Our crew in the hospital consisted of doctors from both Departments of Surgery. We didn’t converse a lot with the therapists. Those who were engaged in purulent surgery were located on the first floor and we in “clean surgery” were based on the second level. There were only two doctors including Anatoly, and they were downstairs on the first floor. When he had gone on one of his drunken binges, only one surgeon remained there. They used to come to us: to discuss the patients, to plan the schedule and just to drink some tea. On the contrary, we didn’t visit their staffroom because they kept it in a mess and it was always awfully smoky. Valery, as a head of the hospital, had his own room in the administration but spent every day with Olga, Nadezhda and me, and treated the patients no differently than the other doctor did.
It was a pleasant surprise for me that people who had been working there for years could somehow retain their own humanity and sincerity; they always helped each other and in a kind way made fun of each other. Olga told me, smiling, that she often found in her drawer brochures about pregnancy and having children, and Valery with a sly smile used to pretend to be surprised: where did they come from?
— Valery, — Olga laughed, — if I have a child, who will do my job? — in those days she was preparing her papers to become an officer and to head the Department of Surgery.
— Are you really going to have a baby? — Valery rejoiced. — That’s wonderful! Don’t worry, we’ll figure something out! — I saw that they had started this discussion a long time ago.
There was friendly space between the doctors, and you would never have known that such open-minded and humorous people worked in a jail, — and they would never have told you. Frankly, I was amazed that it was possible to work in such conditions and remain as they were. I never saw them be rude or unfair to the patients or the orderlies. However, then I understood that it was the only way for them to save their own humanity. There was too big a risk of losing it and becoming just a part of the soulless machine of the penalty system, but in that case, they would have stopped being real doctors or simply despair of their jobs and burn out. So, they had been able to work there for years purely because they were strong enough not to become callous and unsympathetic. I didn’t know if I could stand all that stuff like they could.
When I stayed alone on my third night duty, I found that my cigarettes had finished. There was not any place in the prison where I could buy them and I decided to ask Alexey. I called him and he invited me into his room in the administration. Olga had told me how once the prisoners decided to take revenge on him for something and left drugs in his room. Somebody had whispered to guards, so they came and of course found them. Alexey thus had had a big problem but Valery had defended him. That story was hushed up and he continued to work. Another question was: where had the prisoners got drugs? However, nobody except me was surprised by that fact. “If you have a problem, — Olga had added, — don’t speak about it with the guards, they worry only about their own asses. Speak with me and Valery. We are on your side and will always try to help”.
I went to Alexey and he gave me a very strong cigarette from a pack with the inscription “Yava Gold”. I even made a little hole near the filter to be able to smoke it. He smiled bitterly:
— Did you pick up on the smell near the prisoners’ checkpoint? Cherry smoke. They use “Captain Black” but we can afford to buy ourselves only this rank “Yava”…
When he recognized that I was only on my third-night duty he suddenly frowned and said for some reason:
— That’s all right. It will be easier soon…
I didn’t ask him to clarify this statement. However, when I made my rounds in all three Departments I found myself looking for any signal of problems but in the end considered that everything was ok. I didn’t have any patients in a grave condition. Even in the reanimation room nothing seemed amiss: there was only Valery’s patient who had been operated for the reason of a gastric ulcer. When I came in, he was reading a book. It was the only time I had seen any prisoner reading. He smiled at me, — I remembered it because the prisoners had never smiled, — and said:
— I’m getting better. I’m so glad that I don’t feel pain anymore.
So, I calmly headed for the staffroom. “Is it really going to go well tonight?” — I wondered.
It was not. In the early morning, they woke me up. One orderly reported with an impenetrable face:
— There is a suicide in the reanimation room.
— Good God, what happened? — I shouted at him while frantically pulling on my white robe over a surgical suit.
— He hanged himself. We found him just now.
I ran into the reanimation room. There was a lot of splinters on the floor: the one lamp was broken. I saw several drops of blood on the empty and messy bed. The patient had clumsily hanged himself on a wire tied on a jalousie holder near the window. His left hand was streaked with paths of dried blood. I quickly ordered the others to get him down on the floor, got the loop of wire from around his neck and made sure that reanimation was not an option. It wasn't. He had been absolutely dead for more than one hour.
When my colleagues came in the morning, I just had finished filling out the necessary papers and was waiting for the investigator. He was still working in the reanimation room with his two helpers. Then they prepared the body to send it to the coroner, and the investigator emerged and asked me for a private interview. We retired to the examination room and before he closed the door he turned to the duty orderly in the corridor:
— Make sure please that no one is hanging around near the door. It makes me nervous, — his voice was not loud and all words had sounded matter-of-fact. Something in his tone made that guy flinch and I felt goose bumps on my back.
— What do you think about it? — He took his time lighting a cigarette. I had gotten a strong coffee with me and took a hard gulp.
— I don’t think it was a real suicide, — I answered firmly, — and I’m ready to prove it.
— Do it, please, — he nodded.
— First of all, he was recovering well yesterday evening, he felt very good and told me so. He said it with a kind of joy. He didn’t look like a depressed person.
— Hmm… — He raised his eyebrows. — Unfortunately, you are not a psychiatrist and, moreover, it was impossible to document his mood. We can’t accept this argument.
— Ok, but that’s not all, — I continued vigorously. — Second, it looks like he tried to cut his veins on the arm but failed, so he hanged himself. However, he was left-handed. He would have cut his right arm, but we saw his left arm was cut.
— Ok, — he kept his cold gray eyes on me. — Something else?
— Yes. I observed him before the operation and you can read it in his documents. He had an old neurological problem, so couldn’t raise his hands higher than the level of shoulders. He couldn’t tie a wire on a jalousie holder, so he couldn’t hang himself.
— I see, — he took a long drag. Then he suddenly regarded me with an unnatural grin and began to look like a plastic toy. But his eyes stayed too serious and didn’t fit to his Hollywood smile. — You told everything to me and I listened. You shouldn’t speak about it with anybody else, — we both held a pause. — I know it was not a suicide, but we will never find the murderer and the reason that guy was killed. Nobody will tell us. And we don’t want to open a criminal case because it means only big paperwork and that will just get on our nerves. Moreover, the orderlies showed this case as a suicide, it means, somebody wishes very much to make it look this way. If you prove that it was a murder, one morning the doctors will find you hanging on a window frame. And do you know what will people say? “It was a too hard job for such a young girl. She couldn’t cope”. You did everything well and the main reason of his death really was asphyxia. However, was it a crime or not — it is our business, not yours. And I can’t advise you to discuss it with your colleagues. You never know which wall has an ear.
He continued to smile all during his speech and even left us with that glued white-toothed smirk on his face that in reality struck me more as a grimace. It was creepy for me.
I didn’t know if it really was a coincidence that exactly on my duty they had decided to finish their dark business — whatever it had been — and kill that man. Or maybe they wanted to show me who is the main power in the prison. Or it was just fun for them to see me at such a loss? Anyway, Alexey had predicted correctly: after that, the cases of death ended and my further duties were different in their gravity — and everybody stayed alive. However, I noticed many times how the orderlies fell silent on my arrival and looked at me cautiously. I read in their eyes a mute question: “Did you tell them it was not a suicide?” And I remembered that the emergency button wasn’t working, so nobody would help me if those orderlies stopped being on my side. Maybe it was just my imagination but I was much intimidated. I certainly did not wish to be hanged. So I started to think: what do I want more — to continue to suppress the truth and work for a very low salary in such terrible conditions, while only my silence might prevent me from being killed? To speak the truth and leave the job for fear of my life? I started to ponder: do I have another way?
To be continued