Sunday 9 June 2013

Short Story Sunday

Back to Persephone this week, and a sweetly moving tale about enduring love, and faith. The Pain was written by South African born Pauline Smith in 1923, and is set in her native land. Juriaan van Royien and his wife Deltje have been married almost 50 years. They have no children and few possessions, and live frugally in a three-roomed, mud-walled house, scraping a living from the poor soil. But they consider themselves rich, because they have each other – and they are all in all to each other.

When Deltje falls ill and is racked with pain in her side, Juriaan cannot bear to see her suffer, so when he hears of a new hospital where the poor and sick are restored to good health he yokes his oxen to his cart, lays his wife on a nest of the feather bed, pillows and blankets, and sets off. The journey takes them three nights and the better part of three days, but when they arrive the old couple are unprepared for the fact that they must be separated. Apart, they are lonely and afraid. They miss each other and the peace and beauty of their isolated home, and they are bewildered by the interfering nurse, and the routine of hospital life.

So late one night Juriaan, who has been camping on the veld next to the hospital, hitches up his oxen again, breaks into the building, and takes his dying wife back home.

Like Susan Glaspell’s ‘From A to Z’ (the first story in the anthology), this is a simple tale, and it’s simply told, but there’s a very different feel to it, because ‘The Pain’ is about a couple whose love is so strong it has lasted for almost half a century, and everything that has happened over the years – their childlessness, their poverty, their hard life – has only served to deepen the bond between them. Juriaane and Deltje have absolute faith in each other, and in God, and those are the tenets on which their lives are built. They want for nothing: as long as they have each other they are happy, content, and joyful. There is a degree of sentimentality, which may not appeal to all modern readers, but it never seems false, and is never mawkish. I found it a very touching, very tender portrayal of a marriage, and of old age.

Smith’s short story raises questions about where and how we care for the elderly and terminally ill that are still topical and relevant. Are people better off in their own home with those they love? And do we always treat them with the respect and dignity they deserve?  Sadly, you do come across health workers like Nurse Robert, who Jurianne and Deltje fear ‘as they had never before feared any other human being’ because while she is kind, and believes she is acting for their good, she takes control, and doesn’t listen to them, or consider the way they feel, or explain anything – when the doctor makes his rounds she doesn’t allow Deltje to speak, and answers questions for her.

There’s a tremendous sense of place and space in this story, and the descriptions of the old couple’s home are so detailed I felt I could reach out and touch the mud walls, which are smeared with a protective layer of cow-dung and ashes, or the earth floor with its peach stones beaten into the surface.

I had a lump in my throat as I read of their few ‘treasures’, stored on three small shelves in the bedroom, and the account of his preparation for the journey give an indication of just how hard their life was, and how old-fashioned they must have seemed to folk in the new-fangled hospital.
He went back to the house, and stretching an old sailcloth across a bamboo frame fixed this tent to the ox cart. Under the cart he tied the big black kettle and the three-legged pot which were their only cooking utensils. He filled a small water-cask from the stream and tied that also below the cart. He brought out the painted wagon-box and fixed it in front of the cart for a seat. In the cart was their small store of provisions: biltong, a small bag of coffee, a kid-skin full of dried rusks, meal for griddle cakes, and the salted ribs of a goat recently killed. Behind the cart he tied some bundles of forage, and below the forage dangled a folding stool. On the floor of the cart he spread the feather bed, pillows and blankets for Deltje’s nest.

It’s that last sentence which is so revealing, because it tells you so much about the relationship between husband and wife – and that, above all else, is at the heart of this tale. Smith paints a touching picture of Jurianne helping Deltje into the cart and calling her ‘by those tender, beautiful and endearing names which were the natural expression of his love’.

The scene where he creeps into the room where she lies in a narrow bed and tells her he is taking her home is a masterpiece of simple elegance and understated emotion.

He stooped down, opened the locker, and drew out her clothes. With a strange, gentle deliberation he helped her into her petticoats, and tied up her Bible, her mug, and her shell-covered box. The bottle of medicine left standing on the locker he slipped into his pocket. Then he gathered the little old woman up into his arms and carried her out into the moonlit night.

And Deltje is ‘filled with that sense of security which his mere presence brought her’ and her heart is ‘overflowing with its quiet content’.

Pauline Smith is writer I’ve not heard of before, and her output does not seem to be great, but I’m curious to read more of her work. Apparently, after leaving South Africa she lived in Dorset with her mother and sister, and was close friends with the novelist Arnold Bennett, who encouraged her to write. According to the ‘Author Biographies’ at the back of The Persephone Book of Short Stories, her short story collection ‘The Little Karoo’ appeared in 1925, and ‘The Beadle’, her only novel, was published a year later.

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