O Rose thou art sick.
The invisible worm,
That flies in the night
In the howling storm,
Has found out thy bed
Of crimson joy
And his dark secret love
Does thy life destroy.
– William Blake
It was the boy who noticed. He tugged at his mother’s sleeve, but she was preoccupied. The waiting room was starting to fill with patients. Any more and it would be impossible to keep a safe distance.
The boy pulled at her coat again. He whispered in her ear: That man done a pee-pee on the floor.
The woman shot a glance to the large, filthy, wheezing figure standing in a corner of the room. Horrified, she saw – from the patch of yellow liquid circling the cracked, crumpled shoes – that her son was right.
She shuddered in disgust, unsure if she should do anything or summon anyone. To her relief, her son’s name was called over the intercom and, grasping his hand, she hurried out. As she passed the reception, she told the woman behind the desk about the puddle in the waiting area.
The receptionist went briskly to a nearby cupboard, ran some water and, grabbing a bucket and mop, wiped up the urine pool until the floor was clean again.
The hideous-looking man moved and leaned against the door jamb. His entire frame shook and he coughed vehemently. A frantic, stertorous breath, then he exploded in a fit of violent sneezes, spraying snot everywhere.
Cover your face! yelled the receptionist. She flung a toilet roll at him. Clumsily, he caught it. The gesture revealed his right hand.
The receptionist had heard about this patient. She’d seen almost everything, but nothing as peculiar as this. Unlike the left’s blackened nails, cut flesh and puffy wrist, the man’s right hand was manicured to perfection. The skin was smooth and lissome.
On his wrist she saw the most expensive watch, with myriad dials, hands and intricate actions. An immaculate strap of rich leather encircled the forearm.
On his smallest finger sat two rings. The gold one held an exquisite, brilliant emerald. It must have cost a fortune. But not as much as the narrow band of platinum next to it. In its middle glittered a diamond, the size of a molar, polished, flawless. Gleams from the ceiling lights glinted off its facets.
The receptionist nipped back behind her desk, lifted the phone and spoke softly to one of the doctors.
The next name called was the man’s. He bound his soiled greatcoat across his chest and shambled along the corridor to the allocated room.
The doctor had already laid a pad on the grey plastic seat, set a couple of metres away from her own. She winced as she looked the contorted body up and down. Here we go again, she thought.
He was a big, lumbering mess, clearly in a bad way. The chair would barely hold him and, as he tried to lower himself into it, he fell forward. He thrust out his right arm to steady himself before awkwardly sitting down.
The doctor was not so surprised as on previous visits, but it was still a shock to see the opulence of his right hand, in stark contrast to the rest of his broken, dishevelled body. The obscene watch, encased in rose gold, the beautifully trimmed hand, the perfect rings.
She overcame her distaste and made a swift examination of his chest. She addressed him decisively. Well, Mr Bass, you’ve made no improvement. This happens every single time. What are you here for today, exactly?
His reply scunnered her. I just came, he gasped, to let you know I’m completely better.
She strove to retain her composure. Don’t be absurd! I know from the nurse that your bloods showed even higher cholesterol. And glucose, so your diabetes is getting worse. Your heart, your lungs, your back – everything’s deteriorating. Yet again, you’ve ignored all we’ve told you. And I gather you’re incontinent as well.
She carried on. She’d had enough. You stubbornly fail to change your lifestyle, against all our instructions. I assume you’re taking your medications, at least?
How’m I supposed to get them when there’s none?
What on earth do you mean?
Last time I went to the chemist, they said they couldn’t get my drugs. There’s a shortage.
This really was beyond the pale. That’s arrant … the doctor checked herself. She was so vexed she was about to say pish, but (thinking of his recent accident) she merely said …nonsense! And it was nonsense; she’d prescribed the same things to several patients and knew the man was lying.
You’re havering, man. My colleagues and I simply don’t see how you take such extreme care of your right hand at the expense of the rest of your body. For the cost of that watch alone, you could get the best health care in the world!
To top it all, you’re lying to us. Saying you’re getting better. Telling me there’s no medication to be had. You’re lying to yourself. How in god’s name…
She stopped. Suddenly, she understood. This was pointless. Hopeless. The deception and inequality weren’t adjuncts to his sickness. They were his sickness. As much as the cholesterol, the diabetes, the slipped discs, the limp, the obesity, the overtaxed heart and the breathless lungs.
The wretched health. The lies. The display of outrageous wealth on the right wrist and fingers, clashing with the pathetic condition of everywhere else. It was all of a piece, the same thing. He would never admit to his condition, any more than he would rectify the flagrant inequality between his rich and poor divided selves.
She gave up. He was not as vociferous as on his previous session – when he’d left, shouting and bawling oaths. Now, he just hissed, low and vicious: Sod you – you’ll see, I’ll bounce back. Very, very soon.
The doctor felt drained. Nothing more to do, nor say. She watched him heave to his feet, lumber down the passage and hirple through the main door. She doubted she’d see him again.
by Paul Bassett, Glasgow, April 2020.
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