The Waiting Room

Back in 2013 I completed English Extension 2 as one of my Year 12 HSC courses.

Essentially, the class is almost entirely devoted to the development of a creative project, such as a short story or film.

I received a score in the top band for my efforts (woo yay), but I’ll be the first to admit that creative writing is subjective and my story isn’t for everyone.

Following a few minor grammatical tweaks by a four-years-wiser Brit, below is the short story I wrote for my major work.

 

THE WAITING ROOM

Death, be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadful, for thou are not so;
For those whom thou think’st thou dost overthrow
Die not, poor Death, nor yet canst thou kill me.
From rest and sleep, which but thy pictures be,
Much pleasure; then from thee much more must flow,
And soonest our best men with thee do go,
Rest of their bones, and soul’s delivery.
Thou’art slave to fate, chance, kings, and desperate men,
And dost with poison, war, and sickness dwell,
And poppy’or charms can make us sleep as well
And better than thy stroke; why swell’st thou then?
One short sleep past, we wake eternally,
And death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die.

John Donne, Death Be Not Proud (Holy Sonnet 10)

 

1952

The man sat perfectly silent and unmoving. He wore black suit pants, dress shoes and a button up, long sleeve shirt that was one shade lighter than his trousers and sat with his arms folded neatly in his lap, giving him an air of composure. To his left stood a sleek black briefcase with shining silver buckles, completing his white-collar attire. Oddly, the man’s appearance provided no indication of his age as though one could be both youthful and hardened by time all at once. Outside of this, there wasn’t a single distinguishable feature about the man except for simply that; he was truly unremarkable.

All four walls had been painted a sickly yellow that – without intention – reflected the general atmosphere of the building. Rigid vinyl chairs in a bolder shade of yellow and complete with a white striped backrest offered very little comfort to any who may occupy them. In neat chains these chairs lined three walls of the rectangular space, with two additional rows positioned back to back in the centre of the room like an airport terminal, as though those who sat slouched impatiently were awaiting a departing flight to Sydney instead of much needed medical attention or news from the operating theatre.

In the furthest corner from the entrance and contained in a plain ceramic pot stood a thriving Dieffenbachia, or “Daphne” as the secretarial staff had fondly named it. With its wide, textured leaves that sprouted from a thick, cane-like stem, the plant boasted of health in an otherwise ill-feeling room. Above Daphne a nondescript analog clock had been mounted on the wall. It was round-faced and framed in black. The time read thirty-eight minutes past two.

Facing the clock on the opposite wall was a sliding glass window above a high wood veneer counter. From beyond the glass, Tony Bennett’s chart-topper Because of You sauntered softly into the waiting room from a well-used record player standing proudly next to a growing collection of popular vinyls. Conventional sounds of a busy office could also be found here, competing with Mr. Bennett as they seeped into the waiting room.

Adjacent to the reception window hung a long, informative sign boasting directions to every wing of the hospital in large red print on a brilliant white background. Aside from this, the walls of the waiting room were mostly bare, with the exception of one barred and narrow window and a cluster of colourful medical posters that one only read for something to do.

To the left of the man a wood veneered end table stood stoutly in the corner bearing multiple old editions of the Women’s Weekly as well as yesterday’s Argus and the Age. The Argus lay neatly folded at the summit of the paper tower of gossip and politics, the headline reading, “Bread And Butter Now In Peril” followed by a column feeding fears of food rationing in Melbourne within the next week. The man remained completely indifferent to this startling claim and instead continued to focus his gaze intently in front of him on an empty yellow wall.

For the most part, the world rushed on by him. His existence was acknowledged occasionally, often with a slight wrinkle of the brow and mouth pursed barring an unasked question. Have we met? The query is soon swallowed, not out of disinterest, but something more ominous and dismal, as though he reeked of unease and misfortune.

Momentarily, he mechanically swivelled his head to observe a small string of chatty women enter the waiting room and each take up a strict seat nearby the reception window. The eldest of these new arrivals – a white haired woman, bespectacled and withered with age – sat closest to the unknown man and presented him with a nod of acknowledgement from across the room. The nod was reciprocated before the elderly woman shuffled in her seat to better face her daughters and the solitary man resumed his unyielding gaze on the wall.

 

********************************************************

 

You were born Kelly Margaret Robbins to parents Joan and Frank Robbins on 10th March, 1952. Weight: five pounds seven ounces. Height: 15 inches. Time of birth: 2.40 PM. An Aries. This piece of information was slightly unsettling for your mother who had spent the last eight months researching the personality traits and life predictions of a typical Taurus in the Women’s Weekly and on certain lazy afternoons at the local public library. It was due however, to Joan’s diabetes and the health complications that existed alongside it that a doctor had insisted on inducing labour five weeks early and thus leaving Joan completely alone to decipher the temperament of her first child.

