One day last week: it was the kind of clear, still autumn morning that chills you early, but by 9 o’clock when the sun gets going, you have to take your scarf and coat off again.
We were sitting in an otherwise empty waiting room, first to arrive for the morning outpatients clinic in the orthopedic department of the RCH. This was a week or so after Thomas’s fall. Earlier in the morning we had had follow-up x-rays taken, through the plaster cast.
The waiting room had long benches for seating, and running the length of one wall, below the windows, was a shelf holding books and pencils and drawing paper, all neatly stacked and ready for the day’s devastation. A television was playing on another wall and a small sign below it read: Please do not change TV settings. I didn’t change the settings, I just turned it off. Televisions should never be placed in waiting rooms, let alone switched on.
After a while, the face of a tall, happy-faced blond woman, like a private school matriculant twenty years on, which is probably what she was, looked into the waiting room and called: 'Thomas' - giving the name two notes, one for each syllable, as if she were calling him for lunch. Then she disappeared. We guessed room one. We were right.
‘Sorry!’ she laughed. ‘I forgot to say which room, but you found it.’ She turned to Thomas. ‘Hello,’ she smiled. ‘I’m the bone doctor. What happened?’ Thomas told her about falling off the cardboard box on Easter Monday onto the back lawn. Back lawns are hard this year. Thomas had fallen on his bent wrist, over-flexing it.
I have seen this hospital during three separate periods - the third being now, the second when my older children were young in the early eighties and the first when I was a child. The hospital was brand new then. It opened in 1963, an airy, layered rectangle of cream brick and white concrete that rose like a mushroom out of Royal Park and had a curving concrete ambulance entrance off Gatehouse Street that looked like a Jeffrey Smart painting. The hospital replaced the old one in Nicholson Street, a rambling Victorian red-brick affair of dark wards and starched nurses and iron beds. The new building looked south over the city and north over the green tracts of Royal Park and the zoo. In the 1960s I used to gaze out the west windows and watch 727s and DC-9s slanting and dropping, like models, into Essendon airport far on the horizon.
We looked at the x-rays and the bone doctor pointed out the two blurs that were the now-healing cracks in the ulna and the radius, with a further small longitudinal crack up towards the joint. Thomas wasn’t interested in the x-rays and gazed out at the sunny day. The doctor sat back and looked at Thomas thoughtfully and said that we might keep the plaster on an extra week. Just to be sure.
The main entrance of this hospital building was originally reached via a long sloping atrium, like a nave, with floor-to-ceiling glass opening on closed gardens either side. To a child, it was like walking through a cavernous glassed-in pathway in a jungle. Adding to the sunny, optimistic atmosphere was a happy painted mural about the size of a movie screen that hung over the sliding doors at the lower end of the atrium. Later, hospital authorities tired of this architectural indulgence and replaced the entire front section with offices, poky consulting rooms, a chemist shop, a McDonald’s restaurant, play areas and a maze of stairways and ramps. Now, the whole building is cramped and tired and out of date, which is why they are building a new one right next door. And cream brick is so 1960s.
The plaster comes off in three weeks. We walked home all the way, the two boys in their fast stroller. It was that kind of morning. Through Royal Park and then all the way up the bike path. Thomas wanted to get out and run.