The room surprisingly quiet. A big room, maybe once two rooms, but now the bigger having crept its way into the smaller, towards the window, towards the light. Furthest from the window, a darkened corridor that casts shadows over many lives. Mismatched furniture, added piecemeal with the passing of time. Long couches sunken under the weight of bottoms and burdens. Assorted chairs. I opt for a reasonably straight backed, skinny legged one next to the curved belly of the bay window. I too, drawn to the light; to some breathing space between me and the couches. Golfer,House & Garden, Oncology Buddies, largely untouched on the glass top table whose sharp corners require nimble knee and footwork by the ever-increasing number of legs circumnavigating it.

Shiny red toenails. Nine of them, one obscured by a thick, matronly Band-Aid. What else is being covered, being hidden? What is to be revealed from the depths of the corridor? A sea of cell phones, but each user upon her own remote island. A hand hovers, circles, white Tippex nails poke at the thankfully silent screen. Clop, clop, clop, heels type their way along the smooth wooden floor. 

“Mrs Myerowitz”. 

An announcement from behind the beige folder. Some rearranging of bodies. A large brown manila envelope lifted from the couch. Mrs Myerowitz and her scans, or what I assume to be, make their way past the knees and toes. Past the lonely urn and higgledy-piggledy row of cups, saucers, and mugs. No-one among us has yet accepted the offer of tea or coffee. The unappeal of the instant, or the optimism that there would not be enough time to drink a cup before one’s name being called. More likely to be accepted, a small plastic cup of water from the corner cooler, tucked tightly between a long-legged lamp with its skew velvet lampshade, and a pair of curvaceous crossed over calves. But no, getting water would feel like too much of an intrusion into that woman’s space, a space in which she is attempting to make herself smaller. 

The Tippex nails still prod and poke, their owner soon to be prodded and poked. Her pointing finger draws an invisible line from left to right. 

“I can’t really talk now, I’m at the doctor.” The hushed, conflicted tone of one not wanting to answer, but neither wanting not to answer. Her spine lengthens and shoulders train back despite her shrinking volume. Everything about her, so ‘other’ to the young woman to her left whose bright red thumb flicks big strokes from bottom to top of a bigger screen. Fast, fluid movements of a different generation. Phone held and operated with one casual, yet competent hand, the other, twisting a long strand of dark hair between thumb and forefinger. Her whole body a slouch, seemingly relaxed, except for the tell-tale hair twisting. Ding. Her flicking thumb suspends mid-air, the strand of hair released as the thumbs are called to concerted action. A connection, a conversation, something so absent amongst us seated here.

“Mrs Moosa.” 

The typewriter heel tapping, and the waving folder. The water cooler revealed, as Mrs Moosa’s shapely legs and pencil skirt make their way towards the waving folder, and darkened corridor beyond. Low gurgles as a cup of water is poured from the now accessible corner cooler. The urn silent, watchful, at the same time watched by an enormous bland picture behind it. Something white, with faint blue. Non-descript. It’s not clear what is being held by the large wooden frame. Maybe the picture has a partner closer to where I am sitting that will give a clue. The only other picture, behind me. A Roman vase, that bears no relation to the picture across the room. 

Is the art intentionally bland? A deliberate counter to the internal pictures being painted by those waiting? Pictures not of fine lines, and shades of cream, beige, or off-white, but thick strokes of black, grey, scarlet, and olive green? This innocuous waiting room art still better, less offensive to me than the awful Rosina Watchmeister of my orthodontic years. The musicians with their silly tilted faces plucking happily at their instruments. The self-satisfied slitty-eyed cats. All perfectly content, oblivious, while I lay, head tilted, mouth open waiting for the uncomfortable tightening of the train tracks coupling my teeth. Waiting for the new poke of sharp wires against the soft insides of my lips by the ambivalent orthodontist. Me, just another set of teenage teeth on his Ronderbosch conveyor belt. Anchen, the orthodontic nurse: warm, seeing, human, present. A bi-monthly crush, a sign of things to come. 

A reverberating ringing interrupts my Ronderbosch reverie. This echo ring, so distinct of doctors’ room telephones. Why so? Standard issue with stethoscopes and syringes?  

“Mrs Forsyth”. 

The white Tippex fingertips place cell phone and sunglasses into a large handbag. Mrs Forsyth treads her tall way past the urn and the lampshade, and the unfathomable painting, until she is swallowed by the dark corridor. The receptionist’s heels type their way back to the front desk. Quiet returns, despite the eight waiting having become ten, now swelled to fourteen. One island makes contact with another, breaking the silence:

 “How long you been waiting? What time was your appointment?”

“9 o’clock”.

Ag no, I sigh, my appointment 9h30, and 9h00 is still waiting. Waiting. Waiting room. Was it named with a more nuanced knowing? That it wasn’t just about the ‘where’, about a place, but the ‘how long’. And even more pertinently perhaps, a waiting for the ‘what’ – the million dollar what. The many issues of Oncology Buddies scattered around the room intended to be informative? Normalising? I notice them, who couldn’t notice the oxymoron title, but they don’t really give me pause for thought. 

