The Waiting Room – By Avis Hickman-Gibb
“Ticket number two thousand, six hundred and forty; please step up to the counter”
That voice seemed friendly enough – almost sounded interested in meeting the ticket holder, Harry thought. These places were all the same nowadays; hard chairs and dirty floors. He hadn’t been waiting long. His ticket was nearer to three thousand, but so what? He hadn’t anything pressing to go to, so he may just as well wait here – as sit around in that god awful Old Folk’s Institution they called a Home.
Ha! Home indeed! Wasn’t like any home he could remember, he grumbled to himself. Sod all comfort, and very little charity. That’s where all that was supposed to start – wasn’t it? At home. Well those do-gooders who ran the damn place seemed to have forgotten that, and lost their sense of humour too, into the bargain. Not that they’d ever had much of a one, even when Harry joined them, becoming a paying guest at The Ullsbridge Retirement Home – two years ago. Nevertheless, he’d persevered; kept on plodding out the one-liners, telling comical stories and pulling the odd practical joke on the other inmates. Some of them had been delighted; some had ignored him. Most smiled politely, and gave him a very wide berth. Still there were few who appreciated humour. Well, one or two actually – who got his jokes. But – those jokers who ran the place? No. The people in charge back there had never understood Harry’s humour. Never would.
He chuckled to himself all over again, thinking about this latest prank of his. Just the memory of it caused him to smile, which then grew to a grin – and before he knew it, tears were rolling down his cheeks – again; his breath coming in great, wheezy gasps and gulps. Laughter does you a power of good, his old mum used to say. Keep a smile on your face and you’ll live long and happy, she’d tell him – back in Cork, all those years ago now. And she lived to the grand age of 90; God bless her.
“What’s tickled your fancy, love” an old woman sitting opposite caught his eye and smiled.
She was sitting two chairs down, on the other side of the aisle to where he was sitting. She was facing forwards and squashed in; right up next to a young geezer with a bad cold, it seemed. Well, he was sniffing a lot, Harry thought. Harry felt a bit sorry for the old dame, sitting there all by herself next to that tub of germs, so he decided he’d tell her.
“I live in the local home for the Bewildered – Ullsbridge, you know it?” he began.
“I should coco, me duck,” she answered, laughing. “Got slung out of there a while back – must be getting on for three years now. I had to bunk in with me daughter after that. But I was always a spare thumb there – you know what I mean? It’s all wrong living with your kids when they’re all growed up, I say. Neither fish nor fowl that kind of arrangement. Too used to me own ways – you know? And I couldn’t change. Too old.”
She smiled at him, moving ponderously from her seat next to the germ ridden tub as she spoke, and stumping along on her stick, she settled herself into the seat next to Harry.
“There, that’s better,” she whispered confidingly to Harry. “You never know who you’ll end up beside, in one of these places. And I don’t want no ‘Flu for Christmas. Miserable thing that – being ill over Christmas. You can’t enjoy yourself properly with a cold. No taste to anything, and the ruddy pills they have you on nowadays mean you can’t enjoy a tipple either.”
She cocked her head at Harry.
“Anyways, you were going to tell me what the joke was. Seemed a good ‘un – you were laughing fit to burst just now. Go on, we’ve ages yet – and this queue is slow moving.”
And, smiling encouragingly, she sat back expectantly. A little stunned but game, Harry started again:
“Well I’ve been in that place for two years now – give or take. Tell me – did them’s as run it have a sense of humour when you were in? Or is it just me they don’t like?” He asked – then not waiting for her answer, he carried on,. “Well, anyway, you know what date it was yesterday?”
She nodded, her eyes glowing. “It was the 31st of October – Halloween. All Hallows Eve. The night the ghosties and ghoulies come out to play.”
“Yep, s’right. Well, I’m known in there as being a bit of a wag, so I thought I’d do something a bit special. ‘Liven the place up a bit. …Anyway; I’d managed to get me hands on this long black cloak from a fancy dress hire shop in town… near the bus station, which is handy… I can’t walk any distances nowadays. Picked it up yesterday morning, and some green glow make-up too.
I went in first thing after breakfast, and do you know – I was back again for dinnertime? And that’s another thing – dinner’s still served at ten minutes past twelve. Daft time for a meal, I call that. I mean ten minutes past – why not 12 o’clock, or half past. Even a quarter past. But ten minutes past – bah!”
He shook his head, bewildered by such absurdities.
“Ticket number two thousand, six hundred and fifty-three; please step up to the counter”
“Bloody hell, that was a bit of a jump. My ticket is number two thousand, six hundred and ninety-four,” he said, “Did you hear what the last one was? I hope there’s not been a mistake. I mean you wait long enough in these places , without a mix-up putting you even further behind. Anyway, where was I? Ahh, yes – last night!”
