A&E reception stands guard over the entrances to the Walk-In minors, GP out of hours and major zones. It is a foursquare, plexiglass temple to Admin Kali, the multi-tasking Mother of Process and Information, Creator of Record, Taker of Number, Keeper, Caller, Confessor. Zoe and Claire are two of her acolytes. I imagine they were free administrative spirits haunting a grove here on this hill a thousand years ago, and the hospital was built around them. Now they are caught within these walls, and the years have stacked up, and the ambulance crews come and go, endlessly bowling in through the magic doors with snow in their hair or rain on their shoulders or sunshine on their backs, a relentless train of pilgrims wheeling past the windows, surrendering their paper tributes, bothering them for pens.
Today as Rae and I hand in our patient report form Zoe stands up and smiles.
‘Come round and have a look at what we’ve got,’ she says. ‘You’re going to love it. Come on.’
She slides the hatch closed and then comes round to let us in through the security door.
‘Have a look in there,’ Zoe says, pointing in to their little storeroom.
Under a desk there is a dog curled nose to tail in a nest of blankets. It looks up.
‘His name’s Scoot.’
Scoot is a Springer Spaniel, a ragged brown and white scrap of a dog whose black eyes seem to make up four fifths of his body. His expression is so desperately mournful even Disney would have blushed. It fells us both, bringing us to our knees beside the nest.
Claire appears in the doorway behind Zoe.
‘What do you think of our new assistant?’ she says.
‘He’s so-o-o cute,’ says Rae, mussing the dog. ‘I want him.’
‘Well what he wants is another Cheddar biscuit,’ says Claire. She produces half a packet. It makes its way along the line to Rae, who taps one out and presents it to the dog. But Scoot’s either eaten his fill or he’s too overcome with depression – a condition which, judging by his expression, he has learned to live with. He gives the biscuit a disappointed sniff and then plumps himself back down again.
‘How did you get Scoot?’
‘He came in with a woman who’s taken an overdose. Nothing too serious, but they’re keeping her on CDU for a little longer. It’s not worth calling the RSPCA ‘cos she’ll probably be discharged tonight. So we offered to look after him. And he’s no bother at all – are you? Are you?’
Scoot raises his eyebrows in our direction, then carries on staring at his front paws.
‘Trouble is, we’ve just heard matron is coming on at seven, and she’ll have us all taken out and shot.’
‘She never comes in at that time!’ says Claire, kicking the door frame. ‘Why now? It’s so typical of her.’
‘I don’t think even Matron would mind about Scoot, though,’ says Rae. ‘I mean, look at him!’
We all look at him.
Scoot gives a professional sigh, and wriggles down further amongst the blankets.
Outside, a crew wheels past the serving hatch with a man strapped and groaning on a spinal board.
Rae places the cheddar biscuit next to the vomit bowl filled with drinking water, gives Scoot a last, loving fuss, then stands up. Her knees give an audible crack and she staggers slightly.
‘You’re worse than me,’ says Zoe, offering her one of the biscuits. ‘You’re falling to bits.’
‘I don’t think I’ll do anything else tonight,’ says Rae, snapping down the biscuit in two bites and smacking the crumbs from her hands. ‘I think I’ll just curl up under the desk with Scootie pie. And if Matron comes in and makes a fuss, well then I’ll just have to bite her bony butt. We don’t care, do we Scoots? We don’t care.’
But the dog is already asleep.