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 gastroenteritis that has plagued me since Sunday relaxes its grip. This is the 13th ailment in the last three months, but not once since mid-July have I seen Dr Sarah Jarvis professionally.
My wife enters the bathroom to find me fingering a newly discovered growth behind my 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." "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 Goldhawk Road tube station I am overwhelmed by a nostalgic craving, and take a detour left into Richford Street. The Grove health centre looks lovelier than ever in the sharp Autumnal sunlight. I stand by the gates, drinking it all in... three months ago, this was my second home. Now I am an outsider, as alienated as the hero in the novel by Camus, and twice as pitiable.
I awake shaking and clammy having passed a profoundly troubled night. In the dream, I am stung by a hornet on the eastbound platform at Goldhawk Road and go into anaphylactic shock. My tongue swells dramatically and I need adrenalin, instantly. "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 incomprehensibly, "it's nothing. Bed rest, paracetamol and plenty of liquids..."
The gastroenteritis is back, accompanied now by fever, stiff neck and thumping eyeballs. "Shouldn't you stay in bed?" says my wife as I head for the shower. "Too much to do," I reply breathlessly. Shaking her head with disbelief, Rebecca 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..." 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 and wait for her to finish. "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 familiar terror floods over me. "Shall I?" says Rebecca, inclining her head towards the phone. "Yes, please." She presses the redial button and makes an appointment with Dr Jarvis for tomorrow at 6.20pm. Normal service has been resumed.