I’m having trouble working out where I am. Somehow, this isn’t perturbing, simply puzzling. I’m in a puzzle and need to put together the clues to work out what this is all about.
I’m sitting in the centre of a row of beige plastic chairs. When I turn my head, I realise that my wife, Anna, is next to me. A ring of beige chairs also lines the walls. Other people, scattered around the room, are flicking through magazines or looking down and shuffling their feet. I get the feeling that they don’t want to be here.
A beeping sound is coming from somewhere. To my right, people are moving through an automatic door, which shudders as it opens. I look up to see a woman behind a counter and a glass window. She seems harassed, and her dark hair hasn’t been brushed recently. She’s on the phone and taking notes. Every so often, people go up to the opening in the window and talk to her. She frowns when they approach, as though she doesn’t really want to speak with them.
Now Anna goes up and talks to her too.
We seem to be in some sort of waiting room, but I don’t know why. I look around. There are posters on the walls, with bold letters reading, ‘Cover Your Cough’, ‘For Infection Control Reasons, Wash Your Hands’, and other things. Lots of the posters have people on them looking pleased or sad.
The sunlight slanting through the windows on the far wall is soft; it must be morning light.
In one corner of the room, on a low table, there are piles of magazines. I walk over to pick up Country Life and then sit down again. There’s a section on real estate, with pictures of quaint, homely-looking cottages; some have picket fences. Other photographs show mansions, built of sandstone or solid-looking bricks. The descriptions beneath list each property’s features, telling of the life of contentment that can be enjoyed if one makes the place their new home.
There’s one I like: a cute cottage with a garden for $350,000. Is that a lot of money? I used to know. When I look at the date on the cover, 2007, I realise that I don’t know what year it is now. The magazine must be old: its pages are curled and creased. The names of the country towns in the ads seem familiar, but when I try to picture where they are, I can’t; my sense of geography is wavy. Goulburn, I say to myself. Nothing. Cooma. Still nothing. The names swim around in my mind, sounds without any pictures attached to them.
Off to my left, a child is whining. I turn to see a man and a woman, both big, with a girl aged four or five. They look tired, as parents do when they’ve been up during the night with a grumpy child. Soon I am absorbed by their interactions; it’s like watching a show. The father lifts the girl onto his lap, looking strained. The mother holds up a children’s book, reading to her How I Rescued My Brain 3 as a kindergarten teacher would. The child listens for a while, fidgets, and cries again. The mother tries to interest her in one of the toys from a box in the corner, but it doesn’t work. I know what this is like; I’m a parent too. They’re doing their best. How did I get to this room? A fragment comes into my mind — a dreamlike image — of Anna driving us in the white Tarago and me vomiting out of the car window. Did this really happen, or am I imagining it?
I turn to Anna and see that she’s crying quietly: her cheeks are pink; the rims of her eyes are red. She’s sad about something, but I don’t know what. I put my arm around her shoulder and pat her gently. ‘It’ll be all right,’ I say. She quiets a little. After a while I take my arm back and return to Country Life.
As we sit there, I feel as if I’m in a sound bubble, into which the surrounding noises don’t intrude. The crying girl doesn’t irritate me as I think she might have at another time. Instead I feel a well of stillness inside. I keep turning the pages. People come in and out of the room, as though it becomes more and then less popular. Then a man in white appears, like a jackin-the-box, out of a doorway. He calls out my name and holds the door ajar. It has an important-looking sign on it: Clinical Initiatives Nurse.
Anna and I get up and follow him in.
The room is small and square-shaped with clean, shiny equipment. The lights are very bright. The man has a sense of enthusiasm and energy about him; he looks interested in me. We sit down opposite each other, knee-to-knee. He brings his face, with intense, smiling eyes, close to mine. He looks clean, as though recently showered and shaved. I like his energy.
‘Now, David,’ he says. ‘Can you tell me what day of the week it is?’ His expression is encouraging, like a teacher’s. He knows the answer, but it’s important to him that I say it. I want to help, so I think hard.
‘It’s Wednesday … or it could be Thursday.’ I remember I was meant to do something special with the kids today, but I don’t know what that was.
‘Where are you now?’ he asks.
This is harder than the day-of-the-week question. ‘Is it a hospital?’ It’s the best thought I can come up with. He looks satisfied. He wants to know why I’m here. I turn to Anna. She also has that knowing look, and prompts me to answer, but I have no idea. It’s a mystery.
He asks more questions. I either don’t know the answers or can’t remember the start of the question, if it’s long, by the time he’s finished speaking. I’m disappointed that I can’t help more. But as he talks, his words appear in my mind slowly, like tree trunks appearing out of a fog. The words often disappear before I can get hold of them, as if they are in a line, each being jostled along by the next. I’m trying to hold on to each one while he’s trying to rush them. I’m feeling rattled now.
After his questions stop, he smiles and sends us out into the waiting room. The parents with the girl have gone, and most of the people are new. We must have been in the room longer than I thought. Anna must also be feeling better: I can hardly tell she’s been crying.
As we wait, the stillness returns; I’m back in the sound bubble. I’m not sure, now, if the man in white was real or I imagined him. It feels as if I’m in a movie and watching it at the same time. As far as I can tell, it’s not long before we are taken through another door. It opens, like magic, into a wide, yellow corridor with a side table, a high metal chair, and shelves along the walls.
A young man who says he is a doctor asks me to sit in the chair while he stands before me. He’s wearing ordinary clothes and is not enthusiastic like the man in white. Instead he looks tired, speaking slowly and softly. He probably wants to go home. The doctor would like to know the day of the week — it seems that this is an important piece of information. Once again, I’d like to oblige, and think hard. But I get the same answer: it’s Wednesday, or it could be Thursday, I say. He also wants to know where we are, and by now I know we are in Lismore Hospital because either Anna or the man in white has told me, and I’ve remembered. I’m confident that we were in a waiting room, because in hospitals you spend time waiting.
People come to hospitals for help. But why are we here? And where is Lismore Hospital? The name is familiar, but it swirls in my mind without a picture. I have an inkling I’ve been here before, though. The memory’s there, on the edge, just out of reach.
The doctor wants to know who Australia’s prime minister is. Paul Keating’s face comes to mind, but … we’ve had a new prime minister since Keating. Why don’t I know whom? An image of a balding man with large glasses comes to mind. ‘John Howard!’ I say. But then, ‘No, I don’t think it’s John Howard.’ I’m unable to answer more of the doctor’s questions — after he asks each one, I can’t remember what he’s just said. I’d like him to stop. Now he wants to take blood — from both arms, he says, because he needs quite a bit of blood. ‘Okay,’ I say. Usually I’d be nervous about this, but I’m not, and offer him my left arm first. I close my eyes. There’s a sensation of the needle going in, and then — nothing.