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Karen and the Chameleon by judy dercksen

© judy dercksen

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Once, long after they’d left the poor-white area of Tienderby, after they’d moved to Pretoria, Jan found a chameleon clamped to a gnarly thorn tree. Karen remembers that winter day, a month after the June ’76 riots, remembers riding her bike, wind tugging at her bare skin as she chased to keep up with Jan. It was the holiday before she left school to study medicine and he left for the army. The year before she lost that deep connection to her twin.

Jan saw the reptile on the tree in the middle of the veld. He skidded to a stop, freeing a plume of grey dust, and stood in front of the critter. Held his hand out until it crawled onto his palm. She touched its craggy scales and then held upturned fingers out, hoping it would come to her. One eye rolled up to Jan and the other down to Karen’s hand. A sticky tongue zapped out, and then it turned and settled on his palm, its conical head resting on his forearm. He held it for a while then lifted it gently and placed it on her own palm, the snake-like smoothness of its belly cool on her skin.

They’d biked home, the treasure wrapped in Jan’s jersey and nestled in her bike’s basket. At home, they’d run into the kitchen and shown it to Lerato, their maid, but she screamed and ran from the room. Lerato had been too upset to work, and had to be sent home, and Ma fumed. They had their bikes confiscated for a week.

Later, Lerato told them why she was so upset. In their culture, Zulu culture, chameleons are harbingers of death.

Chapter One

Karen’s exactly where she wants to be, in the operating theatre, in a cool room with thick walls, safely insulated from the latest newspapers and the radio and voices pretending to make sense of a country falling apart. Nine years after the June ’76 uprising, South Africa's on the brink of war and the solution the bloody government has is to declare a State of Emergency. As if that will solve their problems.

The country’s rotten, infected with the disease of apartheid, and Karen feels guilty that all she thinks about is surviving her first-year surgical residency. She's fighting for one of only two spots for second year and the competitions's stiff. She can’t afford any distractions. That’s why she loves the theatre. The operating rooms are quiet. There’s space to breathe. A semblance of normality.

Karen rests a gloved white hand on the patient’s abdomen, on his dark brown skin. Monitors beep softly to the rhythm of the patient’s heart and machines gently puff and suck as they mark time. The world is muted. It’s so quiet, she can hear the flutter of pages as the anesthetist reads his latest journal. She holds her other hand out and the head nurse slaps a needle holder against her open palm.

The anesthetist lifts his eyes over the pages of the SAMJ, the South African Medical Journal, and Karen nods at him. He turns the Halothane gas off and increases the flow of oxygen to wake the patient. Karen closes the incision she made for the appendectomy-the useless appendix excised. It's an easy surgery, one she first performed as a final year medical student, schmoozing the surgical resident until he felt he’d been the one to suggest she wield the scalpel and he assist. She’s lost count of how many she’s performed since then, yet she never tires of seeing the angry red appendage, confirming the diagnosis, knowing she can trust her clinical judgement.

She ties the final skin suture, wishing she could use the latest laparoscopic equipment, perform keyhole surgery, but Hillbrow can't afford the equipment. At least the incision’s small. It should heal well. Done, she steps away from the table, strips off her gloves, unties and unwraps her faded green gown before dumping it in the linen basket and exiting the room through double swing doors.

Karen can’t wait to qualify and dedicate her time to surgery, rather than spending her days in the emergency room, applying temporary fixes to broken bodies that pour through the door. And pour they do. She thought with the declaration of a State of Emergency, the nights would quieten down. Fat Chance. Despite the night curfews for Blacks and the increased police presence, the hospital is inundated with casualties. The previous night was a gong show, every gurney occupied until past three in the morning.

She enters the changeroom and fetches a sandwich from her locker. The changeroom hasn’t been updated for decades, the only appliances: a toaster and a kettle. The men at least have a microwave and a fridge, and, although their room is also dingy, it’s much bigger. They don’t have to fold up like contortionists to change. Until she got the hang of moving about in the narrow space between the lockers, the bruises on Karen’s elbows and knuckles made her look like a failed trapeze artist.

Sandwich in hand, she moves past two nurses standing against a wall and sits down. She’s excited thinking of the upcoming surgery she’s performing after lunch. She’ll be assisting the chief of surgery. The nurses sitting beside her move closer to each other to give her more space. The wall is cold against her back and, through the cushion—the cover the color of an anemic tongue—she feels the hardness of the wood. She shifts her buttocks on the L-shaped bench and Vinyl squeals as she stretches out her long limbs, her Adidas takkies almost touching the opposite wall.

