Two days after my head-cracking spill on black ice, I still had a headache. I felt distressed and slightly nauseous. I knew that I was probably overthinking it and that worrying wouldn’t help. Too bad: my capacity for rationality and emotional restraint is not an abstract spiritual power but embodied in the little sack of jelly in my skull, and this had been rudely shaken up, like a carton of soft seasonal fruit dropped on the floor. It was normal, I read on the NHS website, for people with minor head injuries to feel low and anxious.
Because of COVID, my doctor is only doing phone consultations. The receptionist told me to ring NHS 24. The second time I rang NHS 24, they sent me to A&E.
Being ill and being alone have a mutually intensifying effect. In Tokyo with a minor toe injury that became infected and gummy in the dense summer humidity, I thought ahead to blood poisoning. I didn’t have a regular doctor. Who could I call? What if I became delirious and could no longer take care of myself? At what point would I inflict the responsibility of caring for me upon my small circle of friends, by making a fuss?
After a weekend of mounting panic over my mortality, I went to a pharmacy and was given a topical antibiotic. My weeping toe wound cleared up within 24 hours.
The enduring human assumption is that if you are around other people, even just visibly, someone will take up the slack. If you fall over in the street, someone will ring an ambulance. If you fall over in your single-person flat, it could take a while for the neighbours to notice the smell.
Some people are unfazed by the fragility of human existence. Hiking alone on a jungle trail in Brazil, a colleague was bitten by a random dog. He made his way to the nearest hospital and without knowing any romance languages, using only hand gestures and mime, he got himself a rabies jab. Back in the safety of the university tearoom, he told this tale with a certain retrospective swagger.
I lack the strength of character to hike alone on a jungle trail in Brazil.
On a weekday morning, the A&E was almost empty. Most of the chairs in the waiting area were taped up for social distancing and the reception staff were behind glass. I felt invisible. I sent a quick message to Bear that I was in A&E so someone would know where I was.
The friendly nurse who took my blood pressure asked where I was from. I didn’t have to say much before he twigged I wasn’t local. In big international cities, nobody asks where you’re from, because everyone’s from everywhere.
I was taken to a cubicle and waited some more. In another cubicle, an unseen person vomited copiously, a ghastly hacking sound between a cough and a sob. Another person conducted a long and cheerful one-sided conversation via mobile phone. I thought you weren’t supposed to use mobiles in hospital because they interfered with the equipment, but that rule no longer seems to apply. I dug out my own phone and found a missed call and a text from Bear, saying he was on his way.
The doctor who eventually saw me and sent me for a CT scan sounded vaguely North American. I didn’t ask her where she was from, and she didn’t ask me.