Harry took a quick look up at the announcement board, to make sure he wasn’t about to miss his turn. Reassuringly, the current number hadn’t changed from the one called out a few minutes ago.
“Go on” his new friend prompted, smiling in anticipation, and banging gently on the floor with her cane to call Harry’s attention back. Harry eyed the cane; it was more of a longish thin pole, really.
“What? Oh, right…well I waited until after supper…d’you remember – lumpy hot chocolate and soft digestive biscuits? Then I snook upstairs to my room, smeared my face and hands with the green goo, grabbed the cloak and bundled it under my arm….then crept down the back stairs, and out into the garden.
… It all went well, nobody saw me. I was going to treat them old fogies in there to a visit from The Grim Reaper… So, I sneaked over the lawn to the potting shed and found an old scythe in there. I put the cloak on, pulled the hood up – but left some of me face exposed – so they’d be able to see the green glow paint.” Harry laughed. “… and I headed towards the Lounge windows. You know they always leave the curtains open at night…never draw them shut – don’t know why they bother hanging them, in that case. But still…”
Harry started chuckling again.
“Go on” she urged, anticipating the joke.
“Well I just…appeared at the window, complete-like – Ta-dah! Had to wait a minute or so for anyone to notice me. I was just thinking about tapping on the window with the tip of the scythe – to attract their attention – when old Grubey clocked me. Went as white as a sheet, he did, then turned a bit green. By that time, most of the others were staring at me too – well those who can actually see straight – what with all the pills they push into you in that place, and all those anoraks things on their eyes in there.
Then – just for effect – I started slowing beckoning to the audience, using the scythe…well that really got them! A couple of the old biddies fainted… By this time the helpers had gotten wind of something out of the ordinary going on – probably ‘cos the old coots were going down like ninepins… and a couple of them came rushing in, hot foot from some programme or other, and I heard the outside door slam open… Well, I knew the game was up, so I started pointing at a couple of the old codgers, indicating that they should follow me, like.”
By this time both Harry and his companion were the worse for laughing. They had tears running down their ruddy cheeks, holding onto the backs of the chairs in front for support.
“So what happened then, Harry?” asked his lady-friend, when she could.
“Well I was caught – green-handed you might say. I got pulled inside and hustled into the “Principle’s” office… ticked off good and proper, I was. I’d probably have had more earache then, but they was right busy with the four ambulances they’d had to call. Six of the inmates had to be taken to A&E. Three of ‘em had heart attacks. And, well….”
Here Harry paused and looked sad.
“Go on, Harry” he was prompted, gently.
“…And well actually two of ‘em died.” He blurted defiantly. “…well, and how was I supposed to know they’d dickey hearts? No-one never told me, they didn’t… I only did it for a bit of a laugh. And it was! The looks on their faces was a picture, so it was! Best gag I’ve pulled in years.
Still, I’m sorry about those two old codgers… they shouldn’t have gone like that. They must have known it was me – after all, who’d believe in that kind of claptrap – eh? Grim Reaper indeed.”
Here Harry look up to check his ticket number against the announcement screen; it was still on the same one as before- was the machine broken now? The queue was moving very slowly.
“So, do you feel remorse Harry – for what you’ve done?” asked his companion, scraping a pattern on the floor with her staff.
“Well, I suppose I do ye- Just a minute! Hang on… it’s just struck me. How do you know m’name? I thought you said you left Ullsbridge before I came. Has someone been blabbing what’s gone on – talking to you about me already?” he asked, suddenly truculent.
“No, No. No-one as such, Harry. Oh, by the way, my name’s Dolores. How do you do?”
She held her hand out for Harry to shake. Harry took it gingerly, scowling with suspicion at her from beneath his bushy white brows. She had the hottest hands he’d ever felt – but dry, not sweaty.
“Oh come, come, Harry. That sulky expression don’t impress me, my boy! You’ll have to try a bit better to intimidate me, I can tell you.
… Anyway, I said – my name’s Dolores, didn’t you hear? D.O.L.O.R.E.S. Surely they haven’t forgot The Legend of Dolores, in Ullsbridge? It was why I had to leave – expelled to the outer darkness, I was…Never had such goings on there before, they said. Told me ‘Ullsbridge is a nice, quiet place, we don’t have that sort of goings on here’”, and she sat back watching him. Her eyes burned into him as she waited expectantly.
Harry shook his head in puzzlement, then a slow dawn of memory spread across his face.
“Dolores? That Dolores? Cooo – you are a legend, you! You’re the one who did the strip on New Year’s Eve – yes? Right down to your starkers. And what you did with the cheese whip…well the boys still talk about it. A real devil, you are, they say!”
Dolores smiled mistily at the memory.
