Peter Aird is a GP in Bridgwater, Somerset.

This is part three of a five part series. If you can’t wait and like to binge read then you can download the full five part version for free as an epub or mobi file for use with your Kindle or other e-reader.

Stave Threein which our tale takes a darker turn

In the few minutes he had to think before the next ghostly visitor was due to arrive, Scrooge reflected on the events of the evening so far and wondered if he should try to claim a few hours of CPD. However, anxious as to how his appraiser might respond to such revelations and fearful that his reflections may be used against him, he concluded, as many before him, that it would be best not to put his thoughts down in writing.

He then realised that it was almost half past two. Was he not to be visited again tonight after all? But within a moment, he was woken from his reverie by the sound of his bedroom door bursting open and the arrival of a rather flustered looking figure entering the room. She was carrying a pile of papers in one hand whilst tapping into the mobile phone she held with the other.

‘I’m sorry to keep you waiting,’ the spectre began. ‘I’ve been so busy tonight and the last chap I visited had several issues that he wanted me to provide spiritual insight on. Blow me if he didn’t have a list! Now what seems to be the problem? I am the Ghost of General Practice Present. Did you have any ideas, concerns or expectations as to how I might haunt you?’

Scrooge looked back at the apparition somewhat non-plussed. He hadn’t asked for the visit and, other than his previous encounters that night, had no experience of consulting with individuals from beyond the grave. Though highly concerned by the present turn of events and expecting to find the whole thing highly disagreeable, he had very little idea as to quite how the encounter should progress. Consequently, Scrooge said nothing.

‘Oh dear,’ said the ghost, unnerved by Scrooge’s silence, ‘This is awkward. I told Marley that there was little point in my visiting you without you being willing to see me. You see it’s so hard to help somebody unless they realise they have a problem and want to be helped.’

Still Scrooge found himself lost for words.

Rather than using the silence as a technique for therapeutic communication, the ghost laid the papers that she had been carrying down upon Scrooge’s bed and started flipping through the pages. ‘I’m sure there is a guideline for this situation somewhere. Give me a minute and I’ll be with you as soon as I find it. I don’t want to get this wrong.’ A few minutes passed, at the end of which the ghost seemed to have found what it was that she was looking for. ‘Ah yes, that’s it – come with me. I’m to show you how Christmas is being spent by others this year. Only I’m running short of time so we’ll have to make it quick.’

Once again, Scrooge was taken by the hand but, somewhat to his disappointment, she led him down the stairs in the conventional fashion before continuing through the front door and out into the night. ‘I’m afraid that these days we don’t employ the use of magic flight,’ the spirit explained, ‘There’s no evidence for it, you see. It’s all evidence-based hauntings these days.’

The fog had thickened making it difficult to see where they were going but the ghost still had hold of her phone and had entered the postcode of their destination into Google maps. Before long they reached a block of flats and proceeded to climb the communal stairs. On the second floor, they passed through the wall into the home of a young family, the spirit assuring Scrooge as they did so, that the Celestial Institute for Ethereal Excellence had approved, in highly selected cases, what was known in the profession as quantum tunnelling, provided said cases met stringent eligibility criteria.

The flat bore witness to the fact that it was Christmas Day. The mantelpiece and sideboard were covered with Christmas cards and coloured paper chains were hanging from the ceiling. In the corner was a Christmas tree under which a three year old boy was happily making good use of the colouring set he had recently unwrapped. He stood up and walked into the kitchen where his parents were preparing dinner. They turned to him and noticed that he was covered in red spots. Immediately his mother emptied the pint glass of Prosecco she was drinking and used it to perform the ‘tumbler test’, her anxiety being heightened all the more when the rash failed to disappear. She pressed the speed dial button on her phone and called ‘111’.

‘I’m worried about my son – he’s covered in spots,’ she exclaimed to the call handler. ‘No – he seems well in himself… No, no vomiting or fever… No, no headache or tummy pain… No, no catastrophic loss of blood… and no – he has just the one head.’ The list of negatives continued until the questioner focused in on the rash. ‘Well, it’s almost as if he’s been marking himself with a red felt tip pen!’ The women listened to the call handler for a few moments longer before ending the call.

‘What did they say?’ her partner asked.

‘Something about a non-blanching rash being possible meningitis and that it’s better to be safe than sorry. They’re sending an ambulance.’

‘Bloomin’ right too. Now let me refill your glass, we can’t have you sober when it arrives!’

The Ghost of Christmas Present indicated to Scrooge that it was time to move on. Their next stop was just across the stairwell. Passing once more through the walls of the property, Scrooge recognised Mrs Gray, the frail elderly lady who lived there, as one of his patients. She was nearing the end of her life due to her having advanced metastatic disease. A single Christmas card lay face down on the dining room table, alongside of which was a box of chocolates she had bought for herself in an attempt to make Christmas Day, the fifth she’d have spent alone since the death of her husband, at least a little special. She knew it would probably be her last. As Scrooge looked on, the woman picked up the chocolates and shuffled slowly across the room and then, for want of anyone else to give them to, placed them in the kitchen bin.

