It starts with me scratching the outside edge of my right palm. A little while later, when I grip the head-end of the carry chair, the hand feels puffy and tight. When I turn my hand over to investigate, I find an angry, reddening lump. Bitten, then – but by what? A mosquito? Horse-fly? Snake? I scratch it again before I remember I shouldn’t.
When we get back to base I take some Loratadine I have in my locker.
An hour later and my hand is markedly swollen. I show it to one of the A&E doctors. She turns my hand over gently, presses the oedematous flesh of it, rests the back of her hand against it to gauge the temperature.
‘That’s quite a reaction,’ she says. ‘Have you taken anything?’
‘Just some Loratadine.’
She tuts like she thinks that’s as effective as prayer. She gives me Chlorphenamine, tells me to keep an eye on it. ‘If this red patch starts to spread up your arm, speak to me again,’ she says.
The shift finishes.
I go home to sleep.
When I wake at midday, I’m already scratching. I hold the hand up in front of me. The whole thing looks like a rubber glove that I’ve blown up and tied off at the wrist, ballooning with fluid. It’s so tight that if I bunched my fingers into a fist the back of my hand would rip and a shower of gunk hit the ceiling.
I feel hectic, invaded.
I get dressed, go downstairs, wave the hand in front of Kath.
‘Oh my god! You’ve got to get that seen to,’ she says. ‘I’ll drive you down there.’
I pack an emergency bag of stuff – iPod, phone, wallet, book. The only thing I don’t pack is a Very pistol and some mint cake.
Kath drops me at the entrance.
‘I’ll call you,’ I say.
She drives away and I walk inside.
There are half a dozen patients distributed about the waiting room, all of them with a murderous, bedded-in look. A woman gets up to go to the water point; it’s like watching a prisoner exercising in the yard.
Should I go in via the ambulance entrance and speak to the doctors there? But I rarely get up this way and I don’t know the staff all that well. I recognised one of the nurses as we drove in, but it looked as if she was going home. I decide to be brave. At least this way I’ll get to see what happens as a regular punter.
I go up to reception and rest my comedy hand on the counter for dramatic effect.
After a long, professionally extended moment, the receptionist looks up.
‘Yes?’ she says.
‘Hello.’ I smile and pause, expecting her to recognise me.
Out of uniform, out of context, out of luck.
‘How can I help?’ she says.
I lose my nerve and lean in.
‘I’m actually a member of staff.’
‘I’m a member of staff. Ambulance,’ I whisper.
‘Just tell me what’s wrong,’ she says, hitting a key on the computer like it’s a panic button.
‘I’m supposed to be working tonight, but I’ve been bitten by something. On my hand. It’s become infected. Look at that! God knows what it was. A scorpion, maybe.’
I wait, then go on.
‘I don’t suppose I could have a chat to one of the doctors to get their advice,’ I say.
‘I’ll book you in.’
‘Couldn’t I just have a quick word with one of them? Only I’m supposed to be working tonight.’
‘Like I said, I’ll book you in.’
She frowns and sighs at the same time, her eyebrows and shoulders all part of the same pressure release mechanism.
‘Name?’ she says.
I give it.
She fills out the form.
‘Take a seat.’
‘Any idea how long?’
‘I don’t know,’ she says. ‘The Triage Nurse will see you presently.’
‘But it’s tracking up my arm.’
‘Speak to the Triage Nurse.’
I take a seat.
I settle in.
Take out a book.
This is good, I tell myself, smoothing out the page. It’s good to know the patients’ experience. Maybe this’ll make me more sympathetic.
I self-consciously hook the thumb of my right hand into the v of my t-shirt, to help with drainage. Maybe someone will see that. They’ll see how ill I am. They’ll see my oedematous hand, and come running.
This is what’s it’s like to sit in a waiting room.
Seen by a receptionist.
Waiting for a triage nurse.
For how long?
What if something’s terribly wrong? Will these minutes and hours count?
Oh my god! How long have you been like this? And you came in through reception? Jesus Christ! The poison is running up your arm and you sit and read a book?
I look around me.
No movement. No sign of anything happening at all.
No-one else remotely ill.
There’s a young couple laughing, holding hands, stroking each other like they’re waiting at the Town Hall to get married.
An elderly man snoozing over a puzzle magazine.
A woman texting beside a child as it picks over a ragged box of A&E toys.
Nobody looks ill at all.
I remember a story I heard about a flamboyant A&E consultant who, when the department was completely overrun with patients, went into the waiting room and asked everyone to stand up. ‘Good. Go home. You shouldn’t be here.’ Probably apocryphal, but bracing nonetheless.
I sigh and go back to my book.
My hand throbs like Wile E Coyote slammed his paw with an Acme mallet.
A coach party arrives at Reception.
I joggle my knee.
Massage my hand.
I feel like jumping up and throwing my book in the air. But instead I collect my stuff together and go in to see the triage nurse.
‘Take a seat.’
I take a seat.
She takes my temperature.
Fills in another form.
I smile and play the brave ‘Tsch! What a nuisance!’ card. ‘I’ve no idea what bit me. An alligator, maybe.’
‘I’ve seen lots of these infected insect bites this month,’ she says, clicking her pen definitively.
‘Yes. Take a seat back in the waiting room. The nurse practitioner will see you soon.’
I go back into the waiting room.
I re-open my book, make a savage fold along the spine, breathe, look around.
It feels like I’ve been rejected by the parole board.
There’s a shot I saw in yesterday’s paper – a panoramic, composite photo sent back from the Martian Curiosity explorer from where it landed. A vast expanse of desert wasteland, fringed with mountains in the distance.
This is how far away I am from seeing a doctor here.
A name is called. The boyfriend / girlfriend combo detaches with kisses and the man strolls happily in to see the nurse practitioner. The girl hums and picks up a magazine. What can be wrong with him? An STD, I hope.
I go back to my book, hating the world.
Check the time.
Go back to my book.
The light eases outside, blue to gold, summer to autumn.
If I ever make it outside again, how will the world have changed? Will I even recognise it?
Everyone will be travelling around in pods, wearing foil suits.
‘What year is this?’ I’ll say.
They’ll hurry past.
Me and my hand.
The man comes out again and his girlfriend stands up to throw her arms around his neck. He made it!
The Nurse Practitioner smiles, then checks her list.
‘Mr Kennedy,’ she says.
The doctor rotates my hand, probes the swelling.
‘Hm. It looks like it might be getting a little cellulitic, but I don’t think we’re at the IV anti-biotic stage just yet. Let’s give you a course of oral Flucloxacillin, see how we go with that. Keep on pushing the Chlorphenamine. You need to go home, keep your arm raised and watch the rest of the Olympics in style. Okay? Okay.’
He slaps my shoulder, sculls backwards on the office chair, stands and goes away.
The Nurse Practitioner finishes the paperwork.
‘There!’ she says. ‘A scrip for the Olympics! That can’t be bad, can it?’
I shake her hand with my comedy mitt, and stride back out into the world.