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The Doctor's Receptionist
by Charlie Britten

When I walk into The Cedars Health Centre, she is midway through her usual mantra. “No. We don't have any appointments today...  No, I can't fit you in. You’ll have to ring back at eight-thirty tomorrow morning.” 

Flicking the call off her switchboard, she turns on me, fixing me with her special look, her pale grey eyes widening and her eyebrows arching under red-framed rimless specs. Discomforted by the silence, I open my mouth meaning to enquire after her health, even though – until now - mine had been the principal reason for my visit.

“Can I help you?” She speaks at last, her icy tone just polite enough to head off a possible ‘complaint’, and I reflect on how English words change over time - ‘help’, for instance. 

I lean over to speak through the chink in the glass, inferring, implying, suggesting... that I might have an appointment with Dr Choudhury at 4.15. As she searches for me on her computer screen, a bare light bulb shines in the back office and I study the post cards blu-tacked to the walls - Benidorm, Florida, Fuerteventura, then the Lubyanka Building, a heavy, beige lump with slit windows lurking behind a caption reading ‘Mockba’ in fancy Cyrillic writing.

Still she clicks with her mouse and peers at her screen. She doesn’t do computers, makes a point of not understanding them, and sings the virtues of leather-bound, dog-eared appointment books. The switchboard buzzes again, and another sick patient is instructed to hold on to mortality until eight-thirty tomorrow morning. As she kills the call (and maybe the caller), she reads out my full name in a loud, primary school teacher voice. 

Relieved, I retreat into the teeming waiting room: coughs and sneezes; sticks and crutches; peaky teenagers wearing too many scarves; toddlers well enough to whinge and crawl around under my feet. Reading twelve-month old issues of celebrity magazines with pages missing, I pity for anyone who has to work here and a faint light flickers in my brain.

But not for long.

Half an hour after my appointment time, I see the doctor. It’s all over in a few minutes, and, as I walk back through the waiting room, I hear, “The doctors are very busy at this time of year.”  And I reflect that they always are... school holidays, school term-time, cold weather, hot weather, Christmas, Easter... “Ring back at eight-thirty tomorrow morning.”

I return to real life, to the restaurant where I work. When the telephone rings, I recognise her voice. “Can I book a table for tomorrow night, please?” she says. 

“We’re full up, I'm afraid, madam.” It’s the truth. We are.

“You’ve got nothing at all?”

“No, madam.” 

“But it’s my wedding anniversary. Couldn't you just fit us in?”

“Sorry, madam.”

I lie awake all night, dreading her call at eight-thirty tomorrow morning.