It’s the end of the day. The window by the coordinator’s desk is all the way open, and a sultry breeze drifts in off the corrugated metal roofing of the document storage shed next door. I’ve been helping the coordinator through most of the afternoon, answering the phone, processing referrals, sorting out problems. It’s had its manic moments, as it always does, but mostly it’s been eerily quiet. I’ve heard the phrase ‘the calm before the storm’ a few times now. It almost makes me want the storm to come, just to get it over with. I don’t think I’m alone in that.
Ethan, one of the senior nurses, has come back to the office after sending his last patient back into hospital.
‘They’re shoving everyone out, regardless,’ he says. ‘I know they’re supposed to clear the decks for the C19s, but seriously? I wouldn’t be surprised to see a whole herd of them wandering along the prom pushing drip stands.’
Ethan has a fantastic way of saying these things, raising his eyebrows, staring at you for a second with wide eyes, then dropping his jaw, rocking back in the chair and laughing energetically. He’s an experienced nurse, with a background in so many areas of acute medicine – sexual health clinics, A and E, ITU and so on – he’s definitely earned his stripes. He’s a great person to talk to about the pandemic, because as well as all his knowledge and experience and great love of nursing, he has an impish sense of fun that leavens the seriousness of the whole affair and makes it less overwhelming.
So, of course, after a little while talking about the strange businesses of viruses, whether they’re living things or not, the alien way they’ve evolved alongside mammals, we soon move on to some of the other weird organisms he’s come across.
‘The Sexual Health Clinic was good for that,’ he says, one leg crooked over the other, idly tracing the arched line of his eyebrow with a fingernail. ‘I saw some weird things there, I can tell you. There’s one called Trichomonas vaginalis. It’s this ‘orrible little protozoan parasite that lives in the vaginal tract or the urethra. Men can get it but it’s mostly women. Anyway, it’s a disgusting little thing. Shaped like a pear with these flagella whipping about. Lives on scraps of dead cells, causing infection. I saw one under the microscope. It looked happy enough, swimming around on the slide. I think it actually saw me.’ And holding on to the back of the chair with one hand, he suddenly tips back, sticks his legs out and kicks them like he’s doing the backstroke at the pool, waving up at himself looking down through the lens of the microscope. ‘Coo ee!’ he says. Then he straightens again. ‘We had one woman come in. She said she knew she had a dose and had been trying to cure herself.’
‘I hate to ask – but – how?’
‘She’d been rubbing her fanny with raw hamburger. You know – to tempt them out. To tempt them out!’
He stares at me for a second, then laughs.
‘It’s true, though!’ he screams. ‘Honest to God! I’m laughing, but it’s true!’