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Thursday, August 13, 2020
Home Features The incredible tragedy …

The incredible tragedy …

From British Honduras to Belize: one family’s drama - a novel written by the late Chrystel Lynwood Hyde Straughan

Chapter 61
Jewel said that Jerome had patiently explained to their five children why he was interrupting his time with them for a few hours to perform this act of solidarity with not only a colleague, but someone whom they knew was very dear to him personally; and they all, except Belinda, agreed wholeheartedly that he should carry on with his act of generosity. Belinda who, from the exalted experience of four years, had confidently resolved to become a paediatric nurse, an ob/gyn specialist and a surgeon all in one, could not understand how someone could doubt their ability after preparing themselves so thoroughly for so long, asking Jerome pointedly if he had ever had such a feeling about himself?

He had truthfully replied that he never had, but that people were all made differently, which differences should be respected; and, when Edgar had admitted that no matter how practiced he was there were times when he was not sure of his abilities, the other children, except Belinda, agreed that this was only natural.

Jewel said that after listening to this conversation it occurred to her that Bel was probably most like her father, who never seemed to allow himself to have doubts, and that in this mental attitude he and Matron were very much alike, which was probably explained by the fact that they had always been engaged in breaking new ground and had had no one to consult.

They all breakfasted happily together. Jerome had shown extra affection to everyone, including Agatha, the new helper, promising to be back with them before they would have the chance to miss him.

ooo0ooo

Jerome had walked jauntily into our home through the back door that Saturday morning, claiming to have an appointment with Doctor Brandon, and would we please inform her that he was at her service.

Nigel and I were in the kitchen finishing breakfast, where we were soon joined by Alida, already dressed to go out. She poured a cup of tea and handed it to Jerome as she sat down to hers. Returning the cup to her stating that he was full, having eaten with his children earlier, he pulled out a chair and sat next to her, declaring that he was now on her time.

She asked if they would go in his car, but he informed her that it was now in the custody of one of the department’s mechanics, who had promised to drive it home on Monday, so that he had to be her passenger for the day.

I remember thinking with pleasure how carefree he already seemed after only one overnight at home, and just then Mama had joined me on the veranda and together we had watched them drive off, she observing how rested he looked and how relieved she was that he was finally getting a long overdue holiday.

ooo0ooo

Shortly after independence, when I had reached the then retirement age of fifty-five years, I had been given the option of retiring and being re-hired, but had settled on part-time employment instead, which had allowed me to be free on Saturdays to enjoy the company of my baby grand-daughter, among other things. Nigel, on the other hand, had continued working indefinitely but, being administrative staff, was normally free on Saturdays. However, he had planned on spending sometime at the office to complete some paperwork and to walk there later and return with Alida that evening.

ooo0ooo

The operation had started at 10.00 a.m. and, as anticipated, had lasted a little over five and a half hours. Nigel reported to the family by telephone about its complete success, which had resulted in an emotional and congratulatory scene by the normally restrained Jerome and relieved Alida.

When they had wrapped up and said farewell, Nigel said, they started for home in Alida’s vehicle, but had been stopped at the gate of the hospital by the porter, with the news that Jerome was asking for a lift to the airstrip, as the mechanic had not anticipated being needed and had gone home in his car.

With the delay caused by the turnaround they had arrived just in time for the liftoff of the final scheduled flight for the day, causing Jerome to put in a call to Jewel about his predicament.

Just afterwards, they had witnessed the incoming flight of one of the single-engine planes, whose pilot had proposed taking Jerome home as a favour, for he was very popular with all the flight crews.

At first he had resisted imposing, saying it was no problem for him to stay overnight; and had, indeed, already called Jewel to say that if he didn’t get home by five-thirty to tell the children that he would be there by the six o’clock flight the next morning. Jerome, however, ended up giving in to the pilot’s insistence that he would be honoured by his acceptance of the offer.

ooo0ooo

And that’s how it happened that the unthinkable occurred! It had been Nigel’s and Alida’s lot to witness the flight take-off, hear the sudden sound of the stalling engine, and the plane’s dramatic arc of descent into the shallow sea just off the coast, its nose down and its tail high in the air like a toy!

ooo0ooo

Nigel said afterwards that for some minutes time seemed to stand still, then he had suddenly become aware of a whimpering sound and found it was coming from Alida, whose face seemed stuck between his shoulders while her arms clung to him.

Somehow they had wakened from this nightmare and moved stiffly through the mechanics of arranging for the bodies’ recovery from the water, their identification and placement in the hospital morgue, notification of the authorities, now including the Senior Medical Officer, the Police, next of kin, and so on, and so on.

Uncle Lito was like a rock, standing by and accompanying Nigel as he first brought Alida home and broke the news to Mama and Daddy; then on to Matron and Mr. Reg; informing the young pilot’s wife and mother and, finally, returning home to the most difficult task of breaking the news to Jewel, Aunt and the children.

ooo0ooo

Listening in and sitting next to Nigel with the mobile telephone in one hand and the other around his shoulder, I heard Jewel’s soft voice say: “Hello.”

I heard him take a deep breath and stumble through the sentence: “Jewel, I’m sorry to have to tell you that Jerome won’t be coming home.”

