I have become an outpatient. For the very first time. Lucky me.
I arrive at the backstreet hospital entrance with minutes to spare, and enter the central waiting area of a nearly-Victorian building. All human life is here, sitting patiently on shabby chairs. A red LED display - reminiscent of the delicatessen counter at a 1980s supermarket - announces the lucky number of the next patient to be processed. Nearly a hundred lives are on hold here, awaiting the signal to proceed. The ceiling is high, peeling and oppressive. Had this hall been built more recently architects would surely have divided the atrium into at least two floors. A faint glimmer of natural light squeezes in through the doorway. I'm not quite sure where to go or what to do.
I try to report to main reception, but main reception is closed for lunch and doesn't reopen until 2. A hastily-printed message blu-tacked to the metal shutter advises me to go to Medical Reception instead. Medical Reception is also closed for lunch, and doesn't reopen until 1:30. I stand and wait in a narrow corridor, painted regulation magnolia (with regulation green trim). Three grey-haired ladies stare back at me, as if I am somehow too young to be here. Time passes. The queue lengthens. The list of fire regulations pinned to the wall fades imperceptibly.
Our receptionist returns from his fast-eaten sandwich. He checks in the first old lady, then hunts for her medical notes in the vast pile of paperwork filed beside his desk. "Is this it?" he asks, holding up a foot-high stack of bulging folders held together by a web of elastic bands. The old lady nods, and a nurse volunteers to carry this heavyweight medical history through to the waiting area beyond. When my turn comes, my notes are nowhere to be found. I wait for two minutes while the 20th century computer operating system boots up. My notes are still nowhere to be found. I am sent on a wild goose chase to the Outpatients Annexe, along a poorly signed long twisty corridor, where they don't have my notes either.
Eventually a third receptionist does manage to locate my paperwork, just a couple of feet away from the first place someone looked. My medical history can be summarised in a folder less than half a centimetre thick, for which I am duly grateful. I'm ushered into the waiting room beyond, again a riot in magnolia and green, where I hunt for an unoccupied corner. A table in the centre of the room is scattered with out-of-date Heat magazines, but most patients prefer to read the tabloid they've brought with them. Or just to stare into space. A husband leads his veiled wife into the room, points at the chair she must sit on and then sits down beside her. They wait in silence, as do I. As do we all.
At last my consultant arrives. I recognise him from the brief life-changing chat he gave me in a nearby hospital bed three months ago. I also recognise him from the nightclub where I unexpectedly bumped into him two days later, knocking back several beers with a friend of a friend. If this man dares to lecture me on my health, I promise, I'll remind him that he's not exactly pure as the driven snow himself. But I'm not to get the chance. A junior consultant calls my name instead and ushers me into a tiny room of his own. I explain my symptoms for the umpteenth time to the umpteenth person, and submit to another battery of tests. Nothing's changed, everything's still normally abnormal, which is exactly the news that everyone was hoping to hear.
Off I head, back into daylight, clutching yet another prescription to add to to my morning cocktail. Oh joy. And I'll be back here again in two months' time, to this long-forgotten outpost of austere Edwardian gloom, for my second outpatients appointment. I wonder how much thicker my notes will be by then.