Last month I received a letter from my doctor reminding me it was time for my annual health check. The fact it was addressed Dear Sir/Madam did ring a few alarm bells, given he’s taken at least three selfies with my prostate, but with no offence taken I followed doctor’s orders and booked an appointment at my local Code Blue Health Centre.
“That’s quite a number of steps,” I told the receptionist, stooping to catch my breath. “What happened to the ramp?”
“Gone,” I was informed. “Health & Safety.”
“Aren’t ramps for Health & Safety?”
“Too many Four-by-Fours were slamming into cars when they reached the bottom because it was too steep. When I made a claim my car insurance went up because they had to invent a new category.”
“Four-by-Fours?” I wasn’t following.
“Are we allowed to call them that?”
“I am, you’re not,” her reproval hung in the air, while a bejewelled talon lazily gestured towards a certificate propped up against a unicorn coffee mug. “I’ve been trained.”
“What do people in wheelchairs do now?”
“They have to go around the back and enter through the…” she stopped texting and casually covered her name badge with her hair. “Uh, you’re not a reporter, are you?”
“No, I’m checking-in for my appointment with Dr Shapiro.”
“Check-in is by touchscreen on the wall opposite,” I was duly despatched, as if telling me where to find the straws and napkins.
Throughout the check-in process, the Automated National User Service referred to me more than once as a customer without offering any form of CashBack facility. This was not only misleading but highly inconvenient as I had an extortion payment due by noon and knew the Yakuza didn’t accept High Street Vouchers. More worryingly, I was unable to recall exactly when the UK Government had reduced my role from citizen to ‘customer’. In my previous school the Head Teacher once tried referring to the students as customers, explaining that we were delivering a service to them and if they weren’t satisfied they could file a complaint.
“There’s only one problem with that,” I spoke up.
“Go ahead, Mr Ormsby,” she readied herself.
“If the customer is always right then why do I have two hours of marking every night?”
“To support learning,” came the stock reply.
“So I’m now Customer Support?”
“Well… in a way, yes,” she was on shaky ground and she knew it.
“Which would make you Sales.”
“I just want to get this straight: Sales sells the dream and Customer Support services the nightmare,” I articulated for her benefit. “And will we be running any kind of loyalty schemes because I’ve just thought of one: students could redeem their SAT scores for Nectar Points.”
[They were back to being students by lunchtime]
Having successfully checked-in, I then retired to The Wellness Hub (that’s a Waiting Room to you and me) where I was faced with that age-old dilemma: where to sit so that no one would disturb or infect me while I tried to guess their affliction. We all play it, if not in a doctor’s office, then certainly in car parks whenever we observe what appear to be able-bodied drivers emerging from vehicles displaying a Disabled Parking Permit. Laverne’s the best at it.
“What do we think of this one?” she asked in town last week.
“COPD?” I ventured.
“No, he’s walking too fast.”
“Carrying too many bags.”
“The Big C?”
“Too much hair.”
“Some disabilities are invisible,” Alison reminded us.
“I wish yours was,” Laverne scowled at her in the rear-view mirror. “Definitely upper respiratory… I’ve got it!” she smacked the dashboard in triumph. ”’Pneumothorax!”
“Oh, I loved her in Pulp Fiction,” Alison brightened, before frowning again. “I didn’t know she was disabled though.”
I negotiated my way towards the far corner of the seating area, avoiding eye contact all the way until I reached a cluster of empty seats. Surprised no one else had retreated to this refuge I was just about to sit down when it hit me: a stench of urine that would have sent a herd of wildebeest back the way they’d come. Appalled that a Wellness Hubful of human beings had watched me make my way towards a latrine without so much as a warning left me cold inside. I turned to face and now it was they who were avoiding eye contact out of shame, except for one old dear.
“I tried to Febreze it,” she offered a sort of apology, pulling the bottle from her shopping bag, “but Tangerine Dew isn’t really for that. The one for pets maybe…”
My heart melted.
“No harm done,” I said, taking the seat next to her.
“It was an elderly gentleman,” she explained. “His daughter brought him in. We could all see the back of his trousers when he got up to go see the nurse. I told the receptionist.”
“Which receptionist?” my hackles were now up again.
“The sturdy girl… her, with the wig.”
[I love the way the elderly speak]
“How do you know it’s a wig?” I suppressed a laugh.
“Because it looks like a bale of hay. I even said I’d help adjust it because it’s crooked.”
“And what did she say?”
“She told me check-in was behind me on the far wall. I thought it was a cash machine when I came in because I need to buy some stamps. Which doctor are you here to see? I’m here to see Dr Haslam.”
“Dr Shapiro,” I replied.
“Oh, Dr Shapiro’s not in today, it’s another. A Dr Fatwa.”
“Right,” I nodded, wondering what his actual name might be.
“I’ve seen him going back and forth. He’s in too much of a hurry for me but he’ll be better than Dr Raymond; I wouldn’t let him cut my toenails.”
I wanted to play the diagnostic game but I knew it would be a lot more fun talking with-
“-Enid,” she suddenly remembered. “Let me see if I can guess your name. I sometimes get it right… is it John?”
I almost fell off my chair.
“How did you know that?” I was stunned.
“You look like a John,” she patted my hand.
“I had you for a Keith,” a lad to the right of me said. “And I had you as a Lola,” he winked at Enid.
“No, Mary. You look like a Mary,” a woman with two toddlers chimed in. “And you’re probably a Jaden or a Tyler,” she pointed accusingly at him.
“And who are these two?” Enid asked, waving to her children.
“This one’s Thomas and this is little sister, Gracie. We’re here today because her liver’s acting up again.”
Everyone went quiet.
“It’s okay, we’re experts now. She’s missing an enzyme so it needs topping up,” she explained. “Thomas is just along for the ride. I’m Julie, by the way.”
“Robert,” the young man gave a slight wave to everyone. “How is she with it?”
“Sometimes she gets tired which frustrates her to no end. There’s no stopping her though,” Julie gave her daughter a hug. “My father’s a Robert.”
“What are we going to do if a Courteney and a Madison walk in?” I asked.
“Ring Child Services,” Robert replied.
“I went to school with a boy called Enzo and our Science teacher nicknamed him Enzyme,” I suddenly remembered. “And we had another kid called Nigel Sheepwash.”
“No way,” Robert sat up.
“I was at school with a girl called Mary Hammoth and they boys called her Hairy Mammoth,” Enid mused.
“I knew a Bobby Bibby,” Julie joined in. “No word of a lie: Bobby Bibby.”
“Did he have a sister Libby?” Robert asked.
“And I once went to the dancing with a boy called Ronald McDonald,” she rolled her eyes at Enid.
“No small feat,” I said.
“Oh my god,” Robert groaned aloud.
“Sorry,” I apologised, but not really.
“No, but funny thing: when I saw him the next week he was with another girl and I knew they were made for each other.”
“Why funny?” Enid asked.
“Because he came straight over with her and said, “Meet Patty!”
Call it nervous tension. Call it peer contagion. Call it what you will but I’ll tell you something for nothing: people know a good punchline when they hear it and that one was so corny it was still on the cob. Everyone burst out laughing and when the receptionist told us off we laughed even harder.
After that, I don’t remember much else.
I can’t tell you which doctor I saw or what I told him or what he told me or where I went after that or how I got there or because none of that mattered. What did matter was that for a few moments Julie was able to forget about liver enzymes, I forgot I was one year older, Robert forgot about the rod in his left arm and Enid forgot that she sometimes becomes confused on the way home.
And you can’t get that on prescription.