G O A T S
In a British hospital of the future…
I had just finished wiping away my tears for the second time that shift when I received a frantic call on my emergency mobile phone. It was Liv from A and E, badgering me to come over in record timing.
‘We’ve never seen anything quite like this,’ she said before hanging up.
Five minutes later, I was standing with her and Shaf. Wrapping the cubicle curtain shut behind me, I began to soak up the patient. He was feverish and squirming around the hospital bed. While he looked dreadful, nothing seemed out of the ordinary.
‘So what’s all the commotion for?’
‘It’s an odd one, Doctor,’ Shaf said, trying to stick an electrode to the patient’s chest. ‘We don’t know what the hell to make of it.’
‘Looks like a virus to me,’ I told them. ‘So why hit the panic buttons?’
‘This is no virus,’ Liv said, shaking her head. ‘Take a look at this.’
She grabbed hold of the patient’s wrist and lifted it up. I leaned in and inspected. To my surprise the patient’s thumb had disappeared and his four digits had bundled into two stumps. Both had coarse, yellow nails protruding from them.
‘Arthritis,’ I said as I placed the end of my stethoscope to the patient’s ribcage. ‘It’s just good old-fashioned rheumatoid arthritis.’
‘This isn’t arthritis,’ Liv said. ‘His wife told us that he only began to develop these things after the fever kicked in.’
‘And see that goatee?’
I noticed his wispy beard for the first time.
‘It began to sprout just after I hung up the phone on you.’
‘How very peculiar,’ I said, stroking my chin. ‘We’ll run some tests. Meanwhile we need to check his level of medical cover.’
‘We already have,’ Shaf said. ‘And he’s got precious nothing.’
‘Not even economy?’
Shaf made a gameshow wrong answer noise and said, ‘We confirmed it with his wife. She told us that he’s been signing on for the last year so they’ve been struggling to keep up with the rent. She practically begged us to do something for him, but we all know the policy.’
‘We all know the policy alright,’ I muttered. ‘I’ve spent my entire professional life protesting the bloody policy. What’s this gentleman’s name anyway?’
‘Hello, William,’ I said, moving the stethoscope’s chestpiece round his ribcage. ‘Can you hear me at all?’
‘Am I dying, Doctor?’ he murmured.
‘No, no,’ I said. ‘You’re not dying. It’s just a nasty virus. We’ll run some tests and get you back to good health in no time. Now I know this isn’t the best time to ask, but do you have access to any money?’
‘There’s about a hundred quid left in my savings account.’
I looked over to Liv and Shaf. ‘That’s not going to pay for anything,’ I told them. Then to William, ‘Here at Meadows Hospital Limited we can arrange a loan through our sponsors which will provide enough money to keep you in hospital while we fix you up. Depending on your credit score, the loan can be as little as five point nine percent APR, but you will be expected to pay it back within the next year. The good news is that the money in your savings account will cover the ambulance journey over here so we can deduct that from the final bill. There are also vouchers available for hospital meals this month as part of our Run for Cover initiative. I believe it’s Mexican Monday as well, and let me tell you that the tacos are exceptional.’
‘The specials menu is only available for patients with economy or above, Doctor.’
‘So what do they give everyone else?’
Liv shrugged her shoulders. ‘The soup probably.’
I turned back to the patient. ‘Which is fantastic news because there’s a choice between many different types of soup at the moment. There’s chicken soup, vegetable soup, cream of something soup. All prepared by our Michelin-star chef who once appeared on I’m a Celebrity… before they finally saw sense and axed it. Now, do you have your bankcard with you?’
‘It’s at home.’
‘That’s okay, William. We’ll worry about it later.’ I turned to the others. ‘We need to sort the finance paperwork, get some signatures and then quarantine him over on the Poverty Ward until we know what’s what. Meanwhile take some bloods and send them over to haematology right away. I want a full investigation.’
‘Right away, Doctor.’
