Look, let’s not be coy. When a middle-aged man goes to the doctor, there’s only one thing on his mind. Forget my systolic pressure and cholesterol levels and to hell with my heart. Even if the doctor slips on a hazmat suit and breathing apparatus and says, “Mr Bristow-Bovey, you have Ebola”, the only thing I’m thinking is, “Does that mean I don’t have to have the prostate exam? Yes! I’ll take it!”
This is what it is to be forty: this is what lies at the end of the yellow brick road. You’ve made it here, and here is your reward. In case you had any lingering doubts about the indignities to which your middle-aged flesh is heir, there it is like a mugger down a dark alley: the digital rectal examination.
What? Digital? That doesn’t sound too bad. Does that mean it happens on a computer now?
No. The other kind of digital.
I charged my partner with finding me a suitable doctor.
“What’s a suitable doctor?” she asked.
“Someone with gravitas.”
“Someone who’s old and experienced and has seen it all.”
“Someone with narrow fingers.”
“Like a woman?”
No! Not like a woman! Someone that’s almost exactly the precise opposite of a woman!
Normally I do prefer a female doctor. This is obviously because I like to do my bit for gender equality in the professional services, but also because when I’m sick I want either sympathy for my condition or admiration for my courage, and you don’t get those from a man. Plus there were plenty of male medical students in my university residence, and they were a loathsome horde of unwashed, chain-smoking, cadaver-defiling filth-mongers whose hands I wouldn’t dare shake let alone open my mouth in their presence to say “Ahh.”
But this is no job for a woman. I think of the nice lady doctor who has a practice in the medical centre down the road, and her nice clean hair and summery perfume and how when she was a little girl and first told her parents she wanted to be a doctor they must have beamed with pride and scrimped and saved to send her to medical school where she overcame casual sexism and the systemic impediments of the educational system and the long hours of interning and sleeplessness and all those hardships they show on Grey’s Anatomy, all in order to become the proud professional she is today, and by god, I think, it cannot be that she should have gone through all of that just so that I can walk in and present her with my arse.
No, not on my watch. Call me old-fashioned if you like, but prostates are a nasty, masculine business, like boxing or war. They’re problems of our own making – why inflict them collaterally on the innocent? I need someone grizzled and male and old, someone who might have been in an army and witnessed atrocities, someone who has ruined other lives and his own. A racist, if possible. Maybe even a wife-beater. If I’m going to spoil anyone’s day, let it be someone who deserves it.
And anyway, if I’m to reveal the secret ruins of the once-proud civilisation that was my body, it should be to someone who understands. I want someone with a smoker’s cough who’ll regard me with tired, rheumy eyes and maybe quote some “Ozymandias” and say, “Yes, I’ve seen this before.”
I want someone who looks like Gandalf or Geppetto or Colonel Sanders or Robin Williams in Awakenings (definitely not Robin Williams in Patch Adams). Morgan Freeman would be fine. Even Hillary Clinton at a push. I want him to wear a white coat at all times and carry a stethoscope and have one of those mallets for hitting your knee. I want the walls covered with medical certificates and framed Hippocratic Oaths and in the corner there should be a life-sized plastic skeleton. I want him to be single-mindedly dedicated to a melancholy practice of medicine and have no life or interests outside of it.
“What colour eyes should he have?” asked my partner. “Favourite TV show?”
“Just make sure he has a beard. And not some damn hipster beard. And a bowl of lollipops at reception.”
She came back half an hour later and told me she’d found him.
“When someone’s perfect, he’s perfect.”
“Is he older than me?”
“And he has a beard. You want me to come with you?”
“I don’t think I need spectators for this.”
“It’s just, after what happened with the moisturiser …”
“Hey, I told you, I’m going to use all that stuff!”
“Just make sure you ask him about that other thing.”
“What other thing?”
“You know … the … the other thing.” She made a gesture in the region of my belt buckle. “While you’re there.”
“Yeah, yeah, okay,” I said.
There was no way I was going to ask him about that other thing.
