I should have known it was a bad idea to mention Moorfields Eye Hospital in that last post. My body is much too suggestible. Last year a friend sent me an email saying ‘break a leg’ to wish me luck for an important lecture. Whereupon I stepped clumsily off a kerb, damaged the medial collateral ligament in my knee and had to hobble in on a crutch to do the talk. This time, after only a casual mention of Moorfields, I found myself having to visit the hospital as a patient for the very first time in the forty or so year I have lived in London. At the weekend I glanced in the mirror to see a bright red eye staring scarily back at me. I have burst blood vessels in my eyes before (it seems to be a side-effect of ageing and taking too many long-haul flights) but this was the worst I have seen: not a trace of white left, just a bright red orb with an iris and pupil seeming, because of the change in colour contrast, to be sunk within it. When the kids came to the door trick-or-treating for Halloween I was much more terrifying to them than they were to me with their zombie masks. The most charming visitors were three very polite little girls, the backs of their heads enclosed in Islamic headscarves while the fronts were concealed by masks (with their father waiting anxiously outside the gate, ready to prompt them if they forgot to say ‘thankyou’). Much too well-brought-up to ask, they were clearly fascinated and somewhat repelled by the spooky monster eye so I explained carefully what it was as I distributed the grapes which were the nearest thing I had in the kitchen to sweets. Just as they left, the littlest one decided to make a speech. ‘Do you know’, she said, ‘your house smells of chappatti’. I took that as a compliment.
When the eye continued to get worse and started hurting I followed a friend’s advice and took it to Moorfields to be checked out. It will, they tell me, get better of its own accord but I will have to live for the next two weeks or so with the knowledge that there is a complete mismatch between my perception of myself and the impression I am making on others. This must be something that some people live with all the time but i find it very unsettling that my every glance may be arousing disgust or fear or curiosity rather than simply expressing the friendly intentions that eye contact normally conveys. I suppose it is not very different from being the first black (or white) person, or the first nun, or the first person with a burn-scarred face that someone else has ever seen and makes me reflect on how hard it is subjectively to distinguish the fraught and fluctuating boundary between other people’s prejudices and one’s own paranoia and how easily they can reinforce each other, or be challenged, just by a tiny change in mood or attitude.
The Moorfields experience was an example of the NHS at its best. I was conveyed efficiently between a triage nurse, a nurse who did some preliminary tests and an administrative person who took my details (who gave me the only grounds for complaint: why on earth should the first question they ask be ‘Are you married?’) and then escorted to a waiting area where, after being told I might have to wait for two hours, I was actually seen after one.
Outside, I crossed the Old Street roundabout (now known as ‘Silicon Circle’ – the most unlikely place to have become fashionable that one could have imagined thirty years ago) and walked down to Finsbury Square, which is now entirely occupied by protestors in their tents – the overspill from St Paul’s. It is extraordinary how quickly they seem to have melted into the local environment, attracting hardly a glance, and certainly not a break in the stride of the many passers by. The only grumblings I heard were from people who were annoyed that the bus stop outside Moorgate station is out of action because the road is, yet again, being dug up. The overwhelming impression is that these protesters have, if not the explicit support, at least the tacit approval of the vast majority of Londoners.