* * * *
I remember the first time I met her. It was back in medical school and, like everyone I know, I’d never felt so in love with anyone before. But it was a different kind of love—I loved her for what she did; for the good she brought to this country. No soul excluded. Yet the parasites wanted her dead; they’d been planning it for years. Despite her heart beating with joy, they wanted to place a noose around her neck and kick the chair once and for all.
I’d spent my life trying to stop them, but they didn’t listen. They never listen and now she’s gone. Forever.
All that’s left is this wretched beast.
* * * *
An hour later and I was sitting inside another cubicle on A and E. I was with a chef who’d cut his forearm wide open. The silly Billy had missed his target when dicing up some strawberries. He was less than an inch away from severing his ulnar artery. This would’ve meant an extra ten thousand pounds on his medical tab so every cloud and all that jazz.
As a nurse cleaned the wound and another fixed a catheter to the back of his hand, I got down to business.
‘So tell me, Martin. Do you have any medical cover?’
‘I’m afraid not, Doctor.’
‘Then do you have access to any money?’
‘Not until payday.’
‘That’s not a problem.’ Like a stuttering vinyl player, I rolled my eyes and began with the sales pitch: ‘Here at Meadows Hospital Limited we can arrange a loan through our sponsors which will provide enough money to keep you in hospital while we fix you up. Depending on your credit score, the loan can be as little as five point nine percent APR, but you will be expected to pay it back within the next year…’
‘That’s ridiculous,’ Martin groaned. ‘I’m so broke right now that I’m using duct tape to hold my shoes together.’
‘But the rates are very competitive, Martin. And we can tailor the payment plan to your individual circumstances.’
‘You’re quite the salesman, Doctor.’
‘No need for sarcasm. For what it’s worth, you were about half an inch away from a very expensive operation. Fortunately you’re only facing a routine band F procedure.’
As Martin muttered something inappropriate, Liv’s head appeared from around the cubicle curtain. She was looking concerned again.
‘Have you got a minute, Doctor?’
‘I’m tending to a particularly nasty laceration here, Liv. Can’t this wait?’
‘Not really. We’ve got another case of that bizarre virus we saw earlier.’
‘Are you sure?’
‘I’m positively sure. What’s more, he’s covered at platinum level and the only other member of the platinum team tonight is on a conference call with the sales team. So we need you to come over right away.’
As I stood up, Martin said, ‘Where are you going, Doctor?’
‘I’m afraid we have a priority case.’
‘What do you mean priority case?’
‘I’ll cut to the chase: this doesn’t qualify as an emergency situation and you have no medical cover which means we’re only legally obliged to provide the minimum amount of treatment on the condition that you agree to pay us back via a loan. It’s just the way it is now.’
‘Is this a stitch up?’
‘I suggest you calm yourself, Martin, or we will be forced to call security and stick it on your tab.’
‘It’ll be like trying to squeeze piss out of…’ His eyes darted around the room before he landed on, ‘Plasters.’
‘That doesn’t make any sense and you know it.’
‘You don’t make any sense. This healthcare system doesn’t make any sense. I want my NHS back!’
‘I’m warning you, Martin.’
Martin began to shake his head. ‘I’ve heard of Doctor Doolittle, but not Doctor Dofuckall.’
It was the eighth time in a month that I’d heard that particular joke. It was about as intellectually challenging as a birthday card verse. Enough was enough.
‘That’s one step too far, Martin.’ I turned to the nurse. ‘Call security and ask them to wheel Martin up to the Poverty Ward. But please don’t charge him for the privilege.’
‘But you know the policy.’
‘Fuck the policy!’ I hissed. ‘Just get him to the Poverty Ward.’
‘Okay, okay. Just relax.’
As I tottered out of the cubicle, Martin continued to call me all the names under the sun: cock nose, nipple eyes, arse mouth. By that point in my career, I’d heard it all before. But if only they knew the torment I was going through; day after day, night after night. That hospital was destroying me; scraping me out from the inside. The medical profession was dead to me—nothing more than a cadaver of its former glory.
