‘We just have to stop at the morgue first. I left my boots and robe there.’ Babita’s small frame was hopping down the stairs of the pathology building. She was taking equally short Mabel to her very first crime scene as forensic pathologist.
Since Mabel never ‘hopped’ down anything, she was trotting to keep up with Babita. But she was thrilled. This is the messy stuff she was looking forward to as student, tolerating hours of study and minutes of sleeping. This is it. This is where she’s going to make South Africa a better place…
‘What’s the telephone books for?’ asked Mabel, staring at three thick telephone books under Babita’s arms.
‘Oh, you’ll see.’
Arriving at the boring white government sedan that would serve as Bat Mobile for the day, Mabel realised the purpose of the books. Babita put all three on the driver’s seat, covered them with a towel, and positioned herself neatly on top of the books behind the driving wheel. She was so short she would never have been able to look past the steering wheel without the books.
Mabel did not consider this good news. ‘Oh good. Today I die.’
‘No man, I drive like this all the time. It’ll be fine.’
Mabel took occupation of the passenger seat but apprehended the driver with some distrust. This petite Indian woman is still a stranger. A seemingly lovely one, but a stranger nonetheless. How will this end?
By the time the ladies had reached the varsity exit gate, Mabel knew that she would be changed by the nature of her work as much as by that car ride. Babita, as demure and calm as she seems at first glance, considers road rules mere obstacles to reaching one’s destination. Problems to be solved. And every time Babita stepped onto the brake pedal, she would slip forward on the books until she almost took on a diagonal standing position. When the car sped up again, she would sit back down.
‘Babita, are we going to a crime scene or are we creating one?!’
The Pretoria State Morgue is an unexpected sight. Considering the operations inside, the building is, well, quite normal. A square brick building with a tiled roof and a very suburbian, normal-working-class-people-live-here kind of feel. The only hint that something unexpected might be going on here was the two large but severely neglected police morgue vans standing in front of the building. Situated in a relatively quiet part of Pretoria and next to the Pretoria Zoo, the air is clean (well, clean-ish for city air) and tranquil.
As you walk into the building, you are met with tremendous sadness, reflecting the fact that here you deal with people experiencing their worst days. The foyer is lined with chairs where family members waited to identify deceased loved ones, and family members converged again after finalising identifications. On the one hand you feel the anxiety of anticipation, on the other, the deafening grief of realisation.
Mabel swallowed hard. She’s always hated this part of a morgue. While Babita was greeting the security guard at the door, Mabel rubbed her hands on her dress, wishing she could just run to the business end of the building.
‘Let me introduce you to Themba first.’ Babita was walking to the right side of the room where it opened up into a wide and long passage. The two women walked down the passage in silence, with only the hopeless sounds of sobbing echoing behind them.
‘Who’s Themba?’ Mabel finally asked.
‘He’s the morgue manager. Used to be captain when morgues were still under the police but he actually gave up his badge when Department of Health took over. He takes this work very seriously. Good guy.’
They walked to the room at the end of the passage where the drumming of male voice rose and fell like in the multitude of male dominated meetings that Mabel has attended during her time specialising as forensic path. Mabel was no longer intimidated by the patriarchy but from experience she’s learned that not being taken seriously is just seconds away. Short, slightly chubby…no, curvy, freckly, large hair-y and giggly do not a respected death investigator make.
Babita knocked at the open door once, and smiled broadly as three men, probably detectives, filed out of the room with sombre faces. As Mabel stepped into the office, her eyes were immediately drawn to the largest human male she has ever seen. Themba Ndlovu (Ndlovu is Zulu for ‘elephant’), Captain Themba Ndlovu was about 50 years old, two meters tall, strong, with a massively commanding presence. His skin was dark brown, his eyes big and observant. His face was kind, but something about the way he looked right through you made you feel like he was not the guy to mess with.
‘Cap, meet Mabel, our new forensic path. She’s here from Cape Town. Mabel, meet Themba.’
Mabel collected herself, smiled from a place of true sincerity and pushed out her hand toward Themba.
‘Very nice to meet you, Sir!’
‘Morning Doctor Ackerman. I’m just ‘Cap’ to everyone here. Welcome to the morgue.’
Themba’s hand enveloped hers as much as his voice filled every corner of the office. His deep voice echoed through the room and suddenly Mabel had an undeniable urge to say ‘sir’ again.
‘Ah, I’m just ‘Mabel’ to everyone here, Cap. ‘Dr Ackerman’ is to drive some fear into students.’ Mabel exploded another laugh. And she noticed no agony on Themba’s face at her giggle.
‘Mabel it is. Mabel, are you from the Ackerman family in Cape Town?’
Mabel’s heart sank. There it is. When people realise she’s the daughter of the third richest man in South Africa, they seem to diverge into one of two groups: either they hate her and hope for her demise at every turn, or they become her best friends.
‘Yes. Yes, I am. I guess.’
‘Well, your family must be very proud, such a young woman becoming a specialist doctor.’
Mabel smiled at Themba. She stared at the large man with the large voice and wondered if this man would also one day laugh at her behind her back. She hoped not. She liked Themba immediately and she hoped that she was as safe with him as she felt…