It was a ward 13 day on Wednesday and medication day too, it’s always wise to get there as close to 7.30am as you can.
The pharmacy is full of varnished and uncomfortable benches, with pharmacists busy as honey badgers round a cobra, behind plywood and glass. First you wait in the front row until a very short and permanently pissed off woman calls and there’s a mad scramble of a queue to hand in your meds card. They’re bright yellow, A4 sized cardboard and mine was folded in half. “stretch it,” hissed the angry gnome, and I’m not joking about the hissing. “What?” quoth I in bewildered tones. “Stretch it,” she said crossly, and so I unfolded the card, now stretched back to its full length again and handed it over.
Once you’ve done that, you go and sit anywhere you like at the back of the rather cavernous room and if you’re me, you gaze around pretending to check your phone frequently so that you can sneak a few photos. I carefully watched the gnome’s face at first, to see if she was peeved with everyone, or just me. Well hey, I’m bipolar, I’m constantly under the impression that people are cross with me. I was reassured to see that her demeanor remained aggressive. Once the current intake have all handed in their cards, the pharmacists do their honey badger impersonation again, organising everyone’s meds at once.
A tall man in a full bench under the TV with its padlocked straitjacket was looking our way. “If that man keeps staring,” said my friend, who doesn’t believe in lowered tones, “I’ll punch him.” We both stared back quietly until he looked away. It didn’t bother me, but I am a loyal friend. “How much shweshwe do you reckon is in here?” said my friend, and we looked around, counting skirts and headscarves; there weren’t many. “About three metres,” I guesstimated. Some more shweshwe clad women ambled in to add a few metres. The other people were mostly smartly dressed women, I only noticed one other psych outpatient. She looked utterly and sadly fucked, tottering about and calling, “buh-bye julle,” on her way out, clutching her meds. Nobody seemed to notice and there were probably very few afrikaans speakers there anyway. She was dressed all in purple, thin as a biltong stick, lined as a map. An old and very portly woman sat down opposite us, inspecting I don’t know how many boxes and packets of pills. Lots. We peer at them, whispering “heart,” and “thyroid.” A prisoner and a guard walk in, the guard large in brown, the prisoner small in orange, chains clanking. I’m not kidding about that either.
The gnome slammed open her window and grabbed her mic. She began calling names, bellowing indistinctly. Trying to separate names from their surrounding cacophony is an interesting and confusing exercise and I’m always incredibly anxious about hearing my own. If you miss the opportunity, you have to join the back of the queue and go through the whole process again. “Too long,” I mutter, or “definitely not me,” with an odd sort of relief when I know for sure that the garbled shout wasn’t aimed at me. I have four of the same letters in my first and surname combined and so that’s what I listen out for, so that I can scuttle nervously gnomewards when it comes.
Unlike the rest, she only barks out my surname only; my first name is unpronounceable by every single population group in South Africa. Everyone’s names are rapid fire repeated until their owners reach the counter. Thwack and my meds are before me, rattle and they’re mine. “Thank you,” I said merrily, for it is my habit to meet anger with charm in such situations; all of those people work very hard for not very much. She didnt hear me. I leaned forwards, smiled and said, “thank you so much,” and she smiled back. Acknowledge humanity with humanity; it causes smiles more often than not.
And I leave, relieved, my meds sorted for another 28 days.