She bites into her lunch, a ham and cheese sandwich, and her feet stare back at her—ginormous size elevens—feet that always stand out in a crowd. Around her, the nurses chatter, but Karen ignores them. They’re speaking much too quickly for her to make out more than a few words. Must be Zulu, she thinks. Definitely not Xhosa. She’s able to recognize the frequent runs of clicks that define Xhosa.

The nurses’ hands flutter as they gesticulate, their laughter infectious, reminding her of the times at school, during lunchbreaks, when she used to sit with her classmates on the grass or on benches, eating polony sandwiches. But even then, she always felt on the outside. She could only ever see her friends at school. No parties or stay-overs for her. In primary school, and the first two years of high school, she relied on the bus for transport and couldn’t participate in after-hours school activities, not when they lived to hell-and-gone out of Witbank. She remembers her classmates heading off after class to the track or hockey fields, remembers standing at the bus station behind the tennis courts, the thwacks of balls as they bounced off racquets, and the leap of laughter and shouting at a missed or perfect shot.

Her father would’ve driven her back from school if he could, but he worked sixteen-hour shifts, most times six days a week, and her mother didn’t have a licence. Their father took the bus to work and the car stood unused in their yard. Karen remembers her father’s DKW, his pride and joy, a rusted amalgam of two vehicles he’d towed away from a scrapheap. He’d cut one car just behind the front window and welded it to another, then, using a paint brush, he painted the vehicle olive green. She remembers the sound, ring-ding-ding-ding, the sound it made when her father revved the engine. What she loved most about the monster was the end-of-the-month Saturdays when it took them to town, and the hole in the floorboards through which she and her siblings could watch the road flashing by. She straightens her back, biting again into her sandwich, and thinks of the times the car broke down, her mother grumbling as they pushed it along the road until it spluttered back to life.

Karen chews the whole wheat bread until she tastes sweetness. The sandwich is almost all gone when she feels a vibration in the pocket of her scrubs and her pager beeps, its single red eye gleaming maliciously. Minor miracle. They left her alone with enough time to polish off lunch. She chews faster—the ham tasting like plastic—and swallows the last bite.

The nurses lower their voices as she calls the number flashing white on the miniscule black screen while she dusts crumbs from her scrubs.

“Doctor, it’s your brother.” Lungile is the emergency room nurse.

“My brother?” What’s Jan doing at the hospital? He’s supposed to be working. Jan is Karen’s twin. She’s worried about him. Lately he’s been missing work, complaining of severe headaches.
“Your brother is here to see you.”

Karen twists the phone’s soft wire around her index finger. Lungile wouldn’t bother her if it weren’t important.

“He says you must come now.” Lungile doesn’t say more. Karen hears a click and then the dial tone.

She washes her hands, drying them with a paper towel that looks and feels like cardboard, and hurries towards the emergency room. Jan’s never visited her at Hillbrow Hospital. This can only mean bad news. Her Adidas squelch on the beige-lime linoleum and she quickens her pace.

When she reaches the emergency room, the overpowering smell of Dettol and blood, she stops and looks around the crowded room, trying to spot Lungile.

A male nurse comes up to Karen. He says, “Ma’am Doctor, she is in car park.”

The reception area is congested and the wooden front doors heavy as she pushes them open. She squints against the white sun, sharp in the pale blue sky and wraps her arms across her chest. Jan’s blue Mini is parked at the bottom of the steps, close to the ramp, and he’s outside on the passenger side of the vehicle, bent over, shirtless. What the hell is he doing in the middle of winter without a shirt on?

Lungile rolls a gurney up, next to him. A dark arm stretches over Jan’s shoulder, and, as he straightens up, all six foot four of him, Karen sees he’s carrying someone. He lowers the person on the stretcher.

Jan and Lungile push the gurney up the ramp, and Karen moves towards them. “What happened?”

Jan’s tan is blanched white, his blue-green eyes wide. “He came out of nowhere.”

“Oh my God! You hit him?” Karen smells the burnt iron smell of blood. The white sheet is stained red. Blood seeps over the young man’s left thigh which is wrapped up in part of Jan’s cotton shirt. He has a dark stain in his jeans around the area of his crotch and inner thighs and is wearing only one shoe, a toe sticking out of a hole in his sock.

