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Tuesday, 7 February 2012

The little envelope (Το φακελάκι)

If you don't know where you came from, you won't know what heights you can reach.

 "Congratulations," said the smiling nurse to Manolis, as she came out of the operating theatre, although he didn't actually understand what she was saying. "It's a girl."

"Thangyu," he replied, smiling nervously on hearing his voice sound out the foreign words that he had rehearsed beforehand, in order to respond appropriately.

"Your wife will be returning to the ward soon," Ngaire continued, unaware that Manolis had no idea what she was saying. "You'll get to see your little girl as soon as she's weighed and measured." He nodded at Ngaire with the same nervous smile, while waiting for his koumbara to tell him what the next step in the process was. Ngaire then turned in a disciplined fashion and left them to attend to her next duty. She hoped that no other women would be giving birth in the next hour because she was nearing the end of her shift and would be delayed in leaving if another woman went into labour right after this birth.

"Congratulations, koumbaro!" Sofia was exuberant. "Everything went well! Now let's go to the ward and wait for Zambia." 

Manolis and Sofia went back to the ward where Zambia was wheeled in a few minutes later, looking rather tired, but with a glow on her face, as she had just become a mother for the first time. Sofia kissed and hugged her, displaying the camaraderie that women who had become mothers could share. Manolis, in the meantime, remained a bystander, as if waiting for his cue to take part in a performance, whose next act was just about to follow. He did not interrupt the two women's conversation to ask his wife how she felt: it was written quite obviously on her face.

Not long after that, the baby, bundled up in regulation sheets and blankets, was brought to them by the same nurse. "Isn't she gorgeous?" Ngaire cooed. "She has an expressive little face! I wonder what she's trying to tell us!" Ngaire laid the baby down onto her mother's breast. The baby wriggled her soft face towards the feel of her mother's skin, searching for anything it could clutch onto that would comfort it. "Oh look," the nurse continued in her foreign babble, "she's hungry!"


On seeing the baby in her mother's arms, Manolis was filled with feelings of love and tenderness, and an image of his own mother came to his mind. He wanted to tell the nurse about this, but he knew that this was not possible because he did not speak any English. So he just pointed to the baby and said "Thangyu," repeating what he had said to the nurse outside the surgery. He put his hands into the breast pocket of his blazer.

Ngaire looked at him sympathetically, feeling his emotion at this most significant moment in his life. She noticed he was having trouble retrieving something from the breast pocket of his blazer. He must be needing a handkerchief, she thought. In an act of efficiency, she left Zambia's side and came towards Manolis, who was standing next to the bedside cabinet. It was just at this moment that Ngaire noticed the crochet doily sitting below the regulation pile of paper towels that patients were customarily provided with, and wondered subconsciously how it got there. Her purposeful efficiency did not stop her from exectuing her duties: she picked up a paper towel and handed it to Manolis.

By this time, Manolis had retrieved what it was that he was searching for in his pocket: a little envelope, the size of a business card, which he handed to the nurse, slipping it just under the paper towel that she was holding, which he had carefully prised out of her hand so that the little envelope would look neither too conspicuous nor fall out of her hands, which would have caused her great embarrassment, if she had to pick it up off the floor. "Thangyu," he said once again.

"Oh, what's this?" Ngaire looked surprised to see the envelope. "A card! Who's it for?"

Zambia and Sofia had just noticed what was going on. Zambia smiled approvingly at her husband, but Sofia's cheerful outlook suddenly turned dour. It was too late. Manolis was pointing to the nurse, beckoning her to take the little envelope, which Ngaire had just opened to see what was inside. It contained a five-dollar note. What the Dickens? she shrugged dumbfounded, steering her gaze from the money to Manolis every half-second. 

"Manolis," Sofia hissed softly. "They don't do that here," It suddenly occurred to Sofia that this was Manolis' first visit to a New Zealand hospital, having had no need for one in the last twelve months, which was the total amount of time that he had been in the country. It was clearly a new experience for him.

The nurse pushed the envelope back into his hand, making Manolis jump a little. He did not expect his small gift to be returned to him so abruptly, which caused him to wonder: Did I not give her enough?

Having finished her rounds for the evening, Ngaire went to the staff room to rest a little and change out of her uniform before clocking out and going home. She found another three nurses there already, playing a quick round of Monopoly before their shift started. Petula Clark was playing on the radio and the latest episode of Coronation Street was just about to start on TV.

"What a night!" she sighed as she flopped onto an empty armchair. "I just got picked up by a man whose wife had just given birth!"

The other nurses looked up at her and giggled. "Was he good-looking, at least?" one jeered.

"Get this," Ngaire continued excitedly. "He tried to give me money!"

"Did you take it?"

"Don't be daft!" Ngaire replied. "What did he take me for, a prostitute?" That set off the laughter once again.

*** *** ***
It is doubtful that the nurses at Wellington Public Hospital were playing Monopoly before their shift; the only TV channel available in New Zealand at the time I was born stopped broadcasting well before a nurse started the late night shift (so did the radio strations), and Petula Clark's hit took a couple of months longer than in the US to make it to number 1 in New Zealand. To my knowledge, my father did pass a 5-dollar bill to the nurse that brought me to my mother's side, but I don't think he had put it in an envelope; apparently, she looked at him as he were from another planet.

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