Old England, New England
I’m sitting in the waiting room of my doctor’s surgery. It’s just after 11 in the morning. The waiting room contains a handful of people who are also waiting.
There are a few notices affixed to the walls of the room. One tells us that this particular medical practice was commended in the wake of a recent government inspection. Apparently a high proportion of clients thought that the service they received was ‘outstanding’. There’s another notice which advises us that if we are about to be sick we should go to the people at reception and ask for a bucket in which to be sick. Then there’s a challenging notice inviting us to consider whether or not we are alcoholics…
After glancing at these and other notices I look around to see who else is waiting to see a doctor. Across from me I see the back of two women’s heads. Their hairstyles interest me: they both have similarly coloured bluish-grey hair that is loosely permed. The hairstyles are fairly standard for women in the south of England who are aged anywhere between 65 and 85. The hair certainly does not approximate to any of the styles or colours that adorn the similarly-aged French head. No. They are less ‘packaged’ – more a kind of almost-smart unobtrusive regulation older-lady hair-do.
The two woman are talking to each other. They have clear voices and the sounds they make are almost musical. I can hear every word they speak. They enunciate with a precision that bears echoes of an older England – an England that is gradually fading away. They speak in a tone that makes me think of the past. I suppose that they are nostalgia-voices – if ever there are such things.
What are they speaking about? They are sharing details about where their offspring live and how often they see them. One has a daughter in Scotland: ‘I hardly ever see her. I’m quite resigned to my situation.’ The other has a daughter who lives nearby: ‘But she’s usually too busy to find the time to come and see me. She leads a harum scarum life, you see.’
As they speak two much younger women arrive. One is pushing a push-chair. The other is with her young son. They sit immediately opposite me. The one with the push-chair is as slim as a whippet. She wears a T-shirt with the words ‘I’m a f**king bitch’ scrawled across the front. She has one of the most angular faces I’ve ever seen – made more angular by the way her thin dark hair is brushed back and pressed hard against her skull. The other woman is fatter. There’s a suggestion that she might be en route to join that class of people who are overweight. Her hair is dyed blonde – but with intermittent streaks that are raw umber in colour. Her son is clutching a stuffed toy – a toy that is designed to represent Spiderman. I quite like the rather sweet face of this particular Spiderman.
The young boy spends the first few minutes punching his Spiderman in the face. Spiderman is pummeled relentlessly and then thrown onto the floor. Sadly for Spiderman there is no respite. He’s picked up from the floor and punched again and again. The contest is as one-sided as a contest can ever be. Absolute one-sidedness.
After a while the punching of Spiderman ceases to occupy the boy. He searches around in the waiting room and discovers an early-learning story-and-picture book. He flicks through the pages and returns to his fattish mother with the book.
‘Mum, read it to me’ he demands.
At first his mother ignores him. But, he continues: ‘Go on, mum, read it to me.’
All the while his mother scans the screen of her mobile ‘phone.
The boy insists: ‘Mum, read me this book.’ He implores her. He won’t give up. He is determined that his mother read him the book.
Finally the boy’s mother tersely and indignantly replies: ‘Read it yourself.’
The contrast between the elaborate speech of the older women and the clipped reduced speech of the younger ones is striking. The socio-linguists would have a field day …
A moment later my name suddenly appears in red digitised letters on the electronic notice system. My doctor Elizabeth B. is ready to see me in Room 8. She’s a new doctor and I like her. She’s only just joined the medical practice. She has a lovely smile and she wears a plain grey suit. Because she has only just joined the practice I decide (even though it may not be appropriate) to welcome her.
‘Welcome,’ I say.
‘Thank you,’ She replies. And then she adds: ‘It’s a lovely practice and the patients are really nice.’
Later, as I leave her consulting room, she turns towards me, and, as she says ‘Goodbye‘ she smiles radiantly.