It was surprising that the atmosphere in the hospital coffee shop wasn’t more oppressive considering the history and permanent inhabitants of the space. The dark colour of the branding might have produced a gloom hanging in the air but instead the space was oddly uplifting to all that entered, to sit quietly drinking coffee before visiting patients or attending their own appointments.
The air was fresh, reminiscent of a spring morning, with dew lacing the edges of new green shoots, but there were no air fresheners here, no artificial air conditioning, no open windows.
The focal point of the coffee shop was a full height gothic window of translucent white glass that flooded the area with bright shafts of light. The space gave the impression that it looked both backwards into history and anticipated a future of content stability. It had been here for so long and was so unusual that it had established something close to its own eco-system bringing benefits to the hospital that were both tangible and unseen.
In the present, the coffee shop held a child who screamed in the corner punishing his mother for buying the wrong soft drink in a misguided effort to avert major dental treatment in the future. An elderly couple in beige macs sat uncomfortably at the bistro type table and chairs that had been designed to make you feel like you had been transported to a Parisian café. No one was bothered that they were eating sandwiches they had bought from home. A barista fiddled with the coffee machine, wiping the nozzles with a grubby dish-cloth and swiping away invisible coffee grounds.
A first cursory glance around the odd shaped room did not immediately reveal the years of grime that lurked in corners and under the tables but the dirt was quietly there, clinging to the edges of the furniture and where the skirting met the floor like small, almost invisible barnacles clinging to the bottom of a neglected wooden rowing boat.
A section at the far end was set aside to lounge furniture. A couple of old sofas and armchairs encouraged you to feel like you were drinking your coffee in the comfort of your own home but the furniture, worn down by years of use, looked unhygienic and was fraying at the edges. Brown stains confirmed the years of milky coffee spillage and the reason for the very slight sour smell that permeated every piece of fabric in the room.
A gentleman sat bolt upright in one of the armchairs, looking as though he was waiting patiently for a train. He intermittently consulted his wristwatch but did not look about him as he might if he was expecting to be collected. He starred straight ahead at the chair opposite as if not understanding why it was not occupied. He was dressed smartly in a dark grey suit, including a waistcoat, giving him a classic, business-like demeanour and an air of authority that was perhaps unnecessary in an almost empty coffee shop.
The barista, the mother and child, the elderly couple and the formally dressed gentleman all minded their own business but they knew each other well and were comfortable in the company. They were the unseen permanent inhabitants of the coffee shop. Visitors saw each other and a friendly female barista. They saw the tired and slightly grubby outlet selling warm refreshments on a cold October day in an oddly uplifting atmosphere. Through the years this had always been a space of contemplation and love, and the small area was quietly preparing itself for the next event in its history.
The coffee shop was waiting.
There was no door to the cafe, situated as it was within the scrubbed clean main entrance to the hospital. The unusual archway that joined the foyer to the coffee shop was reminiscent of a cathedral arch, exactly matching the shape of the window. The exposed stones were a warm golden colour, quarried locally and worn down by hands stroking the stones as they passed. The majority of visitors to the hospital walked straight past the area set aside for their comfort, they didn’t appreciate the history contained within the space, or the length of time that the people in it had been waiting.
In contrast, across the entrance the hospital’s main reception desk was a hive of activity, two smartly dressed receptionists offering an air of efficiency sat behind the dark oak veneer, directing visitors and answering the constantly ringing telephone. This was the real frontage of the hospital, not the run down coffee shop. This was the area that was frequently updated with new technology, new veneer to the curved desk, and new, ever more efficient staff. The two areas were as diverse in use as they were in history.
Like many visitors, Juliet hadn’t noticed the coffee shop when she had entered the hospital this morning, through the main door. She had walked confidently up to the reception desk and asked for directions to the endoscopy unit. Juliet’s daily effort was to exude confidence, efficiency and control. She breezed past an elderly guide volunteer in a bright green sweatshirt and into the lift with a knowledgeable demeanour, leaving him in no doubt that she did not need assistance.
