The Fifth Horseman

You knew didn’t you

‘It’s gonna be alright,’ Ram’s father told him, holding proud his boy’s collar, adjusting his Windsor knot, while his mother fought her sleepy eyes to ready him his breakfast.

‘I’m not that worried father. Don’t worry, as long as my salary is undisturbed, I’ll continue wiring in every month without fail,’

‘I have no doubt you will. Just wipe the slate clean. You have been given a second chance. All we want is for you to be happy. Understand that,’

‘I do.’

They shared a warm father-son embrace, a rare occurrence; subtle yet momentous.

Ram enjoyed his long drive that evening, about 2 hours away from home, crossing state lines, to a different hospital; a place he had only heard stories of. He reached out to a couple of friends from Medical school who were interning there and the reviews were inconveniently mixed at best.

‘Not here la bro,’

‘Good place, it’s busy but you can learn a lot,’

‘Racist town,’

‘Wonderful people,’

Ram understood that the only perspective he could accept was his own, and today he was here. Hospital Maran, in the bowels of Pahang’s lush forestry, shrouding a town of primarily small business owners, farmers and village folk. This was going to be a very different experience for him, one he wasn’t sure he was ready for.

His phone buzzed. It was their friend-group. ‘All the best Ram,’ texted Jenny, then the rest in succession sent comforting messages of their own, all but Sheila of course. He realised only then that her number had yet been deactivated. ‘Was somebody else now using her number now?’ Still, his fingers didn’t dare welcome this new person, nor play with the fates in dealing with who that was.

Ram was given a warm welcome. The Director met him personally while scrutinizing his file in front of him. Ram was unsure if this was some sort of power play. The man’s broad smile spoke volumes. Maybe, there was very little he knew about him or maybe he was just pretending to keep those cards for a later play, the latter being most likely.

‘Ram, whatever the circumstances were in your old place, it’s not the same here. You have been given a fresh start and…’

‘People keep saying that,’

‘Sorry…’ it was obvious the man wasn’t the type who liked being interrupted, and Ram instantly regretted it.

‘Sorry Doctor I’m just saying, your history doesn’t just “go away” does it?’

The Director closed the file and rested back on the soft cushion of his exaggeratedly large office chair. He put his glasses down and took a long awkward pause. ‘I killed a patient once. Mr Deva, plantation worker in his 60s back then. He always came in with heartburn, just heartburn. I managed everything for him, his meds, his wounds, his diet. I even knew his whole family. I’ve been over several times to their house for Diwali. One fine night, he came with the same thing. I did the ECG but I didn’t notice something; a tiny aberration, but an error nonetheless. It was me, it was all me. He didn’t survive the night.’

‘How did the family take it?’

‘They have had fifteen more happy Diwalis since. And I still go.’

‘they never blamed you,’

‘they forgave, but nobody forgot, I, especially.’

‘So, you’re saying it’ll always be with me,’

‘I am who I am because of it, and…’ he waved his arms wide and showcased his wall of achievements. ‘I like what I am.’

‘You know, don’t you?’ Ram stared into the Director, hoping an honest response.

‘Know what?’ he smiled, abruptly changing the topic. ‘Enjoy your housemanship here Ram, though I have to tell you, life here isn’t as exciting or as scandalous. I make sure of it.’

Ram got up from his chair and shook his hand, confused over his read on the Hospital Director. Every nuance and expression he made, it was getting increasingly obvious to Ram that the man was more than he let out. ‘Oh, he knows.’

**

Damia was anxious, angry, upset and albeit ill-prepared, she knew that there was no excuse to fail the Neonatal Resuscitation Test. Everybody she had ever met said she was a God-sent for the babies. Paediatrics was at the top of her list in Residences to pursue in her near future. That and being a mother herself, she felt was always an added advantage. It was as if it spoke to her, that it was God’s will somehow.

‘No, you’re not sitting for the paper,’ immediately Dr James, the Head of Department stopped her before the exam. He noticed some unwanted attention around them, so they convened in his office.

‘Why?’ Damia asked.

‘Tomorrow,’ he acted almost embarrassed to reply.

Damia was shocked and felt a little violated. ‘How did you know Doctor?’

‘You have not really been quiet about it, have you? But I know how it feels. I have been there myself. Take three days off and get others to cover your shifts. Use your annual leaves if you want a prolonged holiday,’

‘Honestly Doctor, but more free time only makes me think of him more. I rather work after it’s done.’

