Why is the waiting time for A&E the same as a flight to Gothenburg?

The adventures of a broken toe.

New Statesman
Turn up with a broken toe at A&E, and be prepared for a wait. Image: Getty

When your luck runs out, it runs out all at once. I muse on this as I enter the third hour of my wait in A & E. The day before, I had banged my little toe against the door frame so hard that it is still too sensitive to touch a day later and the configuration of the pain strongly suggests that a bone might have been broken.

I suppose there’s nothing much they can do with a broken little toe, except tell you not to use it, which I think I could work out all by myself, so what I was really after in St Mary’s was information and validation of my own suffering. Which, after the rather painful journey to the hospital – it’s a 15-minute stroll from the Hovel but a rather longer hobble – was fairly acute.

Still, what the hell is this, my waiting here with a possibly broken toe (I did it while rushing to get the clothes out of the machine, which makes me one of the few people in the modern age to have hurt themselves while doing the laundry) when there are people around me visibly suffering? As I write, my friend Leyla Sanai is contemplating the amputation of her leg because of her scleroderma, and is bearing her sufferings with a fortitude that is beyond comprehension. There is a young Spanish man sitting next to me who appears to have something terrible going on with his arm. “Joan,” calls a nurse from a consulting room. He looks up and there is a silence. Of all the people in this room, none is prepared to answer to the name Joan.

“Joan Estevez,” says the nurse. The young Spaniard lifts his head. “Juan,” he says.

“It says ‘Joan’ here,” replies the nurse, in tones which suggest that the name “Juan”, which this young man seems to be claiming as his own, is an imposture and an affectation. Eventually, though, as no one else seems to be claiming the surname “Estevez”, she lets him go into the room.

The quarter hours go by. A nurse had offered me a couple of co-codamol on turning up and I had accepted more out of politeness than need; in rest, the toe was quite docile, but the nurse had charmed me by calling me “sweet pea” and I had a hunch that a couple of these on an empty stomach would have a rather soothing effect. They do but I recognise another pain bubbling up: that of the end of a brief interlude of domestic happiness.

The Beloved, you see, has been offered a job in Gothenburg for something approaching twice the salary she is bringing in here. The offer was made some time ago and she has been putting off making a decision for as long as she can. I have been to Gothenburg and wouldn’t go back there if you paid me, but she is for some reason enamoured of the country and the language; so it’s rather as if someone had offered me a job in Verona.

Is that right? In my campaign to dissuade her from going, I have been doing a spot of research, both on the internet and the internot (ie, books) and have come up with some killer facts about this country, for which I am beginning to nurture a dislike – as you would a rival in love.

“There are 12 people in Sweden,” I tell her, only slightly massaging the facts to suit my purpose. “In the summer, three of them are eaten alive by giant mutant mosquitoes. In the autumn, feral moose, pissed out of their minds on decaying windfalls, account for about four more. Those that remain blow their brains out in winter, which lasts for nine months.

You can only buy alcohol from a small corrugated-iron shed in Malmö, and when you do your name is put on a criminal register, right next to the paedophiles and heroin traffickers. A bottle of beer costs 6,000 kronor and tastes of moose piss, for the very good reason that that is what it is made from.”

I reinforce my point by demonstrating that when you type the words “bad things about Sweden” into Google you get 36,200,000 results (try it). But it’s a jump up in terms of her career and if I was the one to hold her back by having a crying fit, I’d feel guilty for the rest of my life. So, I know that all I can do is try to ignore my own very strong feelings for once and think of what is best for her.

Hence, perhaps, my concentration on my toe. Which, as it turns out, is not broken (but a week later is still painful and impossible to touch). It took four hours to learn that; as long as a return flight to Gothenburg, I reflect.