HOSPITAL TEA ROOM

Mrs Lewis met Mrs Roberts at the tea room nestled in a corner of the hospital foyer.

“Hello Gillian my dear,” Mrs Lewis leaned forward to air kiss her companion before settling into the spindly metal chair that grated harshly on the tiled floor as she pulled herself closer to the tiny table. “A happier New Year to you.” She rummaged in her capacious leather bag to find her reading glasses. Once they were settled on her nose, she peered below the level of the table at the moon boot on her companion’s left foot. “Is your foot almost better now?”

“Not really.” Mrs Roberts halted ostentatiously at the arrival of the waitress. Both women placed their order and then she launched into a long description of her recent foot operation. “They say it could be another six to eight weeks before I can try walking without this monstrosity.” She pointed to the grey moon boot protruding from her long floral skirt.

“You know,” Mrs Lewis replaced her tea cup on the saucer and dug into her bag again to retrieve her cell phone. “Oh!” She smiled and turned the phone towards her companion. “See the blue light flashing in the corner? That means I have a message.”

Mrs Roberts waited with an expectant look on her face and then resumed breaking sections off the over-large muffin and spearing them with her fork. She dipped each piece into the pot of strawberry jam first and then tried to scoop up as much cream as she could. It was a messy business which she repeated several times before saying a little crossly, “What am I supposed to know Beth?”

Mrs Lewis looked up from her phone vaguely at first and then her lined face broke into a smile. She dipped into her bag again. This time it was to retrieve a tube of lipstick which she reapplied while looking at the tiny mirror tucked into the flap of her bag.

“How am I supposed to know what you should know?” She sounded puzzled.

“Before you became absorbed in that phone of yours, you said to me ‘you know’, clearly implying that you were about to impart some important knowledge –.”

“Oh don’t get cross my dear.” Mrs Lewis sipped her tea and wiped the fresh lipstick mark off her cup with her thumb. “I was just going to say that I no longer worry about what people think of me.” She nodded towards the offending moon boot then sipped at her tea again. “At our age I reckon people must put up with the way we look – as long as we are comfortable.”

“I agree.” Mrs Roberts dabbed at her mouth with the tiny paper serviette she’d tucked under her saucer. “It won’t be too long now. I know I ought to be more patient –“. She allowed her voice to trail away, having realised that her companion’s attention was again focused on her cell phone.

Mrs Lewis caught her eye. “I’m just sending an SMS. It’s nearly finished. One more ‘r’ and then it’s done.”

“SMS? My granddaughter says no-one really uses those anymore. She’s got me onto WhatsApp. Really Beth, you should download it. The wonderful thing about it is sharing pictures. You would be able to get pictures of your Australian grandchildren in the wink of an eye.”

Just then their attention was drawn to the arrival of a young woman who settled at the table next to them, a cell phone already glued to her ear. “Hello Uncle Neil, this is Rina speaking. How are you keeping?” She cast her eye over the proffered menu while she listened to the response and pointed to what she wanted. As the waitress left, the young woman held her phone a little distance from her ear, biting her lip as she did so. The two elderly women stared at her unashamedly as she pulled an iPad from her small cloth shoulder-bag.

“I’m so glad everything is fine.” She smiled at the table. “Tell me Uncle Neil, you wouldn’t by any chance know of anyone who has a grader for hire?” She began tapping at the keyboard of her iPad as she listened.

“No Uncle Neil, a front-end loader won’t do. It’s a grader I want.” She continued tapping on her keyboard, but held the phone closer to her ear.

“In Cradock? Gosh Uncle Neil, that’s quite far!” She nodded to the waitress and poured her tea.

“No, Kevin wants to grade the roads on his farm.” The young woman sipped at her tea as she listened, then she drew the iPad closer, her fingers poised above the surface.

“Thanks Uncle Neil! Can you give me his number?”

Mrs Lewis raised her eyebrows at her companion over the rim of her tea cup. “The youngsters of today, Gillian. Just look at that, completely immersed in technology. Not a pencil or paper in sight!”

Mrs Roberts seemed to choke on the last of her tea. She blew her nose loudly and apologised. “It’s been good to see you Beth. I appreciate you coming to the hospital to meet me.” She glanced at the man’s wristwatch hanging loosely from her wrinkled arm. “The bus from the Old Age Home only comes when the last patient is finished. That’ll be Mrs Armstrong today. She’s gone in for a bone density scan and a mammogram! You’d think such things don’t matter at our age anymore, but Sister Becker insists on it. She keeps all our records up to date and –“.

“I’m such a hoarder you know Gillian,” Mrs. Lewis twisted the rings on her fingers. “I’ve always kept my receipts and have been even more careful since Jay passed on.” She delicately dabbed at the corner of her eye – that had been seven years ago, after all. “The other day this lass came in to check my investments and told me I was R10 000 short!”

“Oh Beth, how awful!”

“I said all the paperwork is there. If she finds it she can have it.”

“Beth! How can you say such a thing?”

“I get so bored sitting in my flat. I just need to get out so it was good for me to come and see you.”

“At least you are surrounded by your own things. At the Home all I have really is a photograph of John and a few precious ornaments. I’m reduced to living in a bedroom these days.” Mrs Roberts scanned the faces of people emerging from the hospital and walking towards the automated glass doors that led outside. “Mrs Armstrong will be here soon. Perhaps we should get the bill?”

Mrs Lewis continued as if she hadn’t heard. “I’ve polished all the silver and brass – that’s such boring and mundane work. This is such a big flat for me. That’s the problem about growing old. I’m strong, not as lonely as you might think, but I get restless.”

“There’s Mrs Armstrong! Dear Beth, that means the bus will be on its way. She was going to phone the driver. Oh, where is our waitress? I can’t remember how much I must pay.” Mrs. Roberts started taking coins from her worn purse.

“I’ve just got to get out sometimes.” Mrs Lewis looked into her friend’s eyes and stretched her hand across the table. “Put that money away my dear. The treat’s on me today.” Her lined face broke into a cheerful smile. “Really, it will make me feel very happy.”

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