We sit there, slowly doing the quick crossword, noting as so often in institutions the presence of characters who seem habitués, knowing the procedures, familiar with the staff, A&E their scene.
Alan Bennett, LRB, 7 January
In the days when I had a reading lamp, I’d sit down with the papers at the weekend and make up answers to celebrity quizzes. Tell us your favourite food and who you despise. If a fire broke out, what would you save? The celebrities say, my loved one, my Persian cat, my grandmother. They mean, it would depend in which of my houses I was resident at the time.
The quizzes never ask you what you’d save if you were evicted. They ask, what would your superpower be? I say, getting my furniture back from those conniving bastards.
On the day of my turn-out the men were polite. I have no complaints about their manners. They gave me no choice of timing or any other choice, so you need your plans in advance, no use thinking what to save when they’re pounding up the stairs. You’ve got two bags, when it comes down to it. You’ve seen these bags. They’re very nearly un-bags, faint-striped as though they’ve been through a car wash. Because they have no shape, they can’t get shapeless with use, so you can’t get more depressed by them than you already are. Pack your stuff inside and the handles cut into your fingers. That’s not the injury that brings me to the hospital, but then again it is. Cut fingers, broken hearts, glue ears and tennis elbow: they all go in the same door. I say to a woman as I take a seat, ‘Whatever happened to tennis elbow? You never hear of it any more.’
‘Nor boils,’ another customer says. ‘People don’t have boils like back in the day. It must be because we’re better vitaminised. Still, never say never, with boils. They could come back. Same as TB.’
‘Gout’s back,’ a man in the corner whispers.
Another says, ‘What happened to Chinese Restaurant Syndrome? You heard of that at one time.’
‘MSG,’ a woman says.
‘That too,’ a man says. ‘It’s what I’m here for.’
It’s hardly out of his mouth before a lass has her phone out, googling. A few people edge away. The rows are filling up, so they can’t go far. If we were celebrities and anyone asked us, we’d say this was our favourite place in the world. If they asked, ‘What is the first thing you remember?’ we’d say: ‘Being here.’
Are you sick? In pain? Yes. Right, sit there. Fine, now wait. Name?
Oh, don’t start that, I say.
A man says, ‘It’s looking like four hours, except for the lucky few.’
I ponder it. ‘The fast lane. I don’t think that would be a good thing.’
‘At least we’re out of this filthy weather.’
‘I’ve not seen you before,’ I say. ‘Are you poorly?’
He says, do you think I come here for a hobby, like BMX bikes or growing dahlias? But then he relents. He likes someone to be interested in him. ‘It’s a rodent ulcer,’ he says. ‘It’s an old-fashioned sort of a thing, but I’ve got it.’
‘Ah, Jesus!’ a woman says. ‘That sounds terrible. Where is it? What do they do for it?’
‘Private,’ he says. ‘They’ll have to dig it out.’
That’ll be histology, we say, looking at each other. Tests. They’re not going to scrape it out and send you on your merry way. You should come back when it’s quiet. Unless you’ve nothing better to do.
‘Oh, pardon me,’ he says. ‘Pardon me, for having a lethal condition on a Friday night. What an idiot.’
He sounds bitter.
‘Be honest,’ I say. ‘What have you planned for tomorrow?’
‘I thought in terms of dying,’ he says. ‘At your sodding convenience, of course.’
I tell him, there’s no point showing up at twilight, with complexities like yours. You get better attention in the forenoon. After that you have to give way to the regulars, who know how to push themselves up the order. Habitués. The kind who roll on the floor and fake peritonitis. Who bring their own supper.
Time passes. Ron pulls out his pack of cards and deals his mates in. Rodent’s not part of the inner circle. Neglected, he begins to swivel his eyes around. He shuffles his feet, he huffs and puffs, he’s getting ready to explode: I read the signs. Another minute and ‘Oi! Oi!’ he shouts. ‘Is nobody paying me any attention? I’m in agony here.’
‘You should try gout,’ says the quiet man in the corner. He is daffodil pale, his head lolls, his stick trembles in his hands and a coffee from the machine has gone down his cardigan. Somehow it’s impossible to look at him without the question bubbling to your lips, ‘How often do you have sex?’
An hour gone. ‘Slow,’ a woman says. ‘I’m not complaining, just saying.’ Sombrely she hand-gels herself, like jesting Pilate. Ron licks his pencil and takes an order for Greggs, jotting it on the back of the ace of spades. He pulls up his collar, heads out: hasta la vista, say the habitués, and settle to their sudoku. It seems we have a long quiet night ahead. There are times when you can smell an incident in the air, feel its vibration before it strikes – a distant mutter of human voices, like a riot coming down the road. The red telephones shrill, the staff sprint, simple souls are slammed to the wall. There are bubble-wrapped bodies on flying trolleys, intubation and vomit, a tang of saline, sweat and machine oil: and all the red of the world fills your eye, the casualties swathed in crimson, the scarlet casing of fire bells behind glass. But tonight is a space for the connoisseurs of small, strange pains: for inexplicable rashes and three-day headaches, for doors swinging and gusting in a sour chill, with rain in the wind and no prospect of better.
