Eye Contact

It is 5 a.m., my shrieking alarm clock wakes me up. The winter cold stabs my face like a knife as I poke out my head from under the blanket. My left eye is swollen and red. There is a foreign body on my cornea. Whenever I roll my eye, the foreign body scratches my cornea. There is an excruciating pain whenever light hits my eye. I close my left injured eye with my palm as I grope my way to the light switch. I stumble over a stool, lose balance, and end up knocking my head against my tightly packed bookcase. Forgetting to shield my swollen eye I switch on the lights; the lights immediately attack my injured eye – the pain is unbearable.

I sit down on the couch for a minute before I shuffle to the bathroom to fill up the bucket with water. I stagger out of the bathroom, carrying in my right hand a half-full twenty litre bucket of water to the kitchen. The landlady removed the geyser three years ago. She whines that electricity is expensive now, we must use the gas stove to cook and warm water for bathing. I light up my 5 kg gas stove with a discarded lighter I picked up from the pavement outside. It still gives out a spark. I then fill up my biggest pot and hoist it over the flame, spilling water on the floor. I quickly run out to fetch a mop and clean the mess. I go back to bed, lie down, and wait for the water to boil.

After eating my instant Iwisa banana flavoured porridge, I walk over to the bookcase to extract the book I want to read at the clinic. Even though my one eye is swollen and sore, the other can still focus and read. I am reading Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman by Haruki Murakami. I shove it into my satchel and run to my writing desk. I look for my clinic card in the drawers but cannot find it. I check in my laptop bag; it is not there.

Why trouble myself for a clinic card knowing well that I already opened a folder at the clinic, I say to myself. Time is running out. The clinic opens at 7 a.m. I walk out of my living quarters at ten minutes to seven. Grassy Park Day Clinic is just a stone’s throw from my place. It takes me exactly ten minutes to get there. It is Friday, so there will not be as many people at the clinic as on Mondays. I don’t know why the clinics are always so full on Mondays compared to any other day of the week. So, do lots of people get sick during the weekend? I don’t get it.

The landlady’s pit bull, Tosca, runs out of her kennel to greet me. She sniffs my legs and wags her tail, acknowledging me. She walks me to the gate. I ruffle and fondle her head and close the gate.

It is still dark outside. It is mid-winter, and it has been raining the whole week. Today is cloudy and cold. I check around to see if some skollies may be lurking in the dark; now with this spate of load shedding, thieves and robbers have taken advantage to assail the people. When I came to live in this neighbourhood in the nineties, the area was quiet and peaceful, you could answer your phone in the street and even count your wages as you walk home. Today, the chink of coins in your pocket could get you robbed and stabbed and even killed if you fight back.

Criminals from neighbouring Parkwood and Lotus River, and the Six Bob gangs in Phumlani Village are terrorising Grassy Park. The Busy Corner, which is the business hub of Grassy Park, has seen commercial development in recent years. Big shops like Spar, Pick n Pay and Clicks have opened their shops here. This also has contributed to the influx of homeless people and drug addicts to flood the pavements of the Victoria Road and Busy Corner area, scavenging for food while drug merchants are using others to peddle drugs.

At exactly seven o’clock I find myself at the back of the queue. The queue is not that long. We are standing outside in the cold. I don’t know why the government did not build a cosy waiting area inside the clinic. How do you expect the sick to make do while standing outside in the chilly winter, sometimes whipped by sheets of rain? I stand for almost an hour before the security guard orders me to get in and have my particulars sorted out at the reception.

The receptionist asks me for my clinic card and when I tell him that I could not find it at home, he tells me to print my name and date of birth on a piece of paper. He punches my name and birth date in his computer and prints out a provisional card. He tells me to go to the nurse in the next room to have my BP taken. I stand in the BP queue and the nurse orders us to roll up our sleeves on our right arm. Ten minutes go by, and the nurse booms out: ‘Next!’ I walk in and sit on the chair. I find a fat “black coloured” (short kinky hair and brown skin) nurse sitting on a chair that cannot accommodate her enormous buttocks. I cannot see the chair; the chair is swallowed up by her big bottom. She appears as though she is sitting on a toilet seat. The nurse checks my BP.

