Author: Gerry McKeague

Based on a character a met while studying in South Africa as a medical student.

I’m still bleary eyed as I make the way up the path from my flat. The drums have been going all week and last night I reckon they played solidly from the moment my head hit the pillow until I rose to get dressed an hour ago. I dreamt of armies of half naked bodhran players laid out on a battle field like Waterloo or the Plains of Meath all marching towards the middle where I was cowering helplessly. Unfortunately they were male and I can’t remember how it ended. I’m told the noise is the sound of local communication in this part of the world. Messages being sent from village to village in the hills of Venda, just like its been happening for centuries but even with the earplugs in it makes for a restless night.

I pass the front of the administration block and the colonial facade of the old Swiss hospital. The missionaries arrived here in the 1860’s and set up shop.They worked out of those two front rooms and the yellow photos in the hall show the grateful natives lining up obediently to receive food and medical help in return for their souls. The veranda at the front is the original one and has weathered the years well.It’s where I met Charles for the first time at the start of the summer.

“Hello my frenn I think you are lost?” He had said,one elbow resting on the wooden rail and his free hand trying to pull as many of the surrounding nurses to him as possible-in this case about six.I had introduced myself and explained why I was there.
“Yes you will find it all here,” he pointed over to a building overflowing with life even at six thirty in the morning-mothers with brightly coloured headscarves and wraparound skirts carrying babies on their backs,elderly men sitting under trees or queuing to get through the door.
“All kinds of wonderful things you won’t find back in England.”
“Ireland” I tried to correct him.
“But you must want to work-you do want to work?”
“Of course,” I had said.
“Then you might even get lucky and let Charles show you what a real doctor does,” he winked at the giggling nurses “isn’t that right mamma?”

The compound is slowly coming to life around me and the ancillary staff are arriving,moving towards their desks. I see Jimmy approaching, or ‘Mr Jimmy’ as he first introduced himself to me.He was my first contact with the hospital via the long distance calls and he painted an image in my head of a relaxed place. He often gave the impression that he just happened to be passing a phone ringing in a long empty corridor and that he felt obliged to pick it up.
“Yeess?” He would say,I imagined from a horizontal position and possibly under blankets.
“You want to come here for some study before you qualify? Of course!You have one year left..and from Ireland..wonderful!”
He’s coming towards me now and there might be a hint of a smile breaking on his lips.
“Ah Davey,I hear that today is your last with us?”
I tell him it is.
“I trust you have enjoyed your African experience?”
I nod as he passes by, not breaking his snail’s pace on his way to the coffee lounge.
“Good good come again” his big back to me now as he walks on,”yeess…”

I’m on the main laneway now which snakes through the compound,loose bits of gravel crunching underfoot and fresh ambulance tracks still visible from an urgent callout.I hear my name called.It’s Lucille,one of the students up here from the city for a few weeks.Unlike the rest of her bunch she’s turned out to be pleasant and enthusiastic and certainly she has brightened up the ward rounds in the morning with her dancing eyes.
“Have the boys contacted you yet about tonight?” She asks me.
I haven’t expected any invites from those lads up to now.They are up here under duress as part of the new government’s plans to bring medical students to rural communities. Their undergraduate training includes these four weeks before they qualify when they are expected to contribute to the remote parts of the country.They never appear on the wards and get pissed from shortly after breakfast until dawn shouting out their rugby anthems from their balconies while barbecuing a seemingly endless supply of cowmeat.

“Ya, apparently they want to take you out seeing, you know,it’s your last night-it was Jan’s idea,” she raises her eyes “he thinks you might like to watch your country get hammered by ours in the rugby tonight.”
Now if she’d mentioned that to me last week I may well have been otherwise engaged,but it’s my final night and I’ll accept the offer. My socialising has been thin on the ground lately and my head is overflowing with obscure diseases and drug names I know I’ll forget by the time I’m in Duty Free tomorrow. I watch her walk away from me, long tan legs and a blonde crop-she could have been a poster girl for the Hitler Youth.It’s only after I turn away I realise she was coming from Charles’s place.

It seems much longer than three months ago now as I come through the back doors of Outpatients past conical mounds of soiled sheets and blankets and get the familiar whiff of disinfectant.I see him standing under the light box examining an Xray. I slap him on the back.
“Ah my frenn,” he laughs, “I’m thinking we must not work you too hard on your last day.”
Jangly guitar music bursts from the wall speakers. Charles grabs Teresa,one of the nurses and they go for a little hooley across the floor, his white coat flapping.

We have a steady supply of work this morning and among the patients a boy whose airways have tightened like a shrinking pupil to a bright light after he stood too long at his father’s bonfire. I still smell the woodsmoke as I put the oxygen mask on him,his black eyes frantically passing between his anxious father and me. His ribs stop working so hard once the oxygen does its job and I let the nurse stay with him while I grab a quick coffee. Charles is in one of the other cubicles plastering an old lady’s leg when I hear a man shouting outside. I recognise him as one of the security guards and see him holding Teresa the dancing nurse at the laundry door.
“Hey Teresa,” I say “are you ok?”
“Hi Davey,” the guard says to me,forcing a smile,”where’s Charles?”
The nurse is pulling at him to leave.
“I’m sorry mate I don’t think he’s on duty today.”
He looks at me for second or two without saying anything and moves on out the door.Teresa rushes past me back inside.

