Outside the hospital the smokers gather again below the Please Refrain From Smoking notices. They look the part, their faces lined and drawn. They are outside, at least, in the wind. Their hospital issue dressing gowns sop up the pervading drizzle. Inside the usual melee prevails. People on sticks, doctors in suits and gowns, nurses, ancillary staff, mothers with push chairs, a man in a turban pulling a suitcase, folk queuing for sandwiches and papers. Smith’s pushing their huge bars of chocolate, a pound a go today with any purchase, no one buying. This is the NHS shopping mall: St David’s Two without the luxury, Bluewater less the desirability. You are here because you have to be. Unless you are a record collector, that is. The Christian bookshop, stashed over there in the far corner beyond Boots, is selling off a lot of its record collection. I got Rod Stewart and the Steampacket for £2.00. I saw that band, in the mid-sixties when Rod was nowhere yet and Long John Baldry was taking the lead. The Steampacket live at Klooks Kleek. Back here in suburban Cardiff where little ever happened I lived out on that experience for months.
I’m heading for Clinic Six again, Rheumatology, home of prednisolone my friend, and hope for the future. Half way there, wending my way along the patient strewn corridors, the fire bells starts. It’s a loud, piecing scream. It throbs, it pulses. It’s incredibly loud. It enters your ear and it stays there. Your head swims in accompaniment. You begin to wonder if there’s any way you can still get your brain to carry on thinking now this sound has arrived right in its middle. I expect to see fire wardens rushing to the aid of us staggering patients or, at very least, some instruction coming from the NHS’s uniformed staff. But there’s nothing. The alarm is ignored. Staff continue to go about their business as if all this wasn’t happening. Can they not hear it? Why are they not flinching like I am? I shake my head. The sound is entering my bones and making them rattle.
Eventually I reach Rheumatology reception where the woman behind the counter tells me over the racket that because the alarm is intermittent we can safely ignore it. You mean it’s a test, I ask? Someone upstairs has burned the toast I expect, she says. She smiles. And then it stops. The air fills with silence like cool cool water. Glorious.
I’m still in pain, right leg, from the heel to the top. The pain arrives and stays for days. Does it get worse when you exercise it, the rheumatologist asks? Sometimes. Just the sort of answer I am sure she wants. I’m sent out for more tests. We have to get to the bottom of this. X-Rays, trunk and upper leg, put on the list for an MRI scan, sent to bloods to let them have just a little bit more. I feel like Tony Hancock. I’ve given them at least an armful now. Back in two weeks. There’s something happening here but we don’t know what it is, do we, Mr Jones?