David O. Kelly - first published in The LIfted Brow
A strap of bark soaks curled up in a bucket of red liquid beside a man outside the Hospital Adolfo Guevara Velasco. Next to him an old woman sits with a top hat on, beside a blanket piled high with dead cicadas. Their thoraxes glow golden yellow behind papery wings. We step closer. They’re not insects but a type of fruit. The woman offers us a stuffed bag full. I shake my head. Through the cement struts of the walkway I can see snow on the distant mountains that surround Cusco: the place the ancients called the Navel of the World.
Floor polishers in grey overalls swing their machines back and forth over the foyer linoleum, and gardeners tend to fairytale roses in the internal courtyards. This hospital is for people with insurance incorporated into their employment contracts. The destitute go to the Hospital Antonio Lorena on the city’s edge.
The woman at the computer terminal at Modulo Four takes Jane’s identity card and confirms her ten-thirty appointment. We are directed to stand in the corridor outside the oncologist’s office. There are no chairs. The floor tiles are burnt orange and we have to press against the wall to let the polishers pass. The swirling mat buffs the edges of our boots.
The oncologist says the chemotherapy is no longer working. Jane knows this from the increase of piss-coloured ascites she’s been draining from her stomach into plastic bags every three days. Her chemotherapy has a silly cartoon name. Topotecan. I tell Jane it’s a perfect name for the Inca ruler that let the Spanish march in and take over with just 168 conquistadors. Jane laughs.
The oncologist wants her to try a combination of three other chemotherapies: Cisplatin, Gemzar and Betrapone. These drugs sound like alien invaders from another planet and Jane is enthusiastic. He wants to start treatment the following day but Jane must pick up her medicines from the Farmacia and deliver them to the oncology ward. That’s the way things work. There are no internal mechanisms for the distribution of medicines, and patients line up in the Farmacia from all over the hospital.
We’re the only gringos and the other patients stare. Their faces are all high ledges and sheer drops. Eyes like the small dark caves their ancestors hid bodies in.
Jane’s rank in the queue is stalled while several old people and pregnant women take her place.
“Why are they pushing in?”
“Old people and women with little kids are served first here,” Jane says. “It’s the Peruvian way.”
How quaint, I think, but Jane looks sicker than all of them and there is something aggressive in the way they push past.
An obese man sidles up. He looks barely fifty.
“Say something in Spanish!” I say.
“No, I don’t want to sound like an entitled gringo.”
Do these people think she should go back to her own country for treatment? Jane did go back. She rented a place near her mother’s in Brisbane and I flew up to see her. We walked the same suburban streets we knew in high school: the hot blonde girl and the fag. Jane helped me survive.
Click to register for David's workshop at HWC in April 2015
Mandy Sayer, SMH
Purchase a copy of David's memoir Fantastic Street online
or from Maclean's Booksellers, Hamilton
Click to register for David's workshop in April 2015