Sparrow Girl Stories
a collection of childhood memories
text and illustrations by Aletta Mes 2006

The Tree of Many Souls

A Sunday Walk in the Polder

The Great Ape

The Sinking Man

Bandages and Red Tulips

Tonnie's Yellow Dress

Being an Only Child


Meeting Death

Can't Ether

Needles and Chocolate Animals

There are no small floods...

First Snow

The Taai Taai Pop

Overnight in the Country

Oome Leen and the Whatjemecallits

One Night Across the Street

The Night the Refinery Blew Up 

The School Bully 


Easter and the Laws of Thermodynamics 

Needles and Chocolate Animals
needles and chocolate animals

I was sick a lot when I was little. Having pneumonia was an annual event. Probably not helped by living down wind from the oil refinery. Growing up the refinery was an endless amusement, walking by and seeing the flames lapping up into the air. the enormous storage drums and the great whooshing sounds emanating from the heart of it. I also knew that somewhere in the middle my daddy worked. He worked in a two storey building doing research. More things you could do with petrochemicals. He came up with cold cracking techniques, and atomic absorption spectrograph unit and the Vapona no-pest strip.

I so rarely smelled clean air that I was unaware of just how unpleasant and no doubt unhealthy it really was. I was in awe of all the stuff, the endless metal catacombs running throughout, the catwalks, cranes. I could sit for hours just watching oil tankers in port waiting to load with fresh crude. I was also well aware that the company, Shell Oil, was good to my daddy and good to us. We were given all the coal we needed for our stove, all the potatoes we could eat, all for free. My special school was paid for, the learning disability specialist was part and parcel of the company's security for their employees. My ballet classes were covered, we had health care beyond what the average Dutch family had. My father could go to university at their expense. By the time I was four he had gone from bottle washer to research team leader.

The entire town was built by the company for it's employees. There were Shell company picnics and Christmas parties. I was very aware of the importance of the company in our lives. That we were probably in harms way never occurred to my parents, and even if they did, in life concessions sometimes have to be made. Just as mom hadn't the awareness that chain smoking might not be healthy for herself or her babies, sucking in filthy refinery air wasn't something anyone was too terribly concerned with.

I'd had my first bout of pneumonia right after I was born, in January. mams blames the nurse for leaving the window open and me in nothing more than a diaper. Six months later, pneumonia again. This time it was in August, right before my first time in kindergarten. I had been going to special classes to help with my dexterity and dyslexia, I was taught how to be right-handed, and left handed, but to favour right handedness. The idea was to get me up to speed on looking normal before starting kindergarten. I didn't have much contact with other children beyond Robbie Ringeling and Toni from downstairs, and I was really looking forward to it.

About a month after having the tonsils removed I developed pneumonia, and it would not go away. There were light therapy session, heat lamps, tanning lamps. I was seen by a naturopaths and big Flemish women (relatives apparently) bound me up in layers of mustard soaked sheeting and the Vaporub was steaming into the air day and night. Vaporub makes me gag, I hate the stuff. A day later the same big breasted Flemish women would unwind me from the mustard sheeting, and slap massage me silly. I was bathed and steamed. At last all the usual therapies were abandoned and a real doctor ordered a series of penicillin shots.

Each day an enormous angry looking nurse would come to our house. she would look me over and then bend me over, and I was given a painful stab in the but. I was told as she did this that if I did not cry I would get a chocolate animal, and if I could smile and say thank you to the nurse I could have two. I love those chocolate animals. There were elephants, giraffes, hippos, rhinos, monkeys, zebras and wildebeest. I was a great fan of the hippo and the elephant, those were in dark chocolate. I liked the monkeys least.

Chocolate was a rare treat outside of the chocolate sprinkles on my buttered bread in the morning. So I was the big girl and I did not flinch even though it hurt most cruelly. I would straighten myself up. Smile at the nurse shook her hand and said that you. After she left mams would give me my chocolate animals. It seemed like a month but most probably it was no more than ten days. The needly was huge and the penicillin looked like cream, it was a very big needle, large gauge.

The nurse was not so sympathetic looking. She probably ate her own young. Her greying hair was curled so tightly it pulled he eyebrows (which were drawn on with a black pencil) very high on her forehead. Her neck had skin waddle which flushed red as she talked excitedly about the "anti-social" families she was forced to work with. She apparently hated everyone, except my mother and father because they were artists, and she liked artists. I think that was lucky for me.

The last day ha finally arrived, my last shot, I would never have to see her miserable beady eyed face again, or hear her cackle on and on about the lower classes. She took out the glass bottle of penicillin, snapped in the needle, she inserted the needle into the rubber cap and filled it generously. she tapped the needle and let a little run out the tip. I assumed the position. My jaw tensed, my little fingers blanched as they gripped the table. It seemed to take forever, my cheeks were starting to get a little chilly. She put her cold hand on the middle of my back.

Here it comes, I was fully ready, I would not whimper or cry, I was ready. I could hear the needle hitting the bone and the snap when the needle broke, penicillin was smeared all over my backside. It was my mother who cried out first. "How could you do that". She was qualified on that point, my mother was a trained nurse. How of course was no longer a question, something had to be done about the broken needle a good portion of which was in my tiny behind, palpable, but not reachable.

Mam carried me to my bedroom and put two chocolate animals in my hand. "but I cried, mam", I said. Mam told me I was a brave little girl. I was put face down on my bed lightly covered with a sheet. I'm not sure if it came to blows or not but my mother tossed the nurse out of the house, would not let her near me again. She then went downstairs to use the telephone in Toni's house to call the doctor. After the doctor retrieved the needle mam went out to get more chocolate animals.

I did recover in time to go to school.


Other Stories in this series will be posted every few weeks or so

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Sparrow Girl and other stories index - Stories of my Childhood 1954-60 - Story Index