Furthermore, on birth you were diagnosed with the misleadingly entitled hyaline membrane disease; a respiratory condition that typically affected premature babies like yourself. At the time, no known cure was available. It would not be until the end of the decade that in-depth research would discover an existence of hyaline membranes was not to blame for your unceasing struggle for breath but instead an absence of surfactant within your underdeveloped lungs. This research would also expose the medical myth that the complication occurred when breathing in and otherwise reveal that the real concern was upon exhale as your feeble lungs would collapse; languid without the support of that vital surfactant.

However, this was 1952; a time before fresh evidence would find the mechanical respirator, now wrapped methodically around your petite and debilitated body, only caused you further difficulty with each gasp for air. As your skin blushed blue from a lack of oxygen, Death stood threateningly by your fragile side just moments after you were granted life.

 

********************************************************

 

Rising from his chair, the man dressed in black suddenly strode across the room, passing silently behind the younger two women who remained oblivious to his movement. The man paused for just a moment in front of the red and white placard by the reception window – numerous arrows directing the reader in various ways – before continuing out of the room and arcing left into the bustling corridor, headed in the direction of the intensive care unit. The time was fourteen minutes to three.

With curiosity, the eldest woman turned to watch him go, while her daughters only noticed a wave of cold air sting the backs of their exposed necks, completely unaware. Sunlight now began pouring through the sole window of the waiting room, exposing the neglected briefcase and warming the previously occupied chair. The silver buckles glinted like polished diamonds beneath this new illumination, seizing her attention.

Any further investigation or regard for the briefcase was immediately tossed aside as a young, wide-eyed nurse entered the waiting room, her expression an unusual mix of warmth and distress. The women rose with swiftness and anticipation, the same series of questions bursting forth from their anxious hearts.

“It’s a girl,” the nurse announced, and all three women cocked their heads to one side and clicked their tongues adoringly in unison.

“But there’s been a further complication.”

Your Grandma Margaret and Aunts Helen and May – all from your mother’s side – now sunk back into those rigid seats, offering not even an arm rest for comfort as the nurse spoke solemnly of your struggle for breath; for life.

After all explanation and questions ceased, the nurse escaped the sorrow engulfing the waiting room leaving the three women to drown beneath the wave of worry themselves; aching love for someone they hadn’t even met and potentially never would.

If breath was all you needed, why could she not give you up her own?

Grandma Margaret, her sapphire eyes lowered with heavy agony to the tiled floor, envisioned herself sacrificing each one of her remaining breaths – wrapping them ever so gently in baby pink tissue paper and held in shape with glossy ribbon – before presenting them as a gift to her newest grandchild; a permanent replacement for the failure of your own.

Time continued to circle the clock, dragging its arms wearily as though exhausted and bored by the repetitiveness of the work. At a quarter past three both aunts pushed themselves into a standing position and shuffled gloomily towards the open door. They promised to visit their sister and yourself as soon as possible, but were right now blessed with the responsibility of collecting their vibrant, flourishing, healthy children from an adventure-filled day at school.

Strangers proceeded to enter and exit the room, each exuding illness or injury in their own manner and each wrestling for comfort as they perched upon an uncompromising vinyl chair. Grandma Margaret only retrieved her knitting from her brown, leather handbag, crossed one ankle over the other and began looping and weaving the wool with precision and speed, absorbing herself in the task at hand. It was not until another hour had circled by and the room had been once again emptied of all other visitors that Grandma Margaret recalled the mysterious briefcase and its curious owner, who even more strangely had never returned to collect it.

What did it contain?

Important documents collated, orderly and enclosed neatly in manilla folders? Perhaps, but just like the man, his briefcase captivated her thoughts with its unusual enticing presence, compelling her to know more.

Delicately, Grandma Margaret replaced her knitting in her handbag, tugged it over one shoulder and slowly stood up, her legs stiff from remaining stationary so long. A quick glance to the left indicated the reception office empty but for one woman who sat hunched over chattering intently on the telephone, her back to the waiting room. Returning her gaze to the briefcase she found it inviting her towards it, her mind now racing irrationally with possibilities of what the briefcase could contain.

Before she had even comprehended it, Grandma Margaret had crossed the room to halt with her toes just an inch from the centre of her curiosity. The question of the briefcase was alive inside her. With gentle hands she lifted the briefcase and marvelled at its weight as if the mass of something were equivalent to its magnificence. The briefcase still in her grasp, she collapsed into a chair and ran a worn hand across the glossy case.

She felt compelled to uncover it.

The buckles were febrile beneath her fingers and she felt them yield effortlessly with a neat snap. A shock of cool air burst forth from the briefcase and Grandma Margret rocked back in surprise and shuddered from the chill. Wide open now, the briefcase had its victim utterly enthralled, the suspense bearable no more. With wide eyes and a thumping heart Grandma Margret leant eagerly but cautiously forward, peered within, and…discovered nothing of great interest whatsoever.

