How many times have I sat here like this in variations of this same room? A million times? Two million? They always look the same. The faded wallpaper, the piles of dog eared magazines on the creaky coffee table. The one closest to me shows a very tanned woman with an impressively coiffed head of hair that works hard to look as if it’s not been touched by anything other than the light of day. Her mascara-ed eyelashes curl, her eyes are expertly made up, her red lips pout. I sigh. It all looks like a lot of work. I’m kind of hoping I’ll be able to give all that a miss.
The waiting room is crowded today. It was standing room only when I first came in. The door closed behind me with a quiet thunk of finality. There’s no way back now, no way out except the other door that leads to the corridor beyond. The door behind me only ever opens inward.
The silence in the room weighs on me as oppressively as a solid steel pillow pressed across the face. It’s only broken by tiny self-conscious sounds. Someone has a cough. Someone else asks a question of their neighbour in a whisper and the neighbour whispers back. Everyone whispers here. I don’t know what that’s all about, there’s no reason why they should but they all do it always. And always it fills me with the same mad desire to leap on the coffee table and sing at the top of my voice, to cancan amid the magazines and send them flying on the ends of my high kicking toes. But I never have.
Maybe one day though.
Maybe next time…
Name after name appears on the huge strip of luminescent ticker tape that runs along the wall. Their name and a room number. You’d think with all they have to get through they’d have more rooms. But resources are tight everywhere these days even here. One by one the crowd thins as more and more names are flagged up and they all disappear through the door and along the corridor to a room beyond.
I grip the edge of the seat nervously, feeling a sudden twist in my stomach. It’s Josef’s seat. When his name paraded across the wall I moved from my seat to his. It was still warm and I clung to that warmth as I always had, trying to hold onto him. But it faded, it’s gone now just like him. A minute was all we had, a minute in this crowded oppressive place. So much to say and only a minute and we couldn’t say anything. He took my hand and held it tight in his own and I leaned against him, unable to get close enough. Then his name and his room number and that anguished moment looking into each other’s eyes and knowing this was it. He stood up and kissed my hand and then he walked through the door and into the corridor. He didn’t look back.
No one ever comes back through that door either. When he walked through it he took a piece of me with him and I don’t know if it is a piece of me I will ever get back. Only time will tell I suppose.
There it is. My name marching across the length of the wall and disappearing only to appear again remorselessly. I take note of the room number and walk the short yet yawning distance to the door. There’s no security lock on this door. They’ve rarely been troubled with anyone trying to rush through it and it opens unresisting as ever under my hand. I hear it close quietly behind me as I continue along the corridor beyond. You’d think it would be all chrome and white walls but it’s not. It has a homely look with marginally less shabby wall paper and a number of dark wooden doors. Behind each one lies a new beginning.
I don’t want to do this again. Not again and certainly not so soon, Haven’t I seen enough? I’ve lived through democracy, fascism and communism and having seen all that they have to offer I’m in no hurry to go back to any one of them. I’m tired. I’m so tired. I only just got here and I went straight into that damned waiting room. No time to think. Barely any time to feel. Every time more rushed than the last. Every time things left unsaid, unresolved. I just want to stop. Even clocks stop. Why can’t I? Why can’t time freeze for me, allow me to be motionless?
The door opens behind me making me jump and a little man in spectacles and a shabby overcoat appears. He raises his hat to me nervously and carries on down the corridor, muttering his room number to himself as he scans the brass plates on the doors. It would never do to forget his number. Who knows where he might land up?
I sigh and coax my feet into life. There’s no sense in standing here I may as well get this over with. Very soon none of this will matter. I won’t remember any of it and I won’t remember any of what came before it. I won’t remember the songs I sang in the club to the notes of Josef’s piano. The bombs that fell by accident on Prague bringing a whole new interpretation to liberation or the tanks that rolled through the streets. I won’t remember the bullets or the blossom or the sickening fear that seems to have followed me for so much of my life. The little man in the shabby overcoat he knew it, I could tell. He’d lived it too; a life precious and fragile in the shadow of a human machine that could snuff you out in a heartbeat or crush the soul from you but still leave you breathing, still leave your heart beating. A machine so monstrous only man could have created it.
