Waiting Room

 

Clare Morgan

 

When we set off for the doctor’s surgery I sit beside my mother in the car, holding the book in my hand for comfort as I have been doing for quite some time now, ever since I found it on the side table in the dark little room where my brother had been lying, the very night that his coffin had gone from it, late, it was late already and a full moon.

I sit beside my mother in the back seat with the doctor driving, and us behind him like he was a chauffeur, and he is speaking to my mother, speaking all the time to her quietly, in the kind of slow voice he has used to me sometimes, with his hand on my forehead to check how hot I am, or the cold end of the stethoscope slipping through the slit where my nightie falls open, just at the soft part that starts at the base of the throat.

Annie will be all right, don’t you worry about that, he says.  The important thing is to get you better, don’t you think Mrs Maloney, getting better is the main thing, and everything back to normal after, everything shipshape.

He takes the big double bends at the wrong angle and everything tilts sideways, the adverse camber can do that to you, and my mother holds onto my hand as if doing so could prevent her from falling, and then it is over, that moment, and the car rocks back to the centrifuge of its own suspension, and the hedges return to the height they should be, and my mother says, If you say so, doctor,  and looks out over the fields either side of us, and the fields are reflected back on themselves, like the sky is, in her eyes, in their pale grey colour that is shrinking and expanding.

By the time we arrive at the outskirts of the town, having crossed the river by the narrow stone bridge where she used to take us, my brother and me, to bathe on the good days when summer had come and the evenings were still long and the sun had not gone behind a single cloud for the whole duration of the time that was measurable, by the time that occurs my mother has gone off again.

What is that noise now? She says.  That noise like a bell.  Oh stop it doctor, stop the bell tolling.

I can see how he looks at her then, his eyes in the mirror, the mirror itself like a visor with just his eyes showing, and I cannot quite tell what expression is in them, puzzlement maybe, or sorrow, or boredom, or some other emotion that I cannot access, and then with surprising suddenness we are there and he pulls the car up and says, Wait for a minute, and switches off the engine and goes in to the place marked ‘Surgery’, by the side door.

It is market day and the town is quite full and I can hear the cattle lowing in their pens to share the information that death is approaching.  At the top of the town by the river is the slaughterhouse and at the end of a busy day there, you will see the blood running in the gutters and the men with brooms sluicing it with water and sweeping down after it.  On those kind of days in the afternoons it is peculiarly silent.  It is as if a spell of silence has come over the town.

But now I can hear in the ambient air the noise of the market and life happening.

Well, here we are then, my mother says, in a voice that to all intents and purposes is normal.

But I am not to be led astray by its apparent normality, so I open my book, and immediately enter the world of the words that I can get lost in, one word then another, if, and, but, how, the spaces and conjunctions, the rises and falls, the gaps that you find that are like a precipice, and suddenly it does not matter any more, what is happening or what is not happening, because everything that matters is happening in the words on the page.

Will you read me a bit, my mother says then, just a line or two Annie.  You know how it soothes me.

The lines on the page are as follows, the start of the book that I have not read yet:

Once you have given up the ghost, everything follows with dead certainty.

I know the word ‘dead’ is not one my mother will relish, so I make up the start of the book in a way that I think may appeal and will calm her:

At half past six the man came out of the house wearing a turban and with bare feet though the day was a cold one.

Ah, that is a good start, my mother says.  That sounds like a story.  Will you just go on with it for a minute?  Hearing a story always takes me out of myself.

He did not notice at first there was snow on the ground, for the cold did not reach him.  It was getting quite dark and the clock chimed the quarter and the wind began rising.

The doctor appears by the side of the car without my noticing it.  He has not come back out through the door, he has come by another direction, and I do not understand that, for the side door is the one you go in and out of, it has been that way always, ever since we first started coming, on the fortnightly visits which then became weekly, and became, in the end, or maybe the beginning, the fulcrum, the thing that was there when there was no other, we are going tomorrow, we are going on Monday, the one single element in all that there was that would surely save us, the ring that is tossed on the waters when they get too much for you, the promise of calm in the tumult that was our house.