The man groans, his eyes scrunched shut, and his fingernails pale against dark skin as he grips the sides of the stainless-steel gurney.

Karen hurries to the front door and opens it, her gut clenching as she sees Jan’s face drawn in shock, his chest hair matted with blood, streaks running down his jeans. She holds the door open as they push the gurney through.

“I nearly ran over him.”

“Wait here.” She leaves Jan at the entrance to the emergency room. He doesn’t look at her, his eyes on the patient.

She dons gloves and a gown and hurries to the bed where Lungile and the orderly have already transferred the man. The orderly peels off Jan’s shirt and the bloody jeans to reveal a bullet wound in his left thigh. Lungile removes his woollen jersey. Karen notices it’s hand-knitted, somewhere a mother or grandmother who took the time to take his measurements and craft a decent item of clothing, something to protect him from the winter cold. While Lungile takes his blood pressure, the orderly applies pressure to the wound on the left thigh.

Karen feels the man’s pulse. It’s rapid, but strong. His breath is shallow and fast. She places her stethoscope on his chest. The air entry is equal on both sides. Good. She palpates his abdomen. It’s soft, non-tender. He doesn’t appear to have any injuries apart from the bullet wound in his leg.

Lungile, still bent over the patient’s thin arm, looks up and nods at Karen, confirming his stable condition. She releases the cuff and moves towards a nearby shelf. The patient’s eyes follow her, fear etched in the lines of his forehead.

Karen slings her stethoscope around her neck and pats his arm. “You’ll be fine. Don’t worry.” She sees his face relax, the lines disappearing. Her intern runs up. What’s his name again? Gary? Garth? Something like that. She instructs him and the nurse aid to roll the patient over. The exit wound on the left thigh is larger, but it looks like a clean through and through.

Lungile returns and hands the intern everything he needs to rehydrate the patient, intravenous tubing, Jelco catheters, and a litre of Ringers Lactate. She then moves to the patient’s leg and applies a pressure dressing over the wounds.

Karen says to the intern, “Give him a litre bolus, two grams of Cephalosporin, and titrate Morphine for pain. Call if you need me.”

He nods, and places a tourniquet around the patient’s upper arm, reaching then for the intravenous cannula.

Karen removes her gloves. “Thanks, Lungile. Let me know how he’s doing. And get an X-ray please. I’ll fit him in at the end of the list.”

As she walks back to Jan, she hears Lungile speaking, her voice soft. Lungile is fluent in at least four languages, even five, she thinks. She’s pretty sure Lungile is Zulu.

Jan stares past her to the man on the gurney. “Is he going to be okay?”

“He’ll be fine. He’s in good hands.” She touches his arm. “Don’t worry. It looks like a flesh wound. You need to sit down.” She turns back to collect one of the spare lab coats hanging on a hook at the entrance to the emergency room, but Jan waves her away. Stubborn bugger. He’ll catch a cold. His skin is ice cold. Karen looks around for a place for him to sit, but the reception area is crowded. She takes his arm to lead him back to the car, but he doesn’t budge.

“Will he need surgery?”

“We’ll see. Probably.” Jan’s body is rigid. “Thanks to you he’ll get the help he needs.” She slows her voice, hoping to calm him down, “Tell me what happened.”

Jan’s hands are bunched at his sides and his breath is rapid. “I thought I’d hit him . . .”

God! How awful for him. She reaches for his elbow. “You didn’t.”

He flinches. “He just fell in front of the car.”

She tries to distract him. “What were you doing in Hillbrow?” Why isn’t he at work? It’s the middle of the day.

He turns away.

Karen follows him towards the exit. “I’ll walk with you.” He looks so rattled she’s not sure he’ll be alright to drive. She’d suggest he wait a while before he drives home, but her twin never listens to advice.

Jan glances back at the emergency room. “I couldn’t leave him in the road. He can’t be more than fifteen.”

Karen smiles. He’s probably eighteen. Maybe nineteen. “No. You did the right thing.” Who knows how long it would’ve taken for someone to call an ambulance? She’s heard about a case last month in Kalafong Hospital where a patient lay dead in a corridor for three days before someone discovered him. How is that even possible?

They step out into the early afternoon chill, and, standing on the top step, Karen hears a siren. The red light on the ambulance’s roof flashes as it approaches the hospital. Cars bleat down the streets, Klein Street in front of her and Esselen to her left. No sign of a cop car.

