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Jo'Burg Days: The Blue Angel

Barbara Durlacher tells of the “Blue Angel’’ who came to the aid of a stricken Polish seaman.

Slowly, his Blue Angel swam into focus. Through the anaesthetic blur, he began to distinguish a small, dark-haired woman in a blue cotton dress. Edging her chair closer to the bed, she softly stroked his hand, while speaking in a gentle voice.

“You’ve been very sick, Yaroslav. You had a burst appendix and a high fever. You were airlifted off your ship and flown immediately to this hospital where you had an operation. Then, you had serious complications and were unconscious for five days. If it had not been for the excellent nursing, you would have died. You’re recovering now, and you’ll be discharged in a few days.”

The seaman spoke Polish. When the Spanish-speaking nurses found they could not communicate with him, they’d asked the visiting pastor from the seaman’s mission if he knew of anybody who could help. He had asked one of his parishioners, a dark-haired Polish woman, to act as interpreter when the patient came round from the anaesthetic. She was reasonably fluent in Spanish and English, as well as her native language. It was important to ease the man’s convalescence to enable him to get well quickly.

As he recovered, she asked him if he would like her to write to his family back in Gdansk, Poland to let them know he was well and the worst was over.

“Your employers will fly you back to your home port, but I’m sure your the family would like to receive a letter to know that the worst is over and you’re recovering. Would you like me to write the letter for you, Yaroslav?”

Slowly, with many corrections and suggestions from her side, the letter was composed, addressed and put aside for posting.

Over the next few days, she came several times to visit him, always with a small gift. A bar of soap, razor blades, a freshly washed and ironed shirt or a few chocolates, her practical sympathy had no end. In his mind she remained his Blue Angel, his shining star of womanhood and gentle kindness, someone he could focus on to make all the hardships and risks of long months at sea worthwhile.

A week later he was discharged. Gently raising her hand to his lips, he said. “Madam, I want to thank you for all you’ve done for me. Will you permit me to take you to a good restaurant for a meal? Only a small gesture, but something I wish very deeply to do.”

Startled by his request, she thought quickly. “So kind, Yaroslav, but quite unnecessary. There’s no need to thank me in this way. I would do the same for any of my countrymen who were seriously ill in a strange country, and in need of care and an interpreter.”

“Madam, please let me do this small thing. Believe me, it’s the only opportunity I’ll have to thank you. I fly home tomorrow and will never see you again. Please let me take you to dinner in a good restaurant.”

Knowing he was a poorly paid seaman on a merchant ship, she reluctantly agreed, but decided that instead of taking him to an expensive restaurant, they would go to the small bistro in the lane near her boarding house. She knew that the food was cheap, plain and tasty. He must save his money for his family, not waste it on taking her out. Arriving at the bistro, she selected a quiet table in a dark corner and beckoned the waiter to bring the menu. Speaking quickly in Spanish, she said, “This man is poor and has no money. Bring us the cheapest dish, but make it look as if you’re giving us something special.”

When brought to them, the dish was plain and tasty, but prettily decorated with springs of parsley and bright hibiscus blooms. With a bottle of good red wine, they both found they were enjoying the evening. The next day, with tears in his eyes he thanked his Blue Angel for all her kindness, then he headed for the airport to fly home.

A few weeks later, a taxi rolled up to the door, and out stepped her husband, more handsome than ever in his blue naval uniform, gold braid flashing in the sun. Sweeping her off her feet, he kissed her long and hard. “Darling, I’m so glad to be back! After three months at sea a man needs his wife. Hurry-up; put on your smartest dress, I’m taking you out to dinner.”

“But Mickey. Can you afford it? You know we have to save every penny.”

“Tonight we’re going to enjoy ourselves. I’m rich. I haven’t spent a cent of my daily allowance – we’ve got money to burn!”

But, as a careful wife, she would not allow him to waste money on an extravagant restaurant. Without fuss, she took him to the same little bistro. Choosing her old table, she signalled to the waiter. When he arrived, he whispered in her ear, “And this one Madam. Does he also have no money? Do you want the cheap meal or will you have something better?”

Raising the menu to hide her smile, she realised that the waiter had sized her up as a hooker, softening up her customers before getting to work. Seeing her with a different man, he imagined a woman bravely battling alone. By offering her the same-cut price meal, he felt was aiding her struggle.

Stifling her giggles, she told the waiter not to worry, the gentleman would order. The meal, wine and service were excellent and she and Mickey had a wonderful evening. “Bring me the bill, and add 20% for service,” said Mickey. “Wonderful food, really enjoyed myself”, he added, and taking the Blue Angel’s hand, they walked quickly home to bed.

The waiter got it right after all.

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