The night was a coal-black mass covered with a thick white blanket. The snow falling gently over Toronto was forcing motorists to slow down. Most were powerless to prevent their vehicles from sliding, as they weren’t accustomed to the slippery buildup. Usually the snow eased off and melted quickly from the pavement. On the east side of the city, in an apartment on Sutton Street, an exhausted couple lay sleeping. Apollinaire Mavoungou and his wife Adèle lived in a tiny furnished basement with their baby. Their slumberous faces were those of depleted souls relishing the respite from the toil of everyday living. None of them had moved for hours, not even unconsciously into a more comfortable position. Their utter stillness and worn-out covers reflected a stark, almost sickly need for night to extend beyond the arbitrary border of day. Their motionless figures in the hollow silence of the basement begged darkness to continue, the snow to keep on dusting the bowels of the city, and the stars to go on shining for the weary of spirit.
The telephone rang, disrupting the regularity of their breathing. Apollinaire lifted the receiver with a hesitant hand. The baby started to cry. Adèle reared up like a snake ready to bite and swore in her mother tongue. Scrambling out of bed, she went to soothe the infant, who was in a little room next to their own. She moved through the darkness, tall and steady, without any fear of obstacles. The sarong she was wearing accentuated the arch of her back.
“Schweitzer? Get over here, it’s urgent!”
“Nicéphore, I was sleeping! Can’t it wait till morning?”
Apollinaire, called Schweitzer by his countrymen, knew that Nicéphore needed medical help.
“All right, I’m on my way,” he said, his voice still groggy from the intrusion. Apollinaire scurried out of bed and realized that Anne had stopped crying. He could hear her sucking at her mother’s breast.
“Where are you going now?” Adèle’s tone was more listless than annoyed.
“It’s an em-mergency,” he stammered.
He slipped on his khaki pants, white shirt and black sweater, snatched his coat, and zigzagged through the toys scattered outside the baby’s room. After running a damp washcloth over his face, he grabbed his medical bag. The scratches here and there in the leather betrayed its age. The metal clasp was gone; only a black shoelace prevented the contents from falling out.
“I’ll call you if I’m held up.”
“No. I don’t want you to wake the baby. I know you’re going to see that lunatic Nicéphore. I’ll call if I need you.”
Apollinaire didn’t answer. He left the apartment through a narrow door, which he quickly closed and locked behind him. Ice-covered stairs led up to a small walkway between the two houses. He climbed the steps carefully, having already fallen many times. His landlord, Kevin Watson, was a reserved man, a loner, a penny-pincher. As usual, he had turned off all the outside lights.
* * *
On the drive over, Apollinaire thought about Adèle. He could feel her resignation, which lingered even after a good night’s sleep. He knew she was fed up with living on the verge of poverty. Her resentment had settled in, like a virus in a healthy body. These past five winters in Canada had not been easy. The couple was having a hard time making ends meet: Adèle was working as a cleaning lady at a downtown hotel; he was employed as a customer service agent for a telephone company, but he frequently changed jobs. First he had been with a travel agency, then a pizzeria, then a delivery company. In Africa, he had been a physician; in Canada, he didn’t have a licence to practise.
A passerby hailed his cab near an intersection. The doctor drove on without even turning his head. Deep in thought, he had forgotten to switch off the top light. Nicéphore’s place was ten minutes away, in a densely populated neighbourhood in the west end. Seedy bars lined the street like a string of cheap pearls. Neon lights were still lit in an attempt to brighten up the atmosphere, but to no avail: their dim halos were swallowed up by the whiteness of the empty streets and sidewalks. Apollinaire parked near Lansdowne, strode up the stairs of the building and through the dilapidated front door. He knocked once and Nicéphore’s wife Marcella appeared, her two little boys clinging to either side of her skirt.
“He’s in the bedroom,” she said, as she turned and walked away.
Apollinaire found Nicéphore in bed with a drenched bandage around his neck.
“Ouff. Brother, I don’t know,” croaked Nicéphore.
The dressing, soaked with blood and Mercurochrome, was about to fall off. The doctor opened his bag, slipped on a pair of latex gloves and removed it without a word. The cut, which was wide but shallow, was still bleeding. Apollinaire examined it more closely; he touched the skin around it and Nicéphore jumped, wincing with pain. Apollinaire asked Marcella, who was standing in the doorway, for a plastic bag. He put the saturated bandage in the bag then disinfected the wound. When the bleeding finally stopped, he placed a fresh, wide dressing over the cut.
“There you go. It should heal on its own. If it starts bleeding again, call me. I’ll come and stitch it. You can take these pills for the pain.”
Apollinaire stood up, closing his bag. “Get lots of rest. I’ll come back and see you.”
Nicéphore managed a slight smile of gratitude. “Schweitzer, you saved my hide, you have no idea.”
“Oh cut it out. You only called him because I told you to,” said Marcella, looking furious.
“You, shut up. Was I talking to you?”
The twins watched the scene, peeking out from behind their mother’s skirt. Their round black eyes took in every move their parents made. Marcella shook her head, exasperated, then turned to Apollinaire.
“He got into a fight with that stupid friend of his, Wilson, the drunk. That’s how he got hurt.”
“Get out of here!” yelled Nicéphore.
