The Young Doctor
The story is about a disillusioned young man, who tries to live in Brno during the World War II. He had already forgotten about his dreams, but dramatic events will remind him of them.
24. 8. 1944
Tom washed his hands under the pouring water for the last time. Then he found the cleanest spot on his greasy blue working pants to wipe them off. He looked at his hands; he had stopped trying to keep them clean a long ago.
His mum had always said: “Tom has the greatest doctor hands, smooth and gentle.”
Tom had wanted to be a doctor since he had been a little boy. Just like his dad. Only his dad had been a pediatrician, and Tom had intended to be a surgeon. And a surgeon needs good hands.
But now after nearly five years of work in Adamov munitions factory, his hands were no longer smooth and gentle. The skin on his fingertips had become rough and dry from an everyday drudgery; deep furrows had ploughed through his palms. And in those furrows always stayed remains of oil and dirt, which could be washed off only with a proper soap and a brush. But in those days it was not easy to get the proper soap and the brush.
Tom took his lunch out of his pocket, a thick slice of bread and a green apple. That big juicy apple had been stolen from Hamza’s garden. Anna gave it to him yesterday. Now in the summer, when she didn’t have to go to school, she babysat Hamza’s two loud, frisky boys every day, trying to earn some extra money for her family.
Tom smiled a little when he remembered Anna. Then he forced the pace and joined a crowd of workers on their way to the train station. A train came on time; it always came on time, Germans had taken care of it. No train delay could jeopardize work in munitions factories and machinery. Tom got on the train and waited until it started moving heavily in its familiar way back to Brno.
Tom was sitting on the front steps of a Hussite church on the western end of Karasek Square. Bells under its pointy roof had just rung six o‘clock. He looked to the right to Mrkosova Street, but Anna was not coming yet. Maybe Mrs. Hamzova had forced her to stay longer again and help with laundry.
Tom looked at Karasek Square in front of him. The wind was playing with maple leaves up in treetops. Some of the leaves were already losing their juicy green and had started to prepare for their autumn death. But the air was still full of summer heat.
Tom looked up and saw Anna coming quickly towards him, smiling in her yellow summer dress, her light brown hair bouncing around her shoulders. She looked so lively. She was seventeen.
“I’ve brought you something,” she said while sitting down on steps next to him. Her eyes wide open with excitement.
“Have you?” asked Tom, he expected another apple.
But Anna took a folded newspaper out of her cloth bag.
“It is German, a week old,” she said and opened it.
“There is an interview with a war doctor,” she handed Tom the newspaper and pointed at the article.
Tom looked at the article and then back at her.
“Thank you,” he said.
Anna had been expecting a different reaction.
“Aren’t you pleased?” she asked, “He is a surgeon. Just like you.”
“I am not a surgeon,” he replied, “I am a mechanic.”
“Well, you will be, after the war. And it will be over soon, you’ll see. Daddy said that we would be celebrating Christmas in a free country.”
“Which Christmas,” asked Tom doubtfully, “these or next ones or those five years from now?”
A smile disappeared from Anna’s face, but Tom didn’t stop.
“Sorry, but you are naive, and your dad doesn’t know what he is talking about!” he shouted. “And even if the war stops right now and we win, I will have to study six years to be a doctor. And how will I do that, when I have to work and take care of my mother?”
Anna jumped to her feet, eyes full of tears.
“I would rather be naive and disappointed every day, than end up as bitter as you!” she cried and turned away.
“Anna, wait, I didn’t mean to…,”
But Anna was already running away by Mrkosova Street, wiping tears from her eyes with a back of her hand.
Tom didn’t want to chase her. He took the newspaper from a step and went home.
In the evening, sitting in his room behind blacked out windows, Tom remembered Anna’s newspaper. He opened it and read the article. Anna had been right, it was interesting. Five years ago, he would buy that newspaper just because of it.
As a boy, he had always been interested how a human body works. He had learned to read and then to read in German by spending afternoons with his nose buried in one of his father’s medical books. And after his father died, when he was thirteen, Tom studied even harder, looking for his dad on every page of his old books.
That day when he was accepted to the Faculty of Medicine at Masaryk University, was the happiest day of his life. As if he didn’t even pay attention to the German occupation, which had taken place almost three months ago. He only saw his dream job, which was one significant step closer.
He was shocked when Czech universities were shut in November 1939; only two months after his first semester had started. Suddenly he saw it all - German soldiers marching on streets, broken glass from Jewish shop windows and ration cards carefully counted by his mother.
“We have to do something,” said Tom to his friend Karel, when they were walking through a park in the cold December evening, sharing a cigarette.
Karel knew exactly what they had to do. Flee the country, join the British army and fight Germans on British combat aircrafts.
“You know how to fly a combat aircraft?” asked Tom.
But Karel had no doubts: “They’ll teach us. The British adore bravery.”
“Do they?” Tom still wasn’t sure it was as simple as Karel thought it to be, but he felt there was no bright future for him in Brno. So he agreed, and they started planning their escape.
A few days later Tom confided to his mother about his plans. Her reaction was hysterical. They fought, and Tom ran away from their flat in a fury. He wandered through streets, considering his options. He knew that he should stay with his mother and take care of her. She had always been fragile, but after Tom’s dad had died, she had started to suffer from a depression and panic attacks. And the German occupation hadn’t made her any better. On the other hand, Tom felt that there is more at stake than just his mother’s mental health. He wanted to join the fight; he needed to make his country free again.
Two hours later, when he came home, he still wasn’t sure what to do. The flat was dark and silent.
“Mum?” he shouted gently.
There was no answer.
