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Squashed against the doors of the tube in a muffled silence, punctuated by the tinny sound of someone’s iPod and the occasional cough, I think of Michael Jackson:
The foulest stench is in the air
The funk of forty thousand years
And grizzly ghouls from every tomb
Are closing in to seal your doom
Because “although you fight to stay alive, your body starts to shiver” when that little cough from behind the fat man whose suitcase is on your foot sifts through the air and into your ears, nose, mouth… gross. I am now lying on my sick bed. The windows are open and I can hear people on the street below, coughing and spluttering as they walk past. London is sick, and people are mean to ill people. I snarl at the sneezers on the tube each day, because their filthy vermin cold will catch me, and now it has, but an old friend once took this meanness to another level. If there is a “we” in “wellness” then the “I“ in “illness” is for isolation, which is where you must keep yourself until you are better. This old friend told his flatmate that if she were ever ill, she must stay in her bedroom. Months later, he walked into the kitchen to find her with her hand on the open fridge door, coughing. So he promptly asked her to move out.
“I don’t care if we’ve been mates for five years, she coughed into the fridge!” he said, pleading his case. But this was a far-out mean hand to play, and if someone threw me out of the flat for accidently coughing by an open fridge door, I would… err… do something really horrible.
Then yesterday, in a fever, I realised that even doctors are mean to ill people. Fair enough, the NHS is under huge pressure, cuts are being made, patient lists are growing and now it’s being turned into a regulated service. But actually, the average salary of your local GP is around £110,000 a year. The nurse that I visit on the NHS, whom I love, is “not qualified” to see me, so the doctor, a small man in his early forties, who sits with one foot resting on the other knee, and greets everything I say with a crumpling of the face, is the man I pitifully reveal my woes to.
“I don’t know what you’ve got.” He sighs wearily. “That’s not my job, I just make a guess. If you can’t breathe, use the inhaler.”
“But I already can’t breathe, and I have an inhaler,” I splutter, “and it doesn’t help.”
“Show me how you’re using it,” he says. I inhale a tiny amount, all that my seized up lungs will allow, and then splutter again.
“I have a fever too,” I whisper. “I’m feeling really really ill and spent most of yesterday unable to move.” But he only smiles knowingly, like I’m trying to trick him, but into what? Helping me?
“My sister…” I whisper, “had a friend who got a cold but carried on working, going out and smoking. Then he got a cough, and a week later he turned up at her house with a fever, coughing like I am now. He had bronchitis, went to the hospital and was diagnosed with pneumonia.”
The doctor raises his eyebrows.
“They had to put him into a coma for ten days,” I tell him, “to medicate him so that he could recover.”
“You’re borderline asthmatic,” he says. “So you have problems breathing when you exercise?”
“No, it’s bronchitis! I don’t know how I’m going to get home… I think I’m going to die.”
He hands me a prescription for another inhaler and some antibiotics to be taken at the weekend if I still can’t breathe. I really dislike him, but for some reason, whilst shuffling out of the room, I say, “Thank you.”
“Don’t take your body to the doctor as if he were a repair shop,” says the psychiatrist Quentin Regestein, because their job isn’t to repair but to “guess”. It’s to fold their arms over their stethoscope and sigh, as if it’s not their day either.
Two days later and I’m back in the crush of bodies on the tube, shuttling towards work again. After complete rest there’s no need for inhalers or antibiotics, or even a doctor’s appointment. Sleep and sleep, and when at least three people in the carriage snuffle into their Metro, I’m pretty sure I can take them on now.
The Roman philosopher Lucius Seneca said, “Disease is not of the body but of the place.” He must have been thinking of the Underground. But when speaking about the body from a state of wellness, Blackadder’s General Melchett nailed it on the head: “I want to cover your body with pepper, and then sneeze all over you.”