Looking back now, December 8th, 1973 had proven to be the longest day in the lives of most of the main characters in our story, although it started out routinely enough.
Ever since the graduation party at the Roberts’ residence, there had been no reference to it between Jewel and Jerome, although he had mentioned it to Mama as having left a bad taste in his mouth and had made the resolution to be on the alert against repetition of a similar mistake in the future.
Like many senior public officers who made it a practice to distance themselves from social interaction that might link them in the public’s perception with the government’s policies, being already so closely involved in the day to day execution of its decisions, Jerome had been careful to confine his off-duty social activity to family (ours included under that heading), fund-raising for the hospital, spectator sports, and local cultural performances of all kinds, whether by children or adults. To this had now been added involvement in the affairs of their parish and local community along with Jewel and his aunt, when time permitted.
Fortunately, Mr. Roberts had made no further attempt to pursue the matter of a scholarship for his daughter but had sent her to Sixth Form in the capital instead, also sponsoring attendance by her classmate and confidante, who stayed with her at her grandparents’ home there.
Julia Sabal and Kiah, along with two other classmates from their district, had all qualified for the award of government scholarships to attend Sixth Form by their performance at the secondary school-leaving examinations; but only he and the other two had accepted, as Julia had been reluctant to leave home under the unsettled circumstances of her home life, not trusting her father to refrain from victimizing her mother in her absence.
Kiah had come to the capital at the end of the vacation period and was boarding with Sonia and Safira, sleeping on a second-hand army cot in their sitting room and storing his suitcase underneath: austere conditions to which Lucille and Abel’s children had been willing to submit in the interests of obtaining an education.
The irrepressible Nurse Pauline had proposed a possible solution to the matter of Julia’s future, as an experiment, which she had asked Jerome to submit for consideration by the hospital’s governing board. She proposed that Julia be attached to her establishment as an apprentice and sit the Nursing School’s qualifying examinations after completing her training. In the meantime, she had put her plan in motion in anticipation of a favourable outcome to her proposal so that Julia had started right after school had closed, receiving a stipend at the government rate for student nurses.
Nurse Pauline’s enterprise, which was conducted on formal lines, had proved very successful even while it tailored the charges for services to clients at all levels of financial capability, subsidizing its revenue with gifts, monetary and otherwise, from former clients in the United States, her uncle and brother there, as well as an annual contribution from the Nurses’ Association to assist in the maintenance of a high level of equipment and performance. In addition, Miss Millicent had earmarked a generous annual donation from her personal funds, in her mother’s memory, through the women’s parish group, with the stipulation that “no noise” be made about it.
Jewel, during her pregnancy, had been carefully monitored by both Nurse Pauline and her private doctor, who had made sure that she had the right nutrition, exercise and whatever had been needed to ensure good health; as well as by Jerome, who had appointed Nurse Hawkins to understudy and accompany her in the field from the end of October, so as to be ready to take over when she went on maternity leave at the end of November. However, she had appealed to him to extend the cut-off date to the end of December, as she was in good health and feeling very well, but after negotiation they had settled on mid-December.
Nurse Hawkins, who had originally signed up for one year in the field, had had her tour of duty interrupted when Jewel had come on board in late December the year before, when she had been transferred to the town clinic; and had been happy to resume her service towards the completion of her year in the field.
On the day in question they had completed their usual Saturday half-day’s work and were on their way back to town when Mr. Dawson, ever alert and observant, had asked if they had noticed how the vegetation near a landmark breadfruit tree they had passed had appeared to be battered and that there had been a heavy spillage of red kidney beans just off the road nearby.
They had confessed to having overlooked this; but, when Jewel had passed her parents’ home a little later, something unusual had caught her eye, which had been that the front door was closed and the clothesline bare. While she had not been disturbed by this, as it had happened before that her mother’s schedule had changed now that it was only her Pap, Caleb and herself to look after, she had made a mental note to check on this later.
