The little old lady slumped on the ground averts her gaze as the wild-eyed youth swagger-limps past her. Ignoring the large, red cross on the seat he plonks himself down and starts rapping the words to the latest hit being played incongruously in the background. He catches the attention of the hardened blonde in her micro skirt, high-heels in hands, attitude on face and mottled blue legs up on the table. Before long they’re flirting. Lucky for them they’re oblivious to the stream of effing and blinding coming from the lad with the broken nose and shattered fist, bleeding noisily in the corner. To all intents and purposes, it could be a pre-pandemic Saturday night in town when the clubs eject their worse-for-wear clientele.
Instead, it’s a Tuesday afternoon in the Minor Injuries Department of the Northern General. And what a motley crew is gathered here today! With no friends or relatives allowed, the Corona-comfortless waiting room has to provide its own support network. A nurse appears. An expectant hush descends above the beats of this week’s chart topper. A name is called. But it’s indecipherable, lost in a thunderstorm of moan-swearing.
‘I think it’s ‘er on the floor’, points out the blonde who’s managed to reapply her make-up and is posing for a selfie with the now doe-eyed youth. She elbows him in the ribs and he and broken nose get up as one and, forgetting all Covid protocol, hobble-sway towards the little old lady. Between them they manage to pull her to her unsteady feet.
‘Thanks,’ I say, ‘and sorry about the bad language.’ Broken nose breaks into a smile. ‘S’alreyt love. Just given mi boss an earful. Trying to sack me instead of giving me sick pay. What’s wrong with folk, eh? Hope they get some drugs down you sharpish.’
And a glorious half an hour later, co-codamol kicks in and my age drops a couple of decades. I don’t even mind that the X-ray department is full of radiology students vying to position me in untenable poses. After all they’ve missed a year of their practical course, so I feel it’s almost worth my injury to be helping them out.
‘Is it always this busy?’ I ask the consultant, who diagnoses a fracture.
‘Lockdown easing,’ he says with weary resignation. ‘People are back to their old tricks. No longer paying the attention they should.’ I flush uncomfortably thinking of how a carefree walk with friends in the woods ended up with my flying over tree roots and crash-landing on my shoulder.
‘Yes,’ he continues, ‘add unsuitable footwear and alcohol to the mix and it’s a recipe for disaster. But at least it’s a change for the better.’
The nurse who fits me with a sling agrees, ‘Yes, it’s almost a relief to see ‘normal’ injuries again. You can’t believe how awful it was,’ she tells me with tears in her eyes. ‘I get so cross seeing people out there with no masks on. They have no idea.’
But that evening, we do get a taste of what might have been in store for us. Watching the news coverage of India’s hospitals full to the brim with Covid patients makes me so grateful for our falling numbers and rising vaccination count. Hearing stories of essential medical supplies running out makes me realise how much we take our NHS for granted. Despite what we’ve been through over this past year, how easy it is to forget once a semblance of normality returns. And how important it is to still remember hand washing, mask wearing and social distancing. After all, we don’t want to fall at the last hurdle.
As the Nearly-Beloved helps me into a chair and cuts up my food for me, I’m not even phased by Grunting Teen’s observation that I’ve turned into a little old lady. Because, thanks to an accident of birth, I’m lucky enough to have been born in a country that offers me decent, free-at-delivery health care. Let’s make sure we nurture that provision. And if we do, then this little old lady still has a few more years left in her.