‘Could you do me a favour?’ asked Joe, leaning in close with a conspiratorial air, even more shifty than usual, which is saying a lot; Harry Lime could have taken lessons.
I leaned back in reciprocal fashion, our graceful little pas de deux a consequence of Joe’s unique and compelling fragrance. I’m not being abnormally fastidious in this regard, because no-one ever gets too close to Joe. Even at a crowded football match, Joe will stand aloof, a lonely little island.
I’ve never been involved in teaching undergraduates and my one lecture to GP trainees ended with me advising them to give up general practice and join the Foreign Legion because that way, they’d probably kill fewer people, so I haven’t been asked back. But if given another chance, I would include a warning against the words ‘Could you do me a favour?’
We are doctors; it goes without saying that we are trying to help our patients out. So being asked to do a favour always means that something extra is required, something outside the usual call of duty, something beyond the eternal dance of doctor and patient, some subterfuge which will involve a stretching of our moral fabric.
And the more quietly it is asked, the more shady the plot, the more clandestine the manoeuvre, the more grave the misdemeanour that is demanded. The potential subjects are myriad; insurance, sick certs, DLA forms, planning applications, passport forms for potential underwear bombers etc etc, but there is one common theme; we are being asked to partake in a conspiracy, to corrupt the values of our ancient and noble profession.
But age has lent me wisdom, as well as haemorrhoids.
‘A favour,’ I said, returning the word like I was throwing back an unwanted fish.
‘My neighbour’s dog is barking all night and annoying me,’ he said. ‘And I thought maybe I could get a sick line, saying that it’s making me depressed and all.’
Joe’s neighbour, I knew, was a man with a reputation for extracting slow-burning yet inexorable vengeance. Taking a stance in the opposite camp would not be a smart move. For once, ethics and practicality were seamlessly wedded, tucked up in bed together, making out like it was Woodstock again, although as usual practicality was hogging the hot-water bottle.
‘I’m sorry, Joe,’ I replied, the words rising unbidden, ‘but you’re barking up the wrong tree.’