‘So the thing is this…’ said the doctor to me.
I sat opposite, legs crossed, and watched him over the frames of my glasses.
‘We’ve done some checking,’ he continued, ‘and that problem with your throat is…’
I waited. I’d assumed cancer, because I always assumed the worst – that way you could never be disappointed – but he was making a meal of delivering the news. Surely he’d done this before?
He paused. ‘You have a problem,’ he finally continued, ‘that’s rather unusual. You have a condition where, every time you say a word, your throat contracts the tiniest bit. Eventually, if you keep speaking, you’ll choke to death. This is something we’ve never seen before, it has to be said. We’ve been through all the books and websites on throat issues and…’
I let him drone on for a bit. It’s a good thing he doesn’t have this condition, I thought.
‘…do you have any questions?’ he finished.
Oh, thanks. If you speak too much, you’ll die, he tells me. Then he asks if I have any questions. Would you like to vocalise your concerns and hasten your journey to the slab, sir? Why, go right ahead, sir! We’ve got the gravedigger on speed dial. Of course I have questions, you nitwit. Why me? Has anyone else ever suffered this? Is there a cure? Does the number of syllables matter? Perhaps if I walk around using words like ‘septuagenarian,’ or ‘antidisestablishmentarianism’, or go and live in Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch, I can extract more value from whatever’s left of my word quota. I seethed at the unfairness of it all. I decided to ask just one question, and hope my remaining limit was more than seven.
‘How many words do I have left?’
‘Deducting those seven, you’ve now got five hundred.’
‘Five hundred!?’ I screeched, before remembering myself and shutting up.
‘Only four hundred and ninety-eight now,’ said the doctor.
I hailed a taxi to take me home. ‘Where to, guv?’ said the driver. I scrawled my address on my hand in biro and showed it to him.
‘What’s that say, mate? I’ve not got my glasses on, can’t see a thing.’
It’s a shame I live at Her Majesty The Queen Once Visited Here (Gawd Bless Her) Avenue, renamed from Short Street by a patriotic council official after a Royal visit to the park at the end of the road. Down to four eighty-seven. I spent the rest of the journey stewing about that, aside from the minutes I allowed myself to panic about being driven by a man who can’t see without his glasses. There were several moments when I thought I wouldn’t have a chance to use my remaining words. However, I arrived home safely, if rather despondent. I sent my mum a text, saying the hospital had bad news.
‘I hat txtng,’ came the reply. ‘Cll me nsted.’
Sigh. ‘Can I email you?’ I asked.
‘Cmpter brkn. Cll pls.’
Having wasted far too many words on my mother (‘tell me that again?’ ‘Are you sure about this?’ ‘What are you going to do now?’), I sat down in my armchair. I’d recorded the conversation to keep track of my limit, and played it back. That chat had cost me 216 of my precious quota of words. Only 271 left. I was sure I could feel my airways narrowing.
I browsed the internet. Sure enough, Google had never heard of my condition. I took no comfort in being a medical marvel. I turned on the television. There was a silent film on. I turned it off. My phone rang. I hung up. It rang again. I hurled it at the wall. That stopped it. I went to bed in a huff.
I woke up the next day determined to get more answers about this. There must be something the doctors could do. Rather than waste more words on booking a taxi, I decided I’d walk back to the hospital. Usually when I walk around town, no-one even glances at me. And that, frankly, is exactly how I like it. Not today, though.
‘Scuse me, what time is it?’
‘Can you tell me how to get to the train station?’
‘Spare fifty pence for a cup of tea?’
‘Would you pledge five pounds to raise money to save the endangered White Cave Velvet Worm of South Africa?’
I had to ignore all these, which was probably for the best in that last case, and walk off without response. I must have looked very rude, to the extent that one person shouted ‘wanker!’ as I left. That, I have to say, is not what you expect of a charity collector, even one raising money for worms. Having run the verbal gauntlet, I arrived at the hospital. I made my way to the reception desk and wrote down the name of my doctor and a request to see him. The receptionist squinted at the piece of paper.
‘What’s that say, love? I’ve not got my glasses on, can’t see a thing.’
I swore to myself repeatedly inside, but said, ‘May I see Doctor Featherington Smythe-Hart, please?’. I wondered if hyphenated words counted as one or two. I was now down to either two sixty-five or two sixty-four.
‘He’s not in today, love, come back tomorrow.’
The following day I returned. I’d managed to not say a dicky bird out loud the rest of the day before, despite the efforts of passers-by, market stallholders, telephone salespeople and my parents. Last night I’d also dropped a tin of baked beans on my little toe and hadn’t made a sound, even though it was perhaps even more painful than the metallic throat-scraping device the doctor had used during my examination.
The receptionist had, thankfully, remembered her glasses today and, after waiting a mere four and a half hours with only a seven month old copy of the Daily Mirror for entertainment, I was permitted to enter Doctor Featherington Smythe-Hart’s office.
‘Hello again, how are you?’ he said.
I glowered at him.
‘Oh, right, of course.’
I produced a notepad and wrote, ‘Is there anything else you can do?’ I handed it to him.
‘What’s that say, sir? I’ve not got my glasses on, can’t see a thing.’
I was ready for this, this time. I’d brought a magnifying glass from home. I took it from my back pocket and handed it to him. He studied the note.
‘Okay, then. First, how many words do you think you have left?’
I wrote down: ‘264 or 265. Do hyphens count as one word or two?’
‘Two,’ he said.
I glowered again.
‘Let’s check you out one more time, then,’ he said. He rummaged in his drawers – of his desk, that is – and produced the dreaded throat-scraping device. ‘I’ve just put fresh sandpaper on it,’ he added. He seemed almost happy about that.
Ten painful minutes later, he’d finished with the scraper. He’d also poked and prodded at the skin on the outside of my throat with a nasty little jabby device, leaving it looking like a colander. I expected that if I had a drink of water, I could do a neat impression of a fountain.
‘Did you say two hundred and sixty four words?’ asked the doctor.
‘Just that you’ve actually got considerably less left than that.’
It took all my power not to correct his ‘less’ to ‘fewer’. I shook my head to indicate there must be a mistake in his calculations.
‘Do you talk in your sleep?’ he said. ‘You really don’t have many words left.’
My eyes widened. Oh, no. I do talk in my sleep when I’m stressed. And I was certainly stressed, especially right now.
‘Shit!’ I screamed before I could stop myself, which really hurt my tender throat. And then I found myself unable to breathe. I turned blue in the face and collapsed to the floor, dead.
‘Just the one in fact,’ said the doctor. ‘Well, it was just the one.’