Intimations of mortality: crossing the road to catch the 5B to Hangleton, I am nearly murdered by a Deliveroo rider on an electric bike. This is not the first time this has happened: they are fast, silent, and have enough kinetic energy to do a lot of damage. In Hove, the bus pauses for a very long time, and I look out of the window to see our driver and a similarly uniformed companion walking up the steps of a building announcing itself as the Samaritans. I blink and shake my head: it is actually a Salvation Army building. (There had been a sign for the Samaritans a few yards before, and the memory had lingered.) And the reason I am on the bus in the first place is because I am going to get an X-ray at the Hove Polyclinic to investigate a pain in my chest that had only partially been assuaged by antibiotics.
Why do they say “chest”? They mean “lung”. And at the polyclinic I see a black-frocked priest with a magnificent grey beard stalking the reception area. I consider doing as Italian men do when they see the clergy in a public place: touching my balls to ward off bad luck. The waiting room is empty: I could get away with it. But I decide not to. On the walk back to the bus stop from the clinic I pass a 1930s bungalow. It has a name: The Shingles. I take a photo.
I am not terribly worried. I have a friend, though, who is. At first she thinks I have pleurisy.
“I do not have pleurisy,” I text back.
“How do these rumours start?” she asks.
“Welcome,” I say, “to the internet.”
As I’m heading back she asks, “What did they say?” and I reply, “‘Put your affairs in order.’” They didn’t really, but she goes a bit frantic. Another friend texts me. “What did they say?” she also asks. “‘Take off your shirt,’” I reply.
“Then what?” she asks.
“‘OK, you can put your shirt back on now.’”
They’re checking to see if a patch of scar tissue, or something that looks like it on an X-ray, has grown since the last time they looked at it, three years ago. It was unchanged from before, and they think it’s the remnant of childhood whooping cough, which I dimly remember: the flickering candle in the Wright’s Coal Tar Vaporizer lamp next to my bed. This, when I was a child, was considered an efficacious remedy for respiratory illness, and yes, you read that correctly: the candle heated a lozenge or a fluid which filled the room with coal tar gas. It smelled medicinal: therefore it was considered to be medicinal. I believe the health establishment has come to its senses by now, in this respect at least.
So I am not too worried: the doctor who packed me off to the clinic didn’t seem too agitated. I once had an incredibly beautiful doctor – a Dr James – who, after a CT scan of the same lung, held my hand and simply asked if there was anything she could do for me. Dinner somewhere nice? I thought, but didn’t say it aloud. I was still with my wife.
My latest doctor – whose name, I noticed, was the same as a pseudonym I once adopted when working as a porter in a block of flats overlooking Regent’s Park – appeared appreciably younger than me, but had a collection of Wisdens on his shelves, each year from 1978 to 2021, outnumbering by a factor of five the medical volumes. I told him it was the single most reassuring sight I had ever seen in a doctor’s surgery. I asked why they were there, and not at home, and it turned out to be the same old story: his partner saying, in effect, either they go or I go. I also told him I was writing for the next issue. “No way!” he said, delighted.
Apparently, it takes two working days for the results and interpretation of the X-ray to come in; I write this on the morning of the second day. No news is good news, but then it is, as I have said, early in the day. The pain in the chest is worst at these times: for some reason, it more or less vanishes around the time I take the first glass of the evening.
Otherwise, life goes on. A letter from the council saying “DO NOT IGNORE THIS LETTER”, which I have not ignored; then again, I have not opened it either. Yet. In Waitrose, they had run out of four-packs of loo roll. But, as the body continues to evacuate, I need loo roll, and time waits for none of us, so I buy a nine-pack. The only other time I have done this when living on my own was in the early days of the pandemic, and everyone was buying loo roll like it was going out of style, and all the four-packs had gone. I hated walking back up the hill looking like a loo-roll hoarder. I now look at the huge, hulking mass of toilet paper in the bathroom. Nine rolls! How long will it be before I run through them? Suddenly, I have a terrible fear that they might outlive me. Maybe it is time I made a will. I could leave them to the Samaritans, or the Salvation Army, or the bus driver.
This article appears in the 17 Aug 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Six Months that Changed the World