At the counter, I am second in line behind a woman who is arguing with the receptionist.
‘My appointment was for one o’clock and now it is half past two. I can see the doctor straight away please.’
‘You just arrive, madam.’
‘It is half past two, I can see the doctor please.’
‘You just arrive, madam. You suppose to come at one.’
In the four years since I arrived in Abu Dhabi I have worked my way through such queues fuelled by incredulity, then by outrage, then by fascination, but it is simply part of the landscape now. When it comes to time and queues I no longer expect to understand or be understood. As long as it’s not my doctor she thinks she has come to see.
Another receptionist comes to the counter, begins the conversation again, this time in Arabic. I have never heard a woman from the Philippines speaking Arabic before. I imagine the conversation will be as circular in Arabic as it was in English.
The first receptionist looks at me and, without asking my name, ticks me off the list.
‘You are number four, madam.’ I am early and the doctor is running late.
The argument goes on, but I turn my back.
I am the oldest woman in the crowded waiting room. The woman in the seat just inside the door might be older than I am, but she has come to sit with her daughter, a young woman in a patterned abaya, smooth skin, her eyelids painted grey. The young woman’s hair covering is looser than her mother’s and she lifts it lightly with one hand (without letting go of her over-blinged phone). With the other, she pulls softly at her hair, brushing her fringe from her eyes, and then (still without letting go of her phone) she drops both her hands, resting them gently on the place where her growing baby’s legs might have settled. The only woman who might be older than me will soon be a grandmother. She will be a grandmother and she might not be older than me.
I sit between one woman waiting on her own, and another with three children – one in the pram, one in her arms and one climbing over the seats. If I spoke Arabic I would offer to read a book to the climbing child. I would ask him to sit on my lap, or rest against me, or just sit in the seat by mine and I would read. But he does not speak English, I do not speak Arabic and anyway, there are no children’s books in my bag. No books, no coloured pens, and no sultanas. I did not know to mark the day I removed the last piece of lego, the last pokemon card from my bag. It passed by unnoticed. The most remarkable of life’s changes happen piece by unremarkable piece.
I smile at the woman’s baby and then at the woman herself. She looks down at her baby, and she smiles, but not at me. Perhaps she did not see my smile.
My clothes are not immodest, but I am the only one with the skin of her arms and legs exposed. I want to say that my green shirt stands out amongst the black abayas of Syrian women and the muted overcoats of women from Palestine, but in all likelihood, I am the only person who has noticed my green shirt. Four years is long enough to know that I have more questions about their robes and veils than they have about my uncovered skin and hair. I am not as fascinating to other people as I think I am.
The television plays Bugs Bunny dubbed in Arabic. Daffy Duck and Elmer Fudd. Waiting room televisions are always too loud, and they never help to pass the time.
The woman next to me holds a book so small that it fits in the palm of her hand. Its pages are aerogramme thin and their gentle crinkle as she turns them make me think of the Methodist hymn book from which my mother sang. She sang the longest and loudest when her atheism was strongest. It’s not for me to understand.
The book that I have brought is a hardbound text with thick pages and no poetry. My exams do not begin until next week and I should still have time for this and four other texts.
But I have not factored in an unexpected pregnancy and its ensuing complications.
This book, Biological Psychology (Kalat, 2009) has become an odd memento of my back and forths. Scribbles in the front tell me my appointment times, hCG readings, likely dates. A post-it bookmark reminds me of the day (last week) that I was 43 years 297 days. I copied those numbers from one of the orders the doctor wrote for the lab or perhaps the pharmacy. I have never seen myself described in such a way. I like that it is so precise, but so quickly wrong. It seems somehow to suit the whole experience.
Chapter Nine. Wakefulness and Sleep. I read and underline, babies cry, phones ring, time passes.
The receptionist leaves her seat to stand in front of the desk and call in Tagalog-inflected English, ‘Ladies only, please. This waiting room is ladies only. Gentlemen outside.’ On other days, I have seen men ignore her, but today they leave. Through the open doors and the uncurtained windows, I watch them settle into the rows of seats which line the corridor.
Another woman joins our row of seats. She carries a cardboard cup of chain store coffee. I take a breath in and as I breathe, I will the smell to leave me queasy. Last week it might have done so, this week nothing.
I drop my eyes back to the pages of book, and find my place by looking for the last sentence I have underlined. “Note that acetylcholine is important for both wakefulness and REM sleep, states of brain arousal. Serotonin and norepinephrine interrupt REM sleep.” It can only be minutes since I underlined it, but I have no memory of even having read it.
A Western expat woman (younger) takes a seat across from me. She has been speaking into her phone about a meeting she can’t get to this afternoon, but she is good for tomorrow morning. She wears a pencil skirt, white shirt, heels. No wedding ring. You can make an appointment without showing your marriage certificate and you can get pre-natal care, but it’s illegal for unmarried women to give birth here. That’s what the expat forums say, but I don’t know the truth of things. Anyway, I am married and do not wear a wedding ring. I smile, but she looks down at her phone. Perhaps she did not see my smile.