‘Take my advice. All this is not as predictable as you think. All the best now.’

Damia left his office with a hefty sense of guilt but also gratitude. She had displaced the notion of ‘tomorrow’ so far back in her mind, that the reality of it escaped her most times, but every now and then, the truth would strike her like lightning in a storm.

Salim had long left to his parents’ house after their repeated arguments. There were nights he craved for her, but she would refuse him every chance she got, barring him from getting past the gate. She started to feel unsafe and wouldn’t let him see their child. Still, he was obstinate that he would never give her a divorce. He told her that he still loved her, just that he also loved another, and that there was nothing wrong with that. She painfully disagreed.

Her parents were coming over to her house for moral support. Her sister had cooked for them, and there was much to do at home. Damia sat in her car crying for a good minute before she wiped her face, added some powder and went in to greet everyone.

Athirah, her sweet daughter was crying incessantly. ‘She misses her dad,’ her mother said. To which Damia replied, ‘No, she’s just hungry.’

**

Ram had been travelling from his old place to and fro for nearly a week. He would wake up at 5 am, drive down for 2 hours, start his ”tagging” shift from 7 am to 10 pm and drive right back by midnight only to repeat the whole thing 5 hours later. “Tagging” was a practice all doctors had to do when introduced to a new discipline. It’s lauded to be a great experience but the hours were punishing, especially for interns. It was more exasperating for Ram since he already had experience in the Department of General Surgery and this was just a repeat of things because semantics dictated that his 3 months instead of 4 in the old place be rendered obsolete due to its incompletion.

Nevertheless, he worked through the arduous until he finally found a new residence in Maran itself. The old house in Puchong was immediately taken over by new tenants. Nurul was surprised to see the locks changed and different cars in the driveway. ‘Where the fuck are you?’ she texted him and she was beginning to get worried when there wasn’t a reply.

Ram had been told countless time to put the past behind him. He had 4 months to prove himself. The first day he noticed the wards, he tried to prevent his jaw from dropping.

‘Here are your patients,’ The houseman leader handed him a sheet. Ram counted 25.

‘Review all of them by 8 am,’

‘OK!’ Ram accepting the challenge. ‘Let’s go!’

He didn’t think he would be so quick. In just one hour he was done, and when it was time for rounds, he was confident, prepared, as if he was lightyears ahead of everyone else. In fact, Ram felt a little jarred by how little the others knew. Then again, this was his second time, and to his understanding, most people here didn’t know that.

He decided to use his unique circumstance to his advantage. He basked in the glory of it. He was impressive; a shining superstar. He received a lot of nods from superiors, a few pats from newly found brothers and even a flirty wink from a cute little stranger.

In short, it was a good day, until he saw the text from Nurul that explicitly read, ‘Where the fuck are you?’

‘Sorry, anything?’

‘Nothing, but you’d better keep in touch. You know I’ll find you,’ she texted back angry but relieved.

**

‘The lawyers briefed her as she walked passed the long corridors. ‘You sure? This is the first of many painful steps ahead.’ Damia’s father wiped her tears and hugged her frail little torso. Athirah cooed in the arms of her sister standing in the back, wishing her mother luck in her own way.

‘It’s the first step to stop it,’ the young doctor calmed her father.

‘This way,’ they were in.

Damia walked into a conference room of sort, with a long table in the centre and wooden chairs by its sides, dividing the room to two obvious sections. Across the table was Salim, sitting between a man in a suit and from what she could gather, an Imam. His parents and siblings sat in order as well. Damia and her family took to the opposite side.

Damia smiled at her in-laws, and they returned it albeit with a little hesitance. Damia looked at Salim, her blood boiled but she kept at her glare. She needed to show him that she didn’t fear him. The boy condescendingly looked away.

A mediator sat in the middle. He introduced himself and explained the rules of the Syariah Court. Divorces worked a little differently in Islam and Damia was sure Salim would use that to his advantage. Hence, she made sure she took pre-emptive steps to learn things up so as to not get cornered.

‘Well since we are all here,’ the mediator started.

‘My client has requested to evoke ‘Nusyuz’,’ Salim’s lawyer stated with a robotic tone.

Damia burs out in laughter. ‘Why am I not surprised, Salim?’

Damia’s lawyer implored her to calm down. ‘Getting angry makes it easier for them,’ he whispered. His efforts were fruitless as Damia had a string of comments to follow.

