If Willem Van Arnholt were a dice, he would have no even sides. To say he was completely odd would be an understatement.
He stood front centre every morning in rounds, answering every question Doctor Kydd could throw at us. We stood in a semi-circle around the patient’s bed, and he would lean forward as though he would hear the sound waves of the question slightly earlier. Not that it mattered. His understanding of even the most complex science meant that he didn't have any real competition within our group. As the doctor cleared her throat, Willem would wriggle his toes in anticipation. Both large toes had burrowed their way through his crusty leather shoes, and they peered out as the question was forming in the doctor’s mind. The toenails were long and crusted with dirt.
'It's a hospital, man!' I thought to myself as I saw them peek out like dusty meerkats. 'You're gonna either spread or catch something. Or both...'
Truth be told, there was an element of jealousy in the way I spoke about Willem. It was as though he had internalised giant swathes of our anatomy textbooks, and could regurgitate the most unusual detail at will.
‘Who can tell me the early signs of an ectopic pregnancy? … Yes Willem?'
‘What is situs inverses? … OK, again, Willem?'
‘Alright Willem, what is Whipples Disease?'
Sadly, Willem had made space in his mind by tossing any and all social intelligence out to the curb. His hair had not seen shampoo for years, nor had his pimply face been graced by a washer. He was either unaware, or unperturbed by the smell of sweat and grease that followed him. Somewhere in that cramped mind of his, behind an impressive knowledge of blood diseases, and where his tact and sensitivity should have sat, he had left room for a fanatical interest in the Netherlands.
We had been placed together at Mona Vale Hospital, on the Northern Beaches of Sydney. I stood staring at the beach out the window across a green empty golf course. Behind me, I could hear Willem introducing himself to an elderly woman.
‘Hello Mrs. Back, I am Doctor Van Arnholt… I am curious about your heritage. You would not be Dutch perchance?'
Mrs. Back shook her head, nonplussed.
’No… no Dutch. English actually.'
Willem smiled patronisingly, and closed his eyes for a second.
‘Well Back is actually a Dutch surname. I wonder if you have forgotten a Dutch ancestor?'
I turned around. Mrs. Back, had her eyes closed, and her head raised towards the ceiling.
‘It’s very nice of you to take an interest, but no, my family is English.'
’There is a small chance it could be Germanic-'
’No! Look… sorry, I don’t mean to have snapped at you, that was unkind... but unless my heritage has anything to do with my heart palpitations, I’d really prefer to start talking about what’s wrong with me!'
Willem smiled a pained smile. My diagnosis: An unresolved ‘Dutch-off’. He ran his fingers through his hair and grease wafted towards me. I shuddered slightly, and turned back to the rolling waves beyond the 9th hole.
‘Well, I’ll see what I can find for you, Mrs. Back’ he said, pronouncing it Buucchhhk. A truly guttural slaughter of the poor lady’s name. He paced from the room.
I found him two and a half hours later hunched over his laptop in the doctor’s lounge.
‘Hello Sarah,’ he said as I slumped into a couch. I nodded in response. The lounge itself was dingy, at best. The couches were all mismatched, and the fabric had torn off many of the cushions, leaving giant triangles of off yellow foam exposed. It resembled a drug den. The windows were salt encrusted and the sun desperately tried to break through the windows. Willem sat in the dark, his screen shining up into his face.
‘I think I’ve found something which may be of interest to Mrs Buucchk.'
I hadn’t seen him since before lunch, and I was struck with a reluctant sense of admiration at his dedication. I leant forward. ‘Yeah, I mean, I didn’t examine her or anything,’ I began, ‘but for a woman her age, like what? 75, 80? It seems like a pretty clear cut case of Angina Pectoris.'
He looked at me, his head tilted at a ridiculous sideways angle.
‘Oh. Oh yes, probably… But more importantly look at this!’ He jabbed at his screen and motioned me over. He was on Ancestry.com
‘Look! A large number of Dutch emigrated to England at the turn of the 17th century, and because the English census was inferior, many were simply regarded as English because they lived there!'
He was practically quivering with excitement, staring into my eyes, waiting for me to join in. I remained motionless
’She IS Dutch!’ he squeaked, as though I hadn’t yet put the dots together.
The little admiration I had for Willem disappeared quicker than his brown toes through his crusty leather shoes. I swallowed my anger, knowing full well that other people’s disapproval had never bothered him too much.
‘Willem,’ I began slowly and carefully. ’That woman needs a doctor, not a biographer. Why have you wasted three hours...'
I trailed off. A cacophony echoed down the hall. It grew louder until it flew past the door to the lounge. A crash cart with a defibrillator was bouncing against the walls as two nurses dragged it towards the Emergency Room. I looked down at Willem. He at least had the good courtesy to look concerned. His lips were drawn tight, and he looked pale against the blue light of his laptop.
The nurse slowly pulled the sheet over Mrs. Back’s still warm corpse, as we turned the corner into the ER. Willem let out a deep slow breath. I was relieved that it was shaky.
A moment of silence.
A tragic solemnity.
I put a hand on his shoulder.
’She died without knowing…’ he said, his eyes beginning to swim. My jaw dropped. My hand fell from his shoulder as a clenched fist. There was no jealousy anymore. Nor would there ever be again. Instead, there was a cocktail of sadness, pity and anger. Willem’s cramped mind was full of everything that he didn’t need. I stared down at the silhouette of Mrs. Back, whose limbs were starting cool into eternity. The cocktail in my mind diluted back to anger. He was, however, saved the indignity of being the first student to be knocked out on a placement, by Doctor Kydd’s hurried entrance into the room. She stood in between us, and put a hand on each of our shoulders.
’Sarah… Willem… this might be hard, but one of you is going to need to notify the next of kin. The family is downstairs.'
’Next of kin, hey?’ Willem turned and rubbed the incipient tears from his eyes. A smile crept his way back onto his pimply face. A dangerous light had returned. In my minds eye, I could see him approaching the family. ‘You must be the Buuuuccchhks?’
‘I’m going to suggest that maybe I talk to the family,’ I said, turning to face Doctor Kydd. She looked at me, and back to Willem whose toes were starting to wiggle in anticipation. Back to me again.
As I headed down the hall, and into the lift, I saw Willem peak his head down the corridor. As the doors met in the middle, I heard one last desperate attempt:
’Tell them their heritage Sarah! Don’t forget to tell them the Dutch thing!'