Michael Harding: ‘I’m not keeping a social distance from her. She’s deaf’

‘We live together. We’re going to see her doctor. We can’t talk to each other if we’re apart’

Beaumont Hospital,  Dublin.  “As he was thus gaining access to the object of his curiosity the drilling was getting louder, and I feared that at any moment a Kango hammer would burst through, and I’d see a builder on the other side of the wall eyeballing me.”  Photograph:  Dara Mac Dónaill.

Beaumont Hospital, Dublin. “As he was thus gaining access to the object of his curiosity the drilling was getting louder, and I feared that at any moment a Kango hammer would burst through, and I’d see a builder on the other side of the wall eyeballing me.” Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill.

 

I was in Beaumont for a check-up last week. I rose before daylight and headed for Dublin with the heating in the Corolla on high as the red dawn bled into the clouds, before the sun vanished in a winter fog on the motorway.

Nowadays winter gathers around my legs and at night I often need extra blankets to keep my old bones from turning to stone. And even darkness itself becomes a powerful enemy to the human body; so the watery light of winter always feels as fragile as it is necessary in the early mornings and I love it and need it.

Beaumont Hospital has a car park close to the main entrance, and big signs guided me to the outpatients area. My temperature was taken and then I was escorted down a corridor into a waiting room where a dozen patients sat on chairs with safe distances between each one.

Outpatient visits have a kind of cathartic intensity for senior citizens; the waiting is always anxious, no matter how trivial the problem, and everyone prays for a good outcome

I took the only empty seat in the corner and tried to scrutinise the anxiety on masked faces all around me. Outpatient visits have a kind of cathartic intensity for senior citizens; the waiting is always anxious, no matter how trivial the problem, and everyone prays for some kind of good outcome.

One woman was trying to move her chair closer to the woman beside her.

“I’m sorry,” a secretary said, emerging from behind a glass-panelled counter, “you’re not allowed move the chairs.”

“But we can’t talk to each other if we’re apart,” one of them explained. “And she’s deaf.” 

“Yes,” the other one agreed, “I’m as deaf as a board.”

“I’m sorry,” the secretary insisted, “it’s very important that we all keep a social distance.”

“I’m not keeping a social distance from her,” the lady insisted. 

“Why not?”

“We’re sisters. We live together. We’re going to see her doctor.”

The deaf one nodded again. The secretary withdrew, but the chairs remained unmoved.

Half an hour later I was escorted to a small room where a doctor sat behind his desk in a white coat, wearing a blue mask. I envied him because the mask abundantly covered his face and the elastic around his ears was lengthy and loose. My mask was black and tiny, so it felt like a gag, and the elastic stretched my ears so I resembled an old and oversized elf.

“How are you feeling?” the doctor wondered.

“Not great,” I muttered through the mask as my glasses fogged up.

I feared that at any moment a Kango hammer would burst through the wall, and I’d see a builder on the other side, eyeballing me 

I wanted to tell him my ears were sore, and that I’d love to take the mask off, but as I was about to speak a drill began to roar in the wall behind me, so I paused. Then the doctor opened his mouth to speak but the drill roared again. We tried conversing in a kind of staccato rhythm; each time the machine started a run at the wall we paused, and only spoke in the intervals.

“Covid,” he explained. “They’re making urgent alterations.”

“There’s no problem,” I replied, “I understand.”

He didn’t seem at all bothered about the drilling, but I suspect that inwardly he was having a John Cleese moment of quiet rage and eventually he went out onto the corridor to see if he could find another consulting room. I could hear someone telling him that all the rooms were full but that negotiations were under way with the builders and that they had promised to stop in another five minutes. 

To explore the more intimate parts of my body the doctor requested me to partially undress, lie on a couch and turn towards the wall. As he was thus gaining access to the object of his curiosity the drilling was getting louder, and I feared that at any moment a Kango hammer would burst through, and I’d see a builder on the other side of the wall eyeballing me.  

In fact the drilling stopped so suddenly that the quietude was like peace after war, and the doctor gave me a positive assessment of my healing process, and within minutes I was walking down the corridor as a free man. Although at 67 “freedom” comes in small doses, and measured out like blood pressure tablets in the morning or statins at night. 

As I passed through the waiting room I noticed that the two sisters were absorbed with a novelist speaking on Sky television about long-term friendships.

“We must get her book in the library,” one of them said. “I could read it to you.”

“Yes,” the other one replied. “That would be lovely.”

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