Juliet had instructed her consultant some weeks ago that she did not need sedation for the internal investigation. She wasn’t the type to make a fuss. Juliet’s life was ordered, disciplined and habitual. Consequently, the endoscopy had passed without incident, or conversation from the doctor and nurses. Uncomplicated professionalism was how Julia made sure she lived her life.
The procedure complete, Juliet walked back through the foyer, more slowly than her entrance had been, wondering if a cold drink might alleviate her burning throat, as well as giving her more energy to get herself home. This morning, the plan of a short five-minute walk to work had not seemed too onerous but the reality was that Juliet was too many steps from home and her comfortable bed.
Juliet stepped through the threshold of the coffee shop, noticing the change from the shiny, clean, non-slip foyer flooring, to the brown slightly uneven carpet tiles. The change in atmosphere was tangible, leaving Juliet with an immediate impression that she had somehow made a mistake in entering the space. She stood at the entrance, considering whether she should perhaps purchase a soft drink from the adjacent shop and start the walk home but the quiet of the coffee shop was strangely inviting to someone who suddenly needed to sit down.
The barista smiled as Juliet placed a bottle of water along with the change needed to make it hers. Taking the coins, he offered a receipt and a glass, both of which Julia declined. She considered where to sit. The established occupants were placed evenly throughout the area, and Juliet didn’t really pay them much attention, but the attraction of the lounge furniture to someone whose body felt like lead was too much and Juliet sat heavily down in the armchair directly opposite the gentleman.
“Thank goodness you’ve arrived” the gentleman’s voice was crisp and precise.
Juliet considered whether she had misheard, or perhaps he was talking to himself. She looked up to find his gaze directly aimed at her. He had steely blue eyes, the kind that were noticeable when they were levelled directly at you, and rather unnerving. He glanced briefly at his watch but then settled his gaze again on Juliet. He was waiting for a reply.
“I beg your pardon?” Juliet’s polite nature took over. She didn’t want conversation, she didn’t want interest or sympathy from strangers, she wanted to be left alone to sit quietly and regain some feeling to her arms and legs.
“I’ve been waiting for you.” The words took Juliet by surprise. The gentleman was clearly sane, intelligent and coherent but he wasn’t making any sense. Juliet didn’t know him.
“I think you must be mistaking me for someone else.” Juliet took a sip of her water, hoping that if she turned her attention to something else, the gentleman would do the same. The water felt good in her throat but her limbs were feeling heavier. Maybe they had given her a sedating drug by mistake? If so, it had taken a long time to take effect. Juliet focused her mind and tried to think back over the procedure, searching her memory for something that might be the cause of this sudden onset of sheer exhaustion.
There was nothing unusual that Juliet could remember, she had arrived at the outpatients ward, changed into the hospital gown and been escorted into the procedure room with a myriad of unfamiliar medical equipment. The doctor had asked again about sedation, making her nervous that she had made the wrong decision, and then proceeded. Juliet was aware of the nurses clucking around her, holding her hand and wiping her face with a tissue, the gagging feeling passed surprisingly quickly and Juliet remembered relaxing and letting the medical team investigate the inside of her stomach.
Juliet’s consciousness jolted back to the coffee shop and she stiffened in the armchair, imperceptibly shaking her head. What had happened after that? Juliet’s memory was telling her that the next thing she remembered was walking through the foyer in her own clothes with a sore throat, heavy limbs and a severe craving to lie down. What had happened to the removal of the tube? What had happened to gentle reassurance from a nurse as she was led out of the procedure room and back to the changing room so that she could re-dress? What had happened to the lift journey down to the foyer? All of these things Juliet assumed must have happened but she couldn’t remember them at all.
“It’s alright to have a few minutes of memory loss my dear”. It was as if the gentleman was somehow searching her memory with her. Juliet ignored him and forced herself to start again, she remembered lying on her side on the procedure table with the medical staff standing around her, the consultant was inspecting the end of the tube with the camera attached. Juliet was ready but suddenly nervous and allowed her eyes to roam around the room in an effort to take her mind off what was about to happen. Over in the corner, next to the door, the gentleman nodded his approval and then looked at his watch.