Caleb had been sitting on their front steps when she had arrived home, which had immediately set off an alarm in her mind; but this had been quelled by his calm manner when answering Mr. Dawson’s query in the affirmative that there had been an accident.
It had not been until after he had helped her into the house that he had informed her that their Pap had been hurt and flown to the capital accompanied by her mother, at which she had cried out and fainted in his arms. Miss Millicent, hearing the sound, had come forward hastily from the kitchen area, followed by Miss Jessie, and, together, they had pulled up a chair, eased her into it, and set about reviving her, at the same time sending Caleb to run and fetch Nurse Pauline.
She, always prepared for emergencies, had collected necessary equipment, two orderlies on her staff, and taken one of the taxis parked on the property and headed for the Bertram residence, but before doing so she requested that Caleb ask the private doctor attending Jewel, with whom she had an arrangement, to follow her there as soon as possible.
Arriving not long after and finding Jewel conscious but moaning in pain, she had immediately gone upstairs to the bedroom, made preparations for emergency delivery, then returned and transferred her to a stretcher and asked the orderlies to carry her upstairs and place her on the bed.
In the capital, meanwhile, Jerome had been busy tying up loose ends in preparation for leaving the office at eleven-thirty for his flight home, when he had received word about the imminent arrival of a surgical patient by air from their town. He had been startled on discovery of the patient’s name, but had immediately made preparations for surgery, sending a message to me to request that I be on hand to meet and comfort Lucille when they arrived.
Her condition had been pitiful and she had sat next to me at my work station the whole time Abel had been in surgery from about noon until after four in the evening, saying nothing. Making a great effort to remain composed on arrival she had given a brief account of what had taken place, as told to her by someone who had been present on the scene.
Abel had been on his way home with a load of produce over his back when he had heard a truck coming behind him with its engine making a labouring sound as the driver had struggled to remain on its right path going towards town. When the truck had started to veer to the left, he had started to move off the road near the well-known breadfruit tree to get out of its way. The vehicle, which had been carrying the last of the red-kidney bean crop to town for shipment to the Marketing Board in time for the Christmas season, had been overloaded, and just as Abel had stepped off the road, the driver had lost control and it had overturned, the top part of its load sliding off, which led to some sacks landing on Abel, forcing him to the ground and trapping him underneath.
His lean body, lacking any cushioning flesh, had suffered multiple fractures and bruises and the medical authorities in the town, recognizing their limitations in dealing with his case, had immediately flown him to the capital for attention there.
Conveniently, Caleb had been at home, and Lucille had hurriedly packed some clothes for Abel and herself, cleared her clothesline, locked the door, and sent him with the house key to stay over at Jewel’s and await her arrival there.
I had been due to leave work at 4.00 p.m. but had stayed on with Lucille until Abel had come out of surgery and eventually settled in the post-surgical area of the ward with the curtains pulled around him; he suggested that she come home with me, take a quick shower and change of clothes, eat some food and then I would bring her back to the hospital. She, however, tense and distressed, would not hear of leaving Abel for a minute, and had sat upright in a lounge chair next to him, resting her hand near his on the bed.
When I had told Jerome that I would go home and bring back some food for Lucille, he had asked if I would try to reach someone who could say what was happening at his home, as there had been no answer from the house to the switchboard’s ring for the past few hours; and, also, by the time he had been ready to leave for home after surgery the last flight had already gone.
I had not taken a long time, but by the time I had returned I had been able to ease Jerome’s mind about the situation, having reached one of Pauline’s numbers and been told by Miss Amanda that both she and the doctor were with Jewel, that labour was being induced and the phone taken off the hook to avoid distraction.
The staff nurse on duty had prevailed on Lucille to leave Abel’s bedside long enough to shower and change her clothes, and I had turned over to her the food I had brought in the hope that she could influence her to eat something.
