The Waiting Room
There’s a blast of cold air as someone comes in. We all look up then quickly away. The woman is wearing a headscarf. From beneath the material, matted hair curls down in oily strands. She has a bruise on her forehead and her eyes are too big and too far apart.
Oh God, please, please, please…
I’m not surprised though when, dragging feet like dinner plates and lugging carrier bags, she lunges towards me, and then lowers her sizeable backside into the next seat. Because they always do, particularly when I pray. Which goes to show, I suppose, that either there isn’t a god (possible) or that the god I pray to has a different agenda to mine (probable).
I’ve been there a while, the fug of stale air sticking to me damply, smelling of coffee and newspaper. Not many in here; a texting teenager, two old ladies, a suit, all relieved to be out of the stumbling cold. Every time a train thunders past we check the clock, hope spanning the room like a prayer. Twenty-five minutes is a long time to wait when you’re wrecked and you want your bed. The conference was inspiring but I’ve got so much to do before Monday. It’s annoying that the train is late and my life is on hold like the lives of the others in the room though they do not appear to share my irritation, all relaxed enough to look bored. The teenager is yawning, his baseball cap pulled low on his head like a beak. One of the old ladies is whispering but the other is dozing, opening her eyes to grunt to her friend in the gaps. If the newcomer is chatty, I think, glancing at her fearfully, phrasal grunting is the way to go. The suit is reading. Leaning slightly to the right, ostensibly to check my case, I can see the title of his book, One Hundred Things I Wish I’d Known about Management. Me too, I think. Starting again at my age isn’t the easiest thing.
“Ohhhh, I’ve had a helluva journey!” She sighs. Her voice is rich and gravelly and she has a cold.
“I wen’ on the underground on the way up, yeah, but everyone laughed at me! I ‘fink it was cos my trousers is ripped…” she sighs again and rubs a heavily ringed hand across her face.
There’s a sudden waft of unwashed flesh and alcohol. She prattles on. I try to ignore her, but I’m cursed with politeness and find myself nodding in the gaps.
“Hove to Northam’ton. I go every week to see ‘er. It’s a long way but they gives me money for it…”
I steal a glance at the clock. Still twenty minutes. I could always get up and walk out. Baseball boy and Suit man are watching me with interest – a kind of Thank God it’s you and not me look. But I’m not thanking God. I’m tired and I’ve a way to go and I have enough problems of my own. This is not the time to bring someone along who needs help!
“I tries to keep the money but it’s so hard…it’s so hard…” I’m grunting phrasally but to my horror she begins to cry, “She’s so young to lose a baby and my partner, he was beatin’ us both up…an’ I can’t bear to think of ‘er in that place with all those nutters…an’ somehow a drink, jus’ a little drink…well, it helps…”
I turn to look at her. Her eyes are huge and the wrong shape as if someone has hung weights on them. Her mouth is wide and wobbly. There’s vulnerability there, and desperation. I fumble in my bag for a tissue. She snorts into it. I glimpse blood and mucous.
“Ohhh fank you, fank you, you’re so good!”
No, don’t say that. Please don’t…
I feel ashamed. Whispering lady has stopped whispering and is staring too. This is a freak-show. Suddenly I am filled with Guardian-reading, bible-believing, liberal-voting righteous anger over her plight. How dare they judge her! How dare they assume what she is like! This woman has a life. She has a destiny and a soul that is unique and precious! I wonder briefly whether I should tell her this but decide instead to offer her the train fare for her onward journey.
“If you let me buy it,” I add quickly.
Dozing-lady’s eyes snap open.
“Or we could split it between us!” she says. She sits up, wide awake. She is incredibly well spoken. I gape at her. So does her friend.
“Why Dorothy!” she quavers, “I thought you were asleep!”
“I’m up for it,” says Baseball boy, “It’s bloody cold out there. She needs to get home.”
Suit-man just nods and takes out his wallet.
“You’re so kind, so kind!” The woman is sobbing.
I cannot speak.
Later, as the train pulls away, I see her standing at the waiting room window waving her ticket like a flag.
“God bless you!” I’d said, as I left for the train.
She was pink with pleasure despite the tears on her cheek.
“God bless you too!” she called after me. And as we snake through the night with those waiting room faces fresh in my mind, I realise He already has.