From Amos Mallard. I told you he had a story to tell.
MEMORIES | THE HEALTH CENTRE
I married early. I knew it would be her because of how we were with each other, conspiratorial and effortless. She sat on my knee at a party and kissed me near an open window and there, framed by billowing curtains, we decided to be together. I don’t remember all of that time. I was happy. Rented suit, top hat and wedding gown, a week in Sicily we couldn’t afford and then married life. I wanted to be an artist but I’d stopped believing art was useful and I wasn’t much of a painter. I worked as a photographer for a time but it made me bitter because I wanted to tell stories not photograph children and weddings. She wanted me to just pick something and do it, but I couldn’t. So I walked up and down Bennetts Hill until one of the agencies took pity on me and sent me to a Health Centre; a depressing one storey building clad in pitched lumber in a deprived part of the city.
I sat at the reception desk behind reinforced glass, opening a slot to take medical notes or give vitamin drops. Mothers brought their children for vaccinations and annual check-ups, few of them spoke English. I spoke to the mothers from Burkina Faso in broken French and used the few Urdu words I’d been taught with everyone else. The children were wild and ragged, failing on every developmental test we administered. Some of them were hopeless cases with addict parents who’d arrive agitated and ferocious. We never turned them away. We didn’t know if we’d see the child again that year. The Health Visitors spent most of their time visiting homes and checking that children were being cared for properly. They brought back sad reports or disease and violence. Sometimes they’d share funny stories of what they’d seen, but mostly it was sad.
My shifts were mundane, hours of boredom punctuated by little bursts of chaos – patients falling through the doors begging for methadone or medication for their toothache. I sat opposite the reception desk of a Doctors surgery we shared the building with. I’d watch the three receptionists working and they’d watch me. We didn’t speak very often, separated by glass as we were, but occasionally we’d make eye contact. They had it worse than I did, a steady stream of people; colds, fevers, rashes, back pain, chest pain, pain when standing, pain when sitting. They ran their desk with merciless efficiency. They had to. I was much softer, trying to help every lost cause, having my hand patted by relieved mothers who I had promised to intercede for. I suppose I was a bit of an anomaly, young, compassionate and uncorrupted.
The women I worked with were beautiful in a way one only appreciates with age and hindsight. There was Jen, tall with indolent eyes who moved softly about the office, composed as a Hellenic statue and more beautiful. Lina with skin like honey, wide hipped and embracing, laughing all the time, superstitious, effortlessly maternal. Eve, athletic, dark, fierce to strangers but gentle with those she knew, she laughed loudly at my dirty jokes and I’d hear her laughing hours later, repeating the punch line to herself. And Jean. Jean was older than the rest, sinewy from years of cycling. Savagely intelligent. She knew everything and everyone and I tried to pry her stories from her but she would never fully share them. I knew she’d travelled, spoke different languages, I knew she was here because she chose to be and that she was devoted to people. I think she liked me because she saw some of her son in me. Jean was pragmatic. She didn’t mind me reading novels when there was nothing to do and she protected me from the agency, telling them I was needed, that I should receive more money. I still see Jean, cycling or swimming. She is frail, softened by age, I don’t know if she has retired. I can’t imagine her sitting in a chair.
I fell in love with all of these women. I saw how they worked, how they loved, how weary they became fighting their war against hopelessness, a war they couldn’t win but had to fight every day. I loved them for that and they loved me back I think, understanding that I wasn’t supposed to be there and that I wouldn’t stay. They saw that I was gentle with people who needed gentleness and they took me for one of their own.
I remember one of the final days I worked at the Health Centre. I was holding a new-born, just days old. The mother handed her to me and I stroked the downy black hair across her forehead, lulling her to sleep. A car screeched to a halt outside the doors and a frantic looking girl burst in to the centre. I handed the baby back to the mother and tried to ask the girl her what was wrong. She dragged me out to the car and pointed at her grandmother who slumped in the passenger seat, breathing shallow raspy breaths. A heart attack. There was movement around me, panic, but all I could hear were those shallow rasping breaths. I picked the woman up and carried her in to the Doctors office. She was light in my arms, fragile as a bird, the silk of her sari draped loosely about her skeletal frame. As I paused at his office door the woman breathed her last, a long exhalation. The Doctor tried CPR but she was gone. She died in my arms.
That was the closest I had been to death. The finality and simplicity of it surprised me, she was alive one moment and dead the next, life had escaped her and what I held in my arms was nothing, dust, a shell. I washed my hands after everything settled down. I wasn’t sure why. The mother and her baby were still at the desk waiting for me.
It would be too grand to look back and say I saw the worst and best of people while I worked there, but I am different because of the Health Centre. Behind my reinforced glass I watched parts of the journey of life and death; the joy of birth, the exuberance of youth, the struggle of age, the inevitability of death. I watched these little vignettes from my window and I took in as much as I could. I felt trapped at the time, by the low pay, by a job I felt was beneath me, by my pretensions which told me I should be doing something more worthwhile. I still feel that way. I’m discontent and restless.
I went running on Sunday morning, a steady ten miles around the city. Its research for me, I like to get up early so I can stare at the city without anyone else around. I took a detour past the Health Centre. It’s been demolished, replaced with a modern looking church iced in blinding white plaster. I wasn’t sad; it was an ugly and dilapidated building.
If you live in a city long enough you’ll see parts of your history erased. But if you remember those places, you’ll remember who you were while you were there. That’s important. We all need to remember who we were to understand who we are, and who we might become.
Hold fast. AM.