I saw in disbelief, a ceremonial sword that was hanging on the wall of one of the rooms of the Frail Care Nursing Home.
“This sword belongs to a patient,” the matron explained. “We had to agree to hang it in her room, because she was fretting too much when she could not see it. There is quite a story attached to it, and all of it is true. It just shows you that reality can be stranger than fiction. I’m sure she will tell you all about it if you’re patient enough to listen to her.”
That same day I met Irena. She was in a wheel chair and looked as if she was in pain, but her eyes were bright and her toothless smile was inviting.
Once I got used to her accent, I was able to follow her tale with interest.
Irena was a Polish woman. She married a Polish navy officer when she was young, and they lived in a small town called Gdynia, on the Baltic coast. At the outbreak of World War II, Jan was called up to join his ship, and Irena lost contact with him completely. Fortunately for her he survived the war, and after eight long years without him, she received the news that he wanted her to join him in South Africa. He and his friends had bought a small farm in Transvaal. He was tired of sailing ships, after all those years transporting troops and equipment for the Allied forces, he now wanted to settle down and become a farmer.
Irena was overjoyed to receive the news, and so she tried to get a passport so as to leave Poland. But it was practically impossible for her to obtain a passport, as the new regime forbid Poles from traveling abroad. Finally, with the help of Jan’s US dollars, she was smuggled to Austria; and after many months she rejoined her husband on African soil.
Jan welcomed her with great joy, and they spent a blissful second honeymoon; only to wake up to reality when the roof of their dilapidated house started leaking and snakes appeared from under the verandah steps.
The house was in dire need of repair, the outbuildings were broken down, there was no electricity, and water was scarce. Jan was appointed by his friend to manage the farm, because he needed a house for his wife. But he knew nothing of farming, especially in Africa. Irena was a city girl, and she could not have been very helpful, though she tried to make the house habitable by buying some second hand furniture, white washing walls and decorating them with tapestries and pictures. Even Jan’s sword found its place on the wall, but later was packed into a wardrobe when they had an attempted robbery on their house.
Jan and Irena tried their best to make a success of farming. Irena even learnt to milk the cows, and Jan repaired fallen fences and learnt all about husbandry. But all this was not enough.
The persistent drought scorched the veld, there was never enough feed for the animals and there was scarcely water in the borehole. Jan’s friends were no longer eager to put more capital into the venture and so they decided to sell the farm. As there were no buyers, the farm went under hammer. They lost heavily, and Jan had to quickly sell all his belongings on auction so that they could cover unpaid bills. It was too much for him, and he could not accept his sudden loss. The day after the auction he suffered a major heart attack. He had never recovered from it and died soon thereafter. Irena was left penniless and homeless .She left the farm and moved to Johannesburg where she stayed with some friends and desperately looked for work. Much later when she had recovered from the shock of being left alone in a foreign land, she searched for the auctioneer who had sold their belongings. She felt that it was her duty to (at least) recover her husband’s sacred possession; his ceremonial sword that he was so proud of. But she was unsuccessful in tracing the auctioneer. Finally, she gave up the search, and carried on with her life.
Many years passed by, all twenty five to be exact. Irena re-married, and together with her new husband they bought a trading store in the Transkei. Through hard work they managed to buy a house on the coast (in East London). They rented it for the time being, hoping eventually to retire in comfortable surroundings. One day Irena’s estate agent informed her that she that got a new tenant; and Irena (as it was her custom) went to meet her. She was very pleased with the way that the new tenant kept the garden; and later she was invited for some tea inside. As she sat in the lounge and looked around, she noticed a sword hanging on the wall. She was intrigued and asked the woman where it came from.
“Everybody asks me the same question. It is not a family heirloom. Many years ago my ex-fiancé bought it on auction, and presented it to me so that I could decorate our future home. But later on we broke up, and I left Greylingstad never to return. I believe it originally belonged to a foreigner who was an ex-military man. He died and his possessions were sold on auction.” She stopped talking when she saw that Irena was crying.
“It was my husband,” Irena cried, “it was his sword. It was left in the wardrobe and sold with all the other stuff. I tried, again and again, but I could never find out who bought it.”
“Now you have found it, and it is yours,” the woman took the sword from the wall and handed it to Irena. Then she added, “It seems that some Higher Force has directed our paths together so that we could meet, and allow me to be the donor of this precious gift.”
And so Irena had recovered her sword. Wherever she lived, it was always there hanging on the wall; in memory of her first husband who maybe still protecting her from above.