The Waiting Room
WHAT I REMEMBER is this: summers so short and hot that the grass barely had a chance. Lying beneath a sprinkler, shirtless, with no hassle from anyone. Winter salt still staining the main roads and bleaching them pale pale grey, squeezing my eyes almost shut with the glare as we ran to the river and the new roads beyond.
I remember the wood frame skeletons of the new houses, a whole load of them sitting in crescents on the hills at the edge of the city, making postcards of the sun as it set late and shone through homes so new they didn’t even have skin on them yet. I remember making our own cities in those houses, racing up and down stairs, shrieking as the bats came in at last light, sitting for hours with the orange cat as she licked her pile of newborn kittens.
One of the skeleton houses had a pool out back, a concrete hole with no tiles, pure smooth structure. We threw in an old armchair from the wood, doused it with lighter fluid and screamed with delight as it burned. Dizzy. Both puked afterwards, blew black stuff out of our noses for days, but told no one. A secret. A beautiful black snot secret.
Now in Darfur a bottle full of burning petrol flies over the wall in the night, explodes on the ground and takes out two plastic garden chairs and a ropey banana tree. I get the same smell, same feeling as I did that night with the armchair. It’s all wrong this time, the wrong reaction in the wrong place, but I feel it, and keep it to myself. Everyone else is gasping, or crying, or running to the street to see who could have thrown it. I just stand there in the dark watching it all, watching the smoke turn out the stars.
We open up the triage at 8.30 every morning, 9.30 on Fridays, and every day there’s a line. I say hello on the way in, greet the regulars, our repeat visitors, and thank everyone for being patient. I open up the consulting rooms, the wait room, then unlock the main gate. We’ve got four community nurses in now, so they run the triage. I seem to be doing more and more of the paperwork, less face to face, but Fridays I’m on the front with Joan, the nurse from South Sudan.
Joan makes a pot of wickedly strong coffee, and we open up. Today is slow, Friday before Eid, but there’s Samia and her little boy again, sitting in the shade of the waiting room, wiggling her toes in orange flip flops. She’s been in every few days for the last week or so, first for dehydration treatment and worming for the boy, then for supplemental nutrition. That’s our thing: basic medical intervention, simple procedures. The idea is that people don’t have to leave the camp if all they need is rehydration salts, basic wound sterilisation and dressings. We administer injections, monitor weights, peer into eyes and ears and mouths. When anything complicated shows up we make a referral to the MSF clinic in town where the doctors have surgical instruments and high end drugs and a whole lot less sand in their waiting room.
Samia knows all this. She sits beside another regular, Maha, an old woman who told me she was named such because her eyes were as big as a cow’s. Maha squints through stubby lashes, those big cow eyes now hidden behind heavy hung lids. She must have been a stunner. High cheekbones and a broad forehead. She looks regal.
The first time she came in, her daughter-in-law was holding the severed end of Maha’s pinky finger in a scrap of cloth. Maha cuts herself. Every time she loses a family member to the violence, she chops the end off one of her fingers with a butcher’s cleaver. This we managed to get out of the daughter-in-law, once she’d calmed down. Right now Maha has two intact thumbs, and one index finger. On that first visit she was bleeding really bad, dizzy, almost unable to walk. We managed to staunch it, got some stitches in. The finger stub wasn’t so lucky.
She came back to get the stitches out the following week and has been visiting us since then, coming in to talk with Joan mostly. She waits for the quieter times, Fridays, and corners Joan with questions. The discussion goes for weeks, with Maha interviewing Joan on every aspect of the struggle in South Sudan. She wants details. She wants to know how these things run, how they might end.
‘Joan will be free soon,’ I tell her as I pass through, and she acknowledges me with a serious nod.
Samia’s toes have stopped wriggling in the flip flops. I gesture for her and she rises slowly from her seat, follows me to the consulting room. I weigh the baby again, check his ears. Abdul Waheed. He’s tiny. Not really a baby in age, he’s over two years old now, but he’s confined to Samia’s back most of the time, too weak to walk much.
Last time she was in she told me his father is Janjaweed. A war baby, conceived of violence.
‘And you?’ I ask her through the translator. ‘Can I examine you too?’ She smiles a little and opens her hands. I check eyes, ears, mouth. Heartbeat, breath. She’s lost a lot of weight. Could be malnutrition, or the chronic insomnia that everyone suffers. White spots in her mouth, swollen glands. Could be a number of things.
‘I’d like to take some blood for testing,’ I say, and she shrugs, smiles again and agrees. I get out a 20 gauge needle and a handful of vials as Abdul Waheed sighs a baby snore on the table beside his mother.
The winter after we burnt the armchair you met Wyatt. I laughed at his name and his haircut, hicker than hick, worse than us even. We drank rum with him and squeezed each others necks till we passed out and slid down the wall, came back up with headspins. We lived on the edge of nothing and nowhere with bus change in our pockets, not a lot more.
Wyatt was king of the good times, a constant supply of things to make us laugh till our bellies hurt, him content to sit back and watch as we went into orbit. So we did. You led the way, one night leaping from the top of the tire swing into a bank of snow so big you couldn’t get out for laughing. You just gave up after a while, lay there. I ended up digging you out with a garbage can lid, hands so cold I thought my fingers would snap off.
It was around that time that Wyatt started leaving his syringes in your arm. You got quiet, and I did too.
It didn’t show up for years. Not till years later when you’d all but forgotten sliding down basement walls and torching old furniture in rich people’s pools. All that was a lifetime away.
Incubation was what the doctors called it. Made me think of hibernation, of a cave in the snow, pure white walls and muffled sound, you needing nothing more than a long, long sleep and to wake in the spring, refreshed.
Once it came on it was vicious. This was long before cocktails and viral loads and long life expectancy, this was back in the day of counting T cells and saying your goodbyes long before you were ready. Your parents went hysterical, and Wyatt was nowhere to be found. Possibly dead already.
We met a few times after my test came back and we tried not to pinpoint it, tried to avoid looking for the moment when infected blood came for you and not me.
I held two words behind my teeth for that whole year. Kept them from coming out, from hitting you like a useless sack of sympathy and too damn late. I’m sorry, and that amounts to exactly nothing.
I’ve told Samia that I’m sending her samples to MSF, and that we’re looking for hepatitis and glandular fever. I haven’t told her we’re also looking for HIV.
There’s no provision for it, officially. Officially, it does not exist. Not in Sudan. Not in Darfur.
But Samia’s blood will be the fourth I’ve sent for testing this month. We are finding more and more cases, more and more people who are officially healthy, their deaths explained as cause unknown. It’s not in any of the budget lines, but I see it here in the consulting rooms, along with rape babies and girls with brutal scarring between their thighs. Here’s what doesn’t get counted in the official statistics, sitting in our plastic chairs, waiting for antibacterial wipes and painkillers.
Samia scoops Abdul Waheed into the papoose cloth and binds him close to her, covering his head with the loose end before heading back out into the late morning sun.
In the waiting room, Maha and Joan drink coffee.
‘Now this one, this one didn’t even hurt,’ Maha says to Joan. She holds her hands off her lap, spreads the stubs of her fingers. She speaks for a minute in Arabic and then finishes in English. ‘I’m too old to be scared,’ she says, and she presses her lips together, toothless and defiant.
Story © Copyright Michelle Green, 2012.