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LOLA came from Crete, her polished coral head, copper body and steely wings anchoring me to my sister, who had posted her so quickly that she arrived before my surgery scars were healed.
She fitted into my palm. Each treatment day, in the bustle of the chemotherapy room, I held her tight. Her hard metal wings dug into my hand, a solid, steadying counterpoint to the miserable fog of nausea that slowly spread as the IV drip ran in.
“It isn’t even a pretty angel!” protested my children, baffled. But Lola’s charm was attitude, a spiky, feisty reminder of a self untainted by cancer, a life not shadowed by death.
“She’s just exactly what I need,” I insisted, “and anyway now I’m just as bald as she is.”
There were days when a chance event triggered grief, released a flood of sorrow and anger that would not be contained and that could not bear either the kindness of strangers or of those close to me. I had learnt how to retreat even in public places, drape my headscarf to cover my face, to hold a book as though I were reading until the long moment passed and I could regain control.
At the back of Greys Hospital there is a little secluded grassy patch away from paths and people. There I would go sometimes in the long waiting periods between outpatient appointments. And there I went one breezy spring day when a nurse’s tight-lipped impatience at being kept waiting while I retched and retched in the outpatient toilets, had again set off that surging torrent of furious grief. I had two hours to go before the drips would be ready. My back against a cool brick wall, the wind fluttering sun and scarf against my face, I let the tears come.
It was when I gathered myself together again that I realised that Lola was gone. My pocket was empty.
I stood up, checked the grass, my bag, my clothes. Checked them again. She was not there. An hour to go before I had to be back in the chemo room. I backtracked slowly, searching the ground. All along the front of the hospital on the concrete veranda lay people wrapped in blankets, waiting for the buses and the long trip back home. Nothing. At the main doors I turned back again, feeling both distraught and foolish, again searched along the route I had taken earlier, through the carpark and across the lawn outside the maternity department.
Two girls were watching. They sat on a bench under a tree full of blossom and new leaves, sunlight flickering and dappling on their hospital-issue nighties, plump young flesh and incongruously fluffy pink slippers. I avoided their eyes but they came over to me anyway.
“Ma’am,” asked the bolder one, “we were thinking have you lost something?” Their faces were smooth-skinned, their braiding oiled and shining, their expressions consciously kind. A couple of teenagers willing to help a distressed middle-aged lady.
I said: “Actually, it’s just my little doll that I’ve lost, about this big.”
They assumed identical, carefully non-committal expressions.
“Well, not really a doll, more like a lucky charm,” I explained, struggling to suppress both laughter and tears, and keep my voice calm as I described Lola and how I had lost her. “But it’s fine, don’t worry, I don’t really know if I even dropped her here.”
“No, we will help you look,” they said, and they did, criss-crossing the grass under the trees. The breeze gently ruffled the masses of virginal blossom above their bent heads. It flipped up the back of their nighties, revealing glimpses of luridly red and lacy panties.
But Lola could not be found. And it was nearly time for me to go. We sat on the bench, exchanged names and “thank yous” and “you’re welcomes”. They told me of their newborn babies, premature, in ICU, but doing well. I told them I had cancer but had a good chance of being fine. They said they would go back to school soon, in the KZN midlands, even with their babies if they had to.
“Do you think you’ll manage?” I asked. “It’s hard work looking after a baby.”
“Yes,” said the quieter one, with innocent conviction. “We will be good mothers.”
I thought of their lost freedom, of tired evenings, difficult schoolwork, fading dreams and babies left to cry alone. I thought too of some young teenage mothers I had worked with in England, their grimy, drug-ridden neighbourhoods, their stunted childhoods and closed horizons, and the way that they, nevertheless, loved their children with delight, filling a cramped council flat with joy.
“Go for it,” I said.
And Lola? I miss her still. But her parting gift has sustained me.
• The winners of this year’s True Stories competition will be announced in early December.
ANNI Tonin returned to South Africa with her family in 2007, after 24 years in Europe and the United States. She is a nurse, managing a project of the Sinomlando Centre, helping children cope with being HIV-positive and taking ARVs. She belongs to a writer’s group which she loves, and is working slowly on a novel and a recipe book.