vi. Bertha’s Story
In the evening, Kate found her neighbor Bertha, dressed in robe and slippers, wandering through the courtyard square outside their building.
“Are you all right, Bertha?” Kate asked.
“Oh, I suppose it depends on what you mean by ‘all right,'” replied Bertha. “I feel fine, really fine, dear, though I think something is not right with my meds. Either I took them, and I wasn’t supposed to, or I didn’t take them, and I was. But I feel fine. Just fine.”
“Maybe we should get you home,” Kate said. “Is there someone we can call?”
“Yes, yes,” Bertha replied. “My son. But there’s no rush, really. It’s just… it’s such a beautiful night. Let’s just stay out a little longer. Christmas spirit.”
Bertha began to sing.
“Chestnuts roasting on an open fire,
Jack Frost nipping at your nose, hehe.”
She had a beautiful contralto. Kate watched her breathing, looked in her eyes. She supposed a few more minutes outside wouldn’t hurt. The cold air smelled like chocolate from the truffles factory down by the wharf, and the hissing of steam from the vents and clatter of the street car offered a rhythmic accompaniment to Bertha’s performance.
“Though it’s been said,
Many times, many ways,
Merry Christmas–did I ever tell you about Christmas of 1967?”
Certainly, she hadn’t, seeing as this was their first actual conversation, if you could call it that.
“I was young. I was a young nurse. It was my first year as a nurse. Oh! That year! That was the year that…” Bertha chuckled. “Well, my son came out that year. A doctor. Never married. That is, he never married me. He was already married. Mrs. Doctor Clive Barton. But oh, my. Clive. The times we had! Well, my son is proof of that. Living proof. What was I saying?”
“Christmas of 1967?”
“Oh, yes! Clive. 1967. Well, that was my first year as a nurse. So of course, I got the holiday shift. Christmas and New Year’s Eve, both. Do you know? It was, maybe, the most meaningful Christmas I had. Ever. People died. Two people, on my watch. Babies were born, and I was called in to help with one of them, we were that short-staffed, being Christmas, and all.”
“That must have been terrible,” Kate said.
“It was wonderful,” said Bertha. “It was Christmas, so it was already magical. I don’t know if you realize this, but there are some times when the veil tears, and you can see through to the other side. Christmas is one of those times. Death is another. And birth is a third. And to have all three on one night? Oh, and love! Let’s not forget love. Dr. Clive was on duty that night, if I remember correctly. Oh, there were no veils that night. Everything softened. It softens in death, you know. And in birth, too. And of course, Christmas. And love, goes without saying. So it all softened, and I was there, I was young, I was in the middle of it. Did you say you were going to take me home?”
“Yes, I’ll take you, Bertha,” Kate replied.
“And call my son?”
“And call your son.”
“And fix me tea?”
“Sure. I’ll fix you tea.”
“Good. I think I am done telling stories now.”