the very hungry caterpillar

‘I’m sorry if I was snippy when I answered the door,’ says Marjorie. ‘I thought you’d come to read the meter.’
‘That’s okay. I’d be the same if someone knocked me up first thing on a Sunday. I did try calling you…’
‘Yes. Well. We don’t answer if we don’t know who it is.’

Marjorie is sitting one end of the table, her husband John the other, making me feel less like a clinician and more like a family counsellor. It’s John I’ve come to see, though. He doesn’t seem anywhere near as bad as the referral suggested. In fact I’d go as far as saying he looks perfectly fine, chomping enthusiastically through a small stack of jam toast, with occasional gulps of tea to wash it all down.
‘Ahh!’ he says, setting the mug aside, and then, after picking up another slice of toast and holding it in front of him for a moment with something like a lover’s gaze, begins again. It’s like watching a giant caterpillar methodically working round a leaf – a caterpillar dressed in an Arsenal bobble hat, fleece and jogging bottoms.
‘Mind your fingers’ says Marjorie.
He nods, his eyes closed.
‘He fell off a ladder, you see,’ sighs Marjorie, securing her dressing gown with a resolute tug of the cord. ‘A few years ago now. He didn’t fall that far, but it was down onto the patio, and all the pots. He was pruning the jasmine. I’d told him to wait till I got back so I could foot the bottom. But no – he’s always just carried on regardless. And now look. One leg shorter than the other. He wears an insert in his shoe, but it doesn’t make any difference. And of course, everything else gets thrown out of whack. He’s got permanent back pain.’
John finishes his toast with a sigh, pushes the empty plate forwards and leans back in the chair.
I ask him what he takes for the pain.
‘Paracetamol!’ he says, slapping his tummy. ‘Four times a day.’
‘You shouldn’t be taking so much,’ says Marjorie. ‘It’s not good for you to take it all the time.’
He shrugs.
‘The doctor says it’s okay. If the doctor’s happy, I’m happy.’
‘It’s bad for your liver.’
‘I don’t see what it’s got to do with you,’ says John. ‘Are you a doctor?’
‘Everyone knows paracetamol are bad for you.’
‘Are you a doctor, Marg?’
‘Doctors don’t know everything, John.’
‘I say again – are you a doctor?’
‘I’m not having this discussion.’
‘I’m happy with paracetamol. The doctor’s happy with paracetamol. Let that be an end to it.’
It’s obviously a sore point between them. I try to take a middle position.
‘It’s difficult,’ I say. ‘Chronic pain is different to acute pain. You handle it differently. I mean, if you get a headache, you take something to help with that. But if you have pain all the time, you need to take regular doses to keep yourself on an even keel. If you let the pain get too bad, it’ll take more of something to get you back into the okay zone. The idea is to maintain a good cruising altitude.’
To illustrate, I make a half-hearted rising and falling gesture with the flat of my hand. Marjorie watches me with a slack expression.
‘I haven’t the faintest idea what you’re on about,’ she says.
‘I do’ says John, sucking a glob of jam off his thumb. ‘I do.’

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