For the last two years I’ve joined in the #atozchallenge, namely to post every weekday in April using each letter of the alphabet in turn. In 2015 it was places I’d been to, in 2016 it was London themed. This year it is a dictionary of my family, recounting incidents small and large that have taught me lessons down the years, caused me consternation or generally seared themselves into my memory. I hope you enjoy them. To find other bloggers doing the challenge and maybe be inspired yourself, check out the A to Z Blogging Challenge Blog, here.
I realise this is the sort of title that may get me a few weird followers but I want to share a cautionary tale with you on the subject of ‘never assume’…
Of course as an adult – well, as a man with a fair few years on the clock – I have learnt and re-learnt a lot of life’s hard lessons but making assumptions is in the nature of being human. We only make progress by learning from watching others, from absorbing lessons told to us; and all the time we assume things, extrapolate from a basic premise. But in doing so we come to realise that we need some sort of filter – a set of warning lights to flash on which tell us to be wary of this or that assumption – something that parents often decry their children for lacking. That mythical thing called common sense.
Which brings us to the story of the cyst.
I was a fit young man of just 30. Fairly bomb proof I’d have said. But I was naturally cautious so I had registered with the local doctor when we moved to Herne Hill in 1985. Not that I’d need to see a medic of course. Not, that is, until a pain in my right ear became intolerable. Did I say that, in addition to being fit and bomb proof I was a wimp?
When I registered I’d made it as far as the reception; the surgery was two Victorian houses that retained their appearances separate residential homes but had been knocked together. You entered by the left hand front door and the hatch to the reception would have been part of the door to the living room, back when it was built.
‘Please wait in reception to be called.’
The receptionist was one of those formidable women of indeterminate age whose hairdo lent them both a certain authority and an aura that indicated questions would be unwelcome.
I wandered towards the back of the house and was relieved to find that the next room (previously a dining room) contained chairs, some equally cowed locals and a low table with old, sticky and unappealing magazines such as Pump Monthly and Dairy Life – Somerset Issue.
I waited; people came and went. Other people wearing medical type clothing hurried past the door, looking busy but probably simply hoping no one would stop them and ask them when the doctor would see them. After 30 minutes the dragon lady from reception put her head round the door, made eye contact in a way that indicated if I were to break it, I might as well accept blindness as the outcome and said in what my physics master once described as ‘stentorian tones’, ‘Why are you here?’
It’s interesting how you can sense people shrinking away from you without seeing them when you are asked such an existential question. The other patients – do you think we are called ‘patients’ because we are expected to show patience in inhuman quantities at such times? – held a collective breath. Surely I wouldn’t be so foolish as to antagonise the harridan?
‘I’m sorry.’ A very British response: you have no clue what you might have done worng so you apologise anyway. My mother would have been delighted.
‘I said go to the waiting room.’
I’m pretty sure everyone else was as bemused as me at this.
She did that sighing eye rolling thing I thought I’m seen the back of when I left junior school. ‘Dr Undertaker’s surgery is upstairs front.’ She pointed at a staircase and waited until I was on my way. As I took the first of the stairs she said, ‘You will be called.’
Leaving the nervous chatter/laughter behind me I reached the landing. Here the two houses had become one with an opening in the party wall. All the doors (previously bedrooms and bathrooms I imagined) were shut and none had any signs on them, but I could see what looked like a sliver of light in the neighbouring house from what might have been an open door. Sure enough, through the opening I found another room with two women and another low table strewn with the likes of 1951 May to November Readers’ Digest and What Plough and Harrow? from June 1977. I took a seat and wondered if this was the ‘front’ reception.
Time passed; maybe I drifted off and slipped into a parallel universe because I became aware of a woman standing in the doorway saying my name.
‘Yes? That’s me.’
‘The doctor will see you now.’
Life turns on such moments. I smiled (not reciprocated) and stood to follow. I had taken something out of my briefcase and was putting it back when I realised she hadn’t waited for me. Still stuffing the file of papers away I hurried after her. She was already halfway down the stairs.
I suppose I should have wondered about that but I didn’t want to loss her so took then at speed. However she was equally quick and was already off and past reception by the time I reached the bottom step.
I have a vague recollection of catching a glimpse of the devil woman and registering something between surprise and bemusement on her face as I passed but I knew I mustn’t lose my guide.
Outside it was a sunny if breezy day. The woman had stopped, I assumed to wait for me. To my surprise she began to put on a head scarf. If she was taking me next door why did she need to do that?
As she looked up and registered my presence and I noted (a) her shock and (b) she was wearing a coat which was odd if she was, as I had assumed, a member of staff, time slowed to a dribble. Then in something of a mad rush she began to trot away from me, down the hill towards the station and I was left to consider the likely truth that she had been Dr Undertaker’s previous patient whom he’d asked to send me in, both of them assuming I would know where ‘in’ was.
My options seemed many but all rather unpalatable. 1. Run away – attractive but not likely to sort out my ear and may leave me banned 2. go and tell the gorgon of my mistake and take my punishment like a man 3. attempt insouciance and, if questioned, say I felt like a little air.
I ran back inside and up the stairs. A Dr like figure in shirt sleeves stood on the landing. He had a benign smile. ‘Need the loo? There’s one just here, you know.’ He turned and led me back into his room. He was calm, efficient and reassuring. He sorted out my ‘niggardly little cyst’ and wrote a prescription. He had a son my age doing law and asked interested questions. At the end he said, ‘Ask Joanie for a follow up appointment so we can just make sure you’re all ok.’
I smiled and said ‘of course’ and ‘thank you’ and all that good stuff. I didn’t bother with the follow up. I somehow knew ‘Joanie’ might want to get into a discussion over my erratic behaviour. I didn’t need telling and I’d learnt my lessons which were (1) never assume (2) as soon as I could I would change doctors to one with a modern surgery that had a layout even the perpetually bewildered could understand.