The two letters had been looking up at me for several weeks. Two months, in fact. The reason they always seemed to slip to the bottom of the to-do pile was because the handwriting was so elaborate, the calligraphy so out-of-time, I could barely read it. The fountain pen had a wide nib, and the black tails curled away, crashing into the tops of the words below. Yet there was consistency – the writer had learned the cursive art and stuck with it.
I read and decoded the first. He was complaining about something. A delay about getting some results back. The second, written on the same thick, cream-coloured paper, admonished me for failing to respond to the first. He was disappointed in the service; he would have expected the courtesy of a….
I clicked into his record. Ninety-one years old. Nothing particularly urgent, medically. I imagined him, sitting at a desk, his papers and pens laid out neatly. Ninety-one. So born in 1928. Too young to have served in the second world war, but he’d seen it unfold. And he’d seen much besides – the 50’s, the 60’s, the cold war, the Cuban crisis (how did that feel?), Suez, British politics, the advance of technology. He must have worked in some administrative capacity, with that handwriting, hence, I guessed, his disappointment in me. He was used to getting answers to polite and carefully constructed queries.
I lifted my dictating machine and began to apologise. I minimised down the last clinic letter on the computer screen and looked again at the demographics across the top of the screen. There was a plain and unobtrusive sentence: ‘Patient died on –/–/–.’ Damn. Damn it.
I looked at the topmost sheet of paper. The careful hand. I felt sad that he had died (from an entirely unconnected malady, I was sure) feeling disappointed in us, in the NHS, in me.
I tore the sheets in two. The luxurious bond released tiny white motes into the air. Then I slipped the fragments through the inert mouth of the confidential waste bin. No action required, now.