Tom went to his mother’s bedroom, but the bed was empty. There were just old family photographs scattered on a blanket. Tom shouted again, as he was leaving the bedroom. Then he lost his voice.
He saw her through a slightly open bathroom door; her pale arm hanging over the side of the bathtub; red blood slowly flowing down from her wrist over her palm and fingers and dripping down on the floor.
She hadn’t cut an artery, just veins. There wasn’t enough blood on the floor. She wasn’t dead yet. Tom realized it as soon as he got to her, but still, that day changed his life.
Neither Tom nor his mother was the same after her suicide attempt. She became a ghost noiselessly floating around the flat. And Tom became the breadwinner, a full-time worker in Adamov munitions factory. Karel left without him and Tom never found out if he got safely to the British Embassy in Budapest as they had planned. Tom didn’t want to fight anymore. He obeyed rules and tried his best to be invisible. He knew rumours about what Nazi do to the mentally ill people. He wanted his family to appear as normal as possible.
His life became dull and hopeless; the same frustrating routine day after day, once in a while broken by a night spent with a nice girl or by a talk with a friend. And then three months ago he met Anna; who seemed to be made of sunlight, gentle caresses and smiles. Anna, who saw him the way he could be, rather than the way he was.
Tom angrily banged a table with his fist. He must make it up with Anna tomorrow.
25. 8. 1944
It was quarter past six, Tom had been pacing around in front of the Hussite church for some time now, but Anna hadn’t shown up. He was encouraging himself to go to her home. He knew where she was living, but he had never visited her yet.
Suddenly a sharp sound frightened him, followed by a massive crack of breaking walls and ceilings. Tom covered his ears instinctively and looked around. Then he saw it; a grey cloud of dust floating above the roofs just a few streets away. Then another bomb destroyed a house just a few dozen meters from the church. Tom looked up at the sky; he saw dark green planes dropping black dots of bombs on his city. An unstopping cacophony of cracking beams and crushing bricks was mingling with cries of frightened and surprised people. Tom started running towards the nearest damaged house without considering if it was a good idea.
The familiar voice stopped him. He turned around. It was Anna, standing in the middle of a street, with dust in her hair and terrified expression on her face, but otherwise unharmed. Tom ran towards her and took her in his arms.
“Are you all right?”
“We need to hide somewhere,” said Tom, with a sudden urge to protect her.
“Let’s go to my house, we have a cellar.”
“Why are Germans bombing us?” shouted Anna, as they were running through Mrkosova Street hand in hand.
“It is Americans!”
“Americans? Why would they do that? We are on their side!”
“Are we? Every day I help to make weapons for Germans to fight them. And you babysit for the biggest collaborator in Zidenice,” Tom’s voice vanished in a new house cracking and Anna’s terrified scream.
“That was on my street!” she yelled.
They turned left into Cerna Street and there they saw it. Four houses on the left side had been damaged; it was almost a whole block. Anna ran towards her house which stood untouched between two ruins.
“Mum! Dad!” she yelled.
But Tom followed a different shouting; a distant call for a help, which came from a damaged house on the left. He ran up the front steps and got into the house. A hallway was surprisingly untouched; coats were calmly hanging on hooks on a wall, shoes were perfectly aligned beneath them.
“Hello! Is anybody in here?” shouted Tom.
“Yes! Up here! Come quick!” was an immediate response.
Tom found the stairs; they were covered by a carpet, probably red a minute ago, now grey and black. He looked up and saw the early-evening sky through a crooked hole in the ceiling.
Up in the first floor, he entered the living room. Well, at least the remaining half of it. The other half was gone, spread on the garden beneath. Pieces of a wooden floor and bricks caught in apple treetops. Books violently scattered in the grass. And a big scarlet armchair, broken in two pieces, was lying under a tree.
Another armchair was still in the living room and in it…a woman. She was half sitting half lying with her eyes closed. She was obviously unconscious.
“This is my wife. She fell down and doesn’t react. I don’t know what to do…,” said a man standing next to the armchair. His voice trembled with terror.
Tom kneeled next to the armchair and checked woman’s heartbeat. He couldn’t find it.
“Your wife had a heart attack. We need to lay her down,” said Tom.
With the man’s help, he laid the woman on the floor. Then he tilted her head back and opened her mouth.
“I will be compressing your wife’s chest and you will give two full breaths into her mouth every time I tell you,” instructed Tom that frightened man.
Tom kneeled next to the woman and started compressing her chest and counting.
“Now!” he shouted at the man when he hit thirty and man unsurely breathed out into his wife’s mouth.
They repeated that many times until the woman finally gave a soft cough and opened her eyes. Tom sighed with a relief and an exhaustion and the man hugged his wife with tears in his eyes.
“She needs to go to the hospital for a check,” said Tom.
The man looked at him: “Thank you, thank you so much.”
“You’re welcome,” smiled Tom. He hadn’t felt that happy in years.
When Tom came back to the street, he saw Anna, her parents and other people cleaning the remains of the bombing off the street.
“Where have you been?” asked Anna.
“He saved my wife’s life! That young doctor saved my wife’s life!” shouted the man from a window.
Everybody was suddenly looking at Tom with a respect and expectations.
“Doctor, come here please, my daughter is bleeding,” called somebody.
A few hours later Tom and Anna were sitting under a maple tree at Karasek Square, watching stars at the clear summer sky.
“You were right, I can be a doctor,” said Tom.
“You are one already. You helped so many people today.”
“I felt so useful, so alive…I don’t want to lose that feeling again. I will study after the war, no matter what it takes. And before that, I will volunteer in the hospital. I will sign up tomorrow.”
“That’s a great idea. And don’t worry, I will help you with your mum,” said Anna and Tom kissed her on her soft lips.