I proceeded to follow Liv down the corridor. It was chockfull with people who had no medical cover. I knew they had no medical cover because that corridor is where the poor are dumped when the Poverty Ward is overflowing—which is fairly regular these days. We rent out these fold-up camper beds to them for twenty pounds a night while those with economy or higher get to hang out in the VIP lounge, surfing the internet and sinking into deluxe hospital beds.
As I walked passed reception, two security guards dragged a patient out of the fire exit by his collar. From what I could tell, he’d been complaining about the thirteen hours he’d waited for a butterfly stitch on his thumb.
‘…if you expect a premium service, buster, then it’s time to pay for it like everyone else.’
I’d never felt so deflated.
‘And it’s definitely the same symptoms as before, Liv?’ I said, trying to distract myself.
‘Yes, Doctor. He’s growing those strange hooves and a goatee beard—just like William.’
‘Interesting. And is he still compos mentis?’
‘He’s fully conscious and able to communicate with us. From what we saw earlier, it seems as if the worst of the virus is yet to kick in.’
‘That’s promising. I could do with asking him some questions. What’s his name again?’
‘Michael. But remember the policy, Doctor; we should only refer to him as sir unless he specifically requests that we address him by another name.’
Liv continued to lead me to the Platinum Ward and into the patient’s private room. We found this Michael chap lying on a king-sized hospital bed. He was watching an American sitcom pour out of a flat screen television and munching on popcorn. One nurse was giving him a head massage while another scribbled down a detailed order for coffee.
‘It should be ninety-six degrees exactly,’ Michael was saying. ‘And I only drink it with Channel Island milk. None of that godawful unpasteurised stuff the peasants serve in high street coffee shops. I don’t work long hours in the financial district for nothing, you know?’
‘Of course, Prince Michael.’
‘Hello there,’ I said as I strutted over to Michael. ‘My name is Doctor Shepherd and I’m one of the members of the platinum team. It’s my duty to make sure you have the best possible experience at Meadows Hospital Limited. Anything you require, please don’t hesitate to—’
‘About bloody time,’ he spat at me. ‘I do not appreciate having to wait five minutes to be seen. Just as soon as this racket’s over, I’ll be posting a negative review on your website.’
‘Please accept my sincere apology, sir.’
‘Prince Michael,’ he said, correcting me.
‘I want you all to refer to me only as Prince Michael. Now start again from the top.’
I gulped down my utter disdain.
‘Prince Michael, it’s my duty to make sure you have the best possible experience at Meadows Hospital Limited. Anything you require, please don’t hesitate to ask. Meanwhile we’ll make double sure that the rest of your stay is up to our usual excellent standard which, I should inform you, was runner up this year in the Consumer Times annual award for medical excellence.’
‘I don’t care about any of that. If you don’t impress me within the next five minutes then I’m cancelling my policy and going straight to your competitors.’
‘I’m sorry you feel that way,’ I said as I took hold of Michael’s wrist and examined the hoof. ‘So when did this begin?’
‘A few hours ago. It all started with a wheezy cough at the office and the next thing I know my hand’s turned into a cauliflower. That’s when I ordered the ambousine.’
‘And do you have any other symptoms?’
‘This beard’s just appeared,’ he said, waggling his finger at his chin. ‘The Lord only knows how that happened.’
I moved in closer and couldn’t help but grimace. Michael’s goatee looked like an adolescent’s armpit.
‘I’ll be honest with you,’ I said. ‘I’ve been a doctor for nearly thirty years and I can honestly say that the only time I’ve ever seen anything like this was about an hour ago.’
‘What do you think it is?’
‘An embarrassment if I’m honest.’
‘I mean what’s the diagnosis?’
‘I really have no idea. We need to run some tests on you. In the meantime we’ll take you up to the Platinum Ward to get some rest. You’re just not allowed visitors until we’ve assessed how contagious this virus is.’
