The rules have changed. Well not the rules exactly but the conventions. It used to be that waiting was done in the nearest thing to silence possible. It would be carried out in richly cold, ill-lit rooms across the land, stuffed solid with men in ancient overcoats, women in hand-knitted sweaters, and children befuddled with straggly scarfs. Queuing in quietude, the odd person reading the Daily Mirror but the rest staring somnambulantly into space.
Our local doctor’s surgery was exactly like this. He drank, my mother told me. He would tank up as protection against the morning rush of gout and gangrene and diphtheria. His hands were cold. His bag would be open, the appurtenances of his doctor’s trade disgorging onto his leather-edged blotter, his calendar, and the rest of the pill-boxed clutter on his mahogany desk. He always smelled of gin.
But outside was order. Nurse Ratchet, our local Cardiff equivalent, maintained iron control. You were seen in the sequence in which you arrived. No exceptions. You sat in ice silence. You listened keenly for the mumble of your name. When it came you got up and walked into the consulting room, knocking just before you went on in.
But it’s different today.
I’m in the early evening emergency clinic at the local GPs. For emergency read this is the only way to get an appointment with anyone before you die. I’d like to see a doctor. I’ve got a date available end of next month, any good? Not really, I’m in a lot of discomfort. Is it an emergency, love? Yes. Right. 5.45 this evening. But expect the surgery to be full. So you arrive and you wait. Time passes slowly, here in the mountains. The fish move round in their tank.
Once was you could get several chapters under your belt during this forced interregnum. Not anymore. The United Nations have taken up residence in the carpeted waiting room. On my bench are an extended family from Eastern Europe. Mother, two pushchairs, five children of various ages, the teenager on her mobile, the younger ones playing chase the monster and jump up and down on him, shrieking at full volume, until he’s flat across the floor.
In the far corner a couple from the sub-continent sit in fat, animated discussion. She has her head covered. He reads to her from a paper he flutters in the vapid air. She waves her arms. They could be discussing the price of wheat, the Council’s new wheelie bin proposals or news from relatives back home. Whatever it is they are not cowed into tranquillity by the fact that there are others in the room.
Two white girls in hoop earrings and trainers tap their feet to the sounds coming from their headphones. There’s leakage, a bit like a Brillo pad being rhythmically bounced off a metal tray, but by now in the rolling by years I’ve got used to that. It’s a background I can filter out.
The black Africans are something else. Joyous, alive and with personalities that reach out to fill the room. Already the tall one, the first to arrive, has engaged the receptionist in loud, joking banter. He is followed into the room by a friend wearing an oversize t who places a small beat box on the floor. Out of it come the amplified rhythms of juju hip hop. There is finger snapping, much smiling and a load of body swaying which Victor Sylvester would have described as dancing but here is simply a way of getting through the day. The two are joined by three others who enthusiastically bop around their corner of the waiting room as if this were a Saturday night at the bottle shop.
The receptionist ignores the intrusion. Arriving patients smile and sway in sympathy. The NHS should provide this everywhere.
Later, at the pharmacy over the road, where the waiting area is almost a completer replica of the doctor’s – same patients, same seats, same NHS information notices, but no fish - the extended Eastern European family cluster the desk. Bar a girl of around eleven no one speaks English. The pharmacist is asking important questions. Is she on any other medication? Where is the pain? Is it jabbing or is it there all the time? The daughter does her best, the mother points to her mouth, her throat and then her stomach. Yes, says the girl. Which one, asks the pharmacist? The mother smiles and nods her head. She is given a bottle of Gaviscon and a box of tissues and the suggestion that she go back to the GP if she needs any more help.
I get my usual armful of prednisolone plus various other medications to help counteract the steroid’s more evil ways. How do you cope, I ask? We do, is the reply. Behind me the Black Africans have all arrived. They haven’t got the beat box out yet but I’m sure they will.