If you want a haircut or an endless supply of second-hand clothes, then my home town is the place for you. The only shops that seem to do any business are never-ending rows of charity shops nestling up against hairdressers and barber shops. As a community, we have the best hair in the south of England, but we're clad in outfits ripped from the backs of dead people.
It was as I was browsing for books in one of the few charity shops in the business that routinely fill their shelves according to the Dewey Decimal System that I saw the woman who has recently emerged as my current arch-nemesis. She was complaining over the price of an unnecessarily gaudy china tea pot, clearly priced to deter anyone from ever buying it. I didn't blame her in the slightest, for two pounds for a used paperback is rather pushing the boat out, as is a fiver for the worst teapot in humanity. If it hadn't been five quid, I would have bought it myself, taken it round the back and given it the shoeing it deserved to save anybody else the bother. Perhaps, in retrospect, this was her plan as well, and I under-estimate her.
However, I didn't have the luxury of this post-teapot analysis, my immediate observation being that she was just as furious about overpriced ugly china as she was in her usual surrounds, that being behind the reception desk at our doctors' surgery, where her disdain and fury at the patients whose shadows darken her realm has become a thing of legend.
I've become a regular user of the National Health Service over the last twelve months, and Angry Receptionist Woman, the gatekeeper at our local surgery, has become my first point of contact and my enemy when it comes to dealing with the teeming mess that makes up my insides. I'm torn as to whether her job as made her angry, or whether she was furious in the first place. If it's the former, then I must inevitably take a percentage of the blame as one of her major customers; if the latter, I can only imagine how the interview process went.
"So, what makes you think you are suitable for the role as our receptionist?""There are no other applicants.""Oh. I'm sure we invited several others to see us this morning.""Look in your waiting room. There are no other applicants."
Even if she had been a ball of raging fury before she took the job, the rules to which she is bound probably don't help much. For example, the only appointments she is allowed to give out for any given day become available at precisely 8am, meaning that if you are ill, you have to be on the phone at 7.59 and hitting redial over and over until the engaged tone gives way to a cheerless "Yes?"
If you get to 8.15 without success, then you are doomed to having to ring back the next day, taking a non-emergency slot in two weeks' time, or dying.
I expect that these fifteen minutes first thing set her up nicely for a day of lost urine samples, people who don't know how to use the electronic booking-in system, and exasperated explanations as to why you can't see a doctor this month as "it's your own fault for disemboweling yourself with spoon, isn't it?"
On this evidence, she's not evil. Sample-losing, technology-averse, cutlery-abusing people like me made her this way.
I like to think I know how a doctors' surgery works, a claim essentially drawn from watching my mother work as a practice nurse at least three-and-a-half decades ago. Utterly incapable of fending for myself at home, I instead hung around after school waiting for her to finish her shift. In a move which would probably give any self-respecting NHS lawyer kittens, I sometimes helped her as she syringed out old people's ears, changed dressings, and did unspeakable things to equally unspeakable feet in a back room of the mobile home that passed for the village surgery.
Even then, in a relatively bureaucracy-free NHS, the receptionist appeared to be the bad-tempered front line against village lunacy. Helping out with the filing one evening, I once heard an exchange that ended "I'm pretty sure you'll be needing a priest and not a doctor, Mrs Watson. We don't do exorcisms" ...pause while voices were raised at the other end... "You'll have to go private, then. Goodbye."
Now, in my forties, and the recipient of cunningly-worded letters inviting me to have expensive cameras pushed into various orifices, I'm a regular at the surgery, if only to haggle over the timing and quantity of repeat prescriptions. There, I wait in the queue while those in front of me are treated with various levels of impatience, until I reach the front, where I am instantly recognised by Angry Receptionist Woman.
"Ah, Mr Coleman, how are we today?" she smiled.