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The Small Hours

By Adrian Ashley


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Author Notes: My name is Adrian Ashley. I am 26 years old and I live in Zimbabwe. I am unpublished 
and as with all unpublished writers, cannot wait for my first credit. I write short stories, and tend 
to favour a literary slant to my prose.

Wednesday had long been confirmed as the day of the week he most hated. That was not to say he paid extra attention to it. His work kept him too busy.


Doctor Zimiso Nyathi was on call every Wednesday. His vigil began at the gentle hour of eight in the morning and stretched until the same hour on Thursday. It was grueling.


He encouraged the hospital staff to call him by his initial. He did this for his patients, as they could not know his full name. It had to be this way—impersonal, sterilized. They could not find out too much about him; and in the same way he avoided asking them for more than the most pertinent information. They knew only his appearance—his stone-washed jeans and his creased white coat, his glinting spectacles and his unkempt hair; they knew only the sound of his training shoes in the narrow corridors of this solemn Aids hospital on the fringes of Harare’s grimy industrial district.


He was working in theatre two in the evening of one such Wednesday, and he made a special note that the palpitations and the swallowing that had lately assailed him had just begun.


He was monitoring the clock on the wall as he worked. ‘Ten is approaching,’ he thought to himself, ‘good news.’ At that hour the senior doctor would lock up his office and leave for the night, and a nurse in the reception would rub the chalk-board clean and scribble Zed’s name beside the introduction—Doctor in charge.


Zed mechanically peeled a pair of latex gloves off his hands and flopped them lazily in a bin in the corner. It was strange how the palpitations fended off the fatigue. He mumbled for another patient to be brought in. A portly nurse stood at the slightly misaligned swinging doors of the theatre called out sharply. A young boy entered, pushing an old man in a wheelchair. Once the boy had brought the wheelchair to a stop beside the padded steel table in the centre of the room, Zed waved him out. The boy’s dusty bare feet made a brushing noise against the floor tiles as he left.


“What is your complaint?” Zed asked in a monotone. The old man did not answer, but rose in evident pain and began to remove his trousers gingerly. The nurse and a young orderly, both perhaps as tired as the doctor himself, looked on impassively. Once on the table the patient parted his legs. His complaint was all too visible. A large abscess the size of a healthy orange had formed on his inner thigh. A sour, cloying smell rose from the wound and the man’s crotch. The doctor called for a scalpel and slit the mound open with two perpendicular slashes. Mustard-brown puss trickled onto the table. Zed gripped the flesh around the opening and massaged strongly. The old man squirmed about and gripped his head in both hands, making “shh, shh” sounds like a steam train gaining speed.

‘You cannot expect it to be easy,’ Zed thought as he worked. ‘This is the price to be paid I tell you. Look at yourself, as helpless as a baby. We try to teach, but nobody listens.’

Out loud he said to his patient, “Sekuru you need to eat grains to keep healthy. Less meat, no beer. Lots of green vegetables, okay.”

The nurse then dressed the wound and called for the young boy, who helped the old man off the table and wheeled him out. Zed gazed at the wall, swallowing despite himself and wondering when he would be able to calm the palpitations.


The next patient was a tall man who limped in and lay down without invitation. He had a large abscess close to his left shin. The man let out a “woo!”, followed by an almost melodious lament of pain when Zed began cutting. The colour of his puss was red, with only a tinge of yellow. ‘You are in the late stages my friend, just like the old man before you,’ thought Zed. He looked up at the deadened faces of the nurse and the orderly and almost remarked, ‘These sores have a biblical element, don’t they? The great punishment, eh.’ Thinking better of it he told the patient that the sores would take long to heal and that he should change the dressings regularly.


A woman followed. She was huddled into a floral wrap. After a short interrogation Zed instructed her to remove her blouse. One of her breasts was swollen, with a small opening oozing just beneath her nipple. Another abscess—late stages again. Zed administered a local anaesthetic and told the woman to look away before he began. The contents of the mound were creamy and lumpy. The woman wept. 


Each day was different. Sometimes he could do much, sometimes little. But either way distance was vital. He could not imagine working otherwise. He remembered faces, not names. He wondered, for those who could not be helped, what awaited them on the proverbial ‘other side’. He was sure that such a place did not exist, but he would not take even that final hope away. To know the fallibilities of man was to know that none of this was anyone’s fault. Yet is was hard not to judge, hard not to be able to grab his patients by the collar and ask, “WHY?” But what would that serve?


