© judy dercksen
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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. Anna remembered that winter day, a month after the June '76 riots, remembered riding her bicycle, wind tugging at her bare skin as she’d chased to keep up with Jan. It was the holiday before she’d left school to study medicine and he left for the army.
Jan had seen the reptile on the tree in the middle of the veld and skidded to a stop, freeing a plume of grey dust. He’d stood in front of the critter. Held his hand out until it crawled onto his palm. She’d 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 Anna’s hand. A sticky tongue zapped out, and then it turned and settled on his palm, its conical head resting on his forearm. Jan 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 bicycle’s basket. 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. Ma had fumed and confiscated their bikes for a week.
Later, Lerato had told them why she was so upset. In her culture, Zulu culture, chameleons are harbingers of death. She told them all about the Zulu myth.
The Chameleon – A Zulu Myth
From the source of all light came First Man, Unkulunkulu. Then came the mountains, and the rivers, and all the trees and animals, a bountiful land that could feed all of mankind.
One day, it came to pass, that Unkulunkulu chose to send a message to mankind. He called upon the little creature, Chameleon. Crouching down, his wizened face shining with the light of the universe, he whispered to Chameleon, “Go now. Tell mankind he will never die.”
Chameleon lifted himself on his pronged feet and walked over the dry desert land. He stopped to eat berries of the ubukwebezane tree. The berries filled his belly and Chameleon attached himself to the bark of the tree with his claws and tail, and rested, falling asleep in the ubukwebezane tree.
Unkulunkulu became very angry at this lazy creature, loitering over such an important task. He hailed Lizard. A dark cloud formed over the land as Unkulunkulu proclaimed, “As night follows day and day follows night, so must death follow life”. He crouched down and said to Lizard, “Go Lizard. Tell mankind he must die.”
Lightening and thunder followed Lizard as he scuttled over the desert land. He did not stop to drink. He did not stop to eat. When he reached the place where water is plentiful and fruit falls ripe from trees and maize grows tall and strong, he stopped. He proclaimed to all that could hear, “Man must die.” And death followed soon after.
Lizard was not long gone when Chameleon reached the settlement. He proclaimed loudly for all to hear, “Man will not die.” But Chameleon was chased from the land of plentiful, by the mothers crying for their sons, and by brothers weeping for their sisters.
Tears sprinkled the wind, carrying words, like seeds to nest in faraway lands, words that warned, if lizard and chameleon crosses your path, beware, for death follows soon after.
Anna rested a gloved white hand on her patient’s dark brown skin. Her hips pressed squarely against the stainless-steel table. She closed her eyes for a moment and inhaled the cold air.
She imagined herself alone. Alone with the hum of the air conditioner and the sounds of the ventilator puffing and sucking, her heart in sync with the monitor’s beep. Here, in the operating room, surrounded by thick walls, she felt safely insulated from the newspapers, and the radio, and the voices pretending to make sense of a country falling apart.
The headlines that morning had declared a State of Emergency. Yet another scheme of their corrupt government that Anna thought was bound to backfire. Nine years after their brutal response to the June 1976 uprising, South Africa teetered on the brink of war and even Anna knew imposing night curfews for Blacks, and granting police and Security Forces more power, wouldn’t decrease the violence in the townships. If anything, it would only make matters worse.
The violence was a symptom of a rotten country. A country infected with the disease of apartheid. But Anna didn’t have time to think about what was happening in the townships. All her time was taken up with work and study. She couldn’t afford any distraction. Not if she were to get into second year surgical residency.
She opened her eyes. At the head of the table, the anesthetist peered above the pages of the South African Medical Journal and asked, “Wake him?”
Anna nodded. The surgery had gone well. Only the skin layer needed closing. She held out her right hand and the head nurse slapped a needle holder against her open palm. While Anna closed the appendectomy incision, she thought back to the first time she’d removed an appendix. She was in her final year of medical school and she’d schmoozed the surgical resident, cajoling him into letting her wield the scalpel while he assist. She’d lost count of how many she’d performed since then, yet never tired of seeing the angry red appendage, confirming her diagnosis, knowing she could trust her clinical judgement.
“Have you used a laparoscope before?” the medical student asked, interrupting the quiet.
