Seventy eight years ago a small Belgian girl, aged six, arrived at a convent school in Cape Town. The details of why she was sent to this country are sketchy, but I know that she boarded with a relative in a Sea Point hotel. This little girl, Elisabet, was befriended by a classmate, Veronica; who would become my mother-in-law many years later.
It was a friendship that would endure. Grainy photographs show them dressed up for their first communion, as teenagers at a table at an afternoon dance at a local tea room. They joined the St John’s Ambulance Service during the war and there is a picture of them posing in their uniforms with soldiers. With the advent of colour film come snapshots of them, both now young mothers, on a trip abroad; at the Changing of the Guard at Buckingham Palace, in a field of Tulips in Holland and at the Eiffel Tower.
Elisabet and her husband eventually returned to settle in Belgium. They would have three children; two girls and a boy. Veronica had two boys and the women wrote to each other faithfully, every week two envelopes of news would cross paths across the ocean; shared news of the minutiae of everyday life.
One Christmas Eve, as was the custom in their small Belgian town, Elisabeth’s two teenaged girls took the walk to early mass at their church. On their return walk, looking forward to hot chocolate and roasted chestnuts, they were hit by a hit-and-run-driver, drunk from an all-night party. (The driver later came forward and handed himself over to the police). The impact catapulted the two girls over a low wall and into the garden owned by people who had gone to Germany for the holidays. The heavily-falling snow covered the two bodies even before Elisabet looked at her watch and remarked to her husband that girls were naughty being so late, they must have lingered talking to friends outside the church.
A search-party was mounted that evening and the town was scoured for the girls. After two days, the whole country was on the lookout for any sign of them. Rumours began to circulate; people speculated that the girls had run away. Some – even in that time of relative innocence – wove ghoulish tales of paedophilia and captivity.
After almost two weeks, the neighbors’ return from their German holiday and set about clearing the mounds of snow from their garden and discovered the two frozen corpses. My mother-in-law believes that Elisabet’s Alzheimer’s disease took root that day.
Their letters dwindled over the next years, eventually become little more than the obligatory exchange of Christmas and birthday cards. Veronica learned that Elisabet’s husband had one day left a note on the kitchen table to say that he would not be home for supper and had never been heard from again.
They spoke on the telephone a couple of times a year, although – with time – Elisabet became less and less lucid.
When I came into Veronica’s life, I took up a friendship with Elisabet’s son, Bernard, and was able to give Veronica updates about Elisabet’s health. After a few years Bernard decided that a visit to her childhood haunts may jolt Elisabet into some kind of lucid state and he planned a holiday in Cape Town.
Veronica was terribly excited to see her old friend, and her dismay when they arrived was heartbreaking to witness. Elisabet, although fit as a fiddle physically, was like a toddler in her behavior; at restaurants she had to be restrained from eating the butter-balls and sugar sachets, she wet her pants often and sometimes it was quite clear that she didn’t know that Bernard was her son and not her husband.
It was soon after this visit that Veronica suffered her third stroke. Almost paralysed, relying on me for the most intimate parts of her ablutions, frustrated beyond belief at her inability to communicate verbally with me, she managed one day to utter her first coherent sentence in days:
Dear God, I wonder if Elisabet is better off, a healthy body and an oblivious mind …