the lazy doctor

At half past three on a bitterly cold November afternoon, Ned parked his car, crossed the road and walked over to the doctor’s surgery.  It had taken him about four weeks to enrol and get a non-urgent appointment.  It wasn’t urgent, but it was definitely worth an appointment.  It wasn’t normal.

Some mornings he felt as if he was being hung by his ankles.  Some nights he felt like his head was a large, overworked hotel with endless drainage problems.  Cotton buds came out warm and wet, without even the gratification of mulchy orange.  They always felt disproportionately good.

He saw the plumes of his freezing breath one last time before stepping inside to the relative warmth of the surgery waiting room.  Ahead of him at the reception desk was a confident mother.  She had a transatlantic drawl and a pram of barely visible newborns, tucked snugly in their cribs as if they barely noticed they were no longer in the womb.  It looked nice in there, Ned thought; that level of sheer oblivion, total ignorance.

“Next Thursday at four then?!” the new mother said, cheerful and glowing with the permanent attention a pram of that size must bring.  “Bye for now!”  Ned had to step back a few inches to allow her to manoeuvre around.  “Ooh, sorry!” she said.

“S’ok,” Ned answered.  “Quite jealous,” he said, nodding faintly at the tiny packages.

She smiled, wheeling it past, “well you can always come round and look after them!”  With that, she disappeared out of the door, leaving Ned perplexed.  That was a strange thing to say, he thought, but I was jealous of the babies, he thought, not you.  Silly woman.

He turned round to see he’d been cut up in the queue for the receptionist.  A young plump girl of around 18 and her tall young goth boyfriend, who wore make-up.  She had queries about an appointment and he wanted to know if he needed immunisations to go to Gran Canaria, but it wasn’t his home surgery.  The flittering receptionist wasn’t confident enough to tell him whether they were necessary so suggested that he check with his home surgery.

Finally Ned won the receptionist’s attention.  He gave his name and she told him he could have checked in using the interactive screen at the door.  He hadn’t seen the screen at the door.  “Saves time you see,” she explained.  “But I know it’s interesting to wait in the queue sometimes.”

“Oh, yes,” Ned said. “It’s been fascinating today.  Thanks.”  The only person in the room, he took a seat and opened his book.

A large, overweight old man entered the waiting room, wearing a large coat and flat cap.  He was well known to the receptionist, Ned presumed, given their obvious familiarity and how are you todays.  Every step the old man took was an effort requiring large gulps of air.  Ned thought he could hear the folds of his huge jacket crumpling with each movement.  He had that aura of wanting or needing to talk.  Perhaps it happens more with the elderly bereaved, he reasoned.   Even so Ned willed the old man not to sit near him, not to start talking to him.  He couldn’t be bothered.  He had immediately judged that the old man was an unsympathetic showman.

He felt a small twinge of guilt at that judgement, but not much.

The old man sat down opposite Ned, eventually.  He made a show of placing his takeaway cup of tea on the window ledge and taking his huge coat off, folding it in half and putting it on the seat next to him, puffing all the way, and commentating his progress with fragments of sentences.  “Just put that there… there we go.. fold that up.. now.. ahhh.”  He slurped at his tea.  “Yaahhh!” he whispered lightly, to himself but not really to himself, “that’s hot, that.”  Ned felt he was being urged to look up from his book, just to glance at the man opposite and engage.  But if he did that the old man might never stop talking.

Minutes passed.

“What’s that?!” the old man said, wanting to be heard by Ned.  Speaking to him.  “What’s that book?”  Ned looked up at the old man and smiled.  The book was a debauched novel about an extremely badly behaved, sex-obsessed character.  So he told him as much.

“Ahh, s’life I suppose,” the old man shrugged, unmoved.  It was the only cue he needed.  “Want someone to write the story of my life, I do.”

Ned raised his eyebrows, he wouldn’t give him any line at all.

“Because I’ve had some life, I have.”

Ned smiled.

“Went to give this reading down the theatre with me mate.”

“Oh, really?”

