Apart from the ragged front garden covered with paled cigarette ends; some hardly smoked; some taken right to the filter, the house looked like any other 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 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’d made in the sudden reflexive grip sent dirtied rainwater around the lip and she guessed by this it had been there some days. Desire lines, she recalled, putting the can back on the wall self-consciously. It seemed impossible for this area to ever look tidy, or for the grass to ever grow properly, and she often considered the neighbours behind their heavy net curtains to be filled with unspoken resentment at the constant coming and going and the mess. How else? The plastic chairs were pushed so close together in the waiting room that people had to sit in a sequence of different postures or go wait in the garden to be called. She was relieved not to recognise anyone—even the receptionist. Nobody pretended to be unable to hear the conversation going on in the next room, and it was often possible to perceive the mixture of revulsion and intrigue and even delight on the faces sat gloomily huddled together. The communal look of acceptance at what was about to be revealed to the room always melted into a kind of panic when someone new walked through the door, and there was often the curious sensation that everybody wanted to be last and to let others go ahead of their turn. It wasn’t unusual for someone to pretend to run out of patience or have something unexpected to do and come back later. Every so often someone had their own phone and stared at it in such a way that it made her think whatever it was they were looking at made them feel worse. Like the two earnest paintings hung on the wall of a sunset and bucolic landscape, executed terribly in what looked like faded poster paint. To read a magazine was to take up an unacceptable amount of room. The pages of a book would almost never turn before being put away and anyone listening to music couldn’t ever seem to turn it down low enough to rid themselves of the attention that came their way. The rest of the small room was in such a state that the best thing to do was simply stop looking anywhere. She often craved a cigarette at this time and although she had always enjoyed the smell she had never smoked in her life. She smiled at this thought, and looked up to see others visibly relax and break into smiles themselves as though they had followed her every thought… He had to wear briefs, not boxers, and apply the cream all over the sanitary pad to completely cover his sack. It was good that his wife had some already. Maybe he could borrow her knickers. Only the receptionist remained neutral. She had always admired the professionalism of the various receptionists, who would type thunderously or allow the phone to ring an extra couple of times to drown out something unpleasant going on beyond the cardboard thin wall of the consultation room. These sounds came as a great relief to everyone. To hear the receptionists whisper inaudibly down the phone or type with the consideration of a pianist meant the person with the doctor had spoken abruptly or without consideration, or were new and didn’t yet understand things here or simply did the wrong thing in the wrong kind of way. Every complaint and neurosis, every intimacy and shame and every ugly detail they had put off or hid or tried to ignore was revealed to the room.
Opening the unlocked door, she collected the long straps of her coat together and climbed into the car. Schadenfreude, she thought, searching out the windscreen at any movement in the park before noticing the used match in the otherwise empty ashtray. Its thin charcoal arch a stretching black cat. The usual fragment of blond wood protected by the pinch between finger and thumb hardened 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. She pushed the stiff ashtray shut with the palm of her hand and took out some nail scissors from her bag next to her shoes.
