At last the door labelled Psychiatry Registrar opened and a short, stout man dressed in brown trousers and a striped shirt stepped out. He looked down at the folder he was holding. ‘Dr Trehorne?’ he called, scanning the waiting room. His thick lenses, set into black spectacle frames, amplified his gaze. Carol was seated at the back of the waiting room next to a dying pot plant and as far away from the other patients as possible. She ran a comb of fingers through her fringe, stood stiffly and pushed her way past various angled knees.
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The collective gaze followed her across the room, accusingly, assuming correctly that she had pulled rank and jumped the queue. The registrar offered his hand. ‘Good morning.’ His head did a funny little bob. ‘I’m Dr Ndlovu.’ An earpiece of his glasses was broken and had been fixed back onto the frame by a wrap of white plaster. Carol grasped his palm. It was warm and slightly damp. Just her luck to get an anxious psychiatrist. He waved her into his office. She remembered the small room from the time she had worked as a medical officer in the emergency unit next door. In the intervening years nothing much had changed − the shiny white enamel paint, high industrial window, basin in one corner and large desk taking up most of the space. Whenever the alarm bell from psych casualty had sounded, it had been her job to grab a vial of sedative, a syringe and needle, and to run with the security guards towards the mayhem, where a psychotic and paranoid patient had realised that the system had him cornered.
Dr Ndlovu closed the door. Carol had hoped for a woman. An older woman, someone who was a mother herself, someone she could relate to. Someone who responded to breakage with something more appropriate than plaster. But you couldn’t choose who you saw in the state system. You got what you got. ‘Have a seat, Dr Trehorne.’ ‘Carol. Please call me Carol.’ Dr Ndlovu nodded, a crank of his head on the stiff hinge of his neck, but he did not offer his first name. He sat behind his desk, put the folder down and opened it. Picked up his pen and sniffed as he perused the notes. An awkward silence hung in the room. Was there something he was struggling to tell her, something of which she was as yet unaware? No, it was probably the difficulty of their altered relationship in this setting.
They were colleagues after all, although they had never met. He had no doubt attended to some of the patients she’d referred to the state hospital, patients too poor or crazy to be treated in a private institution. Yet here she was, of middle income and well cushioned by medical aid, being interviewed as a family member of a patient. She had been summoned from her son’s bedside in the High Care ward upstairs. A turbulent yo-yo was disturbing her innards. Had a minute gone past? Five? Something had to happen or she’d snap. She went through things she might say to put her colleague at ease, to get things going, when Dr Ndlovu turned to her and blinked his magnified eyes.
‘This must be very hard for you,’ he said. It sounded rehearsed, something registrars had been instructed to say to parents of kids in trouble. Annoyance pushed in her throat. ‘I know what it looks like but it’s not what you think. I’m aware, of course, that patients who’ve harmed themselves are automatically referred to a psychiatrist, but Max wasn’t attempting suicide, Dr Ndlovu. ‘It was a prank, gone horribly wrong. Let’s not forget he’s an inexperienced young man. Young men sometimes play with fire. Literally and figuratively. Although,’ she felt forced to add, ‘as an artist I’m sure my son would see it differently.’ Dr Ndlovu adjusted his glasses on the bridge of his nose. ‘How would your son see it?’ ‘Well, he’s a performance artist. I imagine he’d say something like… he was making a statement about the world, making a visual display of how messed up it is. He really didn’t mean to hurt himself.’ The psychiatrist nodded, crank, crank. ‘Apparently he took the precaution of using a barrier gel.’ Barrier gel was probably the wrong word – it sounded like a contraceptive product.
What had the plastic surgeon called it? Fire retardant? ‘If he’d done his homework properly,’ she continued, ‘if he’d protected his airway, if he’d got proper advice from a stuntman, or someone, if the stupid security guard hadn’t sprayed the fire extinguisher right in his face, he probably would’ve got away with it. He has a social conscience, you know, and he’s bright. He got a first in his finals at art school.’ She was sounding mad, even to herself, but medics needed to understand that there was a whole world of people out there who didn’t see things through scientific lenses. Dr Ndlovu cleared his throat. ‘The police want to lay a charge.’ That was unexpected. ‘No, why?’ ‘For public disturbance, maybe arson.’ ‘Goodness! I didn’t know that setting fire to yourself could be considered arson!’ Dr Ndlovu sniffed again, whether from allergies or disapproval, Carol wasn’t sure. ‘He put other people at risk by doing so in a public space. He could have set fire to other structures. It’s a place where children or people with psychological difficulties could see him. It’s very traumatic to see someone burning.’
Carol flushed with embarrassed indignation, that this man at the beginning of his specialist career felt he had to spell all this out to her. She didn’t know what to say, needing to defend her son, to defend herself as a mother, needing to barricade her heart against everything the psychiatrist was implying. Dr Ndlovu inserted his forefingers behind his lenses and rubbed his eyes. He looked tired; no doubt he’d been up all night trying to talk people down from psychotic ledges, medicating them back to reality. He settled back in his chair and sized Carol up as though through a visor. ‘We have to look at why he has chosen public and violent displays to voice his concerns. This could have ended very badly.’ Performance art is public by definition, Carol wanted to object. Her cellphone erupted in her handbag; she probed around and found it. Peter’s name on the screen. She silenced the phone, dropped it back. ‘Sorry.’ ‘Do you mind if I ask a few questions?’
Carol shook her head. Of course she minded, but sometimes one had to comply. ‘You’re in private practice?’ Was that a veiled accusation – that she was one of the lazy, entitled doctors who had abandoned the listing, understaffed ship of the state medical services in favour of self-enrichment? ‘Yes, a family practice. I’m one of four partners.’ ‘You’re divorced? From Max’s father?’ ‘I’m his only parent.’ ‘His father’s deceased?’ This was so annoying, to have to go into it all here with this man, for this reason. ‘His father… well, he’s never been involved. In fact, he doesn’t even know about my son. His son.’ Carol shifted under Dr Ndlovu’s gaze. This information wouldn’t look good if it were plotted on a Normal Family Behaviour Chart. ‘I met him overseas, while travelling after internship.
I only found out I was pregnant once I was back. You know how it was in those days – or maybe you don’t. It was impossible to get an abortion in the old South Africa. ‘Besides,’ she added quickly, ‘I wanted a baby.’ Even if she had wanted to track Neil down, which she hadn’t, it would have been difficult. By the time she’d discovered she was pregnant, he’d already left his rented accommodation in Paris and had returned to his home in the States. Nebraska, or Alaska, she couldn’t remember. Dr Ndlovu wrote something down. No doubt ticking off all the warning boxes: mother is irresponsible, narcissistic, manipulative, hyper-sexed, controlling. Unwanted pregnancy. It wasn’t my fault, she wanted to insist. Life can take strange turns. You should know that, as a psychiatrist. The doctor leaned back in his chair and glanced at his watch. ‘Has your son ever hurt himself before?’ Carol’s mind went straight back to Max’s end of year exhibition two years previously.