It was a growing line that never moved forward. It seemed inevitable for the line to grow thicker, thicker, and eventually filling up the room. You got to go into that door if you wait in the line, but not always, only when you have a full wallet in your pocket.
It was a sunny day, scorching hot. The brilliant rays from the sun were shining onto the top of the building, licking its surface like a hot-blooded serpent. Although it was not outdoors, Prince Regent Charles’s hospital was filled with ferocious heat, as if trying to drain you and squeeze out the last bit of consciousness from your body. Everything other than the heat was the crowd, men women children from Bubanzi, Cibitoka, Kayanze, and villages Imamu had never heard of, hurrying here for the medical care.
Imamu was familiar with the heat. Not long ago he had caught a cold and suffered from fever. Dizzy and having a headache, he had hobbled along the muddy roads, all the way to Prince Regent Charles hospital.
“Ahem!” The old man sitting behind Imamu coughed. Imamu alerted. The faded plastic chair became sticky in the high temperature, its skin coiled up and were peeled off. Half sitting and half lying on the chair, Imamu felt the sun biting into him, eating into his vulnerable skin. Unable to move, he faced directly at the yellowed clock hanging on the potholed wall. The pointer was pointing right when he came, but now it is pointing upwards, straight up between the smooth “1” and the curly “2”. Dalia, he thought. The clock was fuelled on Dalia’s life. Every second it ran Dalia got sicker.
Two people were chatting on his side, both just brought a small bag for medicine collection. Their faces wrinkled by the buffeting wind and the sweltering sun, while both of them were energetic, a genuine smile extended on their faces.
“Waiting in the line worth it,” one said, “as long as I no need to pay for my wife’s medicines.”
The other nodded.
“It has been hot this year, my coffee tree’s dying. I might only be able to earn half of last year’s…”
Getting medicines free of charge? Imamu did not think so. Not here. Authorities are accustomed to using their power to fleece the less privileged ones whenever they could. Giving free services? No way.
Imamu felt tired. He closed his eyes and sank into his memories. Last time he came to the hospital alone, he had been dizzy and having a headache. Half asleep and half awake, he had waited in the flock of people, somehow got into the consulting room, facing the man wearing an oversized white coat. The doctor had said to Imamu that he has got influenza. “Rest well.” His only advice in two words. “What about medication?” The doctor had called in another patient, saying no more to Imamu. Imamu had stumbled back home. It was a week of unendurable illness, but it was after the experience a neighbor had revealed to him that people covertly bribe doctors for real treatment in free government’s hospitals. They called this paying “health fees”.
A man walked out of the consulting room, frustrated with tears on his cheeks. A tall pregnant woman with a three-year-old boy in her arms entered, but came back out after a few minutes, her calmness washed away in salty tears. Imamu sighed and looked around, there were sounds of children coughing and vomiting all over the line. Normally Imamu would be filled by agony every time he heard children suffering, but now it only reminded him of Dalia. Funny, Imamu grit his teeth, coming to a free public hospital carrying a sack of money. He patted on his backpack again, reassuring himself. He had sold half of his coffee trees to get the hospital fees after Dalia started coughing during the day and having headaches at night.
All of a sudden, people in front of him began to move. The line dispersed to give way to a young doctor wearing glasses. “The hospital is now closed. Come back later in the afternoon. Now leave, please!” Imamu opened his mouth to the shape of an “O”. The room turned completely silent swiftly. It was people getting shocked, unable to accept what had just happened. It was a long pause. No one said a word. The doctor turned away from the crowd, walked back to the consulting room, his footsteps echoing on the cold, marble floor. It sounded like a clock ticking, a countdown, the elapsion of Dalia’s life. My daughter, five years old, lying on her bed with a serious fever! She might not be alive tomorrow. With the thought, Imamu’s legs gave away. He knelt. He yelled and cried in silent and no one cared. The doctor opened the door and went in, with a loud “BANG” of the closing door, he was gone.
A newborn baby’s cry broke the silence, his mother sang a lullaby and wept. The crowd started to move towards the exit. Imamu pushed the man next to him to grab his backpack and jostled towards the consulting room. “Doctor!” His words were lost in the crowd. “Please! Doctor!” The flood of people carried him away. He struggled towards the doorframe of the room. “Plea—” He got the door handle. “I beg you! I have a daughter!” The door was firmly locked. Tears rolled off his chin, he hollered in despair. “I’ll pay you health fees!” He heard small movements inside the door. “I’ll pay you health fees…double!” The door opened. For a moment Imamu stood there, shocked, unable to say a word.