“Are you sure you’re alright?” He doesn’t look alright.

“Call when you know how he’s doing.”

She nods. “Gotta go. Have an assist on a colon cancer. I’ll check on him later.” Karen reaches up to peck Jan on the cheek. In her takkies she’s about four inches shorter. She’s glad she’s tall, it gives her an air of authority, but really glad she’s not as tall as her twin. Hard enough to find a boyfriend that doesn’t stop at her neck.

Jan walks down the steps, his blond hair shining in the sun. Her family are all blondes. She’s the only one with dark hair. Just her luck. Then again, it’s all the same under a surgical cap. Karen remembers she needs to make an appointment for a trim. Her hair is unmanageable. The longer it grows, the curlier it gets.

Jan reaches the Mini. Nearby, a crow hops on the tarred parking lot, one limb buckled and atrophied. It pecks at a mangled fleshy mess, likely the remains of a squirrel or bird. Hillbrow Hospital is like a crippled crow hopping around a carcass on a busy road, inching towards certain death. Karen’s been hearing rumours that the government is set on closing the hospital. Patients will be forced to travel to Baragwanath Hospital in Soweto, South Africa’s largest township. It’s more than an hour away from Hillbrow. Karen’s sure it’s just another government ploy to extract as many Blacks from the centre of Johannesburg as possible.

Jan climbs into the Mini. She doesn’t wait for him to drive away. Pushing through the crowds waiting to register, she thinks about her upcoming surgery with Rosenberg. As much as she dislikes the chief surgeon’s haughty air, the way his eyes narrow, the blue darkening at the slightest sign of a misstep, she can’t wait to assist him. He’s everything she imagined a surgeon should be.

The first time Karen entered a theater, the first time she’d even been in a hospital, was when her appendix perforated. She’d been nine years old when her father rushed her to the hospital. She’d watched as nurses and doctors hovered around her bed, watched liquids and medicine flowing into her vein, until the pain’s cutting edge blurred like faraway mountains and she lay weightless, sinking into the mattress, feeling crisp cotton sheets on her skin. When they rolled her into the operating room, she was terrified, and excited, dazzled by gleaming instruments and O.R. lights. After the surgery, they took her to the adult ward. She was the only pediatric surgery patient, and staff and patients lavished attention on her.

Karen remembers the ward rounds, the surgeon with his kind eyes and ready smile, his gentle hands touching her belly to make sure her wound was healing. Her ten days in hospital had been like a vacation, despite the iv’s and bellyache. She’d even enjoyed the lime jelly. It was then that she decided to become a surgeon, a person who could hold someone’s life in their hands.

Her fingers tingle as she grabs the handle of the changeroom’s door, her mind mapping out the steps of the upcoming colectomy, the young man in the emergency room forgotten.

Chapter Two

Jan ducks into the mini and slams the door shut. The smell of blood sucks the oxygen from his lungs and suffocates the car’s interior. He winds the window down on the driver's side and reaches past the passenger seat, careful not to touch the seatback smudged with blood. Winds that window down too.

Straightening up, he turns his face to the cold incoming air, taking deep slow breaths. The seat is soft. Not the hot ground of the Namib desert. He squeezes his eyes shut and opens them. He's in Hillbrow. Not South West Africa. He grips the steering wheel. Hard under his palms. Not the sticky wet skin of his friend. Not the snake-like feel of intestine slipping through his fingers. He looks down at his hands. Wipes a streak of blood off onto his jeans. Tries to ignore the smell of blood in the car.

He leans back. A jolt. The vinyl cold against his naked skin. He forgot he left his shirt in the emergency room. He’d used it to staunch the flow of blood from the boy’s thigh. How he’d manage to run amazes Jan. He heard the sirens. It’s a miracle he wasn’t caught. Bloody good thing for him. It’s bad enough finding yourself in South Africa with a black skin. Immeasurably worse landing up in jail. He thinks of Steve Biko. Murdered for no other reason than asking to be considered a human being. Jesus!

He leaves the windows open as he drives home. Unlike Karen, he’s not bothered by cold. Not after the times he’s spent trekking through the Swartberge, his army browns the only protection against mountain temperatures that regularly plummeted to well below zero. Jan laughs as he thinks of Karen. She’ll have her thickest jacket on when it’s seventeen out. Bloody summer as far as he’s concerned.

