A quarter of an hour or less is the time he spends on his bicycle each morning to reach the health centre. When he once tried the distance on foot it did not take him much longer. Yet he went back to riding the bicycle. He would ride close to the pavement waiting for the cars to clear out of the way so he could close his eyes and let the world recede. He would let it slip by on both sides without attempting to notice it. This did not always happen because traffic was at its heaviest during that hour. But that momentary state, once it descended upon him, would fill him with a rare sense of happiness that would last him the whole day.
He liked to stand his bicycle against the wall of the medical storage facility, relishing the beauty of that moment, the moment when he had closed his eyes and continued to pedal, pushing through the tender grey darkness pierced by a distant blur of light. He could not tell whether his happiness was caused by the darkness whose recesses he navigated, or by the light whose source he could not distinguish. The quiet of the health centre augmented his chance to sense this morning happiness and he still had an hour before it became very busy, when he would not be able to turn in on himself. The patients, lined up in front of the cashier’s window, would not leave any time for that. He would ask each of them their name and age and write them down on an appointment slip. Then he would rewrite them in each of their folders. After that he would inquire as to the symptoms, not to make a diagnosis but to refer the patients to the right doctors, noting his comments in the corner of the appointment slip: general, dermatology, pediatrics, etc. Then he would collect the fee as he moved on to the next slip.
Reaching the last slip on the appointment book would remind him of the rapid passage of time. He would pull out another appointment book and thumb through it, making sure all the cards had been stamped. His workday apparatus is one and a half appointment books. Sometimes a little more or a little less, but always fluctuating within this range, as if sickness can afflict only a certain number of people every day. After that the number of drop-in patients decreases until they almost or completely disappear toward midday. Often he would remain seated on his chair until the end of his shift. He has no desire to socialise with the employees of the centre as they gather, without prior plan, in the pharmacy, nursing room or laboratory to eat the food they have brought from home and sip tea as they chat, moving casually from one subject to another. On the few occasions he decided to join them he could not stop himself from closing his eyes as if to allow the things happening around him to recede with the same ease with which he let the world around him recede every morning. The last time he did that, the silence of his colleagues surprised him. He thought about the moments of detachment without opening his eyes, and then, as their silence continued, he opened them and saw that they were staring at him. Their hands were holding their food containers and teacups and their eyes gawped at him. He found himself fumbling to conceal embarrassment and heard his voice quietly tell them that he had not slept well the night before. He could hear their voices rise once he had shut the door behind him.
He started filling his time by organising the patients’ files. He would draw slots with horizontal and vertical lines, and stamp the next day’s appointment slips. After eating his lunch he would fill his white teacup with the little strawberry on a thin stem painted on it. The cup would sit on the table until the end of the workday because he preferred drinking his tea in distant sips, relishing the bitterness that intensified as the tea became colder. He would contemplate the teacup on the table and think that the tiny strawberry was inappropriate for a cup of that size. He would wonder again: couldn’t it have been just a tad larger?
After returning he would take a look from the top pane of the window of his cashier’s room at the hollow dirt field beyond the health centre’s fence. He would envision the commotion the boys would make as they played soccer. He had not seen boys play there before but he was certain they would not leave a plot of land that spacious without fixing their two goalposts on it.
This time he saw a white car approach slowly and park in the middle of the field (few cars pass this field, most of them mini cabs). He estimated that the car had broken down, and waited for the driver to get out to open the bonnet. He got out indeed, but did not walk toward the bonnet. He leant against the door and pulled out a pack of cigarettes from his shirt pocket. He took out a cigarette, lit it, and began smoking. Two men got out of the car after him. One of them put his hand on the shoulder of the other, who was blindfolded, while pushing him toward the driver, who took hold of the man and forced him violently to his knees. At that moment the health centre cashier sensed the warmth of the teacup. He placed it back on the table and withdrew his hand, surprised by its trembling. He resumed his watching. One of the two men pulled out a gun and shot the blindfolded man three times in the head.
On his way home the cashier closed his eyes. He continued pedalling as the crowd thinned out in the streets around him. Unusually, he did not feel himself move in his grey darkness, and did not wonder about his distant blur of light. And closing his eyes this time, there was the hand jerking back at each shot and the head convulsing.
Basra, 12 May 2006
Translated by Yasmeen Hanoosh from the story’s online publication on www.kikah.com, August 2006. This story was winner of the Kikah best short story award, Summer 2006