‘Why are you here?’ she fires at me, her English heavily shaded with Cape Flats patois.

‘Something went into my eye yesterday when I was grinding,’ I say as she scribbles on the form.

‘Don’t you use goggles?’

‘I do.’

‘Go to the emergency department. Go down past the waiting area, turn right and the first door to your left is the emergency department,’ she growls, handing me the form.

‘Thank you.’

At the emergency section of the clinic I meet a young bubbling, full-haired intern doctor. He looks at my card and motions me to sit on the bench by the door outside as he organises my folder. His assistant nurse, a male in his late forties, agile and nimble on his bowed legs, walks away to fetch my folder. Within a minute, he comes with my folder and hands it to the intern doctor. The doctor comes out to call me.

‘Take a seat,’ he says.

I lower myself down onto the seat.

‘What happened to your eye?’

‘I was grinding, and I feel there’s still a piece of metal in my left eye.’

‘Didn’t you wear goggles?’

‘I did wear glasses, but I don’t know how it got into my eye.’

‘You must be careful. Wear your goggles all the time when you’re grinding. Now, lie down on that bed.’

I get up. I take off my shoes and lie down facing the ceiling. He wrinkles his nose as the stink from my socks hits his nostrils.

‘Open your left eye.’ He administers eye drops into my eye. I pull up my upper eyelid and down the lower eyelid as wide as possible. He flashes his pen torch into my eye, his left hand taking pictures with his smartphone.

‘Roll your eye to the left and to the right and down,’ he orders.

‘Oh, I see, look.’ He shows me pictures of my eye and points at a tiny speck of metal stuck in the corner of the sclera of my eye.

‘I can see it,’ I say, ‘I still feel it whenever I roll my eye.’

‘Now, you can wait outside. I would like to consult with a doctor at Cape Town Academic Hospital. I cannot take out the foreign body. I don’t have the equipment.’

‘Okay.’

I walk out.

Outside, I find more patients sitting on the bench waiting for their turn to see the doctor. I go and sit at the farthest end of the bench. I open my satchel for my book to read. I pull out a collection of Murakami short stories. I flip to the page where I stopped reading last time. I stopped at the short story “The Mirror”. In the end, I do not want to read short stories. I close the book and toss it into my satchel. I take out my phone, a Samsung Galaxy J2 Core, and go straight to Google. I would like to read poetry online. I want to learn more about the importance of imagery in poetry. I type in imagery and the following pops up: Imagery is the use of language to represent actions, feelings, and other sensory and extrasensory experiences. And poet Tony Hoagland says the image is the concrete, or gut-levelled, part of the poem that feels the most real to the reader. Then I google Tony Hoagland poems, which I find so fresh with vivid imagery.

Half an hour later, the intern doctor calls me in.

‘I want you to go to Cape Town Academic Hospital.’

‘When?’

‘Now.’

‘Here is a letter, go straight to D4, the doctor is waiting for you.’

I check the time; it is almost eleven.

‘Thank you.’

Outside it is drizzling. I run up Victoria Road and stop at Pick n Pay to buy a Lunch Bar. I run non-stop to Busy Corner to take a taxi to Wynberg.

***

I arrive at Cape Town Academic Hospital at around noon. I walk past the security checkpoint, up the interminable steps and straight to D4. I find two other patients sitting on the bench waiting for their turn. I take out my phone and go to my Facebook account. After going through my messages, I find out that I am all alone, the other two patients have gone. Then it is my turn. I walk to the window with my referral letter in my hand. I hand my letter to the woman, who quickly looks at it and hands it back to me.

‘Go to the admissions floor. They must open a file for you.’

I walk out and quickly run down the steps to the first floor, and luckily, I find no one waiting at the admission lounge. The admission lounge is a small sitting area; there are sofas and a table. I go straight to the window and slot through my letter to the man behind the glass. The man looks at the letter quickly and asks: ‘Where is your South African ID?’

I shake my head.

‘Are you a foreigner?’