“A few. In the Jo’burg General.” Anna knew Hillbrow Hospital wouldn’t be acquiring any laparoscopic equipment. Not anytime soon. Not while the government planned on closing the hospital down.
The student snipped the ends of the final knot.
“Good work,” she said, and above the mask his eyes lit up.
It wasn’t exactly keyhole surgery, but the incision was small and should heal well. She thanked the anesthetist and the nurses and stepped away from the table, then stripped off her gloves, untied and unwrapped her faded green gown before dumping it in the linen basket and exiting the room through double swing doors.
The previous night in the emergency room had been hectic. Every gurney occupied until past three in the morning. Anna couldn’t wait to become a surgeon. She wanted to make a difference that meant something more than applying temporary fixes to broken bodies that poured through the door.
In the changeroom, she fetched a sandwich from her locker, and silently grumbled again at the lack of space. They obviously think it’s good enough for nurses. And us women!
The men didn’t have to fold up like contortionists to change. Until she’d got the hang of moving about in the narrow space between the lockers, the bruises on Anna’s elbows and knuckles made her look like a failed trapeze artist. She moved past two nurses standing against a wall and sat down. The plaster on the wall peeled. The room hadn’t been updated for decades—the only appliances: a toaster and a kettle. Not like the male changeroom which boasted a microwave and a fridge.
The nurses sitting beside her moved closer to each other to give her more space. She leaned back. The wall was cold and through the cushion—the cover the color of an anemic tongue—she felt the hardness of the wood. She shifted her buttocks on the L-shaped bench and Vinyl squealed as she stretched out her long limbs, her Adidas takkies almost touching the opposite wall. Her feet stared back at her. Ginormous, she thought. Size eleven. Feet that always stood out in a crowd.
Anna chomped into her ham and cheese sandwich and thought instead about her upcoming surgery with the chief. She’d be assisting Rosenberg. A colectomy for colon cancer. An early catch, thank God. Chance for a cure.
Around her, the nurses chattered, but Anna ignored them. They spoke much too quickly for her to make out more than a few words. Must be Zulu. Definitely not Xhosa. She recognized the frequent runs of clicks that defined Xhosa. The nurses’ hands fluttered as they gesticulated, their laughter infectious, reminding her of the times at school, during lunchbreaks, when she’d sat with her classmates on the grass or on benches, eating polony sandwiches, the taste of the gritty pink excuse for meat disguised with tomato sauce. Even then, she’d always felt on the outside.
The sandwich was almost all gone when Anna felt a vibration in the pocket of her scrubs and her pager beeped, its single red eye gleaming maliciously. She sighed. Minor miracle. At least they left me alone long enough to polish off lunch.
She chewed faster—the ham tasting like plastic—and swallowed the last bite. The nurses lowered their voices as she called the number flashing white on the miniscule black screen.
“Doctor, it’s your brother,” said Lungile, the emergency room nurse who she'd first met five years ago as a fourth year medical student.
“My brother?” What’s Jan doing at the hospital, she wondered. He was supposed to be at work.
She dusted crumbs from her scrubs and, after washing her hands and drying them with a paper towel that looked and felt like cardboard, she hurried towards the emergency room. Jan never visited her at work. This could only mean bad news. Her Adidas squelched on the beige-lime linoleum and she quickened her pace.
When she reached the emergency room, the overpowering smell of Dettol and blood assaulted her nostrils. She stopped and looked around the crowded room, trying to spot Lungile or Jan.
A male nurse came up to Anna. “Ma’am Doctor, Sister is in car park.”
The reception area was congested and the wooden front doors heavy as she pushed them open. She squinted against the white sun, sharp in the pale blue sky and wrapped her arms across her chest. Jan was outside, on the passenger side of his blue Mini which was parked at the bottom of the steps, close to the ramp.
What the hell is he doing in the middle of winter without a shirt on?
Lungile stood close to Jan, next to a gurney. He bent over and a dark arm stretched over his shoulder. As he straightened up, all six foot four of him, Anna could see he was carrying someone. He lowered the person on the stretcher. Anna hurried down the steps and met them at the bottom of the ramp, thinking Lungile should have fetched an attendant to help.
They pushed the gurney up the ramp and Anna asked, “What happened?”
Jan’s tan blanched white, his blue-green eyes frozen wide. Blood matted his blond chest hair and streaks ran down his jeans. “He came out of nowhere.”