Cars, pedestrians, and the sounds of Hillbrow, buzz in his ears beyond the rush of wind. He stops at a robot, waiting for the red light to change. He leans over and takes out a cassette, inserting it into the tape-deck. Sounds of helicopter blades whip the air. Whup. Whup. Whup. Strains of an electric guitar. Jim Morrison. Full blast. This is the end, beautiful friend, this is the end, my only friend, the end.

He reaches his house—a single storey building with a galvanized tin roof and Spanish-style burglar bars—and leaves the Mini running while he opens the gate. The steel railings are cold and heavy. He parks close to the house. Nestled between cycads and succulents in the rock garden, the dull eyes of a crocodile stare back at him. Jan is freshly irritated. He should have turfed the yard art long ago. It reminds him each time of their fucker of a president. PW Botha. The Crocodile. Fat balding man. Sausage index finger digging at the air in front of cameras. Thick lips sneering as he justifies apartheid. He thinks of the boy that fell in front of the car. At least he was able to bring him to Karen. She’ll take good care of him.

Inside the house, his poodles bark manically and Jan smiles. He unlocks the heavy safety door and two Yale locks on the front door before collecting Yin and Yang. While the dogs cavort outside in the garden, he dresses in overalls and gloves. He cleans the car. Closes his mind to all thoughts except the ritual of cleaning.
First the seat cover. He buries it in a black garbage bag. Then he tackles the vinyl. The dogs wait patiently on the brick paving while he empties bucket after bucket of soapy water, using brushes and cloths to clean the Mini’s interior. The loose carpets are rinsed and laid to dry out on the paving, and, once the interior is thoroughly clean, he hoses down the outside and cleans and shines the windows and side mirrors.

He throws the rubber gloves into the black garbage bag and ties a knot, dumps it into the trash can, then drops the overalls into the washing machine and turns it on. In the shower, he scrubs his body with a brush and shampoos his hair, rinsing under scalding water, repeating the process over and over, scrubbing under his nails, and then, with a towel wrapped around his waist, he brushes his teeth, cups water in his palms and sniffs to clear the smell of blood from his nostrils.

He left work early today with another of his fucking headaches. He wishes instead he’d stuck it out. But then what would’ve happened to the boy? He feels the weight of him in his arms. The trembling. The sticky wet mess of terror. It was a relief when he laid him on the gurney and handed him to Lungile and Karen.

Jan calls the dogs inside and they sit together on the soft leather sofa cushions. Yin on one side and Yang on the other. Warm bundles of fur. Wide black shining eyes and white teeth, pink tongues as they pant in innocent delight. Miniature poodles that provide him with extraordinary relief. He’ll rest a while before calling Mr. Delivery. He’s not hungry. Not after this afternoon. But Karen will be. She’ll want dinner. She’s like a marauding lioness after a busy shift.

He strokes the dogs, their fur soft under his hand. Closes his eyes.


Karen ties the last knot. She wonders if they’ve brought the gun-shot victim in. She wants to operate on him before the last two cases on the list.

Martha snips the Ethilon, the scissors turned at right angles to get as close to the knot as possible. Exactly right. Blood flows from the tube into the plastic vacuum reservoir. The lipoma Karen excised was trickier than anticipated, a challenge she relished. It required dissection deep under the scapula to remove the whole mass, but she’s sure she got it all and also sure the fat tumour is benign, but she expects a fair amount of post-op bleeding and has decided to admit the patient. She’ll have to face Rosenberg during ward rounds tomorrow, justify the need for using the bed, but she can’t risk the patient going home and bleeding out. He can complain all he likes. By the time he sees the patient, it’ll be safe enough for him to go home.

She steps away from the table. The doors swing open and an orderly appears, pushing an empty gurney. “Has the gun shot arrived?” Karen stretches her arms behind her neck to loosen the gown and strips off her gloves.

He shakes his head and Karen’s good mood crumbles. Her shift is almost over and she has two more cases after his. She grabs another gown to cover her scrubs and throws her booties and cap into the bin before leaving the changeroom. Since when do surgeons have to go looking for patients? The orderlies should’ve brought the patient to the theatre ages ago. She’s itching to repair the wound. Exploring a bullet wound is far more interesting than draining peri-anal abscesses, the procedures next on the list.

