‘Have you ever had an operation, dearie?’ croaked the old woman, her wizened fingers meddling with a black chiffon scarf.
Annabel looked at her in astonishment, more for her boldness in speaking to a stranger than the question itself.
The woman inched along the green bench until Annabel felt her bony elbows touching hers. She could smell her age, that fusty smell of old bones and looming death. The colourless, egg-shaped face, framed by silver-white hair, was strangely familiar.
‘I’d like to hear about your operation,’ the woman said.
Had she to have one herself? wondered Annabel. Was she het up because of it? Idly, she surveyed her surroundings. Two bowler-hatted men strode towards the reception desk. A nurse with a clipboard escorted a man on crutches. On the benches, injured toddlers whimpered into the comforting breasts of anxious mothers, and not much braver adults sat in stony silence, waiting. The woman’s question was probably fairly normal, considering where they were.
It would be something to do while she waited and it might be amusing to humour her and list her medical experiences. Like the one where that brute of a doctor dug out an ingrowing toenail, or the harrowing extraction of her third wisdom tooth which had wrapped its roots around its neighbouring molar, necessitating a drilling process guaranteed to put her off dentists for life. Then there was that glorious out-of-body experience when she gave birth to Kim, whose foot was wedged in her ribcage and caused such excruciating pain that she fled her physical form entirely unaided for half an hour.
Annabel studied the old woman sitting beside her. A harridan of minute proportions, craggy chin, heavily lined brow, and intensely blue eyes which seemed capable of scanning a body like an X-ray machine. Perhaps she was an x-ray machine. Perhaps she had grown a heart overnight and been cast out of the department as useless. Given the sack, so to speak. Whatever she was, she was uncannily familiar.
A man in a white coat pushed an empty gurney through the rubber flaps that served as doors. A stethoscope hung from his top pocket. Annabel’s nose wrinkled as the smell of ether wafted in her direction. Quite like old times, she thought, evoking the event which had the most impact on her life.
Now that she had decided to relate her story, Annabel was tempted to ask the woman’s name, but in the end she felt perhaps it was better not to know.
Examining her fingernails, she speculated about where to begin. Her tale could be classed as an accidental incident rather than one of a medical nature, although a surgical procedure might well have been carried out had there been enough time. The action took place this very day, long ago. It was enough to say it occurred on her fortieth birthday. The year was irrelevant.
Andrew had taken her to a bell-ringing contest to celebrate. Celebrate! There was nothing to celebrate in that dismal hall with those disgracefully ragged drapes covering the windows and teams of bell-ringers incessantly brandishing brassy bells by their wooden handles, coloured streamers fluttering in their wake. Up and down, up and tediously down.
Annabel shuddered as she remembered the rancour which flooded through her and the accusation she was tempted to fling at him: If you thought this was my idea of fun, you were sadly mistaken. Fortunately, Andrew sensed her disquiet and suggested they leave. Thank God, she mutely cried, not really wanting to upset he who had not yet produced her birthday present and who must, for the time, being be kept sweet.
Kim was waiting outside, leaning against the wooden panels from which the cheerless hut was constructed. Annabel had been surprised to her daughter dressed in her best blue trouser-suit, wearing the lovely perfume Andrew bought at Christmas. Gardenia, she thought. These days Annabel had difficulty remembering precise details like which scent it was, though she did recall that Kim’s blonde hair was swept into a French pleat with not a single securing pin in sight. Kim was very clever at disguising things. Even her love was hard to find. Annabel sniffed and swallowed hard, knowing she would never find it now.
Kim was idly swinging a set of keys which glinted in the light of the hut’s swaying lantern. Annabel briefly wondered why her daughter was dangling them in front of her when they were not her keys.
‘Your car, Madam,’ Andrew proudly announced.
Annabel remembered those words as if they had been uttered only yesterday and she recollected the joy she felt when she saw the bright orange Beetle parked at the kerb. Beetles were her favourite cars in all the world, prompting thoughts of Howard, that wonderful man who took her virginity on the leather-covered back seat.