“Oh my God! You hit him?”
The teenager groaned and his eyes scrunched shut. His fingernails were pale against dark skin as he gripped the sides of the stainless-steel gurney. Anna smelled ammonia and the burnt iron smell of blood that stained the white sheet he lay on. Bright red seeped through a makeshift dressing around his thigh—Jan’s shirt. His blood soaked jeans were also stained dark around the area of his crotch and inner thighs. He wore only one shoe and a toe stuck out of a hole in his sock.
Anna hurried up the ramp to the front door and opened it, her gut clenching as she saw Jan’s face drawn in shock. She held the door open as they pushed the gurney through.
“I nearly ran over him.” Jan didn’t look at her as he spoke, his eyes were on the patient.
An attendant ran up and helped Lungile wheel the patient to the nearest empty bed.
“Wait here.” Anna left Jan at the entrance to the emergency room and donned gloves and a gown and hurried to the bed where Lungile and the orderly had already transferred the patient. Lungile removed a hand knitted woollen jersey. For a fleeting moment Anna imagined the teenager’s mother, or grandmother, taking his measurements and lovingly crafting such a warm comforting item of clothing, something to protect him from the winter cold.
The orderly peeled off Jan’s bloody shirt and the patient’s jeans to reveal a bullet wound in his left thigh. While Lungile took his blood pressure and the orderly applied pressure to the wound on the left thigh, Anna examined him. She felt his pulse. Rapid, but strong. His breath shallow, fast gulps. She placed her stethoscope on his chest. Air entry equal on both sides. Good. She palpated his abdomen. Soft, non-tender. He didn’t appear to have any injuries apart from the bullet wound in his leg.
Lungile, still bent over the patient’s thin arm, looked up and nodded at Anna, confirming stable vital signs. Remarkable. With a wound like this he must have lost a lot of blood.
Lungile removed the blood pressure cuff and moved towards a nearby shelf where the supplies for intravenous fluids were kept. The patient’s eyes followed her. Fear etched the lines of his forehead.
“You’ll be fine.” Anna slung her stethoscope around her neck and patted his arm. “Don’t worry.” His face relaxed, the lines disappearing. Her intern ran up. What’s his name again? Anna struggled to remember. Gary? Garth? Something like that. The intern rotating through surgery had worked with her since June, yet for the life of her she couldn't retain his name.
Anna ordered fluids, antibiotics, lab work, and an X-ray. She removed her gloves. “Thanks, Lungile. Let me know how he’s doing. I’ll fit him in at the end of the list.” She left the rest of the patient’s care to Lungile. She could manage better then most doctors.
As she walked back to Jan, she heard Lungile speaking, her voice soft. She must be fluent in at least four languages, even five, Anna thought.
Jan stared past her to the boy on the gurney. “Is he going to be okay?”
“He’ll be fine. He’s in good hands.” She touched his arm. “Don’t worry. It looks like a flesh wound. You need to sit down.” She turned back to collect one of the spare lab coats hanging on a hook at the entrance to the emergency room, but Jan waved it away. Stubborn bugger. He’ll catch a cold. She reached for his arm to lead him away, but he didn’t budge. His skin was ice cold.
“Will he need surgery?" Jan asked.
“We’ll see. Probably.” His body was rigid. “Thanks to you he’ll get the help he needs.” She slowed her voice, hoping to calm him down, “Tell me what happened.”
Jan’s hands bunched at his sides and his breathing sped up. “I thought I’d hit him . . .”
God! How awful for him. She reached for his elbow. “You didn’t.”
He flinched. “He just fell in front of the car.”
She tried to distract him. “What were you doing in Hillbrow?” Why isn’t he at work? It’s the middle of the day.
He turned away.
Anna followed him towards the exit. “I’ll walk with you.” He looked so rattled she was afraid he might not be able to drive home safely. She would’ve suggested he wait a while before driving home, but her twin never listened to advice.
Jan glanced back at the emergency room. “I couldn’t leave him in the road. He's just a kid.”
Anna grimaced. That didn't seem to matter in her world. “No. You did the right thing.” Who knew how long it would’ve taken for someone to call an ambulance? Last month, in Kalafong Hospital, a patient lay dead in a corridor for three days before someone discovered him. Unbelievable!
