The receptionist pressed a button and said something about a clinic on the Thursday. No-one heard it correctly. I leaned forward to try and make it out but she was gone. I coughed some phlegm into a paper handkerchief. I wrapped it neatly and pushed it into the bottom of my trouser pocket. A woman came in with a young boy and sat opposite me. The woman seemed angry but the boy said nothing.
Sit quietly, she said and crossed her arms.
He’s neurotic, she said.
The boy looked at his shoes and crossed his arms in sympathy.
It’s his brother who’s really ill. But you can’t even get him to come to the doctor. He’s always out and about, always doing something. Not like this one.
She looked around at our small crowd and we looked at the boy.
Heart lazy, she said. Like his father.
A fat man in corduroy trousers, sitting with his wife, folded his paper and put it in his lap.
Ach, I’m sure he’s a good boy. What’s up with you son?
There’s nothing the matter with him that a good day’s work wouldn’t fix. But you try getting him moving. That’s his trouble. He takes after his father, god rest him. Bone idle.
The fat man considered it for a few seconds and decided that a paper round was the thing for the boy.
It never did me any harm, he’d enjoy it.
The boy looked at his feet again.
You try getting him out of bed at that time in the morning, I doubt he’s ever seen it. And he’s never off that computer. He’s at it all hours. God knows what he’s looking at. I wouldn’t have had the thing, not in his room at least. But his father thought it would keep him out of trouble.
That’s the thing, said the fat man. He should be outside, not playing with computers.
Yes, said his wife.
He’s not even got the energy for trouble. Sit still.
Another woman looked across at the boy and stopped smiling.
Young people today, she said. It’s so difficult for them to make their way in life, don’t you think?
That’s the truth of it, said the mother, triumphantly. He doesn’t know he’s born.
An old woman appeared from the row of seats behind and craned her head towards the boy.
I’m sure he’s a good boy, aren’t you? Just a boy. She turned and smiled at the mother.
Thank the woman, said the boy’s mother.
Aye, said the boy. And went back to staring at his feet.
We each considered the situation. He certainly seemed to be lacking energy.
I bet you’ve got a healthy appetite, said the old woman.
Crisps, replied the mother.
That’s no good for a growing boy, said the fat man, crisps.
I like crisps, said the boy.
The fat man put his hands on his knees.
A boy like you needs meat. Meat and vegetables. You should be out and about, running it off at your age.
The mother looked at the boy.
Running! She said, and took his cap off. She crunched it into a ball and stuffed it in her handbag.
Take it off, she shouted, and zipped up the bag.
The receptionist came in to see what the fuss was about. But there was no fuss and she left, disappointed. Then she started on the tannoy again. The doctor was running late. We knew why. There had been an influx of patients over the last few weeks. The television was full of it. Some of them were dying. People who hadn’t even caught the flu were dying.
I looked at the clock and got up to use the toilet. I washed my hands with a sterilizing gel on the way out of the room and again before I left the toilet. Then I washed them again on the way back into the waiting room. They were all still there, waiting.
The man was telling the boy’s mother his story. He, too, had been a young man. Of course it was a long time ago, but he remembered what it was like to be a boy. And he had realized from an early age the value of hard work. It had been drummed into him.
Needs must, he said, and it never did me any harm.
No, said the old woman. Hard work never killed anyone.
The fat man’s father - what with his leg and the way things were at the time - had struggled to make ends meet. But his father had always managed to put food on the table. As a young man he had to help out. There was no choice in the matter. More than that, the man had felt it was his duty.
Five AM every day. Seven days a week.
School or no school he had delivered that milk. Winter and summer, rain or shine, births, deaths and marriages. I never had time for exams, he said.
He was a self-made man, he let there be no doubt about that. Every one of us could see that.
Man and boy, he said. Man and boy.
The room was silent for a moment.
Sit up, for God’s sake, said the mother.
The receptionist said something through the speaker again, but it was impossible to understand. Then she came into the room and looked at the pale woman next to the man.
The fat man’s wife held up her hand, quickly took it down and stood up.
Doctor Lindsay, second on the left.
The boy’s mother looked up at the man.
Veins, the man said, nodding.
What? There’s no shame in it.
We watched the wife walk out without paying too much attention.
She does look very thin, said the mother.
Always has been. Like a whippet, the man said and looked across at the receptionist. He put it down to nervous energy.
She never sits still, he said, she’s like me that way. Always busy.
It can tire you out though, said the boy’s mother. The old woman turned to face the fat man.
They can be very uncomfortable, she said, veins.
The fat man took a packet of cigarettes out of his jacket pocket and began tapping one against the lid. The old woman said he should go for a smoke and the boy’s mother agreed. They looked pleased when he did.
Men aren’t very good with doctors, said the mother and smiled to herself.
Sit up, she said, and pulled the boy back into his chair. A woman came into the room. She must have been seven months pregnant. That pleased the old woman.
My, she said.
The mother kicked the boy again in the leg.
Give the woman your seat for goodness sake.
The boy slouched up and sat back down on the pile of magazines at the side table.
He never pays attention, said the mother. I sometimes wonder how he gets across the road when I’m not there. She looked like she was going to say something worse, but she bit her lip then shook her head and looked down at the floor.
The pregnant woman grimaced, and sat down. A small child followed. She grabbed the child by the shoulders and pulled her in close. Then she rubbed her hand through the child’s hair. A short time later the fat man came back into the waiting room. I looked at him standing there, puffing the cold air out of his lungs.
Freezing, he said, and sat back down on his jacket.
We sat there and considered it, and then someone said yes, the winter’s definitely here.
The door opened and we all expected the fat man’s wife, but the receptionist appeared again and asked for the pregnant woman. She held her hand at the base of her spine and lifted herself up. She really was some size. The fat man smiled at the woman and looked at his watch.
Half past eleven, he said eventually.
Terrible, said the mother. Still, I suppose it’s the time of year.
I’ve got a business to run. An hour and a half!
I’ve waited half the day in the past, said the woman. But that was my chin. The pain was unbearable.
It’s not as if they don’t get paid. I couldn’t run a business like this, I’ll tell you that.
The old woman considered and looked up.
And it’s not as if there’s anything worth reading either.
Rubbish, agreed the mother. She picked up one of the magazines and put it back down.
You don’t see many horses around here, not unless it’s the gypsies.
Romanians, said the old woman. And they keep chickens out the back, so I’m told.
The fat man looked at his watch and pursed his lips. The boy sat on the pile of magazines tapping the buttons of a mobile phone. Time passed slowly and then quickly and then slowly again. A door buzzer went and suddenly the fat man’s wife appeared with a plaster on her forearm. She certainly was thin.
Blood, she said, and the fat man stood up next to her. He was a good head shorter than his wife.
They always take blood these days, said the mother. Precautionary.
But the blood had made his wife lose what colour she had. She stood there like a pale insect falling asleep in the sun. The mother looked at her son and then closed her eyes for a second.
It tires you out, she said.
We’d better get you home then, the man said. Yes, we’d better get you home.