home life
And so here I am, waiting in the sexually transmitted diseases clinic of our local hospital on a chilly, misty Monday morning. The scuffed, pistachio-coloured door says "Lydia" - a fragile,unlikely name for such a clinic. And there's a ticket system just like the deli counter at Sainsbury's (and just as long a wait, apparently). "Take a number and take a seat," says the woman with the biro.

"Is there a loo?" I ask, desperate to pee since I left the house.

She glances at my crotch. "You'll be asked to give a sample soon."

"Oh. How soon?"

"Couldn't say." A shrug.

"Oh, well OK - perhaps I'll wait."

In the waiting room with me: a middle-aged foreign-looking couple sitting soberly, hand in hand. And three bolshie girls with dyed black hair and dreadlocks. One has shaved her natural eyebrows and then painted them back on higher up. Strong smell of Wrigley's Juicy Fruit chewing gum, flash of dead-blue fingernails.

Probably just normal people like me with innocent gynaecological complaints, I think. All the same, "sexually transmitted" fizzles, crackles, poisons the air.

"I'm sorry to send you there," had apologised the doctor at the family planning clinic, as she diagnosed a possible pelvic infection. "Obviously you haven't got an STD. It's just the only place which can do it all on the spot - you know, check you out and treat you if appropriate."

At home, I complained loudly. "That's my Monday morning eaten up."

"Good chance to get all that reading done," said Jonathan. "I'd like to see you do your reading there," I countered.

When do men ever have to go and spread their legs on a Monday morning and get on with their work at the same time?

But I take along Penelope Lively's new novel, which jars attractively with the setting. I nip my takeaway cappuccino and wonder how long I can bear it before I have to go to the loo. A TV in the corner of the waiting room has some silver-haired man in a suit chatting to a TV audience of women about why they got sterilised and how they feel about it now. He stalks among them, holding the microphone tenderly to each face, as each reveals her private and particular pain.

One woman says she "got done" at 25 because she didn't want children. "Mmm. Have you ever regretted it?"

"Never." She grins; her eyeshadow is metallic, waxy green like the skin of a hot-weather reptile.

Another woman had six children, got sterilised and then despaired because she suddenly wanted a seventh. "Biggest mistake of my life," she says. She does not look at the camera. The man edges the bulb of the mike a little nearer.

I slide back into the novel: a heatwave in the English countryside, baked mud tracks, rippling wheat, blue skies. Mothers and daughters, unfaithful husbands, contraception, abortions, possibilities abandoned and lost for ever. "Fifty!" calls the woman.

I explain my symptoms to the somehow appreciative doctor and she shuts me in a loo where I finally pee into a styrofoam cup and think nothing of leaving it nakedly on a little shelf as instructed. Anyone who's ever been pregnant will pee on demand and carry hot little yellow vials up and down a seething waiting room without a flinch or blush.

"If you'd like to take your bottom things off and wait in here," says the nurse. "Doctor's not quite ready, but if we can get you lined up it's all a lot quicker."

Bare-bottomed, I climb on the pale blue paper-covered couch with my novel. Ignore the plastic knee-rests and dive back into the heatwave and problem of the husband's clearly impending infidelity. The nurse comes back in, hands me a piece of paper towel the size of a napkin ("To keep you decent"). Lay the paper across my knees as though I'm about to have a picnic, continue with the novel.

A moment later, her head pops round the curtain. "We seem to have lost your sample. Sorry. Where did you say you put it?"

I tell her I left it on the shelf, adding that I could probably do another if she wants.

"Might come to that," she says, "I'll go on looking."

I adjust the napkin on my knees. The heroine drives off to London to have lunch with an antiquarian bookseller old flame. "Sorry, could I ask you to do another? First one's nowhere to be seen."

I slide off the couch, put down my book, put knickers and leggings back on and return to loo. As I put new sample on the shelf, see that the old one's still there, with my name on, in fact. "Hey, I found the other!" I call out. "Which one d'you want?"

"Oh," says the nurse. "The fresh one, then."

Things off, back on the couch, napkin on, the doctor comes in. "If I could ask you to put your knees on here, thanks." I take a breath and spread my legs, lay my novel flat on my stomach. Some swabbing goes on. Doesn't hurt. "That good?" the doctor asks without looking up. I wonder how to judge it and then I realise she means the book.

"Oh, um, yeah," I say, finding it hard to be critically acute with my legs wide open.

The doctor tells me she can find nothing wrong, no inflammation. I say good - I am relieved.

As I leave, the woman in reception hands me a card with a number on it and says: I'm now on their files and can come back any time I want.