They stepped out into the early afternoon chill, and, standing on the top step, Anna heard a siren. The red light on the ambulance’s roof flashed as it approached the hospital. Cars bleated down the streets, Klein Street in front of her and Esselen to her left.
“Are you sure you’re okay?” She didn’t think he looked okay.
“Call when you know how he’s doing.”
She nodded and reached up to peck Jan on the cheek. In her takkies she was about four inches shorter. Tall enough to give out an air of authority, but not as tall as her twin. Anna was grateful for that. Hard enough to find a boyfriend that doesn’t stop at my neck.
Jan walked down the steps, his blond hair shining in the sun. Her family were all blondes. She was the only one with dark hair. Just my luck. Then again, it’s all the same under a surgical cap.
Anna remembered she needed to make an appointment for a trim. She'd missed her appointment the previous weekend and her hair had grown long and unmanageable. The longer she allowed it to get, the curlier and more unruly it became.
Jan reached the Mini, side-stepping a nearby crow. As he climbed in, she watched the crow hopping on the tarred parking lot, one limb buckled and atrophied. It pecked at a mangled fleshy mess, likely the remains of a squirrel or bird. Hillbrow Hospital was like a crippled crow hopping around a carcass on a busy road, inching towards certain death. There’d been rumours that the government was set on closing the hospital. Patients would be forced to travel to Baragwanath Hospital in Soweto, South Africa’s largest township. Anna sighed. Baragwanath was more than an hour away from Hillbrow. She thought it was another way for the government to extract as many Blacks from the centre of Johannesburg as possible. Another ploy to keep the city white.
She didn’t wait for Jan to drive away. Pushing through the crowds waiting to register, she concentrated on her upcoming surgery with Rosenberg. As much as she disliked the chief surgeon’s haughty air, his smug mannerisms, the way his eyes narrowed and the blue darkened at the slightest sign of a misstep, she still couldn’t wait to assist him. He was everything she imagined a surgeon should be. Capable. Sure. Unflappable. The kind of person she wanted to be.
The first time Anna 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 bright lights. After the surgery, they’d taken her to the adult ward. She was the only pediatric surgery patient, and staff and patients lavished attention on her.
Anna remembered the ward rounds, the surgeon with his kind eyes and ready smile, his gentle hands touching her belly to make sure her insides were whole again. Her ten days in hospital had been like a vacation, despite the needles 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.
She smiled as she approached the changeroom, sure she’d made the right choice. She loved surgery. Loved the feeling of control. Find a problem, dive in. Whip it out. Then stitch everything up again. Ninety nine percent of the time the outcome predictable.
Her fingers tingled as she grabbed the handle of the changeroom’s door and she entered, her mind mapping out the steps of the upcoming colectomy, the young man in the emergency room forgotten.
Jan ducked into the mini and slammed the door shut. The smell of blood sucked the oxygen from his lungs and suffocated the car’s interior. He wound the window down on the driver's side and reached past the passenger seat, careful not to touch the seatback smudged with blood. Wound that window down too.
Straightening up, he turned his face to the cold incoming air, taking deep slow breaths. The seat was soft. Not the hot ground of the Namib desert. He squeezed his eyes shut and opened them, staring straight ahead at the high rises that housed thousands of Hillbrow residents in the heart of Johannesburg, almost two thousand kilometers from South West Africa.
The steering wheel was hard under his palms and he held on, willing away the shadow of the rookie’s sticky wet skin and the snake-like feel of his intestines slipping through his fingers. He looked down at his hands and wiped a streak of blood off, onto his jeans. in front of him.
He flared his nostrils against the smell of blood in the car and leaned back. Vinyl sparked a jolt of cold against his naked skin. He’d forgotten he left his shirt in the emergency room. He’d used it to staunch the flow of blood from the boy’s thigh.
He’d used it to staunch the flow of blood from the boy’s thigh. How had he run with that wound? Jan had almost missed seeing him fall, his head turned back at the sound of police sirens. One good thing to come out of the army. Over-developed peripheral vision. He’d braked in time.
Driving the teenager to Hillbrow Hospital Jan had seen flashing lights in his rear-view mirror. The kid was in trouble and he was lucky he made it to safety. Even children weren’t safe from the police, not if they were black. Not in this god-forsaken country.