‘You act like you have been there for me all the time. When I think back, when I really think back, it’s never been like that. Never.’

Salim was discouraged from speaking.

‘Yes, hide, cover. That’s what you’re good at. You’re no man Salim, and you wanted to take more wives. Please.’

‘That’s enough Damia,’ Salim retaliated. ‘This is the kind of argument we should have had at home. Not out here. But you never let me in. You waited this long. You wanted this.’

Everyone but the mediator tried to control them. In fact, he seemed intrigued, as though he was encouraging it.

Damia went on with her unsolicited rant, ‘You paint me as the bad guy. You come home barging the gates, Salim, waking up Athirah, waking up the neighbours.’

‘I wanted to see our daughter. I wanted to see you,’

‘Well I don’t want her to see YOU!’ she shrieked. The walls vibrated, and eardrums rang and Athirah started crying. Salim looked over to the baby couldn’t hold.

There was a long uncomfortable silence. Damia’s parents held each other’s hands, weeping for their daughter. Salim’s parents were equally confused and horrified. The tension was fragile and the lawyers were smart to remain silent.

Damia closed her eyes. Her lawyer prematurely decided it was time to continue. ‘Doctor,’ he gently touched her wrist. She couldn’t take the embarrassment. She had lost all her power in court and it felt like the whole world was judging her for it. She pushed away, got up and abruptly walked out of the room, speaking to no one, pretending not to hear all those calling out.

Damia found herself in a lonely corridor. She was sweating, panting, and running out of air. She wanted to loosen her headscarf, undo her collars and just beat her chest out loud, but she instead settled for some deep breathing with her head against a wall. Her family worried and looking for her. Her phone continuously vibrated before she carelessly switched it off.

‘All I need is space, That’s it. Just give me some space.’

She took a long pause and reflected on her life.

She stared at her foot, her sandals looked very pretty. It calmed her to watch her sweat and tears drip and splatter on it.

‘You knew, didn’t you? You said it, I remember you saying it. Then you brushed it off…or I brushed you off… I don’t know… We never spoke the same after that. I did notice… I am the idiot alright? OK SHEILA, I AM THE IDIOT!’

She heard her voice echo past the walls and felt the attention of stray eyes. Though most people dismissed her, she noticed one shadow approached hurriedly. It was her father, running to save his little daughter. Damia broke down bawling, her knees weakened as she fell into her father’s warm and stoic embrace.

**

‘Good day so far?’ Nurul texted.

‘Not as bad as I expected,’

‘Good to know,’

Ram was in the middle of lunch in the pantry. A sweet young Malay house officer sat next to him. He noticed she was the one who winked earlier. He learned that her name was Isabelle, and it was her first month in service and was also currently single and unattached; all information she willingly gave.

‘I don’t know. It’s growing on me,’ Ram replied at Nurul while chatting with his newly found friend.

‘You seem to be busy on your phone. When I come here, I just turn on “vibrate”. Unless the hospital is looking, the rest can wait right?’ Isabelle smiled while gently touching his wrist.

‘Well, yeah. I suppose,’

‘You remind me of someone,’

Ram smiled cheekily. He wasn’t unmindful about certain things; mostly weed and women. Ram could spot a flirt from miles away.

His phoned chimed again.

‘New place new life eh?’ Nurul was attempting to be suggestive, but this time Ram was oblivious.

‘Well, yeah,’

‘Doesn’t mean she’s less DEAD now is she?’ Nurul peered at her screen anticipating his reply.

Then it came, ‘GO FUCK YOURSELF INSPECTOR,’

Before Nurul could reply, Ram sent her another, ‘Why are you so free anyway? Don’t you have other things to do? People to harass? or take bribes from?’

‘Yeah, all done for today. So, I’m bored now waiting in my car in front of the courthouse. Why not bother my favourite doctor in the world, right?’ she replied with adding a subtle “wink” emoji to her text.

Ram was surprised to find Isabelle long gone. ‘Shame,’ he sighed all too momentarily before he stared right back at the phone.

‘Why the courthouse?’ Ram replied casually.

‘Waiting for a friend of YOURS actually. Doctor Damia Rizal, if I’m not mistaken’

‘What is she doing over there?’

‘Oh, you didn’t know?’ Nurul smiled, biting her lower lip, pondering if she should to tell him.

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