Over on the left they are playing Desert Island Discs, but in our segment silence prevails. I cast about for general remarks. Often you can animate a whole room with the popular question, ‘Chocolate or cheese?’ But the habitués have all stated their preference and will stick to it. ‘What single thing,’ I venture, ‘would improve the quality of your life?’
‘If I could stop throwing up,’ a woman says.
‘If you could stop doing it in public,’ says the man with her.
‘Yes, that would be nice.’ The woman looks thoughtful, and green. ‘Or not on other people’s feet,’ she says.
All the people sweep their feet under their chairs. The rodent says, ‘If only I had something for the pain! I wish I had a herbal remedy.’ He looks at me. ‘You got a bit of herbal remedy in your pocket?’
‘Not got a pocket,’ I say.
The people join in. ‘Leave her alone! Anybody can see she’s not got a pocket.’
I try to read the paper but it doesn’t take. I don’t fault the news but I’ve read it before. I shuffle through looking for puzzles and quizzes. Somebody has filled in the quick crossword, got halfway through and then – what? Died? ‘Quick but not quick enough!’ I say. I show the paper around.
They call me. You want to get into this gown, they say. It barely covers half of me and you never know, do you, is it leave the front open, or the back? Each time, I’ll get into it and somebody will come through the curtain and stand there snorting: ‘Look at you!’
Burn me up with humiliation.
I always think, I’ll know next time, I’ll remember. But I never do.
I lugged my bags into the cubicle because it didn’t feel safe to leave them. You don’t want to leave them with a man with a gnawing ailment, in case it’s gnawing his brain – he looks respectable, but then so did my old man when he’d shaved, and I’ve heard of cases where the controls go out of whack, so the right hand doesn’t know what the left hand is doing. Picture it: his left hand is scuffing up Hello! magazine and pointing to hats worn by Princess Eugenie, while his right is pilfering my remaining possessions.
As I was going through the curtain, a bloke came right up behind me. ‘Up you go, granny!’ He meant to be helpful, but I was on the couch before I was ready. What is your favourite direction, up or down? I was wearing the gown with the gap at the back. That was my decision – and as I was sitting on my bottom, I felt at no great disadvantage. My bare legs dangled over the sides of the couch. ‘Just shove my stuff under,’ I said. ‘Then it won’t be in anybody’s way.’
I would have done it myself but I didn’t want to get down again and show my bottom. What is your most embarrassing moment? Time passed. A man pulled the curtain back. Could be porter, could be doctor, all look the same in blue coveralls. He shouts to somebody over his shoulder, ‘She’s in a right state.’
I say, is that a diagnosis or a location?
‘Jesus, what’s these?’ He’s nearly fallen over my bags. ‘That’s a trip hazard,’ he says. ‘Safety in the workplace.’
I say, that young fellow out there has a rodent disorder. Why don’t you cease pontificating and go out and stop him, before he goes on a rampage? The sight of so many hats has driven him mad.
‘You seem to know my job,’ he says. (I knew by this he was the doctor; it’s not what the porters say, they have different things they say.) Blimey, I say, I should do! Know your job? I was for twenty years the leading government surgeon to the vice-president of the Seychelles. I dare say you know that gentleman, and he will vouch for me. Ring him up. Get him on the blower.
‘Sit there,’ he says, ‘and don’t move.’
I sit. What is your chief regret? It’s that I don’t say all I think, or think all I say: a general regret, I’m sure. I do as I’m told and don’t move. My legs go dead, dangling down. In the days when I had a motor vehicle, we’d bowl along singing: we’d come to a sign that said ‘Diversion’, and we’d shout, ‘It might be all right for some, but it’s not what I’d call entertainment!’
Within an hour, they part the curtains and come at me with a sanity quiz. ‘Do you know the name of the prime minister?’
I burst out laughing. I slap my bare thigh, it’s all I’m allowed to slap. What’s funny? they ask. I say, if you don’t know that, son, you’re not fit to have the vote.
I try in vain to explain my talk was not so random as they experienced it. It comes out of my mouth in reasonable order, I say, only your understanding is defective. A blower, I explain, is an old-fashioned term for a telephone: no, I don’t know why either. This vice-president, somebody says, is he on Facebook? Is it where you’ve went for your holiday?