What friendship had not been able to do, hospital authority had been able to accomplish when the nurse convinced Lucille to put her best foot forward for when Abel came out of the anaesthesia completely; and by the time I had found Jerome and updated him with the happenings before getting back to her she had eaten some of the food and was lying back resting in the lounge chair next to him, although with her eyes wide open.
I stayed a little longer with her and left at eight o’clock and had been followed home a little later by Jerome, who had spent the night dozing in our couch near to the telephone.
Near midnight it had rung and, after answering it, he had shared with us the news that Jewel had delivered a five-pound daughter at eleven o’clock. According to Pauline both mother and child were in a stable condition but, being premature, the baby had been put in an incubator for the time being. Jewel, who was then asleep after her ordeal, had asked for both him and her father; and he had requested that she reassure her that Abel was also in a stable condition after surgery and that he, Jerome, would be arriving home by the six o’clock flight the next morning.
Once I had heard the news that Jewel had delivered safely, I had gone to bed, and had slept so soundly that when I had woken next morning Jerome had long gone.
On arrival there he had let himself into the silent house with his key, washed up in the downstairs bathroom, and quietly entered their bedroom, where he had seen Nurse Pauline sleeping on the couch. He had walked over to Jewel and, kneeling at the bedside, raised a hand and put it to his lips. She had stirred, opened her eyes weakly and smiled at him. He signaled her to be silent, to relax and not make any effort to talk, while he had continued to kiss her hand and study her face tenderly.
After a while she opened her eyes again and, pointing in the direction of the baby, had mouthed the word “Arreini;” and he had left her and walked over to the incubator, which had been placed inside the crib.
Hearing the sounds of activity Nurse Pauline had woken up and, noting his presence, had joined him as he looked down with wonder and pleasure at his daughter. Turning to her he had suggested that they take the baby over to be breast-fed by Jewel; and agreeing with him she had passed mask and gloves over to him, donned some herself and, together, they had set to work. Making the necessary disconnections the baby had been lifted out by her father and taken over to her mother, where he and Pauline had arranged them in a comfortable position to get the action going, she having to assist in holding the baby to the breast, as Jewel had still been too weak to do so alone.
Arreini had started the sucking motion with such force that Jewel had responded with a faint cry, and before long one breast had been emptied and she had had to be transferred to the other. While the feeding had been taking place, Jerome, who had been going at full speed since the day before had pulled up and sat in a chair near the bed looking on until overtaken by sleep.
Nurse Pauline, who had among her efficient staff two retired nurse/midwives, had been able to devote time to Jewel knowing that her team of workers was competent to provide the usual services of her establishment during her absence; and had agreed to stay on for two weeks when Jerome had had to leave by the following morning to return to work after arranging, through her good offices, for continuity of nursing services indefinitely.
The following morning he had come to work straight from the airstrip to relieve Sister Havers, who had offered to monitor Abel while he was away, and who, by the time I had come on duty, could report that he was resting fairly comfortably with help from painkillers and being fed intravenously.
Lucille, who had meekly cooperated with the hospital staff who had paid such close attention to her cherished husband, had breakfasted and cleaned up by the time I had visited with them before reporting to my work station; and was in noticeably better spirits after hearing of Jewel’s safe delivery of their first grandchild.
It could be seen that Abel was in great pain, although he had lain quietly in bed with never a word of complaint during his waking moments, communicating in a faint voice and with his eyes with Lucille and the two children living in the capital, who had been notified by the hospital on the Sunday morning at Jerome’s request, and had spent all their spare time since then with him.
All during Abel’s long stay in hospital, Jerome had dropped in on him several times each day and at least once every night when he was in town, checking into his condition continually; and as the weeks went by all their friends had prayed for his recovery as often as they had expressed pleasure at the news of Arreini’s rapid progress.
Her arrival had been received with great rejoicing by most of the hospital staff and by Jerome’s many well-wishers at home and abroad in countries where he had studied; but nothing could compare with the happiness of Matron, who had not been able to provide Mr. Reg with a daughter. Mr. Reg, although having fathered one with Mechi Olivera, had been deprived of her presence in his life when her mother had left the country for more sophisticated population centres.
