“Waiting To Be Seen” by Jez Patterson
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Sometimes all we want is to be seen.
Please enjoy our Feature Story: “Waiting To Be Seen” by Jez Patterson
I went at four a.m. because, well, the last time, I’d gone during the day and had to wait five hours before I was seen. The ache in my kidneys wasn’t so intense that I couldn’t hold off, and I had some painkillers from that previous occasion if it suddenly got worse. I was moving to Luanda in a week and just wanted to know if I had anything brewing down there I should worry about. An X-ray and a urine test would be enough, and Accident and Emergency was the quickest way to get both.
There were two nurses on Reception, drinking mugs of tea. They took my details and I followed the signs. I passed no one, not even a cleaner, and my spirits were pretty high when I entered the waiting area and saw just one other person waiting to be seen.
“Good… morning,” I said, choosing carefully. The elderly are particularly keen on matching salutations to the correct time of day. The old lady returned my smile.
“Good morning to you too.” There were only medical pamphlets, insurance magazines. I’d brought a paperback, but now I’d said something, I could hardly pull it out and ignore her. “Been waiting long?” She shrugged, which I took to mean some, but nothing she couldn’t endure.
You sit in any waiting room and you always play Guessing-Why-Others-Are-There. Two-thirds, you can’t see anything wrong with them. Not even a wince of discomfort, until they remember they should put one in for appearance’s sake. By and large, they resemble passengers in a departures lounge.
In her case, there was no mystery.
“How you feeling?” I asked, nodding down at her leg. The bandage was home-applied because it wound up and down, crisscrossing, and revealing little triangles of purple-blotched skin. Blood had turned it orange in one obvious patch and she’d secured it with a safety pin, which I knew wasn’t de rigueur in a clinic in these days of health and safety.
“It doesn’t hurt,” she said. “Not a bit.”
“You’re braver than me.” I told her about my kidneys. It was often something I reeled off to explain why I needed to drink two litres of water a day and hit the bathroom enough to be noticeable. This time, I just wanted to justify my presence here. Not one of the Departure Loungers.
“Oh, nothing you can tell me about needing bathrooms. Though I think I might need some help getting there at the moment.” I experienced a false alarm, thinking she was going to ask me to help her up, maybe even–god forbid–wee and wipe.
The corridors were still empty: the gentle whirring hum of a floor-polisher somewhere, a door clicking open, closed, footsteps with the wrong rhythm to be an emergency doctor.
“Certainly quiet,” I said. “Hope they haven’t forgotten us.”
She did her little shrug and told me about her cats. Her garden. About the other times she’d fallen ill and needed treatment. Finally, she got onto her leg and how she’d woken up to find it bleeding, not knowing how it had got that way.
I offered some possibilities: some feasible, most silly. Silly enough, I hoped, to make her laugh but she didn’t.
“Lesley Higgins,” the loudspeaker said, and I was surprised they’d bothered using it. Bit lazy really, considering how many we were. “Room One.”
I got up, felt an apology was appropriate.
“Maybe they have different rooms for different treatments.”
“Oh, don’t worry about me,” she said. “Run along.”
“And you…well, hop along. When it’s your turn.” The smile, but still not a laugh, and I left feeling guilty.
I mentioned the old lady when the doctor saw me, give me that much credit.
“Just in case,” I added.
“An elderly lady?”
“Yes. With a bad leg. I don’t think she could walk here.”
The doctor swallowed. “So. You’ve seen her.”
“I…” Yes, of course I’d seen her. The painkillers weren’t the kind to produce hallucinations. At least, that was what I thought–before he told me the rest.
“You’re not the first. There’ve been others. When the room’s otherwise empty. I don’t want to upset you or anything, or have you thinking I’m mad…”
“No. Please. Go on.”
“She came in while there was no one on reception. There’s a bell to press, but she probably didn’t realize. Instead, she walked in and took her place in the waiting room. No one noticed her. Or, if they did, they probably just assumed we knew she was there. But we’re so short-staffed you can wait for hours, even at this time in the morning.”
I didn’t feel the chill then. Not yet. Not until after he’d finished telling me.
“The cleaners came at six and found her. She’d not been dead long and it would have been quick. It was Type 2 Diabetes. All too common, but she didn’t know it. It’s what caused her leg to bruise and bleed. Her heart just stopped.” The doctor looked away, embarrassed, but had probably told the story as many times as I’d explained my kidneys. “I don’t know why she keeps coming back.”
“Maybe just waiting to be seen.” His look asked if the words were cryptic. I hadn’t meant them to be, but they were just the same.
“I was on duty that night,” he said and shook himself free of the memory. “I’ll hurry your X-rays, get you an emergency ultrasound. Nobody should have to wait so long to find things out. You want a coffee? We’ve got a flask in the doctors’ lounge–better than the machine.”
I thanked him and wondered if all the doctors here were so attentive. I doubted it, though we all had it in us. Sometimes we just needed a gentle reminder to come along and sit with us a while. I wished I’d asked about her cats. Insisted she go before me. Maybe the next person would get it right.
Jez Patterson is a British teacher and writer, currently based in Madrid. He has lived in Brazil, Argentina, Greece and the UK. Links to things that have his name at the end can be found at his website: “Some Stories.”
Tags: jez patterson, metro fiction, short stories