Broken Pieces

We left Johannesburg mid-morning with plenty of time before sundown to reach Ladysmith, the small town in the Drakensberg mountains that was supposed to be an hour’s drive from Dingane. I was looking forward to rustic peace and quiet and finally catching babies. A couple of hours from Johannesburg, hunger pangs chasing me, I took a small detour and we stopped at Vrede, a tiny town with one hotel and a few shops. ‘Closed’ signs hung from front doors. Obviously the good citizens of Vrede believed in rest on a Sunday. We drove up to a little railway hotel, a two-storey white-washed building with flaky, dark wood window frames and a galvanized tin roof.

The smell of roast beef drew us in. The café style restaurant had six tables covered with starched white linen cloth that smelled of mothballs. The table legs and chairs were dark wood and the floor creaked as we walked to the one next to a window. The waitress sighed, as if she’d rather be with her great grandchildren, or anywhere other than the small restaurant. She slapped her dishcloth on the nearby counter, grabbed two menus, and hobbled over to us, her Duchenne limp a sure sign of severely neglected hip arthritis.

I wished we had the budget for the daily special, but we ordered meat pies instead. The congealed meat had seen better days. The pastry stuck to my palate and tasted of old cardboard, and both Chloe and I pushed our plates away before our pies were half-eaten. We left the station hotel barely sated and I suggested we wander around the small town, hoping we’d find an open café. Not a single store was open and I regretted not buying snacks before leaving Jo’burg.

A couple of hours later, we stopped in Ladysmith for petrol and soon after leaving the sleepy town, found the tertiary road leading us to our destination, a rough dirt road winding through the foothills and grasslands of Natal. South Africa was in the midst of one of the worst droughts of the century and the land was mostly dust with patches of parched yellow grass limp in the sun. In the distance, the Drakensberg mountains beckoned, like craggy giants, and closer, the hills were dotted with straw-roofed round huts.

I slowed down as we passed cattle and goats grazing lazily while young boys rested under trees. Here and there spindly smoke streams rose from mud huts and women in brightly coloured cotton dresses strolled outside, babies attached to their backs. Men walked in groups or rode bicycles along the roads, their tires spitting out puffs of dust.

A few wrong turns had me glad I’d filled the car in Ladysmith. The last of the light sank behind the mountains. It was dark when we finally arrived at the gate to Dingane Hospital. The hospital complex was surrounded by a tall, barbed wire fence, and, at a rickety gate under a dull light, a guard leaned against a post. He blew a huge bubble, the pink of the gum a stark contrast against his dark skin. He popped it and then sucked the gum back into his mouth. He chewed slowly as he walked towards the car, shifting a rifle on his shoulder. Leaning down, he peered through my open window. When I told him who we were, he handed me a clipboard. After we’d dutifully signed our names, he directed us down a dirt path and explained where we’d find our accommodation, his communication made somewhat garbled by his steadfast chewing.

We passed the hospital, then bungalows. Hazy light filtered through closed curtains. We reached the house on the right at the end of the dirt road, the one the guard had directed us to. A naked bulb hung over the grey wooden door and light sneaked through crusted dirt into cracks in the wood. The door creaked as we opened it and we stepped into the kitchen.

I tugged at a rusted chain hanging from the middle of the kitchen ceiling and an anemic bulb flickered and then glowed grudgingly. Chloe closed the door. I shivered, glad we’d had a summer rotation. The place would be freezing in winter. Shadowy wooden shelves ran the length of one kitchen wall, the shelves mostly empty apart from a couple of tin containers and a few aluminium pots and pans. On the other wall, below a small window covered with a lace curtain, probably white a hundred years ago, was a stove top, and beside it, a concrete trough with one tap.

“Well the Ritz it ain’t,” I said.

Chloe’s face reflected my lack of enchantment.

“I’m starving,” I said. “I can’t believe I didn’t stop in Ladysmith.” I’d thought we could save some money and have dinner at the hospital. “Let’s grab our bags and see if there’s something to eat.”

We dumped our suitcases on the oval, sixties-style, orange, green, and red rug in the living room, and went back to the kitchen. I opened the fridge and stared at its sole occupants, a head of cabbage and a stick of butter. “Whoop de fucking do!”