As she strides down the corridor towards the emergency room, her arms swinging, fingers loose, she thinks of the early afternoon surgery with Rosenberg. The colectomy went well. She hadn’t expected anything else. Working with him, time stands still. He’s an artist. Slender fingers that effortlessly tie sutures, manipulate tissue, and cleave layers of fascia into subliminal planes. She’s heard he’s some kind of prodigy. She can believe it. Can understand why he’s the youngest chief of surgery in South Africa. He says the way to greatness is to start by honoring tissue. She wants to learn how to work with tissue the way he does.

She’d been nervous going into the surgery. Rosenberg may look like an angel with his blond curls, but when the dragon comes out, no one wants to be the one under fire. At least he gave her advance warning of the rectal cancer resection. She had time to prepare. Rosenberg grilled her throughout, but he must’ve been satisfied as he let her close the end loop of bowel and the layers of the abdominal wall. The procedure went well and Karen feels good. She can’t afford to make a mistake, especially not in front of Rosenberg, not when he has the final say as to who gets one of the two residency spots.

In the emergency room, Karen sees Lungile hunched over the single desk which functions as a nurse’s station. Files, charts, and ECG’s leak over the edges. She stands in front of Lungile. “Where’s the gun shot?”

Lungile makes notes in a patient’s chart and doesn’t look up. “They take him away.”
Karen’s head jerks back. “What do you mean they took him away?” She’s irritated that Lungile doesn’t even bother looking at her.
“The security police. They come and take him away.” Lungile dumps a few folders on top of a wobbly stack of charts on the corner of the desk.
“Security police?” Her voice rises and she leans forward, presses her hands on the edge of the desk, her fingers stretched out, feeling the rough edges of the wood. The security police are only interested in terrorists. What would they want with this patient who’s barely more than a kid.
Lungile walks around the corner of the desk, but Karen moves forward to stop her from heading back to the pit. “Who called the police?”
Lungile nods her head to the left.
Karen sees her intern in the corner of the room working on a patient. He glances at her but then quickly turns away. “What the hell!” Her voice is loud in the sudden quiet that descends in the emergency room. “Why didn’t you stop him?” Lungile of all people should know what the police are capable of.

Lungile straightens her shoulders and stares at Karen, unblinking, her full lips slightly parted, her hands loose at her sides. There’s a muffled cough coming from one corner and a soft groan closer by. Karen can hear her own breath. She’s light-headed from the smell of body odor and blood around her. She tries to control her temper but can feel her anger surfacing. The last thing she needs so close to the end of her shift is this kind of stress.

“I’m just a nurse.” Lungile’s eyes are flat, distant, as if she’s staring through Karen.
Karen’s shoulders rise high with her next breath and with the exhale, all her anger at Lungile melts. It’s not her fault. Of course she can’t do anything about the situation. “I’m sorry, Lungile . . .” Heat travels up her face, flushing her cheeks.
Lungile says nothing and Karen feels her chest tightening. How can I be this ignorant? Blaming Lungile! She strides up to the intern. Before she even reaches him, she asks, “Why did you call the police?”
He turns around so that his back is to the patient lying on the bed. His eyes slide past Karen in the direction of Lungile.
“I’m asking you a question.”
“He had a gunshot wound.” The intern puts both hands in his lab coat’s pockets.
Karen’s heart races. She tries to control her breathing. Dampen down her rising fury.
“I had to call them. They say every gun—”
“And you think the police run this hospital?” She’s livid. Police thugs invading her space, barging into her territory, dragging a bleeding patient away. She feels a pulse behind her right eye, a sure sign a headache is on the way. “What were you thinking?” She glares at the intern who looks as if he is smirking.
“It’s the law.” His lips form a thin line, driving the smirk away.
Bloody clueless. If only Mike were here. He was her last intern. He’d never have involved the cops. “We do not invite the police into our hospital. Not on my watch.”
“You’re asking me to break the law?” His face takes on a smirky innocence that she’d like to swat away.
Karen leans down, her face close to his. “Do you have any idea what the bastards will do to him?” His breath smells of garlic.
“What do you expect me to do? Lie?”
“We chart them as penetrating injuries.” Patients come first. Always. He’s a doctor. He should know. In the ranking of importance, the police end dead last. Why he thought to call them is beyond her. There’s no risk of the police finding out. It’s hardly as if the nurses are breaking their necks to report to the authorities. “Were you here when they took him?”
He looks down, his face flushed.

