Thursday, February 11, 2010

Chapter Four

While Buna slept for the next 12 hours, the psychiatric ward hummed with unusual activity. The ward, of course, was always active with patients in varying stages of inebriation or detoxification. They smoked, yelled, and paced. The more healthy ones played cards or checkers in the lounge. This week, however, marked the beginning of preparations for a special visit from the First Lady to the hospital. It was unlikely that she would visit this ward, where the patients were much less photogenic than in the wing where sick children were housed. Nonetheless, the hospital administration felt it advisable to thoroughly clean the hospital wards, removing broken furniture and applying fresh paint to the smoke-stained walls.

In the process of these renovations, a glaring omission came to light. The psychiatric ward contained not a single representation of the Father of the Country! The ward, which was not spacious, obviously could not contain one of the larger-than-life portraits that adorned city parks. But the portraits of Heymar Alidev were available in infinite gradations of size, so it was hard to understand how this error had occurred.

So while a crew of four men painted the smoking room, Burgar Hadiler, the hospital director made his first visit to the psychiatric ward to talk with Dr. Semonova. Burgar , who was impeccably dressed in a gray suit, carried a small catalog that listed the various representations of Heymar Alidev that were available through the government information agency. These portraits and statues, it should be noted, were not free. The agencies that purchased these items paid a fee to the information agency, a sum subsequently paid to the New Azanistan Party, which owned the publishing rights to all images and words of Heymar Alidev and his son.

To his credit, Burgar was more active than many party loyalists placed in positions that afforded them a large and secure income for only the most token labor. Burgar was easily bored and distracted, so he made a point to personally visit some of the doctors from time to time, ascertaining their political beliefs while bolstering a certain reputation for a direct management style. On these visits, which many a bureaucrat would have regarded as demeaning, Burgar frequently went without an assistant, itself a practice that was almost dangerously strange. As he strode through the hall to the office of the head doctor, the nursing staff blushed and hurried ahead of him. Burgar, a handsome man with wonderful teeth, smiled at the nurse standing by the door as he knocked once and entered upon detecting a nearly inaudible reply.

“Hello, Dr. Semonova,” he said.

Dr. Semonova was seated at her desk when he knocked and entered. She did not rise. While Burgar had the best political connections, connections to which he owed his current position, he had only held the job for two years. Previously, he had been managing a company that imported cars into the country, until this profitable monopoly was taken over by a drinking buddy of the president. In the eyes of Dr. Semonova, Burgar was an unqualified political hack. In fact, he was not especially suited to the job, and as a consequence was generally bored and dissatisfied. Administering a hospital was generally dull, although Burgar was responsible for several innovations. Under his leadership, a high quality and highly profitable plastic surgery clinic had been created.

Burgar stood with the door open, waiting for Dr. Semonova to politely stand and greet him. Burgar knew her opinion of him, but he was equally hostile toward the doctor. She was a vestige of a previous world, a world built on the illusion of equality and idealism. The doctor had no idea about the laws of economics that now ruled the world in general and the functioning of this hospital in particular. Burgar did not want to dismiss her, but neither did he feel resigned to accept contempt from her.

Reluctantly, Dr. Semonova put down the medial journal she was reading, standing up to shake Burgar’s hand.

“Please, sit down, Mr. Hadiler,” she said, motioning to a hard wooden chair by her desk. But Burgar realized now how cramped and uncomfortable this office was. It was crowded with book shelves. The desk itself was covered with neat piles of papers and journals. The only decoration in the room was a small photograph on the wall of a house in the mountains, a house where Dr. Semonova had spent her summers when she was a girl, before the war. The house had long since been destroyed, and the land was now occupied by Argania, but the memories still lived, albeit dimly, with Dr. Semonova. The faded photo caught the eye of Burgar, who walked over to the photo, examining the picture closely.

“Beautiful. Very beautiful. Are you from that region?” he asked.

“My family had a small cottage there. It was my grandparents’ place originally.” Dr. Semonova realized that having family from that area could mean that she also had Arganian blood flowing in her veins. Even Dr. Semonova, who disdained all forms of politics, realized this could create unpleasant consequences for her. And yet, she had an instinctual and awkward habit of honesty.

“Interesting. Well, I really can’t stay. I am interested, as you know, to better understand all the departments of this hospital. I think I can better understand your situation here, after actually seeing this department. It seems, in fact, that your facilities are in very good shape. You have some new furniture out there in the hall. Freshly painted walls. All you need is several of these portraits. Art, I think, should inspire people to do their best. It should offer positive examples. How can your patients reach their potential, if they do not have such positive examples before them?”

Dr. Semonova felt her insides shake as she restrained herself from an angry response. In fact, the new furniture and fresh paint was fine, but in fact the operating budget was inadequate and would continue to be inadequate. For the most part, the staff depended on the payments from the families of the patients. If a patient had no family, then the diet for that patient would likely be a thin potato gruel three times a day, supplemented with bread. The availability of necessary drugs was uneven, and a drunk that happened to land in the ward at an unfortunate time when the drug supply was exhausted might suffer painful and dangerous withdrawal symptoms.

“Yes, it’s very nice of you to paint the lobby. We appreciate that. And I appreciate you taking the time to bring me this catalog. I will immediately determine where would be the most appropriate place for a portrait of our president.”

Burgar smiled broadly. He was pleased, like the dog who has forced a rival to roll over into a submissive pose. He felt no animosity toward this pitiful old woman now.

“Good. I think you can find several places for portraits. It would be better if you did. I think, in fact, we have a nice portrait that would fit right there,” he said, pointing to the spot where the photo of Dr. Semonova’s childhood refuge hung.

His eyes met hers, searching for any faltering in her submission. But she nodded, after a moment of silence.

“Yes, I think you are probably right. I will see if I can find something that would fit.”