'Esprit de Corpse'

2010-10-12 00:00

“A HORSE, a horse, my kingdom for a horse.” — William Shakespeare: Richar­d III.

When I started my practice in Maritzburg more than 30 years ago, every sixth Friday constituted the dreaded relief of Ladysmith. One consulted all day up north and invariably returned after dark. On such an evening, between Nottingham Road and Balgowan on the N3, a vehicle had spun out of control and overturned, landing up on the verge between opposing lanes. The young occupants were slightly bruised but cheerful — a talkative woman and a man in agony with an obviously dislocated hip.

The history was a little unusual. She was due to be married the next day and he was to be the best man. He had left the bachelor party to take her for a spin in the fiancé’s new motorcar. Perky though she was, she seemed to have no blood pressure, and let slip that she might have contracted a mild touch of pregnancy.

An Edendale Hospital intern had also stopped to assist, and we were able to provide morphine for the male and a drip for the apparently pulseless female. A helpful local couple volunteered their souped-up old Beetle to transfer the young woman to hospital for further urgent resuscitation, warning that ambulances would be a long time in arriving. She was in the back seat in a trice, vacolitre swinging from the coat hook, heading garrulously for Grey’s.

The suffering best man seemed destined for a lengthy wait, until a soft, polite voice suggested that his mode of transport might provide the solution. He had delivered his cargo in Newcastle and was returning to home base, Pietermaritzburg, in an empty vehicle. He would cautiously manoeuvre it closer to the patient and we could judge for ourselves.

Moments later, we were gawping at the vacant spacious interior of a shiny black hearse. The offer could not be refused. The stable, flat, carpeted are­a was ideal for our patient, now splinted and immobilised. The gleaming chariot glided away into the night.

I phoned Grey’s casualty upon reaching home. Yes, indeed, a throaty VW had delivered the barely battered bride. Her blood pressure was normal and a pregnancy test negative. However, frantic, vociferous and ostentatious attempts to dissuade a hearse from backing up to the casualty doorway had been to no avail. Never before had nursing staff witnessed a corpse waving its fist and using strong language.

The wedding was postponed, maybe indefinitely. The bridegroom-to-be (or not-to-be — fair question?) was most perturbed about his written-off car and expressed less concern for the girl of his dreams — or nightmares perhaps?

He seemed moderately worried about his injured friend, but presumably wanted him alive, because he was heard to exclaim: “A hearse, a hearse: my best man in a hearse!”



• The winners in the True Stories Competition will be announced on December 2.

About the author

ROBERT-IAN Caldwell lives in the misty midlands of KwaZulu-Natal. After a quarter century as a physician in private practice in Pietermaritzburg, he did locums round the world.

He has exchanged jet-setting for prop-hopping with an outreach post at Grey’s Hospital. Correspondence to his Aunt Ethel is intercepted occasionally by the media.

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