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9 September 2021

Sitting among the curious characters in A&E, I realise I’m just as curious as them

Most intriguing are the prisoner and prison officer. I am dying to hear what they are saying.

By Nicholas Lezard

Accident & Emergency is, for a Wednesday afternoon, more crowded than I thought it would be. It’s a good place, of course, to go people-watching. One has enough time, usually, to construct a whole series of entire life stories, or to indulge in idle speculation. The man sitting next to me in the hi-vis jacket with a map of brown crusted blood over his right ear; he seems cheerful enough. The freckly young woman in the “Playboy” hoodie who plays music on her phone and puts her feet on the seats; why does none of this annoy me in the way it would if I were on a train with her? The incredibly old woman, more wizened than anyone I have ever seen, but foetal with anxiety and panic; “We’ll put you in this room away from everyone,” says the nurse, “and you can have a nice little sit.”

Most intriguing are the prisoner and prison officer. The prisoner is in grey; the officer in, of course, his own uniform. They are conjoined by a pair of Victorian-looking handcuffs. They chat occasionally to each other, quietly, affably enough. In fact, they look, respectively, like father and son. I am dying to hear what they are saying. The body language suggests nothing extraordinary: the weather, how long they’re going to wait, how busy the doctors and nurses are.

[See also: A promised parcel has yet to arrive. It gets me thinking about what else is missing in my life]

As I tend to in such situations, I over-explain to the nurse at registration. “Well, I have this terrible pain in my chest that I get about once a year and it’s invariably an infection and I rang the GP and when he rang back because they couldn’t speak to me right away he said I had better go to A&E because I’d said that I was getting out of breath walking uphill and he thought maybe I was having a cardiac event, that’s what they call it these days…”

It is not what she wants or needs to hear.

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“Have you been to a red-list country?”

“No.”

“Have you developed a new cough?”

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“Well I’m not sure if you’d call it new, but I suppose I have in a way but honestly, coughing is really painful right now so…”

“It’s a yes or no question.”

“No.”

She points a thermometer at my forehead and writes a figure on a small rectangle of paper, the size of a raffle ticket. It’s 35-point-something. I wish I still had it. “You’re running a bit cool,” she says, and I am prompted to replay that yes, this has always been the case – trying to get off school with a temperature was always a nightmare, I had to hold the thermometer in a cup of tea or against the lightbulb when my mum wasn’t looking, but that wasn’t always easy because of her ceaseless vigilance, etc, etc. But in the end I decide not to prolong the conversation and go to the front desk, to tell the person behind the counter all about my cough, which may or may not be new.

[See also: Looking at the smashed teapot lid, I thought: there, in a nutshell, is my life]

Behind me, I hear the next arrival being asked if he’s been to a red-list country. “No,” he says. “I’ve been abroad.” I know this is a magazine whose contributors are expected to be committed to the concept of democracy, but there are times when I wonder.

I look around the room. Are A&E waiting rooms a true sample of the local society? One would think so. There might be a certain weighting towards the kind of people who have accidents, and cartoons set in them are obliged by convention to show the idiotic – eg, a child with their head stuck in a saucepan – but there’s nothing like that here. There’s my next-door neighbour with the dried blood, but he seems happy enough on his phone, chuckling and talking to himself from time to time. Again: not annoying. Why not? I get annoyed very easily at the best of times. Perhaps this is because it is not the best of times.

I notice that among a crowd of about 50 people, there is not one person who is black. I know for a fact that BAME people live in Brighton, but that the town is perhaps a little bit too white; here the monoculture is very much in evidence. I am also, as far as I can tell, the most middle-class person in the room, apart from the doctors passing back and forth. I’m certainly the only person carrying a copy of the New Statesman. (I have brought a pen with me so I can do the crossword. For all the good it does me, I might as well have brought a stick of rhubarb.)

The time passes. I check the cricket scores. India are at a stage in the game when the main plan is to do as little as possible, as slowly as possible. If I am having a cardiac event, it’s not going to be made worse by following the Guardian over-by-over commentary.

Eventually I am seen; have my blood sampled, my lungs listened to, X-rayed. The question I always dread is asked.

“What kind of work do you do?”

“I’m, er, a writer.”

“What kind of stuff do you write?”

And, as always when I am asked this question, words fail me.

This article appears in the 10 Sep 2021 issue of the New Statesman, The Eternal Empire