Discover more from The Only Gaijin in the Village
You Pay Your Money
First published in Chase the Moon 1 (Sept 2014)
Joseph removed his glasses and rubbed his eyes. Ignoring the flashing red light advertising the next customer, he ran through a quick series of stretches designed to get the blood flowing, but knew it was pointless. His exhaustion was much deeper than mere stretches could reach.
Customer. He’d long stopped thinking of them as patients. Patients were people with an illness, something he could diagnose, prescribe and treat. He hadn’t seen a patient since… he dredged through his memory trying to recall the face of the last person to sit across from him with something other than pregnancy. He couldn’t. But he knew when it was. That was easy. It wasn’t long after the Health Service was privatised and the GP practice was taken over by Choice Inc. Not long after he’d suppressed personal reservations and agreed to stay on. Not long after the wedding.
His eyes fell on the brochures spread on the coffee table.
When had choice become an end in itself?
Washing his face in ice-cold water woke him a little, but not nearly enough. He thought of self-medicating, but it would only make things worse in the end. He needed sleep. Healthy, natural sleep. Only there wasn’t much chance of that at home; it was the wrong time of her cycle for that. Another week of sex as a chore.
The insistent light. Paying customers. Avoiding the mirror he opened the door and showed them in. The Hayles. Mrs Hayle—Vanessa—had a sharp black bob with large triangular earrings swinging below, an aerodynamic face and a body all corners. Her husband, Thomas, came in behind, big, soft handshake, tweed jacket and a mumbled morning from under a blond thatch. These meetings weren’t to take place over his desk, rather they had to sit in the more stylish leather chairs and talk over the brochure-laden coffee table. Mrs Hayle perched on the edge, eyes never leaving Joseph. Thomas sank back clasping his cup of tea like it was trying to escape. Joseph began the spiel.
“Well, first of all, can I wish you both my congratulations? Will this be your first?”
Thomas looked up, shook his head. She scowled.
“It is to be our first,” she said. “But it is not his first.”
“Well. Congratulations to both of you.”
“Thanks,” said Thomas.
Joseph nodded warmly at him, then turned to Mrs Hayle.
“So, to business. I believe you’ve already had preliminary meetings with our…” He could never bring himself to say First Stage Team. “… staff, and that some decisions have been reached?”
“That is so. Firstly…”
“Ah, sorry. One moment please.” Joseph returned to his desk and retrieved the questionnaire. “We’ll begin by going through the basics, and then if there are any further wishes either of you have, we can go through them at the end. Sound okay?”
A single nod of consent.
“Excellent. So. First and foremost: sex?”
“A mix of both. Good choice. Eyes?”
Joseph could recite the lines from memory, along with the platitudes he dished out at each answer. The first few weeks he’d been fascinated by the different decisions, the reasons, the variety of people who came in to make use of Choice Inc. There were those still amazed that science could do such things, tentatively asking if it would be okay if the child could be quite tall. There were others who thought that science had kept them waiting quite long enough and could Joseph please hurry the process along? Most were too caught up in the plethora of choices to even consider the wider implications of what they were doing. Joseph became tired by it all.
It was about then that Theresa decided she wanted a baby.
The Hayles were dealt with swiftly and without great fuss. They wanted a son and heir, sturdy and strong and Choice Inc. was more than happy to deliver.
Eyes. Hair. Sex. Height. Build. The rest of the morning passed in wave after wave of questionnaires, congratulations, empty comments and choice, choice, choice. Joseph’s left eye had started to twitch with the effort of concentration. There was a permanent dull buzzing in his ears and his throat was too dry. Lunchtime had nearly finished before he could summon the energy to move from the office.
Peter, the other doctor on duty that day, was leaving the staff room as Joseph entered. Joseph hardly saw him as he walked, zombie –like, to the fridge.
“Jeez Joe, you look rough. Heavy night?”
“Huh? Oh, Peter. Hi.”
“Wow, you’re in a bad state. How many bottles did you get through? And on a school night too.”
“I’m not hungover Peter, more’s the pity. Just not getting enough sleep.”
“Oh yeah? Theresa keeping you up all night? Lucky bastard.”
“Yeah, I guess.”
“Careful Joe, you’re going to drop that cup. You sure you’re okay?”
“Okay, well, back to the drawing board. I’ve got twins to design.”
Nothing ever seemed to bother Peter. He’d been in the same mood since they’d met two years before: happy, energetic, and utterly irritating. Joseph had only seen another side to Peter once, at the New Year party he and Theresa had held. Peter had got exceptionally drunk on single malt and Joseph had found him sitting under a tree in tears over the Decree Absolute that had hit his mat just before Christmas. Joseph hadn’t even known he was married. Neither of them ever mentioned the night again.
The salad Theresa had prepared sat soggy and brown in the Tupperware. She’d put him on a special diet thought to increase the sperm count. Joseph knew it was nonsense, but Theresa got these ideas into her head. He didn’t mind, since the diet would help him loose some weight, and a fresh, crisp salad was invigorating after a tough morning. This wasn’t a fresh, crisp salad. He dumped the salad, box and all, into the bin, poured a strong cup of coffee and went back to his office.
