In the night

Just as I was about to drift off to sleep last night I thought I heard someone calling my name and I slowly fought my way out of the haze to sit upright in bed and listen. But nothing came, outside there was only the wind that blew through the trees and beyond it a steady hum of a city that had closed its eyes.

During the day I returned to Khayelitsha CFC for my third and final visit. I wasn’t sure what to expect as last Friday was quite bloody and unlike my first visit this time there were tears and cries of pain. A pregnant woman had come into trauma, she had begun to bleed quite excessively. She cried both out of anguish and pain and I remember her leaning down towards her unborn child to whisper some words of comfort, if not to her child, then to herself - the doctor came over and told her that her baby might die or it might live and she was wheeled away leaving her bloody sheets.

I walked over and photographed the sheets and a woman behind me whispered “ can he take such a terrible photograph?” I’m not sure why but I sarcastically replied “it’s art”….she laughed and then I laughed and the world carried on.

In another room, a large hulking man sat upright on a bench in only a pair royal blue briefs. He had been asleep in bed when his partner poured boiling water over his torso and groin. Flaps of skin hung off him. Later his partner would come in and be treated for cuts and bruises. Apparently, in the night he had assaulted her and she waited for him to fall asleep before enacting her revenge.

Later a man with his hand in a bag full of blood would walk in and collapse. The bag burst its contents onto the floor and blood cascaded down the corridor. He had been shot in the wrist but luckily for him he was high and for now couldn’t feel the pain - although later he would. This could be any trauma unit in the West but here the difference is is that there is only one doctor on call. I cannot imagine the pressure that he is under.

Yesterday I returned.

At times in my life I’ve wished that I had a faith, that I belonged to some organised religion that could promise me that there was more to life than what I could see or feel but alas even as a child I could never find any omnipotent being to believe in and so I guess that I’m left with only the random and arbitrary happenings of life.

Perhaps thirty-six years ago the man who lay on the bed before me never knew that ultimately our paths would cross and that on the day of his death I would be there to photograph his hand resting on a red blanket. I didn’t find out his name; perhaps that was intentional.

I looked at him; his face partially covered by a thin white blanket: and looked at his open eyes and waited for them to blink as I loaded film into my camera. But of course, they wouldn’t. I thought momentarily about what he had seen last and then I extended the legs of my tripod. I didn’t really feel anything - I know how that sounds. I was alone in the two-bed morgue and all I thought about was the quality of light coming in through the door. Not even later when I stood next to his mother did I feel anything - everything was so matter of fact. There was no sad music in the background, no-one cried for him and in the corridor outside people joked and laughed. His was just another wasted life that went nowhere, a life made and destroyed in Khayelitsha, the invisible world that grows on the edges of the city. I know that I sound cold but it’s the ones still left alive we should cry for.

His death was suspicious and so the police promised that his body would be taken to the government mortuary for a post-mortem. The last time they promised this the body rotted for three days before being taken away.

Later a daughter brought in her father; he was slumped in a wheelchair. After tests, it was deduced that he had suffered a severe stroke and that his chances of survival were low. When the daughter was told this of course in the fraction of a second her world changed and she cried uncontrollably.

The doctor left the room and left me alone with her. She looked at me and I looked towards the floor…I waited for a while then looked up again to see her crying and still looking at me. I fiddled with my camera and tried not to cry as I remembered when the doctors had told me that my father also was going to die. He lived and I wanted to tell her to have hope but; she couldn’t speak English and anyway I knew that I didn’t really want to leave my seated silence. Later she rang her pastor for comfort.

A mother brought her young child in. He had dragged a pan full of soup off the stove and over his head: his face was burnt. The doctor stopped as he read the case file, this was the third time that this had happened. He had burns on top of burns. Whether it was direct abuse or neglect the result was the same and the child went back home again.

My last day ended and I too went home. I shook Timmo’s hand and felt like thanking him for the work that he does as I know it takes a toll on him- but I didn’t. I was glad to have met him and seen a part of his life. We wished each other goodbye and I closed the door. I’ve been lucky to have met so many good people. Perhaps the only faith we need is the faith in the knowledge that here on earth there are still good people with good hearts.