A waiting room. It’s mid-afternoon, a Monday, and the chairs are hard blue plastic. Mostly young women today, red-eyed babies on their knees, all busy rustling through their handbags for plastic containers of sultanas or carrot sticks. The babies have the expressions of goldfish, their lips pursed and cheeks bulgy, their eyes wide open and blinking dumbly. A woman sweeps through from the surgery, her child’s bare limbs dangling from her arm. Let me wrap her, the man behind her says. I just want to get her in the car, she snaps back.
The patient feels dizzy again, and closes her eyes. She made it here, at least.
The receptionist wears round-framed glasses, hoop earrings and a shorn head. She types declaratively, barely looks up from her computer when anyone arrives, just hands over the paperwork and waves vaguely out into the room.
The patient is tired to her bones.
A doctor’s heels click down the corridor. A baby starts crying. The patient waits.
The patient’s doctor takes her blood pressure, sitting and then standing. Looks in her ears, at her throat. Asks if she’s under stress at the moment. If she is anxious. If she’s vegetarian. He doesn’t say he doesn’t know what’s wrong.
A waiting room. She’s on the ninth floor of a tower, under fluorescent strip lights and a soggy-looking plasterboard ceiling. The room is huge, the staff sequestered behind a glassed-in counter, as if they were bank tellers at risk of being robbed. The patient can see into the offices of the next tower – the rows of tailored-looking people being useful, the rows of photos of the people they love thumbtacked to their cubicle walls.
The man opposite her has a weeping ulcer on his leg, the bandage on his shin slimy and yellow green. She doesn’t want to be disgusted, but can’t help it. He smiles at her, and she looks down at her shoes. Everybody here is here alone. On the walls, large-scale posters: a laughing, white-haired man in an expensive shirt holding hands with a beautiful woman and asking her to ask her doctor about new-generation hearing aids; a riotous family of cartoon germs demanding that she wash her hands. Her hands are cold and she holds them, together and empty in her lap.
The doctor, when he sees her, tells her to strip down to her underwear, runs his hands along her spine, rotates each of her joints – elbows, knees, wrists, ankles, fingers, toes. Asks if she gardens, or eats fish. Watches as she walks across the room and back. Takes out a small recorder and begins to dictate notes. Patient is a 38-year-old woman, he says. No obvious physical markers. Patient reports pain but source and causality cannot be discerned. The doctor looks up at her standing there. He doesn’t say he doesn’t know.
A waiting room. Each time someone opens the door she can hear the rain slapping the footpath for a few uproarious seconds, until the door scrapes back in place behind them. Her shoes are wet and her toes are cold. There’s a man sitting too close to her who keeps sucking on his dentures as he stabs with one finger at the screen of his phone. The patient waits.
The sound of the rain again, and a woman in a thick red skirt and gumboots shrugs her way out of her coat and takes the seat beside the patient. She watches as the woman takes a fat paperback out of her bag, and winces as she cracks it along its spine. The woman sees her looking and smiles, unreservedly. Flips up the book to show the cover. Oh, the patient says, surprising herself. I haven’t read that one.
It’s good, the woman says. Beautiful.
Yes. She doesn’t know what else to say.
I love to read. The woman gestures out into the room. It’s just as well.
I used to. The patient speaks more quietly now. But.
It’s hard to find the time, sometimes. The woman smiles again, and turns back to her book.
The patient doesn’t say anything, doesn’t want to contradict. She used to. She used to read, but it is hard to find the energy. Her concentration is kittenish, skittering and fragile in its bones.
The radiologist presses a metal bar against her sternum, tells her to stand still, tells her to try to keep her breasts out of the way. The patient feels scolded, looks down, her blank and inert breasts, her goosebumped stomach, her jeans unbuttoned and rolled down a little at the waist. The room is hardly lit. The radiologist pushes on her shoulder and then tugs on her left arm, then leaves the room and his machine careens around her, once, twice, clacking on its castors.
The patient sits outside the room on the single chair beside the small square table with its vase of dusty nylon liliums and stack of year-old TV Weeks until the radiologist hands an envelope to his receptionist, who hands it on to her.
Outside, the wind is fierce, whipping dirt and leaves along the footpath. She can’t hear for its bellowing, almost steps in front of a car she doesn’t see.
A waiting room, a huge one. The carpet is bright blue and hectic with squiggles of yellow, magenta, blood red: it belongs in an RSL club. The chairs are bolted to the walls and upholstered too, and four televisions are bracketed to the ceiling in the middle of the room, each facing outwards, each channelling the same – a tidy brunette in a lab coat standing before shelves stacked tight with supplements, holding a sample jar in her hand and talking without stopping. The patient doesn’t want this test. The doctor had insisted.
She sits down near, but not next to, a middle-aged woman digging about in her enormous handbag – the room feels too spacious, too capacious to sit entirely on her own. As if this woman, with her broken-down shoes and too-big trousers, might be a tether. The woman pulls a packet of trail mix from her bag, tugs it open, and then offers it to her. They always run late in here, she says. I’ve learnt that you’ve gotta bring snacks. The trail mix looks expensive, too expensive, and the patient doesn’t know what to do. Go on, the woman says, they’re organic. We are what we eat, right?
The patient bites into a cashew, to be polite. She doesn’t want this, either.
A waiting room. It’s overheated, and the couches are too big for her small frame. The patient falls asleep, wakes with a start when the doctor taps her quickly on the arm. In his office, he asks how often she sleeps in the middle of the day.
A waiting room. The chairs are in a row, lined up so neatly, leg to leg along the corridor, and it reminds her of a principal’s office, of waiting outside that heavy door for some kind of reprimand. Only one of them is vacant, between a large man, broad-shouldered and bulky-thighed, with a gym bag at his feet, and a woman with a paper face mask covering her mouth and nose. The patient moves a cooking magazine off the chair as she sits down. Flips through the glossy cakes and glistening roast chickens, but they look abstract, and definitely inedible. Two women further along the row are whispering in a language she doesn’t recognise. Each time the phone rings it jangles on her nerves.
The doctor says hers is the first white face he’s seen today, and she cannot speak. The patient lies down on his hard examination table and he pushes his fingers against her stomach, so hard it hurts. He asks her what she thinks is wrong with her. He doesn’t say he doesn’t know.
The radiologist squeezes gel onto her stomach, and it’s like every film she’s ever seen where someone is joyously pregnant; she half-expects to see a little tadpole swimming on the screen. But it’s her own blood the patient hears, roaring. The radiologist presses down.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 9, 2020 as "Waiting".
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