I’m sorry to have to say this, but it’s all Pete’s fault.
‘There you go! Thought you might want something big and hot inside you!’ he says, slopping a huge Arsenal mug of builder’s strength tea onto the desk, then walking off, laughing in that filthy way he has, high and wild and raucous as a drag tea lady in a pantomime.
Pete is the world’s best tea maker – a county-level performer, meticulous, prolific. It doesn’t matter how much I resolve to be the first in with the drinks round, somehow he always manages to beat me to it. It’s in his blood. His DNA sequence is PGT. His mother was a teapot and he was born under the Constellation of the Great Urn. If you x-rayed his torso you’d see two tea bags where his kidneys should be. Pete is the Caffeine King, the Tannin Chief, the author of the Beverage Report. He put the tea in terrific and the milk and two in you. And so on. I have no doubt one day they’ll raise a statue by public subscription (mostly funds re-streamed from tea clubs across the world). A life-size bronze in the marketplace: Saint Peter of the Kettle, mug raised high for seagulls to perch on and provide the laugh.
Anyway. Nobody’s forcing me, I don’t HAVE to drink it. I know it’s going to be a busy morning so if I finish the whole mug I’ll be busting for the loo half way through. But Pete’s tea isn’t something you can pass over easily. Rational thinking doesn’t come into it. By the time I’ve left the department to start my visits, the mug is empty. I rinse it clean, put it upside-down on the draining board, and leave.
* * *
By the time I get to Ralph, my second patient, my bladder is as taut as a helium balloon with Arsenal printed on the side. I finish dressing Ralph’s wound, doing his obs and so on, and I’m just about to ask him if it’s okay if I use his loo, when he says his daughter is due back any minute. She’s just popped out to get a repeat script of antibiotics. I don’t want to be in the loo when she comes in because I think it might look odd. But then I think – maybe it doesn’t matter, because I remember there’s a rehab unit in the next street. They have toilets there. I can use them. Everything’s fine. I pack up my things, say goodbye to Ralph, and leave.
It’s only after I’m parked up and walking to the unit that I realise it recently closed. (A political decision; don’t get me started). But there’s a car parked outside, and I think maybe there’ll be people there packing up or something – even just a security guard. In fact, standing up against the door and shielding the glass with my hand, I can see a mug of tea (how ironic) and a fluorescent jacket dumped on the counter. I ring the bell, knock, ring again. No-one comes. I’m tempted to find some nook or cranny, somewhere discreet I can go without being seen. But I worry the security guard will suddenly appear, doing their rounds, and besides, the unit is surrounded by flats that overlook the place as closely as watchtowers round a prison.
My next visit isn’t for another hour – a double-up with a physio at The Pines, an extensive, sheltered housing place the other side of town. I decide to get there early and use the visitor’s toilet.
The Pines is a busy, friendly block. There are always residents sitting in the gardens, wandering in and out, things going on. A manager in the office. Today, though, it’s eerily quiet. The fact that it’s Sunday means there’s no-one on duty. The weather is bad, sharp and autumnal, so no-one’s sitting out. I can’t buzz the patient’s flat – we’re doubling-up because they have a history of mental health issues and need careful handling. All I can do is wait to see if anyone appears in the lobby. After ten minutes of nothing, I buzz the remote site office. Eventually, after a twenty millilitre pause, they answer. I explain my predicament, trying to sound as warm and authentic as I can.
‘Well – as we have no camera on the door…’ the voice says, ‘… and there’s no way of verifying that you are who you say you are, I have no alternative but to say no. I’m sorry. Goodbye and good luck with all your endeavours.’
The intercom clicks off.
I rest both hands flat on the console, wondering whether to buzz again and try begging. Then I pick up my bags and hurry back to the car. I figure if I drive fast enough I can just about make it back to base, use the loo, then turn around and drive straight back in time for the visit.
For some reason, there is a stationary queue of traffic on the road heading in. I’ll never get there at this rate. I see myself exploding behind the wheel like a hyper-inflated space hopper, and when the emergency services force the door they’ll jump back in horror as my idiotic grin floats out on a torrent of piss.
As soon as I can I make a u-turn and head back to The Pines. It occurs to me that there’s a clinic just round the corner from it: they’ll definitely have a public loo. I can use that, then relax for twenty minutes until the appointment.
I’m forgetting it’s Sunday. Of course the clinic is closed. There are plenty of attractive bushes in the landscaped quadrant just in front of it, but unfortunately they’re overlooked by a community hall, and in the hall are lots of elderly people gathered together for a meeting of some kind. I toy with the idea of banging on the window and asking if they’ll let me in to use their facilities, but it’s just too public and humiliating, so instead I go back round to the main entrance of The Pines, hoping beyond hope there’ll be someone to let me in this time.
There is. An elderly man in a black felt, flowerpot hat, wearing so many disparate and ill-matching clothes it looks like he’s put on everything in his wardrobe at once, for a bet. He is sitting on a bench in the foyer facing the doors, methodically peeling a banana. I stride up to the doors, smiling as warmly and reputably as I can. Put my ID card flat against the glass. Wave and nod for him to come over.
He takes a cautious bite from the very tip of the banana, and stares at me.
I wave at him again, going through such a pantomime of encouraging shrugs and winks and nods I must look crazy.
He takes another bite of the banana, then carefully replaces the skin flaps – one, two, three, four – like he wants to fool someone into thinking it’s an untouched banana. He places it on the bench beside him, stands up, brushes the front of his mac, licks his lips, touches the corner of his mouth with his finger – first the right, then the left – repositions his hat – then makes the four thousand mile journey across the carpet towards the door. I hope he might come via the big silver door release button on the wall, but instead (and – to be fair to the man – quite correctly) he walks in a straight line to the door and pushes his face up close to the glass to read the card, his banana breath fogging on the pane. Then he looks round the side of the card and glares at me. I smile. He looks back to the card again.
‘I’m early for an appointment,’ I say, overly pronouncing my words in an effort to be heard. ‘I’m waiting for my colleague so we can go in together. The thing is, I’m desperate for the loo, and I wondered if you could let me in so I can use the facilities?’
He raises his eyebrows, lowers them again, turns around, and starts walking slowly back. For one, terrible minute I think he’s just going to sit down and carry on eating his banana, but at the last minute he changes course and touches the silver button. The doors slide open.
‘Thank you SO much!’ I say. ‘I can’t tell you how much I appreciate that!’
He shrugs, waves his hand in the air. I hurry round the corner to the loo, and a few minutes later float back out.
The old man has gone. He’s finished his banana and left the skin of it on the bench. It’s peeled into four large petals, white flesh up, yellow skin down, like a sloppy lotus flower blooming on the green baize. It’s a rapturous image. A holy relic. I could kneel before it, kiss it, put it on display in a glass box.
But I don’t. I’m over it. I throw the peel in the bin, and head back out to wait in the car.