Short fiction

Waiting Room

By Jacquie Garton-Smith

Western Australian Winner of 2009 Medical Observer Short Story Competition for GPs and originally published online in the Annual Arts Edition 2009, a collection of short stories –        Waiting Room Stories, Writing by Creative Doctors.

“Waiting Room” and “True to Oneself” have also been published on Amadeus Education as a part of their suite of RACGP Fellowship Preparation Resources in 2019.

Finally the last of the guests had wandered away. His wife, Jean, had pecked him on the cheek, discreetly squeezed his forearm and said she would pop home to fix dinner. Also gone were the ‘girls’ who had made up his practice’s loyal staff for years. They had cleaned away the plastic cups, greasy paper napkins, half-empty bowls of nuts and chips, and large platters that had held the quickly demolished homemade goodies before they had left at his insistence.

The quietness of the room called to mind other times when Bob had seen it empty — countless mornings with not a soul in sight as he walked through. He’d always preferred to arrive before his first patients. Then there were the other days, not so rare, when an early emergency call had caught him on the way in. By the time he rushed through, the place would be groaning, hardly a chair to spare. In more recent years it wasn’t always an emergency that had him arriving later. Once or twice he had responded to the last-minute notice of an award at one of his grandchildren’s school assemblies … Had he gone to any of his own children’s? He couldn’t recall ever being late for patients due to family priorities in the 1960s — at least, not by choice. He tried not to remember the faces grim with unspoken acceptance when he later apologised for having missed an evening concert or weekend sports event. Always someone else needed him more. Boarding school had brought even less chance of his being there. By then they’d stopped expecting him and he didn’t disappoint. Instead, he had used the time to work even later.

This evening, as the pale yellow walls shone in the last of the Western rays, he didn’t give a sigh of relief at the vacant chairs. Before today these would have signalled that he was finally free to complete his paperwork, but that he would still be late for the family meal. So many years of a dry meal caringly kept warm under foil. For a couple of decades now, since the last of their children had left home for their big-city careers, Jean mostly waited to eat with him at night, but then the days seemed to stretch even later. Their youngest daughter, who had moved back to the area when she married a local farmer, had bought them a microwave, but he wasn’t sure if Jean had even used it.

Did the wives of younger GPs like Jason Cox serve up reheated meals that were moister, tastier? Jason was one of the special few who had been brave enough to push his boundaries and venture past the cityscape and comfort of a close Emergency Department. When Jason had come to join the country practice from South Africa three years ago, Bob had cut back his own hours — only a little at first, then more as he realised what a saviour he had been blessed with in this competent and dedicated colleague. On Monday Jason would claim the mantle as the town’s sole GP, but for now he was no doubt enjoying the final days of his holiday with his wife and baby.

Bob heard the echoes of 226 babies crying after delivery, one even in this very waiting room not long after he came back to town, pumped with hospital experience but terrified of the real world. Alice Hansen, second of six. He had delivered Alice’s two sons as well. Saw the youngest, Jim, only last week to deliver the news that he had leukaemia. Jason had ordered the tests, but stepping in since he was away, Bob felt strangely fulfilled and gratified giving the news to this hard-working young farmer, sharing his fears, but also his robust positivity. Jim had known something was wrong, had even brought his wife … or had she brought him? … but left her sitting out in the waiting room to be called through and told when he knew what beast he had to tackle.

Bob sat, taking in the hardness of the plastic that was not quite wide enough for a generous behind, and the arms that precluded a sick child from lying down across several chairs with his head on his mother’s lap. His first memory of this room dated back at least 60 years, to a time when he had been brought in by his own mother. He had lain across an odd assortment of wooden chairs, quietly shivering into her with the chills of scarlet fever, even though the wood fire was burning. The fireplace had since been painted and the chimney closed off, the cavity now home to children’s toys in a plastic crate. Worn toys had been discarded and replaced by plastic ones wiped over daily with disinfectant, all donated by families who had outgrown their near-new playthings.

Most of all he saw his mother’s palely expectant face as she sat waiting for the various verdicts over the years, her reverence for the doctor enhanced by the limited technology of the times.

‘Yes, it’s just a sprain … Bob will recover fully … back to footie in no time.’

‘I’m sorry, Bert’s cancer is just too far gone … all we can do now is keep him comfortable … ’ The doctor puffed on his pipe meditatively as a teenage Bob sat with his crying mother behind the mahogany expanse. The desk was now long gone, together with the dark green heavy drapes and pungent aroma that he would always associate with the news of his father’s impending death and with his own impotent avoidance.

‘Bob will make a fine medico. Just make sure he comes back to town!’

To study Medicine in those days he’d had to venture not only to the city, but interstate, where he’d met and courted the beautiful and smart Jean Winter. He’d convinced her to marry him and abandon her family and friends in gentle leafy Adelaide. At the time she had yet to see her future home town of red dust clouds and gum trees, sparse but striking.

‘It looks like you have Parkinson’s disease, Mum. I’ll refer you to a neurologist’.

And then it was just him, Dr Bob, the only doctor in town, getting Jean to take his mother to Perth for specialist opinions because he didn’t think he could spare the time. A decade later, Jean took her to look at nursing homes when managing her fragile stiffness at home became too much for them. By that time they were both in their late sixties, but Bob was still working and Jean’s hands were constrained by the pain and deformity of rheumatoid arthritis.

At the nursing home Bob’s mother would wait patiently for him to visit once a week, especially when Jean’s ailment kept her from her usual midweek visits. They couldn’t find anything closer to home, so it was a ninety-minute drive each way … but one week he had to deal with the injured and shocked from a ‘car versus truck’ just out of town. Then there were outbreaks of a flu-like illness and gastro and he’d become extra busy, as well as worried about being potentially contagious. He’d called, of course, but she was so terribly deaf and her responses had become slowed and stilted to the point that it was hard to know what she had taken in. She’d sat alone in the guest lounge for three Sunday afternoons in a row waiting for him — the weather too wet for the staff to wheel her out through the native gardens. On the last of the three she had died in her sleep overnight.

He could still see her face, uplifted, uncomplaining, patiently waiting. And he wondered, in the evening gloom, just what would he be waiting for after today?

© 2009 Jacquie Garton-Smith  (updated 2010, 2019) Image Copyright: Vector Image by StockUnlimited

12 thoughts on “Short fiction

  1. A life captured in a few moments of time, leaving the protagonist on the threshold of a new journey with the question that all of us will have to face sometime.
    A worthy winner.

  2. Great story and beautifully told. Congrats!

  3. A moving, thought provoking story. I look forward to reading more.

  4. Ack, that second-to-last paragraph broke my heart. This story is such a beautiful reminder of where we are all heading, and what matters most in the end.

  5. Nice tale with a powerful bite at the end, Jacquie. Enjoyed reading this … and it gives some perspective on those older GPs one encounters.

    • Thanks so much, Holden. I’m so pleased you felt the story gave some perspective on my older colleagues – I’m always keen to try and understand where others are coming from and what may have influenced their thinking, so it’s lovely to hear that cake through.

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