Tuesday, February 2

Just a scratch

 “Fatty . . . Fami . . . Fatma . . .?” calls out a croaky voice, its tone honed over many years by
No.6 cigarettes or a similar brand.

A lady gets up from her chair and offers her form to the woman with the voice. “Fatima”, she
says quietly.

“Oh, right. Sorry. I’m useless at these Indian names. No, I don’t want the form. That’s yours.
You hang on to it, me dear, and give it to the lady at the desk. You’re number 7. There you
go, down there on the right. See? Lovely. Now, who have we got next? Ndrew? Oh, that’ll be
Andrew. Any Andrew?”

The voice woman was cheery and never seemed to stop talking even when people were
talking to her, which made any conversation quite tricky but there wasn’t much conversation
to be had in the queue for a COVID-19 vaccine at Milton Keynes Hospital Academic Centre.
Everyone looked a little scared or wary at the very least. We all seemed determined to be
totally subservient to whoever was giving us instructions, from the chap in yellow Hi-Viz
jacket outside who, like a bouncer at a nightclub, stopped anyone going through the door
with an outstretched arm, an arm that seemed to be about two metres long and indicating
that everyone needs to keep at a distance, to the young lad taking details at a desk when we
were, eventually, let in out of the rain and sleet outside.

Like some sort of computer game, In order to get to the next stage we had to complete a
form and deposit it on a table near the lady with the voice. The form seemed to ask pretty
much the same questions as the young man had asked on arrival but I got on with the job of
providing hard copy evidence of the same anyway. Then my glasses steamed up. I was
wearing a particularly good type of mask as my daughter had reminded me that the place I
was going was one of the places where I would be most likely to pick up the virus and my
usual ineffective but legal Lone Ranger mask wouldn’t offer enough protection. I tried
peering through my glasses at various angles but that didn’t work. Then I discovered that
when I breathed in they cleared! So for each question I took a sharp intake of breath and just
managed to complete the entries before needing to exhale. It did take a while longer than it
needed to have done, however, and I noticed that I slipped back several spaces in the
queue for the next stage.

But, eventually, I got the call and, after seeing a lady at another desk who asked me almost
exactly the same questions and inspected my ID badge, I was told that I was approved and
could join a third queue. “Behind the pillar, stand along the wall!” she instructed, as if I had
been naughty and was being sent out of class.

This queue was being managed by the lady with the voice and when she wasn’t announcing
names, or approximation to names, she was chatting away at whoever happened to be at
the front at the time. One young man made the mistake of joining in the chatter and was
giving her his life story as she was giving him hers or, possibly, someone else’s, it was
difficult to distinguish whose was whose at times.

She fell comparatively silent for a few minutes as the Asian lady in front of me did not
respond to her greeting. She went off instead to call out another name in the background.
When it came to my turn to stand at the front of the queue she was back and launched into
conversation at me. Indeed, her comparatively flimsy-looking face mask was perilously close
to my face as she lurched forward in her enthusiasm to start talking again. I staggered back
slightly but tried to disguise my movement as rearranging my ID badge. As I did she
focussed on the lanyard.

“You a professor?” she rasped. I had used a Middlesex University lanyard for the badge to
save me having to fish it out of a pocket. I didn’t get a chance to reply though as she
continued. “This isn’t my normal job,” she assured me. I could sense some amusement in
the people behind me.

“I shouldn’t think this is a normal job for any of us.” I commented. “But you’re doing well and
keeping us in order.” I was going to add ‘and entertained’ but thought better of it.

“I’m a cleaner in the other block.” she announced. “That’s my job. Over there.” She gestured
vaguely out of the room and seemed to think that we would know where she meant. “Do the
floors nice, I do,” she said and I was desperately trying to think of something I could say as
she lurched at me once more and social distancing was more like two centimetres than two
metres for a few seconds before someone emerged from a corridor opposite and rescued
me, beckoning me to walk across the the next stage in this weird process.

“You’ll be all right now, Professor!” she called after me as I walked towards the next yellow
circle on the floor, then, as I followed the circles into the next area the sound of “Wee, witti . .
. er . . willi . . faded in the distance.

I next find myself in a very disorganised sort of room with about ten desks at which sat about
ten girls in front of twin monitors. This was impressive IT on display as each monitor was as
big as the one I have at home. Next to the girls was someone wrapped not quite entirely in
clear plastic and a couple of very shiny plastic chairs. I looked at the shiny plastic chair and
wasn’t that keen to sit on it as it looked wet but I felt odd standing up so decided a damp
bottom was probably the worst that would happen.

While the man with the plastic wrapping was busy with some papers the girl at the desk
clicked on some boxes on her screens and smiled at me. “He’ll ask you some odd
questions,” she said. “Like what’s your job title.”

“I don’t really have a job title.” I replied. “It’s quite a small organisation. I might be helping
with IT one minute but I also make a good cup of tea . . .” I continued, determined to be as
truthful as possible. I described what the organisation I assisted did and she nodded

The wrapped-up man came back and didn’t seem to be totally sure of what he was doing,
muttering to himself and looking for something but never seeming to find it. At the next desk
the lady was getting her injection but wasn’t staying still and it didn’t sound as if that stage
was going particularly well for her. I had had a ‘flu jab a few months before and reckoned
that it would be pretty similar so, whilst I was not wanting to look at needles too closely (and I
really have had quite enough of seeing people getting injected on television now!), I was not
particularly nervous, just keen to get on with it now.

The man eventually seemed to come to his senses again and, whilst he did look a bit old
and tired, he was friendly and was pleased that my jumper was loose enough to roll up high
enough for the jab. We joked that no-one would want to see me take any clothes off. The girl
blushed and ticked a few more boxes on her screen. The man now asked me the same
questions that I had been asked at each of the previous stages and didn’t ask any strange
questions about my job title or anything else at all. He just got on with sticking the needle in
and I made them both laugh by being genuinely surprised when it was done so quickly after
all the procedures to get this far.

He gave me a card with the vaccination details and I was then asked to go and sit in another
room and this was more or less the final stage of the game. Ten minutes later, as I listened
to a young lady telling her mother on the phone that she had been sick and wasn’t feeling
very well and hoping that I would stay fine, I did, indeed stay feeling fine and made my
escape into the pouring cold rain outside, clutching my papers and, most importantly, the
ticket that would allow me out of the multi-storey car park.

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