When ten o’clock came the senior doctor inspected the wards and dished out some parting instructions. Then, with a bunch of keys in his pocket, Zed wasted no time in heading for the medicine storage room. Inside, he fingered the bunch and with trembling hands selected the small copper key that opened a padlocked cabinet. He grasped a small glass vial with a red stopper, uncorked it, and placed it to his nose, inhaling deeply. He found that he had been salivating and he swallowed hard before surveying the rubber stopper absently and inhaling again. Thereafter he placed the vial in his trouser pocket and locked the door behind him.


‘Finally!’ he almost said out loud. ‘I thought Matanda would never leave!’ That was it—he was free for the rest of the night. The only thing he had to do was to put in an appearance at each of the matrons’ stations, and to check in at every department, only fleetingly though, because, he would say, another department needed him more.


He headed off, cruising the wards, not knowing where he was going, moving not with the faintest urgency, but walking as if he was on some sort of tour. He found a minister in one crowded ward speaking fervently into a crumbled bible while making gestures with his free hand. God was never far away on these nights. The minister was standing at the foot of a bed in which a woman lay with her eyes tightly closed. Members of her family had gathered around and had placed their hands on various parts of her body. The people in the room turned to look at the doctor. If the attitude that the desperate and the suffering had towards him was ever called reverence, he would not dispute this. At times he felt like an angel of salvation. The minister slowed his sermon and looked at the doctor expectantly.

“Continue,” Zed heard himself say, and waved his hand with a flourish, as if it was magnanimous of him to do this. From the languor of earlier in the evening his strength was now flooding back, and he wanted to run, to jump. But he maintained his professionalism and walked from bed to bed, watching the listless eyes follow him, and the stiff limbs being straightened expectantly at his arrival. ‘So today I am more important than the men of religion,’ he thought and almost chuckled.


He became thirsty and made his way across a darkened courtyard to a tiny one-roomed store that was situated on the hospital grounds. He sat on a concrete bench, beneath a flaky coca-cola sign, sipping an orange juice and inhaling from the vial. At one point he thought he heard his name on the public address system but ignored it. While sitting there he noticed greater activity on the hospital grounds than usual. Figures emerged from darkened footpaths and revealed themselves as limping patients, some supporting others on their shoulders as they moved towards the building entrance. He even saw a man pushing a wheelbarrow containing a feebly writhing figure. He rose and stretched energetically, wondering if he had any telephone messages.


In the corridor that lead to theatre two the doctor came across the old man he had treated earlier. He was asleep in his wheelchair, which was sidled up against the wall. The boy was sitting on the floor beside him.


Zed entered the theatre, bringing to an end a hushed discussion between the nurse and the young orderly. He opened a new box of latex gloves, pausing to read the packaging. ‘What time is it?’ he asked out loud.

Before a reply came he said, “How slowly things move on these nights.”


After treating one patient, he left the room again on the pretext of an emergency in another ward. The young boy was still slouched against the wall in the corridor, watching the steady flow of patients into the hospital through wide, unblinking eyes. The old man had not stirred. Zed stopped and motioned to the boy. He did not know why he had called him, or what he planned to do, but when he approached slowly Zed squeezed his shoulder almost reassuringly and asked, “What is your name?”


“Okay Bee, come with me. Come with Zed.”


They walked through the maze of corridors and out through a deserted exit at the end of the wing.

“Is that your grandfather,” Zed asked once outside. He removed the bottle and inhaled from it. He was happier than he had been all evening. ‘Merrier is more the word for my state,’ he thought. It always seemed so much fresher outside, away from the pinching smell of cleaning chemicals and the stale odour of disease. Jacaranda flowers were in bloom, and their sweetness was welcome to his nose. He supposed it was about midnight. They had entered the small hours—the hours of the night when the world slowed down, when even the sick in their beds ceased struggling. This was the time when Zed would walk about and find even the patients whose pain made sleep impossible, listlessly dozing. The small hours lasted until the darkness gave way, until aches and pains returned because it was light again.

“I am his father,” Bee replied simply.

Zed capped the vial. “What are you talking about boy?”

“He calls me father. When he wakes up from his sleep he calls to me. He calls me father.”

Zed chuckled. He was beginning to blink more. It was strange how the small hours made the unfunny funny, and the strange normal. Strange how, here in the dark outside the hospital, it did not seem so implausible that this young boy could parent an old man.


“Does he think you have come back as his father to look after you?” Zed asked. Bee shrugged.

“He wets the bed at night, but asks for water. In the mornings I drag him out and lay him in the sun. He lays there coughing until the day is over.”

“Where do you get food from?” Zed asked.

“We used to get from my aunt. She used to bring food sometimes until he called her a witch. Now the neighbours help. But we have rats. They eat our supplies at night. When there is nothing left they even eat the soap.”


Zed laughed again. Somehow it seemed the funniest thing. After a while he stilled himself and wondered seriously if the boy and the old man could eat the rodents. He was like that in the small hours, all radical theories and warped ideas. A silence followed. Zed removed the glass bottle from his pocket and placed it in the soft palm of his new friend beside him.

