The door closed with a dull thud, muffled by the thick blanket of snow which had appeared overnight. A single set of large footprints violated the virgin snow on the footpath. Ahead of me I saw the culprit; a portly lady in tight yellow overall and large black boots trudging slowly up the slope, dragging a new snow shovel. Catching up, I read “BEAB” written in black across her shoulders. I didn’t stop, just hurried past her to catch my train.
It was early morning, the day after Boxing Day, quiet, few people around. On the platform they huddled in small groups to keep warm. The train was late, but still welcome. I screwed in my phones and wound up the volume. Deborah Coleman pumped out “Confused” to drown the rattle of the old carriages.
The city streets were icy. I was in a hurry to get to the hospital in time for my early appointment. “Mustn’t be late, mustn’t be late” echoed inside my head. It was my first visit and I took the wrong entrance, had to retrace my steps. Standing in the reception queue I noticed a discreet little sign: “Patients to X-ray Department proceed directly to waiting room B”. Room B? A trail of arrows guided me along anonymous corridors and through identical doors until I eventually found room B, deep in the bowels of the building.
A thin, nervous man with ruddy face and short crewcut was the only occupant. He noisily shuffled through a thick bunch of papers, as though trying to memorize their contents. The only other sound came from the clock on the wall. An outsize pair of black earphones lay on the low table in front of him. Suddenly a large metal door set into the wall was flung open and a top-heavy young woman in blue smock and white trousers called out “McNab!” The man jumped up from his chair, dropping his sheaf of papers in the process. He gathered them up desperately, like children on a treasure hunt, grabbed his coat and earphones and followed the nurse into the treatment room. Through the open door I could see a narrow bed protected by a sheet of paper. A large beige-coloured metal box hung from the ceiling, directly over the bed. Then the door slammed shut on my inquisitiveness.
I was thinking about a double espresso at the coffee bar across the road on my way home, when a bright “Good morning John, this way” brought me back to the present. The nurse directed me along the corridor with a friendly smile. Chanting instructions she ushered me into a room behind the standard metal door. It happened so quickly I hardly had time to look around: “coat on the chair, don’t need to take anything else off, glasses on the shelf, lie down here on your back, head on the headrest.”
To win time I complied in slow motion, taking in everything in the room. The centrepiece was a narrow bench covered with a sheet from a roll of thick off-white paper. At the far end of the bench there was a flesh-coloured canopy marking the entrance to a dark tunnel-like blackness. I hesitated, but the nurse took command: “Lie down here with your head on the headrest.” I did as I was told. “Now don’t move, I’m just adjusting your pillow. Keep absolutely still.” I blinked “OK”, and automatically felt my muscles tense and breathing become shallower. “It will go in twice” was her parting message before I heard the heavy door close with a metallic clang.
It was peculiarly quiet as I lay there with my head under the canopy, eyes wide open. I stared at the broad, shiny, black screen which ran all the way round the inside of the canopy. A pulsating green light, like a narrow laser, targeted my forehead. The surging sound of a machine starting up got louder and louder. The compact blackness of the screen was interrupted by thin silver lines like the sky at night, illuminated by shooting stars. The pitch of the accelerator increased and the shooting stars moved too fast to see. Eyelids stuck wide-open, chest hardly rising, my lungs went into standby, I felt the bench jerk and gradually feed me head-first into the dark tunnel. A heavy weight was pressing down on my chest, holding me down, like an elephant sitting there. I couldn’t move, panicked, fighting to get out but my arms were locked. Tried kicking out with my legs, but they wouldn’t budge. The walls me on all sides were dark blood-red, throbbing in tune with the machine. Everything went black.
Somebody was shaking my arm. “It’s all over now. Fell asleep in there did you?” It was the nurse helping me onto my feet. My head was spinning. The only thought in my head was; I must get out of here. Eventually the trusted green arrows guided me through a long corridor, down unfamiliar stairs, past many anonymous doors before allowing me to escape into the fresh air. It was not the same building.
I staggered into the nearby park, found a bench and sat down, ignoring the snow. Deep breaths and arms wrapped around me to stop the shivering. Below there was a skating rink, ice glistening in the early morning sunshine. A man dressed all in black was showing off his prowess on hockey blades. Faster and faster he went in wider and wider circles around a little boy who stood there, unmoving, in the centre of the rink. It was hypnotic. Suddenly the man broke his circle and drove right at the boy, before braking in front of him in a shower of ice. The boy flinched.
It was time to leave. I made my way slowly through the park, towards the station. On the train home Bob Dylan sang: “It’s not dark yet, but it’s getting there.”