‘Sounds perfect. I need to catch up on some me time anyway. Does it have a gym with air conditioning?’
‘It has everything you need.’
‘Then hurry up with that Vienna. And make me a roast duck and wild garlic sandwich while you’re at it. If it’s as delicious as what my colleagues tell me, I’ll consider leaving a positive review.’
* * * *
If only they had listened. We told them what was coming their way. We told them that we needed to fight for her; to stop these monsters from getting what they always wanted. And now they’re trying to blame us! I was the one who fought for her life while everyone else stood around, looking the other way. I was the one who held her hand as she passed, whispering in her ear that we’d continue to fight for her no matter what.
I told them this would happen. But they never listened!
* * * *
I was tending to a serious case of torsion to the testes when Liv’s name flashed up on my mobile phone. I paused midway through poking around this gentleman’s scrotum and reluctantly answered to her.
‘I’m busy, Liv, with a capital B.’
‘But it’s another case of that mystery virus.’
‘Are you sure?’
‘Yes, except it’s a little more advanced than the previous cases we’ve seen. We need you down on the Platinum Ward immediately.’
‘But I have to sort out these testicles.’
‘The testicles will have to wait. Doctor Binks is tied up with the finance department again which means you’re the only person in the hospital qualified to treat him.’
‘I’ll be with you in five minutes.’
I hung up and looked over at the patient. He was shaking his head and his eyes were telling me not to leave him in such a sorry state.
‘I really do apologise,’ I said. ‘But this is urgent.’
‘Not as urgent as this,’ the patient said as he grabbed hold of my coat. ‘I’m in agony, Doctor. Please do something.’
‘I know you are, but you’re not covered and this isn’t classed as a medical emergency. We have to prioritise those who are covered.’
‘Then give me morphine.’
‘That’s just not possible. Morphine is reserved for those with economy or higher.’
‘Then give me something to take the pain away—anything.’
I pulled away from his weak grip and began to totter out of the cubicle. ‘I’m really sorry,’ I told him. ‘But I have to get to the Platinum Ward. I’ll make sure you’re seen to before midnight.’
‘And I’ll sort you a couple of paracetamol at a discount price.’
Before he could berate me about how awful the country has become and how it was all my fault, I stormed out of the cubicle and made my way to the Platinum Ward. It was like leaving a miserable Cumbrian town in winter to visit a glorious Caribbean island in summer. I felt numb all over. We weren’t doctors and nurses anymore; we were corporate hooligans. The hospital ward had finally become just another playpen for businesspeople who’d milk the sick and needy for their last tuppence. I was barely able to hold myself together.
When I reached the cubicle on the Platinum Ward, I found Liv tending to a patient in a private room. He was lying on the hospital bed, shirtless and groaning. My eyes darted straight to his head. It was in the middle of transitioning to that of a goat. He also had two pairs of hooves, but the rest of him was still human—just.
‘What on earth is going on here?’
‘It’s how the ambousinemen found him, Doctor.’
‘This is serious business.’
I leaned over the patient, studying this bizarre transmutation. I watched as the last of his nose became a snout while his eyes shrank into two little beads.
‘What do you think it is, Doctor?’
‘A national emergency.’
‘It is a goat, isn’t it?’ Liv said.
‘It’s a goat alright. But the real question is: how?!’
‘Am I dying?’ the patient groaned.
‘He can speak!’ I quickly shone a pen torch into his left eye. ‘Can you hear me, sir?’
‘Yes, Doctor. Loud and clear. What the hell is going on here?’
‘We have absolutely no idea. All I can tell you is that we have to quarantine you right away while we run some tests. You might not be able to use the gym properly, but there’s always the 3D cinema. Can you remember what happened?’
‘I don’t know,’ the patient said. ‘All I remember is blacking out. Now here I am, no idea what’s going on. What’s happening to me, Doctor?’