It was as though she had been craving a large home cooked roast all day – the smell of freshly baked vegetables enticing her across the room and a stomach growling for that taste of succulent chicken warming her mouth – to instead be entirely let down by a much smaller serving of cold garden salad with a side of bread and cheese. Nothing wrong with a garden salad of course, and on a different day under different circumstances it may well be your meal of choice. But today was a roast dinner type of day and Grandma Margret found herself rather disappointed by a salad substitute. She lowered the lid with heavy hands.

Disillusioned by the briefcase and its owner Grandma Margret returned it to its position beside the vinyl chair and straightened herself to leave the waiting room, her mind already refocused on what she might prepare for dinner. A roast maybe?

Four days later the mysterious man returned to the waiting room, presumably for his curious briefcase that the young staff of the hospital had failed to notice. The briefcase still sat in the same position and now so did he; folding his arms back into his lap and gazing straight ahead, patiently waiting for his next call to action.

 

1964

The first time you entered the waiting room you were twelve years old, dressed warmly in a woollen sloppy joe, flared jeans, worn joggers and a pair of bright pink gloves that Grandma Margaret had knitted last year for your birthday. Those familial fears for your battle for breath had been cast aside long ago; within that first week the doctor had already expressed his confidence in a full recovery and after a month both you and Joan were discharged from the hospital in good health.

Unbeknownst to either of you, the waiting room had undergone certain refurbishment in the years elapsed. The walls had been assaulted with another sallow paint job – this time an anaemic green that was suffered by visitors in contrast to the spirited emerald of Daphne who had grown to full maturity in the same corner of the room. The uncompromising vinyl chairs had been replaced by another set of stern seating; taupe with metal legs and a gap wide enough between the seat and the back rest for a little brother to fall through. The medical posters that had cluttered one wall had diminished in numbers and a community noticeboard had been erected adjacent; fuchsia advertisements advocating for equal pay were strewn across it.

The city was still consumed by the fever The Beatles first world tour impassioned. A feature article revealed their faces in every magazine of the waiting room and their sound was heard at all hours over the radio; rendering a now idle record player obsolete.

Joan strode into the room first, followed closely behind by you and younger brothers Tim and David – ten and six – three pairs of short legs scurrying madly to keep up with Joan’s flustered pace. Her heels knocked on the tiled floor, hair a mess of wild curls and red velvet mini-dress askew on a curvy body. With a sullen humph, she collapsed fiercely into the closest chair to the exit, jewellery jingling on her wrists.

Muttering almost inaudibly in a taut tone, she fiercely pried open her bulging handbag and commenced agitatedly rattling the contents as the three of you took up seats to one side of her. Before long the handbag choked. Lipsticks, reading glasses, an assortment of pens and pink posters identical to those tacked to the noticeboard were coughed up onto the floor in a retch of disarray. Several strangers were now momentarily distracted from their own concerns by Joan’s disorderly entrance. They eyed her curiously before turning hastily away as Joan jerked around in her seat; eyeballing anyone daring enough to stare back. As she straightened again in her seat, exasperation wailed forth from her crimson lips.

“Oh Kelly, be a good girl and pick that up,” Joan crooned without lifting her eyes from the congested handbag. You obeyed silently, crawling upon the cool tiles to retrieve the scattered items and excusing yourself as you reached between the polished shoes of a stranger to retrieve a stray poster. A sketched trio of women in different work uniforms glared fiercely back at you from the page before you folded it in half, rocked back on your knees and raised your sapphire eyes to the stranger to better apologise for this invasion of personal space.

The man sat untroubled in his seat, the briefcase standing beside his chair possessing identical stillness to its owner. He appeared completely unchanged, dressed in the same attire with one hand nursing the other in his lap and eye line fixed directly ahead on a sickly coloured wall. If time had weathered him it did not show.

An unexpected recollection engulfed your senses with an internal jolt. Your body stiffened with panic; this alarm only heightened by your uncertainty as to why you had been abandoned of all nerve. With mouth gaping and eyes gawking as though witnessing something you shouldn’t, reality blurred.

From the outside, an onlooker may have observed a rude little girl who hadn’t learnt not to stare. Had the man paid you the smallest portion of attention by lowering his eyes to yours then the scene may have passed as an intense staring competition where the participants were too focused to even afford a breath. If the bystander’s curiosity were to continue further, they would have witnessed the distinctive trait of a chameleon on the defence as the rose of your cheeks waned until you were the pallid green of the walls beneath a head of russet curls.

“Kelly. Kelly!”