“Yeah.  There was no bugger there.  Weren’t going to hang round talking to nobody.”

“No.”

The kindly electronic voice called Ned’s name to Surgery 2 please.

“Seeya,” Ned said.

“Cheero.”

The Doctor was young (too young) and smiley and blank and had an annoying lisp.  “Thum people jutht thweat more than others,” she explained.  And that was it.  Not only was it insubstantial and lazy, it made Ned feel as if he was a nervous, profusely sweating, guilty paedophile.  He wasn’t.  He just had sweaty ears.

There was a long pause.  She smiled again, nothing going on inside.  Doctors were supposed to be clever, generously paid, conscientious, do loads of training.

“That’s it then?” Ned asked.  “No other ideas or suggestions or anything?”

“No, not really.  Thorry.  Itsth jutht that thum peop-”

“-sweat more than others, ok.  Well, thanks.”

Ned stood up and moved swiftly towards the door, wanting to make it clear he was unhappy.  She could have at least done a search online, or using whatever directory they had.  At least shown she was engaging, looking, thinking.

It was a completely wasted half an hour of his life, Ned thought.  He probably had a brain aneurysm and would die at any moment.  He walked back towards his car and his left ear began to itch. 

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employment

I’m an incoherent tangle when it comes to my employment status.  Today has been slower than usual, but not worryingly so because I’m already confident in this month’s invoices and I’m reasonably content with the way things are going.  Added to this, in the morning I planned a nerve-jangling road-trip for my brief, post-Christmas American adventure; the weather is currently pleasant: dazzlingly bright, sharp and cold; I like this weather; there’s a slither of hope on the female front; my flat and its location are agreeable; I can wander down to the Bay easily enough, take a good coffee and sit outside with a book.  (Sitting outside with a hot coffee is so much more gratifying when it’s chilly, but not bitter, and you’re dressed appropriately).

I’d walked past council and government buildings and looked in through the windows at banks of suits staring at a men talking, giving presentations, referring to screens and a whiteboard.  I felt removed from that environment now, and it pleased me.  If I were offered roughly ten grand more than I earn now (a figure I’m still unsure of and have no inclination to calculate) for a so-so office job, a job which would entail having a proper boss and proper hours and ironing, and in a way less stress, but in a way more pressure – would I take it?

No, I wouldn’t, I thought, guiltlessly turning my attention back to The Slap and tightening a right-hand grip on the now lukewarm mug.  I could never have this, which is worth a lot.  Perhaps I wasn’t designed to be professionally social, to work in a team, to have close colleagues or staff under me.  Perhaps this is exactly right.  Part of me likes to consider myself a kind of dreaming nomad (in the same way many people enjoy considering themselves outsiders), but one who can still function in a business arena, one who can get by fine.  Unspectacularly, but fine.   Cardiff often seems built on unspectacular fineness: masses of people who do nondescript public sector jobs they don’t care for and barely speak of, few of whom are safe from cuts.

*

Despite today’s contentment my CV still lives out in the internet and I occasionally receive calls from recruitment agencies.  On returning to the flat I picked up a voicemail from an agency about a job.  Today, merely because today I feel good my status and life, I didn’t return the call.  Tomorrow the weather might turn grey and rain and be unpleasantly freezing, clients might really piss me off, other things might happen which I’ll blow out of proportion and I might question whether I really am that secure and content.  Because I’m a changeable soul, tomorrow I might return the call.

time at the bar

The front room of our village pub is small.  People squeeze together along the one bench under the window, a few chairs line the three tables, and there’s standing space at the bar or near the open fire.  A handful of furry canines  skitter around on the floor, lapping up attention, compliments, spilt drink and dropped crisps. Tied around table legs, their leads twine over and under like maypole ribbons.  Eventually they settle and doze, our warmed feet acting as their headrests, their slumber invoked by that incessant jabbering rumble of human chatter.

In small doses the pub is different and interesting; exposition to the lives of significantly older people, those semi-retired in their fifties and sixties who account for the majority of the pub’s custom.  Time gives greater weight to everything.  All those years and experiences offer a respectable gravity to their words and stories, their beards and their baldness and their laughter lines and their flushes.  But the insecurities are essentially the same.

