In the tropics, many ordinary things happen in rooms with fewer than four walls and no need for windows. Schools, for instance, may have walls containing hundreds of slots ( a slot being, for the purpose of this description, bigger than a slit) to keep the sun and all but horizontal rain out but allow the breeze in.
Airport departure lounges may be open at the front. It’s designed to make the most of nature’s airconditioning as opposed to the more expensive mechanical kind.
Today I find myself experiencing a hospital waiting room in S. Laurent du Maroni, French Guiana. Of all the places conducive to people-watching, there is none to match the outpatients department. Whatever you’re there for, as long as it’s not too traumatic, watching your fellow sufferers provides an ever-replenishing source of entertainment.
All I’m suffering from is boredom, because I’m just waiting for someone. The outpatients come and go, each with a story to tell, but unless you’re the chatty type or find yourself sitting next to a chatty type, you can make it all up in your head.
Within five minutes, the chatty woman has told you her life story – two failed marriages and another one going down the toilet even as she speaks – and is trying to squeeze yours out of you. A terrible but inescapable feeling tells you she’s looking for husband number four and thinks you may be it. And your own automatic thought process takes you on a lightning tour of the possible relationship, from the surprisingly rampant sex (even though she’s in her late 60s) to the quiet life in a shack in the back of beyond and your eventual burial in the back yard, untraceable and unmissed.
Back in outpatients you get the shy kids who have never been there before and probably think it’s heaven’s waiting room (or hell’s).
There’s a red-faced white guy with cuts, looking both boozed up and beaten up, and you can’t help wondering if he started it because he was on his 17th bottle of Stag or if he had been minding his own business when someone started on him because they were on their 17th shot of rum.
There’s a big nurse running the show, strutting around the place and interrogating everyone so she knows you’re not just there because it’s comfortable and quiet. She’s well-built, not in a sexy way but a robust one. Funny how a nurse’s uniform can make the cute look cuter and the grim look scarier.
In the corner sits a very thin woman wearing hippie-type clothes, breastfeeding ostentatiously because although she’s as self-conscious about it as any other woman, it’s an unfounded self-consciousness and she’s determined to get on with it while the world grows up quickly around her and the men stop shooting sly glances in her direction.
This woman is so slight that you find it quite suspicious. She looks healthy enough and was clearly okay to give birth to a child recently, so why is she painfully thin? It’s unnatural in this day and age.
And everybody is on their phone. In an old waiting room they’d have been reading dog-eared magazines full of articles about Reverend Potter from Baltimore, who officiated at the joint wedding of twin daughters to two brothers who had been separated at birth. But now for many people, paper is purely for making bags to put burgers in, and while you’re waiting you can send texts, maybe even use the internet, or go through your contacts and delete a few, just because you have to do something to pass the time.
In any group of random people there is going to be a strange one who worries you a bit, and here he comes, shirtless, talking to himself and perhaps not deliberately upsetting anybody but managing to do so through his sheer unpredictability. The shy kids cling to their mother, the beaten-up man glowers at him through his hangover, the thin breastfeeder hunches closer to her treasure and you are suddenly grateful for the elbow-rubbing presence of this unsubtle, imperturbable woman at your side.
The battle-axe nurse acquires a new sheen of welcomeness too, as she ushers the intruder – whom she knows because he turns up here most days – out into the car park to take his troubled soul somewhere else.
A little light relief arrives in the not unpleasant shape of a young woman with pneumatic curves. She is wearing yellow sunglasses, has rolled her jeans up to her knees and I can’t eliminate the unkind thought that she’s here for a psychiatric appointment. Why, though? Depression – the modern day epidemic? Is she one of those confusing people who continue to draw attention to themselves when what they say they want is to be left alone?
The final question, though, is what these people think about you. The nurse knows you’re there for a bona fide reason, and that’s all she is really concerned with. And the amorous older woman knows exactly who you are: an acceptable piece of maleness, possibly with some money in the bank (even if she’s wrong, there is some fun to be had up to the point where she finds out).
Maybe the shy kids are just glad that you’re not the shirtless twitcher, the beaten-up man sees you as being basically from the same tribe as him, and the breastfeeder thinks you’re more of a gentleman than some, because your glances have been discreet.
But none of you will ever really know for sure.