“Check the freezer,” Chloe suggested.

Behind the cracked plastic lid, the icebox was layered with frost an inch thick. In the middle of this mini-igloo lay a frozen, shrunken carcass, dusted in snow, in the approximate shape of an emaciated chicken. “Not one frozen meal!” I looked around. “Not that we have the luxury of a microwave. What the fuck are we supposed to eat?” My stomach grumbled.

“We’ll cook the chicken.” Chloe sounded positively upbeat about the idea.

“Are you kidding?”

She ignored me and grabbed the biggest pot from a shelf and took it to the trough under the window. The pipes rattled when she opened the tap and she dropped the pot. “Eek,” she shrieked, as water spat in all directions. We left the pot in the basin and the tap eventually behaved itself, the stream settling in a more or less vertical downstream.

When it had filled, I picked the ginormous utensil up and placed it on the stove, thanking St. Jude, the patron saint of hopeless causes, that it wasn’t gas. We were more likely to blow ourselves to kingdom come than successfully and safely light a gas appliance.

Chloe rinsed the dusting of ice from the chicken and then salted and peppered its ash grey hide. While we waited for the water to boil, we explored our new home, accommodation a notch higher than I’d expect in a Russian gulag.

The wooden floor of the living area was clean, the floorboards bouncy, as if eager to shake off their mooring and explore the world. There was a round tripod table and a spindly couch, dull orange cushions as thin as crepes, woven with dust, the fringe at the bottom beckoning like a gap-toothed kid.

Down the narrow passage was a white-tiled bathroom, with a luxurious deep tub, its enamel chipped in places, but scrupulously clean. At the end of the corridor were two bedrooms. When we opened the door of the nearest one, it creaked a Frankenstein welcome.

Chloe stepped closer. “I’m not sleeping alone.”

I nodded like a bobblehead. Luckily the bigger bedroom had two single beds.

We dragged our suitcases to the bedroom and, as we approached the wardrobe, the doors inched open. I glanced at Chloe and we giggled. “Creepy,” I said. I opened the doors wider and sneezed, dislodging a cloud of dust.

“The water!” Chloe yelled. We’d been so interested in our new surroundings, we’d forgotten all about the chicken.

When we got to the kitchen, the lid was banging on the pot. I plonked the still frozen bird into the water and lowered the heat. We scanned the wooden shelves, hoping we’d find a loaf of bread or some crackers, but the only carbohydrate in sight was a tin of sugar, and when we examined it under the light, white granules shifted around suspiciously, black heads popping up every now and then as if to chastise us for disturbing the peace.

I snorted. “Well, at least we have some protein if the chicken’s a bust.” I regretted not finishing the meat pie. It seemed gourmet food at this stage of the game.

Chloe suggested we make the cabbage while we waited for the chicken to cook. This time I used the kettle to boil water while Chloe cut off the bits of unappealing blight on the outside leaves. “Not exactly the reception I’d imagined,” she complained.

“I’d give my right arm for a Lunch Bar.” The thought of chocolate and nuts and caramel made me salivate.

A Lunch Bar would have been a heavenly gift compared to the soggy cabbage which was only edible after I’d dunked half a bottle of black pepper over it. We had a hot bath, and then went back to the kitchen, hungry. The uncooperative chicken was frozen and remained so for hours. Eventually we sliced off a few slivers of grey meat, while the carcass bobbed in boiling water. After a tentative taste, we declared the bird inedible.

We went to bed hungry, too disconsolate to even chat. It would’ve been easier to have done our rotation at the Johannesburg Gen, where we’d have slept in decent quarters, had a number of restaurants or at least a canteen nearby. I sulked my way into sleep, hoping tomorrow would be a better day.



Judy Dercksen

Judy Dercksen is a family doctor, pain and PTSD consultant, and provincial family physician for British Columbia's ECHO for pain. She’s also been published in medical journals, The Tyee, Vancouver Sun, Emerge 2020, 101 Words and Piker Press. Her website is Judy recommends Pain BC as her charity of choice.


Edited for Unlikely by Jonathan Penton, Editor-in-Chief
Last revised on Sunday, February 27, 2022 - 23:44