A couple in their fifties had just separated after most of their lives together.   He had run off with a younger woman, so the story went, leaving her broken and in pieces, yet brave and strong.  She sat there on the bench, her deeply carved wrinkles never more pronounced than now.  Her local friends sat either side of her, doggedly talking around the subject: the holiday her son had bought her, the Christmas show she was helping to organise, care of her spaniels.

Positive, positive, progressive, forwards..

I spoke to a relatively new pubgoer.  The couple seemed to be a recent project of my parents, particularly my Mum’s, getting them involved in the village community.  He was a talented wood sculptor who aspired to a Terry Pratchett kind of look.  He had a mid-life career change after working in refrigeration for a number of years.  He was ultimately less interesting than I anticipated.

I chatted to one of my favourite pub locals to my left: a kind-faced, dry-toned, sharp-minded old guy.  (Excuse excessive hyphens).  We spoke of travel, where he and his wife had been lately in their camper van, his relationships (two marriages of almost equal length), and briefly of age and age differences.  There was nothing fancy about his unhindered, carefree way of speaking.  It was that same style as many who appear to illuminate your own thoughts in their speech: thoughts you simply hadn’t been able to properly articulate.

Perhaps that’s what age and experience gives; a better equipped retrospective processing tool.  But nothing that makes difficult decisions any less difficult.  A main character in the brilliant “The Kids Are All Right,” played by the consistently magnificent Julianne Moore, gives a moving speech to her family apologising for a mistake.  She explains how marriages are marathons: extremely hard work, how you can get numb to your partner over time, through day-to-day routine.

My conversation with the old guy in the pub ebbed and I overheard my father, sitting to my right.  “Well I’m naturally quite a shy person,” he said.  What did he just say?!  I turned around and snapped back into that corner pocket of people, including the sculptor and his wife.  I looked at him with exaggerated confusion.  “Dad, you performed in drag down at the village hall in front of two hundred people a few weeks ago.”

Age baffles.  I’m increasingly convinced that nothing gets clearer with time.  Particularly relationships: new or old; those with partners, siblings, good friends or parents.  Years give a density of knowledge and experience which slowly creates a print.  But the opposing pressures which create that print are never fixed.  They can stop exerting altogether and they can be rocked by a meteor.

an ice-cube tray

Ah, I thought, just before heading to the checkout, I wonder if they have any ice-cube trays?  Surely they must have, this supermarket is huge and has its own separate kitchen accessory department.  But maybe it’s not in there.
Here, I’ll just ask this..
“Excuse me?”
..young, really hairy and quite peculiar looking man.  He looked up from stacking a low shelf.
“Do you sell ice-cube trays?  You know, for.. making ice-cubes.”
“Oh yeah probably do you want me to come and show you where?”
“No no, just point me in the right direction.”
He pointed.
“Over that way?”
“Yes about aisle 38 are you sure you don’t want me to come and show you?” his teeth seemed to reverberate when he spoke.
“No no, I’m sure I’ll be fine thanks.”
He scared me a bit.
I pushed my trolley down to aisle 38, which wouldn’t be it.  Perhaps 40.  Yes, this looked more like it..  But where.  I trailed up and down an aisle of Tupperware.  I couldn’t see it.  There was another green uniformed man…
“Excuse me?”
This young man looked urgent and fraught and busy and redfaced.  He stopped all the same.
“Do you sell ice-cube trays here?  You know, for making ice-cubes in.”
“I don’t work in this bit.  They keep moving stuff everywhere.”
He went and walked off down an aisle which homed crockery and cutlery, rather than the one we were standing in, which seemed appeared most likely.  But what did I know?
“No,” he mumbled.  “They keep moving stuff around.  I don’t work in this section.”
“Dyou think you could find me someone who does work in this section?”
“Wait there.”
He scuttled away.  I wasn’t hopeful of ever seeing him again.  I hung out at the top of the Tupperware aisle with my trolley.  It was a crap aisle.  He didn’t come back.
I drifted downheartedly towards the adjacent clothes section.  Last try.  A middle-aged woman stood around but not at a checkout, looking spare.  She wore a darker T-shirt which signified that she belonged to the clothes section.
“Excuse me,” I asked, hope flailing.  “I don’t suppose you know where the ice-cube trays are kept?”
“Now,” she said.  “Are they a band?”
I took a breath.  Something inside me simmered, boiled, bloomed, ticked over.  I breathed out.
“No.  Doesn’t matter actually, thanks.”
I went to the checkout.