Joan’s irascible tone struck like a small stone to the side of your head. Knocked from your aberration you grabbed at your chest and gasped for breath. The man continued to ignore you, unperturbed by a young girl spluttering at his feet.

“For goodness sake, Kelly, you’ve ruined the poster,” was Joan’s stiff response to your strange behaviour. “Stand up and get over here before you embarrass me any further.”

By this time Joan had uncovered what she had been searching for in the depths of her handbag and was now tearing it brutally through her manic locks as you obediently got to your feet. But curiosity had its own demands in the form of one simple question.

“Do I know you?”

The words crept from your tongue softly, as though the answer to such a mundane question was likely to be feared.

At last the quiescent man abandoned his post as the waiting room seated statue and turned his face to yours, regarding you with the smallest of smiles. He appeared completely untroubled as though little girls asked him if they’d met every day. Your cheeks flushed and once more you found yourself instinctively holding your breath.

“Well you certainly aren’t a client,” was offered smoothly in reply, his voice warm honey and syrup. Uncertain what to say, the man watched silently as you cast your eyes to the floor for an appropriate response, but the tiles offered you nothing.

Without warning the man reached for his briefcase and rose from his seat, although you hadn’t heard the nurse behind the open reception window call anyone’s name. No goodbye was offered; the man simply skirted around you and continued to stride out the door, taking a right into the corridor.

“I told you to get back here and I meant it.”

Her voice snarled in your ear as Joan grabbed you tightly by the arm, dragged you a short distance and thrust you into a chair. She sighed impatiently and lowered her face to within an inch of yours before cupping your cheek almost adoringly in a manicured hand.

“I don’t know what’s got into you but I want it to stop this instant, you hear me? Is it because of Grandma? Don’t worry about her; she’ll be back to her rotten old self in no time. The silly woman’s just made a nuisance of herself today; she’s probably been neglecting to take her medication again. So come, on, perk up. No use being soft like your father.”

With that, Joan pinched your cheek – hard – and returned to her seat, busying herself examining her fingernails.

To your right sat David, wriggling incessantly in his chair while Tim was settled one seat over flipping through the pages of the Age without reading any of it. For the next half an hour this scene remained much the same. Aunts Helen and May entered the waiting room without the theatrics of your mother, beamed broadly at the three of you, reciprocated a nod of acknowledgement from Joan and took seats in the corner beside Daphne. At one stage Joan bothered the women at the reception desk with her impatience, before returning to her seat even sourer than before. Finally at 6:21 that evening, a middle aged doctor dressed in olive green scrubs requested the company of Grandma Margaret’s next of kin. Joan, Helen and May left the room hastily and ten minutes later returned with all the solemnity of a funeral procession.

The day Grandma Margaret passed away was the second time you saw your mother cry. The first time had been when your father left. She had sat on the floor of their bedroom and wailed dementedly before commencing a savage rampage of the house, howling as she destroyed old wedding photos and Frank’s favourite reclining arm chair; tearing a knife through the checked fabric until her voice ran dry.

“Grandma Margaret had a heart attack and the angels are coming to take her to Heaven.”

Joan’s eyes were lowered to the arm of the chair where your pink gloves rested. Her usual expression of fierceness and determination had drooped and now a single tear raced across a rouged cheek to the corner of her mouth like the first of a rebel army squeezing through cracks in what had seemed a tenacious fortification.

Death had made Joan vulnerable.

For you, this was just as much of a shock as the news of poor Grandma. You remained stunned in your chair, unsure how to console someone who’d always presented herself with unyielding tenacity.

Almost subconsciously she stroked a hand through your hair before rising delicately to her full height and signalling that it was time to go. Your brothers rose gloomily from their seats and shuffled along behind, as you took your mother’s hand strongly in your own and guided her out the door.

 

1970

“This is your fault, you hear me? Your fault!”

“I never forced her to take anything Mrs Robbins –”

“It’s Ms Robbins young man –“

Ms Robbins. It’s not my fault, I tried to stop her. If anyone’s to blame it would be you.”

“Me? Are you suggesting that I forced the pills down her throat?”

“No, but maybe if you paid a little more attention to your children you would have actually known what was going –“

“Don’t you dare try to lecture me on how to raise my children, boy! Kelly was a happy and healthy girl until she met you.”

At first glance the room looked much the same. If it were even possible the green of the walls had waned with age and the fabric of certain seats torn, but this was not something Joan recalled in the six years passed. The hands of the clock were now still at six thirty and twenty five seconds as though the energy it would take to climb back to the twelve had become too much. Newspapers and magazines scattered the room in their typical fashion, some lying open across laps while others were stacked precariously upon the same wooden coffee tables. The pink posters advocating woman’s rights had been replaced with fresh ones demanding even more and were in threat of being overthrown by a second sea of propaganda on behalf of the Anti-Conscription Campaign Committee with the slogan, ‘“Vote no, mum. They’ll take dad next.”’

