The phone rings for some time before the man behind the reception desk picks up the receiver, listens and then says abruptly, "No, they are not ready. We did say ring for your results on Tuesday. Today is Monday."
The other seven men in the waiting room have not been looking at each other. But at this suggestion of nervousness and even stupidity on another man's part, we glance around and allow ourselves half-smirks, before returning our attention to the wall, where a fly wanders in circles and a small digital screen displays the number 37.
“It will require another blood test," the man behind the counter continues. "No, not fasting. No, not a full blood count. You have had that already. That is why the doctor wants to do more tests." There is a pause at this end as the caller replies and the phone bleeps to denote a caller on hold. The man behind the counter moves to finish the conversation:
“I couldn't discuss that - you really would have to speak to the doctor. No, there is a walk-in clinic on Wednesday."
He hangs up. We continue to look at the wall, saying nothing to each other - each of us in our own way unnerved by this call. But before we can ponder it at length, the waiting caller is connected. "Hello. Yes. Can I have your patient number? Thank you, I'll just check." The man goes to his computer screen, scrolls down, then returns to the phone. "Hello?" His voice has dropped an octave and slowed. "Yes, we have your results."
He doesn't say, "I'm afraid we have your results," but the effect, in the room anyway, is similar.
Before the man can continue, the person at the other end interrupts; apparently he is attempting to impose an upbeat denouement on proceedings.
If so, he is not succeeding.
“No, no. I'm afraid not," the man tells him with finality.
“We still need you to come in. Yes, that's right, some results can be discussed over the phone, but on this occasion the doctor would like to speak to you in person." Another pause, then an ominous coda: "You can bring a friend with you if you would like."
Our eyes come down from the fly. Potentially, this sounds like very bad news for someone else, and none of us wants to be in a room where very bad news is routinely delivered. Yet it does also mean that, statistically, our outlook has improved. There is only so much bad news that can be delivered on any given day, so everyone in the room is now less likely to be given bad news.
Legs are stretched out, and one of the pale and sweating men waiting to receive results looks at me and smiles. As he does, the buzzer sounds and the digital display switches to 38. He stops smiling and begins the long walk.