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24 January 2024

Confronting mortality on a 5A bus to the hereafter

After a visit to the Polyclinic, I now have to wait for my results. Scanxiety, I believe it’s called.

By Nicholas Lezard

To the Hove Polyclinic for an X-ray. Polyclinic: where you go when you’re sick as a parrot. I made this joke up myself, and that’s why I’m paid the big bucks. I’m not sick as a parrot but I could be if the X-ray doesn’t go how I want it to. Well, I’ve had a good innings. No I haven’t. And the doctor thinks it’s just a muscle strain and she looked very competent. Probably half my age, but competent. There were only two awkward moments: when she asked me where it hurt and I started taking my clothes off, and when she asked me what I did during the day. This question always gets me into a bit of a panic, because the most accurate answer is “nothing”.

“… Nothing,” I said, after a pause. The look she gave me suggested the insufficiency of the answer.

“… I read books,” I said, after another pause. And this is true. I think she wanted to know if I did any exercise, or just walked about a bit, but no, I don’t really do that. Later on in the day I remembered that I also make tea, so that’s two things, but I had long since left the doctor’s and I didn’t think it would be worth anyone’s time for me to call them up and let them know.

I can’t really walk about much in the Hove-l: there isn’t space. There isn’t even space for a sofa, but what if there was? All I would do is lie on it, and then I’d take the duvet and a couple of pillows over and, really, I might as well have just stayed in bed – so that’s what I do. And what else is there to do, at my age, in bed but read? And the best stuff, apart from this magazine, of course, comes in book form. I exercise when I go to and from Waitrose and when I go up the stairs, and I do that at least every two days and that’s plenty for me: it’s virtually a gym membership. (As Homer Simpson once memorably asked, “What’s a gym?” – and he pronounced it with a hard G and to rhyme with “time”. I have pronounced it like that ever since.) Also, these last few days I’ve spent a lot of time shivering, and that burns as many calories as a 5k run, I’ve heard.

So to get out of bed and go to the Polyclinic, which is two and a half miles away and involves freezing your tits off waiting for the 5A to Hangleton, is a huge deal for me. You don’t want the 5B, because that doesn’t stop at the Polyclinic at all. It deviates so the nearest stop is about three-quarters of a mile away, and that’s not fun in weather like this, especially if you haven’t got a hat and you’ve forgotten your scarf. In the summer it must be another matter, but then no one gets ill in the summer. I did make the journey on a much milder winter’s day and the walk was pleasant enough; I passed a 1930s house called “The Shingles” and I stopped to photograph it because I thought it was amusing.

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Anyway, the bus ride is a half-hour journey so I brought a book with me to make it feel like home, but I was so entranced by the drabness, under the leaden skies, of north-west Hove that I didn’t even look at it. I also like looking out for the two major landmarks on the journey: the very impressive Salvation Army building, spick and span and trimmed in red, and the shop “JOEIES”, whose spelling always makes me feel as though I have gone slightly mad. It might be a restaurant, but all I can do is look at the sign.

I have very little to report about the Polyclinic, except that one is given barely enough time to strip to one’s T-shirt before being called in for the X-ray. I thought of making my parrot joke but they might have heard it before, and anyway my T-shirt was hilarious enough: a present from my children, it is in the style of a Ramones T-shirt but instead says “ROMANS” and in place of the band members’ names it says Horace, Catullus, Virgil and Ovid. As I have read all these poets, I do not feel as much of a fraud as some people who wear a Ramones T-shirt without ever having heard them.

Now I have a two-day wait before hearing the results: scanxiety, I believe it’s called. I had a couple of intimations of mortality when I left the clinic: first, the bus was pulling away from the stop as I came outside, and I called out to the driver, for the 5A is not as frequent as I would like it to be. He stopped, pulling in about 50 feet away. It was very kind of him but I had to sprint and, as you might have gathered from what you’ve already read, I’m not in the best shape for that.

“Thank you,” I gasped as I got on board.

“Thought I’d make you run,” he said.

“What, when I’ve just been to the Polyclinic?” I panted. I thought of telling him that this was where you went when you were etc but he, too, might have heard that before.

The other intimation was the view of the vast necropolis of Hove Cemetery from the top deck as we drove back into town. So many, I thought: I had not thought death had undone so many. Well, in a couple of days I’ll know whether I’ll be joining them soon, won’t I?  

[See also: His quiet charisma bowled me over, and he became a friend for life]

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This article appears in the 24 Jan 2024 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory Media Wars