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Low life

Do I have cancer in my left eye?

I have been summoned urgently to the eye clinic — for the third time in two weeks

10 August 2019

9:00 AM

10 August 2019

9:00 AM

My luck had to run out one of these fine days. Everybody’s does sooner or later. I’ve had a fantastic run — I’ve been lucky all of my life — and shall continue to count myself fortunate. But being suddenly out of luck makes one feel unmasked, which does take a bit of getting used to. Such were the morbid thoughts running through my head as I sat in the eye clinic waiting room, already packed by 8.30, waiting to see Mr Doyle.

It was my third visit in two weeks. They’d photographed the interiors of my eyeballs hundreds of times. They’d blown little puffs of air at them. They’d told me to watch the red light until it turns green, then look to the left. But I had yet to see this Mr Doyle. Closely following my second visit, a hospital administrator had rung me up and told me that he wanted to see me urgently and could I come in again tomorrow morning?

‘Urgently?’ I said. ‘Did I say that?’ she said. ‘Yes,’ I said. ‘Well, I’m not supposed to say “urgently”. But yes, Mr Doyle would like to see you as soon as possible before he goes on leave on Friday.’ So the verdict was in at last, I thought. And because this Mr Doyle wanted to see me urgently I could reasonably assume that their grave suspicion of cancer in my left eye had turned out to be justified. And this Mr Doyle was the one who was going to break it to me.


The waiting room was like the floor of a stock exchange during a crash. A receptionist now picked her way through the crowd. Cupping her mouth against the background, she said: ‘Mr Clarke?’ ‘Yes?’ ‘Mr Doyle wants to let you know he is in a meeting and will have to delay your appointment by a few minutes.’ I assured her that my time was nowhere near as valuable as Mr Doyle imagines but thanks all the same.

My plastic seat was next to the clinic entrance. I swung my knees this way and that to allow more space for the burgeoning queue. A woman whose face looked as though it cried a lot paused in front of me on her way out and said: ‘Are you waiting to see Mr Doyle?’ ‘Yes,’ I said. ‘I just wanted to tell you that I’ve been seeing Mr Doyle for about a year and he’s a wonderful man. You’re lucky to get him. Whatever it is you’ve got wrong with you — you’ll be fine.’ I nodded immediate and complete understanding of all this woman had said and implied. I venerated an oncologist on level 2 in much the same way, and in a similar situation would go out of my way to say the same thing to someone else.

Ten minutes later my name was shouted and I was directed to a smaller, emptier waiting room, which felt a bit like being upgraded to first class. In here a spry old lady pushing a League of Friends refreshment trolley gave me a mug of stewed tea and her benediction in exchange for a pound coin. Then one of the doors in this room opened a little way and someone stuck his neck and head out comically nearer to the horizontal than the vertical and said my name. On entering his examination room, I saw that Mr Doyle was a gentle, unassuming beanpole who wore cheap business shoes. I asked him whether he minded my mug of tea and handed over the box of six fresh farm eggs I’d bought from an honesty box in the lane. I thought that a gift of fresh farm eggs in exchange for being told I had cancer of the eye would show I had no hard feelings and might even do something towards reversing this run of bad luck. ‘You’ll like those,’ I said. ‘Laid this morning. They’ll stand proud in the frying pan.’ Mr Doyle accepted the eggs humbly and slid them into his cheap briefcase. ‘Excuse me a moment,’ he said. Then while I sipped my tea he opened a folder and read a selection from my notes.

After about five minutes he snapped the folder shut decisively, reclined my chair and put two anaesthetic eye drops into each eye. While I lay in this position, he fished around, particularly in the left one, using a plastic spatula to expose the eyeball edge where the questionable mass or colouring had been detected on an earlier photograph. Then he threw the spatula in the bin, washed his hands in a little sink and said very kindly: ‘There’s nothing wrong with your eyes. You can go.’ He was as pleased as I was. I told him it was the first piece of good news I’d had for a long time. ‘And long may it continue, Mr Clarke,’ said this wonderful man.


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