The Mini’s engine fired up and Jan drove out the hospital parking lot. He tried to quash the images that flashed through his brain, but the helpless bundle of the kid on the gurney as they rolled him up the ramp merged with the face of the teenager he held in his arms all those years ago. As if it were today. The car jolted over yet another pothole and its hard suspension mercilessly transmitted the vibration, amplifying the throbbing in his head.
He shook his head as if to quell the unruly riot of memories and the thoughts of what could have happened to the boy in the hands of the police. Torturers and murderers that didn’t need a rubber stamp from politicians. And then he thought of his own ghosts and guilt rose in nauseous waves from his gut.
Cars, pedestrians, and the sounds of Hillbrow, buzzed in his ears beyond the rush of wind. He stopped at a robot, waiting for the red light to change. He leaned over, removed a cassette, and inserted it into the tape-deck. Sounds of helicopter blades whipped 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.
Wind pummelled through the open windows as he drove home, battering at the stink of his thoughts. Unlike Anna, the cold didn’t affect him. Especially not after the times he’d spent trekking through the Swartberge, his army browns the only protection against mountain temperatures that regularly plummeted to well below zero.
The wind and the sound of the music numbed his brain, and by the time he reached his home, he felt calmer. He left the Mini running while he pushed open the gate’s cold and heavy steel railings, and he then drove in and parked close to the house, a single storey building with a galvanized tin roof and Spanish-style burglar bars.
Nestled between cycads and succulents in the rock garden, the dull eyes of a crocodile stared back at him and Jan narrowed his eyes. He should’ve turfed the yard art long ago. It reminded him each time of their fucker of a president. PW Botha. The Great Crocodile. Fat balding man. Sausage index finger digging at the air. Thick lips sneering as he justified apartheid.
As Jan unlocked the steel safety door and the two Yale locks on the wooden front door, he thought again of the boy that fell in front of the car. At least he was able to bring him to Anna. She’d take good care of him.
Inside the house, his poodles barked manically and Jan smiled. He opened the bathroom door and released Yin and Yang. While the dogs cavorted outside in the garden, he dressed in overalls. Once outside, Jan tackled the car. He emptied his mind of all thoughts except the ritual of cleaning.
He removed the loose carpets and laid them on the concrete paving. He washed the vinyl seats, red soapy slush turning pink. The dogs waited patiently on the brick paving while he emptied bucket after bucket of water. He scrubbed the dash, door panels and floor with brushes and cloths. Once the inside was clean, he scrubbed and hosed down the carpets, then the outside of the car, shining the windows, side mirrors and hubcaps.
He stepped back and surveyed his work. Ran the palms of his hands over his face and through his sweated hair, down his neck. The car was clean. Stripped of all sign and smells of blood. In the bleary winter sun, it was easy to concentrate on the moment, but Jan knew what awaited him that night. His ghosts had breathed daylight. Their vengeance would be strong. Stronger than usual. He chewed his lower lip, as if preparing for the taste of blood, never sure if it was the salty taste or the pain of biting down so hard that mercifully woke him.
Yin and Yang followed Jan into the house and he dropped the overalls and washcloths into the washing machine and turned it on. In the shower, he scrubbed his body with a brush and shampooed 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 brushed his teeth, cupped water in his palms and sniffed to clear the smell of blood from his nostrils.
His headache had chased him from work that morning. He wished instead he’d stuck it out. But then he thought again of the boy. What would’ve happened to him? He could feel the weight of him in his arms. The trembling. The sticky wet mess of terror. It had been a relief when he’d lain him on the gurney and handed him to Lungile and Anna.
The dogs joined him on the soft leather sofa. Yin on one side and Yang on the other. Warm bundles of fur. Wide black shining eyes and white teeth, pink tongues as they panted in innocent delight. Miniature poodles that provided him with extraordinary relief. He decided to rest a while before calling Mr. Delivery. He wasn’t hungry. Not after what happened, but Anna would be. She’d want dinner. She was like a marauding lioness after a busy shift.
He stroked the dogs, their fur soft under his hand. Closed his eyes.
Anna tied the last knot. She wondered if they’d brought the gun-shot victim in. She wanted to operate on him before the last two cases on the list.
