Jeremy Clarke

Low Life | 4 October 2008

Health check

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‘My life’s over, doctor,’ I said. ‘A young man like you! Nonsense!’ he said, peering at me over his half-moon glasses. He was that wonderful combination: a fat man squeezed into an old-fashioned waistcoat. Occasionally, he mopped the perspiration from his brow with the handkerchief he kept in the outside breast pocket of his jacket.

‘How old are you?’ he said. I told him. He wrote the figure down. ‘And how old is your partner?’ I told him. He raised his eyebrows and wrote this figure down underneath. ‘How long have you been together?’ ‘About three months,’ I said. ‘And how long have you been having difficulties?’ ‘About three months,’ I said, and he wrote that down as well.

‘Do you smoke?’ ‘Yes.’ He ticked a box. ‘Has the problem occurred before?’ ‘No.’ ‘Any heart problems or illnesses such as diabetes?’ ‘No.’ ‘Right, let’s have a look at you.’

Panting, owing to the exertion involved in bending down, he measured my blood pressure, timed my heart rate and carefully examined my private parts, paying particular attention to my testes. Then he ran his handkerchief over his brow and said, ‘I have excellent news, Mr Clarke. As far as I can tell, your difficulty has no physical cause and is therefore probably psychological. And I am happy to say that in this splendid, pharmacological era in which we now find ourselves, I can prescribe something that will immediately and spectacularly cure you. Ever heard of Viagra?’

I was hoping he was going to say that. I didn’t want a song and dance about my health. I simply needed a chemical nudge to get me over a psychological hump in the road. If it could get me over it once, everything would be fine again, I was sure of it.

The doctor was not only sympathetic to this point of view, but he also gave me a choice of chemicals. I could walk out of the room with a prescription for Viagra, he said. Or he could supply me with an experimental product that was being developed by a rival pharmaceutical company. This company paid him to select those of his patients he judged suitable for a clinical trial, and then to administer it. The experimental product was more powerful than Viagra, he said. The effect lasts for 48 hours against Viagra’s six.

If I agreed to take part, I would be given a diary in which to record every sexual encounter — or, in clinical trial parlance, ‘event’ — occurring during the trial period of a year. I must also note down certain details of my performance. My partner’s consent was essential. I would be paid travelling expenses.

‘Travelling expenses?’ I said, imagining myself scouring the land in a Ford Priapus searching for extra partners. ‘To return to the surgery every 12 weeks for a medical examination,’ he said. ‘And do I have to write about my partner’s performance as well?’ I said anxiously, for I’m no novelist. ‘Just yours,’ he said. ‘Rigidity and sustainability and so forth. What do you think?’

I had one further question. ‘Any side effects registered in the trial so far?’ I said. ‘Yes,’ he said. ‘Death. The victims were all elderly, all had heart attacks and, yes, we had a hell of a job screwing the coffin lids down. A fit young man like you, though, should have nothing to worry about.’

I liked and trusted his no-nonsense approach enough to drive away from his consulting room with a huge plastic tub of tablets, a ring binder, a biro with the pharmaceutical company logo on it, a copy of the agreement I’d signed promising not to resort to law if anything went drastically awry and an emergency telephone number. ‘Have fun!’ had been the doctor’s final instruction.

Three months later he welcomed me back into his consulting room and waved me into a chair for my first interim check-up. If he seemed a little disorganised, he’d returned only that morning from an international conference on erectile disfunction in Ghana, he said, mopping his brow. ‘Which has not been an issue with you, Mr Clarke, I trust, since we last met.’ In reply I pushed my ‘events’ diary across the desk towards him. He picked it up and flicked through the pages. They were blank — all of them. ‘Obviously, you were too exhausted to make further entries,’ he said benignly, a congratulatory smile creasing his perspiring, cherubic face.

‘She left,’ I explained. ‘Walked out in disgust when I told her about the trial. Left me for a real man, apparently, who didn’t need tablets.’ ‘So you haven’t had a single event since we met three months ago?’ said the doctor in absolute amazement. I shook my head. ‘Well, Mr Clarke,’ he said, dabbing vigorously at his forehead, ‘a young man like you should be thoroughly ashamed of yourself, that’s all I can say.’