My appointment was on a Thursday at 4.30 p.m. The world’s a beautiful place outside a doctor’s surgery just before you have to go in. There were seagulls and sunbeams and clouds. Why have I never noticed clouds before? I should just stay out here and look at some clouds. Even the homeless guys peeing against the tree in the churchyard looked happy and free. Maybe I could join them. I should go to church more. I should start going to church. I should go to church right now. Or maybe I just need to pee.
I sat in the waiting room with the usual crew of snifflers and malingerers. What are you people looking so sad about? I’d give anything for bronchitis or chickenpox right now. You sit at home and play video games and your mom brings you Archie comics and then your pox goes away and you have your whole life ahead of you. What I have is never going away. I’m here to be diagnosed with an untreatable dose of ageing, and then a man I’ve never met before will put his finger inside me, and I’ll let him do it because it’s for my own good and then I’ll go home and cry. I’m like a divorced mom on her first internet date.
Say, speaking of divorced moms … there’s one sitting right there, flipping through a magazine while her son sulkily plays his video game. He probably has whooping cough, the lucky bastard. Hey – I recognise that magazine! I have a column in that magazine! She’s going to read my column, right in front of my eyes! This is great! This never happens! Here, let me just arrange my head in the same aspect as the byline picture, so that when she looks up, wiping tears of mirth from her eyes, so grateful that something took her mind off little Keegan’s whooping cough, murmuring to herself, “It’s true, laughter really is the best medicine!” who will she see but the very author! She’ll double-take. She won’t believe her eyes. This is the best day of her life! Excuse me, she’ll say, but are you …? But wait, hang on a moment – that’s my page! She just flipped straight past my page! Didn’t she see all the writing on it? Should I lean over and tell her she missed a page?
There’s a scruffy-looking man in front of me. He has baggy pants that sag to various levels and a shirt so dishevelled it’s hard to believe there was ever a time when it was hevelled. A rat has been chewing his beard and his hair is scraped back in a grizzled little ponytail. Who is this man? Is it one of the homeless guys from the churchyard? Has he followed me in? What does he want from me?
“I’m Doctor Kramer.”
I don’t want to call this man a liar, but he is clearly no doctor. Is there a psychiatric practice nearby? This man needs a butterfly net.
“Do you like the beard? Your girlfriend wanted to make sure I had a beard.”
“She prefers ‘partner’,” I muttered.
I followed him reluctantly as he shambled down the corridor to his office like one of the tramps from Waiting for Godot. I would like to state for the record that I am opposed to violence against women in almost every circumstance, but when I got home I was going to strangle my partner with my bare hands.
There wasn’t any plastic skeleton. I couldn’t even see a stethoscope. I covertly scanned the walls for calligraphies of the Hippocratic Oath, but there was only a series of framed posters for community theatrical productions. Fiddler on the Roof, The Sound of Music, Cabaret.
He followed my eyes.
“I was the Master of Ceremonies.”
“You want me to sing a few bars?”
“No thanks,” I said.
“You seem nervous. You want to hear a joke?”
“Bad news always goes better with a joke.”
“Why are you assuming it’ll be bad news?”
“If it’s good news you want, go talk to my brother.”
“What does he do?”
“No, I don’t have a brother.”
This is because I don’t go to church. I’m being punished because I stopped believing in God. I used to believe in God but I stopped when I had my first girlfriend. Therese Owen, this is all your fault.
I sat with my eyes fixed on a poster of my doctor as the Cowardly Lion, arms linked with a middle-aged Dorothy and someone with straw sticking out of his jersey, while he did that thing where he put one hand on my belly and tapped it with the other one. I don’t know what that does but it’s quite soothing.
“Where’s the Tin Man?” I asked.
“It was a reduced cast. There were only three munchkins, and one of them also had to be a flying monkey.”
He took blood samples and looked in my ears.
“How’s it when you pee?” he asked.
“When I what?”
“Is the stream good and strong?”
“Well,” I answered cagily, “it gets where it needs to go.”
“Well,” he said, “we’ll soon see.”
“You want me to show you?”
