“I’m afraid this isn’t done on a first-come-first-serve basis,” he repeats, slow and loud this time.
Particles of his sprayed spittle make it through the cluster of holes in the see-through plastic that separates him from you. You step back.
“Now, if you’ll just take a seat and wait your turn,” he says.
So much for getting it over with.
You look around at the small room, germs and closed windows and a throat-clogging smell of a heavily-used cleaning substance that conceals something deeper, mustier, putrid. There are three doors. One next to you, the one you’ll go through when it’s your allotted time and clearly not a moment sooner. On the wall opposite there’s a water machine and two doors. You came in through one of those doors, the one branded EXIT. The second door’s open, just slightly, and painted teal. It’s the only thing in here that’s been given any colour. It has a small square window in it, wire-gridded, about 30×30, covered with three scribbled attempts at art, blue-tacked on from the other side. A children’s room. Why would people bring children with them?
You could leave. Just walk straight out. This won’t help.
But you’re here now. It took eight months on a list to get here. Sit. Sit down. Just do what everyone else does.
Eight metal chairs line the side walls. Probably nailed to the floor. On one side a man with white hair sits next to a plate-faced woman with rosy cheeks. The man rocks back and forth, hands up, fingers twiddling, making slight and quiet moaning sounds while the woman reads a magazine.
“Please, just take a seat and wait. Read a magazine. Time will fly,” the receptionist says.
You choose a seat, furthest from the reception booth, in the corner. Near the teal door. Yep, it is squished right next to the water machine, but you’ve made your choice, can’t change it now.
Magazines lie in disarray across the low table between you and the rocking man, and the rosy-cheeked woman. Pick up a magazine, pretend to read. That’s what people do. You lean forward, grab one, grasp the spine rather than touching any corners, because the corners are where other people touch. You’ve chosen a magazine about cars. You should have looked at what you were picking up, but you can’t put it back now.
Maybe you like cars.
You open it, glance quickly over the top. The rocking, moaning man is still rocking, still quietly moaning and grunting, transfixed by his fingers. The woman with rosy cheeks reads her magazine. Also not looking at you.
Of course they’re not looking at you. They’ve got better things to do.
A high-pitched beep, a speaker squeal. The voice of the receptionist invades the room. “Mr Clayton. You can go in now. Mr Clayton.”
Cars. Look at them. Be interested in them.
Rifling of pages from a magazine and the plop of it being slung on the table. “It’s our turn, Bill.” The voice of the woman with rosy cheeks is raspy and sweet, like she’s sucking on toffee.
Blue shiny cars. Red shiny cars. Gold shiny cars. Squeak of the door at the side of the reception opening, and another as it closes.
You’re hunched. Relax. Drop your shoulders and raise your head. You can lay the car magazine on your lap now and have a proper look around.
There are thirty-six small circular holes in the transparent plastic of the reception booth. The walls of the waiting room are tall, separated by a deep red dado rail running horizontally around you. Below the wall is painted a subtle mint green, and above it there’s mustard wallpaper, sprinkled with a print of small ditsy flowers climbing around a geometric pattern, maybe a trellis.
The ceiling is creamed with swirls, and the light fixture in the middle of the ceiling is brass, with three vines sprouting from it and a green twirling bloom containing a light bulb on each. The floor is varnished in a deep red, probably to match the dado rail. The low pine table is oval shaped, edges rounded. The magazines are tidy, ordered in piles, except for the discarded one that sits hap-hazard on top. You don’t have to tidy it. They’ll just get messed up again with the next load of people who come in to wait. But you want to tidy them, you need to, and your hands are already covered in germs from the car magazine.
You tidy the magazines. Start thinking about fanning them out, but you’d need a tape measure or a ruler and you didn’t think to bring one. The receptionist must have one but you’re not asking him.
The EXIT door opens.
A man walks in the waiting room, red crimson shirt, creased and lightly moist from recently being unearthed from inside the waste of his pin-tucked trousers. Behind him is a young boy, probably about six or seven. Probably his son. Headphones on, tablet held up to his face.
Who’d bring children here?
Grab the car magazine. Keep your head down. Don’t stare. Shiny cars.
A shuffle of fabric and feet pass by.
