By Patricia Carr

I was no more than seven or eight. What lay ahead was not pleasant. Neither were sleepless nights when only an ‘Aspro’ would ease the agony. The memory of that first visit to town haunts me still.

I got off the bus. As I crested the steep hill, its spectre loomed large in front of me. There was no going back. The only distraction for a while would be time spent with others in the same boat – in the drab environs of the Waiting Room.
The entrance to the Waiting Room was not inviting. It was once, and remained, part of a private dwelling. Various doors led off to other areas of the house. In one corner a steep staircase twisted upwards and was lost in the darkness.

The outside door was in two sections. The top half consisted of a frosted glass pane in a red rose bowl design, while the underneath was painted a watery green. This pattern of decor was echoed inside. Shadows played on the misty glass on both sides of the narrow corridor. Cloudy movements behind this opaque screen, left one in no doubt that the waiting room was on the right.

The oil cloth, with its zig-zag pattern smelled faintly of disinfectant. The ceiling was high. It’s only focal point was a distant conical skylight. This shed some brightness on the dull interior, but on damp days it echoed the rattle of the rain. There was one large bay window facing onto the busy street. It’s alcove served as an additional seat, sometimes accommodating three at a time.

There was no appointment system. People just turned up on the Fair Day – the only time the service was available. After the mid-day bus arrived there was a surge of bodies filling up every available space. An uneasy palpable tension was shared in the crowded waiting room, as clients were seen on a ‘first come, first served’ basis.

A marble mantlepiece surrounded a long defunct fireplace. It was bare, except for the two china dogs which had faced each other since this was a family home. Some saw them as a welcome distraction.

The centre of the room was taken up by an oval shaped table. It was festooned with a selection of Ireland’s Own, Woman’s Way and Farmer’s Journal – all of which were thumbed and yellowing with age. These features, along with the ashtray at each end, lent an air of friendly clutter that was, in a strange way, supportive.

It did little, though, to relieve the apprehension which hung like a wet sheet over the waiting patrons. Some would rather be silent, but with chattering all around, they decided to go with the flow. The topic of conversation, and the sentiments expressed varied little, and only served to highlight their present predicament.

One man attempted a little light relief. He suggested, with a cynical smile, that they all head for the nearest pub. There were disapproving glances, over foaming white handkerchiefs and a muted response. His remark, he realised, had missed its target and hit the wall.

The call bell summoned him. He shook himself and put on a brave swagger as he made his way out the door. His vacant seat was taken up by a perky, darting man, who had survived the first part of his ordeal. His jaw was twice its size and his mouth hung open like a badly sewn buttonhole.

He was showered with looks of benign sympathy, which did little to allay his fears. He responded to well-intentioned enquiries in a hacking whisper.

A willowy middle-aged lady joined the queue. Her eyes darted nervously around. She took out a cigarette, and tried, but failed, to light it. A grey suited man, with a row of fountain pens in his top pocket, offered to asset her. In a scary voice, all shaky and dry, she politely refused his help, and put the Woodbine back in the packet. When her turn came, she was reduced to a quivering wreck as she crossed to the treatment room.

Each patient carried their stress in a different way, some bearing up better than others. Anecdotes and reminiscences – all in the same vein – were tossed over and back. One man got up loudly, lightheaded as a thistle, before he made his dart for freedom. A thin, foxy looking man seemed none the worse of his ordeal. He shrugged his shoulders as if this was an everyday experience.

A few stragglers, whose patience had worn thin, decided to come adrift, postpone the evil hour and come back another day. Sheer agony of raging toothache compelled those of us left to sit it out. What we would leave behind in that spittoon, we would not miss!

Continue reading in this week’s Ireland’s Own