Jerome who, right after the wedding, had often confided in Mama his longing to have Jewel with him in the capital, now seemed satisfied to retreat home on Saturdays away from the public lifestyle of the hospital and returning on Mondays refreshed from spending time with the family unit, which included his aunt.
I visited as much as possible with Lucille on my breaks, trying to keep her spirits up while Abel healed slowly, in contrast to their first grandchild, who thrived by leaps and bounds, consuming food and gaining weight steadily.
One day she asked if I noticed that whenever Jerome was asked about Jewel and the baby, he would go into great detail about Arreini’s progress but said very little about Jewel’s. And she had been hearing rumours from people at home that Jewel was losing weight and being very despondent, which was causing great worry to Abel, in particular.
They realized that she was almost alone, since the rest of the family, except for Caleb, were now far away from her; but they wanted her to remember that she had her child and husband to care for. She was now an adult with responsibilities and could not afford to give in to her weakness when others were depending on her; rather, she had to have faith that, with God’s grace, all would be well in time. In his present condition Abel could not say much, but he was anxious that she go ahead and take the baby to church before she was three months old, as was the custom, and not delay the christening on his account. They would get acquainted in time.
I suggested to Lucille that it might be a good idea for Jewel to hear her voice on the phone giving this advice, but she was reluctant to be away from Abel for any length of time and asked if I would speak on her behalf; so I had undertaken this delicate task as gently and discreetly as I could, in light of the heavy strain I knew my young friend to be under, and had been relieved at her positive response and at her request for assistance in fulfilling her parents’ wishes, asking that Nigel and I be godparents along with Sonia.
When Matron and Mr. Reg had heard that I was helping Jewel to arrange the small christening before Arreini was three months old, they had generously offered to take care of the expenses, including flying in the godparents, as well as all her siblings, to be with her on the special day since her parents could not be there.
Both Sonia and I, as godmothers, had decided to approach Gertrude to sew the baby’s christening outfit, to which she had agreed enthusiastically, at the same time expressing a longing to be present for the occasion, the word having spread like wildfire that the grandparents were funding the expenses.
This had put me in a difficult position, for two reasons, the first being that Jerome was careful to maintain a formal relationship with the younger members of the nursing staff and, secondly, that I would have to impose on Mr. Reg’s generosity further by requesting the inclusion of an extra person. I had therefore asked Mama to sound out Jerome and hear what he thought of the idea before proceeding further. I need not have been troubled, however, as he had considered the idea a good one, giving Jewel the opportunity to thank her in person for all the sewing she had done for herself and the baby, and he had spoken to his father about it himself.
Thus, the event had taken place on March 3rd, with the attendees from the capital traveling by two flights roughly forty-five minutes apart. Mama, who was afraid of flying, had been excused by Jerome from being present, and Daddy had stayed behind to keep her company, but Linda and her two children had been in the party. Gertrude had travelled on the second flight with Nigel, Sonia, Emerson, Kiah and me, and had entertained us with a running commentary from the time we had boarded until we landed, with queries and remarks on the competence of the crew, the capability of these “jokey-looking, flimsy” little planes, the odds of a crash taking place, etc.., etc., provoking the unkind and murmured description of her by Nigel, of all people, as the “wicked fairy godmother.”
Once again, Margaret Havers, who had been invited to the christening, had offered to stay behind instead and keep an eye on Abel so that Sonia, who had been scheduled for duty and was the other godmother, could be freed to attend.
I think now is a good time to mention how Sister Havers’ original intention of voluntarily serving alongside her friend for a couple years had stretched out indefinitely; and she continued as Jerome’s right hand through the thirteen years since her arrival in the country, taking only a few three-month furloughs home since then. Her husband had even visited her here on two occasions, and we all marveled at both their selfless dedication to their vocation as well as their generosity to our country and its people.