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Jo'Burg Days: The Trapped Bird

Barbara Durlacher tells of a troubled elderly lady who runs away from a retirement village. The final paragraph of this account will astonish you.

Hurried knocking. ‘There’s somebody in my flat, they’re under my bed. You must come and help. Quick, quick!’

‘First come inside, you’re only wearing a thin jersey over your nightie and it’s a freezing winter’s night. I’ll make you a nice coffee and we’ll see what we can do.’ Moving into the kitchen, within a few minutes she handed her a steaming cup and settled the distraught woman. ‘Now, there’s a couple of nice biscuits as well as the coffee, drink up and eat the biscuits while I phone security.’

Ten minutes later three big Zulus brandishing knobkerries arrived. ‘You got trouble, Gogo?’

‘This lady says there is somebody in her flat. She thinks they’re hiding under her bed. Please search the place and see if there’s anybody there.’

Agitatedly, the woman paced up and down, wringing her hands. ‘I told them there was somebody there,’ she moaned … ‘I said they were watching me. I knew they were going to get me as soon as I dropped my guard. Ever since I returned from Australia I’ve felt they were watching me. You know they burnt my furniture, don’t you?’

‘Yes dear, now just sit down and try to rest; it’s no good getting upset. Wait until the guards return, they’ll tell us if they’ve found anything and if there’s any need to worry.’

‘Gogo, we looked all over. We looked under the bed, inside the cupboards and in all the places, but we found nothing. Gogo, there’s NOTHING in the flat, no furniture, NOTHING. Only that Gogo’s bed and one chair … maybe the totsis were here before, and took her things?’

‘No, no, it’s OK, I know all about it, the Madam came here with no furniture, she’s getting some next month. It’s OK, you can go now, I’ll phone you or Sister if I need anything.’’

‘Yes, they burnt all my things the first time I went to Australia, you know. Said my cane suite had worms. I’ve got nothing left now. Oh how I HATE this place. Once you get in here, you never get out, Come here and you won’t get out alive. I tell everybody how dangerous it is and urge them to leave as quickly as they can.’

Agitation increasing, she started pacing again. She was like a trapped bird, beating her wings against the wires of her cage.

‘When are you going? You haven’t been here long, have you? I’m going as soon as I can find the key to the gate. I’ll slip out when nobody’s watching and take a train to Cape Town. My daughter lives there, you know. She’ll be glad to see me; she’ll put me up until I find a place.’

This was the third time this month the woman had woken her in the middle of the night with some story. Working herself into a frenzy and emphasising how dangerous it was here, how ‘they’ were watching her and how she had to get out. Her exhausted relatives, at their wit’s end with what to do with her had finally managed to find a place for her in the charming retirement village, hoping that after the upheaval of three abortive trips to Australia, she might finally settle down. But sadly, she seemed more agitated than ever, constantly phoning the chemist to send more pills and, unknown to the nursing sister, self-medicating and increasing her dose to dangerous levels.

‘No wonder she’s seeing things and imagining thieves under her bed. She’s overdosing dangerously,’ the doctor said, studying the blood test results. ‘We’ll have to monitor her closely; she’s in a bad state. Otherwise we’ll have to admit her to frail care, but I’m reluctant to do that, she’s very upset – it’ll disrupt everyone. I hoped that this quiet place, the pretty gardens and the kind staff would settle her down and give her some peace, but if she doesn’t quieten in a few days, I’ll discuss the matter with her relatives.’

The next I knew was when the Supervisor knocked on my door. ‘Have you seen Mrs Goodwell? she asked.

‘No. Surely she’s in her flat?’

‘No, we haven’t seen her for several days. We’ve looked everywhere, asked the guards but they’ve got no record of anybody leaving and nobody’s seen her. She’s gone and we’re very worried.’

A day or so later, a battered jalopy driven by an elderly black man drew up at the gate. The guards asked him to open the doors. On the back-seat, huddled in a worn blanket, lay the shrunken figure of a woman. ‘Where did you find her?’ they asked. ‘In a hut in Alexandra,’ he told them. ‘At first I think she is dead, but I waited and watched and after a time I see she is breathing, so I put her in my car, and bring her here. I think maybe she comes from this place. My wife, she tells me a lot of Gogo’s live here, so maybe she comes from here also. You give me money. I look after her and bring her here, so you must give me money.’

The Supervisor nearly fainted when she saw the woman in the car, ‘Thank God you’ve found her, the Police have been searching everywhere and her family are nearly out of their minds. Take her straight to the hospital and we’ll admit her immediately and then talk to the man.’

By the time the woman was settled, the black man had gone. Realising the situation was too dangerous to wait for money, he had made his escape while he could. But Mrs Goodwell was back. It all depended on whether she recovered.

And who was Mrs Goodwell? She was a heroine of the French Resistance, awarded the George Cross for Valour during WWII and well used to keeping under cover and escaping from dangerous situations, so this little escapade was nothing to her and something she found easy to cope with in her long and extraordinary life. Could be that she’ll even do it again sometime. Wouldn’t you, if you thought the hidden ‘they’ were watching all the time?

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