Martha snipped the Ethilon, the scissors turned at right angles to get as close to the knot as possible. Exactly right. Blood flowed from the tube into the plastic vacuum reservoir. The procedure had been trickier than expected and Anna expected a fair amount of post-op bleeding. She’d decided to admit the patient, but knew she’d have to face Rosenberg during ward rounds the follow day, justify the need for using the bed. Rosenberg could complain all he liked, she thought, she wouldn’t risk the patient going home and bleeding out.
She stepped away from the table. The doors swung open and an orderly appeared, pushing an empty gurney. “Has the gun shot arrived?” Anna stretched her arms behind her neck to loosen the gown and stripped off her gloves.
He shook his head and Anna’s good mood crumbled. Her shift was almost over and she had two more cases after his. She grabbed another gown to cover her scrubs and threw her booties and cap into the bin before leaving the changeroom. Since when do surgeons have to go looking for patients?
Anna wanted to repair the bullet wound before the septic procedures—perianal abscesses—next on the list.
She strode down the corridor, her arms swinging, her fingers loose, and thought of the early afternoon surgery with Rosenberg. It had gone well. She hadn’t expected anything else. When working with him, time stood still. She’d admired the way his lean fingers effortlessly tied sutures, manipulated tissue, and cleaved layers of fascia into subliminal planes. Watching him, she understood why he was the youngest chief of surgery in South Africa. He said the way to greatness was to start by honoring tissue. She wanted to learn how to work with tissue the way he did.
Rosenberg had grilled her throughout the surgery, but he must’ve been satisfied as he’d let her close the end loop of bowel and the layers of the abdominal wall. Anna felt good it had gone so well. She couldn’t afford to make a mistake, especially not in front of Rosenberg, not when he had the final say as to who got into second year residency.
In the emergency room, Anna saw Lungile hunched over the single desk which functioned as a nurse’s station. Files, charts, and ECG’s leaked over the edges. She stood in front of Lungile. “Where’s the gun shot?”
Lungile made notes in a patient’s chart and didn’t look up. “They take him away.”
Anna’s head jerked back. “What do you mean they took him away?” Her skin flushed as she noticed Lungile not even bothering to look at her.
“The security police. They come and take him away.” Lungile dumped a few folders on top of a wobbly stack of charts on the corner of the desk.
“Security police?” Her voice rose and she leaned forward, pressed her hands on the edge of the desk, her fingers stretched out, feeling the rough edges of the wood. The security police were only interested in terrorists, she thought. What would they want my patient? Especially a kid?
Lungile walked around the corner of the desk, but Anna moved forward to stop her from heading back to the pit. “Who called the police?”
Lungile nodded her head to the left.
Anna saw her intern in the corner of the room working on a patient. He glanced at her but then quickly turned away. “What the hell!” Her voice was loud in the sudden quiet that descended in the emergency room. “Why didn’t you stop him?” Lungile of all people should know what the police are capable of.
Lungile straightened her shoulders and stared at Anna, unblinking, her full lips slightly parted, her hands loose at her sides. There was a muffled cough coming from one corner and a soft groan closer by. Anna could hear her own breath. She felt light-headed from the smell of body odor and blood around her and tried to control her temper but could feel her anger surfacing. The last thing she needed so close to the end of her shift was this kind of stress.
“I’m just a nurse.” Lungile’s eyes were flat, distant, as if she was staring through Anna.
Anna’s shoulders rose high with her next breath and with the exhalation, all her anger at Lungile melted. It wasn’t her fault. Of course she couldn’t do anything about the situation. “I’m sorry, Lungile . . .” Heat travelled up her face, flushing her cheeks.
Lungile said nothing and Anna felt her chest tightening. She felt awful blaming Lungile for something her idiot intern had done. She strode up to him. Before she even reached him, she asked, “Why did you call the police?”
He turned around so that his back was to the patient lying on the bed. His eyes slid past Anna in the direction of Lungile.
“I’m asking you a question.” Her hands pressed against her hips, her elbows jutting out.
“He had a gunshot wound.” The intern’s hands disappeared into his lab coat’s pockets.
Anna’s heart raced. She tried 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 was livid at the thought of police thugs invading her space, barging into her territory, dragging a bleeding patient away. She felt a familiar pulsing behind her right eye, a sure sign a headache was on the way. “What were you thinking?” She glared at the intern who looked as if he is smirking.
