Wednesday 25 June 2008

Madness takes a serious hold

13st 10lb; zero alcohol yesterday; 1,319 days; The Hospital and The Castle.

The optimistic belief that I will live until 4 February 2012 has been built on sand rather than rock; and that sand has been steadily eroded by my growing confidence that I have throat cancer. My GP clearly believes that I am a troublesome hypochondriac. But then I am acquainted with the cases of two people whose fatal brain tumours were similarly dismissed, their symptoms having been brilliantly diagnosed as the results of stress and conjunctivitis respectively. So I asked my GP to refer me to a consultant privately, so that I could not be accused of placing additional burdens on the overstretched NHS, but merely of being a queue-jumping neurotic.

This afternoon I drove to the private hospital in Newcastle for my appointment. I had carefully completed two long forms before I set off, and had them in my hand as I walked towards the car. Yet when I arrived I could not find them anywhere. I seriously wondered whether I should not ask for a transfer from an Ear, Nose and Throat specialist to one majoring on Alzheimers.

Foolishly, perhaps, I had expected the private hospital to be a cut above the NHS ones I visited when my parents were slowly shuffling off this mortal coil. Not so. The whole place was a building site, and I could find neither an entrance nor anything resembling a reception desk. When I called in at a “toilet”, it looked sorely in need of a good clean and contained nothing on which I could dry my hands apart from a packet of lavatory paper which had been torn open and strewn around the sink. When I did eventually locate a receptionist, she told me that I was in completely the wrong place, as Mr Q operated from the Something-or-Other building on the other side of the car park. I duly made my way across there, where I was unable to address the receptionist because she was fully occupied with being on the receiving end of a rant from a bald headed Mr Angry, who was extremely upset that she could not find his details on the computer system. Then he added a supplementary rant about the NHS Freeman Hospital, where “They spy on you, you know? They spy on you all the time.” I tried to remain sympathetic about this poor fellow, who was clearly attending for a consultation about his paranoia.

Eventually he moved on and I asked if I was in the right place to see Mr Q. Either my voice has almost gone under the ravages of cancer, or the receptionist was stone deaf. But I finally made myself understood and she and said, “Oh yes. In fact that WAS Mr Q!”


Some young lad proved to be in front of me in the queue, but he was only in there a couple of minutes and I was barely longer. Luckily Mr Q had calmed down a bit since his chat with the receptionist, and he even managed a grimace that could have been intended as a reassuring smile as I explained the background to my presence. As I did so, he glanced over the letter of referral from my GP, in which I thought I could make out the words “hypochondriac” and “hysteric”. He then took a cursory glance at my throat before peering up my nose to ascertain which nostril would afford the easier passage for his fibre optic probe. The left one won this beauty contest, so he sprayed it with local anaesthetic (which tasted like polystyrene cement used to smell, in the far distant days when I assembled Airfix kits) and inserted the tube. I did not think it had gone as far as my throat, but he asked me to say “Eeh” a couple of times (my Auntie would have rebelled at this point as she insists that people who say “Eeh” are frightfully common, and insists on the superior propriety of “Ooh”). Then he whipped it out again (the probe, that is) and pronounced that my larynx and pharynx were perfectly healthy. There was perhaps some evidence of gastric reflux, and my sense of an obstruction or constriction might be the result of a calcification of the larynx which is quite normal in people of my age. But there was definitely nothing sinister or serious wrong with me.


I wondered whether to go on seeking second opinions until someone agreed that I was terminally ill, but decided on balance to accept that my sentence of death had been lifted, and texted the LTCB from the car park to that effect. Then I drove to an electrical retailer at Kingston Park and treated myself to a machine that produces instant boiling water for hot drinks. My friends in Lewes had one, and it had greatly impressed me. Added to which, it should reduce my electricity bill and help to Save The Planet by preventing the inevitable wastage of boiling more than one actually needs in a kettle. The bloke on the till displayed a fantastic talent for reverse salesmanship by blurting out “They’re really good these, we’ve got one in the staff room. Not quite hot enough for tea, but they’re great for lots of other things.” Luckily for him I had spent four days making tea with an identical device, so I knew that he was talking bollocks. But at moments like these, it is remarkably easy to see why the retail division of UK plc might be struggling ever so slightly.

I drove home, unwrapped my new toy and made a delicious and really HOT mug of tea, then read the newspapers in the conservatory for an hour before driving to dinner at The Castle. I had been rather surprised to be invited, since I am not noted as an enthusiast for dinner or indeed for social events of any description. Added to which, my hosts had not spoken to me for a year, ever since I had one of my “Oh for f***’s sake!” outbursts when the female half of the partnership called on me one afternoon last summer, just as I was settling down for a nap in my conservatory.

However, I soon worked out that I must have been invited precisely because of my well-known anti-social tendencies, in the hope that I might deploy them on one of the other guests. This bespectacled, white haired lady with a booming voice and prominent chest proved to be a world class fantasist in the Walter Mitty mould, putting her indisputably into the top drawer of loonies even in a county renowned for its abundant supply of such characters. She claimed to be an actress, and to have achieved perhaps her greatest success in Carousel, singing “Climb every mountain” (of which she kindly gave us a sample). When I pointed out the logical inconsistency here, she revised her claim to having played the abbess in The Sound of Music AND the woman who sings “You’ll never walk alone” in Carousel. She also claimed to have won a role understudying Rula Lenska, which would be worth seeing since she must be at least a foot and a half shorter than the former Mrs Waterman, creating an interesting challenge for the costume department.

Conversation then turned to her absent husband, who my hosts had referred to as “an international man of mystery”. His “actress” wife claimed that he was involved in oil exploration, but when I playfully suggested that this might be a cover for something altogether more heroic, she confirmed that he had indeed fought oilfield fires alongside Red Adair, and had the T-shirt and the baseball cap to prove it. How I wish I had thought to ask whether he had ever been an astronaut. We then moved onto new heights of madness, in which she claimed that her husband was really a peer, but chose not to use the title, though he and his wife naturally still received very special treatment when they visited the Northumberland castle that had once been his ancestral home.

I had been furnished with a huge gin and tonic on arrival. To my surprise, when I finished this another enormous tumbler of the stuff was supplied without any enquiry being made as to whether I actually wanted one. I felt that it would have been rude not to drink it. Fine wines also flowed freely with the excellent dinner. With the benefit of hindsight, I cannot help feeling that perhaps a determined effort was being made to loosen my tongue so that I would say something to skewer this evident charlatan. I must have proved a sad disappointment. I even managed to avoid eye contact with their other guest throughout the evening, so that we did not collapse in a giggling heap on the floor in response to yet another outrageous claim. But we made up for this later when the other guest kindly gave me a lift home, and we checked my copies of Who’s Who and Burke’s Peerage, just in case there might have been the tiniest grain of truth in those stories about the modest but heroic hereditary peer. Well, what do you think?

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