Short story: Trip to A&E shows the brighter side of living

MNCE - GV of Accident and Emergency at Northampton General Hospital.
MNCE - GV of Accident and Emergency at Northampton General Hospital.

IT was a cold summer’s day and inside the cafe, I warmed my hands on my latte before opening my newspaper to enjoy reading the bad news from all over the world.

‘Everything is for the best in the best of all possible worlds,’ as the philosopher said, but if this is the best, I reflected, then heaven help us.

Nothing but misery, murder and mayhem, violence and vice – hardly worth getting out of bed for, might as well retreat beneath the bedclothes and wait for the inevitable result of global warming.

I sipped the latte, grumbling to myself that it tasted as though someone had been careless with the caffeine, any minute now my blood pressure would soar, and what would happen then? Apoplexy, maybe - no good would come of it, so maybe I should have had a scone with butter and jam or a nice cream cake to offset the caffeine – or clog up my arteries.

Too late now and, anyway, all the waitresses were busy so I returned to the paper and surveyed the obituaries and the death columns. My name was not there – yet. This cheered me until I noticed that my cup was half empty and not very warm either. Perhaps I should have had an almond tart – like the writer who ate a cake and was reminded of his childhood. ‘Remembrance of things past,’ something like that. I could do with a return to happier times, next time I would have an almond tart, no point now, my cup was empty.

I paid my bill, putting too large a tip in the saucer provided, might as well cheer someone up, and walked out into the rain with my head down and my eyes shut to everything but the cracked paving stones, the littered gutters. Then I heard a voice say, ‘Cheer up, you’ll soon be dead,’ and I looked up to see an irritatingly bright, optimistic face, one of those self-satisfied people who spend their lives looking up at the stars or surveying their half-full glasses.

Maybe it was his shining face, maybe it was the sudden burst of sunlight that came out as the rain stopped but I was temporarily blinded, and crashed into the concrete pavement, probably flattening it.

The A and E, when I finally arrived with a bruised face, broken nose, cracked ribs, loosened tooth, was full. My first thought was, ‘Abandon hope, all ye who enter here’ as I looked round at the assorted accident cases. Sprained ankles, bloody noses, black eyes – no matter what was wrong, they all had a look which might be described as midway between patient resignation and resigned despair. There was a notice on the wall – ‘Estimated waiting time two hours and forty-five minutes’.

Hope arose with a summons to see the briskly efficient triage nurse, then it was back to the waiting room which was now enlivened by a couple of aggressive drunks and a bored policeman who examined the drinks machine – sweet fizzy drinks and unspeakable tea – and quickly retreated.

Mysteriously, the waiting time was now three hours five minutes. But I had begun to enjoy myself, after my fashion, by calculating what the waiting time would be when I had been there a couple of hours. If it increased by twenty minutes every couple of hours how long....... I gave up and concentrated on my neighbours, diagnosing their conditions and possible treatments.

It was odd, but each time one disappeared, either to the triage nurse, or to see a doctor, his or her place was quickly taken and yet everyone seemed always to be the same. Not all that many different types of people, I thought, we are all alike and share a limited number of accidental injuries and conditions.

With an occasional trip to the refreshment machines, trying out the coffee to see if it was any better than the tea, tucking into a chocolate bar or a packet of fruit gums, the time passed pleasantly enough. Somehow my surroundings had caught up with my naturally gloomy temperament, I was in the right environment, my plastic cup was half full, I felt as though, at last, I was walking on the sunny side of the street. Everything was for the best, I thought, in the best of all....... and then my name was called.

Nothing much wrong, just bruising, if my ribs hurt I could take a couple of paracetamol, and then, before I even had a chance to say fond farewells to my fellow waiting-room comrades, I was out in the cold of a summer evening street. I looked up at the sky but it was too early for stars, too late for sunshine so I returned to my usual practice of looking down at my feet. ‘Couldn’t be too careful,’ I thought, might fall down.

Next day, in the cafe, I had a one-shot latte which was disappointingly bland, maybe a chocolate muffin would make it more interesting, but the waitress was busy so I picked up my newspaper. There was a new disease apparently with some fatalities, could become a pandemic. I read on - terrorism, wars, coldest this, hottest that, poles melting, forests disappearing, fish diseased.

‘Same old world,’ I thought as I looked down at my half empty cup and then around at my fellow latte-drinkers. But they looked happy with their half-full cups, content with their lives on the sunny side of the street. I felt inspired – full of wonder.

‘Oh, brave new world, that has such people in it,’ I said and, leaving my half-full cup, stepped outside, eyes on the stars, and fell flat on my face. Waiting time at the A and E is only one hour fifty minutes – so far.