My being in the waiting room, a routine mammogram. My main preoccupation, the ticking of the clock. A day of doing and deadlines, a day before travel, and the busyness that this brings. A scarcity of time, yet a precious one and a half hours of it already having seeped like ice from a defrosting freezer, into the strangeness of this room, into its furniture and cast down faces. Mine, a short-term, immediate view of time lost, of minutes and hours; not in my frame, the possibility of a trickling of time through a much bigger hourglass. 

Emails done, I turn my attention to substantive work, to refining roleplays I am busy writing, but it’s hard to focus in this sparsely spoken yet densely storied world that is the waiting room. 

“Mrs Wakeford.” 

At long, long last. Relief. Irritation – not so much for the waiting that I have endured, but for the ‘Mrs’. I save, close my laptop, slide it into its turquoise wetsuit cover, replace my memory stick, zip up my backpack. Suddenly time moves quickly after the interminable dragging. I pick my path around table, chair, and human legs, towards the dark corridor-corner. Nod my acknowledgement at the urn for its steadfast if unsought service. The folder-in-hand receptionist waits at the corner. 

“It’s Ms”. My annoyance, thickly coating my tongue and tone.

Eventually, for my turn with the hungry, humming machine. Good, a few minutes and I’ll be out. But no, the mammogram is a two-step process. The giant machine done with me, it’s more waiting, another waiting room. This one so different in every way to the first. Nine chairs, eight matching and just a single outlier, form something between triangle and circle. Two matching pictures side-by-side. More vases, but their designs clear. And, more than the pictures that sit side-by-side, the occupants of this small space. Intimacy. Not the islands of the big front room, but streams of connection, of heads and hearts, fears, and vulnerability. Streams of perfumes that blend and hold lightly and intimately. So different to the utilitarian, impersonal floor polish, the only smell in the main room. 

This curiously shaped corner, a place of palpable tension and anxiety. A place of warmth, despite the flimsiness of the radiology gowns, and the chill of the air-conditioner on our exposed spines. 

“How long have you been clear?” A gentle voice from behind fingers busily working a tangle of cerise wool. 

“Four years”. 

Two simple words, but words that carry the weight of the world – the weight of her world.  Hopes, fears, dreams, longings, the vastness of the unknown. Yet she sits so still. I look deeply to see her. It is she of the hovering hand, and Tippex fingertips. But in this small circle she is not ‘just’ that, but so much more than the woman who answered the call “Mrs Forsyth”. Her hands, with their perfectly neat white French nails rest on her lap, as still as the hands of the wool untangler are busy. Not a phone in sight or sound. Mrs Forsyth fully present to what is, to the moment, to us. 

Clack, clack, clack, the long metal knitting needles form themselves into plains and pearls from the now untangled wool. 

“Is that your knitting basket?” I ask. 

“No, it was here, it’s part of a project called ‘Warm the World’”. 

The project she explains, one of mutual benefit: activity to bring some stress release to women-in-waiting, women living or about to step into the world of the so-called ‘Big C’ – the world of cancer. And, at the other end of the knitting needles, squares and stripes that become blankets, scarves, and jerseys, that bring a little warmth for those in need. 

Slowly, but deeply, I begin to get it. This is no ordinary mammography centre, not ‘simply’ a place of ‘light’ examination of bone and breast. But a specialist oncology clinic, where unlike me, most of the women are not here for a routine age-related scan, but are here in the chapter of much weightier work. A work of an unknown number of words, paragraphs, and chapters.

I begin to understand the weirdness of the first waiting room, to understand the cell phones. Phones of necessity – the necessity of distraction. The desultory flicking of thumbs, and hovering hands. To understand, the very occasional fluttering over the pages of House & Garden or Getaway, but never a touch of Oncology Buddies. Anything to provide a momentary escape. 

And there I sat in my annoyance about the loss of my time, quite oblivious to the far greater threat for many of those gathered, not just of lost hours, but lost months or lost years. Losses, and potential losses, that could not but cast dark shadows over the women in the waiting room. A room of silent separated dots – dots that I could only begin to join here, in this small second waiting room. Dots that eventually joined in my head and heart. And now, a need in me to bring my own voice, to share an observation to the four or five gowned women around me, an observation maybe shared for my own sake, to meet my need to acknowledge those, or atone for my self-involvement, my unconsciousness in the big room, my failure to attune to what was really going on. My one line sharing to this small circle.

“How strange it is to me, that we all sat in the big room together, but so apart, each one in such a different story, in such a different state of being.”

“Mrs Wakefield”. 

I’m called to the second part of the process, the sonar. My stuff gathered and goodbyes said, I step out of this small close-knit community. 

“It’s Ms Wakeford” I growl. 

Ten minutes later I’m on my way out, just my bill to settle.  Ahead of me at the reception, Mrs Forsyth turns to leave.

 “How did it go?” I ask. Our eyes hold each other’s. My hand lightly on her arm.

“All fine”. 

We both exhale. All fine. And perhaps hanging in the air, the unspoken part of the sentence: “for now”. But for now, all fine, is enough. 

We release our eyes, and me my hand. I leave the waiting room. A place no longer of weirdness, but a place of wonder. I leave with a deep respect for everything and everyone that this understated, unspoken, yet deeply storied room holds.