“There are other ways of knowing,” he said, and twitched his whiskers as though he was the Cowardly Lion. “Is there anything else you want to talk about before we get down to it?”
“Your girlfriend said you might want to talk about your testicles.”
Good god, how long did those two talk? Did they run themselves baths and pour glasses of wine?
“No, not really.”
“But there’s been some discomfort?”
“Just a little bit.”
“Let me have a look.”
“I don’t think so.”
“Hey, believe me, it’s not that I’m so desperate to see them.”
“I tell you what, I’ll close my eyes and just use my hands.”
This is getting worse. He’s making it sound like a Stanley Kubrick movie now.
“Go on, hop up there and undo your belt.”
“You don’t want me to take my trousers down?”
“You can just loosen them, I’ll do the rest.”
“Doc, I’m begging you, stop making this sound like a date.”
He pressed down on my groin and made me cough and told me I had a couple of small hernias. One day they might be big hernias, and if that happened I could have them fixed. I asked if it would help to have them fixed now, and he said there was nothing to be gained by it. Not everything needs to be fixed, and sometimes the worst doesn’t happen.
“I thought the worst does always happen,” I said gloomily. “I thought that’s why it’s the worst.”
He stretched out the elastic of my underwear and slipped his hand in and started prodding around. He had a surprisingly delicate touch. I became very interested in the pattern of cracks on the ceiling.
“You seem to be taking growing older quite hard,” he said.
“I’m glad you put ‘taking’ and ‘older’ in that sentence.”
“It’s not so bad being in your forties. Most of it’s in your mind.”
“It’s not my forties I mind,” I told him. “It’s where we go from here.”
“There are good things about being in your forties,” he said. “Oh, you’re right, this is horribly misshapen.”
“That’s the wrong one.”
“Ha ha ha! See? A little humour always helps.”
He clicked on a little torch and started shining it around down there.
“What are you doing.”
“I’m transilluminating your scrotum. Look! Shadow puppets! Looks like a duck, doesn’t it?”
He zipped up my trousers and told me I have two small hernias and one epididymic cyst, and that none of them should trouble me.
“It might hurt if there’s a back-up of fluid. Have you been pomping enough?”
“Are you sure that’s the correct medical term?”
“I’m going to assume from that that you haven’t?”
“I’ve had a few things on my mind lately. I haven’t been in the mood for much.”
“You know,” he said, scratching his ratty little beard thoughtfully, as though it was something he’d recently grown to conceal his identity, “one of the good things about being forty is we begin to stop worrying so much what people think about us.”
“I don’t worry what people think of me,” I said.
“Well,” he said, “we all do, unless we’re lunatics. But you should give yourself a break.”
“For not having done more. For being on the wrong slope. If you spend all your time fretting about it, you won’t enjoy being here. And if you don’t like the slope, you’ll like what you find at the bottom even less. You’re going through a change, and it’s scary because you’re at an age when your parents and your lovers can’t help you because no one can tell you it’s going to be all right. Maybe it will be all right. It will be what it will be. You should go and make love to your girlfriend. But here’s what I know, and this is the last thing I’ll say – you have more time than you think.”
I needed to get out of there.
“Thank you, doctor,” I said. “I’ll go home and think about that.”
“Not so fast, my friend,” he said, reaching for a pair of gloves and the lube. “It’s that time of the evening. This is going to mean more to you than it does to me.”
And so it came around at last, the distinguished moment, my own personal narrow-gauged Thermopylae. I’d been worried about making some stupid joke when it happened. I don’t want to be the ten thousandth fool to say something about dinner and a movie, but I also can’t just stand there and let a silence build. Silence is intimate; it creates a moment. But I can’t just start talking about the cricket. Can I? Maybe I can. Luckily I didn’t have to worry about it, because I was with Dr Chuckles, the musical clown.
“Do you know what life is?” he asked, spreading the KY over a finger that had suddenly become the size of a Pick ’n Pay chocolate éclair.
I didn’t know what life is, but I suddenly had a bad intimation.
“Please don’t say that life’s a—”
“Life is a cabaret, old chum,” he said as he put his finger inside me. “Come to the cabaret.”