“I know already,” she had replied. “He called to say that if he didn’t reach home by five-thirty to tell the children that he would be on the six o’clock flight tomorrow morning.”

I had tightened my arm on his shoulder for courage and heard him say: “You don’t understand, my dear. The plane went down shortly after takeoff and crashed into the sea. Neither he nor the pilot survived.”

There was a long silence, and suddenly Arreini’s voice speaking urgently: “Hello! Who is speaking? What happened?”

She reported later that her mother had sat down abruptly, holding the telephone slackly, and she had had to take it from her.

I had made the suggestion that he ask to speak to Aunt and soon her controlled voice had come on: “What is the problem, Mr. Brandon?”

“I have bad news, Miss Millicent. The pilot offered to make a special flight to get Jerome home this evening when he had missed the four o’clock flight, but the plane crashed into the sea minutes after takeoff and neither of them survived. I had to make the identification and inform the Police and other authorities, and, also, Matron and Mr. Reg.

“The Government wants to keep him here for a state funeral but Matron says that that is Jewel’s decision, so I need to consult her. “

“Please give me a few minutes, Mr. Brandon, and I’ll get right back to you,” Aunt’s calm voice came on, giving my dear Nigel time to take a breather.

After several minutes the telephone rang and Jewel’s soft, somewhat tremulous voice was heard. “Nigel,” she called him by his Christian name for the first time, “Aunt tells me you have some questions for me?”

“Yes,” his voice came, stronger now, “first of all, I need your decision regarding the Government’s proposal about a state funeral.”

“No, Nigel, we want him home. Please bring him home as soon as possible,” her voice was stronger now.

After some discussion it was agreed that we should carry him by road in the kind of modern limousine hearse that was now available, which was roomy enough to accommodate the coffin in a separate compartment, as well as four or five persons besides the driver in the front.

It was quickly settled that Nigel would choose a suitable coffin, and dress Jerome in one of the silver-grey suits he favoured, an extra one of which he kept in his apartment in the capital, along with a sky blue necktie, black socks and shoes.

There was a tense moment when Jewel asked that Jerome be shaved, as his hair grew very quickly, and Nigel had had to advise that it would not be a good idea that his face be exposed. He had not known how to explain that the impact of the crash had left Jerome so disfigured that he had been planning on a closed coffin rather than the current style with a “window” that could be opened for viewing; and had asked her to promise not to look at him in that state.

Poor Nigel had been obliged to explain all this in answer to Jewel’s probing, and at the end she had asked that the coffin be made with a sliding window, just in case she changed her mind, as she could make no promises at that point!

ooo0ooo

Preoccupation with organizing the details of the voyage by limousine by way of the coastal road, arranging convenient stops for the physical convenience of my parents now in their eighties, all served to distract us from thinking too much of the purpose of our journey.

Uncle Lito sat in the back with Daddy and Mama, who insisted on making the effort, as they put it, to take Jerome home, when they had steadfastly declined making that same journey before to participate in family celebrations.

Alida could not bring herself to accompany us but decided on normal duty despite Dr. Grant’s offer to stand in; and Lloyd and Sonia took Madeline and stayed in our house along with her during our absence.

The Coburns looked after all the church and burial arrangements in consultation with Miss Millicent, who guided a stoic Jewel and the children in discussions about necessary plans and decisions.

We started on our trip at four-thirty on Sunday morning, arriving at 10.00 o’clock because of the stops, reaching the house and meeting up with Matron and Mr. Reg, who had taken the 8.00 o’clock flight.

ooo0ooo

I haven’t the strength to cope with describing the details of laying our beloved brother to rest that afternoon by two o’clock. Suffice it to say that the church was full to overflowing and openly grieving townspeople lined the streets along the way to the gravesite. I could not look into the faces of my fellow mourners without wanting to break into tears, so stood frozen at the graveside between Nigel and Mama, Daddy and Uncle Lito next to her, across from Jewel who stood with her arms around Arreini and Belinda on either side. Matron and Miss Millicent stood with Edgar between them, Mr. Reg next to them with both arms resting on Neville’s shoulders. Lucille stood behind Abel in his wheelchair and next to them was Adrian, standing alone, with such a puzzled expression on his face that I wanted to embrace him and attempt to reassure him, as well as myself, that everything would be normal again in time. Everyone who had close dealings with Jerome was present by the graveside, but nobody stood out in our consciousness as we were all preoccupied with our own grief.

Mercifully, Reverend Craig conducted the service both at the church and around the grave at an even pace, with a minimum of hymn-singing, and we returned to the house in record time, where Miss Amanda and her staff served tea and refreshments in the living-room, dining-room, kitchen and the veranda.

After goodbyes all around we started the journey back home in the limousine with its empty compartment a reminder of what we had left behind. Matron and Mr. Reg were staying overnight and we left them talking with Lucille and Abel. Jewel kept very busy doing what I couldn’t be sure, but she had taken me aside to ask why Alida had not come, and to tell her she wanted to speak with her and that she should call her. One who did not know her would say she was very controlled and elegant in a simple dress in two shades of purple, designed by Gertrude, of course, who had advised that she should always have a dress on hand for funerals, and that people of their complexion should never wear black.

(Chapter 62 in Friday’s issue of the Amandala)

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