You may not know it, and it may be something you don't want to think about, but National Grief Awareness Week starts today (2nd to the 8th December)
This is Day out at the STI clinic a story from my first book Down With Frogs, a collection of stories about the frogs you have to kiss before you find your prince or give up looking.
My friend Caroline has led a very sheltered life and has only been with one man who she met at nineteen. She lives through, and for, the next instalment of her Celebrity magazines and soap operas. But, more than celebrity and drama, Caroline finds sex fascinating; other people’s sex to be precise. She is intrigued to find out what other people ‘get up to’. She once confided to me that while cooking the nightly dinner she propped her laptop on the kitchen worktop so she could watch porn while getting the dinner done “just to educate myself”.
I have tried telling her that porn is nothing like real life, but I don’t think she believes me, and thinks that all single people spend their life bent in funny angles over desks / car bonnets / kitchen worktops etc. having loud, messy orgasms. It isn’t that she would want to have an affair, and I don’t think she is planning to surprise Mr Caroline with some cheeky BDSM roleplay, more like she wishes that she had done a bit more ‘dating’ before settling down. I tell you this so that it explains why Caroline thinks that going to be tested for a sexually transmitted disease will be fun. “Oh, can I come with you?” she says, and I can feel her holding her breath as if I have just offered her a spare ticket to the Caribbean or an all-expenses-paid shopping trip to Harrods. I remind her that this visit is needed because I just found out that my last boyfriend was less than faithful, and I want to make sure that he hasn’t left me any other nasty little surprises to be going on with. Now is the time to look after me, and that I’m a little bit scared to think about the possible outcome, ‘of course yes, you are right, how insensitive of me’, she consoles. Unfortunately, this contrition only lasts a minute because as soon as I say it would be nice to have someone come to keep me company she gets all carried away again, ‘I hope there will be prostitutes there,’ she claps her hands in gleeful anticipation…
When the day of the appointment arrives we have to climb five flights of stairs to get to the clinic (no lift is available, and I wonder don’t they expect people in wheelchairs to need their services? Or are the stairs some subtle form of punishment to those of us having dodgy encounters? Or maybe they want to tire us out so that we don’t have any energy left for sex). The brightly lit reception area in tones of inoffensive beige with various pot plants and educational posters that remind visitors how important it is to share all the relevant information, and that you can get a free Chlamydia test by post if you are in your teens, is an immediate disappointment to Caroline. ‘What did you expect?’ I enquire shaking my head a little, ‘a line of disapproving medical professionals, all tending to a queue of overly made-up women wearing leather mini-skirts, fishnet tights and stilettos with goldfish in the heels and men with greasy comb-overs?’ Caroline just shrugs and says ‘it looks just like a waiting room’, which of course is just what it is. After taking my name, the receptionist hands me a clipboard; the questions begin reasonably safely have you had sex? (Would I be here if I hadn’t?) But they soon enter territory usually only reserved for close friends, what sorts of sex have you had? Oral? Anal? Same-sex partners? Had a tattoo abroad? Used intravenous drugs? Shared needles? Have you had sex for money? Or do you work in the sex industry? Have you had partners without using barrier forms of contraception? Do you have any symptoms? How long since your last sexual health check-up? Phew. Clearly disappointed with the other people in the waiting room (a clean-cut woman in her early twenties reading a handbag sized Cosmo, and a dishevelled man in his late sixties staring into the middle distance). Caroline makes her own entertainment – ‘Go on, say you are a sex worker, let’s see what they do’ she encourages. ‘I can’t help feeling you are not taking this very seriously’ I say quietly, ‘and I don’t think they will do anything other than stick swabs in my every orifice and give me a carrier bag of free condoms’. Unsurprisingly I refuse to pretend to be a sex worker, and with all questions answered the clipboard goes back to the receptionist. After a much longer wait than you would expect with only three people waiting, a doctor calls my name and leads Caroline and me through a security door into a side office.
The doctor looks quizzically at Caroline ‘I need my friend to be with me’ I say, and manage not to say ‘this poor woman needs this experience just as much as I do, but for different reasons, so come on let’s inject some excitement into her life’. The doctor doesn’t introduce himself which I find a bit rude considering he is about to know more about me than my own family, and how much of me he is going to get to see. Therefore using all my creative capabilities, I call him ‘Dr No Name’. ‘So…’ he fidgets as he glances over my answers and then unnecessarily I think, asks me the questions all over again. I answer them truthfully, he nods with each one but does not comment.
At a previous clinic I went to many years ago after a similar boyfriend debacle, a rotund middle-aged nurse with a massive smile and the tightest curly perm known to womankind, listened to my answers and then gave me a long good-natured lecture about respecting my body and myself, and the dangers of unprotected sex. I guess in the intervening years the focus has changed from ‘look just do what we tell you’, into ‘we won’t tell you what you should do, everyone can do what they want, and no-one is allowed to judge’ – professionally at any rate.
‘Is there anything I haven’t mentioned?’ Dr No Name asks tentatively, I look him straight in the eye and say ‘Anal, you didn’t ask about anal’. He is flustered by this, looking at the paperwork, the screen, back to the paperwork – anywhere but directly at me. He is so uncomfortable, which I would not expect for someone who works here, that I almost want to say ‘it’s ok, don’t worry about this other stuff. I only came in with a sore big toe, would you rather think about that?’ But I don’t. ‘Ah no, ok……’ he pauses and lets the unasked question hang in the air so that he doesn’t have to say the word – ‘No’ I say, ‘no anal’.
Now that is over we three traipse to the next room, the one with the bed and the stirrups, which I cannot see the point of as I am quite capable of opening my legs and keeping them open, as being here has proven.