“Surely that can’t be right?’ Juliet, back in the coffee shop armchair, realised that she had actually muttered this out loud. She looked again at the man sitting opposite her. She was so tired now that her mind was playing tricks on her. She took another sip of water from the plastic bottle and tried to think about something else.
What else was there to think about? Juliet focussed her mind on her mother, as she often did when she was stressed. Not that the thought of either of her parents bought a feeling of peace. Her mother had passed away 2 years, 3 months and 14 days ago, Juliet was still counting the days as a way of managing the bereavement.
Juliet’s childhood had been spent caring for a mother who spent most of the day locked in her bedroom. As a young girl, Juliet assumed the whispers were right and that her mother suffered from severe depression. Juliet had been close to her father up until the age of six when her mother had given birth to a son and then descended even further into a depressive state that meant Juliet saw very little of either her mother or her father who needed to look after the new baby. Eventually, her father had left taking her brother with him, leaving Juliet to fend for herself and look after her mother. Juliet’s immaturity at the time meant that she had spent most of her childhood assuming her father had left because she had been naughty. Why else would he leave her on her own?
“I’m Victor. I’m not quite sure how long we are going to be here for, I’m afraid” he had grasped Juliet’s consciousness and dragged it back into the brown armchair. She felt resentful to have been interrupted but tried to focus on the man sitting opposite her. He looked relaxed, even though he sat so upright in the chair. Juliet wondered whether he was wearing a corset but dismissed the idea as probably too old fashioned. Juliet wasn’t even sure whether anyone actually made corsets for men any more. Her wandering mind was another indication that she was becoming overwhelmingly drowsy.
Juliet considered for a moment how to respond, she would rather not engage in conversation but he was clearly directing his obscure comments at her and it was becoming impolite not to answer. “I’m just catching my breath for a moment, I must be getting home”.
“I quite understand” the gentleman had not been put off by Juliet’s efforts to disengage. “Take as long as you need”. He consulted his watch. “We have three hours before Shaun will want to close the café”.
Shaun? Juliet glanced at the barista, who continued to fiddle with the coffee machine. “Three hours?” Juliet was becoming incoherent and she felt a rising feeling of panic. “I can’t stay” What was happening to her? Should she try and get the attention of a nurse?
“What you are feeling is perfectly normal, don’t try to fight the tiredness. It will pass very quickly”. Juliet’s immediate reaction to this statement was one of resentment. Her body had just been invaded by harsh medical equipment and she must be having some kind of adverse reaction. She didn’t need someone sitting opposite her, telling her what she was thinking and feeling.
Juliet took another sip of water and tried hard to convince herself that she was starting to feel a little better. The fog that had been hanging, swirling in her mind like cream floating on soup, mixing up her thoughts, confusing and disorienting, was actually beginning to clear. Juliet remembered her endoscopy again, which she grasped as a sign of recovery.
She was again on the procedure table and felt the calm reassurance of the nurse’s hand in hers. The tube was in her mouth and she could feel it in her throat but it wasn’t causing her to gag. There was a curious feeling of complete relaxation. Every muscle in her body felt powerless and she realised that she was now lying on her back. The consultant spoke sharply to the nurse and Juliet was aware of the consultant pulling the tube out quickly. The nurse’s hand suddenly became less of a comforting presence and began to grip rather tightly. Another nurse rushed up to her side and pulled the top of her gown down to her waist. Suddenly, everyone stood back and Juliet felt a massive jolt course through her body.
“I’m glad to see you’re remembering, it will make the process much easier” Juliet felt better, less weak. Her limbs were beginning to get some feeling in them and she tried to sit up more in the armchair. “What process?”
“We’ll sit here for a while longer, we have some time” Juliet thought Victor was talking in riddles and she was beginning to find him annoying. “Time for what?” She knew that raising her voice was inappropriate but Juliet’s patience was wearing thin. There was no “we” with her and this stranger, she was going to finish her water and then go home.
