with the Chief Surgical Officer’s recommendation regarding the policy on personal gifts.
Being me, who, according to Nigel, was never satisfied until all “i’s” had been dotted and “t’s” crossed, had got Jewel to confide in me some time later the reason why my usually discreet protégé had taken the action she had on that day; which had been that on an earlier occasion after a visit from his mother she had detected red pinch-marks on his (light-skinned) upper arm and had had a strong suspicion of who had been responsible for putting them there.
I had taken the further opportunity on that occasion to enquire whether she had received any reprimand from the administration for her treatment of Mrs. Betancourt, to which she had replied in the negative.
(Chapter 34 in Friday’s Amandala.)