In the bath this evening, while performing the monthly testicular cancer check, it dawns on me that something in my life is missing. Although I go through the usual routine, twiddling each gonad carefully from side to side and running the thumb lengthways, I do so mechanically and with neither the tingle of terrified anticipation at the beginning nor the piercing shard of relief at the end. A psychologist might ascribe this languid uninterest to a mid-life crisis, but I've been having one of those since I was 19 and suspect something else: after 20 years of morbid fascination with my own ill-health, is the hypochondria beginning to fade?
A bout of gastro-enteritis that has plagued me since Sunday relaxes its grip. This is the 13th ailment in the past three months but not once in that time have I seen Dr Sarah Jarvis professionally. I did ring her during an incipient aortic aneurism that proved to be alcoholic indigestion, but not since mid-July have I set foot in the Grove surgery.
My wife enters the bathroom to find me fingering a newly discovered growth behind the right armpit. "And what have you found?" she asks. "Oh, just a little lump." Rebecca comes over and has a feel. "I'll call Sarah," she says, "I'm sure it's nothing but..." "I know it's nothing," I interrupt. "It's a sebaceous cyst." Rebecca stares in horrified amazement, as though she has caught me slicing the head off a kitten. "But shouldn't Sarah have a look, just to be safe?" "Dr Jarvis is a very busy woman," I reply sternly. "We mustn't go wasting her time with facetious enquiries."
On the way to the tube station, I am overwhelmed by a nostalgic craving, and take a detour. The Grove health centre looks lovelier than ever in the sharp autumnal sunlight. I stand by the gates, drinking it all in. Dr Neil Fraser's car, the basement chemist doling out tablets, the silhouette of Dr Yvette Smith, visible through the first floor blinds, summoning a patient... three months ago, this was my second home. Now I am an outsider, as alienated as the hero of Camus's novel and twice as pitiable.
I awake shaking and clammy having passed a profoundly troubled night. In a dream, I am stung by a wasp on the eastbound platform at Goldhawk Road and go into anaphylactic shock. "Quickly, get a doctor," screams Alan Milburn as he bends over me. A window opens loudly, and I glance up to see Dr Jarvis's head poking out from her office. "I'm a doctor," she shouts. "Thank God," replies the new health secretary, "this man is dying". "Who is he?" Milburn finds my wallet, and screams the name up at her. "Matthew Norman?" she repeats quizzically. "No, I don't think he's on our list. Sorry, you'll have to call an ambulance." Mr Milburn pulls out his mobile but I knock it from his hand. "No, no," I mumble, "it's nothing. Bed rest, paracetamol and plenty of liquids..."
The gastro-enteritis is back, accompanied now by fever, stiff neck, and thumping eyeballs. "Shouldn't you should stay in bed?" says my wife. "Too much to do," I reply breathlessly. "Anyway, no good giving in to these things." Shaking her head with disbelief, she leaves the room.
All symptoms are worse, but I am determined to work through it and head for the office as usual until, hearing Rebecca semi-whispering on the phone, I pause at the top of the stairs. "I don't know what's going on, Sarah," she says, "but he's gone all hardy. Its like living with Sir Ranulph Fiennes. It's a complete personality change, and I'm..." A stair creaks beneath me, and she hurriedly changes the subject as I stagger down into the kitchen. Disturbed by the phrase "complete personality change" I sit on the sofa. "Do you think I've got a frontal lobe tumour?" I ask as she replaces the receiver. "I doubt it," she says, "but I can't rule it out." The old terror floods over me. "Shall I?" says Rebecca, inclining her head towards the phone. "Please. If you would." She presses the redial button and makes an appointment with Dr Jarvis for tomorrow at 6.20pm. Normal service has been resumed.