Change and decay in all around I see

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I AM a mass of minor ailments this week: gammy knee; peculiar warty heat rash; sore throat; swollen glands; an unsightly crop of mouth ulcers. These are not, of course, serious or life-threatening in any way; but still, it is a troubling state to be in. My body is failing me: who knows what it has in store next?

I am not, I hasten to add, a hypochondriac (but then I would say that, wouldn't I?). Doesn't everyone else worry, from time to time, about their physical frailties? One thing goes wrong, and then another and another, and before you know it, the spectre of constant invalidism rears its ugly head. I was thinking about this last Monday, as I hobbled to the local cottage hospital for a knee x-ray. It was a slightly depressing place to visit: partly because, up until now, I had believed it to be a facility simply for old people. That's what our neighbour said, too, as she saw me tottering down the road: "You're going to the cottage hospital?" she remarked, with some disbelief. "Isn't that the geriatric out-patient unit?"

Well, maybe it is, but you can also have your knee x-rayed there. And once you've got over the stigma of being lumped together with the oldies, it's not a bad place to spend Monday morning - although there's not a lot to read in the reception room: the 1993 IKEA catalogue; the 1993 Yellow Pages; and a leaflet about how 1993 was the Year of Old People in the European Community. In fact, it looks as though things haven't changed much in the hospital since 1893; although someone has tried to brighten the place up by painting it orange and drawing neat little flowers on the notices for the patients.

Anyway, after I'd read the IKEA catalogue for a while, the radiographer told me to take my trousers off and sit in a cubicle. So there I was, in a dismal orange box, when an elderly gentleman arrived outside. "I want to talk to someone," he said, peering through the half-open door. I covered my knees up with the hospital gown, and smiled encouragingly.

"I was here last Friday," he said.

"Oh yes?" I replied politely, unable to think of anything else to add to the conversation (had he mistaken the cubicle for a confessional?). Luckily, the radiographer returned, and the old man latched on to her instead. He was worried about his recent x-ray, he said, and worried about the x-ray he had in 1974, and worried about all the tablets he was taking. "The doctors tell me not to worry," he said, "but I can't help it. It's been preying on my mind all weekend."

The radiographer told him to go and see his GP, and the old man left, still fretting. And I know how he felt. By the time it was my turn in the x-ray room, my right knee - the one that was supposed to be OK - had started hurting. "Could you have a look at both knees?" I asked.

"No," said the radiographer firmly. "There's nothing on your form about the right knee."

"Oh pleeease!" I wanted to wail, but didn't. Instead, I lay rigid with fright while she x-rayed my left knee (what if the radiation leaked out of the machine?); and then nodded obediently when she told me to go to the physiotherapy department on the other side of the hospital. There were more old people there, too, and a mysterious sign which said: "No one with a cardiac pacemaker is allowed past this point". (Are cardiac pacemakers incompatible with physiotherapy, or what?)

The receptionist asked me a few questions. Was the pain in my knee affecting ordinary daily life? (Yes, it was.) Did the discomfort wake me up at night? (Yes, if the baby didn't get in there first.) But I clearly didn't count as an urgent case; which was not a surprise, when you saw the poor old ladies struggle past with walking sticks and Zimmer frames: "You can have an appointment in four weeks," said the receptionist briskly, and that was that.

Back home, I couldn't stop thinking about my knee (my GP had mentioned something about a stray bit of bone, which sounded alarming). And then there were my pesky mouth ulcers. I peered at them in the bathroom mirror, and noticed that my gums looked rather unhealthy. Gum disease! That was all I needed.

At work later that day, one of my colleagues started telling me about his root canal job. "Dental problems for middle-aged men are the closest we get to understanding what gynaecology is like for women," he said, mournfully.

I disagreed, and said that personally, I found it just as traumatic going to the dentist as to the gynaecologist. This is why I had to swap dentists some years ago: from a handsome, muscular young Australian who took out my wisdom teeth, to a nice woman with three young children of her own. (Who wants a bronzed hunk poking around her decaying cavities?)

The night after this conversation, I dreamt, predictably, that all my teeth fell out (one after another, as I tried to eat dinner). I know that according to popular dream theory this signifies a deep-seated anxiety about life, but I'm sure it's more obvious than that. I'm simply worried that my teeth are going to fall out.

There might, however, be something to be said for the idea that what is inside your mouth tells you what is going on inside your head. A friend of mine, with a fantastically complicated love life which involved telling half-truths and downright falsehoods to various women, suddenly developed appalling toothache. After years of having perfect, wolfishly gleaming teeth, he required umpteen fillings and drillings and other painful procedures. "I'm sure it's because of all the lies I've told," he said (and no, he's not a guilt-ridden Roman Catholic). "My mouth is rotting away inside."

Since this startling insight, he's been a model citizen in all matters, including his love life - and his teeth trouble him no longer. But where does this leave me? Do mouth ulcers point to some inner spiritual decay? And what about my gammy knee? Does this mean I am bowed by the pressures of balancing work and motherhood? Perhaps: for if mouths are the windows to the soul, then knees are the bones that buckle when the going gets rough. !