‘It’s yours,’ Andrew said, tossing back a wayward lock of mousy-brown hair. Taking the keys from Kim, he placed them in Annabel’s hand and curled her fingers over them. ‘Happy birthday, darling.’
She vowed the driving seat had been moulded especially for her, though the pedals were a distance away. She strained her slender ankles to reach them, smiling at Andrew who sat in the passenger seat. Kim had by that time gone home.
Pausing briefly to brush her dark fringe from her brow, Annabel imperceptibly shook her head at the crystal-clear image of that night. She moistened her dry lips so that she could continue.
She had driven Andrew to the restaurant where they were to have dinner and where they imbibed much champagne. It was, after all, a celebration of her forthieth birthday. Afterwards she drove home in the rain, the pair of them singing country and western songs as loudly as they could. Annabel got so carried away she let go the wheel and waved her arms above her head.
The car skidded on the greasy road and careered into a telegraph pole. Momentarily, she saw a woman’s face through the window, timeworn and ashen with fear, her mouth widening into a scream. Her black scarf fluttered as the screen abruptly shattered into a fog of tiny fractures. The image had tormented her ever since.
It took two hours to release her broken body from the tangled wreck. Andrew was lucky to have been thrown clear. Long after he and the elderly victim had been carted off to hospital, firemen worked steadily and untiringly to free her from what remained of the birthday gift, operating their cutting equipment proficiently and with no time to lose. Even in her distressing incapacitation she could not help being impressed by their strength. She felt comforted by the efficient way they worked and watched trance-like as they carefully removed the metal covering and exposed her body to the rain.
‘A disasterous end to your birthday, ‘ observed the old woman.
‘It certainly was,’ replied Annabel, looking round on the off-chance she might see Andrew or Kim.
‘I imagine you were glad when it was all over.’
Annabel laughed. ‘You could say that.’
The woman knowingly nodded. She adjusted the bag on her la[p and hooked a hand through the strap. Then her brow puckered and she inclined her head to one side. ‘But wasn’t there an operation?’ she asked.
Annabel’s reply was gruff. ‘It wasn’t necessary.’
‘As with me.’ Easing herself to the edge of the bench, the woman struggled to her feet. tottering slightly with the exertion.
Annabel shot up in order to steady her, cautioning her to be careful not to fall. An appreciative expression was etched on the pallid, elliptical face.
Flattening her copious grey skirts to her side, the woman gave Annabel a toothy grin. ‘I’m glad you told me ,’ she said, and went on to ask if Annabel was waiting for someone.
‘Not really,’ Annabel remarked. ‘I come once a year to make sure nothing was overlooked. An annual; check-up, you might say.’
Livid weals appeared on the woman’s face as she scratched the diaphanous skin with grimy nails, giving the appearance of having been slashed by something sharp, like a knife or a piece of glass. ‘Strange I haven’t seen you before,’ she said. She began to fidget, her arms restless at her side, fingers meddling with her skirt. A agonised frown etched her forehead, yet when she spoke again her voice was calm. ‘My mission has long been the search for truth.’ Laying a gnarled hand on Annabel’s shoulder, she added, ‘Now that I have it I am grateful, though gratitude is perhaps an ill-suited sentiment in view of that you did.’
So it was her, thought Annabel, the unknown casualty. All these years being haunted by that anaemic countenance, yet she failed to recognise it when they met. What on earth could she say? Was an apology enough? Indeed would an apology be accepted? She was about to attempt some kind of justification for what happened that night when the old woman spoke again.
‘Don’t fret about the accident. You did me a great service, as it transpired, since the cancer would have been a sight more painful.’ Fiddling with the ragged scarf, she peered at the clock on the magnolia painted wall. Bustling clerks and nurses tidied the place ready for the next day’s batch of emergency patients. Gripping her capacious black bag, the old lady stepped away from the hospital bench.
Annabel queried if she was leaving.
‘As soon as my hearse arrives. It’s late, as usual.’
‘You can share mine,’ offered Annabel. ‘Mine’s invariably early.’