The secrets we keep – Part 1: Ms Anna
She lay on her stiff bed, perfectly still. The light blue blanket underneath her tucked tightly under the mattress. She clearly hadn’t slept in the bed at all, yet this was where they had found her, lying on top of her bed. Her grey hair had untied itself and lay spread all around her shoulders and head. Unusual for an elderly person to have such long thick hair. She wore a night gown, the kind they only sold at outfitters on the main road in Fish Hoek. The large, shapeless nighties made in the shape of a large bag that hung off the shoulders with just a trim of lace around the neckline, as an afterthought to some form of prettiness and style.
“Detective Abrahams?” came a squeaky voice.
Detective Bianca Abrahams slowly turned away from the old woman and to the voice. “Yes?” she asked, looking at the small round woman who had called her.
“I’m Sister Renee” she said, “I’m the one who called the police to come and see about Ms Anna”
“Nice to meet you Sister” said the detective, extending her hand out towards the nurse, who accepted the stern hand and limply shook Bianca’s fingers in response.
“Thank you for coming. I realise that you are very busy, but it’s just that Ms Anna died under strange circumstances, and well…the board likes to make sure we have our papers all in order. So, I thought it was best for you to confirm no funny business” explained Renee in rapid fire speak, walking around the officer and towards the bed. Bianca allowed herself a long slow blink, it was 10am, and she’d only had one cup of sweet coffee, after leaving the station at midnight the day before. She sighed, regretting her decision to pick up the phone this morning. She’d gone into the office early to catch up the paperwork that needed doing before they could close the case on a recent spate of smash and grabs in the area. The phone on Jacobs’ desk had been ringing and ringing and eventually she’d been unable to think so she’d taken the call and the voice of Sister Renee had begged her to come to Strelitzia House, the old age home in Fish Hoek. Now here she was, looking at a dead woman, who had probably died of old age. A small teeny tiny part of her wanted to cry from irritation. She opened her eyes, swallowed and turned to see Sister Renee looking at her from across the bed, the dead woman’s waxy white, sun spotted legs, between them.
Bianca raised her eyebrows at Sr Renee, “So, tell me, what seems to have happened?”
Sr Renee, her small round Lennon glasses, pushed far up the bridge of her nose, wiggled her shoulders and became taller. She cleared her throat, “We believe..” she began, “that Ms Anna here- what I think you police people call, the deceased?” asked Sr Renee, looking expectantly at Detective Bianca, who nodded in approval of the chosen words, “Yes, carry on…” said Bianca her irritation rising steadily as this ridiculous examination dragged on. “Well, the deceased, Ms Anna, she wasn’t well for a long time now. She had dementia, and with no family, she was often talking to herself. So, you know how it is. We can’t really take anything she says for real. But, anyway, Denise, who cleans up for Ms Anna, she keeps saying that Ms Anna is talking in a funny language all the time, nothing any of us understands. Foreign you know. And that Ms Anna, when she speaks English and is more lucid, she talks about her ballet shoes all the time. She says she has to go get the ballet shoes” explains Sr Renee, her face a tidal wave of movement, eyebrows up and down, eyes wide and then squeezed tight, mouth moving fast. Bianca finds herself mesmerized and notices her own mouth moving to the rhythm of the sisters animated story. She shakes her head to stop herself. “No I promise you Detective, that’s the honest to God truth” responds Sr Renee. Bianca thinks about trying to explain why she is shaking her head to clear it, but decides not to.
“I see” she says instead to Sr Renee and turns her attention to look at Ms Anna again. The woman’s frail thin arms are also wrapped loosely in waxy skin. She is clutching something to her chest, barely visible because the fabric from her nightie has been caught up in her arms.
“What is she holding there?” asked Bianca, curious.
“That’s the thing Detective. Look-” says Sr Renee, slowly she peels back the fabric, and lifts the stiffening arm of Ms Anna. Two pink ballet shoes, the velvet faded and moth eaten, their ribbons frayed and limp are clutched to Ms Anna’s heart.
“Ms Anna didn’t have these in her possession when she came to live here. We know because we take an inventory, you know, for the relatives. And look!” exclaimed Sr Renee, pointing at Ms Anna’s feet, “Mud, all over her feet. Like she went digging in the garden”
Bianca nodded at Sr Renee, “Strange indeed”.
Look out for Part 2 next month.
This was first published in the Billboard Magazine in September 2019