Apart from the ragged front garden covered with paled cigarette ends, some hardly smoked and others taken right to the filter, the doctor’s surgery looked like any other house in the street. An established trail of bare earth remained in the grass where people left the uneven tarmac of the drive for a shorter distance to the door. A can of something diet stood up on the wall separating the semi’s, and going over to pick it up to take it to the bin the unexpected weight took her by surprise. The indents she had made in a sudden reflexive grip before it dropped to the ground sent dirtied water around the lip and she guessed by this it had been there some days. Desire lines, she recalled, putting it back on the wall self-consciously, not wanting to be seen pouring it empty somewhere before asking for a bin inside. It seemed impossible for this area to ever look tidy, or for the grass to ever grow, and she often considered the neighbours behind their impenetrable net curtains to be filled with unspoken resentment at the constant coming and going and the mess. How else?
Opening the unlocked door, she collected the long straps of her coat together and climbed into the car. Any moment now, she thought, searching out the windscreen at the park the other side of the busy road. She looked at the used match on the dashboard with annoyance; its thin charcoal arch a stretching cat, the usual fragment of blond wood protected by the pinch between finger and thumb both hardened to such things through the decades and unconcerned. Sometimes the flame simply went out without being blown out or shook out, nowhere left to go. The pipe lit before a long walk always. Opening the stiff ashtray she carefully picked up the match so it wouldn’t lose its shape until it dropped inside, and with difficulty pushed it shut with the palm of her hand. She took out the nail scissors from her handbag at her shoes.
Some time passed. Feeling she may as well put the seatbelt on she pulled at it in something of a daze until no more came out. Clicking it in, she fed the extra back slowly before then letting it fizz through her fingers. Pulling down the shade to look in the vanity mirror she noticed the doctor leave the surgery for home visits. Walking over to his deliberately valueless car parked in the road opposite the surgery instead of the drive in case of ever being blocked in, she watched him carefully, shrinking down in her seat, hoping he wouldn’t notice her still sat there inexplicably.
He opened the back door, took his jacket off and threw it in with his usual unhurried manner, stretching his arms into the air behind him, leaving the door open into the road whilst he went in the boot to check over the drugs and things. Without his jacket he seemed to feel the cold and she grew impatient with him. Coming back round and pushing his fingers through his hair again and again the neat parting each time disappeared in the blowing wind. He looked almost unrecognisable with his hair across his forehead and also sticking up crazily. For a moment she saw something in his slow actions she hadn’t ever noticed before, and struck by this feeling sat up despite the danger to look behind but was stopped by the seatbelt. Undoing the seatbelt wondering why she had it on in the first place she found she could only really see him in the wing mirror anyway.
His entire manner seemed strange, almost as though he knew he was under some scrutiny somewhere and couldn’t do anything naturally.
Although somehow he still seemed to be listening to someone. Or maybe going over something in his head and searching for the answer. But then she detected suddenly what she felt was a long, resigned loneliness now in every gesture, and observing him with even greater care she regretted the eagerness with which she left his dreadful office over the years. The shortness of her answers! to questions completely unrelated to the purpose of the visit, feeling for those in the adapted, unsuitable waiting room with its squashed together plastic chairs and what they must be thinking, embarrassed by the audibility of the intensely personal conversations leaking through the thin hollow door and into all those ears. It seemed like a quirk of personality or a soothing sign of his old-fashioned approach for him to sit there and talk about such things. He worked at least 12 hours a day, he said. Always busy. Always busy busy.
What an odd life it is, she thought, always sadness all the time.
With a dent above the wheel arch he started up the car and the two front lights winced at the growing of the engine and she suddenly imagined what he’d say if he stopped alongside, leaning out closely and risking his hair again. Did you forget something, Else? Where’s Michael? “You know how much he likes to walk and think, he’s a child when it comes to parks,” she said with a dry throat. Quickly rearranging herself in the passenger seat, she became uncomfortably upright and looked forward at nothing, priming herself, hoping he would in fact stop before watching him drive away not noticing, before turning left without indicating. She looked at her hair in the vanity mirror. Do you ever use product in your hair, Else? the doctor once asked, Not a single grey at your age! She’d never liked her name. The doctor and Michael were the only two who ever used it; the husband teasingly, to which once she screamed in his face at the top of her voice, which made them both laugh out in shock.
The increasingly strong wind about the leafless trees made her feel the cold more.
The 114 bus went by for a fourth time keeping its usual timetable every 30 minutes. The second one came late but not by very much. She knew by the third. She knew by the second! she began to realise. Sirens neared and the louder they became the more comforting they seemed, she came to feel, climbing out the car with an unusual ease and noticing the strap had caught in the door after all. Going over the crossing she sensed the drivers who’d slowed down rapidly to let her go knew what had happened, their eyes meeting hers through the glass, the passengers in the back there would also know of course, they were talking but all looked out.
She gave the cars a wave in thanks. And leaving the pavement she focused upon the people standing around him lying awkwardly in the soggy grass, getting his clothes soaked. And heading over she could see a definite finality in their lack of motion, and even something of a detachment, or a kind of growing disinterest amongst the group. She thought, They just want to go. The two ambulance people no longer crouched down beside him. One of them saw her coming and called out to her, called her love, which she’d always despised as much as her name. “That’s my husband,” she said just as the wind took up which seemed to put miles between them. They appeared not to hear anyway. Every one of the group dead or alive watched her approach, completely stilled.
Elizabeth. I’ll tell them my name’s Elizabeth, she thought, putting her fingers through her hair.