‘Maybe,’ I say. ‘Mahé.’
‘You’d see how she got the idea,’ a porter or doctor exclaims. ‘All those curling-up travel magazines out there in the waiting area.’
Only he calls it a bagging area, because he’s tired.
Outside the curtain, a savoury smell goes by. It’s the second round of Steak Bakes coming in. My mouth waters. They pump up my blood pressure. ‘One-eighty on top,’ he says. ‘Not too clever.’
‘I see that,’ I say, ‘but you shouldn’t feel badly. We can’t all be gifted or special.’
He writes on my form. I think he wants to write ‘facetious’ but he can’t spell it.
It’s after midnight. Go out as bidden. Take seat. The man with gout praying in a quiet, unobtrusive way. Slipped sideways in her seat, the green woman sleeps.
In the days when I had a licence, I’d see people like this on TV: rag-tags of the social disorder. The rodent’s seat is empty and I wonder if he’s been carried away by his own fiction. Gout hesitates: ‘Gents, I think.’
‘Right,’ I say. ‘Making a night of it.’
Sure enough, when he comes back, his face is red and his eyes rolling. He’s taken something but I don’t like to say what and I’m sure he doesn’t either.
‘Oi, you!’ He stands over me. ‘Who do you think you are, calling me a thief? I never stole anything smaller than a fridge.’
I say. ‘You’d steal the pencil from a polling booth. It’s your sort that got this lot elected.’
Have you noticed, you never meet anybody who admits to voting for them? ‘No, not my fault,’ they claim. ‘I tried to vote for the other lot, but somebody had moved the pencil. Next time, I’ll get a postal. Because,’ they say smugly, ‘I’ve got an address.’
After a while I put down my paper. I say, what would you save first if a flood broke out?
The woman says, without opening her eyes, ‘My ark.’
‘Good answer,’ I say.
The rodent looks up. ‘Your wok? What’s the point of that?’
I say, ‘Save your dove and your olive branch too.’ The time will come when you get tired of that vast taffeta sea and the occluded light, nothing but ripples to the horizon: tired of the gentle rocking of the world beneath you, nostalgic for the time you could stand upright without flexing yourself against a mast.
‘Bloody beansprouts,’ the rodent says. ‘Arsing about with water chestnuts, in a case of national emergency? Sod off!’
‘It’s not national,’ somebody says. ‘Only us.’
‘It’s only in here,’ Gout says.
‘We could be in this queue till next year,’ says MSG. ‘Then we’d be in the Guinness Book of Records.’
‘Do they still have that?’ Gout says. ‘Or has it gone the way of all flesh?’
Rodent sits up. ‘Hello! Looking lively!’
Some staff scurry past, name tags flapping. Plastic aprons snap the air. Somebody runs a drip stand through. A couple of trolleys trundle into the corridor. A sound of retching from the blanketed heaps. ‘Could be norovirus,’ MSG says. ‘Could be hantavirus. Could be tropical, we’re swamped with immigrants, you never know what they’re bringing in.’
‘Give over,’ Ron says to him. ‘Are you MSG, or BNP? Or are you just MD? That’s mentally deficient,’ Ron says, before the googling starts up. ‘But you can’t say that these days, you have to say … I dunno.’ Ron blows his nose. ‘I lose count.’
You hear about hospitals being clogged up with casualties from fights. It’s a little-known fact that most of these fights start in A&E itself, with insults flying about Munchausen’s syndrome, and old hands ridiculing the new boys and laughing at their bandages. That’s when the staff wade in and you get a porter with a fat lip, and crackling radios and flying clipboards and Plod pitching in. It’s when you go over the four-hour target that folk start to squabble. Tonight I don’t need to ask the time to see the mark’s been missed. It’s clear to the habitué that the system has broken down and they’re all running about without a plan.
Nobody trusts the breakdown services these days. I used to wonder how you had a breakdown. Even if you’ve broken inside, how do you demonstrate it, do you lie on the floor and scream? In that case, how is it distinguishable from normal behaviour? It depends on your age, it was put to me. If you’re under three and over ninety, okay. Anything in between, it indicates a loss of self-esteem. You’re in the way of the mopping, besides. Some supermarket spillage, soup or blood or butter, and before you can say, ‘It wasn’t me,’ a bell shrills: the cleaners are charging in with their yellow signs on legs, DANGER: MOPPING IN PROGRESS. You’re lying in the aisle in the broken glass impeding the flow of shoppers. What’s the matter, they say, has she had a breakdown? Try and get her to the side of the aisle, in the special lane. Just filter around her, that’s the way. Move along now. Nothing to see.
