I’m here because I’ve been stabbed. That’s what I should have said. But, no, I chose the truthful path as I stood in front of the nurse and her glass security panel.

“I had an operation on my stomach here a few weeks ago. I’m bleeding from the wound. A little.”

“Is it in a spot where I can take a look?”

It was. Just.

“Hmm,” she said, looking at the purple blobs. “Put one of these on it.” She handed me some hospital gauze and I ripped open the pack. “And take a seat. Keep pressure on the wound. And, oh, I need to warn you: it could be a long wait.”

Before I limped to my plastic blue seat, the nurse explained why the wait would be especially long: I’d come in after eight at night. Rookie error. The number of doctors working behind the heavy automatic doors had, as a result, fallen from eight to three. Great, I thought. Could be a couple of hours.

I settled in to read Grahame Greene’s The Quiet American. I’d been reading a lot during my post-surgery, morphine-hazed recovery. My surgery had gone well, but then I’d got a hematoma (a localised blood clot) in the wound. It had blown up, caused horror-movie pain, landed me back in hospital, and then back home with said morphine.

And now I was in emergency again, with bleeding I didn’t understand, that my GP when I phoned her said shouldn’t be happening, and I was unable to read properly because I needed to keep one hand pressurising the wound while the other held the book. Then there was the distraction of the TV playing a US blockbuster inanity. And the strangers trickling into the emergency waiting room. Which made the Vietnam described in The Quiet American seem as relaxing as a spa retreat.

First came the homeless guy in a fishing jacket who stood in front of the TV and turned it up. It was thump-bucket loud before, but now it was a Marshall stack. The guards arrived and offered him directions to the door. He took them after a few gabbled remarks about his normal routine being interrupted. I experienced my usual wave of hopelessness about where the hell he and others like him would sleep tonight. But the fact was, still in a bit of pain and bleeding like a squeezed cherry, I wouldn’t be much help to him.

Then came the drug-addled woman with brutally short black hair and tree trunk legs. She told the nurses to get fucked, everyone in the waiting room to get fucked, and her ex- and whomever was associated with her ex- to get fucked. The guards didn’t come. There were kids around. Families. She sat in the front row of seats and occasionally chanted threats at passing nurses and patients, then at numerous unnamed enemies on the ceiling. Eventually, she gave up waiting for whatever emergency she needed help with, went outside, had a smoke, and disappeared. And when she did, I had my usual ‘why didn’t I go up and say something to her, ask if she was all right’ guilt trip. Again, I looked at the cherry stains and gave myself an excuse.

The next guest was more entertaining. She blustered in wearing a massive white skirt, her hair in ponytails and carrying an acoustic guitar strapped to her back. She loudly told the charge nurse she was hearing voices, they weren’t speaking nicely, either, and it happened from time to time. They should call her mother in Queensland.

“Anyone else that could be called?” the nurse asked, and the woman named someone who might have been a housemate or a bus driver.

The minstrel guided by voices sat in the front row. She strummed her guitar. She spoke loudly to the elderly couple next to her about the various problems Aboriginal people faced. She was as white as her skirt, but her politics were sound. She tired of them though and put her guitar down. She stood in front of the emergency crowd and sang ‘Strangers in the Night’ poorly at top volume. A hipster guy with a broken hand and his girlfriend smiled. The rest of us stared blankly. Our minstrel was soon ushered towards the doctors through those heavy automatic doors.

A middle-aged woman in a rain jacket, after numerous trips to the charge nurse, had finally got her elderly mother, who’d been experiencing heart trouble, through the doors. The guy with the broken hand got through. Another elderly woman and her husband – I couldn’t tell who was the sick one – got through. I’d been up to the nurse a couple of times to get a new gauze so I decided to do it again. See if going up did actually slice your wait time.

I’d been waiting two and a half hours.

“I’m sorry,” the nurse said. “We’re really busy tonight.”

I’d seen the ambulances come in. People were taken out of them and wheeled into the wards behind the nurse’s station. They didn’t even have to go through the swinging saloon doors. I went back to my seat. I was bleeding, in a bit of pain, unsure what was happening, starting to panic, getting pretty tired – and I’d run out of money to buy chips or a packet of M&Ms. I hadn’t brought my credit card with me. But I wasn’t in half the trouble of the minstrel, homeless guy, drug-addled woman or the others I’d seen enter, whose families sweated and cried.

I couldn’t read or watch the TV so I watched a family. If they’d been wearing hipster clothes or something from South Yarra, I wouldn’t have noticed them. That’s not entirely true – their second child spent most of the night crying. And the dad had to keep rocking the kid or pushing her up and down in the stroller. He was lean with neck tattoos and a black Adidas sweat top. The mum was overweight, bottle blonde, wearing leopard skin pants and suffering from an unknown illness. The other child, a girl, was about eight and talked all the time about nothing in particular, when she wasn’t colouring in or watching the inappropriate Hollywood blockbuster. I noticed them because, locked into the stereotype, I expected they’d soon start up a loud, expletive-driven and perhaps drug-fuelled fight. Or one parent would burst out crying and leave. Or they’d start swearing at their kids and whack them.

I’d been up to the nurse a couple of times to get a new gauze so I decided to do it again. See if going up did actually slice your wait time.

I sat there bleeding and waiting. It was going to happen. They had been here longer than me. But the only time they’d gone to the counter was to get the baby’s bottle warmed up. Neither of them had raised their voices at the kids. They had a lot of pressure on them; the kids were agitated and tired. But they didn’t get angry at each other. They just went about being a family as best they could. But I wondered why they were all here. Only the mum was sick. Then I overheard. They’d been out at the time she got sick, they didn’t have a car, the trains were too far to walk the kids to, and they could only afford one taxi. So they waited.

I’d spent the five bucks I’d brought on junk food. Maybe it would have helped. Why hadn’t I brought more money? Why couldn’t I get the words that I wanted to say to these parents out of my mouth? You’re doing a brilliant job. I sit here complaining about my bleeding and my little bit of pain. It will be gone, hopefully soon, and I will go back to my life in which I can get a taxi any time I want.

The woman in leopard skin got in and her family got their taxi. I watched them enter the automatic doors together and come out again about an hour later. Others entered the emergency waiting room. They got through the doors before me. I had to go back up to the counter. I needed sleep. I’d been waiting five hours. I went and told the nurse how long I’d been on the plastic seats. I told her if I wasn’t going to get looked at tonight I needed to go home, get some sleep, and return to my spot at their deli again tomorrow morning. She managed a smile.

“I’m sorry it’s been so long. I’ll see what’s going on.”

I was through the doors five minutes later, on an emergency ward maxi chair being told there wasn’t much they could do about the bleeding. I just needed to keep pressure on it and hopefully it would go away.

“Sometimes hematomas bleed. It’s rare. But they do it.”

Next to me, curtains around her, the minstrel was singing. I didn’t know the song, but it wasn’t a lullaby. I wanted out, and I wanted out now.

I left with a referral to see my GP. Still in a bit of pain, limping, but thankful the night was over. I went to the free taxi phone and lifted the receiver. A recorded voice said a taxi would automatically arrive. I planned to get some money or my credit card out of the house when I got home. But no taxi came. I added a fifteen-minute wait to my five hours, but still no taxi. I walked home bleeding, feeling that, in a strange way, I had been stabbed after all.

Paul Mitchell has published three books of poetry and a short fiction collection. He has a novel coming out through Midnight Sun Publishing in 2016.

Photo by Juan Martínez-Almeida (via Flickr)