“Mrs Tracy. Tracy Crisp.” It takes two calls before I recognise my name.
The receiving room is one small room divided into two by a curtain. A baby’s galloping heartbeat plays from behind the curtain. Ga-whoomp, ga-whoomp, ga-whoomp. I have read that you can buy a Doppler device and take it home so if you wanted to, you could listen to your baby’s heartbeat every night.
I stand on the scales, and the nurse looks at the readout, but before she can record my weight a man walks in and speaks.
‘When is my wife? Show me the sheet.’
‘Sir, you will need to ask reception.’
‘Show me the sheet.‘
The nurse shrugs, shows him something and repeats, ‘Ask reception, sir.’
From behind the curtain I can still hear the baby’s heartbeat but I have not heard anyone speak. I look, as surreptitiously as I can, under the curtain for a nurse’s feet. There is nothing there, just the wheels of a trolley, the legs of a chair. And the sound of a baby’s heartbeat. I was left alone with my first baby’s heartbeat, and when the midwife came back she brought a doctor who cleared her throat before she spoke.
The nurse who is with me now looks at the scales again and calls to the nurse behind the computer, ‘One hundred and twenty.’
‘That’s not right. I’m about fifty five.’
‘Oh, sorry, madam, that is pounds.’ She flicks a switch on the scales. ‘Fifty five.’
There is some confusion about where I should be next. One nurse tells me to sit, another tells me to go for blood tests, the receptionist tells me to knock on the doctor’s door. I stand outside the doctor’s waiting room leaning against the wall.
A young woman, the youngest I’ve seen I’m sure, comes out of the next room and speaks in Arabic to the man who is waiting for her. I do not speak Arabic, but her smile is wide, and his voice is high.
I try to think generous thoughts, but only because I am seeking karmic reward. Most of me is thinking, ‘Why you and why not me?’ I tell myself that they must be expecting a boy, that this man would not punch the air for a girl. I try to stop myself before my fears breed further contempt.
My doctor is ready now. He smiles and I wish (again) that a kind and gentle doctor is all it takes. I have barely taken my seat before I say, ‘There is blood. Yesterday I started to bleed.’
He nods and his smile is gone. ‘Did you start taking the progesterone?’
‘You are British?’ he had asked the last time I was here and told him of my spotting, very light, less than I had seen in my other pregnancies, but spotting nonetheless. When I had said, ‘Australian’ he responded, ‘More British than American. For better or for worse, we follow American models here and if there are drugs available well, then…’
He had run through the risks and side effects and been quite clear that if it did make any difference, I would be the exception rather than the rule. He says, ‘I know that you are educated. I know that you understand.’
I am neither British nor American. I am 43 years and several hundred days old. My partner’s sperm are shonky. For nine years I have longed for another child. Yes, I started taking the progesterone.
‘You need a blood test. If your hCG levels have fallen, you must stop the progesterone.’
The man at the blood test desk remembers me. I am the woman rich enough to lose my health care card. I pay in advance, handing him hundred dirham notes, taking the receipt. ‘Are you sure you cannot find your card, madam?’ He always asks and I always shake my head.
The ladies waiting area is quiet, almost empty, just one woman, but she is sprawled in the seat where I usually sit. She wears a gold leather mask that covers her mouth and her eyes. Only women older than me wear that mask. She has kicked off her scuffed black shoes, and sits in one chair, her legs stretched across another. Her arms are folded, her chin is resting on her chest and her shoulders are lifting up and down. Her snores are only slightly louder than breaths. There is a hole in the toe of her stocking and hers are the first unpolished toenails (besides my own) that I have seen in many years.
I barely have time to find my place in my book when my name is called.
‘I had you last time,’ I say to the blood nurse. ‘You did a lovely job, it didn’t hurt.’
She smiles, but she doesn’t speak. She pulls rubber gloves from a box on the wall, snaps them on to her hands and then she is using her fingers to rub at the crooks of my arms, right first then left. She shakes her head at the bruise in my left arm.
I clench my fist when she tells me to and I remind myself not to hold my breath as she pumps at the band around my arm. I do not always, but today I watch the needle go in, the syringe start to fill. The thinness of blood always surprises me. It should be less like water and more like full cream milk I think.
Plastic, metal, rubber, skin. The clinical and the visceral.
The nurse uses her thumb to smooth the sticking plaster down ‘Press down for five minutes,’ she says. ‘You did not hold it long enough last time.’
She looks at her sheet, then she speaks again. ‘The doctor will have your results in half an hour.’ Half an hour is optimistic. I have at least another hour to pretend I have a place in the waiting room.
I press at the sticking plaster. My arm has pins and needles.