75. I Shall do such things

By Peter Fraenkel

“I shall do such things
what they are, yet
I know not
but they shall be
the terrors of the earth.”
King Lear

Could that be true? Did I really run a temperature of 104? Or did delirium confuse me?

Certainly I did suffer multiple attacks of malaria as a child. Most people did in those days in Northern Rhodesia. Some even had two or three attacks a year: But we were not too perturbed. It meant several days of headache and a fever. But dosed with quinine or, when that became available, with paludrine, the fever subsided.

I suffered malaria attacks throughout my childhood. I remember lying in bed, my finger tracing, on my bedsheet, the elaborate Victorian pattern of our metal ceiling.

Then I was send to boarding school at Bulawayo, Southern Rhodesia – dry lands not within the habitat of anopheles mosquitoes – but here I had my worst recurrence.  The matron, who normally looked after schoolboys in the “sick room”, decided she could not cope and had me transferred to hospital by ambulance. I have no memory of that ambulance ride.

The hospital stay was not a comfortable one. I sweated so profusely that two nurses had to come and change my sheets several times a day.

One morning I woke up to hear chanting – in Latin I suppose – from a nearby bed. The last rites were being administered.  Screens were then put around a bed. It was not a happy experience for a schoolboy.

The following day a rabbi did the rounds of our ward and came to sit with me. I was probably the only Jewish patient.  No, no, no, he assured me, he had not come to administer the last rites.  It was not a Jewish custom. Anyway, the ward sister had told him I would soon be sent back to school.

One of the nurses was particularly attentive. I liked that. She was very pretty, but I probably got privileged treatment because I was the only child in an adult ward or, more probably, because I was a friend of her little brother, Nick. He was in my class at school. He had introduced me to her as his “best friend”. His real name, he had told me, was Nikita and his sister, whom the ward sister called Anne, really had the more melodious name of Anastasia. The other nurses, however, called her “princess” – which I thought was a tease. Later I came to wonder.  Perhaps she really was entitled to such a title?

The father had been a British officer in Russia in that 1919 intervention meant to stifle the Bolshevik revolution. The intervention was soon abandoned, but from Russia Captain Power had brought back a Russian wife. They had two children – my class mate and that pretty nurse.

In Russia titles had been wide spread. Perhaps she could really lay claim to a title? Certainly neither she nor her little brother gave themselves aristocratic airs.

At home she must have gossiped about her patients and mentioned my extremely high temperatures and my profuse perspiring.  She probably told them that they had had to change my soaked sheets several times a day.

Nick maliciously reported to our classmates that I was pissing myself in bed. When eventually I was allowed back to boarding school I was teased as a bed-wetter.  It made me angry. Very angry. I refused to talk to Nick and plotted revenge – gruesome, bloody revenge!  But how?

He normally brought a cycle to school. I was going to puncture his tyres. But that school term, I discovered, he had left the bike at home.

I could bash him – I was bigger than he was. But what would his sister think of me?

I did manage to “apple-pie” his bed.  That’s what we called it in our schoolboy language – remaking his sheets so that he could not get his feet into bed. Tired, at the end of a long day, after “lights out”, he would have to remake his bed from scratch.

It wasn’t all that horrible an act of revenge but I meant to think of something worse.  Far worse. However I could never think of anything sufficiently brutal that would not also antagonize his pretty sister.  After all, I had been warned that malaria often recurred and I might again find myself in her hospital ward.

And now – three-quarters of a century later – it seems too late.  I have long lost contact with both Nikita and the beautiful Anastasia. Too late, alas, for my bloodthirsty revenge.