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Lost causes

Okay, I might as well get it out in the open. I’m a loser. Luckily, most of the things I misplace turn up somewhere, sometime, and then it’s like Christmas at chez Foster. Some of my items that go AWOL are repeat offenders, and my bunch of house keys with the large magnesium and flint fire-starter that I attached 20 years ago to make it less losable is the worst. I’ve recovered my keys from my roadside garage door on occasion and from my post office at least four times after good Samaritans who found them dangling from my post-box lock handed them in.

Sometimes losing things can lead to a happy ending. I once misplaced my contact lens case on a trip away, so stored both lenses together in a glass of water next to my bed overnight, figuring there was a 50% chance each would end up in the correct eye in the morning – if they didn’t, swapping them would take but a minute. I got it wrong, though, and was bemused to find that my vision was the best it had been for ages after I popped them back in because I’d been wearing them in the wrong eyes since — well, whenever.

In terms of actually losing stuff, though, my losses have been relatively trivial. In 1999 musician Yo-Yo Ma famously left his R30 million 1733 Montagnana cello in a New York cab after playing a concert at the Carnegie Hall. Police traced the cab and retrieved the expensive instrument from the taxi’s boot just before the driver knocked off at dawn. I know how my heart leaps every time I think I’ve lost my wallet, so I can imagine how badly Yo-Yo suffered.

It’s not only forgetful old codgers who lose things. A couple of years back the Irish Navy suffered severe embarrassment when it lost a very expensive unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), or drone, while serving with the United Nations Peacekeeping Forces in Chad. Drones are programmed to automatically return to base whenever radio contact is lost, but some hirsute Hibernian halfwit apparently forgot to reprogram its launch point at Goz Beida as “Home”, and when signal was lost the aircraft set sail for Curragh Camp 5 000km away. The short-range UAV was eventually recovered from a neighbouring state after payment of a large ransom.

In many cases things that have been lost aren’t even missed until they turn up someplace they shouldn’t be to embarrass the loser. What is surely the weirdest of such incidents took place in Pietermaritzburg, where the remains of five patients were found scattered around the grounds of Edendale Hospital at various times in 2001. The first, in January, was wearing hospital pyjamas and an identity tag on its wrist, but the hospital denied that it had lost any patients. In February another cadaver was discovered, and in August yet more human remains put in an appearance, followed by another skeleton two days later. This one was also clad in hospital pyjamas but the hospital bravely stuck to its line, with a spokesman saying that the pyjamas are often stolen and thus freely available on the black market, so that proved nothing.

Then, in December, a fifth cadaver, this one partly-decomposed, popped up in a disused sewage works in the hospital grounds and after a police spokesman said that the cops didn’t have the manpower to investigate properly the authorities did what authorities do best – they launched a belated and no doubt expensive commission of enquiry. Some might find it sinister that although the five cases reported in the press had all been at Edendale, the enquiry related to “various hospitals in the city over the last year”. Six months later the findings of the commission were published. The blame was placed on staff shortages and a lack of security, and the report concluded that no particular person or persons could be blamed for the plight of the prematurely departed patients, who seemingly kept things tidy by wandering outside to die. Then KwaZulu-Natal Health MEC Zweli Mkhize added a touch of unintentional humour to the macabre story. “Hospitals are now doing three head-counts a day to ensure that all patients are accounted for,” he said. Hmmmmm — the head was all that was found of the third victim.


  • Durban photojournalist Gavin Foster writes mainly for magazines. His articles and photographs have appeared in hundreds of South African, American and British publications, and he's also instigated and researched stories for Carte Blanche. Winner of the Magazine Publishers Association of South Africa PICA Profile Writer of the Year Award in 2008. South African Guild of Motoring Journalists Motorcycle Journalist of the Year (Magazines) 2015/16/17. South African Guild of Motoring Journalists Motorcycle Journalist of the Year (Overall) 2015/16. South African Guild of Motoring Journalists Motorsport Journalist of the Year (Magazines) 2017 - Runner-Up 2015/16.

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