The telephone number has not changed in forty years. 464, the final three digits which formed the number before an automatic exchange was installed are probably unchanged in fifty years, or sixty years, or more. The number has never been dialled without there being a sense of trepidation, anxiety at possible outcomes. Phoning to ask for an appointment, the memories came tumbling back.
Being struck down by measles was the beginning of the fears. Lying in bed for weeks, my father’s appearance in the room after work marked the passing of the days. It was 1965 and though it was not the earliest of my memories, it remains the most haunting. It created a lifelong fear of illness, a dread of being confined to bed, a fear of appointments with doctors.
Measles was to be followed by years of asthma; a frightened small boy struggling to breathe, acute attacks sometimes meaning the doctor coming to administer adrenaline injections. Available medication was limited, even in childhood years it was not hard to know what tablets and medicines would be prescribed. Sleep was often difficult, the doctor insisting that it was important to try to remain as upright as possible, there would be three or four pillows in the bed. In the daytime, hours would be spent propped between cushions in an armchair. The experiences created a morbid fear of lingering too long in a chair to add to the fear of confinement to bed. The asthma brought with it weak lungs and a ragbag of allergies. Haymaking time brought fits of sneezing and eyes closed with red puffiness, dust from the corn harvest could have similarly detrimental effects; even the farm cats, expected to earn their keep on August days when the grain attracted vermin, could bring watering eyes and the familiar wheeze.
By the age of fourteen, the asthma was so severe that I was sent to a special school on Dartmoor, where frugal living and physical fitness characterised the regime. Breathing exercises and as much fresh air as possible were seen as the remedy for every ill. The moorland sojourns were efficacious with asthma, there was a decline in the need for the surgery to be called from the village telephone box. In the ensuing years, encounters with the doctor were less frequent, yet each was still an encounter between a quiet, shy boy and a physician who had to struggle with the diffidence of his patient.
Perhaps the fear is rooted in a complete imbalance of power. The doctor was the most revered person in the community, a man of extraordinary authority. Whilst the general practitioners in our local surgery were warm and generous people, a sickly boy thought them infinitely superior to himself. Oddly, the years in Ireland brought a shift in that perspective, paying at the receptionist’s desk after each consultation, the relationship became one between purchaser and service provider; any sense of imbalance and it would have been a straightforward matter to go elsewhere.
Returning to the sphere of the National Health Service recall the days of the imbalance, the days of illness, the days of those unexplained fears. It was almost a relief when there was no appointment available for some time hence.