I shake my head.

‘But you look like a Xhosa.’

‘All Africans we look the same. And you look like Tony Blair.’

The man’s face turns pink and he eyes me with scorn.

‘Take this form, go back to D4. Since you are a foreigner, they must draw up a quotation for you and then you must come back here to pay and I can open a folder for you,’ he barks.

I take the form, look at it for a minute and walk one or two steps toward the D4 and stop. Rumours go around that the South African government does not want foreigners to be assisted at all public hospitals. Instead, they chase away sick foreigners with their exorbitant admission fee. There is a friend whose wife gave birth at a public maternity hospital and the bill now stands at thirty thousand rand. I knew immediately that they will overcharge me just to take out the speck from my eye. And that if they treat me now and I fail to pay my admission fee, that will mean I have vetoed against my next visit. I rummage through my pockets and discover that I have fifty rand left, enough for my transport back home.

Should I go to D4 or just leave it and go home? I ask myself. If I go home, what if the speck damages my eye? What if I go blind? I will not read books anymore. If I go to D4, will they assist me, since they don’t care about us anymore?

After a while, I find myself ascending the steps to D4, my heart racing and my eye throbbing with pain. The woman at the reception flashes me a smile, my racing heart starts to calm down. I hand over the quotation form to the woman.

‘What is this now?’

‘They say you must draw up a quotation for me before the doctor can see me.’

‘Are you a foreigner?’

I nod my head.

‘I don’t like this! Why are they doing this to our fellow brothers and sisters?’

She takes my referral letter and goes to fetch a file straight away. Within a minute, she is back. She starts jotting down something in the file, every time looking at my referral letter. After a while, she walks out and asks me to sit in the waiting area. She goes to the doctor with my file while I sit down on the bench in the waiting area. There is a fat woman and a man sitting next to each other. The man is on the phone speaking in Cape Flats Afrikaans. I pick up few words I know. He tells his wife that he is about to be seen by the doctor. There is a plasma TV hung that almost touches the ceiling; you must throw your head back to watch it. There is a McDonald’s advert about Nazo! Meals playing. A man is walking, pleased with himself, carrying a McDonald’s packet. He waves at the admiring women and guys washing cars at a car wash, who are overcome by the aroma of the succulent burger in the packet. The man goes and sits at the picnic table. He opens the packet and the wind blows away the till slip toward the guys at the car wash. One guy catches it, sees the price, and finds it so affordable. After washing the car, the guys go to McDonald’s and buy Nazo! Meal burgers.

Suddenly, the doctor gambols in and looks searchingly at us, and his eyes at last stop at me.

‘Are you Nick?’

‘Yes.’

‘Follow me.’

I follow him to his room. He has looks of an Asian but with a South African accent. His features look more Japanese than Chinese. In his room, there is an intimidating piece of equipment with handles. I recognize it immediately. I underwent the same procedure way back in 2005 at the Victoria Hospital.

‘Come with me.’

I follow him outside. He is standing next to the wall on which letters of the alphabet are written from big letters to the smallest letters. He orders me to stand about three metres away from the eye chart.

‘Close your left eye. What letter is this?’

‘D.’

‘And this one?’

‘M.’

‘And this one?’

‘I can’t read it.’

‘Ok.’

I go through the same procedure with my right eye and thereafter I follow him to his room. He tells me to put my head into the ophthalmoscope.

‘Open up your eye. Roll it to the right, left and down.’

He examines my eye for a time and gets off his chair and plops eye drops into my eye.

‘Open your eye with your hands. Roll it to the right, left and down.’

‘I see, there is something,’ he says.

He gets off his chair and goes to his table. After a minute he comes with a pin in his hand and orders me to open my eye. He starts to remove the piece of metal. I feel every scratch of the pin and the speck on my eye. He picks the tiny piece of metal and drops it down on a white piece of cloth. He continues to search around my eye with his pin and picks up another tiny piece of metal and drops it drown onto the cloth.

‘It’s out now,’ he says.

