Mabel was standing in the door of Professor Mokoena’s office, breathing deeply and tracing the numbness as it spread from her stomach down to her legs.
‘Come in, Ms Ackerman.’
He still called her ‘Miss’. But she would address that another day. Right now she was more concerned about the presence of an unknown man in Mokoena’s office. He seemed to be a few years her senior, but still young and seated in one of the office’s two guest chairs. He was dressed impeccably, with a precisely styled crop and an air of importance. He was looking at Mabel with amusement.
‘Professor, I can explain…’
‘Captain Le Roux filled me in on your behaviour on his crime scene. I realise you are new here, but it is the credo of our profession to conduct ourselves with a measure of composure, dignity and restraint. All the features you lacked today. I have assured Captain Le Roux that this will not happen again. When visiting a crime scene again, you will be accompanied by a senior member of staff.’
‘But Professor, with respect, I am…’
‘That will be all, Miss Ackerman!’ Mokoena’s voice rose from his seated position and enveloped the room. Mabel understood at once that she was dismissed and that wisdom advocated a quick exit. She acted wisely.
Later, when she thought back to this disastrous day, Mabel couldn’t remember why exactly she drove to the morgue. Why she sought old man Themba’s counsel. But she did. And she never regretted going to the morgue. Not that or any other day.
Mabel walked into Themba’s office. For once, the cosmos smiled upon her, because his office was empty. There was very little space in the large old office, as it was full of furniture and books and police things. A huge old two seater couch was tucked into the nearest corner of the office and she plumped down on the couch, feet flailing and cheeks bouncing.
‘I…I don’t think I belong here…’ Mabel liberated any attempt at self-control and allowed her tears to fall freely from her eyes. She understood the inevitability of the redness and swollenness to come, but she didn’t care. She told Themba of the scolding she received on the crime scene, and then in her boss’s office. In front of an unknown shmuck no less.
While she was rambling on Themba was staring directly at her from his desk chair, elbows on the arm rests and fingers kissing at the level of his mouth. He remained silent throughout Mabel’s tearful tale.
‘So two men were mean to you. Were you wrong, Dr Ackerman?’
‘Mabel. No, I wasn’t.’
‘Why does your sadness run so deep, Mabel? Can you explain it to me?’
Mabel was silent for a moment. She was kind of hoping for a ‘ah, they are douche canoes, the whole bunch of them!’ Or a ‘fuck all of them!’ She would even have settled for a ‘don’t you go paying them any notice, gal, you were right.’ She was not hoping for ‘you are over-reacting’.
For a brief moment Mabel felt like giving in to her annoyance and just walking out. Go drink in Hatfield Square amongst all the students. They are wildly insane but she was craving a bit of insanity.
But then she considered his question. Her mother raised her like that. Answer people when they are talking to you!
‘Because it all confirms what I already know. That I’m not good enough. That my quick mouth and boisterous manner is just decorative and that my father was right when he laughed at my career plans.’
‘Your father laughed at your career plans? You are a forensic pathologist!’
‘My father is the third richest business man in this country, did you know that? My brothers followed in his footsteps. But I chose…in his words…playing with dead people. I’ve never had his respect. And playing detective with corpses won’t win it any time soon…’
‘But that has nothing to do with these men.’
‘I know. But it’s the humiliation of it all, isn’t it? No-one wants to be embarrassed. Being humiliated feels like you have been deemed inadequate. Not only are your efforts not good enough, it’s laughable. No-one wants to feel that.’
She continued: ‘I’ve never felt good enough. I achieved fantastic marks all my life. But that was never quite enough. So I developed a sense of humor to fill the empty spaces. It didn’t help much. In many ways it only made things worse. I’m nice. But niceness is ornamental, isn’t it?’
After a bit of a silence: ‘Ag, I’m probably just moaning for nothing. Tomorrow everything will be better.’
Themba slowly pushed himself to the front his seat and dropped his arms to the desk in front of him. ‘Mabel, your father, Professor Mokoena, Captain Le Roux…they weren’t necessarily wrong. I don’t know exactly what all the circumstances were and I don’t necessarily understand what you did wrong. But they are entitled to their opinion. They deserve to think what they think. They, like you, are allowed to be who they are, and to express their minds.’
Mabel felt hurt. How could she possible have misread this man so badly?
‘But what a man thinks, and what lives as the truth are often two very different things. When we embrace a man’s opinion as fact, we reject the possibility that in this very diverse and unexpected life, there is another version of things. A truer version.’
‘Conformity is the antidote to life, Mabel. Work harder to fit into the narrow box people want to put you in if you want to be accepted. But I think you’ll find the walls suffocating and dull. We have all been given life. One night you will go to bed and when you wake up the next day you will find yourself to be an old woman with a lifetime to look back on. You can choose to make it interesting. Or you can choose to make it ordinary.’
With that, Themba got up, walked to the coat hanger where a large white laboratory coat was hanging, and slowly put it on.
‘When this place was taken from the police and given to Department of Health, I was a captain. A respected man. They wanted to put me in a police station in front of paper. But I chose to stay here, without rank or position. My wife was angry. My comrades in the police mocked me. But when I go to bed at night, the silence of the darkness reminds me that I dedicate each day to finding the truth, to find the stories that the dead tell. And that makes me so much more that a respected man. It makes me a man of purpose. Who are you when the lights go out, Mabel?’
Mabel looked at Themba’s silhouette as he moved down the wide passage of the morgue toward the cutting rooms…