Angus was very late. But as I sat waiting in the upper lobby, the elevator doors suddenly parted, and there he appeared in full black leather riding gear, rain soaked from top to bottom, fluffing his hair with one hand, motorcycle helmet in the other, a grave face and an apologetic smile.
“Give me a minute, Mrs. Storey,” he said as he strode into his office, mumbling something about an emergency at a nearby hospital. Two minutes later, his booming voice rolled my name down the corridor, and I followed the raindrops to his desk.
Again, I sit across from him; only this time no idle chatter—we’ve become friends of sorts and are on a first-name basis, though here in England, doctors tend to be addressed by first names while patients remain called by surnames and titles. Surgeons, however, cannot be called Doctor, but rather go by the demotion of “Mister.” This I am told is a relic of days past when surgeons conducted their business in back rooms and butcheries. It was an unsavory profession and not respectable enough for the esteemed title.
The Brits, I’m learning, love such contradictions, and holdfast to this old slight with a prideful smirk. After all, we all know surgeons are the rock stars of medicine. Angus.
He is shaken today, has just come from emergency surgery to restore the shattered pelvis of a man who threw himself under the Tube. We talk long about the tragedy, the worst of it for the patient being the realization of his new fate—he will never walk again—but perhaps worse still, that he had failed. We sit in the sadness.
I am raw with physical pain, which opens ever more doorways of compassion to all pain, it is the world in which I exist, and for the moment I am that suicidal man, transported into a darkness I can hardly bear.
We get down to business. I lay on the table while he moves my rubbery limbs around, still puzzled by my hypermobility, despite my inability to walk or sit or stand without grimace. He’s a top doc in town, and well connected. He’s gotten me an appointment with the absolute best of the best blood specialist, tomorrow, called in a favor, can you make it work?
I step out into the city, ready for the rush, steadying my legs on pavement steaming from leftover rain. The walk to the Piccadilly line is only 10 minutes, for me more, and can feel like an eternity. I take varying routes, for chronic pain instinctively seeks the path of least resistance. There is nothing quite like hustling down a busy London street, swerving past hurried walkers, outdoor business luncheons, dodging wiggly cyclists and frenzied motorbikes, black cabs, Ubers, and Smart cars, all caught in the rush of this brimming city, and to suddenly turn into a hidden little road.
I find myself enveloped into absolute stillness, not a soul to be seen, just a soft breeze weaving through sunbeams. And then, what a gift!—the sing-song clang of church bells overhead. And despite my dread, I smile, for I have fallen through another doorway, and all is well, as it always has been, and always will be.
The next day is a holiday. My husband’s away, I’ve got kids, and we’ve gotta haul ass for my appointment with the specialist.
We tear through the rush of rain and wind, pushing against it with umbrella forward – never mind the wet, it pelts us directionless and everywhere at once. But the wind, it pushes into our chests, faces down turned, and straightening our hair. The umbrella is our best hope to cut through its pushing palms, its protest of our pace, slower than we need, for we are very late.
Abaeze, my son’s best mate, vomited twice along the North Circular, and finding a safe pull-over spot for his expulsions took away even more precious time.
He did the same last night all over the dinner table—and once I’d cleaned it up, dutifully and lovingly without a single gag, he simply asked that I make him another. I took everything back out of the fridge, and start dinner over. We adore him. We’re the first family that has been granted enough trust for overnights, and I’m careful to look after him well. He says he just does this, he’s not really sick, and the boys carry on laughing like nothing’s happened.
I’d allowed two hours to get across London, deliver Abaeze home, and find the hospital. Navigation proclaimed one hour, but that Pollyanna app is far too positivist, and like most who are not skeptical enough, just became an endless liar. I had become accustomed to doubling its predictions, because it’s London, after all. Just locating the hospital was a feat—not so much finding it, but figuring out how to get my car somewhere near it across the lanes of one-ways and cut-offs and Lord-knows-what’s of typical ancient road plans choked in modernity.
But I did, and by spectacular luck found parking within two blocks. My PayToPark app wasn’t set to Westminster, I would have to call it in, which is what I did as we fought the wind, umbrella in one hand, phone and credit card in the other, listening intently above the city and storm, typing in the numbers, pushing the proper prompts. My poor boy, running behind me to catch up—me, impatient and pleading, telling him to keep pace, inwardly wishing for not the first time this year he were more independent, less needful, not such an additional burden in times of stress. It’s an unfulfilling prophecy, this dance we’ve stepped into since we moved here. I need him to pull less, walk on his own more—but when the temperature rises, I become efficient, stern, unyielding, and it quickly capitulates him into a semi-hysterical state, which leads to loud crying and many tears, which means everything has to stop to tend to the new crisis of his need.
I slow. I comfort. Yet I still haven’t found the convincing calm needed to keep the seas glassy, with urgency hidden beneath my breast, my even and slowed breath, relaxed jaw, smooth forehead, heavy lids—all the techniques I’ve worked so hard over the years
to master during his freak outs. None are enough to trick him into believing I’m not pressed, stressed, and really, really wishing it weren’t happening. Today I’m just not trying. I rush on, he will have to keep up, and he does.
