Once, an hour long wait at a hospital would have been an opportunity to exercise the brain, a waiting room would have provided a hundred and one prompts for trains of thought.
There would have been a pile of old magazines, recalling the Punch cartoon from the 1970s where two people are sat in a dentist’s waiting room and one says to the other, “this magazine says a man called Hitler is going to cause trouble.” Waiting room magazines offered recipes for a magical Christmas to people picking them up in June, announced television series that had finished, or boasted exclusive insights into stories long since forgotten.
Once the magazines were complete, there were the health promotion leaflets. It was possible to learn much about illnesses one would never experience, though there could also come the sneaking suspicion that the twinge felt last night could be the harbinger of something serious. One could leave the building with a range of medical conditions of which there had previously been no awareness whatsoever.
All the print material read, there would then be the notices; the temporary ones pinned to a board and the permanent ones fixed to the walls. Mostly announcements of the times of clinics or prohibitions of activities, their content provided little by way of diversion, but they did provide words. In school days, during the interminable Sunday evening services when a fundamentalist Christian preacher would say the same thing in a dozen different ways, the hymnbook would provide words. Not words for singing, but words from which to make other words. The challenge was to open the book, pick a word and see how many words could be made from the letters of that word. “Taste” was always my favourite, providing as it did numerous possible combinations of its letters. Notices in a waiting room would always have always have one long word that might launch a long sequence of shorter ones, or even to provide an anagram.
The reading exhausted, the words exhausted, there would then be patterns to discerned. Hospitals and clinics would often have tiled floors, squares that in the mind’s eye might form all sorts of configurations, that might be the plan of a town or a military fortification. Or there might be patterns in the weave of curtains, or the decor of the walls, or the fabric of the furniture.
Then there would be people to be watched, expressions to be noticed. It was not hard to imagine stories around them, to write them into imaginary plots, to create entire characters around those sitting in an apprehensive wait to be called for their appointment.
Of course, nothing of the sort happened. Sitting and waiting, I took out my iPhone, scanned the news, checked Instagram, looked at the cricket fixtures, did some online maths, logged into my bank account, read some blogs. The hour was quickly past and the imagination had not once been exercised. How will we cope in a post-smartphone age?