He gets off the chair and fetches a bottle of eyedrops and drops some more into my eye. When I roll my eye now, I do not feel the scratching of the tiny piece of metal against my eye anymore. I am relieved that finally the foreign body is out, and my eye is saved. Tears starts to drip from my eye, the doctor pastes an eye pad over my left eye and goes back to his desk. He is now busy writing down in my folder and in my quotation form. When he is done, he gives me a small box of Ciloxan eye drops.

‘This is to stop infection. You must apply one drop to your eye, four times a day, okay.’

‘Yes.’

‘Right, take this folder and the quotation form to the case manager. A porter will take you there.’

I walk out and sit on the bench waiting for a porter. A few minutes later, a porter comes with a wheelchair and asks me to sit in the wheelchair. I decline the offer. He pushes the wheelchair aside and I follow him. We go down the steps to a long corridor. I follow him until we finally see the door marked Case Manager. I knock on the door; a voice of a woman yells, ‘Come in!’ I walk in with the folder and quotation form in my hand.

‘Sit down,’ says the plump woman sitting behind the desk. She is heavily covered in layers of winter clothing that makes her look fat. She is fat. I catch a glimpse of her pudgy hands exposed from her long-sleeved, ribbed turtleneck whenever she swings her arm.

‘What can I do for you?’

‘I am here to get my quotation.’

She goes through my folder and turns to me with a scowl on her face.

‘Has the doctor seen you already?’

‘Yes.’

‘Who authorised that? You were supposed to come here and get your quotation signed before you could see the doctor,’ she says, po-faced, with derision as if she owns the hospital.

‘Who helped you?’

‘I don’t know her name.’

She quickly dials the D4 number, and they tell her that the nurse sister who assisted me has left.

‘This is acceptable!’ She slams her open hand against the table.

‘How long have you been in South Africa?’

‘Twenty-six years. I have lived more than half of my age here.’

‘And you’re still not a citizen?’

I shake my head.

She phones her friend in her department and complains that she has a patient who has been treated before even paying his consultation fee. Thereafter, with rancour in her heart, she turns to me.

‘I’ll just give you an estimated invoice. I will sort out this mess on Monday. I must find out why they treated you without your quotation signed.’

She goes on attacking the keyboard – clickety, clickety every time looking on my folder. When she finishes, she prints out the invoice and hands it to me.

‘This is just an estimated invoice. I will send you the proper one later.’

I get up and receive the estimated invoice. I mouth a feeble thank you and walk out.

Outside, I take a good look at the invoice. My eyes bulge out in shock at an exorbitant figure under the total line. It says two thousand and two hundred and seventeen rand and fifty cents. I cannot believe my eyes; I feel like I am in another world. The invoice says I have been treated for an intra-ocular foreign body: anterior to iris. The cost has been broken down into specialist fee, OPD visiting fee, specialist fee gain, minor proc B – facility fee and a 25% surcharge. How can removing a speck in the eye that if you ask your friend to blow it off with his breath, with several attempts can successfully come off, cost me an arm and a leg – over two thousand rand?

Is this because I am of a foreign nation? Are we going to be treated like this now? Why can’t they just tell us that all foreign nationals should not be treated at public hospitals finish en klaar? Is it human nature or animal nature to hate and discriminate against your fellow human being? Why don’t the good people of this country mobilise and toyi-toyi against such inhumane and barbaric laws – laws that try to debilitate and destroy African cohesion and humaneness? Nothing can justify such draconic laws that do not allow “unfortunate” people to live in peace and justice like everyone else in this country.

I tear up the estimated invoice into hundreds of pieces and throw them in the nearest bin and run off down to the main road to take a Golden Arrow bus home. Sitting in the bus, I start to think about the good nurse who assisted me. I need to thank her properly. Whenever I am free, I will go back to the hospital and thank her. I must do something. I must buy her a present. She saved my eye. She saved my life.

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Nixon Mateulah was born in Lilongwe in Malawi and moved to South Africa in 1996. Running Home is a fictional memoir based on his experiences when arriving from Malawi in South Africa during the early years of the South African democracy. He has published a number of short stories and poems in various online and print publications.

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