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.
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.
“Have you been to a red-list country?”
“Have you developed a new cough?”
“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.”
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.
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