Over the top of a pair of half-moon spectacles with expensive-looking frames that match his expensive-looking tie and expensive-looking suit, the medical consultant gives me a meaningful look.
“We’re going to need a sample from you, young man,” he declares. His voice is boomy, too loud for these surroundings. He has an extravagant double chin.
My wife and I are sat in front of him, feeling emotionally fragile and a little bit overwhelmed. We are about to start our first cycle of IVF treatment, the last hope left for us to create a sibling for our young son. Our seats are small and plain and set us slightly lower than the consultant’s head, which means he has to look down at us as he speaks.
We’ve been here for 30 minutes or so, and until that meaningful look and the comment about the sample, the overly-chinned consultant paid me no attention whatsoever. His attention was solely focused on my wife. He asked her dozens of question about her state of health, sexual history and the other, less invasive forms of infertility treatment she has been subjected to in the past.
He glances down at his desk and makes some scribbles on a form. Without looking up, he goes on: “Samples are donated in the Blue Room. The nurse will show you where to go.”
The Blue Room?
A nurse appears at the doorway, as if summoned by expensive-looking consultant magic. She smiles. I don’t know where to look.
“Come this way,” she says cheerfully. I get up, and cast a look at my wife. She casts a look back. My look says, “This is actually happening. Right now.” Her look says: “You think you’ve got it bad. It’s worse for us girls.”
She’s right, of course.
The nurse leads me around a couple of corners, and standing in the middle of a corridor, hands me a paper bag.
“There’s a sample bottle in here,” she says cheerfully. Everything she says is cheerful. “Make sure you write your name, date of birth, and the exact time you produced the sample on the side of the bottle. Seal it up tightly, then pop it back in this paper bag, and post the bag through this slot.”
She indicates a slot in the wall. Above it there’s a hand-written notice, taped to the wall: “SAMPLES HERE”
The exact time I produced the sample? Blimey.
“There you go,” she says, thrusting the paper bag into my fingers and chivvying me towards a door. Her smile broadens a little. “Take as long as you need,” she says.
On the door is a sign which reads: “THE BLUE ROOM”. I cringe. I can’t decide what’s worse: the fact that this room has been named thus, or that someone went to the trouble of paying for a sign saying so.
This room has only one purpose. Men only ever go through this door for one reason.
The nurse is turning away, and making off down the corridor. I’m left to my own devices. I can take as long as I need.
How long do I need? My wife is probably still explaining a lifetime of medical history to the expensively dressed consultant. It’s mid-afternoon, quite sunny outside. A beautiful day. I don’t want to produce a sample. I don’t want to go into The Blue Room.
I open the door.
My first thought is: it’s not very blue.
My second thought is: that’s not the kind of blue they mean.
The Blue Room is decorated like British aunts in the 1980s used to decorate their sitting rooms. Across the window are drawn a pair of heavy curtains that never get opened. In front of the window is a bed, made up professionally like all hospital beds, with the sheets and blankets pulled down crisply into rectangles, all the corners perfect. A pristine pillowcase sits below the headboard, untouched by human heads.
The walls have been painted a soft pastel, but it’s hard to tell what shade it is. Next to the bed there’s a small table, and on that sits a bedside lamp, the only source of light in the room.
What else? There’s an armchair, with a generously sized pillow on it. And at this end, opposite the door, there’s a sink. Above the sink a sign reads: “PLEASE WASH YOUR HANDS THOROUGHLY BEFORE AND AFTER PRODUCING YOUR SAMPLE.”
The world “THOROUGHLY” has been underlined.
There’s no soft music playing, but it feels like there ought to be. It would be a nice way of drowning out the sounds of talking from the sample testing room next door – the room with a slot in its wall, into which I’m supposed to post my sample once I’ve, um, produced it.
I’ve never called it that before.
The voices through the wall are indistinct. I can’t quite make out whether they’re saying “Ha! There’s another poor chump in the Blue Room.” Or whether they’re discussing last night’s football match, or what they might see at the cinema next week. But I can hear them, which means, I assume, that they can hear me too. That thought is not very conducive to the act of sample production.