Silver shiny cars. Black shiny cars.
Voices at the reception, exchanges of words through the see-through plastic.
“No, sir. They came here far too early. You’ll be seen first,” the receptionist says.
They’re talking about you. They’ve looked at you. Maybe they’re still looking at you.
Pull the magazine closer to your face. Blurry shiny cars.
“Please take a seat and you’ll be seen very soon,” the receptionist says. “There’s a children’s room through the back.”
Footsteps pass, trailing through the teal door and out of the waiting room.
You’re alone. You can lower the magazine, down on your lap. Have a look across the low table at the man sitting opposite.
Not in the children’s room with the boy …
but sitting opposite.
Looking at his watch.
You snatch the magazine back up to cover your face.
with doors that slide and doors that open normally and doors that curve upwards and doors that…
You can actually almost hear him breathing. Maybe he can hear you breathing. Maybe you’re breathing too loud.
Hold your breath.
The water in the water machine bubbles and blobs. You’re thirsty – you didn’t have a drink before you left because you didn’t want to use the toilet here. Didn’t think you’d be here this long. Thirsty. Hold the magazine higher and look at the machine. Two options. Why are there two options? Maybe cold, or even more cold? Ice or no ice? There are plastic cups. Where would you put it afterwards? Bet they don’t have a recycling bin here. And you’d have to get up to make a drink. And you wouldn’t use the cup on top. You can’t – too many germs. You’d have to take it off and use the cup underneath, or the one underneath that. Or the one underneath that. And he’d watch you. You know he would. What else is there to look at in here? You’d do it wrong, spill water, make a mess, drop the cups. And if you have a drink you’ll need a wee and have to use the toilets on the ground floor and probably miss the appointment and have to wait another eight months and have to scrub your bottom as soon as you get home.
It’s not worth it. This will be over soon. Just hold it. Just keep looking at the shiny cars.
“I don’t want to.” The tiny voice, quiet and flustered, comes from the children’s room.
Ignore it. The boy is talking to himself. Maybe he’s talking to his tablet. Ignore it.
“I don’t want to I don’t want to,” the boy says.
The man sitting opposite must have heard. Don’t look at him. Keep looking at the cars. But he must still be sitting as he hasn’t made any noise, any footsteps, towards the teal door.
“You have to. Everyone does. Everyone who comes here,” a whisper. A man’s whisper.
From inside the children’s room.
“No. I don’t want to I don’t want to,” the boy says again.
“Everyone does. So you have to. It’ll be OK. But you have to,” the whisper urges.
You lower your magazine.
The man who came in with the boy sits across the waiting room, gazing up at the ceiling. Not looking at you or in the direction of the boy’s voice, but at the ceiling. He can’t hear the whisper. Of course he can’t, because he’s too far away. But you heard the whisper, so you know there’s a man in the children’s room. There’s a man in the children’s room. You should be saying these words, standing up and shouting them, telling the dad and the receptionist. Be the hero. It’s what anyone else would do.
But, then you’d make a scene. Then they’d look at you.
“No-I-don’t-want-to-I-really-don’t-want-to,” says the boy.
Why can’t the dad hear him?
“Well, I did it,” a third voice says from inside the children’s room. A girl’s voice. “We all did it, when we first came.”
“I-don’t-want-to-I-don’t-want-to!” shouts the boy.
His dad is still staring at the ceiling. Why isn’t he doing something?
“You’ll be fine. We’ll stay with you.” Another voice, a fourth person, older, teenage maybe.
“I DON’T WANT TO I DON’T WANT TO I DON’T WANT TO!”
The dad snaps out of his gaze, jumps up.
Lift your magazine back up. Shiny cars.
A high-pitched beep, a speaker squeal. The voice of the receptionist. “Master James. It’s your appointment time. Master James.”
The voice of the dad, assertive and calm, is spoken from somewhere far too close. “James, it’s your turn to see the doctor.”
You listen to the low friction of their feet against the floor as they walk from the children’s room to the door beside the booth. You hear the squeak of the door open, and the squeak of it shut.
And there are no more voices from inside the children’s room. You lift the magazine back up to your face.
Rebecca Delphine is a Young Adult author from Thanet.