Friday, 1 August 2014

Two chance hospital encounters that seemed to mean something - but what?

Philip Larkin came up with a beautiful, haunting phrase in “The Whitsun Weddings”, when he described his sunlit Saturday train journey from Hull to London as “this frail travelling coincidence”. I was reminded of it by experiences during two recent hospital visits. Materialists would dismiss them as pure coincidence, no doubt citing statistics to prove that nothing out of the ordinary took place. I’m not so sure.

I was leaving Charing Cross Hospital (which, as Londoners will know, is nowhere near Charing Cross, being either in Hammersmith or Fulham – I’m not sure which) a few weeks' ago, having visited my consultant (he’s baffled), when I bumped into an old BBC Nine O’Clock News colleague on the ground floor, at the bottom of the main escalator. She’s a lovely, sparky Ulsterwoman who used to edit the programme regularly when I was one of the producers. Her husband – who was a boss of mine on another programme and who never really forgave me for baling on him – is seriously ill. She gave me a run-down on his current condition. I asked her to give him my best wishes, and we parted.

A month later I was in Hammersmith Hospital (which, as Londoners will know, is nowhere near Hammersmith – it’s next to Wormwood Scrubs and the nearest tube station is East Acton) undergoing what’s known as a hydrogen breath test for lactose intolerance. You don’t eat any fruit, vegetables, sugary substances or dairy products for a couple of days, then, when you front up at 9am, you’re given a concentrated lactose drink so disgusting you have to make a genuine effort not to instantly regurgitate it, and spend the next three hours being breathalysed every half hour.

In between tests, you sit in a row of seats facing some lifts and, because you haven’t eaten for 15 hours, dream about comfort food in vast quantities. Terrified by the sight of very sick people being wheeled along to the X-ray department, I buried my nose in my Kindle, read a very absorbing book about Christianity, and tried to ignore everything happening around me. This worked until shortly after my third test. The lift doors opened and I heard a trolley being wheeled out. There was a brief hiatus as two medical types chatted. I reminded myself not to look (yes, I know – I’m a coward). But when I heard the trolley start up again, something made me glance up – and there was my old boss, staring up at the ceiling, being trundled round the corner towards Imaging.

This odd double coincidence – meeting his wife at one huge hospital and then seeing him at another huge hospital several miles across town during my very next medical appointment - felt like it meant something. But I have no idea what.

Anyway, by making me reflect on someone else’s far more serious medical problems for a change, it provided some context for my own puny travails. Best of luck, old son.


  1. It's the apparent, yet empty, significance that puzzles me. Something weird stamps into your life, with 'portent' in large letters on one side and 'omen' on the other, yet how often is the fanfare of trumpets justified by an outcome?

    It's hard not to sympathise with those who believe in joker gods, or some sort of quantum jiggery-pokery where events are connected but not with any purpose.

    I wish your friend (and you, of course) well. I stay away from hospitals, personally. People die in them.

    1. From my recent experience of hospitals, people certainly don't get cured in them.