Looking back, just over a year later, I can still remember it with amazing clarity. It is cold today – as it was on that day, a week after Valentine’s. I am cosy beside a glowing coal fire as I write.
It was freezing outside: the dashboard had displayed a chilly 1oc, when I started the car up in order to deliver my daughter to the childminder. It was clear and dry, with no frost to scrape off the car windows. I was fasting again, so there would be no tea to warm me up until after the ultrasound scan. At least it was a morning appointment today, so I wasn’t as hungry as I had been the week before. But once more, I hadn’t slept well; all week my rest had been punctuated with strange dreams and waking fits. One night I’d even got out of bed, sleepwalking to the end of the bedroom to examine the curtains, where a thin beam of light from the street lamp outside was illuminating a microcosmic universe of dust particles in the still air. The cold had slowly brought me to my senses, and I’d stood there for a while passing my hand through the shaft of light, feeling uncertain of my location in time and space, before falling semi-consciously back into bed. I wasn’t worried about the scan – my problem was not of the liver and spleen. I’d been thinking about the hospital receptionist all week, cursing my failure to take the opportunity to ask her out the week before. In the small hours of the night I turned over different approaches, imagined the scene when I entered the reception area. There might not be much time to talk, or the waiting area could be full of people. I had to be prepared for these eventualities, and make the most of any opportunity that presented itself.
I was so lost in thought as I walked along the Ormeau Road towards town, that I missed my usual turn-off at Rugby Avenue, and only realised my error when I was at University Avenue. I turned accordingly, and took this less-travelled route, realising as I did so that I hadn’t walked this way for years. The change of scenery was refreshing; it brought back a few pleasant memories from my student days. Towards the top of the avenue, on the right, stood the church: a large, white-painted building, with a small, blue-roofed bell-tower and a garden courtyard beside it. It wouldn’t have looked out of place in Boston. A bronze plaque above the door identified it as the First Church of Christ Scientist, Belfast. When I lived up here in First Year, I loved the fact that they had electronic bells – like those ‘Big Ben’ door chimes – rather than metal ones; it seemed to suit the ‘scientific’ idea. The place was for sale; there were large estate agent’s boards above the main door. I wondered idly what had happened to the congregation; had they just died off, refusing medical care and futilely praying for a cure to their ills? Undesired, George Michael’s voice singing ‘gotta have faith’ popped into my mind. It periodically returned to plague me for the rest of the day.
As I got closer to the grim bulk of the hospital tower, I started to get nervous. What if she wasn’t there? Or if she turned me down? Her smile had seemed encouraging, but had I imagined it, read too much into it? The feeling got worse as I went into the tower and along the bright, warm corridors. I took off my hat and gloves, smoothed my hair down, trying to look at myself in the glass of the doorways to check if the woolly hat had left any tufts sticking up. I wanted to make a better impression than I had last time, with my hair all plastered down and dripping, my jeans wet. I paused outside the door of the hospital suite to gather my thoughts, took several deep breaths and entered. Dyed blonde hair. It was a different girl on the desk. I must have looked dismayed, because she asked me concernedly if I was alright. I handed over last week’s letter, explaining: the other girl just wrote on this, is that OK? I didn’t get a new letter. That’s fine, she replied, have a seat over there and someone will come out for you shortly. I opened my book and started reading, but I couldn’t concentrate, and after a few moments left it down on the seat next to me with my hat and gloves. Stung by the previous week’s tongue-tied inaction, I decided that I needed to be bold; I’d been building up to this all week, and wasn’t going to be thwarted. I stood up to enquire when she might be there, and as I did so the scanner nurse came round the corner and called my name. As I answered, she turned rapidly on her heel and marched off, calling: follow me; this way. I had to hurry to catch her.
The scan was fine; the gel cold on my stomach, but not uncomfortable. after it was over, I put my shirt, jumper, and tweed jacket back on, and left. During the twenty minutes I’d been in the suite, the reception area had become very busy. The blonde receptionist was talking loudly to an old woman, who was craning her neck over the counter to listen better. Defeated, I went through the double doors and back out into the corridor. I had no reason to call back at the Ultrasound Suite now: perhaps it just wasn’t meant to be. Maybe I should call up there another day, keep calling until I saw her again? What if she was a temp, or covering for someone? My mind was full of such thoughts as I made my way back, like the week before, through the Botanic Gardens. In anticipation of the cold snap the groundskeepers had scattered salt across the tarmac paths; it was mostly ground into a white powder, but still crunched pleasantly underfoot in places. It was snowing, almost imperceptibly, the tiny round dots dancing in the wind. As I went past the lawn, George Michael resurfaced: ‘gotta have faith’. Yes, I thought, I must have faith in her, in that beautiful smile. I will find a way.
The fire cracks and spits a burst of sparks against the mesh of the guard, interrupting my train of thought. She calls to me from the kitchen: would you like a cup of tea, love? Belfast is a small place, and I am a lucky man.