Admit it. You know it. I know it, we all know it: a doctor’s most secret and unholy joy is making another doctor look like a klutz. It can be subtle: the almost imperceptible raising of an eyebrow, the almost inaudible in-drawing of breath. Or it can be a custard pie in the face.
“Perhaps you could take this call,” said my partner, poker-faced. I was young, keen as a puppy, and I bounced beamishly out the door. I didn’t know the call had come from yet another browbeaten home help who just couldn’t take it anymore and who felt it only fair the doctor should share in the invective.
The living room was cluttered and forbidding.
“Who are you?” she demanded.
“I’m Dr Farrell,” I said, “and I just called to see how you . . .”
“Get out, or I’ll set the dogs on you.”
I’m easy going, I don’t take offence easily, I presumed the dogs were a metaphor for the John F Kennedy memorial plate whizzing past my head, but a man’s gotta know his limitations. Parting is all we know of heaven and all we need of hell, and she followed me to the front door.
“Where are you going?” she asked.
“You asked me to leave,” I said, facts at my fingertips.
Her demeanour suddenly changed.
“Arrah, sure don’t be listening to me, ochone, ochone, I’m only a poor old woman, I’m not feeling very well.”
Fascinated, and rather moved, I returned to the living room.
“Why don’t we check your blood pressure,” I said, usually a safe bet; having your blood pressure taken is like parfait, everyone loves it. But her demeanour had abruptly changed again.
“Get out,” she said, “before I . . .”
“I know, the dogs,” I said, surmising a fierce territorial instinct centred on the living room and her picture of the Pope slotting a penalty past Stalin. I learnt that day that enduring insult is just another part of a doctor’s shtick, another weave in the great tapestry that is family practice.
Again she followed.
“Arrah, I’m only a poor old woman, lie me under the greenwood tree.”
The dance went on, in and out, like waves on the sea, a medical hokey cokey, until eventually I conducted an ersatz consultation on the porch, in the no-man’s land between unrestrained fury and overwhelming pathos.
And arriving back at the surgery: “Hello, I must be going,” sang my partner.