The Waiting Room

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Platform Four

I stop running. I look at the cutlery and plates and look back to see how far I’ve come. The desk is in my vision, I’m angry. I reach for the plates and wipe my arms in both directions of the side board. Crashing and smashing the plates.

I shout and scream. The plates and knives and forks and spoons of all sizes fall off but make no sound on the floor. I’m sweating. I look down to see that I’m dressed as I was. My new suit has grass stains on the knees.

I close my eyes and breathe deeply. I open them to see the plates, the forks, the knives and spoons of all sizes back on the side board.

I breathe deeply again, I look up and down the dresser I look over my shoulder. The desk is opposite me. Paul is sat behind watching me.

I straighten myself out and pick up two plates, two forks and a knife. I walk back to Maud who shows no sign of witnessing my tantrum.

The new chair is opposite mine, as I approach I notice an imprint in the seat. It resembles the bottom of a large person. I’m immediately worried that I’m going to be face to face with an obese alcoholic. I sit down in my chair.

“Did you see any cream?” asks Maud taking the plates from me and arranging them on the table. I don’t answer, I don’t know why, but return to the side board.

There next to the plates are small jugs of single cream, fresh runny single cream. I pick up a jug and get an extra plate for our new friend.

“And some sugar please, the rhubarb is a little tart.” I hear the voice in my head. I look up to see Maureen is smiling at me. From this distance she looks like my mother, the voice I heard was gentle, but it was not a shout, only a conversational tone, and I wondered how I had heard it at this distance.

I turn around again to the side board. There next to the cream is a small bowl of sugar. I smile. A weak smile but it passes my lips. I turn to see Paul stood beside me. He smiles and picks up the bowl of sugar, a plate and fork for himself and we walk back to Maud together.

As we walk, Paul says “How about some of those strawberries.” I stop walking. He continues to the table. I turn around again to see bowl upon bowl of fresh red strawberries. Another smile brushes my face I allow it to stay there.

I place a bowl of the juiciest looking strawberries I’ve ever seen on the plate in my left hand and follow the white robe.

Maureen has cut four slices of her pie. I place the cream and strawberries on the table.

I notice the magazine is back on the table. The top three names have ticks next to them as if on a school register. “Marie-Anne,” “Here Sir,” “Rose Lilly,” “here,” “Maureen,” “I’m present my love,” I imagine her saying. In fact my mind keeps her talking. I imagine her talking of Arthur, of what she had to eat last night, of how the world has changed since she was a girl, I see Paul as the teacher, trying to get a word in but Maud is not stopping. I’m brought back by a hand on my arm.

“Paul isn’t it?” Maud is handing me my pie covered in strawberries and cream. “I am bad with names,” she reminds me. “If people didn’t call me Maud I’d soon forget who I was.” She adds.

Paul laughs a courtesy laugh. I notice he has no pie on his plate. He looks at me and smiles a good luck when he sees me staring at my pie.

The third slice is on another plate, piled high with strawberries and lashings of cream. Looking back at mine I’m jealous of the size of that piece.

Paul is sat the other side of Maud, facing the end of the table. The reclining chair with beer and crisps is opposite me and Maud.

I hadn’t noticed the fourth chair arrive. Its Paul’s chair, a high back white throne. It has a red cushion which is visible on the sides of where he now sits.

I was starting not to care what was here and what wasn’t, it seemed to be mind games.

“No thanks, the pastry is not good for me.” Paul replies to a question I missed. He gives me a sly smile almost to warn me in advance.

“Here Paul, have some more,” Maureen is trying to give me Pauls slice.

“This is plenty.” I remove my plate from the table so not to receive anymore.

Maureen places it on top of the cream that clouds the fourth plate. “Well there is plenty here for everyone.” She hands me a fork.

“Thank you.” I reply as politely as I can.

“Oh don’t thank me,” she says with a laugh, “its Arthur’s pie, thank him when he gets here, I’m sure he won’t mind though.” She takes a bite and continues talking. “Very partial to a bit of pie is Arthur. I had to make one every day. He would bring me more rhubarb and apples than I knew what to do with. I had to make two and give one to the families across the street. People said they moved away because they couldn’t say no to me. It stood empty for years, bit too rural I always thought. A family did move there, same year as my Arthur died he wouldn’t have liked them, city types. They would argue in the early hours before going to work. I never made another pie after that, not till this day. I had to ask my aide, who comes by once a week, to get me some rhubarb. It wasn’t fresh, not like my Arthur would get. It came from one of those supermarkets. All wrapped up in plastic and sweating. I stewed it though, got it back. I saved it if you like, bought it back from the dead.” She smiles at me as if she knows something I don’t and continues, “Still it’s not the same, not as sweet as my Arthur would like.” She took another bite. I cut into mine and tasted it. She was right it needed the sugar.

We ate in silence. Paul checked his watch every other mouthful. My fork making scratching sounds as I chased my strawberries around the plate.

To my surprise both Paul and Maud tip their plates to their mouths and drink the cream. With a satisfactory sigh they place them back on the white table.

