Nothing strikes fear into your heart quite like arriving into a full hospital waiting room. And in Darwin, it’s got a distinctive smell: unwashed clothes, disinfectant and desperation.
I’m here for my latest round of blood tests and there’s only one plastic chair left. An Aboriginal woman moves her handbag from it and she signals for me to sit next to her, so I do.
I scan the room. Under the diabetes information board, an elderly lady is squeezing her veins, trying to get one of them to pop. On the other side sits a skinny man in a baseball cap. He’s in a wheelchair, and the woman sitting next to him strokes his shoulders. Every so often he asks another in-patient if they will take him to McDonalds.
“Can you buy me a large coke? I want a big coke from McDonalds.”
The pathology assistant sticks her head around the corner.
“Daisy? Is Daisy here?”
Daisy’s not here.
On the other side of the room I hear, “Can we get some chips at McDonalds?”
“After, after”, coos his carer.
I don’t want to go to McDonalds nor do I want to be at the hospital, so I keep my head down and try to avoid conversation. But my neighbour doesn’t need much from me to have a chat.
“I’m real hungry, eh?” she says.
“Nothing to eat all morning. I been drinking water: drinking, drinking, drinking. But [she gestures to her specimen cup] nothing.”
Oh well, I say apologetically.
“It’s alright”, she says. “Doctor says doesn’t matter if you can’t do a wee.”
“I’m going to Adelaide”, she says. “9th of December. I’ve got to have my operation then.”
That’s no good, I say. I’m still trying to read my book and pretend I’m not in a hospital waiting room.
She continues. “And you know, I’m missing the Christmas lunch! They putting on a big lunch down at the sea front for the education mob.
I tell you what, when I get out of here, I’m gonna get a big breakfast. My daughter, she gave me $50 to get breakfast. But I got to wait! But I tell you what, I’m going to Melissa’s after this, get myself good mouthy food, some chicken, a little bit Greek, you know?”
She puts out her hand and points to her chest.
“Scramenta”, she says.
I’m Miranda, I reply. I’m not sure what to say next.
How do you spell Scramenta? I ask.
Oh, like sacrament?
She smiles. “Yep. I been brought up Roman Catholic, Tiwi Islands church.”
I point to her skirt. I’ve just noticed it, purple with a bold white pattern.
That’s from the Tiwis too?
“Yep”, she says. “My cousin gave me for my birthday. When I retire, I’m gonna open a shop, sell these. Maybe in the Galleria, or on the Highway. Nah, maybe not the highway. Too much humbug.”
We keep waiting for our names to be called, and we keep chatting. It soon becomes clear that everyone knows Sacramenta. The pathology waiting room is a hospital thoroughfare, and she’s the main recipient of greetings, catcalls, waves and cuddles. “Eh, what now?” the indig health workers call out to her. Sacramenta teases the orderlies, and tries to humbug their muffins and coffee. She strokes the many pregnant bellies that waddle through. I realise I’ve ended up sitting next to the Social Queen of Royal Darwin Hospital.
The pathology assistant calls out again. “Daisy?”
Daisy’s still missing in action.
“Then Sacramenta? Is Sacramenta here?”
My neighbour gets up and chuckles. “It’s SCRAH-mentah”, she tells the pathology assistant.
I ask how much longer it will be for me.
The assistant looks at me blankly. “Have you been a patient here before? You’re not a patient at the hospital? Oh…we need a patient number for you. You’ve NEVER been to the hospital?”
Never, I say.
Sacramenta hits my arm. “Eh! True? You never even been to the hospital? You must be real healthy, eh?”
Yeah, I say. I guess I have been. Until this year.
Not having a patient number is apparently an administrative catastrophe, so I sit back down in my plastic chair. Sweat pools at the base of my spine and spills onto the seat.
Sacramenta eventually leaves to get her big mob of breakfast, and the numbers dwindle in the waiting room. Soon it’s just me, elderly vein popper and the skinny guy in the wheelchair who wants a coke from McDonalds. It’s become a stand off – who gets in next?
And that’s when Daisy finally rolls in. She’s intimidating: big strong face, black hair streaked with grey and tied up in a red scrunchie. Her mouth is fixed in a take-no-prisoners straight line. Daisy is flanked by a relative in a colourful sarong, and the pathology assistant meekly opens the door and lets her in. No apologies, no recriminations. No one in the waiting room complains.
No one fucks with Daisy.
Skinny wheelchair guy eventually gets to go to McDonalds, and then I get my bloods done too.
I’m about to walk through the automatic doors when I hear, “Eh!”
It’s Sacramenta. She’s with another doctor this time.
Sacramenta grins at me and grabs the doctor’s arm.
“This girl! Do you know, she’s never even been to the hospital before? True! First time, eh!”
Despite all the waiting and needles and stuffing around, I can’t help but beam back at her. It’s the healthiest I’ve felt in days.