jack not ian

I’m met at the door by Gus, Ian’s partner.
‘Yes?’ he says. ‘And who have you come to see?’
I must admit I’m a little wrong-footed, because I rang just a quarter of an hour ago to say I was on my way. But then again, maybe there are a few visitors booked-in for the day. Ian has only recently been discharged from hospital, and it can get busy as all the referrals converge. Or maybe Gus has some visitors of his own.
‘Ian’ I say.
‘Ian?’
‘Yes.’
‘Ah.’
There’s a long pause – so long, in fact, I worry I’ve come to the wrong place. I check my notes. It all seems fine, though, and anyway, I’m sure it was Gus I spoke to earlier. His voice is unmistakable, a resonant, booming tone. In another life I can imagine him standing in the middle of a reed bed, honking mournfully.
‘Do you mean Jack?’ he says.
‘Jack?’
Gus has exactly the right face for the voice, a long, lugubrious expression. Strike the image of the bittern. I think I’d cast him as a Basset hound instead, up on his hind paws, in a knitted green waistcoat,  a copy of the Sunday Times tucked under his arm.
‘He was christened Ian but everyone calls him Jack.’
‘I see. Jack it is, then.’
I wait for Gus to show me inside, but he keeps his hand on the door, as if he absolutely needs to set the record straight once and for all.
‘It was rather confusing at the hospital,’ he says. ‘Ian this, Ian that. We kept telling them. It may say Ian on the birth certificate, but everyone knows him as Jack. Could you make a note of it for the record, please? And they bowed and scraped and said they would. But nothing happened, of course, and now look! Here we are, several days later, and you turn up asking for Ian. What does one have to do to get these things changed?’
‘Well…’
‘You see, the irony is, I don’t actually mind. One name’s as good as another. Ian. Jack. It’s much of a muchness. But then again, I think if you’re commonly known as one thing, it will only confuse the issue to continually refer to the other thing. Do you see my point?’
‘Yes. I think so. It’s Ian, not Jack. Sorry! The other way round!’
‘Hmm. I’m not reassured.’
He repositions the newspaper under his arm, and for a second I think he’s going to whap me over the head with it.
‘I hope you don’t think I’m complaining about you,’ he says. ‘I’m simply making a general point.’
‘No. It’s okay. I understand.’
I smile and nod and look past him into the hall – a discreet little mime to say: Shall we go in and see Jack now? But it’s too discreet, and he carries on.
‘I know you’re only going by whatever nonsense they’ve put in your notes,’ he says. What else can you be expected to do? What I’m complaining about is the system, you see. The system’s at fault. There doesn’t seem to be any provision for making these vital changes, and as I say, it introduces avoidable error, and it doesn’t have to be like that. I mean – what’s your name?’
‘Jim’
He reaches out with his free hand, takes up my lanyard, checks my ID.
‘So you see, Jim,’ he says, dropping it again and carrying on. ‘Let’s just say, for argument’s sake, everyone knew you as Frank.’
‘Yep’
‘And they carried on like that for years, and you started to think like Frank, and walk around like Frank. And then someone official, a nurse, for example, someone medical. Suppose this nurse – let’s say – shouted across the room Watch out, Jim! What would you do?’
‘I’d be on my guard.’
‘But that’s my point! You wouldn’t! Somebody else called Jim might look around and wonder what was happening, someone a million miles away from the source of danger, a falling cabinet, let’s say, or a hammer.’
‘A hammer?’
‘Yes. Because they’re having work done on the roof. All that’s incidental. The main point is, the person they want to inform about the danger won’t be the person responding to it, and a death will occur that would otherwise have been quite preventable.’
‘Worst case scenario.’
‘Ah, yes. But these things happen. All the time. I should know.’
‘Why? Were you a builder?’
‘A builder? Good lord, no!’ he says. ‘I was forty years a Civil Servant.’

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