Even though she knew it wouldn’t work without the keys, she turned the radio dial on and off several times. The click was deep and satisfying. Feeling she may as well put the seatbelt on she pulled at it in something of a daze until no more came out. Fastening and unfastening the buckle to judge its own click against that of the radio dial, she fed the extra back slowly before letting it fizz through her fingers. Pulling down the shade to look in the vanity mirror she noticed the doctor leave the surgery, and watched him walk over to his deliberately valueless car parked opposite in case of ever being blocked in. He had no painted lines in the road outside his house to tell anyone anything, had no family and had never been married. She watched him carefully, shrinking down in her seat just enough, hoping he wouldn’t notice her still sat there inexplicably. Taking his suit jacket off and loosening the plain beige tie, he opened the back door and threw the jacket in with a deliberate, 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 around and pushing his fingers through his hair again and again the neat parting disappeared each time in the wind. He looked almost unrecognisable with all that hair across his forehead and it sticking up crazily. For a moment she saw something in his slow actions, and struck by this feeling sat up despite the danger to look behind but was stopped by the seatbelt. Wondering why she had it on in the first place and how this would look on top of everything she found she could only really see him in the mirror anyway. His entire manner seemed strange, almost as though he knew he was under some scrutiny somewhere and couldn’t do anything naturally, though somehow he still seemed to be listening to someone, or maybe going over something in his head and searching for the answer. There was a loneliness in his gestures only apparent in the street, she felt, that would vanish as soon as he stepped inside someone’s house on home visits, or sit back in the busy comfort of the converted dining room. He worked at least 12 hours a day and would talk about anything to such an extent that the people squashed together in the front room started to feel despised, until sat opposite him, where nobody seemed to mind anymore. With a dent above the wheel arch he started up the car and the 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 Donal? “He’s a child when it comes to parks,” she would say with a dry throat. Rearranging herself in the passenger seat, she became upright and looked forward at nothing, priming herself, hoping he would in fact stop when alongside before watching him drive away and turning left without indicating. She had always been struck by the simple beauty of the embossed white lettering in the corner of every window. Pulling down the vanity mirror she tidied her thick hair. Tell me the products you use, Elsie! the doctor once said teasingly, complementing her, Not a single grey at your age! She had always despised her name, and the only other person who dared use it was Donal. She once screamed in his face at the top of her voice which had Donal laugh in shock and jokingly clutch at his heart. Soon it would be dark, but at this moment a particular light made the thick evergreens on the horizon seem unusually verdant or richer in detail somehow, as though much closer up than usual like they had parked the car in a funny place, until the rainclouds came as predicted and the scene ahead of her became blocks of faded colour. The occasional person she detected in the park seemed to move in the wrong kind of way and headed in the wrong direction. It poured so relentlessly at one point that she could no longer see anything through the windscreen. It wouldn’t cross his mind to take an umbrella. “He’s like a child when it comes to parks,” she said.
The growing wind in the leafless trees lining the road made her feel cold. The 114 bus went by for a fifth time keeping its usual timetable. The fourth came late but not by very much. The doctor had returned and the surgery filled up. She knew by the third bus. Though now felt that she knew by the second, but couldn’t think it over as it made no difference anyway. It didn’t sound right when anyone called it the A Hundred and Fourteen. Where does that go? The louder the sirens became the more comforting they seemed. They wouldn’t go by like busses or the doctor or all these people trying to get home in the gloom. The alternating blue lights stopped in the windows of all the houses along the street up to the main road and illuminated the puddles that had formed everywhere, but she still couldn’t see them. Climbing out the car with an unusual ease and noticing the coat strap had caught in the door after all, she wondered if it might be the police. The cars on that side crept by before impatiently picking up speed and she could hear the engines. The park looked completely black. As she approached the crossing the cars had stopped across all four lanes even though she hadn’t pressed the crossing-man button and the lights were still green. Feeling sorry for them, she tried to catch their eye through the glass to acknowledge their stopping and felt even the passengers in the back knew. Everyone looked out. She waved to them. Standing on the broken concrete slabs of the island between the roads still nobody moved. What an odd life it is, she thought stepping into the road, with so much sadness all the time. She gave the cars a final wave in thanks and wondered if she was being cheerful. There were people standing around him lying awkwardly in the soggy grass, getting everything soaking wet, and she could see a finality in their lack of motion, and even something now of a detachment or a kind of disinterest amongst the group. She realised they just wanted to go, and that seeing her approach was the only answer they needed. The two ambulance people no longer crouched down beside him. One of them saw her coming and called out to her, called her love. “That’s my husband,” she said, wishing he hadn’t said love just as the wind took up which seemed to put miles between them and they appeared not to hear but it didn’t matter anyway. Elizabeth… I’ll tell them my name’s Elizabeth, she thought, putting her hand across her hair.