I step across the room very, very softly, and open the curtains that never get opened. Outside is one of those outdoor places you only get at hospitals. A concrete yard, empty of people, but filled with the detritus of medicine. A couple of huge gas cylinders loom upwards, each marked with those stickers that warn you not to set light to them, expose them to naked flames, or generally do anything stupid that you shouldn’t do around gas cylinders. A trolley of some sort, with wheels broken and rusty. A few floating bits of litter. If I stretch my neck slightly, I can see cars manoeuvring in a car park. It’s all very much what you’d expect to see from any hospital window.
I turn back to the room. I can take as long as I need.
The bedside table upon which the lamp sits has a drawer in it. I hesitate. I think I know what’s in that drawer. I’m pretty sure I know. I don’t really want to look.
But: I’m in the Blue Room. How many times am I going to end up in here, doing this? (As it turned out, more times than I expected and ever wished for.)
If the drawer is empty, I’ll be proved wrong about something. The Blue Room will go up in my estimations. The hundreds of men who must have been here before me will earn a little more of my respect.
I open the drawer.
Afterwards, I obey the sign above the sink and the instructions the nurse gave me before I went in.
Holding the clear plastic pot up, I examine my sample in the dim light, and wonder what the technicians in the next room will make of it. Oh God, the technicians. I can’t hear them at all. Have they been listening in? Did I make any involuntary noises during my moment of production? I don’t think I did. But there is silence through the cardboard-thin wall. I stand motionless. If they can’t hear me, perhaps they’ll know I’m listening. That will make them feel almost as awkward as I do. One of us will have to break the silence, and dammit, it won’t be me.
Suddenly there’s a burst of laughter from the technicians. Then an indistinct comment, and more chuckling. Their conversation resumes. Perhaps it was a lull. Perhaps they were listening. Jesus, this is freaking me out. But my wife was right: if I think I’ve got it bad, I just need to remember what my wife has to go through for the sake of this cycle of treatment. Here treatment will be much more invasive, and a great deal more painful.
The technicians are, I’m sure, professional people. I’m sure they are just as annoyed about the thin wall as we sample-producers are. I love the NHS as much as the next Englishman, but God in heaven, this building – erected as a temporary measure in the 1970s, I expect – is a disgrace.
What’s more impressive, now I stop to think about it, is that this room is as clean as it is. Whose job is it, I wonder, to check this room over after every man has been inside, taking as long as he needs? Does that person shudder with expectant horror before opening the door? Do they change those perfectly adjusted bed sheets after every visit, just in case? How often is the armchair inspected, and how closely? Just how messy does this place get? As soon as I think of each of these questions, I know immediately that I don’t wish to know the answers.
No wonder the nurse keeps the cheerful expression so rigidly affixed to her face. You’d have to be cheerful to work here.
Before leaving, I look around once more. The drawer is closed, just as I left it after opening. The sink is clean, washed as thoroughly as my hands. The bed and armchair are untouched, at least by me. The Blue Room looks exactly as it did when I arrived. As if I was never here.
I take a deep inward breath before unlocking and opening the door, stepping out into the corridor, and quickly posting my sample through the little slot. Momentarily, I see the in-tray it lands upon, and glimpse the bright, sunlit, laboratory-clean air of the room beyond. The conversation in there continues even as the plastic pot holding the fruits of my productive output makes its landing. A new pot is no big deal for these technicians. It’s just another experiment to run.
I walk back along the corridor, slightly light-headed. Not with the physical effort of producing my sample, but with the astonishing feeling of exposure. Every person in this building, staff and patients alike, knows what a man walking along this corridor, in this direction, has just done. They know where he has done it. They know he’s just emerged from the Blue Room. There are no secrets here. I try to hold my head high and my gaze directly in front of me, knowing that there’s no shame in it, that there’s no need for anyone to judge me. I have done what was required of me. It was required because infertility clinics need to test the fertility, or otherwise, of everyone who walks through their door. It was a medical procedure, and nothing more.
I knock on the consultant’s door and sit down once again next to my wife. We cast looks at each other. My look says: “I just masturbated into a plastic pot in a place called the Blue Room.”
And to my great relief, her look says: “I love you.”