Saturday, 5 November 2011

Physician,heal thyself

My commuting has been a bit disappointing for a while now. 

I mean, the trains have been fine – largely on time, efficient, comfortable. But somehow I’d come to see them as more than that, as sources of edifying encounters, providing me with many interesting insights that I could share here. And yet – for several weeks, there’s been nothing.

So it was a delight last night to find myself at a table with two young women who lived up to all my expectations. 

When I first joined them, they were exchanging anecdotes, mostly drawn from one of the fine gossip newspapers with which this nation abounds. Children had been born to semi-celebrities, some within marriage, some not; there had been weddings, there had been divorces. One item was sufficiently salacious to be read out:

‘A couple have been forced to abandon plans to marry before the birth of their first child, when their parents, meeting to make the arrangements, realised the awful truth that the young people were brother and sister.’

To be honest, even I found that one interesting. A lot of stories down the ages have dealt with the fatal attraction of siblings brought up in separation – there’s plenty of mileage in that one yet.

In the meantime, my travelling companions had switched to more personal matters.

‘Do you think Anne is pregnant, then?’ asked one of them.

‘I think she’d like to be,’ replied the other.

‘Well, if she is, Astrid will get pregnant immediately too, you know.’

That struck me as quite an interesting proposition. My knowledge of human biology may not be what it was, but I didn’t think that this was how the process worked. The statement worried me even more later, when I discovered the profession of my travelling companions.

There was a fundamental problem with these putative pregnancies.

‘I don’t want Anne or Astrid to get pregnant. I’d hate to give up our skiing trips and we’d have to if they couldn’t come with us.’

That sentiment I could understand. I was beginning to feel that a week in a chalet alone with either of these two might indeed be a little painful.

At that point the train pulled out of the station. As though that was a signal, a bag appeared on the table and out came a ring-pull can of wine.

‘It’s Froglet,’ one of them announced. At least I think she said ‘Froglet’ – it’s hard to believe that anything with pretensions to be regarded as wine could be called ‘Froglet’, but that was what I heard.

She took a sip and made a face. ‘It’s perfectly awful,’ she concluded.

‘Oh, I don’t know,’ replied her friend, ‘I’ve always liked Froglet.’

They stopped complaining and both continued sipping throughout the rest of the trip, so I assume they managed to reconcile themselves to its poor quality.

Next came out a heat sealed plastic box of chicken legs. The first woman made several increasingly energetic but repeatedly unsuccessful attempts to open the packet.

‘It’s like they didn’t want us to open it at all,’ she said, ‘perhaps they think the smell’s so bad no one should eat it on a train.’

They both tittered merrily, but the thought didn’t prevent the second woman attacking the lid with her teeth. She got it open, immediately confirming the first one’s judgement: the contents smelled diabolical. Like their conversation, which they’d been conducting at a level that ensured all around could enjoy it, it was clear that most of the passengers in the carriage were now being allowed to share the aroma of their meal. Why, even the young woman opposite me, of Indian extraction and therefore almost by definition trained to behave impeccably, couldn’t prevent her nose wrinkling before recomposing her features into a mask of studied neutrality.

Odd that the women only started their meal once the train was moving. Is there some code of etiquette that bans eating on stationary trains? It wasn't until the first jolt that they got the food out, but they were well stuck in  before our carriage had properly left the platform.

Their conversation next turned to that other absorbing subject, money. There were complaints about the scale of pension contributions, and then of indemnity insurance – at which point a disagreeable suspicion began to form in my mind, quickly confirmed by the next subject.

‘Yes, I really want to get into repatriation medicine. You know – someone gets sick in Australia. They fly you out there business class, you’re there four days, and then you fly back. OK, you have to have some poor bugger with you on the return, but nothing ever happens: they never let them get on a plane until they’re fully recovered. And – they pay you for every hour from the moment they send you out. And they give you a £60 allowance for every meal.’

‘£60? It’s actually quite difficult to spend £60 if you’re not having wine.’

‘Exactly – I tell you it’s brilliant.’

I felt a chill in my soul. These were young doctors. Demonstrating, as if any demonstration were necessary, that medicine is a vocation, driven by altruism and concern for others.

Wine, woman and gossip: all the elements of a vocation.
With vile-smelling chicken legs and a dose of cupidity to add some spice
Now I’m on the brink of that stage of life when things start to fail and you have to get your money’s worth for all the contributions you've made to the healthcare system. You can imagine the delight with which I was contemplating the prospect of being some poor bugger in the caring hands of these two. Especially as I rather assumed their table manners were probably a good indication of what their bedside manner would be like.

The public address system announced, ‘we are now approaching our first stop, Luton.’

‘Luton?’ cried one of them, ‘oh doom.’

It made me feel quite proud to be getting off the train there. Because though I'm the first to criticise the many failings of Luton, last night it had one great thing going for it: it wasn't going to contain those two young ladies a moment longer than it took the train to leave the station. 

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