‘I’m afraid I have some distressing news.’
‘What is it?’
‘You’re turning into a goat.’
‘Yes, sir. A goat.’
As the patient asked me how this was possible, my mobile phone began to ring. It was somebody from the Poverty Ward reception area. I immediately picked up, fearing the worst.
‘Doctor Shepherd!’ a lady shrieked. ‘I need you up here right away!’
‘What is it?’
‘The patient you asked to be brought up here a couple of hours ago… he’s only escaped!’
‘Escaped? What do you mean exactly?’
‘We can’t find him, Doctor. And what’s even weirder is that he’s managed to leave a goat behind. It’s as if he’s trying to tell us something.’
‘Please come, Doctor!’
I hung up.
‘I have to get to the Poverty Ward right away. Make sure this gentleman is quarantined on the Platinum Ward.’
I dashed out of the cubicle. The only saving grace was that I didn’t have to run through the sales pitch with a goat. That would’ve been too much to bear.
* * * *
When I reached the Poverty Ward, I found the receptionist standing on her office chair. She was squealing at something and lashing out with a clipboard.
‘What’s going on here?’ I said as I paced towards her.
‘It’s a goat, Doctor!’
‘Are you sure?’
‘Yes I’m sure! And the fucking thing is talking to me!’
I dashed round the counter and saw that the receptionist wasn’t joking: she really was fending off a goat. It was using its horns and shoulder to ram the office chair.
As I began to shoo it away, the goat turned to me. ‘Doctor,’ it said. ‘Don’t you remember me?’
‘I don’t believe we’ve ever met before in our lives. Who are you? What is going on here?’
‘It’s William—the fella you were attending to in A and E.’
‘William?’ I said as the goat sat down and licked its pastern. ‘What’s happened to you, William?’
‘If only I knew. But you must cure me right away.’
‘But I don’t even have a diagnosis. You’re the world’s first, William. And beside—’ …but I couldn’t finish the sentence.
‘Go on, Doctor.’
I shut my eyes.
‘You don’t have any cover.’
‘But I’ve turned into a goat!’
Just as I was about to tell him how sorry I am, two security guards appeared, carrying batons and shaking their heads in disbelief.
‘What’s going on here then?’
‘Don’t be alarmed,’ I said. ‘It’s only a patient.’
‘Since when did we become a vet?’ the other guard said.
‘It’s true,’ William said to them, his eyes all sad. ‘I’ve finally turned into a goat.’
‘Well that’s unlucky.’
‘What should we do, Doctor?’ the first guard said.
‘We need to quarantine him again. And this time under no circumstances do we let him out.’
The second guard looked down at William. ‘Are you going to remain calm while we walk you back to your bed or do we need to put you on a leash? You can put goats on leashes, right?’
‘How the hell should I know?!’ William hissed.
I watched as the two security guards led the goat up the corridor. Meanwhile it asked if someone could let the wife know what’s happened because he wasn’t capable of using a phone anymore.
As I thought about what I’d just witnessed, the receptionist climbed down from her chair, using my hand as a rail.
‘Do you think this is one of those hidden camera shows they used to have before we invented the internet?’
‘I have no idea,’ I told her. ‘All I know is that this isn’t good.’
‘Why’s that, Doctor?’
‘Well, who knows how far this thing has spread?’
* * * *
I remember the day she finally passed. It was the saddest day. In the middle of the night, they came for her, waving their gold-plated bankcards around. And what’s worse is that nobody but us had taken their threats seriously. Even when they were tightening the noose around her neck, nobody would believe it. But we believed it, and we tried to stop them. They never listened, never cared about what would happen after her funeral.
Now she’s gone; like the snuffed flame of a candle in a world haunted by thieves. I’ve never been the same since; a part of me died with her that day. And all these years I’ve had to smile for her murderers, do their dirty work.
Well, not anymore!
I will make them pay; oh my sweet, lovely NHS! I will make them pay for taking you from us!
