By Maureen Cullen
It’s packed in here, plenty thin folk, naebody burling drunk and nae smoking allowed. No a seat tae spare. Waiting Room 4. A rectangle cut oot of the corridor, nae doors. The woman opposite looks awfy poorly, must be in her eighties, poor auld soul ending up here on the edge of her seat, gripping her Zimmer frame. Looks like she’s had her hair done, a perm and blue rinse, disnae offset her rheumy eyes. Och, and the rings on her bony fingers have rolled doon tae her swollen knuckles. That’ll be her carer on the next seat, eyes stuck tae the People’s Friend, but she cannae be reading as she keeps switching her wrist tae see the time, and she’s turning the pages too fast. The rustle gets on yer nerves. I wish she’d pay her charge a bit of attention or the auld dear’ll feel she’s a burden.
It’s a lottery wi us carers these days. They dinnae know who they’ll get, or even if it’ll be the same one who rushes up the stairs at teatime who fed them at breakfast, likely at half past six, dragging them oot of their bed. It never used tae be like that. Cuts, cuts, cuts. I gie the auld lady a wee smile, one of them ye can turn intae a cough if it’s no reciprocated. It’s no, so I cough but my throat’s tight and it turns intae a bit of a choke, and everybody else starts up, but the auld lady disnae stir.
The young fella at the end of the row’s here aw by hissel. He keeps fiddling wi his ticket, dropped it twice awready. He looks healthy, slim, guid looking, nae signs of drink, no a smoker. Maybe he’s on the drugs. Naw. Too well turned oot. Clean shaven, ironed shirt. Nae wedding ring. I want tae tell him tae keep an eye on the screen, ye need tae keep watching tae see yer number come up, but he keeps his head doon, taps his foot on the beige vinyl. That stuff goes aw the way through the hospital. Easy cleaned wi they big buffer machines. The place is spotless, even the loos. Nice scent of bleach.
I peek up at the two other women in the queue; they look in their sixties, both wi their other halves. Aye, the women are the sick ones. Ye can see it in their eyes, even withoot the clutched tickets. They blink too much. Mind, it’s no exactly a spa experience, the owerhead lights are awfy bright for a start, and the place is busy wi staff milling aboot in they green and blue scrubs. And trainers on their feet. I suppose they dae a lot of walking. They come and go, the slap of soles, breaking intae the quiet. Some drift by, some race, others push trolleys full of files. Heavy work, that. Us here on the seats and them in their blues or greens, wheeling trolleys and carrying files. Oor files. The ones sitting here wi their other halves. If my other half hadnae legged it twenty years ago, he’d be here holding my hand. But I wish I had taken somebody, noo I’m here wi aw these sick folk. Jessie would’ve come if I’d asked her, but och she’s no well. What wi her arthritis and her psoriasis, and the other day she’s telling me she’s been diagnosed wi insomnia. Hypochondria tae my mind. She’d be no use here, gie her ideas.
Mustbe my turn soon, they go in and oot fast. Expert blood takers here, so many tae dae. No like Doctor Kane doon at the health centre. Black and blue I was last time, but I said tae him, ‘It’s awright Son, ye’ve no got the everyday experience.’ Naw, he’s no like these nurses here. Lovely lassies, so they are. Treat ye like royalty. Course, I’d rather no be here at aw. When ye’re here there’s no escaping it. Most of the time I can pack it away in a cardboard box in the dark of my wardrobe. That nice counsellor lady I saw, och, twenty years ago noo, after my man left me, taught me how tae imagine stuff away. Ye dinnae need tae see it or think aboot it. But when ye’re here it’s public knowledge. No hiding. Ye cannae pretend ye’ve got a sore throat, or piles, or a bad cough here. Ye’re stripped bare. Forced tae imagine aw sorts. Like my gravestone. Here lies the woman wi the stopper in her gob who couldnae ask The Question.
Oops, my number’s up. My ticker’s on the trot, I want it done, but I want it no tae come. Sometimes I wonder if my heart will stand it in the end. I raise my ticket, in case I get accused of jumping the queue, and shuffle aroon the coffee table, sorry sorry sorry … Cannae help but step on toes.
