Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Les Urgences

By David Whitehouse

The old man had fallen to the pavement and his wife couldn't get him up. A passing woman, plump and middle-aged, had helped him to his feet and that was how I found the three of them, locked in a tight, immobile huddle in the bright light of a winter's afternoon.

-Are you going to be all right now? I heard the plump woman asking them.

The wrinkles on the face of the old man's wife were fragile like the threads of a spider's web.

-You'll be all right now, won't you? the plump woman said.

The wife's eye, encrusted with flaky skin, was delicate as that of a young doe as it shifted shyly through her wispy brown hair toward me.

-I'm afraid I really couldn't say, she said.

I took the man's arm. He was big and burly with thick white hair. His wife smiled at me and the seed of youth was in her smile.

The plump woman was gone.

-Dad! What are you doing? We're going to be late for the PARTY!

My kid, who I had fetched from school, was using a lamppost to swing himself round and round.

-Go on, the old man said. Don't waste your time. You'll be late.

-Don't worry, I said. We've got lots of time. We're early.

The three of us shuffled forward, the wife holding one of his arms and me the other. It was a hundred meters to his house, he said. But he couldn't keep going and I caught him as he slumped down again. We got him back upright but he could go no further. We were stuck.

-DAD! I don't want to stand here in the COLD!

-I'll call an ambulance, I said.

I pulled out my phone.

-Thank you, the man said.

The call was answered straight away. I told the woman where we were.

-His wife and I tried to get him home, I said. But he can't walk any more. We're stuck.

-Is he inebriated? said the voice on the line.


-Is he in a state of inebriation? Is he drunk?

-No, I said. He's an old man.

-I'm 85 years old, the man said.

-He says he's 85 years old, I said.

-And he's not drunk? the woman said.

-No, I said.

-I'll send an ambulance, she said.

We waited motionless. My child sulked. His wife, elegant in her long black winter's coat, said nothing.

The ambulance arrived, together with a police car. Three young men jumped out of the ambulance. Two blue-uniformed women emerged sluggishly from the car. They wore black boots and carrying long black truncheons. The old man's wife stood aside and looked at me, as if puzzled.

We were in France. I held the man up from behind by slipping my arms under his armpits.

-Good afternoon, sir, said the ambulance driver. We've come to take you to hospital.

-I'm not going to hospital, the old man said. I want to go home. It's a hundred meters down this street.

-If you want to go home, call a taxi, the young man said. I can only take you to hospital.

I was starting to sag under the old man's weight. The five uniforms stood impassive before us.

-I'm a bloody doctor, the old man said. And so is my daughter. I want to call her. Her number is at home.

-It's best to be examined, I said. Then you can call your daughter.

The driver of the ambulance folded his arms.

-Yes, he said finally. You need to be examined.

-Maybe your wife can go and get your daughter's number? I said. While you get in the ambulance.

-Don't ask her, the old man said. She's got Alzheimer's.

At this, the other two young men from the ambulance moved forward and grabbed the old man's arms. The driver, arms still crossed, gave me a small nod. I stepped away. My child, like a wild horse springing out of a box, charged headlong down the street.


It started the next Sunday morning as a dull ache in my testicles and got worse. By the time I stood in my living room, in front of the parents of the new kids at my children's school, it felt like a spoonful of molten lead had been dropped into each one of my balls.

They had come round to discuss how we could share the job of taking our children to school.
Five assorted kids were running wild in the background. The visiting mother was a tall, large-breasted woman and as the pain grew worse, I struggled to keep my chin up to meet her gaze.

-I'm a public relations consultant, she said. So it's very difficult to know exactly where I will be on a particular day . . .

-Stop leaning against the wall, my wife said. Why can't you stand up on your feet?

The husband shook his head and sighed, staggered by the dimensions of the problem. I wanted to cup my balls.

An intense round of negotiations followed. I smiled through gritted teeth. There were numerous complications. Mondays. Tuesdays. Wednesdays. Thursdays. Fridays.

I could feel a fever coming on. After what seemed long enough for the international war crimes trial of a minor African warlord, it was done.

-My balls are hurting, I said to my wife once they had gone.

The emergency doctor came straight around and we grappled briefly in the children's bedroom, my wife having indicated this was where the examination should take place. My temperature was through the roof.

-You should have done straight to hospital, the doctor said. Rather than calling me. If there's torsion in the balls, you have only six hours to save them.

-Six hours? To save my balls?

My balls: six hours.

-When did they start hurting? he asked.

-They've been hurting for . . . a few hours, I said.

The ambulance was soon there and I was bundled into the back. Off we went, red light flashing, into unchartered territory. My amazing years of potency, it seemed, could be drawing to a spectacular end.

When I came back home it was possible that I would be . . . something else.

At the hospital a woman in a white coat pulled me out of the waiting room and took me to the guy that was going to examine me.

Except that there was no guy.

How could there be no guy? She wasn't going to . . . it wasn't possible that . . . oh no.

I looked at her again and three crucial points struck me. In this order.

1. She was wearing knee-high leather boots.
2. She was wearing black pantyhose. It had to be pantyhose, the alternative didn't bear thinking about.
3. A quick glance at her face showed her to be aged between 18 and 70 and free of any major disfiguring marks.

This was an infringement of my human rights. I would write to my health insurance company. I would complain to the association of balls doctors.

No, more than that. I would contact my Member of European Parliament.

I took my trousers off in the changing cubicle. Then I stepped into her office.

I lay down glumly on the couch.

-Please take your penis in your hand, she said.

She was wearing latex gloves. She rubbed a cold liquid on my balls. The she ran a scanning device across them. She studied the results on a big screen in front of her. I could see now that she was about 50, wore glasses and had brown, mousy hair.

Her manner was quick and professional. This was crazy beyond my wildest dreams. My private little world had not been breached. She might as well have been a dentist. It might as well have been my teeth.

-There's no torsion, she told me. You have a minor case of epididymitis. You'll have to take some medicine.

-No torsion, I said. I struggled to absorb the news.

I was still me. I was going to leave here and end this day just as I had started it.

-I just need to do one more test, she said.

She squeezed the skin on one ball between her fingers and I screamed. She squeezed the other ball. I screamed again.

-That's right, she said. Scream! She grinned at me with a toothy leer. Come on, SCREAM! Which one hurts the most?

-Both of them!

-Perfect, she said.

She laughed and I roared in tortured relief.


At home I sagged triumphantly into an armchair. I was exhausted but the medicine was already starting to wash the pain away.

-Dad! Dad!

One of my kids came hobbling up to me.


-My little toe is hurting. I think I need an ambulance!

I called out to my wife.

-He says his toe is hurting.

-Just kidding Dad, he said. And off he ran.

David Whitehouse is married with three children. He works as a journalist in Paris, where he has lived for the last 13 years, after moving from his native Britain. He edits The Lesser Flamingo, a new ezine.

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