Apollinaire gestured for them to calm down. “Marcella, go put the boys to bed. It’s late. I want to speak to your husband.”
She grunted and left the room, the twins right behind her. The doctor set his bag down by the bed and began pacing back and forth. He was a tall man with a slight paunch, revealing a lack of exercise. His angular face, grey-streaked hair and searching eyes made people pay attention to him. Apollinaire was barely forty, but moved like someone twice his age.
“Tell you what?”
“How you got hurt.”
Nicéphore made like he wanted to change positions in bed, to buy some time to think.
“Is it serious?”
“You’re lucky. He missed your jugular.”
An icy silence followed. Nicéphore scratched his head. His bare torso, smooth and lean, glistened under the white ceiling light.
“Marcella was right. It was Wilson. But it was an accident! He didn’t really mean to. We’d had a few beers in that rat hole on Dundas.” Nicéphore stopped abruptly. “You know Wilson?”
“Vaguely. He’s the guy from Nova Scotia, right?
“Yeah, that’s him. We were horsing around as usual.”
“That idiot, Marcella. She can’t keep her mouth shut for two seconds.”
“I would’ve asked you what happened anyway.”
This was not true: Apollinaire was trying to defend Marcella. He preferred not to get involved in Nicéphore’s affairs. The man was too violent. And how could he help him? Certainly not by going to the police. Treating someone when you don’t have a medical licence is a serious offence.
“Go on. Then what happened?”
Nicéphore looked at the doctor’s stern face. He didn’t like the man much. He suspected the doctor was after his wife and he was unsure about his past. Rumours had spread that Apollinaire’s hands were “unclean,” that he had collaborated with the bloody dictatorship back in Africa. Nicéphore wasn’t afraid, but he thought it better to cooperate in case the rumours were true.
“I don’t know. I think I owe him some money or something. We’d had a few beers.”
“Was he the one who pulled the knife?”
“Yeah. A long, sharp thing. I didn’t see it coming. I was on the floor in two seconds, bleeding. And Wilson had vanished. I wasn’t gonna wait for the cops!”
“Don’t tell me. . . Look, Wilson’s a friend. Besides, it’s too late now. If I go to the cops, they’ll ask me who fixed me up.”
The doctor didn’t appreciate that last comment. “Let me give you some friendly advice. Keep your mouth shut when you’re drinking.”
Nicéphore didn’t answer. He closed his eyes as if wanting to sleep. Apollinaire left the room and found Marcella in the kitchen.
“Here, this is for your family,” she said, handing the doctor a plastic bag containing a huge frozen chicken. He politely declined. He never accepted anything. He didn’t treat people for gain; he did it out of necessity. He still needed to feel like a doctor. After all, it was his profession. Without it, he was nothing. Nobody.
Marcella gave Apollinaire a conspiratorial look. “Meet me behind the building. I have to talk to you.”
Apollinaire waited shivering by the trash bins. He was wearing gloves, but his fingers were still numb. Exhaling deeply, he watched his breath dissipate into the night air. He knew what Marcella wanted to talk to him about: Nicéphore and how he treated her. He turned up his collar and stamped his feet. Despite the cold, the smell of garbage was foul. Marcella finally appeared carrying two bags of waste. The brown coat she was wearing must have been her husband’s because it was hanging so loosely. She tossed the bags into the bin and walked over to Apollinaire.
“I’m afraid. He’s started again.”
“Hitting you, you mean?”
Her lips were quivering. Apollinaire wondered if it was the cold or fear.
“He comes home drunk every night and insults me in front of the kids. You have to help me—I don’t know what to do anymore.”
The doctor clenched his jaw in frustration and dug his hands into his pant pockets. Marcella brushed the tears from her cheeks.
“What about his promise?” he asked, referring to the anger management sessions Nicéphore had agreed to take.
“He hasn’t been going for the past week. He says he’s looking for work. What a joke! He’s just been drinking away the money I give him.”
“The money you give him?”
“Yeah, and if I don’t, he flies into a rage.”
“I’ll speak to him.”
“Not when he’s still got that much alcohol in his system. There’s no point.” Marcella shivered under her coat. “Talk to him when he’s sobered up. But don’t tell him we spoke. He’d be insanely jealous.”
“Don’t worry. He won’t find out. Go back in now. Otherwise he’ll be suspicious.”
He watched the young woman disappear into the darkness, sensing the defeat in her fragile figure. He’d met Marcella in Canada a few years earlier. She wasn’t a close friend but he felt obliged to help her. They were from the same village and Apollinaire knew what that meant to a woman like Marcella, so he tried not to disappoint her. He saw her struggling with a violent husband in a cold country, but he didn’t have the heart to tell her there was nothing he could do for her. Marcella had chosen him as her confidant, her lifeline. He could see the loneliness in the premature lines on her face and had to look down every time he felt like dismissing her. This woman, whom he eyed furtively now and then, was like a lost child in a schoolyard governed by rules she didn’t know. Marcella saw Apollinaire as a witness to her life, someone who could testify to where she was from, someone who knew that her life in the tropics had not been a mirage.
Originally published as “Il est tard Docteur Schweitzer,” from the novel Ce pays qui est le mien, by Didier Leclair.