* * * *
A couple of months after the outbreak, I was called before an emergency committee. Being the first doctor to treat the goat epidemic, I had been asked to provide some answers on what exactly had happened. It’s no surprise that the committee was made up of chief executives of private medical companies. Among them were some members of parliament and other conspirators. Meanwhile the worst of the British media was sitting behind me, scribbling in notepads and nodding their heads.
As I sat shifting in my seat, gazing at the floor, I finally heard somebody say, ‘So, Doctor Shepherd, we believe you were the first medical practitioner to treat a patient with the G Virus.’
I looked up at the gentleman who was talking to me.
‘And in your professional opinion, does contracting the G Virus amount to an emergency situation?’
‘I’d say so.’
A lady chimed in with, ‘So you believe it’s life threatening then?’
‘It’s early days,’ I replied. ‘But it appears that the G Virus only turns people into goats. It doesn’t appear to be life threatening—more like life changing.’
‘So it’s not an emergency?’ the gentleman said.
‘It depends what you mean by emergency.’
‘Let me read out the dictionary definition of emergency we’re concerning ourselves with today. According to the Oxford English Dictionary an emergency is, and I quote, “a person with a medical condition requiring immediate treatment”. End quote. What do you say to this?’
‘I’d say according to that definition, the G Virus is an emergency. No question about it.’
‘So the patients will die if we don’t treat them right away?’
‘They won’t die as such; they only turn into goats.’
‘So you agree with the committee that the G Virus isn’t an emergency?’
‘It’s not an emergency according to the definition you’ve just given, but I still think it’s an emergency of sorts.’
‘So you’re telling us that these patients do require immediate medical treatment?’
‘May I remind you that lying to the committee is a criminal offence punishable by up to ten years in prison and the loss of your medical licence.’
I was already beginning to feel exhausted.
‘But I’m not lying.’
‘Nobody said you were, Doctor Shepherd. We’re merely emphasising the importance that you tell us only the whole truth today.’
‘I am telling you the truth.’
The lady cleared her throat. ‘Let’s try this another way shall we? How long was it before you treated the first patient?’
‘I don’t believe we ever treated him.’
‘He didn’t have any medical cover.’
‘And did he suffer in pain or die as a consequence?’
‘So he’s still alive and well?’
‘Last I knew he was.’
‘So where’s William now?’
‘I believe an industrial farm has employed him.’
‘Then this isn’t an emergency at all,’ the old gentleman said. ‘In fact this is fantastic news.’
I was lost.
‘How do you mean?’
‘Our records show that William hadn’t been in employment for nearly a year. But after two months of contracting the G Virus, he’s finally found himself a stable job with a decent income.’
‘But he’s a goat.’
‘That’s not in dispute, Doctor Shepherd. What is in dispute is whether or not the G Virus amounts to an emergency situation. Now answer the question.’
‘I still think it’s an emergency…’
This for five gruelling hours and then I finally broke.
* * * *
Of course, the private healthcare industry won that day on some legal technicality. They tied me up in knots until all I could do was cry into my hands and tell the committee that it wasn’t an emergency after all.
‘It’s not an emergency!’ I sobbed. ‘Please just let me go!’
It wasn’t very long before the medical companies found a cure for the G Virus and then hiked up the prices so that only patients with economy or higher could afford to be cured. Everyone else was given the option of either taking out a loan with a lifetime of repayments or being left to turn into a goat. In no time, half of the UK population had been infected and went to live on farms all across the world.
When I finally pulled myself together, I tried to protest the ruling. But it all fell on deaf ears. In the end I quit the medical profession and, as a final act of defiance, I infected myself with the G Virus.
These days I spend my time walking around this muddy field with the other goats, trying to organise a resistance to the private healthcare system.
If it’s the last thing I do, I will bring my sweet love back from the dead.
The goats will someday rise!
© Rupert Dreyfus, released on the 70th birthday of the NHS