Daphne perhaps had suffered the most change. No longer boasting a vibrant green, her leaves had begun to droop and wither as though the constant apprehension and panic of the waiting room visitors had taken a miserable toll; strength faltering beneath the weight of negative vibes.

The man was nowhere to be seen.

“I’ve been nothing but good to her.”

“Clearly not. Why else would she be so reckless?”

“Maybe because she’s been raised by a selfish b –”

“Excuse me Mrs Robbins and Mr Lewis,” interrupted a blonde nurse who had come to stand between them without the pair even noticing. “I would ask that you please take seats apart and keep your voices down as you are disturbing others around you.”

There was complete silence as the room listened keenly for a reaction. The nurse stiffened suddenly expecting an explosion of outrage from Joan and a sulky complaint from the young man but neither was forthcoming. Instead Joan sucked in a breath and nodded curtly before collapsing into the closest chair and crossing her legs. The young man followed suit and sunk into a seat across from her. With relief the nurse muttered a quick word of appreciation before hastening from the room, but not without catching wind of “It’s Ms Robbins,” snarled moodily in her direction.

Five minutes passed and the pair remained uncommunicative. Joan retrieved The Female Eunuch from an enfeebled handbag, flipped to the second chapter and buried herself within its pages, while across the space the boy jounced his knees up and down and looked around the room wildly with impatience. After counting every square in the ceiling and flicking aimlessly through the Age he could contain himself no more.

“I love Kelly,” he spoke earnestly, leaning right forward in his seat. “I’d never hurt her, you have to believe me.”

Your mother levelled her eyes to the pair across from her. They were wide and pale and shone with a youthful hope and passion that Joan had lost long ago. The young man wriggled in his seat some more, spun his head towards the door, then the reception window and then back to Joan whose eyes were still fixed on his.

It was more than just hope, she thought. He appeared too confident for that. He wasn’t hoping Kelly would be alive; he’d told himself she was. He was simply waiting for her to walk through the door so she could confess, herself, the undying love she feels for this silly boy.

For the shortest of moments, Joan admired Kevin Lewis in all his innocence and certainty – it reminded her of Frank in the early days.

The man now entered the room, briefcase in hand and took a seat two spaces from Kevin who only noticed a cool breeze sweep by him. Kevin pulled down the sleeves of his checked button-up shirt before returning his gaze to Joan, whose momentary softness of feeling had already returned to its regular hardened state.

“Have you ever known someone close to you who has died?”

The question seemed rather callous, even in a whisper. Kevin leant back and his face crumpled, lines forming across his forehead where one day wrinkles would do the same.

“No,” he responded tentatively, unsure of where the conversation was heading. But Joan would say no more. She simply nodded in confirmation of her own presumption and returned her attention back to her book, leaving Kevin’s mind racing with unwelcome thoughts.

After another fifteen minutes of keeping to themselves the blonde nurse re-entered the room and stood between them once more.

“The doctors have pumped Kelly’s stomach. She’s weak and is going to need additional rehabilitation to ensure this doesn’t happen again, but she’s going to make a full recovery.”

Joan expelled a breath she hadn’t known she was holding while Kevin grinned brilliantly at the nurse and then at your mother who raised an eyebrow but said nothing.

“When can we see her?”

“I’ll let you know when she wakes.”

The nurse left the room and Kevin sprung to his feet in high spirits, pacing back and forth in a struggle to contain his enthusiasm. But for the very first time real doubt had crossed his mind.

“Did you really think she wasn’t going to make it?”

“It was a possibility I had to prepare myself for.”

“But you weren’t even concerned. You were reading.”

“Did you see me flip a page?”

“Well no, but – oh I’m sorry!”

In all his pacing Kevin had managed to stub a toe on the briefcase of the unknown man, who quickly bent down to straighten his possession.

“Sorry, sir,” he repeated. “I didn’t see you there.”

“It’s the things we don’t see coming that scare us the most,” replied the man, whose philosophical response had Kevin’s face crumpling again.

“My point exactly,” intruded Joan, nodding at the man before returning to her book and leaving Kevin to once more ponder things his naïve heart had never considered.

 

1983

The room was now salmon – another pallid backdrop for the worn chairs crowding the space. Competing with radio static, Bonnie Tyler confessed to a total eclipse of the heart and Bob Hawke declared that sacking anyone on this day was enough to label you a bum.

In her habitual corner Daphne hunched; bowing in defeat. What leaves remained had browned with age and could be scrunched like paper in the palm of a hand. Her once sturdy limbs that had branched out like open arms were now mere twigs, drooping beneath the weight of time. Fallen leaves were forming a rising layer surrounding the base of the plant as though it were in the process of burying itself.

