The hospital wards held a distinctive smell. Disinfectant and desperation and decay. In the tea room it was less so. In the tea room it smelled of biscuits. It smelled of apple pie and cheap custard.
He was sat in the tea room. Everywhere he looked, people looked ill. Or, sick with worry. A sort of sanctuary was sought in a cup of tea. Everybody likes a nice cup of tea. A cup of nice tea. He blew into the cup, snatches of conversation floated his way. It was as if they were all friends or family. The cancers relate them. They ask of each other, “Have you come far?” “How often do you come?” “How was the traffic?” Fleet and fast educations. They speak of their real relatives elsewhere in the vast hospital. They speak of the kindness of the doctors and nurses. The cruelty of nature. They drink tea and eat sweet treats. They chat.
After a while he noticed that many people had bandages applied to their wrists, their hands. Clean, white bandages. Some revealing catheters. They smile a smile that says I am fighting, despite the fright. Children pocket biscuits. Parents ask children if they need the toilet.
There are newspapers, but nobody reads them. What is the point of the news? These stories are useless and dull and unimportant in comparison to this close news. Everything is in sharp focus.
The tables turn at quite a rate. People come and go. There is fluidity. The tea room offers a quick break, brief respite: but there is no real escape, not yet; but, fingers crossed. After tea, the people drift back to the wards to look and listen and nearly say things that need to be said.
A couple sat down at the next table. They were of another generation. She wore flannel trousers and a chiffon scarf and had gold dangling from soft earlobes. Her hair was processed to the point of crispiness. He had a flat cap and an old suit. It had seen better days. As had the both of them. His ears were huge. They dig around their bowls of apple pie and custard.
Debbie Death used to say, “When I start buying clothes from Bonmarché, please kill me.”
She was an embalmer and he supposed that her real surname wasn’t Death. She identified the clothes retailer with an older, decayed age. An age that she could not be associated with. She was already 50 and growing older as she spoke, and as he listened. Her clothes were always black. Black and covered with crucifix and skull motifs. Black drainpipe jeans like they used to wear, studded belts. Sometimes she wore a miniskirt and fishnets. Or many-layered dresses, the black hems of which would gather the dust and ash wherever she walked. Her fingers were heavy with silver. At her white throat a little silver Jesus lay stretched out. She was not, he was quite sure, a Christian. Her hair was black and frazzled and spiky. You remember crimpers? Her fear of Bonmarché always struck him as strange; misplaced, unfounded and not quite thought through. She was already old – old to the young folk she passed in the street. Old in her car, at the lights, the stereo blasting sludgy songs from the 1980s. She was old in the queue at the supermarket in her battered Doc Martens with her basket of TV magazines and chocolate and box of white wine. She was old with her piercings that no longer gleamed, or even shocked as they once had, hanging, as they did, from her brow and her nostril and her lip. She was old in her speech. She was old in her opinion. She was old as she handed her daughter of 30 a twenty pound note. She was old as she sat for the grandkids. She was old.
He once tried to explain this to her – as gently as he could – he tried to reason with her. She would, he explained, probably never purchase a thing from Bonmarché. She could only ever cross its threshold by mistake – perhaps in a daydream whilst checking a list in her hand (she would look up as she pushed at the unfamiliar door. She would see the sign above declaring, Bonmarché, and there would be a moment of confusion, just a moment, and then she would laugh out loud and pull the door to and continue to the shop she really required which was next door: the charity shop – the shop where she hunted down black clothes and small trinkets. Where she found her books about ghosts and unsolved mysteries. Long gothic novels for a pound and old compact discs that she used to own).
She would never wear clothes purchased from Bonmarché, just as the old woman with the soft earlobes would never wear denim, dark or torn, or black buckled boots or have a tattooed name on her neck or arm.