this pain. You'd better shut the door. I've got this old pain back. "You
must go to the doctor's," Maggie said when she'd failed to kiss it better.
We've got this little ritual of kissing things better that you get with
girls half your age, though I must admit that when we're in public I take
a swift look round first. In any case, the last thing you want to do is to
go to see a doctor.
"It's like a knife," I'm inclined to explain, but this is not accurate. It's
more like somebody up there
occasionally pushes a doorbell; a kind of short "zzz!" Depending on the
situation I jack-knife double and pretend I'm tying a shoelace or rudely sit on somebody
else's bar-stool and pull my knees up or, if only people I respect are
present, grab it and curse.
Surely everybody's got things like this, which is why I decided to have it
out at last. I mean talk about it. Sitting where you're sitting, it's not
going to spoil your breakfast though I'd be inclined to skip the
"What happened?" asked the factory nurse at Marconi's when I was taken
into the surgery. Instead of getting a brief "zzz!" I'd got a long "zzzzzzzzzzzz!"
"It's appendicitis," she said. It was not appendicitis. "It's been
grumbling all this time and you haven't done a thing about it." She was
wrong. I was taken into hospital in an ambulance and later that day
examined by a doctor and his women disciples in a rather, I felt,
unnecessarily rude way. Appendicitis was confirmed and an operation fixed
for the next day. Haha, though, during the evening I was shocked to see a
man brought unconscious from the operating theatre with his tongue clamped
outside his mouth by an odd bit of brass.
"I want to go home," I told the sister. She said I couldn't for all kinds of reasons
(it was against the rules was the
main reason, whether you died
or not) including the fact that
my clothes had been taken home.
I insisted, signed a form blaming myself for my own imminent death and
took a taxi home in my pyjamas.
"You did the right thing," my doctor told me years later. "That wasn't
appendicitis, that was colitis - different operation altogether. I know
just the man for that."
If you had an operation every time you had a "zzz!" you'd go to an early grave looking like a piece
of Meccano. Doctors are a comfort
as all experts are a comfort, even motor engineers; but you must not put
more than your car in their hands. Halfway back from Islington to
Hampstead after taking Maggie to work (she's working at Senate House now
if you want any help with exams) I got this knocking under my right front
wing - offside or nearside, I never know.
So I called the AA and after an hour surrounded by blacks at Tufnell Park
the engineer arrives but doesn't notice me flapping my arms and goes
straight on, coming back half an hour later. It was like being marooned
with the natives popping out of the jungle. "Are you on the telephone?" I
asked one of them. "We sho is," she said. A child kept walking up and down
balancing a Sainsbury's plastic carrier bag full of potatoes on her head.
There was a grey-haired ancient sitting on a chair watching the car, and a
pretty woman wearing a tablecloth on her head kept popping out of an upstairs
window and offering to phone Jim.
By the time the AA man was under my car I'd got to know them all.
"I don't know how you got this car here," said the expert, "but you won't
drive it away. The whole of the bodywork has come down on the wheels. I
can't do anything. It won't tow. You'll have to get a low-loader and carry
it away. I'll give you a telephone number if you like."
He was talking the expert's brand of confident rubbish of course. I got in
the car and drove him round the block at high speed; at high speed there was no knock.
"It was a stone in your brakedrum,"
he said, happily forgetting his first death sentence. It's not that
either. Since then it has been diagnosed as dry joints in the suspension
and faulty shock absorbers and several other things. Having spent £20 I
now accept that on dull days when I drive slowly I shall get this
knocking. It's like the red ignition light that comes on at about 70 mph
on Digswell Hill and nowhere else. You come to terms with things like that
and forget the experts. Same with your old pains.
Having more than one home I was always ending up at one end or the other
without my asthma inhaler, calling at hospitals in the early hours. "I can't
disturb the doctor," the night sister said. He was going to be
more disturbed to find a
corpse in out-patients in the
morning. She fetched him
and he gave me a small aerosol of the wrong inhalant. Aerosols are
dangerous to people who only need the odd puff, especially when they
contain the wrong substance. I thought at first it was somebody punching
me in the back - it was my heart.
Pretty soon everywhere
my body, feet, backside, elbows touched the chair and floor was
knocking like an old pump. When I stood up I fell down. "I can't disturb him
again," said the sister. It took six aspirins and twelve hours to get my
revs down. I survived because I've got a strong heart.
I have therefore as much faith in doctors as in the AA. If at first they don't succeed
they try, try again and their victims
are put down to experience. Theirs. They're like children who only find
out how their toys work after they've smashed them. "Your mother had a
ruptured diaphragm," I was told after the autopsy. Well, well, she would
have been pleased. If only someone had found it during 20 years of pain
and X-rays and stomach-pumping and fishing with swallowed instruments.
People who believe in doctors no longer extend themselves. People who
believe in nature cures run around like idiots. People with weekly
psychiatrists distrust everything and are forever recapping on simple
"You know why she didn't answer and he went out of the room..." You know
why they never open their windows. You know why that dog stopped barking.
You know why they have cushions instead of chairs. You know why he never
comes to see me any more.
Now that's something we do know. Thank God I'm perfect - Oh! Just a
minute. There it goes again - zzzzz! I'm going back to Tufnel Park to see
if I can find a witch doctor, ah sho am. Find out who's pressing my
(The Guardian, Spring 1972)