The man sat beside Daphne with the briefcase resting on his lap, his fingers on the latch. Following two neat clicks the case was unlocked. He held it wide open as he peered quickly inside before turning the contents towards the plant as though he were a businessman presenting his client with a tempting offer. The man caressed the closest branch with a soft hand and watched as the end-most leaf fell from the plant and into the briefcase; a signature to the presented proposal.

The change was so minute that unless you’d been watching keenly you’d have missed Daphne admit defeat. In her final decline, she slouched the smallest bit further, withered just a fraction more; and then the agreement was complete.

The man gently refastened the suitcase and placed it on the tiles between himself and the lifeless plant before fixing his gaze steadily ahead in his typical manner.

At 11:55 Kevin Lewis entered the room wearing brown dress pants, a white button-up shirt and a green and orange plaid tie that hung loosely around his neck.

Kevin made his way to the reception window and inquired as to whether Kelly Lewis could be notified her husband was here, before taking a seat by the door and immersing himself in the business pages of the Age.

As time continued to circle, an unpleasant vibe seemed to sanction the back corner from the rest of the waiting room as each visitor did their best to avoid the general space the plant and the man silently occupied. Instead of settling in a chair bordered by other empty ones, they would wriggle into a seat beside an elderly man whose cough sounded like sandpaper being chafed on cement or directly across from the mother failing miserably to control her rowdy children, despite the numerous vacant and peaceful seats that presented themselves just a little bit further along.

Finding nothing of particular interest within the business pages, Kevin commenced fanning himself with the paper. The humidity of the crowded room had caused beads of sweat to form along his brow. Tugging on his tie he loosened it further before his eyelids drooped and allowed for the weight of his head to slump back against the wall. He imagined lying on St Kilda Beach, the heat of a golden sun moderated by the whisper of a north-easterly breeze tickling his face with ocean spray. Tuned out to the sounds of contagious illness and rioting children he could hear the quiet crunch of warm sand meeting soft soles and the not too distant cry of seagulls circling for a feed.

“Kevin,” he could hear you calling to him from somewhere further down the shoreline. “Kevin?” Your tone was more worried now. What was wrong?

“Wake up Kevin!”

By the sea no more, Kevin returned to the oppressive sweltering of the waiting room to find your face an inch from his, sapphire eyes rimmed with red.

As Kevin pushed himself into a more upright position you folded yourself into the seat next to him, fixing an alert glare on your knees as though something extraordinary was about to happen there.

“Why aren’t you at work?”

“The boss gave everyone the day off.”

“He must be impressed with your increased sales.”

“No, we won a yacht race.”

You did?”

“Of course not, Australia did.”

“Oh…I have cancer.”

The words seized Kevin unexpectedly like being forced under water before having the chance to take in a breath. He choked on their meaning, gasped at what they could possibly entail and when he resurfaced he was spluttering bewilderedly, alarm evident in his expression.

“But – it was just a check-up – are they sure? I mean – what type of, of –“

“Lung cancer.”

“Caused by – “

“Smoking, yes they believe so.”

There was silence. Tension gripped the pair of you tightly with no sign of letting go.

You snapped first.

Moving suddenly, Kevin watched horrified as you retrieved an open packet of Virginia Slims from your handbag, sat one in your mouth and began lighting it with a shaky hand.

“Kelly, sweetheart,” Kevin’s voice broke as he reached across to tear the cigarette from your pouting lips. There was resistance, but today the fight simply wasn’t in you. Tears sprung forth and rolled down your cheeks like silver scars and you buried your face in your hands as you attempted to stifle each sob that rose like thorns in your throat. With no other immediate option, Kevin balanced the stolen cigarette in his own mouth before embracing you as best as he could with an arm of each chair between you.

As the sobs were reduced to sniffles, Kevin removed the cigarette from his mouth, before whispering in your ear.

“The smoking stops today, ok? You can turn this around.”

“I have to smoke.” Your voice was taut string.

“But Jason and Angie need a mother.”

At the mention of your two young children, the sobbing resumed and Kevin had to place the cursed cigarette back in his mouth as you shook within the secure circle of his arms.

“What if I’m not around to see them finish school?”

“Don’t think like that. You will be.”

“But what if I’m not?”

A rush of doctors rolling an inhabited bed at speed between them, darted chaotically past the waiting room doorway, momentarily distracting you and Kevin from your own grief with curiosity sparked by someone else’s. The doctors’ resembled astronauts without helmets dressed in their baggy blue scrubs while they bellowed medical jargon at one another in urgent voices that echoed in the narrow corridor.

You hadn’t noticed the man earlier, but now as he marched across the room with his briefcase companion in hand you were submerged beneath a vaguely familiar sensation of recollection and panic that had you choking on air. Kevin released you from his hold as you doubled over barking convulsively. He gave the man an inquisitive frown as he made his way down the corridor, but in a comparatively calmer manner to the urgent scene that had just raced by.

