It was still dark when I heard the urgent whisper, ‘Sister, sister, it is time to go.’ I crawled out of my warm nest, pulling my chaddar on straight. Khudadad had already rolled up his bedding. Under his impatient gaze I fumbled clumsily trying to roll my sleeping bag to a size small enough to squeeze back into its ridiculously tiny nylon bag. Finally he took over and somehow stuffed it in, picked up our bags and headed for the door. ‘Come. Sayed is waiting.’
‘But, I have to go outside first,’ I whispered.
‘Now?’ Khudadad’s voice rose to a hysterical pitch, provoking mutters and grumbles from the sleeping bodies scattered about the room. ‘Sayed will be angry if we are late. We will stop soon.’
I trotted along the deserted street, trying to keep up with Khudadad’s hurried stride, hearing the thrum of the trucks’ engines warming up. One look at Sayed, fingers drumming on the steering wheel, was enough for me to climb into my place and keep my mouth shut about needing to pee. He was obviously not back on home ground yet.
At precisely four o’clock we departed, roaring off through the still sleeping bazaar. I snuggled into my little corner of the hard wooden bench hoping I could sleep away the time until Sayed made the breakfast stop. I dozed fitfully, waking when the truck stopped. Khudadad clambered down to see what was happening. My hopes were dashed when he returned, saying, ‘One truck has a puncture. There is nowhere for you to go here.’ I squirmed uncomfortably on my seat. Seeing a line of truck crews relieving themselves didn’t help.
Angry with the delay Sayed, determined to make up lost time, kept on trucking. I became increasingly desperate. It was worse even than being trapped on the bus in Maqoor – at least it had been stationary. This was sheer torture. How I didn’t end up with an attack of cystitis, I’ll never know. I’d just decided to risk Sayed’s wrath by insisting he stop to let me pee when, finally, after almost six excruciatingly painful hours on the road, he announced that we had reached our breakfast stop.
‘Tea!’ gasped Khudadad, heading for the hotel. I stared at him.
‘Well, do you think, first I, em, ….?’ Khudadad was contrite.
‘Oh, I am sorry, sister. I forgot.’ Yeah, because you’d already relieved yourself. He led the way under some trees, along a river bank. Each time I indicated a suitable place he dismissed it and marched on. I was beginning to wonder for how many miles he intended to walk, when he stopped, pointing towards a group of scrubby bushes. ‘I think there should be all right. I’ll wait here.’ I decided, Khudadad was taking the foreigner’s need for privacy a bit too seriously if was going to lead me on a route march each time.
Together we rushed back to the chaikhana, terrified that Sayed might be ready to move on already, before we even got a sniff at the tea. Khudadad indicated a rickety ladder which led to an empty room above. Strangely, a bed stood in one corner – a metal-framed, hospital bed. After a few minutes a loaded tray appeared through the trapdoor. Some sticky brown, very sweet halwa was accompanied by nan, and of course, two pots of tea. I was learning how wonderful tea was as on a journey when throats are clogged with dust.
Footsteps sounded on the ladder and a man appeared carrying a bundle which he deposited unceremoniously on the bed. A woman followed, shrouded in a voluminous chaddar. We greeted each other before the man began to talk at some length to Khudadad, occasionally gesturing towards the bundle on the bed.
Khudadad translated, ‘Their baby is sick. Diarrhoea. They want you to give it some medicine.’
‘But I am not a doctor.’
‘They think you are.’
‘Please, Khudadad, tell them I’m not. They must go to a proper doctor. There’s a German hospital near here, isn’t there?’
Khudadad nodded, spoke to the baby’s father, too rapidly for me to follow. He turned back, ‘I told him that you don’t have any equipment or medicines with you, but he said you can write a prescription and he will buy the medicines in the bazaar.’
Before I had a chance to protest at Khudadad’s duplicity, the hotel keeper popped his head through the trap door to offer the loan of a blood pressure set. I wondered if the German sponsored hospital had noticed that a bed and a BP set were missing. In the meantime, the mother was eagerly un-wrapping the bundle on the bed to show me the baby.
‘Khudadad, I can’t give a prescription for medicines when I don’t know the cause of the diarrhoea. It’s dangerous. The only thing I can say is that they give the baby plenty of fluids – they can surely find rehydration salts in the bazaar – but they must go to the clinic.’
Khudadad talked for a very long time and I wondered what embellishments of his own he was adding. The baby’s father did not look impressed. Finally, Khudadad turned back to me, saying, ‘I told him how to mix the ORS but he says ORS is not a proper medicine. He wants injections. He says you are not a good doctor.’
I opened my mouth to repeat that I was not a doctor but a bellow from below indicated Sayed was ready to go. I murmured polite goodbyes to the disappointed couple, now busily re-wrapping the baby, tying it up like a parcel with embroidered ribbons.
Back in the truck I mused on how easy it would have been to make the couple happy by scribbling a prescription for antibiotics. They would have gone away thinking I was a good doctor rather than a useless and unhelpful foreigner. But, I knew my conscience would have troubled me, worrying if I’d inadvertently killed the baby. Of course, the baby might die anyway – or get better if the mother prevented it becoming dehydrated. Oblivious to my dilemma, Khudadad snored next to me.