Paul checks his watch again. He looks like he would like to leave, but as I am still eating mine he resists and rests back in his chair.

“Who is this chair for?” I ask pointing with my fork hand.

Paul smiles, “We have two more guests today. This chair is for...” He looks to the floor for a word, then up to the open ceiling. I look up too, to see that there is no roof or anything. No ceiling, no mouldings, light fittings or colour. No clouds just the emptiness of white. “...a hero.” He continues his description of our obese neighbour. “The trouble with ‘hero’s’ coming here is that the people they leave behind aren’t ready to part with them. It’s always been the hardest way to deal with a death.”

With this word I look at Maureen, she is knitting in her sleep, her lips curled up on the ends to form a dreaming smile. “You feel like you should be celebrating the act, that the hero should live forever, happy ever after.” A small sarcastic laugh leaves Paul’s mouth. The first noise he has made away from talking. I am somewhat taken back by it.

He continues: “Like your action films, where the hero should die in every case, but some unrealistic event leads him to survive and marry a pretty girl. I’m afraid real life heroism isn’t like this. It’s true and awful at the same time. It’s noble and beautiful, loud as a canon firing and yet as quiet as a mouse. The beauty it radiates touches not only the viewer, not only the mouse...” a more convincing laugh, “...but everyone involved. Everyone is someone in that hero’s life. And can you imagine the feeling these people, these elated beyond any amount of wealth feelings that exist, to be taken so unjust, so quickly, so painfully.” Paul wasn’t looking at anyone whilst he slowly spoke.

Maud had woken and had stopped knitting. She too was looking at the floor. Paul was obviously talking of something he felt passionately about. He smiles at me and nods to Maud a thank you.

I find myself aware that for the whole of that speech by someone I only met that morning, I found I had been listening.

“Like the Lady you met only this morning Paul.” White haired Paul is looking at me. Maud is looking at me. I’m lost in my own thoughts. I missed the beginning of that discussion.

As not to look ignorant I try to speak, my eyes meet Paul’s and I’m encouraged to remember this morning. I look away embarrassed, I can’t get passed the white wall papered walls, the white petals, the snow. I look back into Paul’s eyes they look hollow, like deep egg cups turned on end but with no bottom. I look through his eyes.

*****

I’m sat again facing Mrs. Clarke. I can’t call her by her first name, her Christian name, her pre-nom. I don’t know if she’s moved from when I left her a few hours ago. Her gaze is focused on the adjacent table but her eyes are elsewhere.

The water level in the leaf embroiled glass jug hasn’t gone down. A fly floats about on the top repeatedly trying to escape, reluctant to give in to the inevitable.

The two glasses are still dry.

Five coffee cups are piled on one corner of the table and her dress, wet and crumpled is on the opposite side.

I sit down and order another two cups of coffee, for this I receive the slightest of smiles, awkward thanks.

Although I’ve calmed myself down and Thomas, my five year old son, is not harmed I still can’t help but blame her.

At the same time I can’t not feel what she has to recognise, accept.

Her make-up has run her face a mess, her dripping dress soaked through with rain is leaving a pool of water under the table. I know she is in shock, I know she will come round in a day or two and that’s when the pain will really hurt.

I know she is sat here after checking herself out from her bed upstairs. It won’t be long before the police are searching for her wanting a statement.

Wanting to blame someone for the early morning rush in the terrible weather to seal this case off and go back to eating doughnuts.

I study her face. She can’t cry anymore, her eyes as red as the sun. Her cheeks are streaked with make-up and blood. A bandage is wrapped tightly round her forehead.

Cheryl, a canteen member brings our fresh cups of coffee, as she sits them in front of us both I recognise her, and she me, but we don’t say anything.

I wrap my steady hands around my coffee, feeling the heat take me from this place. I take a deep breath of the rising steam, trying to eliminate the cleaners bleach smell that typifies a hospital ward.

Mrs. Clarke hasn’t looked me in the eye. Not since she asked me. We are both adults. We are both mothers. We both know the significance of the question.

She looks across the table towards me, staring at my cup of coffee. She brings her hands up to surround her own cup shakily she knocks the teaspoon off the saucer and rests them on the small round china plate, not actually touching the cup.

Cheryl returns with a trolley to clean the table, taking away the empty cups and wiping the table around our arms and coffee cups. She mops the floor under the dress that continues to drip, she knows better than to confront patients.

She leaves a warning sign for those who are walking by ‘Slippery Floor.’ Whenever I see this sign I am instantly reminded of the album by Bon Jovi ‘Slippery When Wet.’ It was mine and Paul’s first album we bought together.

Listening to it in his small flat, using the broom as a guitar and jumping around the place we would listen to it at full volume in the daytime, the neighbours at work so no-one to complain. We would always end up making love after ‘Bed Of Roses’ finished. Never in the bed though, back then we were getting to know each other, testing each other’s limits and going through our experimental stage.