“Here, put this to your nose and breathe in,” he said. Bee did as he was told, recoiling slightly upon inhalation.

“Do it again,” Zed instructed. The boy complied, and then handed back the vial. He held his head in his small hands. Another silence followed, during which Zed concentrated on bringing the light from a faraway streetlamp in and out of focus. He cleared his throat twice, the second time wondering what was different about his voice. Then he flexed his arm testily. ‘Strange, it feels like my limbs are turning to lead.’


His mind left his new found feeling of sluggishness and he thought to himself suddenly, ‘There can be worse jobs to do!’ Worse that this. Kay bakes pies for a living. Imagine that! Technically he does not bake them, but his job is to make sure they are lined up correctly in the oven. And he does night shifts on top of that. No, I am better off where I am!’


“My friends,” the boy began unbidden, “always talk about things they see on TV. Everyday they talk about things I have not seen.”

Zed was beginning to be find a balmy peace within himself. Somewhere inside him lay an explanation for all of this. If he could just find it. While trawling through his most recent thoughts for the lost thread of his worldly explanation, an idea visited him. He tried to stand up quickly but found it a struggle, eventually he found his feet with something resembling urgency and motioned to the boy. Then he struck off along a tarmac walkway towards the staff residences.

“Where are we going? What of my grandfather?” Bee asked as they approached a set of buildings huddled beneath rustling trees.

Zed knew it would be fine, and said as much, adding, “I will look after him.”


Inside, Zed sat the boy down on an untidy couch with sagging springs. He pulled a video cassette from his collection and cued it. Bee’s feet did not reach the ground. He sat with his hands under his buttocks. Zed fetched a browning banana from the kitchen and handed it over.

“I will come and check on you later,” he said, and closed the door behind him.


The small hours were the best time of the night. Zed cruised the halls and corridors of the hospital, shifting between energetic and groggy locomotion, stopping at intervals to peer in at a patient who moaned softly, or to quietly check the pulse of a one who lay too still. It was a better time to conduct this most uncomfortable business. What could be worse than the hustle of the afternoon, with echoes of busy voices and shuffling feet filling the air? At this hour it was more dignified, more deliberate.


He passed the old man in the wheelchair and took a moment to be glad. Though his head was slung out at an uncomfortable angle and his mouth was slack, he looked serene. Zed could not dwell on this gladness, as he noticed for the first time how the place had filled up since he had left. The hard wooden benches in the waiting area were now filled with row upon row of new patients. Bright colours of summer shirts and blouses were contrast against the dour faces of the patients. The crowd gave off a warm smell of fresh perspiration. A hush came over them as Zed approached. There were some coughs in the body of the crowd. ‘What is all this?’ he thought, and entered the theatre. For some reason he walked across the room to peer out of the window. Outside, beyond the slanting shapes of electric light that stretched along the tarmac, shadows flitted, and in ones and twos more people emerged.


‘Life has its own answers for the state of things,’ Zed thought as he stood in the theatre, looking up now at the clock on the wall, tracing the arc of the second hand. It was a strange thing, the second hand of a clock, in that it did not release your attention until it had completed a full cycle. But there were more important things, there were patients, droves of them, coming for attention, and he had to help them. He took his eyes from the wall clock and cast them upon the nurse who was surveying him worriedly. Zed smiled at her.

“There is work to be done,” he said. “They have come to see me.”


He treated one patient with vigour, and then another, even hazarding to ask their names. He could not explain this inquisitiveness, and did not try. The strangest thing was that when the doors of the theatre swung open there seemed to be even more people waiting patiently on the benches. At one point he ventured into the corridor, and though his legs felt like jelly, headed to the nurses at the reception. “What is going on?” he asked. “Why are there so many patients tonight?”

The nurses exchanged glances but did not reply. Zed left them and approached a man who was leaning against the wall at the back of the line. “Where are you from sir?” he asked, holding the man’s elbow. The man, surprised, looked the doctor up and down and replied, “I am from out of town.”

Zed moved forward along the line and grabbed hold of a woman, who turned in surprise. “And you, where are you from, why are you here tonight?”

“I have heard of great healer. I have come for help.”


Outside, an ambulance pulled noisily into a parking bay. Doors opened and shut urgently. By the tense faces of the orderlies who glided past him and out towards the parking area Zed hazarded that the ambulance was bearing car accident victims. He headed back into the theatre, thinking in passing about one such victim he had attended to. The man had been gravely wounded. There had been nothing Zed could do but watch him die. But things were different now. These were the small hours. In the small hours people were healed, and such horrors never happened.

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