A cold and impatient command. The doctor was in front of his desk, facing the large computer screen. The lamp shone cold light onto his glasses, reflecting into Imamu’s eyes, making him shiver. A quick scan around the room. It was bright and soothing, almost perfect, he would say, if not so bare. The four walls were painted bright white, not a single tiny cave on it. The marble floors made a clear and resounding echo when he walked on it, a sound he rarely heard. In the middle of the room erected the desk, what a beautiful thing it is; all the surfaces covered in a light birch color, a perfectly rounded pen pot made out of frosted glass placed lightly on the edge, a silvery notebook with a delicate apple mark on its cover — the computer. Imamu sat onto the plastic chair. The moment his muscles relaxed, the uncomfortable feeling was, like waves, surged through him again. It was the rolling wheels underneath the chair’s legs.
There wasn’t much conversation. Recalling Dalia’s symptoms was painful. He shed his tears with his broad fingers full of calluses. He kept telling, memories freely flew out from his dry lips like a sad river, his sight fell on the buttons of the doctor’s coat, then on the doctor, who seemed to pay no attention. The doctor looked at his screen, his hand as if aimlessly, wrote little things. Words numbers symbols that he did not recognize.
He finished. Imamu waited. The doctor’s face was shone blue by the light of the screen, hard and motionless. The doctor stood up, as if a solemn judge doing a sacred ritual, he announced:
“Chloroquine, Quinine, Mefloquine.”
Imamu did not understand.
“Health fee?” The doctor finally asked.
Imamu knew what to do. Carefully, he took out the sack full of notes and coins from his backpack, then handed it over. A mix of smells of soil and metal came out as soon as the bag was opened. The coins shone golden-yellow, the genial holy illumination before a child was being saved, Imamu thought. The doctor took the calculator on the desk and started pressing the buttons. The hospital was quiet, the elapsion of time was only indicated by the “tac tac” sound of the calculator. Looking back on the sack of health fees, the doctor frowned.
A sudden buzzing sound. Imamu was startled and almost jumped up. The doctor took the call with composure. “Hello?”
A man was talking on the other side of the call and Imamu couldn’t hear. His sound keep buzzing and buzzing. The harangue took forever. The buzzing sound resonance in the large room. Imamu looked at the plain walls. Where does the extra health fees go? Maybe it’s for some more equipment to fill up the room, just like in the big hospital in the cities. With more equipment he would not have to pay so much health fee next time the kids got sick, or other children like the ones waiting outside. Maybe also some bookshelf next to the curtains, just for the files piled up on the table so the line could, perhaps, go faster. The two sacks of money was half of his year income, afterall.
Imamu looked at the clock. The pointer was now back to the beginning of the cycle, pointing at “1”. He winked at the doctor, trying to catch his attention, but it was no use.
“I got a patient in Prince hospital. He got double the fees. No, I am not doing one more leg surgery. Wait, the fees are up to us? In Gambro Healthcare?” Gambro Healthcare, Imamu had heard of that hospital. It was in a building with 100 floors, people said. The uncle in his village said every time he walked past the building he felt cold air coming out from it.
“Who? Mr. Chidike? Isn’t he the police chief’s son!? Oh dear, a cut on his leg? Let me see, I’m hurrying there now. Can he please wait for 30 minutes?” Imamu now understood, there was the son of the police chief in their district that got a cut on his lower leg from a gang fighting. If receiving no treatment, a permanent scar would be left.
“Excuse me sir! My daughter is very sick now!” Imamu tried to interrupt the call. The doctor walked towards the door. Imamu panicked, feeling dizzy from breathing off the top of his lungs, he struggled to stand up from the swivel chair, reaching towards the doctor. The doctor was half out of the doorframe, Imamu managed to grab onto a corner of his clean white coat.
Slap! Imamu felt burning pain on the left side of his cheek. Before he could realize that it was a smack, the corner of the coat disappeared between the doorframe and the closing door.
Imamu sagged down, fell forward and his face hit the floor. His head was full of the coughing and crying sound of Dalia, but all of a sudden they faded. The bright afternoon sunshine slide across his cheeks along with his tears, then disappeared behind the thick hospital curtain.