The waiting room
The waiting room was too warm. As soon as she opened the heavy glass door, Emma
and her mother were met with a sweet, oppressive warmth out of touch with the sunny day.
Emma scanned for an open window, but the two narrow glass rectangles seemed merely
decorative: sealed shut to let the air conditioning reign. Already, she knew. This next hour
would hurt and she wasn’t even the patient.
An indoors-looking woman tapped away at the reception desk. Emma led her mother
to a chair, opposite a young woman and an older couple. Good. Not too crowded. Crowds
often made her mother agitated, empty spaces too, so this was perfect. Emma then stepped
over to the receptionist and smiled.
‘Hello, Mrs James for Dr Lee, please.’
‘Pension card and referral,’ the woman said, eyes still fixed on the screen, as she held
out red painted fingers. She wore a thick tan foundation which had caked into the little lines
pointing at her lips. Emma handed over the papers, then glanced back at her mother who was
now rummaging in her handbag, shuffling wallet, glasses and tissues about. Probably looking
for keys to the apartment she hadn’t lived in for a decade. A tissue teetered at the edge of her
bag then wafted softly to the floor. Like a nervous Gretel, laying a breadcrumb trail, Lorna
James could always be found if you just followed the tissues.
Emma sat beside her mother, scooped up the tissue and set her face to neutral in
preparation for the questions. Mrs James took her daughter’s hand, clutched it tightly. Then it
began. Why are we here? Have we been here before? Have I got my medicare card? Where
are my glasses? I can’t find my unit keys. Emma answered diligently and after a few repeats
of the same questions she spied a magazine to distract her mother.
‘Mum, look at this picture of the Queen. How silly is her hat?’
Her mother peered at it and chuckled. One of her favourite topics.
‘Oh, and she always matches the handbag and shoes. What a wardrobe!’
Her soft pale eyes fixed on the photos. Emma eagerly grabbed a few more magazines and
rifled through them to point out Princesses in bold colours, scandalous middle-aged royals in
three-piece suits and little chubby ones in uncomfortable shoes. They’d been waiting now
about ten minutes. Suddenly a loud metallic thumping shuddered from the back rooms.
Everyone looked up.
‘Pipes,’ the receptionist remarked drolly, without looking up from her screen.
Emma’s mother was still wide-eyed.
‘Oh dear, I’m glad that wasn’t a patient. I mean, something bad happening... to a
patient out the back.’
The old couple chuckled and smiled kindly at her.
Mrs James used to be part of this medical system. Back in a different century when it
looked so glamorous in black and white photos: pretty nurses in their starched whites and
lipstick. But away from the cameras, sloshing shit in bedpans, yelled at by patronising
doctors and puffing cigarette after cigarette during breaks.
Yes sister, I cornered the sheets tightly.
Mr Johnson shat himself again, your turn.
Gladys says there’s scones in the nurses’ room.
She’d tell Emma and her brother about the horrors of polio patients before vaccinations,
reminisced about dances, corsages and a trip to Norfolk Island. The furthest she’d ever
Dance with me Lorna.
Flowers for the prettiest girl in the room.
Come on Lorna, nobody will see. Take it in your hand.
But she never mentioned her days in the children’s home where she and her sisters were sent
after her mother died in childbirth. When her father remarried, and his new wife wanted a
Twenty minutes had passed. Mrs James was getting restless. Emma recognised they
were entering phase two: wanting to leave.
‘Oh, Let’s just go, Emma. They’re busy. You’re busy too. Who’s picking up Josh?
Oh, let’s just go.’
‘No mum. It’s fine. Josh is at school. Let me check with reception.’
Just as Emma was getting up a young man swung open the door to the doctors’ rooms.
Oh, thank God. But no, she realised as she looked up, here comes another obstacle. Dr Lee
was only about thirty-five. And on cue, even as Mrs James gave the doctor her best smile, she
‘Oh no, Em, this young thing wouldn’t even have finished university. I don’t want to
see him. We should just go.’
Emma cringed but Dr Lee pretended not to hear as he ushered them in.
‘Ok, Mrs James, just down the hall. Lovely day today.’
After the appointment Mrs James was spent. To endure the indignities related to
occasions such as these, she drew on a reserve of good manners and deference instilled in her
over a lifetime. The empty spaces in her memory had not consumed those reserves yet.
Emma settled accounts, smiling politely at the smoker-lips receptionist, who did not smile
‘Ok mum, all done. Let’s go.’
‘I’ll just comb my hair.’
So, they sat while her mother sifted through her handbag, took out her glasses, dropped
another tissue and finally found her comb. She ran the comb through thinning grey hair then
rested palms on her thighs in a gesture of finality.
‘Right. That’s it. I’m never going to a doctor again,’ she said, and Emma smiled.
She’d heard this after every appointment for the past five years.
‘I mean it, Emma. I’m too old to care now. No more poking and prodding. I’m done.’
‘Mum, let’s not worry about that now. I thought you wanted to get a coffee.’
‘Oh, you couldn’t get me out of here fast enough.’ and she stumbled up, tottering
from side to side in her usual dance to find balance.
Arm in arm they stepped out into the sparkling day, exhaling all the expectations of an
overheated room of strangers.
‘What would I do without you?’ Mrs James squeezed her daughter’s upper arm.
‘What would I do without you, Lorna?’ Emma replied.
But there were no answers.
Kate Maxwell is a teacher based in Sydney. Writing poetry has always been her therapeutic and creative outlet. Kate’s work has been published in Australian literary magazines such as The Blue Nib,Verandah, Hecate, Linq, Social Alternatives, Tirra Lirra, the New England Review and Swyntax. She has also been published in The Darling Axe (Canada). She describes herself as having been in an artistic stupor for some years now and is ready to wake up her creative muscles again. Kate’s interests include film, wine and sleeping.