“That’s the smoking talking,” Kevin murmured, returning his focus to you. Straightening yourself you shook your head.

“You know it’s the truth Kelly.”

“Can we go? It’s getting stuffy in here.”

“Of course.”

You rose immediately, leading the way out of the room briskly as though you could run from your fears.

 

1995

After nearly 12 years, a request to take a seat in the waiting room was still an oppressive experience. Daphne had been unceremoniously removed and replaced with a similar looking plant in its prime – only this one was a fake and wasn’t bestowed with an endearing name. Numerous copies of last months’ Reader’s Digest and National Geographic were mottled with good health brochures and booklets that cluttered the wooden coffee tables while various cityscapes of Melbourne now smothered the salmon walls. Those worn fabric chairs had been donated to charity and in their place stood sandy-brown vinyl seats with exposed metal arm rests barely wide enough for a child’s forearm. Additional chairs had been crammed into the space to accommodate the expected increase in emergencies over the holiday period, prompting apologetic phrases such as “excuse me,” and “sorry mate, just squeezing through,” to become the everyday language of the waiting room.

You were a frequent visitor to the hospital over these last years. A successful pneumonectomy in the final days of 1983 saw the total removal of the stage three squamous cell carcinoma from your lungs. This invasive surgery was soon followed by a nine month period of chemotherapy, causing you to become a sporadic detainee of the hospital. An intravenous injection of cisplatin and gemcitabine would cause you to return home fatigued and breathless – the effort it took you to climb the stairs to your second-storey bedroom left you wheezing like the pack-a-day smoker you no longer were.

Between cycles of treatment you spent much time ticking items off a bucket list Kevin had assisted compiling. Following the weekend you learnt how to waterski, you were admitted back into hospital earlier than anticipated with a broken ankle and minor cuts and bruising from head to toe. On the advice that you select less physically demanding experiences to fulfill while your blood cell count remained so low, the entirety of the following Saturday was spent curled on the couch watching all 45 episodes of Monty Python.

Today you wedged into the crowded space first, your 18 year old son shuffling subduedly in behind. Physically, Jason had matured into quite the young man. The hard line of his jaw was shadowed by a three day growth atop a broad set of shoulders, and his limbs had thickened from shapeless twigs to better resemble small tree trunks in power and size. At fifteen years he’d exceeded your height and had continued to grow ever since, obliging you to purchase a new wardrobe for your burgeoning son every change of season.

Mentally, however, Jason had retained an inquisitive nature that often died in youth. There was nothing his curiosity would overlook; anything he couldn’t comprehend was afforded a thousand questions fired across the dinner table, or countless hours of research until he quite often became sidetracked on a deviated trail of investigation. He saw the world around him as an endless number of possibilities and it was his mission to attempt them all.

This day had been no different. While you’d spent all morning desperately attempting to quell numerous clashes between a vexatious Joan and the requiting Kevin and Frank, Jason had collaborated with Angela to design and construct a pocket-sized slingshot with which the pair proceeded to shoot balls of used wrapping paper at the household cat. By that afternoon, their endeavors had progressed outside to a game of ‘who could sling an old cricket ball the furthest’. The throbbing headache you’d acquired begrudged you of participating, requiring an evening nap in an attempt to stifle the pain.

Until you were startled awake by Angela’s shriek.

It became immediately evident upon entrance to the waiting room that panic and impatience reigned. Thickening the air with distress, it pressed uneasily on your shoulders and instinctively you rolled them back. With determination you commenced jostling your way through the throng of injuries towards the reception window, reaching out to smack a hand on the veneer counter as though it were a life ring amongst a sea of restless people.

“Kelly!” the receptionist beamed too cheerily for the oppressing atmosphere of the room. “Merry Christmas! It’s been too long since we’ve seen you.”

Would it ever feel too long?

Keeping that thought to yourself you simply nodded once before sucking in a laborious breath – and then another – in a strenuous attempt to swallow sufficient air. The friendly receptionist detected your struggle.

“Is everything ok?”

You nodded again, this time with more conviction.

“Yes. Actually,” you spun around to locate Jason. Your son stood pressed against the wall, holding his right forearm against his chest like a heavy sash. His mouth was twisted into a grimace. “Jason was retrieving a cricket ball off the roof and it was getting dark and –” Your words trailed off as you ran out of oxygen.

“Oh we’ve had a fall, have we?” The receptionist caught on, peering over the counter at Jason to assess his injury. “Unlucky fella. We’ll get you a sling for now and Kelly I’ll ask you to fill out this form and just take a seat.” The receptionist swung a clipboard and pen over the counter.

“How long will we have to wait?”