A man has fallen and injured his forearm,cutting it open like a sliced sausage. Once the wound is cleaned and there are no signs of underlying damage to tissue or nerves I’m bringing both edges of the torn skin together. It looks much better than my early efforts at stitching when Charles had to finish off for me.
“Nice work my frenn,” he scratches his beard,”could it be you are learning something at last?”

I hear Jan’s voice from outside the cubicle and pull back the curtain,
“Hey Davey I’ve been looking for you,” he says.
” I heard.”
” I know you want to come with me and watch your lot get massacred by us.”
“Jan I’ll enjoy seeing your face when we win.”
“Ha,” he says, “good stuff -we’ll collect you from the flat.”

After lunch we’re both washing our hands.
“You’re still going to have that last drink with me” Charles says “before you abandon us?”
“I wouldn’t miss it.”
“I’ll even get some of that bloody Guinness for you,”
“I’ll look forward to it. I’ve arranged to go out with the other students first to watch the rugby, then I could meet you at ten?”
He doesn’t reply and I think he’s angry with me for fudging our arrangements.
“You don’t like them?” I say.
“They do not care about here.” He’s drying his hands. “They come up to this place because they have to and then they pretend they are in some different world. They cannot hide the way they feel about these people.”
He walks towards the waiting area and his voice drops.
“Look at them,they have nothing and they think we have the answers.”
Mothers are nursing clingy infants,staring into space or gently rocking them.
“Those city boys should go back home rather than insult us with their party games and attitude.”
He kicks open the wastebin and fires the paper towel into it.
“In a way I do understand,” he straightens up, “their own perfect world is turned upside down now and this country of their mothers and fathers doesn’t belong to them anymore. It has changed to a whole new place,a different place that’s not changing back and they cannot accept that.”
We go back into the cubicle where a sick infant lies on the couch and the nurse is working with her.In an instant Charles gets to work, organising oxygen and fluids to help resuscitate her. He works deftly,silently and things improve.Then he lets loose on the other woman sitting by the cot side.
“What were you thinking!How could you wait so bloody long mamma!” She sits motionless staring at him.The nurse tells us the woman is the baby’s aunt who has taken her in this evening after realising the child wasn’t well. The mother has abandoned her and if it was not for the aunt then certainly the child would be dead.
I grab Charles’s arm and take him outside to calm him.
“I’m sorry,” he says , “she saved the baby and I know I made a mistake but whoever let her lie at home all that time getting worse�you see how lucky she is?”
He goes back in and apologises to the woman.

“Well my frenn,” he says later, “this is your last patient you see here.”
“Thanks for everything,” I say.
“We will have you back here one day.”
“Well you’ll see me at ten anyway.Don’t forget the Guinness.”
He grins and offers his hand. Then I leave him on the floor and prepare for my night with the rugby fans.

“It’s a bloody nightmare now this fucking country” says Jan, filling up my glass , “they want us to stay here and work our asses off in shitholes like this for two years before we can go back to the city.” He’s lecturing me on the new government after the collapse of the apartheid regime. “Fucking kaffirs.” His friends around me laugh.
“Ya we’re outta this place in two months when we qualify.”
He tells me he’s headed for California where his older brother has a lucrative plastic surgery practice. The others are planning escape too-the UK,Australia,Canada-anywhere but here.
I try and change the subject and ask about the sign hanging behind the barman,polishing glasses in his Motorhead vest.
“Good sense of humour you blokes out here” I say.
“Hey Vic,” says Jan to his mate, “show the Irish how funny it is.”
He grabs my hand and clamps it to the back pocket of his jeans. I realise I’m feeling the outline of a pistol.
There follow various anecdotes about the state of the country they live in,how they have no choice but to arm themselves and how if they don’t they end up like the doctors who get shot down in the city emergency departments for refusing to treat queue jumpers.
“Anyway Davey,” says Jan “I’d say you’re gonna miss that Charles fella.”
“He’s been a great help-and a friend.” .
“He certainly has an eye for the ladies,” he says.
“Horny old fucker,” says Vic.
“I don’t hear them complaining,” I say.
“If he stuck to his own it wouldn’t be so bad,” says Jan and I think its no coincidence Lucille isn’t with them tonight. It’s the gents toilet in the form of a single urinal between the pool table and the back door that finally focuses my mind on escape. I excuse myself and catch a taxi back to the hospital.

When I arrive at Outpatients, Mr Jimmy is carrying on from where Charles left off.There’s an intoxicated man lying comatosed in a cubicle snoring like a hippo in the dark and a scattering of bodies in the waiting area still to be seen.
“Charles come through here yet?”
“Haven’t seen him,”says Jimmy “he said he was heading out to the bar to buy some Guinness.”
I wait in the foyer. It must be midnight when the kafuffle begins with some children running through the waiting area shouting about fighting outside and everything follows in a flash. The police drive their van round to the back door and I know by the drawn faces on the nursing staff that something bad has happened. I go out with Jimmy to the warm night thick with crickets” music over to where the young policeman jumps out of the back of the truck and holds the door open for us. Charles is lying flat on his back with his legs crossed and his dress shirt open,the treacle blood is still glistening on his chest and in the dark of the van the whites of his eyes are still. Jimmy gives a short intake of breath. I don’t know what I’m feeling as I look at his boots,with the tread still new and see an image of him putting them on this morning.
The crickets sound like a wild pulsing orchestra in my ears and then I hear the drums starting again,sending their messages across the Venda hills.