Juliet grasped the arms of the chair and planted her feet firmly on the floor. She was pleased to find her legs could now hold her up and she concentrated on moving one foot forward of the other in a tentative effort to walk.
Out of the corner of her eye, Juliet noticed the old woman in the middle of the room nudge the old man sitting with her and he looked over to the lounge area where Juliet was taking small steps in the hope of getting out of the hospital and on with her life.
“Sit down please Juliet, I do need to explain what is going on” Victor didn’t look like he was going to take no for an answer and reluctantly, whilst acknowledging in her mind that she still didn’t have the energy to get home, Juliet sat back down into the armchair with undisguised relief.
“How much do you remember now? Are events coming back to you? Do you remember how you got here?” Suddenly he was asking lots of questions that she didn’t know the answers to. Juliet didn’t feel inclined to tell him why she was in the hospital and what the procedure had been. It felt too personal, it was too soon to admit her fears regarding the results of her endoscopy and when she did decide to share her concern that she was destined to descend into the black depression that had plagued her mother, it wouldn’t be with this man, a stranger she had just met in the hospital coffee shop.
“I’m sorry to be the one to tell you Juliet but things have happened this afternoon that are going to take you a while to understand and I need to try and explain them to you before you go home.”
Juliet decided to play along. “What has happened this afternoon, Victor?” Juliet wondered momentarily how he knew that her name was Juliet, was she wearing her work identification? She looked down at her body to confirm that she wasn’t wearing a white plastic card on the end of a bright blue lanyard. She often did forget to take it off after work and found herself standing in the checkout queue at the supermarket with strangers giving her odd looks. First their eyes would look at her face, then at the photo on the plastic card that was rather out of date. Finally, the stranger’s eyes would alight upon her name and then they would quickly look away. Juliet wasn’t interested in why the town’s population held her family name in such disdain. From overhearing local gossip when she was a child, and from teasing in the playground, she knew it had something to do with her mother but she had never felt strong enough to work on discovering the truth and, if she were honest, she would admit that she didn’t really want to know.
Victor was speaking “You came into the hospital for an outpatients appointment, yes?”
“Yes, I’ve had an endoscopy.” Again Juliet tried again to remember the end of her appointment, but failed. All her mind could see was Victor standing by the door of the procedure room and looking at his watch. All she could feel was the jolt as her upper body left the medical table and slammed back down on to it, banging the back of her head. “Why were you there?” It felt odd to voice an acknowledgement that Victor had been in the room.
“I was waiting for you. I knew you’d be needing some guidance through this process.” Victor sounded so matter of fact and Juliet was beginning to think she might know what he was suggesting had happened.
“Are you going to tell me that I died during an endoscopy” Juliet had tried to keep her voice calm but the incredulity had clearly sounded in her voice and she found it impossible to hide. The idea was ridiculous. She had read the leaflet that arrived with her appointment. It was a straightforward procedure. Juliet had been expecting to go on to work for the afternoon then go home on time after a couple of hours typing up correspondence, cook some pasta, watch some television, go to bed. How complicated was that?
Victor gave a small guffaw and then cleared his throat as if to apologise. “No Juliet, you are not dead but you are very poorly and you will need someone to talk to over the next couple of days”
“I’m beginning to feel better now” Juliet flexed her fingers and realised she had had all the feeling back in her arms. “I should be getting home”. Again, Juliet moved to get out of the chair and this time she felt as if she had much more energy. It was as if the heavy lead feeling had finally drained out of her body.
Victor raised his hand and gestured for her to sit back down. “I was there during your endoscopy, you didn’t notice me at first because I’m not quite synchronised with your reality, so it wasn’t until your heart failed that you could see me.”
“My heart failed?” Again, the disbelief crept back into Juliet’s voice. Victor glanced at his watch. “Yes, Juliet, your heart failed. You haven’t yet come round from the shock treatment that they gave you. You are currently lying in a coma in the intensive care ward and your consciousness is sitting here in the hospital café while it waits for your body to recover”