“That depends on how many more intoxicated fools we get in here in worse conditions than your boy.” She smiled apologetically. Your attempt at one in return was pitiful and you knew it. “How about I try and pull a few strings?” A hoarse thank you escaped your lips, which you put down to a long day of screaming over the top of Joan’s booming bellow.

“Are you sure you’re ok?” the receptionist added.

There’s a tight pain pinching my chest and I’m starting to feel light-headed.

But you were your mother’s daughter.

“No I’m fine. Stressful day with all the family together is all.”

The receptionist nodded understandingly before she was distracted by the entrance of two rowdy men; one of them moaning. The bandage wrapped sloppily around his fist was seeping red. Squeamish, you turned away and scanned the room for an available chair.

The man sat unmoving and inaudible in the furthest corner of the room surrounded by the only vacant seats, his briefcase resting on the floor beneath him. He appeared most out of place in a room swarming with unsettled individuals, all contributing to a dissonant drone that buzzed like a pest in your ear.

Something about the man caused your stomach to spin and a familiar but unexpected prickle of fear swept across you. Forthwith you recalled that portentous day the cancer was diagnosed and the dark, foreboding cloud of numbered days that had been brought with it. You shuddered, shaking the memory off.

With no other option you motioned for Jason to follow you across the room and take up seats to one side of the curious man. A mother’s instinct invoked you to descend tentatively into the chair immediately next to the stranger, as though he were a danger to shield your son from. Subtly, the man turned his head and offered you a nod of acknowledgement before shifting his gaze aimlessly across the room.

“How’s that arm?” you inquired softly. Jason started to shrug and then scowled as the movement provoked the pain. Sympathy had you scrunching your face.

A minutes silence passed between you.

“Dad knows that you still smoke sometimes,” Jason stated suddenly. He looked you in the eye. “We all do.”

“Where did this come from?” you pried, the announcement catching you off guard.

“I heard you and Nan arguing in the kitchen this morning,” he admitted. A tickle deep in your throat now coerced a dry cough to escape your mouth; with each croup you could feel your chest constricting. “You ok, mum?”

“I’m ok,” you confirmed, straightening in your seat. “That’s just the stress of the day talking. I guess I could have a smoke in front of you now seeing as it’s no longer a secret?” Your voice was hopeful; you’d been dying for a cigarette all day.

“Not a chance.”

“You can’t really stop me.”

“I may have a broken arm, but even still I’m stronger than you.”

“Jason? The doctor will see you now.” The receptionist beamed from behind the counter.

With considerable effort not to jolt the injured arm, Jason rose from his seat.

“Promise not to smoke while I’m gone?” He had Kevin’s eyes.

“I promise.”

With a small smile Jason departed, leaving you in the company of the unknown man.

Before long, you found yourself coughing again, folding over in distress as pain seared through your chest. Each breath in was becoming even more of a monumental task.

Was this still stress?

“You look afraid.” The man’s voice was pure. Startled, you swiveled to face him. You hadn’t noticed him move, but now the briefcase sat enclosed on his lap. He watched you expectantly.

“Oh, I’m fine,” you breathed, unsure of what to say. There was just something about the man that had you on edge. You didn’t want to continue the conversation any further so you swung back around in your seat.

“You’re dying, Kelly.”

The words rocked you savagely. You’d been dropped from a great height unexpectedly and it took your breath a moment to catch up.

“Excuse me?” Your voice was broken glass.

“You’re dying.” He repeated the words as though it were not uncommon to utter. “I have an offer.”

There was nothing for you to say, you simply regarded the man with arrant trepidation as the briefcase was unlatched before the contents were turned on you.

To the rest of the waiting room, they observed nothing strange at all about the proceedings taking place between an ageless man and a heavily breathing woman. You attentively surveyed the subject of the briefcase for a short minute, immersing yourself in what you beheld. Then you raised your eyes to the man.

“I thought I had longer,” you whispered shakily.

“It’s the things we don’t see coming that scare us the most.” He held out a smooth hand.

You shook it.

With tension, the briefcase was closed, as though an invisible source was threatening to rush from ensnarement. It closed with a snap that echoed in your head as though it had been shouted through a long, narrow cave. The last thing you discerned was the man’s pleasant smile before he rose to his feet and strode from the room as your head slumped against the wall and your eyes closed over one concluding time.

********************************************************

You died Kelly Margaret Lewis 25th December 1995; a much loved mother, daughter and wife.

A thoracic aortic aneurysm brought on by a combination of smoking and a family history of the condition was later revealed responsible for your termination.

When Jason re-entered the waiting room – like those around you also occupying the space – he assumed you were asleep. It wasn’t until after shaking you sharply to no avail that fear began to stain his thoughts.

You were 43.

May you rest in peace.

********************************************************

 

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