Missing: one doctor, one dentist, one hairdresser

Peering down infected throats - the wonder is more of them don't cut and run to California
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The Independent Culture
IT MUST be a couple of years now since I saw my doctor, by which I mean the general practitioner with whom I am officially registered. Every time I make an appointment I see a different locum, each as friendly and as efficient as the last, and yet I cannot help feeling vaguely dissatisfied with the arrangement. I like my doctor, or, at any rate, what I remember of him. He has, after all, been privy to the more intimate details of my private life for nearly 20 years, and while friendliness and efficiency play an important part in the doctor-patient relationship, familiarity must surely have its place, too.

"How come I never get to see Dr T any more?" I asked the receptionist last time I went to the surgery. She said she didn't know, she was new herself, but she thought he was more involved in general admin these days. "Nonsense," said the woman following me into the waiting-room. "He's got a very lucrative little number addressing focus groups in California about how much job satisfaction he gets out of being a GP in London."

Thinking about it afterwards on the bus going home, I was struck by just how tedious a GP's life must be - peering down infected throats, squinting into seeping ears, prodding pus, examining rashes on the less attractive parts of the human anatomy. The wonder is that more of them don't cut and run to California in search of focus groups.

And then, funnily enough, the same thing happened with my dentist. "He only comes in three days a week now," explained his secretary. "Your first appointment won't be for six weeks, I'm afraid." No, not focus groups this time. Forensic dentistry, that's what my dentist does on Thursdays and Fridays. He helps the police to identify murder victims by their dental records. Last time I went, he'd just come back from the Far East where he'd been helping investigators to identify more than 100 people killed in an air crash. I remembered that particular crash. About 30 people survived, and through a mouthful of spit - he was performing a particularly delicate root-canal treatment - I asked my dentist where the survivors had been sitting. The older I get the more paranoid I become about flying.

He said it had been one of his jobs to reposition the bodies in their seats for this very reason, but alas, there was no set pattern for survival, no guaranteed safe seat. The upshot of all this is that, far from dreading them, I now relish my twice-yearly visits and the prospect of yet more macabre tales.

Everyone benefits from an outside interest. I was planning on finding mine in the 25 years I am due to spend in the wilderness shortly, if I follow the ancient Hindu rule for a perfect life. The guru who gave them to me had just returned from his wilderness stint.

Here's how it goes. In your first 25 years on earth you grow in mind and body. In your next 25 years you achieve, you acquire. In your third 25 you renounce the world, go into the wilderness and meditate, and in your last period you return to society and teach the wisdom you've learnt in the wilderness. I wonder whether California counts as a wilderness. With any luck, when my doctor returns he will regale me with so much Baywatch wisdom that it will quite take my mind off my current ailment, which is where this story began.

The last locum I saw in place of Dr T advised me that there was a five- month waiting-list to see the NHS consultant. In the circumstances, I'd better go privately. Did I have private medical insurance? Certainly not, I don't believe in it, I said. "In that case," said the locum, "it will cost you about pounds 150 but you can see him tomorrow."

I had no idea that private hospitals were such luxurious places. This was less a hospital than a hotel, with flunkeys in red satin waistcoats carrying silver trays full of dainty afternoon teas along thickly carpeted corridors. My consultant, who had a spotted bow tie and a pink carnation in his buttonhole, neither squinted, peered, prodded nor examined. He merely glanced at the X-rays of my wretched fingers and said, in the weary tones of one who has said it many times before, "The trouble with us writers is that there is no real cure apart from anti-inflammatory pills, which could have side-effects, and steroid injections, which don't always work." Now there's a man who's been stuck in a rut too long and could do with an outside interest, such as California focus groups or murder victims.

"And you paid pounds 150 for that?" gasped a friend. Well no, I paid pounds 225, pounds 150 for the consultation and pounds 75 for the X-rays.

To cheer myself up I rang the hairdresser for an appointment. "It'll have to be next Thursday," said the girl. "Gavin only works two days a week now. Didn't you know? He's training to be a magistrate."