semi charmed life

You can feel physically uplifted by a forgotten pop song you’re extremely fond of.  It’s like somebody hauling you up under your arms or giving your pillow a good plumping.  You’re suddenly elevated and feel more capable of handling life and all the crap that comes with it: cars, garages, work, getting paid, legal action, finding a new doctor, arranging a dentist appointment.  Yes life, I can take you.

The song was Semi Charmed Life by Third Eye Blind.  It probably remains their biggest mainstream hit, though I know relatively little about the band, their back catalogue or current status.  It was on the one album of theirs I own, which lives on my middle iPod (iPods being my children), which was taken to football for fear of the theft of the newest – the pain of which would be inconceivable.

It had been a mostly crap week up until that afternoon.  Midnight on Monday I arrived back into the airport car park and a flat tyre.  I pumped it up and nervously ferried it down the motorway.  The next day Garage 1 discovered a litany of other faults amounting to 450 pounds.  With more work needing doing I took it to a recommended Garage 2, who said Garage 1 had messed up and I’d need to return it there after they’d completed 200 more pounds’ worth of work.  Meantime it was dawning on me that the chances of retrieving 700 pounds from a dodgy prospective landlord had grown evermore dim.

But SCL’s chorus yelled and guitars riffed: I’d perversely enjoyed our football team’s predictable 4-0 defeat – having played reasonably and commanded convincingly (I told my team-mates to be positive, keep their heads up, I berated our goalkeeper for saying “what’s the point?” – delicious ironies ahoy), it was a pleasant autumnal day for walking through the park – given that I was without a car, this tremendous, resilient song was playing in my ears, work wasn’t going badly, and I’d had a strangely heartening meeting with my mother the day before.

My mother is a rather underdeveloped for her years, self-consciously and heartbreakingly undereducated, hugely sensitive, never quite on the pulse around my brother, father and I.  My brother thinks she should be protected from anything that might unnecessarily concern her: ie. Me.

The day before she had visited and we’d had an unusually candid discussion over lunch about life and status.  I possibly over-disclosed the difficulty of seeming to take jab after jab (redundancy, business worries, landlord scamsters, car problems) alone, without any sort of domestic back up and not many friends.  She alluded to how difficult it is to get close when I’m so fiercely independent.  She offered any financial support I might need, because after all my brother has had plenty with his wedding and the kids, and she didn’t see why one should have all that when the other..  I waved it away.  Her eyes grew glassy and watery over the restaurant table and I could feel myself wobbling too, moved in an inexplicable way, yet also feeling foolish at my self-pity.  It wasn’t like I was terribly impoverished or seriously ill (get well soon Danny Baker), or lost a loved one.  We remembered where we were.  My own glassy eyes produced nothing beyond the film; she only leaked a single drop, wiped away from under her spectacles without comment.  We changed the subject.

The belting bridge of Semi Charmed Life made me want to air guitar as I approached a throng of about seven young to middle aged people walking along the leafy path towards me.  I felt able, like I could do life.  A lady in the middle of the approaching pack dropped a glove.  It flopped unnoticed through a thick winter coat she was carrying because it was slightly too warm to wear.  “Excuse me,” I stopped the group, picked up the glove and handed it back, “you dropped this.”  The lady accepted it with thanks and I walked on, only a brief pause to my stride.

SEE WORLD?!  I floated on a crest of positive karma out of the park to the track’s dying final chords, I’m a generally decent sort of person!   I can take you.