The afternoon schedule was more of the same. Why hadn’t he become a dentist? That was proper care, actually fixing something. The dentists he knew were all richer than him, happier than him, slimmer than him. Dental patients respect the dentist because he causes them pain. He takes them through something terrible and they respect him for it. No one respected Joseph. He was a glorified salesman.
There was a knock on the door.
“Yes?” he called. The door opened and in came Malcolm Gasthorpe, the clinic manager and on-site representative of Choice Inc. Peter called him Malcolm Gasbag.
“Joseph, how are you? Have a moment? Was wondering if we could have a word?”
“Well Malcolm, I’ve got a customer in two minutes…”
“Client, Joseph, client. Don’t worry, I’ve asked Debra to say you’re delayed.
Malcolm sat down in the ‘relaxed’ area and crossed his legs. Joseph leaned against his desk. Malcolm patted the seat opposite him and gestured for Joseph to join him. After a pause, he did.
“So. So, so, so. How are you feeling today, Joseph? A little under the weather? I must say, you don’t look one hundred and ten percent. Is everything okay?”
“Fine, Malcolm, thanks for asking. What can I do for you this busy afternoon?”
“That’s why I like you Joseph: blunt, and straight to the point. You saw a couple this morning, did you not? The Hayles. Remember?”
“I remember. He was hen-pecked to within an inch of his life and she’d sat on a poker.”
“Very graphic, Joseph, thank you. Do you remember their order?”
Joseph thought for a moment, trawling back through the day.
“Male, brown hair and eyes, strong and athletic. Why?”
“That’s exactly right. So, can you explain this for me?”
He handed Joseph a copy of the Hayle’s questionnaire. Joseph studied it. Sex: male. Hair: blond. Eyes: blue. It was his handwriting.
As Joseph drove up from the underground car park, two conflicting urges fought inside him. The first was to stamp hard on the accelerator and mow down the group of protestors waiting for him at the exit. He imagined them bouncing off his bonnet like pins, he imagined the preachy one with the beard losing his teeth against the windscreen, placard snapping blood-spattered. He imagined the chaos and carnage left in his wake as he sped onto the motorway and just drove.
The second urge was to stop the car, get out and join them. Grab a sign and denounce the whole bloody clinic. Hand them his keys and passwords, let them act out his fantasy and burn the place down.
Malcolm had been patronisingly understanding. Spoke about pressure, about stamina, about burning out. A leave of absence. A few days off before going back on the soul-destroying training course at Choice Inc. headquarters in Reading. Come back refreshed and invigorated. Joseph had never hit anyone before, and he’d never come so close. Instead, he meekly assented, got his coat and left.
Blue eyes. Blonde hair. That’s what Theresa would choose.
The Prius edged through the demonstration and onto the road. How had he ended up here? All he’d ever wanted was a quiet life yet he was being protested against. Playing God. Changing the natural way of things.
He was just a GP whose career had been hijacked. Friends at medical school had laughed at him. High-flyers all, they dreamt of surgery, research, papers and lecture tours. A procedure named after them. He dreamt of a cottage in the country, amongst green rolling hills, a family and a fireplace. Flu, anti-depressants and infected injuries were enough medicine to keep him happy. A comfortable place in a community, a regret free retirement, peace and quiet.
He had a wife, but none of the rest. No cottage, no fireplace. No children.
The usual route home took him through the side streets to avoid the rush to get onto the by-pass, but this time the roads were jammed. Of course: he was leaving much earlier. The by-pass would be quiet but the streets were full of the school run. Among the mothers waiting at the gates he saw a few fathers. House-husbands, or those who could work from home. Free to pursue a life, to pick their kids up from school. Joseph’s house was for eating and sleeping. He rarely saw it during daylight. If they had kids he’d never see them. With this job he’d never get to pick them up from school.
He wasn’t cut out for this.
Resign. The idea was never far from his mind, but he’d never seriously considered it. To quit. Pack it in. Do something else. He had a medical degree and years of experience. He wasn’t too old to change direction. Money would be tighter but the one thing he could say about Choice Inc. was they paid well. He’d enough saved to buy him some time and breathing space.
He could go into journalism or write a book. He had often thought about all the ridiculous things he’d heard over the years as a GP. The folk tales and absurd beliefs that the general public held about health and medicine. He could write a column. He’d call it Bad Health. Rude Health. An Apple A Day. Something like that. After a few years he could collect the pieces into a book. Write another, maybe a fictionalised version of himself. There was certainly enough material. All the old women, panicky mothers, embarrassed couples with SRIs. Sex Related Injuries. Might even make a good sit-com.
Breathing space. He could already feel the freedom. He rolled his head, stretching the neck muscles, interlocked his fingers and stretched his arms. He felt lighter, happier. Music. He turned on the stereo and flicked through its computer memory for some road music. Something loud and energetic, something to blow the cobwebs away and carry him home.
In his stomach he knew what had happened before the thought registered with any clarity in his brain. There was nothing else that could’ve caused a bang like that. Nothing else that could’ve cracked a spider web into his windscreen. Nothing else that could’ve caused the woman to start screaming and run into the road behind him. Stationary, he stared into the smashed glass, watching the cracks spreading. It wouldn’t shatter. It wouldn’t fall to pieces. It would stay in place, thousands of fragments held together.