On pulling down my pants, I realised just how long it has been since my last wax, and feel the need to quietly apologise to Caroline about the unkempt nature of my down below. I just know that she is the sort of person who would never miss a waxing appointment because someone offered her coffee and cake and the times clashed, so will be perfectly coiffured in all areas at all times. I do wonder briefly how close friendship should get, but it is far too late to worry about that now that I am trapped here with my lady area catching the breeze, well it would have been if there had been one. At this point a second doctor comes in and introduces herself, she is here to supervise Dr No Name; it doesn’t occur to me at the time to ask why he needs supervision. Sitting on the little stool between my legs he looks like he is about to have a coronary, I have the urge to announce gladiator style ‘Let the examination begin!’ but I don’t want him to have unduly shaky hands for the next part.
Without a word he begins, and after quite a few minutes of poking and fiddling around, accompanied by the scraping noise of instruments being opened and closed, he puts down the instruments and pushes his little stool on wheels backwards and disappears through the curtains. That impresses me, because that is just the sort of thing I would like to do – not a gynaecological examination, but finish a meeting by pushing off on my chair on wheels and disappearing backwards through curtains, without saying a word – now that’s what you call an exit. Having wriggled out of the stirrups, I am just getting back into my pants when we hear Dr Two say quietly ‘Umm….I still don’t feel completely confident that you can recognise the difference between the urethral and vaginal openings’. Caroline and I turned to stare at each other eyes and mouths wide open stunned and horrified, we dissolved into breath stealing giggles. Somehow, I don’t wet myself, although it’s a close-run thing.
Despite what has gone before the next bit is where there could be a real problem – it is blood test time. I explain to Dr No Name about my needle phobia and that I will probably cry, which he can ignore; but there is a good chance that I will pass out so if I could lay down this will probably be better. He says nothing but points to the chair that is waiting for all the non-phobic people, he rests my arm on a pillow and gets fiddling about on his table. Instantly queasy I look at the wall trying to make sure I don’t see anything needle-like and begin chattering in Caroline’s direction to try and distract myself while he starts stabbing me with the needle. After several minutes of being injected I am just blacking out when he stops, I manage to say ‘oh thank God that’s over’, and just as I lose consciousness he says ‘I haven’t been able to do it yet, I cannot find a vein’.
I come to with something unusual happening, the usually mild-mannered Caroline is quietly shrieking (no, I didn’t think that was possible either) at Dr No Name ‘you’ve been stabbing around for 5 minutes, my friend has passed out, and now you say you haven’t even done it yet?’ He shrugs and backs out of the room. When he goes I begin to crawl out of the chair, ‘that’s good I can leave now, he isn’t coming back’ I say. However, now her dander is up, Caroline isn’t wasting any of it, locking me with a steely stare she practically orders me to stay where I am. Once back in position her tone changes back to the soft one that she normally uses with me; she tells me that Dr No Name will be back in just a minute and then it will all be over. Wouldn’t it be a shame after all we have been through if we went home now – I am tempted to say ‘it isn’t we, it’s me,’ but I don’t. Dr No Name comes back in and prepares to try again, but Caroline won’t let him near me unless he promises to use a baby-sized needle and he only gets one try. I have never seen her more Amazonian, and as Dr No Name apparently doesn’t want to risk what Caroline will do to him if he screws up this time, he very carefully takes my blood, and although I am momentarily relieved, I still pass out again.
Before we even make it back down the five flights of stairs and into the fresh air we have exploded into fits of laughter ‘I am not sure you know which hole is which? Hello! He probably doesn’t even belong in this department if he doesn’t know that!’ Which led to speculation on where he really came from, we speculated on what Dr No Name’s real job might have been – as a bus driver? gardener? man who usually works behind the coffee bar near A&E? which gives us hysterics. Between snorts, I managed to say ‘I think I know what it was, it’s June it must be work experience week, mine must be the first hoo-ha he has ever seen judging by how scared he was, poor bugger’. Every time we manage to stop laughing something sets us off again, given that he said so little I wonder aloud whether he may have been a Trappist monk.
For months afterwards we can dissolve into laughter with just the merest mention of work experience or doctor’s, each setting off the other with our comments ‘at least it won’t be such a shock on his wedding night’, ‘I wonder if he has had to have therapy?’ ‘I wonder if he reliably knows one hole from the other yet?’ ‘Did he go back to driving a bus the next day do you reckon?’
Despite being sworn to secrecy, Caroline confessed that she hadn’t been able to contain herself, and only lasted a few days before she caved in and told her husband, Tim, all about it. Tim was very shocked – I suspect he assumed that we spent our time together in benign ways, going shopping or drinking coffee and that our conversations revolved around knitting patterns and recipes. He did not think it was funny, in fact, he was horrified, and I lost the last of my brownie points. Imagine my taking his ‘virgin’ bride (yeah, maybe she was twenty years ago mate – check her browser) to such a place, my misbehaviour sullied her, I was guilty in his eyes even though it was The Plonker who had cheated on me.
In consequence Caroline and I gradually saw less of each other over the next year, slowly the gap between our calls got longer, and the suggestions to meet up got fewer, until one day I realised that we had lost contact altogether, and am pretty sure that this was Tim’s influence but I could be wrong about that. I sometimes think about whether our day out is one of the stories told by Caroline at dinner parties, late in the evening when guests and hosts have consumed too much alcohol. It would be nice to think that I can give joy to my friends (even former friends), and to be able to give a laugh to the wider world is no bad thing.
Oh, and in case you are interested, I got the all clear, no STI’s for me.
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TTFN Eden 🙂