Some time around your 40th birthday, you get a letter from your GP instructing you to attend an MOT, and from here on in, this letter will arrive every five years and the first time everybody definitely ignores it. The second time I got mine, it was in the middle of the first wave of Covid. Wait, the maths don’t stack up on that: maybe the second time I ignored it, again. Then perhaps the pandemic militated against being reminded by the surgery, or somehow, some way, even though it is nowhere near my birthday, and I’m neither 40 nor 45, and most certainly not 50, I got the knock. Actually, a text. Just come stand on a machine, it implored. Any time of day, no need to chat to a nurse.
I ran into my previous husband on the way in. “How come you’ve been to the doctor when I’m also going to the doctor?” I quizzed. He inclined his head, in a shorthand devised over time to indicate that this is on the list of questions you’re no longer allowed to ask once you’re divorced, along with, “What’s that big crack in your wall?”, and “Have you seen Line of Duty?”, and actually, now I’m drilling in, this list is really long. I can’t stand not being allowed to ask intrusive questions. I feel like a working dog, bred for generations to chase sheep, transported to a sheep-free environment, then told off for chasing cars.
Inside, the machine loomed in the corner, and around it sat everyone approximately my age I had ever seen in the neighbourhood. There were two women I vaguely recognised from having kids older than mine at primary school. The guy who used to run the corner shop, before it became a children’s photography studio, before that went bust, to the vast and untrammelled delight of everyone who preferred when it was a shop, was standing on the machine. “This machine will not speak your weight,” it said in a metallic voice. Obviously now all I wanted to know was how much he weighed, even though it was none of my business and, realistically, I could have guessed.
It is etiquette, when you’re going round a prison, not to ask anyone what they’re in for. It is considered good manners not to make small talk with strangers in the reception area of a surgery. These are more than mere conventions: there are situations people can be in that they don’t want to describe to a stranger, and these situations are more likely to obtain in a penal or medical setting than in a cocktail bar. But I had a load of questions, and not being allowed to ask them made my quest for knowledge more imperative. I wanted to find out how the kids of the school gate posse were doing, what secondary school they were at, how they were finding it, what their journey was like, whether they had any tattoos or piercings or whatnot. Only middle-aged women need to discover this stuff and we can’t explain why.
“This machine will not speak your weight,” the weighing robot reiterated to a fresh patient, who replied, “Maybe just don’t speak at all?”, and we all tittered, then looked swiftly at our feet, and goddammit, he was exactly the kind of person who wouldn’t have minded some small talk, only now he was leaving, and I’d never find out whether I half-recognised him from the dry cleaners or some other place, and I didn’t even know how much he weighed. Two other women were better acquainted than the rest of us, and one had recently left her job, and she was trying to describe why, except that high emotions were interrupting the narrative coherence, and the other one was making no effort to get to the root of it, just going “Mmm, how awful”. Tantalising. Like watching an unsubtitled film in a foreign language.
I have become a person who wants to get in on everybody else’s business. I was there to chart the sad statistics of my declining vigour and, instead, did a stock-take of all the things I am newly interested in, which, it turns out, is everything. The busybody is such a figure of fun, culturally speaking, but what culture doesn’t get is how much we enjoy it.