We arrive at the foyer, where the doorman, old, Asian, polite to the point of genteel, requests—insists—I sheathe the umbrella. He hands me a sleek plastic tube, and while I shake, fold and close our protector (now, our late-maker) he fumbles to open the small hole, humbly helping. “Please Madame,” he implores, “the brolly.”
We can barely make it fit. I feel a surge of rage, telling him we’re extremely late and can’t be arsed. The American in me comes out, and I shoot him an angry, who-the-fuck-are-you? stare. I instantly regret the sharp blade of my gaze. He is doing his job. I apologize, and together we sheathe the brolly.
Upstairs, we reach the lobby of the absolute best blood analyst in London —nay, the whole of the UK.
I’m told I’m late. No shit. I wait.
The doctor summons me. He is such an extreme-looking character that I’m stunned. A bloodless blood doctor, so pale as to be nearly blue, so tall and thin it’s like a trick of the eye to look at him, to watch him move. It defies perspective—were this a drawing, he should be filling the space more, and any viewer would assume artistic license had been taken. He is probably seven feet. My son, walking a few paces ahead, between the doctor and me, turns and gives me a look that makes me rejoice in pleasure at having a witness, most especially him; we share in the quirk.
The doctor wears a suit, navy with sky blue pinstripes. Extremely high waist, comedy-skit high, waistcoat, maybe a pocket watch, though my memory is probably superimposing, because it fits so well. It’s a retro outfit from the 1970’s, made at the time as a nod to the 1910’s, I’m guessing. He is pushing 90. Or more.
We situate across him in his office, his long hands spread over the large desk. He’s perturbed by the presence of a child. I explain it’s a holiday. He’s so stern and bothered, he reads my file and taps his pen and repeatedly darts severe eyes at my son, who’s quietly reading his Kindle. I feel the need to explain that he is not, in fact, playing a video game, but in intellectual pursuit, that the device is, in fact, a book. I’m equally perturbed and more than equipped to match his meanness at the moment. “Seen & not heard” is intolerable as is, but my son is obeying the old maxim well, and a little politeness from this doctor—or just refraining from rudeness—is not much to ask.
But something is happening. He’s shedding his cold skin and getting positively googly-eyed. I can almost see the sparkling cloud of Disney-style enchantment settle upon his pale skin, so shiny and waxen, cold blue beneath. Truly, each vein accounted for in one glance. His eyes, brilliant blue, go full-on Pepe Le Peux. I am astonished.
His metamorphosis from chilly aristocrat to love-struck suitor is sudden, palpable. He looks over my files, looks over me, talks of ballet, how young I am, how abominably difficult this all must be.
We walk over to the exam table, a silly exercise because all he is here to do is run blood. He has me move around a bit, appraises. I regret the frilly blouse I chose, it’s feminine and romantic and slightly low cut. I’d picked it up in Camden Town the week before, surrounded outside the changing room by a multigenerational clan of lively Italian women. They insisted I buy it. It appears they knew their stuff.
After a series of utterly nonsense examinations, we sit again across from one another. He laments the long list of doctors I’ve visited, and understands the difficulties of mystery. He wants to be of help, and lets me know, in soft tones, positively pregnant with innuendo, that I am welcome to call him anytime I have a question, or of course, to visit, if even, only for a cup of tea. A long silence ensues. My son quietly reads.
This is the thing about the whole of the UK—one slips in and out of time. It is not enough to walk upon stones treaded by a thousand footsteps over a thousand years’ time, or sit in a Jacobean chair warmed by revolutionary asses of the past. No. It is these moments, when I clean without question the puke on the table for the Nigerian prince who has a private detail (except today) and prepare him an innocent request entirely devoid of cheek or impropriety, but an absolute expectation—another identical meal (What, no bread? Well, then cake, of course…); or this, come face-to-face with a living (barely) relic of ideas long gone, a flesh-and-blood, walking, talking apparition of the days when the aristocracy—the men in particular—ruled so supremely that one would not even flinch to make advances in this fashion. Never mind the ethics of the exam room, never mind the child present, and really, never mind whether I would even find him remotely suitable as a sexual partner. The arrogance. In America, these things are rare, though here can be daily. I don’t bother being outraged. I thank him, he takes my blood, and we leave.
That evening as I’m cooking dinner, the bell rings. At the door stands the neighborhood rag-n’-bone man, selling dishcloths. Three quid for five towels. He is a peasant, dirty but pleasant and anything but arrogant. In America, I wouldn’t have opened my door; but here, I don’t bother being afraid. I thank him. He takes my money and leaves. He rolls his cart down the street, and I imagine the ghost of a horse leading his way.
The next day—today—I receive the traditional letter written to patients from all doctors following visits, now in email form. No answers, still, but the visit was “highly pleasurable.” Private number included.
Some things never change.