Will you come with me now, Mrs Maloney, the doctor says.  And you can come too, Annie, and wait in the waiting room.

There is no one today in that room that is quite like a drawing room with chintz curtains.

Four doors lead off from it, one you can see has been made quite newly.

It’s a pity you ruined this room with your alterations, doctor, my mother says to him.

Ah well now, he says, it’s progress you see, Mrs Maloney.  Things move on  They have to.

The receptionist comes forward and takes my mother by the arm, and they go, with her on one side and the doctor on the other, out through the new door, around which the plaster is still settling, and the black latch closes behind them with a click.

From the beginning it was never anything but chaos, I read, it was a fluid which enveloped me.

The book is light in my hand, but heavier than its meaning.

Its meaning takes shape in my head like a feather, or the merest brush stroke.

It was as though my mother fed me a poison. I had need of nobody.

The side door opens and a draught comes in that brings up goose pimples on my arm in a pattern. 

If it isn’t young Annie, a voice says then, and I see the black turn ups of the Reverend’s trousers, then the pleats at the waistband, then the belt straining.

His wife is next to him and she leans towards me.

And how is your dear mother?  What a shock that was, with the poor boy going.  A lot for you mother to manage, I always thought so. 

I see the expression then that they both had, the night that it happened, the planes of their faces picked out clearly by the moonlight, the lights in the windows and the darkness outside them, and the look that they had as they drew me towards them, that was not satisfaction but was right next door to it.

You could not have saved him you know, she says.  And even if your mother had been on watch at the time, it is doubtful.

They go over to speak to the receptionist who has come back in, but I cannot hear much of what they say, for they are speaking in that peculiar under voice that is not quite a whisper but is aiming to be so. 

Some words come up to me, though.  Shame.  Accidental.  Concern.  Negligent.

They all look over towards me then, so I hold the book up like a shield between us.

The lines on the page are blurring together and I cannot make sense of them, they come to me piecemeal. Jangle and discord; real and unreal; irony; paradox.

And then, more telling than the rest, corruption.

I was corrupt from the start.

You don’t have to think it was your fault, Annie, the Reverend says then.

The receptionist says, An inch or two deep.  Who would have thought it.

Right on cue a cry comes up from the back room, a long drawn out No-oooh-ooh with a sound at the end of it like glass breaking.

It’s the grief that does it, the Reverend’s wife says.

I block out the sound from behind the door with the new plaster round it by concentrating hard on the words in front of me, chaos, need, substrata, opaque, smooth, fecundity.

I am inside those words, or they are inside me, so that I do not realize at first that someone else has come in, I do not realize it until I hear the Reverend’s wife saying, You’re here at last then.  You haven’t missed anything.  The doctor’s still at it.

The room seems suddenly to me then like a stage set, with noises off, a cry, a whimper.

From the very beginning I trained myself not to need anything too badly.

I recognize him then, the man who steps forward with a sheaf of papers in his hand that he is turning.

I’m here in my official capacity, Annie.

He looks like an uncle, but then not quite so.

I’m here to see everything right and tight, to see you’re looked after, but there’s nothing to be afraid of.

The Reverend comes over and takes hold of my arm and I feel through the thinnish material of my blouse the heat of his skin, just as I remembered it.

You’ll be coming to stay with us for a while.  You’ll like that, won’t you?

And his wife says, Of course she will like it.  She used to like coming.  Didn’t you, Annie?

The receptionist from over behind her desk is looking on, and mouthing some word that looks like generosity.

Can you just confirm, asks the man with the papers, that the same condition doesn’t run in the family?

The receptionist confirms it, but that cannot be true.

I read in the book, Though I was weaned young, the poison never left my system.

Forgiveness, now, Annie, there is the thing, the Reverend says then.  We should all seek forgiveness.

A bullock that has broken out of his pen charges past the window with a piercing bellow and at exactly that moment my mother lets out a scream and goes on screaming.

The moment anything was demanded of me I balked.

