The short story deals with the aspects of life when you are terrorized by a foreign memory. It is written in 2007 by Jo Cannon.
The short story is told by a doctor and psychiatrist looking back at his time in Africa. He had a young girl named Celia as a servant, who he developed a close bond to, during his time in Africa. One day, she was found bruised and dying. Later it was discovered that she died of meningitis. The doctor is now haunted by the memory of her death, especially because he deeply regrets not saving her. The narrator remains unnamed throughout the short story. He claims that he was 28 when he was in Africa, and several times afterwards tells that it has been 10 since he has been there, “I haven’t drawn anything for ten years”. So the narrator is most likely in his late thirties. The narrator states several times that he is not the same man today as he was in Africa, “I barely recognize the man I was then. A thin strand of consciousness is all that connects us”.
In Africa, he often made creative drawings to let his mind wander. In this way, he can use his creativity to mentally escape from his sometimes depressing job in Africa. Celia’s death has affected him a lot since his time in Africa. He hasn’t been drawing, because he is afraid of what he might think, “I don’t like the places my thoughts go when set free”. The mentioned “places” must be Celia, as he in the beginning states that her face is the one image that makes sense of life, “Her face has been with me every day for ten years”. He has retrained as a psychiatrist, as he appears to be traumatized by his time as a doctor in Africa.
He reveals that he is on strong medications to even sleep, although he is still haunted by his memories at night, “Even now, when a passing car lights up my wall I jerk awake with hot rivulets of anxiety running through my limbs”. He is aware that the incident in Africa has damaged him, as seen when he compares himself to his psychiatric patients, “They use bold capital letters while my writing is small and secretive, but the content is the same”. When he talks about how he didn’t want a servant because it was wrong, he states that “Things were clearer then, I have lost my old certainty”. He is no longer sure what is wrong and what is right, he made an error of judgment which resulted in the death of someone he loved.
Celia is the young servant who came with the house he received. They develop a bond one evening when she is watching him sketch his drawings, which among others is the focal point in this story. That the insignificant gesture, just watching concentrated for instance, can bond to people together. The doctor has a fear of cockroaches, and Celia sees this, and acts upon it, “She seemed to feel it her duty to protect me from cockroaches”. Again, an insignificant gesture touches him, and makes their bond even stronger.
The nurses tell him that it was her boyfriend who beat her up, and he takes their word for it, even though he has earlier stated that “An African hospital is as much a gossip factory as a British one”. When the doctor later receives a letter, which reveals that Celia died of meningitis, he is beyond shocked, “My body changed temperature as though I had missed my footing at the top of a flight of stairs”. He remembers then that she had gone home early because she didn’t feel well, and he realizes he could have saved her from death already then, with an injection of penicillin.
Instead he “had acted on a second hand story from a frightened village woman who had jumped to conclusions”. By the doctor’s simple error in judgment, two young lives are lost. He knows this, and the guilt has been weighing on his shoulders for ten years, as seen when he is haunted by the memory over and over: “Some days I don’t think about it. But when I do, heat washes through me again, right into the bones of my skull.”
In the end of the short story, the doctor is at a psychiatric ward, when he sees a cockroach. An African nurse notices his fear of it, and crushes it, just like Celia did. To her it was just an insignificant gesture, but for the doctor it was a gesture that united him with his life in Africa. The nurse is from the same area of Africa as the doctor was stationed in and it seems that her appearance made him remember, “I recognized the neatness of head and delicacy of features, the precise dark-brown shade of skin”. He told her about his life, and it seems as he had finally got closure to this memory that has been terrorizing him.
Jo Cannon describes a life where the insignificant gestures do all the difference.
Courtney from Study Moose
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