Stories in the crowd
I have mixed feelings about hospitals. I know that most people hate them, hate the smell, hate the associations the place forces them to remember; the awful night Grandpa died, the time they fell off something tall and were kept in overnight for observation. The uncomfortable visits with friends on the maternity ward to meet their pink, squealing offspring for the first time
But for me, there’s something almost appealing about that antiseptic blandness, masking a darker story, tucked just out of sight. I always enjoyed the anonymity of being one person in the midst of all that bustle and bother, wandering down to fetch yourself a Marks and Spencers packet sandwich and a cup of watery tea and singling out faces in the crowd: what’s their story? Why are they here? What’s hidden behind that blank, neutral expression? Shock? Boredom? Fear? Excitement?
It can be soothing to sit there, still and watchful as people hurry around you, heads full of their own thoughts and worries. Wondering what theirs are can help you forget about your own. For a while.
Of course there are the staple extras in the crowd. You could play hospital bingo. The woman with the bag of wool that’s destined to become shapeless knitwear for some unwary relative - she’s usually in for the long haul and has cultivated a stoical, no-nonsense expression and knows the cleaners’ names by heart.
There’s the bored teenager on her phone, knowing she needs to show at least a degree of sensitivity, but seriously, they’ve been here for like two hours and there’s practically no wifi.
There are families, bustling and smiling, in for a quick visit - long enough for the kids to delight and charm the patient, but off again quick before they get bored and start showing their true pain-in-the-arse colours.
And the cleaners themselves, who move in packs, armed with mops and gloves and pink disinfectant spray. Brutally efficient, throwing out greetings to the regulars and moving fast through the crowds with quick, practised movements.
The exhausted, wonderful doctors and nurses, if they can grab a second to themselves to snatch a sandwich or a packet of crisps. They always deal with such terrible things, but can usually manage a smile for anyone
Everyone works hard to keep their faces as blank as they can, not wanting to end up in anyone else’s story, or else too busily wrapped up in their own.
And then, as the daylight begins to fade and visiting hours draw to a close there is a final surge, a crush of people, no longer carrying their flower and balloons and bags of sweet treats, all hurrying home. There’s the kids to get to bed, the tea to cook. Work in the morning and maybe back here again tomorrow, maybe not.
And then, when the atrium has nearly emptied and the cleaners have removed all traces that those crowds were ever here at all, I stand up, alone with my own story again. My phone is pinging and vibrating like crazy and I need to get to whatever meeting it is I’m almost missing.
The hospital won’t run itself you know.