I follow the arrows tae another cubby hole. The nurse, a happy looking chappy wi one of they buzz cuts, grins as he settles me intae a chair, checks my number, asks my name and date of birth. He picks something off his tray. I turn away; he tells me it’ll be cold, that’s the wipe. Then his fingers rub the skin, get the vein up. A prick, his breath fills the room. I’ve stopped breathing. Then he bellows a ‘well done’. As if I’ve done something special, gied him a guid vein, didnae faint…
I forgot tae ask what the blood test’s for. Should’ve brought somebody wi me tae ask that stuff. Yer mind’s racing or blank and ye can only catch the gist of it aw, no the detail. Mind, that’d mean telling the family. They’d go off on one, have me at death’s door. Specially my Mary. I’d end up making her tea and calming her doon. Anyhows, I never get a word in edgeways, how ye doin Mum, and then as soon as ye open yer mouth they’ve turned away, or they’re on their phones… I should go intae the street and bawl it oot. That might make them stop for a minute. I imagine Jessie, Mary, and Pete in black at the funeral service. What would they say aboot me? Loved her family, worked hard aw her days, guid clean-living woman. Aye, aw that. Hasnae done me any guid. Nae pension tae speak of; the government stole that and I willnae get it until I’m sixty-six. If I make sixty-six wi the cleaning jobs, the carer shifts, and no seeing the same auld soul from one shift tae the next. Should’ve gone tae Disney World, Florida, wi Mary and the weans. Just the once.
Noo Waiting Room 5. Another rectangular seating affair. Nae tickets but. My name’s called. A young doctor peeks oot of a door tae my left, a half smile on his face. I get up, inch aroon the table. I’m getting better at missing feet. He waves me through the door. We sit doon at a desk wi a computer and files. He introduces hissel but I dinnae catch the name. It’s on the blue tag on the ribbon roon his neck, but it’s hanging doon ower his belly and I dinnae like tae stare.
He peers intae his screen and says, ‘Mrs Muir, your date of birth?’
‘Call me Elsie. Have ye no got that there, Son?’
‘Just so I know for sure who you are.’
‘Oh, right, twentieth October.’
‘And the year?’
‘Twelve Alcluith Street, Flat two, stroke one. Second floor, on the right as ye come up the stair.’
Aw the kids start their sentences wi so these days. So this and so that. It disnae mean anything. He’s stock-still…staring intae the screen.
‘So?’ I ask.
A bolt of fright zips through me. ‘Bad news then?’
‘It’s a large tumour,’ he says, and talks aboot some stage, and mentions numbers.
Course, I knew it was cancer. Wouldnae be here otherwise. But I dinnae catch what it is exactly, in-between him chewing his lip and staring at the picture on the screen, a hairball, aw matted and glued up against what looks like a wall. Black and white, tae. Ye’d think they’d have colour. But the NHS is fair strapped for cash. It’s aw they hip and knee replacements folk dinnae need.
He shifts roon in his chair. Looks at me wi doe-brown eyes. ‘As I said, it is… a third stage cancer… but we can look after you.’
I say, ‘Guid news then?’
He’s befuddled, closes his eyes tight. Maybe he’s just tired. Poor lad. He gets oot a sheet of paper wi questions. We go through and he ticks the boxes.
No alcohol… well just a couple gins on a Saturday.
No allergies. No high blood-pressure. No medications.
‘So,’ he says, ‘you’re fit and healthy otherwise.’ He smiles, pleased. I’m pleased he smiled, so I smile back.
He fishes in a drawer, gies me a leaflet. Taps intae his computer, a swishing noise rises behind me. We both turn. He gets up, lifts two pages from the printer, one a prescription for the GP. He passes it tae me. I slip it in my bag. He offers his hand. I shake it.
‘Thank you, Doctor.’
I hesitate at the door. I havenae asked The Question.
He looks up, surprise on his face. I’m supposed tae be gone. ‘Yes, can I help you with anything else?’
Och, I dinnae like tae bother him so I ask another question. ‘Did I dae something tae bring this on?’
‘Not at all. Everyone’s different, risks, vulnerabilities, genetic make-up.’
I’m almost oot, draw masel up, turn back, open my mouth tae ask The Question, but he’s awready stuck on his computer.
Walking along corridors, following arrows tae the exit, I’m in another world. People in wheelchairs, on sticks, skeletons who look sucked dry. A man wi skin like yellow crepe hobbles past me. I reach the café, could dae wi a cuppa, my throat’s vice tight, but dinnae want tae linger. I’m no like them. Like the doc said, I’m fit and well. Someone laughs, a hearty guffaw. The woman serving teas smiles broadly. I step ootside, follow the red path past the car park, and cross the road tae the bus stop. It’s tempting tae walk further, get on at the next stop but I hesitate. An auld woman stands there alone. She nods. I take up my place, second in the queue.
‘Busy in there, isn’t it?’ she says.
‘Aye, couldnae wait tae get oot the place.’
‘You’ll get used to it,’ she says. ‘I’ve been going there for five years.’
I hope I’ll be going there for five years.
She pats my arm, tilts her head, holds my gaze, oor eyes well up. She offers me a barley sugar. It soothes my throat. We dinnae say anything else. The bus rolls up and we get on it thegither.