At least he has the decency to look miserable. “You let them drag the poor guy away? I hadn’t even had a chance to treat him. What do you think they’re doing to him right now?” The State of Emergency gives police the authority to arrest and detain pretty much anyone they want to. And do to them whatever they want to.
The intern looks up, staring at Karen’s neck, his face set in a mask.
Hopeless. She’ll never get through to him. She turns to leave and then stops. “Come to think of it, I think maybe you’ve been in the E.R. too long. You’re due for a change.”
Lines appear on the intern’s forehead.
“Do you think you’re up for a couple of solo surgeries?” Karen asks.
His eyes light up and both hands emerge from his lab coat pockets. “Absolutely.”
“Good. Head over to the O.R. I’ll let them know you’re on your way. There’re a couple of perianal abscesses that need drainage.”
The intern’s face scrunches into a scowl and Karen stares at his back as he walks away. She calls Martha to give her a heads-up that he’ll be draining the abscesses. Arsehole. Serves him right.
As she puts the receiver down, Mike enters the E.R. His limp is almost imperceptible. He’d had a pedestrian-vehicle accident when he was three years old, hit by a car driven by a drunken driver. Shattered his pelvis. He spent over three months in hospital. Maybe that’s why he’s more interesting than the rest of her colleagues. He hasn’t had life as easy as most.
“I came to do a pre-anesthetic workup on the patient with the gun-shot wound,” Mike says.
“Ask that genius friend of yours what happened.” Karen nods in the direction of the corridor leading to the O.R.
“Gavin? What now?”
Karen’s about to tell him, when Lungile walks up and greets Mike. She tells him what happened to the patient who’d been arrested. “They think he is ANC.”
Everyone in South Africa knows the African National Congress is a banned organization, its members seen as anarchists, even terrorists.
“Poor bastard,” Mike says.
Karen hopes the teenager isn’t one of the ANC. She can’t imagine what will happen to him if he is.
Mike runs a finger over his lips. Karen almost licks her own. His hazel eyes gaze at her and she looks away. He has a way of unsettling her—as if he expects more from her—and at times that leaves her tongue-tied. She’s never had that happen before. “No use standing around.” Karen turns to Lungile. “I’m sorry, Lungile, about . . .” She hates losing control, but she was caught by surprise.
Mike raises his eyebrows but Lungile looks down.
“I shouldn’t have taken it out on you. It’s just. . .” She thinks again of the teenager, how Jan brought him to the hospital for safety, how grateful he’d looked as they worked on him, and how they failed him.
“It’s fine, Doctor.”
Karen releases a slow breath and smiles at Lungile. Lungile smiles back and Karen is again taken by her wide smile, a smile that reveals a charming gap between her front teeth. “Thanks, Lungile.”
Mike shrugs in the direction of the corridor. “Would you like to go for coffee? I’ve still a half hour to go on my shift and it seems pretty quiet.”
“Don’t jinx it,” Karen says, “but sure, coffee sounds good.” She’s never been a fan of hospital food. Until Mike came along, she avoided the hospital canteen. Mike makes a habit of inviting her and Lungile at least once or twice a month to join him for lunch or coffee and she’s found the grub surprisingly decent.
“Lungile?” Mike asks, “you coming?”
Lungile looks past them at the pit which is seething with patients.
“They’ll be here when you get back,” Karen says.
Lungile walks over to a male nurse and speaks to him. He doesn’t look up. She moves closer and raises her voice, but Karen still can’t hear what she is saying. The nurse nods. When Lungile turns around, the male nurse says something to the patient lying on the gurney and they both laugh. Lungile doesn’t stop or look back, but Karen’s annoyed. She recognizes the sneer, that particular brand of laughter. She’s been on the receiving end of those kind of looks, the jibes, whispers that went with the laughter, especially in her first year of medical school. She could just imagine the English snobs calling her kaaskop, behind her back.
Lungile catches up with them and they exit the emergency room. They pass the reception area through which they wheeled the young man this afternoon, the one the police took away, Karen thinks of his wide staring eyes as they wheeled him up the ramp, the hole in his sock, his jeans soiled with urine and blood. She feels a thickness in her throat. She should’ve called for him before the lipoma. The lipoma could’ve waited. If they’d fetched him earlier, the police would likely not have found him. They never enter the O.R. He’d have been safely tucked away in a ward bed by now.
If only the intern had called her before calling the police. Or at least called her when they came. Could she have stopped them from taking him away? Probably not. She hates feeling this helpless. The police do whatever they want. They get away with murder. Fuck-all anyone can do about it in this country. She joins Mike and Lungile as they head down to the canteen.

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