The flagon… with the dragon 


British Medical Journal, Published 13 October 2005     Cite this as: BMJ 2005;331:913

It was more than just a heart-sink consultation; it was tedious, nagging, grating, the kind of consultation that whispers the o’erwrought heart and bids it break.

“You are in perfect health, Mrs Maguire,” I repeated.

“Are you sure I’m all right?”

“I’m sure.”

“Are you definitely sure?”


“Are you absolutely definitely sure?”


“Are you absolutely definitely positively sure?”

“When was the last time someone actually hit you?”

Of course I didn’t say that; I was too busy gouging a scalpel into my left inner thigh and lapsing into my old defence mechanism of mumbling classic comedy sketches; “The pellet with the poison’s in the vessel with the pestle, the chalice from the palace has…”

“I beg your pardon,” she said sharply.

“I’m sorry,” I said, “Did I say that out loud?”

“In any case,” she said, “there’s been a change; the chalice is broken, they’ve had to replace it with a flagon.”

“With a flagon?” I said, surprised.

“With the figure of a dragon.”

“The flagon with the dragon,” I mused.

“Yes,” she said, “The vessel with the pestle has the pellet with the poison, the flagon with the dragon…”

“… has the brew that is true,” we shouted in unison, laughing and jumping up and down with excitement.

It was like being on the Road to Damascus while riding a bike for the first time and losing your virginity, all in one glorious blast; patients aren’t one-dimensional, I realised, patient is too small a word, too confining, “what labels me negates me,” said Soren Kierkegaard, they are real people with families, friends, lovers, jobs, passions.

And Mrs Maguire’s passion, I had discovered, was Hollywood comedies, pre-1960.

“Your proposition may be good…” I ventured, in a homage to Groucho and Horse Feathers

“…but let’s have one thing understood.” She was right with me, then, altogether, “Whatever it is, I’m against it.”

We spent an agreeable few minutes sparring over the relative merits of Cary Grant and Katherine Hepburn in Bringing Up Baby and Monty Woolley and Bette Davis in The Man Who Came To Dinner.

“By the way,” she said, “I’ve an awful sore throat; can I have an antibiotic?”

I looked at her, a trifle disappointed; had our time together meant nothing?

“Just yanking your chain, doc,” she said, deadpan.


Footnote; This is my favourite column, one of the secrets of being a good doctor.



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