We arrive just before 9pm, and the cramped A&E waiting room is crowded. We take seats, and begin the long wait for a doctor.
Opposite us sit Comedy Family; mum, dad, and son. They’re here for Comedy Mum, who is complaining noisily of back pain. Every time Comedy Son shifts in his seat, it rocks her seat and makes her back hurt more. She listens to a cheap-looking MP3 player and does Sudoku puzzles. Every now and then she makes some comment, usually something critical of Comedy Son or Comedy Dad; and because she’s wearing headphones, she speaks loud enough for the whole room to hear. Comedy Son treats her harshly each time, whipping a headphone from one of her ears and saying, crossly, “Take those bloody things out of yer ears when you speak to us, you’re too loud.”
Comedy Dad keeps swearing, fuck this, fuck that, which must be really annoying for the parents of Bloody Head Girl. She looks about four or five, still in her school uniform, and with her head roughly bandaged. Dried blood has spilled from a gash in her forehead, all down her face, her clothes, her arms. She doesn’t seem too bothered about it right now, playing with her Dad’s mobile phone and singing a song about the alphabet. Later on, she’ll fall asleep on her father’s lap. It’ll still be another hour or more before she sees the doctor.
She’s not the only child here. Another little girl is asleep on a chair, it’s not clear what’s wrong with her. And there are two young boys, maybe eight or nine years old, one in a wheelchair and one limping from seat to seat. Their mothers sit by them, exhausted.
Impressive Cleavage Woman sits nearby. She’s all dressed up because she’s been to a dinner party, and was helping with some washing up when a glass broke in the sink and slashed her thumb. She’s waiting for stitches. She’s self-conscious because she’s dressed for a night out, with her plunging neckline and smart skirt; everyone else here is in tracksuits or jeans. Her husband fidgets and takes his tie off.
The Comedy Family keep everyone entertained with their ridiculous banter. Comedy Son goes to the vending machine to buy a drink, but comes back declaring: “I ain’t paying one pound ten for a bloody Coke. I’ll go to Tescos.” Comedy Dad goes with him, and they return 30 minutes later with a carrier bag full of sandwiches, salad boxes, and drinks.
Next to me is Scaffolding Bloke, who twisted his foot as he climbed out of the van. His workmates took the piss out of him for coming to A&E, but his ankle is red and the foot itself puffed up and swollen. I’d have done the same if I were him. He thinks Comedy Son’s little picnic from Tesco is hilarious, and says so. “You could have taken orders for everyone,” he jokes. Comedy Son smiles ruefully as he opens a box of fresh tomatoes. “I’m on a diet,” he says.
It seems to be the night for young men with injured feet. Just across the way is another young man with a swollen foot. In fact, when he takes off the shoe and sock on his healthy foot, we can all see that it is half the size of the swollen one. We all wince.
There’s a healthy buzz of conversation until sobs are heard from down the corridor, and the room goes silent as a young couple run in. She is beside herself, crying with anguish. There’s a trail of blood on the floor behind her as she runs. She bangs on the glass partition of the receptionists’ area to get someone’s attention, and says: “Excuse me love, please help me. I don’t think my little baby’s going to make it.” And she collapses, inconsolable. Her partner tries to support her but his face is screwed up with grief and tension. The whole room looks on, horrified. Even Comedy Family are quiet, thankfully. A nurse appears from nowhere with a wheelchair, firmly pushes the sobbing girl down into it, and whisks her off down a corridor with the young man following behind, his arms held up on top of his head as if he’s trying to squeeze out pain.
There’s a moment of total silence, then everyone breathes out and the chatter starts. “God, that poor girl.” “At least she’ll get seen quickly, thank God.”
Minutes later, an exasperated paramedic pokes his head round the door. “Anyone here left a BMW parked in the ambulance bay?”
A woman pipes up. “I think it might be the couple who were here a moment ago. She’s losing her baby.”
The paramedic disappears again without a word, behind a door with a glass panel. Through that panel we can all see the people who are taken straight through to the doctors, people wheeled in on beds, people who are in serious trouble. A man, his head covered in blood, is wheeled through at one point, and Comedy Son declares: “Well, that’s another hour we all have to wait.”
As soon as the paramedic’s gone, there’s more chatter. “Well I’d park there if I were her.” “You don’t care about a fine when you’re in that state do you?” “I’d pay a 30 quid fine for that, no problem.” Comedy Mum pipes up, too loud: “I’d pay a 100 quid fine.”
More new arrivals. Ears Man, whose ears are so blocked that he’s in pain and cannot hear anything. And Crushed Finger Girl, who comes in crying with pain. Two of her fingers got crushed under something heavy, and one of them is split down the middle, a huge flap of flesh hanging off it. Impressive Cleavage woman gasps and has to hold her hand to her mouth. Scaffolding Bloke’s friend sits next to the girl, trying to comfort her, while her partner stands at the reception desk providing details to the staff. Everyone is shocked that despite the evident seriousness of her injury, despite the blood pouring from her finger, and despite her constant sobs of pain and shock, it’s still at least 20 minutes before she gets seen by a nurse.
Around midnight and things start to get quieter. The expected influx of post-closing time drunks doesn’t happen. Bloody Head Girl finally gets attention, and her father has to carry her, still fast asleep, down the corridor. A few minutes later and we hear her screaming and crying, but a few minutes after that she re-emerges, her head cleaned and fresh stitches in the cut on her forehead. She’s still moaning, but she’s so tired that her eyes are closed and her head rests on Dad’s shoulder.
Impressive Cleavage Woman, the Swollen Foot Bloke, then Scaffolding Bloke all get called through. We’ll see Swollen Foot Bloke on our way out, standing in the entrance hall with his entire leg in plaster, trying to walk on crutches and use a mobile phone at the same time.
Eventually, Comedy Mum’s name is called and the whole Comedy Family decamps through the door. “Bout fucking time,” mutters Comedy Dad.
And then it’s our turn. It’s now 1am. We see a doctor for about 10 minutes, but there’s not a lot she can do. We need a specialist at a different hospital, and the only way to see him is with a direct referral from a GP.
We step out into the rain and drive home.