A sudden silence descends on the room, profound and total.  It is the silence, surely, that you get before words and then get again after them.

The man with the papers is folding them up and the Reverend says, You’ll be coming home with us now.

Are you listening, Annie? His wife says.  Will you at least not answer?

I see her gesture to the book in my hand and lean to her husband and whisper something.

I close the book then and hold it to my chest with my both arms folded.

The doctor comes out, on his own, lacing his hands in a washing movement.

The plaster round the door looks rough at the edges like an unhealed wound does.

Your mother needs treatment, Annie, he says, and we will see that she gets it.

She told me to watch him, I say.  She asked me. I was reading.

I see then my brother’s face in the water, so pale, so unlike him.

The Reverend’s wife says, It was too much to ask.

The doctor says, It was too much, all of it.

The man with the papers says something about ‘responsible adult’ and while he is putting his file away my mother comes out looking quite like my mother but not wholly.

They’ll pack up your things, so they said, she says to me.  You won’t mind going to the Reverend, will you?

The look in her eyes has something in it.  A pleading, maybe?

I can see from the corner of my eye through the window the bullock being led back into his pen with a man either side of him.

I tell her I won’t mind.

It is time now, the doctor says, but my mother does not move straight away, instead she says, as though nobody else in the world existed, Will you tell me again how it started, Annie?  How the story started?

At half past six, I recite from my head, the man came out of the house wearing a turban and with bare feet though the day was a cold one.

Ah that is a good start, the Reverend’s wife says.  That sounds like a story.

He did not notice at first there was snow on the ground, for the cold did not reach him.  It was getting quite dark and the clock chimed the quarter and the wind began rising.

A black car pulls up and the doctor says, Here we are, then, and my mother steps forward.

That’s not how it starts, I say to her then.  It isn’t the story.

She kisses me once on the forehead, in the old way, and what I see next is her back in the doorway and the car door opening, then the man with the papers getting in next to her.

The Reverend and his wife come and stand either side of me.

I quickly saw, between the real and the unreal, the irony.

Give us that book, Annie.  We will look after it.

The car pulls away and I see what might be my mother’s face going by in a blur as she looks back out at me.

The receptionist closes the window and latches it.

Where the moon shone steady and opaque it was smooth and fecundating.

Do you hear me, Annie?

In the Reverend’s hand the book looks small and very insubstantial.

The room is silent but in my head there is a clock chiming.

I am there in my head with the snow and the house and the wind rising.

How bitter that wind is! How cold the man’s feet are! 

The Reverend’s wife says, The girl is shivering.

The man looks at me and I look back at him.  In that cold night of stars we regard each other across tractless millennia.

The Reverend puts his hand on my shoulder and tightens his fingers while his wife smiles a little round ‘o’ that puckers her lipstick in a kiss-like travesty.

Hush!  That wind.  Can you hear it blowing from the far side of time?

The Reverend on one side, his wife on the other, we move to the door where the doctor is waiting, next to the receptionist.

You’ll be all right, will you, Annie?

In the snow and the wind the man shrugs his shoulders and opens his palms like they had nothing in them.

Here we are, his look seems to say, You and I.  Here we always will be.

I’m here if you need me, the doctor says.

And before I know it, the door to the waiting room has clicked to behind us.

The Reverend and his wife are propelling me forwards.

The car door is open.

I can smell the stale smell of that old interior, a smell like sickness or cow’s intestines.

In my head the wind drops and the night is empty.

The snow has no footprints.

But the house in that vista of darkness is lit up, in its windows a warmth that I know must reside there.  The man is inside and has taken off his turban.  His dark hair is flowing in thick locks on his shoulders.  In his pale feet the veins are restoring the heat and the coals on the fire are burning up with a yellow intensity.

Get in now, Annie.

The Reverend is driving, with his wife beside him.

He turns on the ignition and the headlights flare up with a strange new clarity.

The church clock chimes once and we all hear it.

As the engine turns over the Reverend says, It’s going to be a cold night.

 

Copyright © 2016 by Clare Morgan