‘What’s she doing?’ Scrooge asked the spirit.

‘She doesn’t think you’d approve if she ate them’ replied the ghost, who then proceeded to point to a letter held to the fridge door by a magnet commemorating the Queen’s Silver Jubilee. It was from Scrooge’s medical practice informing her that her recent routine blood tests had revealed that she had a slightly elevated HbA1c and that she was therefore classified as ‘pre diabetic’. Included with the letter was a leaflet giving helpful advice on healthy eating.

Scrooge stood staring at the woman. He realised that, though if asked to relay the ins and outs of all her most recent blood tests he would have been up to the task, in recent years at least, he’d not really known her at all.

The spirit had left the flat and Scrooge hurried to catch her up. They walked together without talking until they came to a house that Scrooge had never visited before. Here they stopped and stood outside the window of a dimly lit room. Peering in through the poorly drawn curtains they could see the figure of Bob Cratchit. He was sat, his head in his hands, surrounded by various medical textbooks. To his left was a half empty bottle of scotch and a packet of antidepressants. He was writing a note.

Scrooge turned to the Ghost of General Practice. ‘What’s he doing?’ he asked.

‘Struggling’ she replied.

‘But why? He’s such a good doctor.’

‘He is indeed. But he doesn’t know it. He has come to believe that he has to be perfect – that every guideline must be followed and a failure to do so will result in legal action being taken against him. He’s taken on the burden that comes from believing that medicine has the answer to every problem experienced by a broken society. He thinks it’s all down to him. He has been worn down by the constant demand from both society and the profession that he must perform better – that good enough is not good enough. He’s exhausted by the never ending assessment of his performance and crushed by the weight of the responsibility he feels. He lives in the constant fear that it’ll all be his fault if anything bad ever happens. He too feels all alone this Christmas.’

‘But this afternoon? He asked to leave early to spend some time with his family.’

‘Indeed he did but the truth is that he hasn’t much in the way of a family – just a couple of friends he thinks of as family. In reality he had hoped to meet those friends for a drink but things didn’t quite work out the way they were planned. When he left the surgery late yesterday he went back to check on one of the patients he’d visited. Their condition had deteriorated and he arranged an admission but he was left feeling guilty and anxious. As a result he didn’t think he’d make very good company. And besides, he was worried about his CSA exam and thought the time would be better spent preparing for that.’

‘But he’ll pass the exam easily,’ Scrooge exclaimed. ‘He’s come on leaps and bounds since that unfortunate misunderstanding the first time round. The patients love him – and the staff. He’ll make a great GP.’

‘Have you ever told him that?’

Scrooge fell silent. Perhaps he could have been a bit more supportive, encouraged a little more. Perhaps he could have helped him steer a course through the mass of expectation and enabled him to distinguish between what was genuinely important and what could appropriately be ignored. Perhaps he could have been the kind of trainer Fezziwig had been to him – one who, despite the changes enforced on the profession, could still see the joy of working in general practice and convey a little of that to the next generation – one who would fight for what was worth fighting for rather than retreating into cynicism, bitterness, and resentment.

‘I never knew he felt so alone. I never knew he was finding it so hard.’

‘Did you ever ask?’

Scrooge’s head fell. ‘Can I speak to him now?’

‘I’m afraid not. He won’t be able hear you, and what’s more our time is up. We must go.’

‘But I must do something.’

‘That’s as maybe – but you have another appointment to keep. You must meet the Ghost of General Practice Yet To Come.’

The ghost started back towards Scrooge’s home. Scrooge himself lingered a little longer at the window in the hope that Cratchit would see him and appreciate his concern. Finally he turned his back on the scene and trudged slowly after the ghost who was now some yards ahead of him. Behind him, Cratchit slipped silently into the deepest of deep sleeps.

The spirit accompanied Scrooge back to his room but, before she left, she had one small request.

‘I’d be most grateful if you could fill in this form by way of giving feedback on my performance this evening. And it would be very helpful if you could indicate whether you’d feel able to recommend me to your friends and family… ‘

Regretting the choice of words even as she spoke them, an awkward silence arose between them. The spirit looked at Scrooge and Scrooge looked back

‘… or perhaps just an acquaintance… a passer-by even?’

Sensing that now was clearly not the time, the Spirit said a hurried goodbye and left, leaving Scrooge alone with his thoughts. He couldn’t stop thinking about what he’d seen. He tried to convince himself it was all a dream, that none of it was real. Had things really become this bad? And could the future be worse? He had a feeling he was about to find out.

 

Read Part Four of A BJGP Christmas Carol.