Autobiography

The Test

Revolving doors: huge, heavy, slow as death. The atrium – the architect’s pride, welcomes the shufflers with bright space. Hey, relax! Smell the coffee, browse the shops, admire the high glass roof… This is a cheerful place, guys!

But the hunched figures aren’t here for pleasure – we must turn left. Icy light floods the wide, white corridors. Check-in machines at internals, designed to frustrate. I check in, after some frustration.

“Go to Main Wait 3,” instructs the machine, “The red seats.” The colour is necessary because, in this modern, high-tech building there are two Main Wait 3s. We aim to confuse. Enjoy your day!

I locate Main Wait 3 (red seats). A lay-by filled with chairs. Look, it’s an airport, see? There’s nothing to fear here. There’s even a collection of armchairs grouped companionably around a coffee table, though no one sits there. The regulars are not fooled. They sit in the red seats. The hard seats. In rows, bolted to the floor. We are not here to chat or drink expensive beverages. Fingers fidget, watches are checked, bags tightly clutched. But thoughts are free to return home. Did I get the pork out to defrost? Will Joan remember to feed the dog? I don’t want to be here. Will the news be bad, or worse? I want to be at home, and forget. I want to cry.

My name appears on the screen. All eyes flick briefly upwards, then fix on me as I stand. They’re wondering what’s wrong with me – in what way is she defective…? I walk past unsettling signs: Endoscopy Discharge Lounge, Nuclear Medicine, Ambulatory Care, Cardiology. I enter. Now everyone knows what’s wrong with me. Yes folks, I’m a ticking time bomb. Surgery at 45, death probably before I reach my three score and ten. But it’s not my fault. I didn’t eat too many pies – I came with a defect. Aren’t I lucky?

“You think we care? We’ve got our own problems.”

There are no windows here, deep in the bowels of the building. Only the buzz of artificial lighting, harsh glare on pale faces. No mobile reception, no connection to the outside world, no relief. Too late the uninitiated realise coffee and shops are only bait. This – this cramped prison of fear, is the real thing. We have been swallowed whole by it, and we prepare to be digested.

A nurse, short and square with hard grey curls, lies in wait behind a desk marked “Reception”.

“Well?”

I present my letter. See, I’m entitled to be here. I belong, here amongst the factory rejects and the flawed.

She snatches the letter, scrutinises it, taps on her keyboard.

“You shouldn’t be here yet,” she chastises. “You should have checked in at the machines.”

But… I did check in.

She taps again.

“Oh. Well, you shouldn’t have come through until your name was displayed on the screen.”

It was – it was on the screen. Honest.

More tapping.

“It looks like Sarah checked you through then. Huh! Well you can wait over there, if you can find a seat.” Waving the letter in the direction of a corner packed with anxious people.

They sit, stranger facing stranger, knee to knee in un-English proximity. I squeeze past, apologising. “Oops, sorry. I’m so sorry. Was that your foot?”

And I wait.

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