By Lydia Trethewey
‘Sir I’m going to have to ask you to leave.’
The man is old and has skin like leather. He’s not listening to the clinic receptionist, and continues to glare at the ashen faced woman sitting on the floor.
Ben tries to ignore the altercation, staring hard at his book.
‘You’re a bad mother,’ the old man says.
The mother is only young and sits on the mat with her five children. The eldest child looks to be about ten, the youngest a few months. Around them are strewn the usual waiting room toys: books, plastic animals and blocks. The mother’s cheeks are blotching and her eyes swell with the tide of suppressed tears.
‘Sir the child is only a baby. She can’t help it,’ the receptionist says, standing just out of the old man’s reach, just close enough to be formidable.
The baby chirps.
‘Control your child,’ he snaps.
‘She’s a baby,’ the mother replies, voice wavering.
The old man mutters.
Ben finds himself reading the same sentence over and over again. The old man sits at the other end of the row of chairs, but everyone’s attention has slipped sideways in his direction. To Ben’s left sits a man with rectangular spectacles and deep brown eyes, and opposite is an elderly woman with a firm chin and curled grey hair. He struggles to pick up the thread of his novel.
When the bespectacled man speaks Ben hears the ghost of an Indian accent.
‘Imagine having a grandfather like him,’ the man says.
The elderly woman nods adamantly. Her eyes are wide and tinged pink, as if she too wants to cry. In the heightened atmosphere, Ben wonders what news awaits her on the other side of the clinic doors. He pictures the radiologist in there now, asking Laura all kinds of questions. Focus on the book.
‘I have five grandchildren myself and I love them to pieces,’ says the bespectacled man.
Ben suppresses a look of surprise, as the man appears to be no more than forty-five. He surmises that he alone of the waiting room strangers might be more of a grandchild than a grandparent, save of course for the young mother.
‘I’m about to have a third grandchild,’ the elderly woman says, puffing up in her chair.
‘Thank you. There’s nothing in the world quite like grandchildren. It’s a special sort of love.’
The baby gurgles and squeals.
‘For fucks sake,’ says the old man loudly.
‘Sir, I’m going to have to ask you to wait in your car until your wife is finished with her scan.’
The old man heaves to his feet.
‘You’re a bad mother,’ he spits as he hobbles to the door.
The automatic glass swings shut behind him.
‘He mustn’t be right in the head,’ the bespectacled man says to the young mother.
‘Definitely something wrong there,’ the elderly lady nods.
The mother tries to smile but it doesn’t really take. She scolds her eldest daughter for messing around with the water dispenser.
A spell of comradery fills the room around the old man’s departure, a curious connection forged though victory against a common enemy.
The baby squeaks.
Laura emerges from the doctor’s office, face flushed. Ben shoves his book into his bag and hurries to take her hand. She smiles. All the tension in his bones floods away.
‘It’s all clear,’ she says, folding herself into his arms.
They pass the old man on the way to the car, sitting alone outside, muttering to himself. Ben avoids his eye. Laura is quiet, imbued with a soft relief. To fill the silence Ben tells her of the excitement she missed in the waiting room, the antagonistic old man and the strange feeling of friendship that blossomed as people leapt to reassure the persecuted mother.
Laura remains silent, her eyes grown sad.
‘Poor man. He probably isn’t right in the head. He’s probably all alone,’ she says.
Ben’s sense of consonance with the universe falters.
‘His wife was in getting a scan, so he can’t be completely alone,’ he says, fiddling with the car keys.
‘If she needed a scan perhaps things aren’t going too well. Perhaps he’s readying himself for the big loneliness to come, losing the love of his life.’
Ben grabs her hand and squeezes it, caught by an unexpected urge to make sure she’s still there.
‘Maybe you’re right.’
The two get into the car and strap in their seatbelts. As they pull away from the carpark, Ben catches sight of an old grey-haired woman, thin and frail, wrapped in the embrace of the old man. He turns his head quickly to get a closer look, but the car is already slipping onto the highway and the sight is swept away.