Stephen Downes // wikimedia commons //

Being of Irish Catholic heritage preordains me to look kindly on the state of purgatory. I have nothing against it in principle. Quickly checking-in to a motel en route to heaven and powdering one’s moral nose before rocking up at the Golden Gates for a banquet, what’s not to love?

And yet, even in Britain where the orderly queue is practically our national sport, waiting games can be tedious things. Ashford Hospital recently offered me a front row seat to a very British brand of purgatory.

I had a cough. It wasn’t Covid, it was persistent, and my dad used the term emphysema in passing. Long story short, I ended up in a white-walled waiting room with the full cast of every British sitcom ever made.

On entry, I was informed that the computerised check-in system had collapsed. A lone receptionist was registering everyone manually. Good start. I preoccupied myself reading noticeboard flyers about some truly horrific-sounding tropical diseases, and was grateful for distraction from this macabre pastime when I heard the doors behind me burst open.

To say the least, I was shocked when I found myself face-to-face with someone having an actual heart-attack. To make matters worse, this hospital had no A&E, as the receptionist kindly informed the groaning man, mid-heart-attack. Thankfully, bystanders sprang into action and the poor chap was rushed to an ambulance. High drama over, the queue returned to surreal, shuffling silence. Just another day in the clinic.

An hour later and I was finally seated opposite the clock playing a game of ‘Try Not To Cough Because People Will Think You Have Covid’. With nothing much to do and wanting to avoid further eye-contact with the medical perils being warned against on various posters, I found myself eavesdropping on the couple to my left and privy to an unlikely revolution.

Janet and her husband Peter launched their doomed coup on the cusp of midday. Peter had been growing irritable for the last half hour. Pained exhales. Scowling mutterings about waiting times. When the nurse appeared and finally called Janet’s name, he grumbled in relief.

This relief was short-lived. When it turned out the Janet in question was not his wife but a different pensioner of the same name, this was Peter’s final straw. “I’m sorry Janet, I’ve had enough. This is an effing joke. Outrageous.” Crossing elbow-patched arms, our tweed-clad radical gave a violent sniff. The second Janet whimpered nervously.

It transpired that the clinic had misplaced Janet the First’s paper check-in form. On hearing this, a brave nurse pointed Peter towards the back of the long check-in line. He glowered darkly and a stand-off ensued. Peter won. He and his Janet were fast-tracked out of the waiting room, walking sticks raised like bayonets unto the barricade.

My three hour purgatorial stint nearly up, two women in their mid-fifties began a loud, lengthy catch-up on the row in front. One fragment perked my ears.

“...And, how’s your mum?”

“Oh you know. She has been much better recently, doing her exercises every day. Her mobility was definitely improving.” A pause.

“That’s good, no?”

“Well yes, it was good. Until the Queen died. Since then, Mum has hardly left the television. She and my dad have been following round-the-clock footage of The Queue. All day, every day. So her mobility has ended up taking a downwards turn, because they are just sitting for hours on end.”

Just as I was contemplating whether the Queen’s death might be unexpectedly lucrative for physiotherapists, my name was called. Eavesdropping interrupted, I left purgatory with a wry smile at the prospect of this elderly pair so glued to unchanging coverage of a queue. British culture at its most gloriously bizarre.

I doubt Her Majesty’s final celestial journey will include a state visit to limbo for demure handshakes with sinners. Purgatory hasn’t been a historical favourite with the Royals. In the first Elizabeth’s reign, the Church of England called the whole doctrine ‘rather repugnant to the Word of God’, and the second Elizabeth was about as Anglican as you can get.



Mountain View

Photographing the humans of Cambridge: Mark Box on connection, chow mein, and Cambridge clubs

I must admit, having spent a morning in this wild west saloon of mutinous pensioners and failing computers, the Protestants do make a persuasive case. But then I remember that I’m an obnoxious heretic who can’t afford to turn down second chances from the big guy. So, like any good Catholic, I’ll ignore the Reformation and pray for a halfway house.

If it’s anything like that Walk-In Centre, then I’m all for it. The menagerie of an NHS waiting room seems like a pretty British kind of purgatory to me. I drove home with a strange glow of pride. Then again, that could have been the feeling finally returning to my legs after three hours on a metal bench.