Anna pushed open the door and stepped into the waiting room. The buzz and chatter died down while those assembled inside turned their heads towards her, the newcomer. Their curiosity satisfied, they resumed their mumblings and moaning, and Anna was able to creep to an empty seat, where she shrunk down, hugging her knees to her body, trying to become invisible.
She hadn’t wanted to come. Somehow it was like admitting defeat to come here, to wait in this room, hoping. She looked around her and wondered if she looked like the other people: they had a sort of desperate air about them, as if they had nothing to lose.
In the corner an old lady sat, mumbling to herself. Her head was nodding, like one of those plastic dogs people used to put in the back of their cars. Anna watched, fascinated, while the old lady’s head nodded around all the way to the right, until she was staring at the wall. The head paused, then began the journey back again, nod, nod, nod, all the way. Anna caught the lady’s eye on the return journey, and smiled, in what she hoped was a reassuring way but the woman just stared right through her with barely a pause in the nodding.
The chair next to Anna was unoccupied, but there was a newspaper lying across it. Anna reached out a hand to move the newspaper and a man in a chair on the other side of it frowned at her.
“Do you mind?” he said, in a voice that showed he minded very much, “I am reading that.” Anna pulled her hand back.
At the far end of the room a door opened and a woman in a white coat came through, carrying a clipboard. She looked around the waiting room and called loudly, “Mrs Pierce?”
Opposite Anna a lady stood up. Anna could tell from her clothes that she was quite wealthy, and she moved with an air of disdain, as though everyone else in the room were beneath her. Anna wondered what she was doing there: she did not look as if she belonged.
The designer clothes were swallowed up by the door and the room sunk into torpor again. A small baby mewled and its mother tried to hush it but the baby cried even louder and the mother looked around the room, apologizing silently for the disturbance. An older girl took some toys from a chest and banged them noisily on the floor. A couple of women deep in conversation looked over at the toddler and frowned, then resumed their discussion.
Anna wanted to jump up and scream, she was so nervous, but she knew she should not. Maybe, if she were lucky…. She wondered how the lady with the fancy clothes was getting on behind the closed door. People with money always got what they wanted, but maybe money did not count here. Anna watched a young boy of about her own age sitting with his mother who was fussing about his appearance. She fixed his collar, wiped some flecks off his jacket, then produced a comb and tried to comb his hair; the boy pushed her away irritably.
Anna hugged her knees again and stared at the clock on the wall. The jerky movements of the thinnest hand marked out the passage of seconds that stretched into minutes. Anna was able to shut out the murmurings of the waiting room as she focused on the moving pointer. Tick, tick, tick. It seemed an eternity. Nod, nod, nod; in the corner the old lady’s head moved in time to the clock.
The door at the far end of the room opened again, and this time it was the young boy’s turn. His mother followed him to the door, straightening his clothes all the way.
“I’m sorry, but you can’t come in,” said the woman in the white coat. The boy’s mother looked as if she would have a fit on the spot.
“But I’m his mother,” she spluttered, “I have to be there!”
“I’m sorry,” clipboard lady repeated, “but it’s not allowed.” She turned, propelling the boy before her and shut the door, leaving the boy’s mother gaping.
Rejected, the mother shut her mouth and looked around the waiting room, as if looking for somebody to blame. Her eyes settled on the young mother, who had just succeeded in getting her baby to sleep.
“Don’t think you’ll be allowed in, just because your children are babies,” hissed the boy’s mother. The little girl, who had been playing with the pots from the toy chest looked up indignantly.
“I’m not a baby,” she said loudly. The real baby woke up and began to cry. Its mother hushed it and looked daggers at the other woman.
Anna wondered if it would be better to have somebody with you. At least they would be a comforting presence. Still, the boy can’t have had too many problems as the clipboard lady was back again, this time taking one of the talking ladies with her. The hubbub that had started up when the baby cried died down now that the remaining gossiper had nobody left to talk to. The clock ticked, the old woman nodded and Mr Newspaper Man folded and unfolded his paper, hitting it occasionally to keep it straight, all the time making sure that some pages were left on the chairs at each side of him, warding off strangers.
A young lady entered the waiting room and once again the noise died down, while the occupants appraised the new arrival. She looked nervous and avoided looking anybody in the eye. This meant she did not get a seat, as Mr Newspaper Man did not offer to remove his papers and there were no other seats left. Anna wondered whether she should give up her seat, then decided everybody would look at her if she did and she would die of shame, so she wrapped her hands even more tightly around her knees and tried again to become invisible.
Anna must have dozed off, for she jumped when she heard her name being called.
“Annabella,” the lady with the clipboard repeated it, louder.
Anna uncoiled herself and stood up. Mr Newspaper Man was gone, and Timid Lady was sitting in one of the vacated chairs. The only other person still in the room was the nodding crone, still keeping time with the clock.
Anna followed the lady with the clipboard down a long dark passageway until they came to a large well lit room with a long table down the centre. On one side of the table were four people, three men and a lady, all wearing identical white coats while on the other side was a single chair. Anna was directed to this chair and told to sit down. “Why are you here?” asked one of the men in the white coats.
Anna took a deep breath to study her nerves then spoke.
“I want to be an angel,” she said. “I drowned in my Dad’s swimming pool and the person who brought me here said I could have one wish before I move into the eternity room.” She looked down at her feet and spoke very quietly. “I want to become a guardian angel and look after my little brother so that my mother doesn’t lose him too: she thinks it’s her fault that I am here, because she let me go to my Dad’s house, but it’s really my fault. I didn’t listen when Dad told me not to dive in the shallow end, then I hit my head and everything went black.”
The three men scribbled on paper in front of them. The lady just stared at Anna, without any emotion on her face. Anna waited to hear the verdict, but could not take her eyes off the lady’s face. She stared and stared, as if trying to bore a hole through Anna’s eyes. Anna squirmed and tried to hug her legs again but could not move her arms. She felt as if a great weight were bearing down on her, crushing her mind.
“I’m sorry!” shouted Anna, “I didn’t mean to!”
She hugged her knees, rolled into a ball and rocked herself, trying to avoid the penetrating stare. Her head hurt, and she could hardly breathe. The three men finished writing and tapped their pencils on the table. Tap, tap, tap, louder and louder, until it became a pounding that reverberated through her chest. Anna wished desperately that one of them would say something, anything.
She felt herself slide off the chair, and the room swam before her eyes. Now the three men were staring at her and the lady was holding the pencil, only it was not a pencil, it was a light, and she was shining it in Anna’s eyes.
Anna blinked and the men began to speak excitedly. She could not understand what they were saying, but she could recognise one of the voices. It was her father’s.
“It’s a miracle,” he said, “she’s alive!”