We were sitting and smoking on the windowsill in a bare examination room inside a hospital. There were out-dated but clean furnishings around us, with patches on the upholstery and traces of multiple repairs on wooden parts. Clearly, someone had at least cared enough to make the room presentable to staff workers. Unlikely somebody could try for the sake of patients here. The doctor next to me was a young woman a few years older than me. It was she who had invited me to work here. She had been a classmate of my older sister and received her training as an oncologist, but she was working here as a general practitioner. I had just recently finished my internship as a traumatologist. We opened the window and the cigarette smoke mixed in the clean air with the smell of blooming lilac.
— Those guys you’ve seen in the hospital corridor, honey angels in white clothes, orderlies. They are prisoners too, but they are in good standing with the guards from security. They are very friendly and always ready to help, but you shouldn’t trust them completely, — she said.
— Mmm? — I raised my eyebrows. I felt some apprehension but had decided to portray the maximum air of confidence and not look surprised regardless of what might happen, because only determination and peace of mind could help me in this strange environment. I knew that if circumstances became more dangerous, I would have to stay calm in order to control the situation.
— When the day work finishes and our crew go home, — she continued — only one doctor and a few nurses stay in the hospital with the orderlies and patients. At that time those nice guys change their clothes and transform back to black dickens, — she smiled, but I saw her grave eyes. It seemed as she was not joking and I felt suddenly tense, imagining that I could see only one inoffensive part of reality without even knowing that a more malevolent side — dark, grim, devouring — existed…until it pounced. I listened very carefully, pretending serenity. — All of them want to get freedom as soon as possible, so they will help you. However they are a part of the local social system and have to obey the unwritten prison’s laws. They have their own ways and it would be better for you if you don’t horn in.
— Is there a guard anywhere near the hospital? — I asked. The hospital had been built by prisoners in the 1930s, exactly in the center of the prison, arriving at the present squat and stolid two-storey building with functional stairs and floors you wouldn’t trip on when walking across, and, indeed, it seemed like it could endure one hundred years more. I had to pass through four checkpoints to reach the place of my new job. The first two checkpoints were monitored by security, but at the other two I met only duty prisoners. — Could the security help in case of an unforeseen situation?
— No, there is not, but in the staffroom we have an emergency button, I’ll show it to you.
— Oh, very good.
— It works only during the day. At night the orderlies turn it off. They know where the wire goes.
— Why they do that? — I imagined myself in the night surrounded only by unfamiliar prisoners, and I involuntarily took a long drag on my cigarette.
— Just in case, — my companion smiled again. — I think they like to feel that they can affect something even if at night.
— Be honest, — I said. — Is it dangerous to work here?
She was silent for a few seconds then turned her imperturbable face to me. Her managing of emotions was perfect. It seemed that she was enjoying her cigarette that spring and sunny day of blooming lilac and conversation with me. The walls under a layer of ancient green paint began look too real and tough, as coarse as an elephant's skin. Somewhere inside me I felt the flashing of a lonely red hazard lamp and could not reconcile such a reflexive cry of dismay as I heard in my brain with the seductiveness of her placid affirmations that all would be well.
— Maybe a little. Observe safety rules — you will learn them. And you should not be afraid of any mass events. If such kind of fight happened, orderlies would be on your side. There is a very small probability that it could happen. Last time they fought wall to wall was in the 1990s. By the way, some people have worked here all their lives. You should make the prisoners respect you and it will be easier to work with them.
— Do you think I can? — I inquired.
— It depends on you. First of all… Are you married?
— No, but I have a boyfriend. Why do you ask? — it was unexpected question for me.
— You are a pretty young girl and probably some of them will try to take care of you. They can be so sweet, but they watch your every move. Remember that they are just prisoners... for the reasons of robberies, sales of drugs, murders and stuff like that. They don’t have enough fun here and it would be like hunting or gambling for them, — she looked like a biologist enthusiastically discussing the very interesting behavior of wild animals.
— Don’t worry please. I have been working for three years in emergency stations, so I’m lucky to have strong nerves, — I tried to sound self-assured.
— Ok. Once we were forced to fire a young nurse when she fell in love with a patient. It was a real fun for them. We should keep the distance for our safety. And the second thing. They will test you. They always test new workers.
I was not surprised. In my internship everybody had tried to test me because it was unusual for a girl to choose this physically hard “men’s specialization”. They had tested me every day for one year and compelled me to learn several thick textbooks by heart. Which I did, so then they decided that I was just a smart dull beggar and did not let me have enough practical experience. Almost every doctor used to try to prove that I was worse than he was and that a girl cannot work as a traumatologist. It was a long wearying battle for me but I deserved my certification and got used to the difficulties. However, I was now curious as to just exactly how the prisoners could test me if they were not doctors?
— What I should be prepared for?
— I’m ready to bet that during your first few shifts some patients will die, — her words had caught me totally off-guard.
— Do you mean they will die because I have a lack of experience or… — I was at a loss but thought quickly. Is it possible that they would kill each other just for fun and to impress me? I did not get this question out because I saw that she understood my unspoken words very well.
— Not exactly in that way. You should think of it as a coincidences or the work of a mystic. It just seems that someone always dies every time a new doctor or nurse comes to their first night duties. The orderlies and all the hospital will watch over your reaction. You should be steady.
She retrieved the ashtray from the threadbare drawer. We put out the cigarettes and went out to the staffroom to plan my shifts. My strange experience had started.Continue to read. Part 1