In the days when I drove a car, we’d see people on the motorway, speeding along with a canoe strapped on their roof rack. We’d shout, blimey, does he work for the Met Office, does he know something we don’t know? You’d see cars with two bikes perched on top: we used to shout, would you look at those pessimists? We’d put the window down and call, ‘My man, did you ever think of joining the AA?’
But that was when we were plural, young and bold. If we got our heads punched in for being cheeky, all in a day’s work.
It’s 1 a.m. I get out my Q&A: an old one, no matter. ‘Here’s one that will have you all going. What was the best kiss of your life?’
Rodent says, ‘She’s getting on my wick. Can’t somebody stop her? She’s been unspooling this nonsense for the last hour.’
The green woman snaps her eyes open and says, ‘What would you consider a reasonable length of time?’
‘It speaks!’ says her partner. ‘Watch your feet!’
I notice the row of feet have crept out from under the chairs. Now they flip back, a single movement like a chorus line. The rodent gets up. He goes to the desk. I can’t hear what he’s saying but he turns to me and jerks his thumb, and the woman behind the desk glances over but then she just talks on her phone, wheeling back and forth on her tall chair, and the rat goes on thumbing, and she goes on socially excluding him, till one of us shouts up from the seats, for God’s sake, you’re blocking the aisle, there’s people dying in here and you’re taking all the room.
The habitués on the desert island are singing ‘Hi Ho Silver Lining’. But when they see the rumpus they break off and start shouting too.
I want to get home now. It’s three in the morning. My transport options are limited. The woman on the desk says, we can call you a cab, we have a number. What’s the name again?
I tell her and she does a complete whirl on her chair. ‘Come again?’
Taxi companies don’t like it either, I say. I explain I have special names for cab purposes. You get tired of their switchboard going, ‘How are you spelling it?’: as if you had options. So you say, ‘Smith. Car for Smith, please. ’ What would your ideal surname be? When they turn up – if they bother – they say, ‘Smith, eh? I seen Smiths in my time and Madam, you no Smith. You don’t sound like Smith, you don’t smell like Smith, you don’t get in this cab, because this cab, it is Smiths only. And by the way,’ they say, ‘if you want to try some trick, don’t try that Smith trick. Because lady, you are deeply unconvincing.’
I start gathering my things together. The un-bags. My coat. The rodent says: ‘Given up then? Younger generation. No stamina!’ He’s jeering at me. ‘Here.’ He holds out the raggedy newspaper. ‘Take your quick crossword and fuck off. ’
I say, I can’t make it come out if I sit over it till doomsday. Some moron has scribbled in the blanks. Probably that doctor, he’s not too clever.
‘Well, just wrap yourself in the paper,’ the man says, ‘and go and sit outside. You’re too late for the night bus.’ He turns to the green woman. ‘And you’re insane, too! Wok? Wok my arse! What’s the use of soy sauce, with the country under water?’
‘I’m going,’ I say. ‘They’re turning me out. It appears a “Smiths Only” policy has come in.’
Gout breaks off his prayer. He looks at me blearily and grips his stick. ‘Don’t do anything I wouldn’t do.’
I pick up my gear and put it down again. I can’t quite make up my mind to the morning. I might have failed with the crossword but I don’t like to go with questions hanging in the air. What is your idea of a perfect weekend? Have you ever said I love you, and not meant it? I ask the green woman, ‘What is your greatest fear?’
‘That man,’ she says. ‘The one who complained. I’m afraid he’ll complain about me next.’
‘Oh, why so?’ her partner says. ‘Aren’t you the sort of company we all crave on a big night out, throwing up on people’s evening shoes?’
Spew if you must, I say, but never fear. You could be in a right state, but instead you are here. Remember, we have a government that took on the badgers. They stood up to the terror waged by those black and white bastards. They went for them in their very setts, they sniffed them out like Osama bin Laden.
‘Write your answers down,’ I say, ‘and keep them in your sleeves. Sit tight, and I’ll see you all tomorrow.’
I used to go on a straight path. I knew the route through my days from A to B. Somewhere along the way, I tripped on my own bags, I slipped on my own mopping. I went to a fantasy dinner party with General Custer and Virginia Woolf, and I never came home again, or else when I came home they’d moved it.
It must be dawn soon, if it weren’t winter. I get my gloves on – or perhaps somebody else’s, you get your fingers mixed up at my age – and I make my way to the entrance. I walk away from the light of the blue screens and towards the search for a breakfast. The glass doors swoosh open and let me into the cold. Outside there’s an area for ambulances, criss-crossed against the tarmac: KEEP CLEAR AT ALL TIMES. If only, I say. I shout it out loud as I walk; when it’s this early, the streets are yours to shout in. Tell us a secret, the papers say: tell us a joke. I say, if you’re short of a joke look around you. Circumspice, as I used to say: in the days when I had an education.