“Get away with you!” she said, playfully smacking his arm. “I was in me prime then, I was – not much above..Ooooh – seventy-five, and still up for it. But those tossers who run the place didn’t find my little show very… edifying – or so they told me as they hustled me out of the door. ‘We’re a high class retirement home, not a chop shop’ they said. Bloody cheek! Like as if…I mean I’ve always been very particular who I…well, y’know…did it with. And so I told them. But that just made them worse. They don’t think the over seventies have sex. We’re just supposed to knit, eat and sleep – and watch the Telly.”
Harry began laughing again, but faded to a stop.
“Well, well. Fancy us meeting up in here. Quite a coincidence – eh? I’m not a resident at Ullsbridge any longer now, too. One too many jokes. Got tired of me, I suppose; I got thrown out after all the hoo-ha died down this morning.
That’s why I’m here – looking for another place to lay me head down. Plenty more of those places about, I can tell you. Homes for the Bewildered I calls ‘em. And my money’s as good as anyone else’s. I just have to get onto the right list…”
At this, he checked the announcement screen again, and was pleased to see that he’d moved up the queue. After this long wait, he didn’t want to miss his turn; he wanted to get sorted. It wasn’t getting any earlier, after all.
Dolores looked sympathetically at him.
“I know why you’re here, Harry. None better. But I’m not sure that you do, yet. Look around you m’duck – go on take a good look. Where do you think you are?” Dolores asked.
Harry did as he was told. He looked around at the big, room which was more than half filled with people waiting. Strange bunch of boobies they let into the social nowadays, he thought. Why some of them didn’t even look in need. And some of them looked as though they should be in casualty waiting for a doctor to fix them up. His eyes shifted uncomfortably from a man whose left arm was hanging on by what looked like a thread. No blood dripping, though. That’s why it hadn’t struck him before. And that guy there, why the mess his face was in… Harry felt an icy trickle of fear slide down his spine.
“…Err, what kind of a waiting room is this, Dolores? I’m a bit confused. Tell you the truth,” he confided, ” I can’t even remember how I got here, or how long I been here now…”
Dolores reached across, took hold of Harry’s hand, and squeezed it.
“Harry, you do know really, don’t you love?” she asked softly. “You can work it out for yourself. This is The Waiting Room – not just any one, but The One. And you’re waiting to be… sorted. I’m here as a kind of guide. I would say guiding seraph – but I’m not at that level yet. Still got some more work to do, me, before I get there. I’m just getting to know the ropes, really. Starting in the basement, you might say.”
“…The Waiting Room…You don’t mean?…No…You can’t. No…I don’t believe in all that tosh. No, you’re just having a laugh – aren’t you?” Harry stuttered.
He was more than a little apprehensive; he really didn’t want to understand her meaning. He desperately wanted to move away from this frightening old woman, but found himself mesmerised by the tiny flames flickering at the backs of her eyes.
“Nope, I’m not… It’s true, m’love. It seems your joking has finally caught up with you. Told one too many jokes, and bang… here you are…waiting, me old duck… Look, try and remember what happened to get you here. Came in a car did you – or was it on the bus?” Dolores felt really sorry for this one.
“Can’t remember. What I do remember is telling some old geezer about my prank, down the pub. I’d gone there after I’d been told to sling me hook. We started laughing about it – like when I told you – and I just couldn’t stop. Then things are a bit hazy….and then I remember the queue here.”
“Well, that tells you something, don’t it love? You’ve just got to be brave and face up to it. You’ve slung year hook good and proper, and you’re waiting to get your sorting orders. Look! Over there, at the operative behind that counter. Does he look normal to you?” Dolores asked Harry.
“I should say bloody not! Why he’s got a duck, or swan on his back. Look, you can see its wings!” Harry exclaimed.
“Oh, give me strength; why do I always get the thick ones? ” She muttered, “That’s not a swan on his back, Harry. They’re wings. His own wings. Get it? His own bloody wings!” Exasperated, Dolores shook Harry’s hand for emphasis.
“Oh!” squeaked Harry.
“Oh? Oh? After what I’ve just told you, is that all you’ve got to say, ‘Oh’?” she demanded.
“Well…I can’t think of anything else at present. Unless – do you think those things get in his way? In bed…and such? And how does he take a bath? And when he does, how does he dry the feathers?…And -”
“Enough, Harry, that’s not something that needs bother you,” laughed Dolores. She nodded to the screen over their heads. “Come on, your number’s been called. Let’s get you up for sorting.”
As she stood, a long black scaly tail flopped out of the back of her cape. Harry looked at it; it was quite elegant – in its own way, he thought. He wondered how he’d cope with one. And those little bumps of horn on her forehead – well, he’d overlooked them in the dim lights.
Dolores then struck her pitchfork smartly on the floor, twice. A section slide aside, and a furnace blast of heat hit his face. Harry saw endless steps, descending into dark redness.
“Come on, me old duck” Dolores smiled as she took Harry’s hand, “let’s get you home.”