But though we shiver in the shadow of it the seeds we plant still struggle to grow, to find the light and the warmth. Josef’s piano…the touch of his hand…his mouth against mine… every thought in his eyes, every contour of his body. Our children growing inside me… holding them for the first time, seeing them laugh. No, I wouldn’t have missed that, not a moment of that. They stack up like a flood barrier those moments, all those moments against the tide of pain and loss, fear and oppression, sickness and loneliness and despair.
I won’t remember either the guilt and the muddy mixed up feelings of a reluctant betrayal, a desperate sacrifice to hold onto what I loved, to save what I couldn’t bear to be destroyed. All these years we never spoke of it and now we never will. Couldn’t I have had just a little more time? Couldn’t they have let me lay to rest this one thing that we so carefully swept out of sight and tiptoed around for twenty years Josef and I? Well perhaps it’s for the best. Perhaps after all there is a mercy to be found in forgetting.
My door is quite far along but I come to it at last and, my heart beating a little faster than it should I knock on the door and then open it and go in without waiting for an answer.
They’re very kind in a hospital corners sort of way. They always are. By the time they’re done everything is a pleasantly fuzzy haze, like drinking too much champagne. I must have drunk champagne once I suppose but I can’t remember it now, when it was or who I was with. I’m wearing a white silk dressing-gown. It feels very soft, very comforting. My clothes are gone like my name, like my life. When I walked in here I was…I was…there you see? It’s gone. Quite gone.
Like the waiting room I came from no one ever walks back out through the door of this room either. There’s only one way out of here and I’m gently led towards it. It gapes at my feet and I stand on the lip of the future, my future with no idea where, or who or when lies at the bottom of it. In spite of all my fuzziness a faint chill prickles faintly over me.
The woman who has my arm is a matronly sort. She pats me reassuringly and tells me I’ll need to take the dressing-gown off. Slowly, reluctantly, I pull the tie loose and ease it down over my shoulders, let it drop to the floor behind me. She clucks encouragingly but I don’t move. I’m still standing there staring into the darkness.
‘Sit down and do it. It’s easier that way. Just like playing on a slide really. Nothing to it.’
She steadies me as I get myself onto the floor. I’m sitting on the edge, my feet dangling in space. Don’t look down I’m advised. Close your eyes and push off from the side. Like pushing off from the side of the swimming baths. Can you swim? It’s like that.
I break off from my contemplation of the abyss to hit her with a look of irritation. How do I know if I can swim or not? There’s no point in asking me now!
Clearly, she gets the message. ‘Oh! Yes, Sorry, I forgot.’
‘You too? It must be catching.’
She laughs, just slightly strained. ‘Well, just in your own time…’
In my own time.
It’s still there somewhere, my own time, whispering just out of reach of my memory. But somehow it doesn’t feel like my own time. I have a feeling that I haven’t found my own time at the bottom of this darkness for a long time and there’s no guarantee I’m going to find it now. I edge my rear gingerly to the very lip but I’m gripping with my fingers so tightly that the knuckles are turning white.
I close my eyes, force myself to pull air into my tight lungs, over and over until my grip on the edge begins to relax. In time to this little ritual I remind myself that what lies immediately at the bottom of all this is safe, and warm, like floating in a warm bath. Nothing to be afraid of. Nothing to think about. Just floating and sleeping until the process is complete, until I’m ready to face the world again in a brand new tiny body.
Page after crisp white page just waiting to be written on, just waiting for me to leave my mark upon them, just waiting for another story to grow, for my voice to emerge once more.
I push myself into space and fall towards those open pages.