Begone, financial vampires

AL Kennedy is on the move. Pondering the romantic potential of Stockholm Syndrome, she takes time ou

It was bound to happen – the final twangy bit holding my mental compartments together (or, indeed, apart) was eventually bound to go ping and leave me. I think that happened in Blackpool. Not sure. I have, since we last spoke, been flinging myself into the joys of a writer’s autumn: festivals, festivals and then some touring and more festivals. So Wigtown was followed by Blackpool, by London, by Stockholm, by Cheltenham and by I no longer even care where I am now: wherever it is has food and a bed - I therefore like it. And most evenings I will be up on my hooves doing comedy, or reading, or inconversationing, or perhaps all three. Of course, there is other work to do during the moderately endless hours of travelling. These hours being extended vastly by my plane phobia. For example, I went to Stockholm by train. Or rather, eleven trains and two ferries – my, how I laughed, cried, hallucinated, collected spare change in multiple currencies and drank too much coffee – well, who needs to sleep ? There are things to do.

The things would currently involve rewriting a book of short stories to prevent its shades of misery from being so utterly repetitive that it causes people to die simply from holding it while still in the bookshop. (At this point my publisher would want me to insert some kind of disclaimer to point out that it’s actually a lovely volume full of kittens and sunshine, but you’re hardly going to swallow that, are you? It’s by me.) So my hands are covered in red ink and my loathing for every word is increasing exponentially. I also, for at least two very pressing reasons, have a film I need to hit with a hammer until it works – plus, autumn is the time when writers have to release damp-eyed, gangle-legged young projects into the maze of razor blades and paperwork which is the BBC offers round… off they go, often to fall into the first water hazard, sometimes to trot blithely on towards the next levels of risk, torment and origami. I am sustaining myself with a new CD of music from the Tower Ballroom’s Mighty Wurlitzer – genuinely, the first unremittingly jaunty sound you’ll hear as the demons haul you under to your just deserts

Still, I do quite like the travel – Wigtown had lobsters and cake, Blackpool was Blackpooly and allowed me to learn from various palmists that I am married, divorced, due to have twins and going out with a man who has one bad knee and the letter t, l, a, d, m, n, or c in his name. So that was reassuring. And Stockholm was a treat – always wanted to go there in case they had any Syndrome left. Given my busy schedule and cosmetic disadvantages Stockholm Syndrome represents one of the few ways I would realistically get a gentleman (with or without working knees) to commit himself fully to being fond of me. Four or five weeks in my fundungeon and I feel almost anyone would be able to convert their fear, pain and outrage into sincere and lasting affection.

No. Actually, after more than a month of hostage maintenance – the first aid, the dry cleaning, dealing with the whining and the blood – I don’t know if I wouldn’t be terminally jaded about the whole business. So that’s another option gone.

One benefit of my journeying has been that it keeps me from brooding about the sixteen grand I’ve apparently given to a wunch of bankers for shagging my economy by balancing it on funny money and a house price bubble. I would just mention that their plodding brand of duplicitous charlatanism was exactly what we were told would bring new life to the NHS, our schools, our public transport… Can we just stop pretending we believe that shit now? If we want to know about health care could we, for example, just ask doctors and nurses, maybe focus on keeping people alive in the most convenient and pleasant ways possible? Maybe we could chuck money at the systems which will help us survive when everything topples into the pit we have dug for ourselves and are currently still dancing round pretending that consumer debt and singing lalalalala will sort everything out? And, dear God, could no one else tell me that controlling the actions and bonuses of these weasels would drive them to other countries and that this would be a bad thing. That’s like suggesting the prosecution of burglars should be suspended in case it causes them to use their housebreaking skills on Johnny Foreigner. If our financial vampires want to go and knacker someone else’s banks – let them try. I’d even conjure up a poem to commemorate their departure – I’m busy, but I’d make the time for that.

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She knew every trick to get a home visit – but this time I had come prepared

 Having been conned into another couple of fruitless house calls, I now parry the proffered symptoms and generally get to the heart of the matter on the phone.

I first came across Verenice a couple of years ago when I was on duty at the out-of-hours service.

“I’m a diabetic,” she told me, “and I’m feeling really poorly.” She detailed a litany of symptoms. I said I’d be round straight away.

What sounded worrying on the phone proved very different in Verenice’s smoke-fugged sitting room. She was comfortable and chatty, she had no fever or sign of illness, and her blood sugar was well controlled. In fact, she looked remarkably well. As I tried to draw the visit to a close, she began to regale me with complaints about her own GP: how he neglected her needs, dismissed her symptoms, refused to take her calls.

It sounded unlikely, but I listened sympathetically and with an open mind. Bit by bit, other professionals were brought into the frame: persecutory social workers, vindictive housing officers, corrupt policemen, and a particularly odious psychiatrist who’d had her locked up in hospital for months and had recently discharged her to live in this new, hateful bungalow.

By the time she had told me about her sit-in at the local newspaper’s offices – to try to force reporters to cover her story – and described her attempts to get arrested so that she could go to court and tell a judge about the whole saga, it was clear Verenice wasn’t interacting with the world in quite the same way as the rest of us.

It’s a delicate path to tread, extricating oneself from such a situation. The mental health issues could safely be left to her usual daytime team to follow up, so my task was to get out of the door without further inflaming the perceptions of neglect and maltreatment. It didn’t go too well to start with. Her voice got louder and louder: was I, too, going to do nothing to help? Couldn’t I see she was really ill? I’d be sorry when she didn’t wake up the next morning.

What worked fantastically was asking her what she actually wanted me to do. Her first stab – to get her rehoused to her old area as an emergency that evening – was so beyond the plausible that even she seemed able to accept my protestations of impotence. When I asked her again, suddenly all the heat went out of her voice. She said she didn’t think she had any food; could I get her something to eat? A swift check revealed a fridge and cupboards stocked with the basics. I gave her some menu suggestions, but drew the line at preparing the meal myself. By then, she seemed meekly willing to allow me to go.

We’ve had many out-of-hours conversations since. For all her strangeness, she is wily, and knows the medical gambits to play in order to trigger a home visit. Having been conned into another couple of fruitless house calls, I now parry the proffered symptoms and generally get to the heart of the matter on the phone. It usually revolves around food. Could I bring some bread and milk? She’s got no phone credit left; could I call the Chinese and order her a home delivery?

She came up on the screen again recently. I rang, and she spoke of excruciating ear pain, discharge and fever. I sighed, accepting defeat: with that story I’d no choice but to go round. Acting on an inkling, though, I popped to the drug cupboard first.

Predictably enough, when I arrived at Verenice’s I found her smiling away and puffing on a Benson, with a normal temperature, pristine ears and perfect blood glucose.

“Well,” I said, “whatever’s causing your ear to hurt is a medical mystery. Take some paracetamol and I’m sure it’ll be fine in the morning.”

There was a flash of triumph in her eyes. “Ah, but doctor, I haven’t got any. Could you –”

Before she could finish, I produced a pack of paracetamol from my pocket and dropped it on her lap. She looked at me with surprise and admiration. She may have suckered me round again, but I’d managed to second-guess her. I was back out of the door in under five minutes. A score-draw. 

Phil Whitaker is a GP and an award-winning author. His fifth novel, “Sister Sebastian’s Library”, will be published by Salt in September

This article first appeared in the 23 June 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Divided Britain