Most of the patients were waiting quietly their turn at the consulting room on the first floor. There were people of course that slipped carelessly forward taking advantage from the absentmindedness of those before them. The queue often shook with arguments but sometimes everybody just bowed their heads with resignation as when a fat, obviously quite intoxicated man with a superficial cuts on the belly and swollen nose elbowed his way to the door.
A man in his early twenties was sitting slightly stooped on the bench opposite the emergency room, his palm pressing his chest, his lips twitching nervously. His face was pale and haggard, the eyes darkened with pain. No one paid him any attention, and he paid attention to no one as well, because he had enough problems. He didn’t react when the fat men thrust past him although he wanted to very much. But his ribs hurt so badly that he wasn’t sure if he would be able to inhale enough air to curse him. Maybe a robust curse would have done a good job in this case but he just could not produce one. He felt awful, everything was swimming before his eyes and he wondered if, when his turn came, he would manage to stand up and totter to the cherished door. He was already waiting more than an hour.
At one time a white-haired woman appeared, her arm hanging down, twisted at a sickening angle. She leant on the wall and burst out crying, stopping at nearly ten seconds intervals just to emit a piercing wail. The people at the queue exchanged glances. Someone asked her to stop making noise, because it had been unbearable. The others had been in pain too, but they had been keeping calm. The young man looked up, blinking the dizziness away, and then proposed that she should be let in immediately. A murmur ensued but at the end everyone agreed that her case was of utmost emergency, all the more that no one wanted to listen heartrending shrieks.
Something was rattling along the corridor and the man slowly turned his head. A young woman, dressed in jeans and t-shirt was moving on with great difficulty, propped heavily on the handles of a battered metal wheelchair. Her left foot was dragging along the tiles, obviously unable to support the weight of her body. The man wondered why a hospital attendant hadn’t sat her and wheeled her to the emergency room. It seemed improper to him – injured woman to be left by herself. Due to the agonizing rib pain he felt too weak to even stand, let alone help her. He stared at her face. It looked familiar, though the suffering had made it ten years older. Then memories flashed into his mind.
She stopped her torturous dragging for a moment and stared with her eyes half-closed, apparently unable to recognize the man who had called her by name.
“I am..”, the man started as he rose to his feet, puffing like a locomotive.
The man smiled and nodded.
“I thought you would not recognize me. Me too at first... naturally... we haven’t seen each other... about ten years”, the man uttered, breathing heavily.
“It was a long time ago,” Nina said, then bent her injured leg, giving it some rest.
“Sit here, I can stand for a while.”
“No, no, no problem. I will sit on the wheelchair. Just hold it, please, so it not slips off my hands.
Peter reached out to help her, forgetting for a moment the pain tearing his chest.
“Well, we got together again”, said Peter as he lowered himself cautiously on the bench, accompanying his words with a wry smile.
They knew each other from high school. Although they attended different classes, their mutual sympathy got them in a same circle of friends. They liked each other, were even intimate for nearly a month, before Peter’s father moved to work in a different city, taking his son with him. They carry on a correspondence for a year or two, then their bond grew cold, mainly due to the long distance separating them.
“I’m happy to see you, regardless of the circumstances,” said Nina, staring in awe at the enormous queue.
“How did you get injured?”
“Well... stupid. The taxi I was in stopped at an intersection but I wanted to get off there, intending to save some time, so I paid hastily and jumped out. A car bumper caught me and... I had to take the same taxi to bring me here. You? What happened?”
“I fell from the cherry tree growing in my father’s villa. My chest hurts so I came to be examined. A cracked rib maybe.”
Nina nodded and fixed her gaze on the far end of the corridor where a young mother was convincing her child to stop crying.
“It’s your turn, boy,” one of the waiting people said and waved at Peter. Peter slowly got up on his feet, then moved behind Nina’s wheelchair and started pushing it toward the door.
“Hey, what are you doing?” Nina asked embarrassedly, glancing back over her shoulder. “No way!it’s just not...”
“Shut up! I can wait. Ladies first,” said Peter and gave a wink at Nina.
“Hey boy, this woman came last! Why are you wheeling her in?
“I give my turn to her. Problem?”
“Then you are the last on the queue.”
“So be it.”
Nina blushed and started wringing her hands nervously but made no attempt to object. The doctor admitted her under the boo’s of the crowd.
A couple of minutes later a hospital attendant wheeled her out, handing her a crumpled sheet of paper.
“Is there someone who can take you?” he asked.
“No... I... ,” Nina began as she peeped behind his portly figure, seeking eye contact with Peter.
“What’s going on?” Peter asked.
“Noting. They send me to be X-rayed.”
“Is he going to take you there?” asked the attendant curtly.
“No, he waits in the queue. Could you please... “
“Oh, dear! What is one to do. Though that’s not my job. Come on! Hold tight! Because I accelerate like a sports car.”
Peter was waiting and waiting. But the time seemed to be frozen motionless. He saw Nina being wheeled back in, then, after fifteen minutes, being taken to the adjacent office which door sign read “cast room”. Upon entering she smiled guiltily at him but he was glad that he had done something for her, that he had in some way expressed the feelings smoldering deep into his heart. A fit of coughing shook him, then a sharp pain cut through his chest, and he felt as if being poked with hot pricks. A drop of blood seeped through the corner of his mouth, then another and another, and after that a thin trickle trailed down his chin. The trickle quickly turned into a steady stream. Black shroud clouded his vision.
When they were preparing him for surgery, he regained consciousness for a moment, just to hear someone say:
“A fractured rib has perforated his lungs.”
Her eyes glued to the floor, Nina steered toward the corridor, leaning heavily on the wooden crutches she had been given. Just when she lifted her head to look for Peter, her mother, brother and sister rushed at her, eagerly showering her with questions to which she was barely managing to answer.
“No, nothing’s broken. It’s just sprained, my ankle. Don’t worry, I will be all right. No, it doesn’t hurt much. Yes, the other option was without cast, but the doctor put me in plaster, said that’s better.” Nina looked round but didn’t see Peter. She thought he was being examined at this instant and decided to wait for him. She wanted to know how he was, and to thank him, of course.
“To wait someone?” Nina’s mother cried out indignantly. “Who? Peter? I don’t remember this guy. You know him from high school? Well, I can’t remember, it has been a long time ago. Very nice of him to help you, but you just can not wait, in your condition. You can call him tomorrow to thank him. Enough on that. You have enough problems so stop thinking about other people’s. Besides, your father has parked wrong and we have to hurry up. Come on, sweetie!”
Her brother and sister took her under the armpits, pulling the crutches aside, then cautiously sat her on a wheelchair.
“Fie! So gross! Here they do not even bother to clean!” Nina’s mother murmured, pointing at the pool of blood on the floor.
Nina was thinking about Peter, while being transferred onto the back seat of her father’s Volkswagen. He was fine, she believed. Cracked rib, he will get over it in no time. But I have to call him and thank him for what he did. I owe him that much. But do I have his number? I’m not sure. We didn’t have mobiles and emails back then, and the homephone number... belongs to his former apartment. Never mind. Such is life.