On the large window seat was one of Paul’s favourite places, an exhibitionist as the window overlooked the entrance to Woolworths.

I was sure I saw my mother coming from there one day. She even looked up to the window. She had been to the flat, Paul had cooked for my mother after only a month of us dating, beef casserole with ‘fall apart dumplings.’ That was what we had called them as Paul tried to rescue them from pot.

It was good food and my mother liked it.

I can smell something like that casserole this morning, a thick gravy smell waves over my nostrils.

Plates being scrapped sound so loud this morning, the silence between us so vast.

Mrs. Clarke is shaking from the cold I want to give her my coat.

My fleece lined warm winter coat. It’s sad now that I think about how it matches Paul’s winter coat. We had got them as novelty gifts for each other three Christmases ago.

When life was simple, Thomas was two and a half, I hadn’t known then that I was pregnant a second time. Like today, only things aren’t so simply anymore. The colours on my jacket reversed from my husband’s.

Mine is brown with green stripes and an orange collar. Paul’s still had the orange collar that was what made us fall in love with them: his being green with a brown stripe.

My colourful winter coat that is full of so many happy memories.

My colourful winter coat that houses the end to Mrs. Clarke’s personal nightmare.

*****

Nick arranged to meet his mother in a coffee shop near his place of work.

After the divorce of his parents Nick’s mother and two younger siblings had lived not more than a mile away. It was odd to think that they could have lived so close yet not had met somehow.

Nick’s lifestyle had led him away from the social scene for some time.

His mother looked old. She had worn makeup for her meeting with her oldest child where a lifetime ago she had cooked for him, done his laundry, packed his lunch and read him stories as he went to sleep in his superman pyjamas.

Today she wears makeup for the first time since she can’t remember when, has butterflies like she is going on a blind date, and has thumbed the last pictures she has of her son until they have become dirty and transparent.

Hoping she will recognise her son after all the years they have been apart, walking into the coffee shop she is on the brink of tears as Nick, her oldest son stands from a table against the back wall of the cafe that houses the rich smells of freshly ground coffee beans.

The lights are dimly lit for romantic drinkers. It hides the shine on the eyes of Nick’s mother as she makes her way across the crowded fashionable youth.

The music is quiet, mood relaxing. She doesn’t listen as she makes her way through the cafe.

Nick arrived early to prepare and steady his nerves. His second cup of coffee is bought over by the waitress as his mother approaches. Nick orders her a large cup of tea, knowing his mother doesn’t like the taste of coffee. He hesitates as the waitress leaves. It occurs to him that he might not know her anymore.

Smiling at his mother she sits down haphazardly, sitting on the tail of her coat she adjusts herself awkwardly then settles down to see her son.

“I’ve ordered you a cup of tea.” Nick says, looking at his mother’s double chin, not into her watery eyes. “Thank you,” she replies emotionally, “you know I hate it when they put the tea bag in after the water in these places.” Trying to break the moment’s silence that had descended. Nick smiles and catches her eye. “And how your brother stirs my tea with his coffee spoon, the smallest piece of coffee or not even a piece just a drop of the liquid can taint my whole cup of tea. It drives me mad.”

Nick doesn’t say anything. He hadn’t thought it would be this easy to pick up where they had left off. He is grateful for his mother to do all the talking and he sits, nods, smiles and pulls the concerned face when the stories demand it.

His brother had been bullied after Nick had left school, the older and bigger kids teasing him for sharing his food with his older brother. Big brother wasn’t there anymore to defend the younger Nick. No-one knew the reason, that they didn’t live together, at that age no-one cares.

Feelings are only for girls when you’re an adolescent. You have to get one over on the other boys to be in with a chance.

Nick’s younger brother had taken to comfort eating late at night. His sister followed and soon all three of them would be munching on late night snacks. Ready meals would ding ready in the microwave and act as their alarm at one in the morning.

She couldn’t stop it after that. “Habits are hard to break,” she says with a smile.

Nick looks on wondering what she knows of her wayward son.

They talk of summer holidays and all the good of the past. The beaches they went to the hills they climbed, they laughed at the memory of his father carrying all three children half the way up a hill in Snowdonia.

Nick can sense the conversation is going towards his father and he doesn’t want to go there just yet so he blurts out his own news.

That he is a husband and father, he says proudly only to watch it sink his mother’s heart. There is a silence that makes Nick shiver. His mother smiles and pats his hands that are resting on the table.

“That’s great news Nick. I’m proud of you. Can I meet them, your family?” She looks down and wipes her eyes. “Oh, I’m so pleased.” Nick could tell he had hurt his mother. Unintentionally, selfishly, he hadn’t thought what reaction it would cause.

He wasn’t prepared to take the blame. It wasn’t his fault they had separated, had not written since his 16th birthday, had not been there when the bottom fell out of his life.

Nick agrees to let his mother meet his family and they part ways. Relief flows over Nick as he walks back to work away from the entrance of the coffee bar, away from his reunion, tears roll faster than ever from his mother’s eyes as she walks into the wind.

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