“It’s the law.” His lips formed a thin line, driving the smirk away.
Bloody clueless, she thought. 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 took on a smirky innocence that she’d like to have swatted away, instead she leaned down, her face close to his. “Do you have any idea what the bastards will do to him?” His breath smelled of garlic.
“What do you expect me to do? Lie?”
“We chart them as penetrating injuries.” Patients came first, she wanted to say. Always. He was a doctor. He should have known. In the ranking of importance, the police ended dead last. Why he’d called them was beyond her. There was no risk to him ignoring the duty, she reasoned. It was hardly as if nurses were breaking their necks to report to the authorities. “Were you here when they took him?”
He looked down, his face flushed.
At least he has the decency to look miserable, she thought. “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 gave police added authority to arrest and detain pretty much anyone they wanted to. And do to them whatever they wanted to.
The intern looked up, staring at Anna’s neck, his face set in a mask.
Hopeless. She’d never get through to him. She turned to leave and then stopped. “Come to think of it, I think maybe you’ve been in the E.R. too long. You’re due for a change.”
Lines appeared on the intern’s forehead.
“Do you think you’re up for a couple of solo surgeries?” Anna asked.
His eyes lit up and both hands emerged 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 sank into a scowl and Anna stared at his back as he walked away. She called Martha to give her a heads-up that he’d be draining the abscesses. Arsehole, she thought. Serves him right.
As she put the receiver down, Mike entered the E.R. His limp was 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. That would’ve made him see the world differently to most. She thought that could be one of the reasons she found him more interesting than the rest of her colleagues who’d had life pretty easy, by the looks of it.
“I came to do a pre-anesthetic workup on the patient with the gun-shot wound,” Mike said.
“Ask that genius friend of yours what happened.” Anna nodded in the direction of the corridor leading to the O.R.
“Gavin? What now?”
Anna was about to tell him, when Lungile walked up. She greeted him and told him what happened to the patient who’d been arrested. “They think he is ANC.”
Everyone in South Africa knew the African National Congress was a banned organization, its members seen as anarchists, even terrorists.
“Poor bastard,” Mike looked out towards the hospital’s exit.
Anna hoped the teenager wasn’t one of the ANC. She couldn’t imagine what would happen to him if he was.
Mike ran a finger over his lips. His hazel eyes gazed at her and she looked away. He had a way of unsettling her—as if he expected more from her—and at times that left her tongue-tied. She’d never had that happen before. “No use standing around.” Anna turned to Lungile. “I’m sorry, Lungile, about . . .” She hated losing control, but she’d been caught by surprise.
Mike raised his eyebrows but Lungile looked down.
“I shouldn’t have taken it out on you. It’s just. . .” She thought again of the teenager, how Jan had 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.”
Anna released a slow breath and smiled at Lungile. Lungile smiled back and Anna was again taken by her wide smile, a smile that revealed a charming gap between her front teeth. “Thanks, Lungile.”
Mike shrugged 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,” Anna said, “but sure, coffee sounds good.” She’d never been a fan of hospital food. Until Mike came along, she’d avoided the hospital canteen. Mike made a habit of inviting her and Lungile at least once or twice a month to join him for lunch or coffee and she’d found the grub surprisingly decent.
“Lungile?” Mike asked, “you coming?”
Lungile looked past them at the pit which is seething with patients.
“They’ll be here when you get back,” Anna said.
Lungile walked over to a male nurse and spoke to him. He didn’t look up. She moved closer and raised her voice, but Anna still couldn’t hear what she was saying. The nurse nodded. When Lungile turned around, the male nurse said something to the patient lying on the gurney and they both laughed. Lungile didn’t stop or look back, but Anna was annoyed. She recognized the sneer, that particular brand of laughter. She’d 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’d heard a few English snobs calling her kaaskop, behind her back.
Lungile caught up with them and they exited the emergency room. They passed the reception area through which they’d wheeled the young man that afternoon, the one the police took away, Anna thought 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 felt a thickness in her throat. She should’ve called for him earlier. If they’d fetched him earlier, the police would likely not have found him. They never entered 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 hated feeling so helpless. The police did whatever they wanted. They got away with murder. Fuck-all anyone can do about it in this country, she thought as she walked with Mike and Lungile to the canteen.