Hearse story unites old helpers

2010-10-16 00:00

DRIZZLE spattered across the N3 on a dark April night in 1978.

Robert-Ian Caldwell, a young doctor in his early thirties was travelling back from his medical rounds in Ladysmith. On the dark stretch of highway between Balgown and Nottingham Road he saw an overturned vehicle on the verge between the two lanes.

He stopped to help, and found a strange pair: a bride-to-be and her groom's best man were in the car. Although she appeared in high spirits Caldwell could not find her pulse, and was informed she "might have contracted a mild touch of pregnancy". She was sent off to Grey's Hospital with the help of two good Samaritans who bundled her — drip-and-all — into their VW Beetle.

That left Caldwell with the best man, who was in agony from his dislocated hip; Caldwell knew an ambulance would be a long time coming, and the injured man grew more distressed as they waited on the roadside.

Caldwell described how he then heard "a soft, polite voice [which] suggested his mode of transport might provide the solution."

And the mode of transport was perfect — it was a hearse the man was driving from Newcastle to Pietermaritzburg.

Caldwell and the kind stranger lifted the man into the shiny black hearse. He bid them goodbye and the stranger drove the injured groomsman off to Grey's where the staff where utterly baffled at a hearse delivering a waving patient for admission.

For over thirty years, the memory stayed with Caldwell who eventually wrote the story down and submitted it to The Witness as a "True Story of KZN."

The story was published on October 12 and, in bed that evening, Surendra Singh read the story in his copy of the paper.

The memory came flashing back to Singh: the rainy night, the sight of the overturned car and the young doctor on the roadside.

He even remembered the month: it was April and he was driving to visit his now-wife who was on holiday from New Delhi.

Singh was a 24-year-old articled clerk working in Ladysmith. He also operated an undertakers business with his brother, and was driving the hearse from Ladysmith to Pietermaritzburg.

Singh also recognised the name: Robert-Ian Caldwell.

Having married a doctor, for years Singh's family had known of the Caldwells.

More so, their daughters were a few years apart at The Wykeham Collegiate — they'd seen each other many times at school gatherings.

The two men, now older and wiser, met at The Witness offices this week.

"We would turn up at the same functions, school meetings and medical circles," Caldwell said.

"All the while not knowing we had met all those years ago on the N3," Singh said. "An incredible co-incidence! Truly incredible."

Caldwell maintains an outreach post at Grey' Hospital. Singh is a practising attorney in Pietermaritzburg.

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