11 NOVEMBER 1995, Page 28

If symptoms

persist. . .

I WAS sitting in my office during a hia- tus between out-patient clinics last week, thinking in a desultory way about the Meaning of Existence. Alas, try as I might I could think of none, but perhaps this was because my train of thought was interrupted by the sound of the ward television drivelling through the walls. An astrologer was reading Mr Blair's horoscope: Saturn was in the ascendant, the Moon was somewhere else entirely, it was all very exciting and unusual, and meant that . . . .

I rushed out and turned the television off. It seemed to me likely that the man in the bed nearest it, who had com- plained of invisible gerbils gnawing con- stantly at his legs, would not be much interested in Mr Blair's starry destiny. After all, when you are pursued by rodents, even the highest marginal rate of income tax must seem a matter of slight importance.

Most of my patients would agree in any case that life has no meaning. And even those who once thought otherwise are soon brought to the same conclusion, An Indian shopkeeper consulted me because of a host of symptoms, which affected every part of his body — he even had a burning sensation in his hair.

He had migrated to this country a third of a century ago and had worked hard in a factory to save enough money to buy his shop. His ambition had been to put his children through university, and this he had done; and then he want- ed to leave them a tidy sum, to ease their passage through life. But in the last few years he had been held up so many times in his shop at knifepoint that he had sold it to the first bidder — to whom he passed the martyr's crown. The fact is that the shopkeepers in our area have as much chance of escaping unscathed as the early Christians in the arena.

The police had been most sympathetic and kind to him, of course, but had caught none of the culprits and had told him that in any case there were plenty more where those came from.

My patient woke up every night sweat- ing; his heart pounded in his chest. His entire view of the world had changed, and now every stranger was an armed robber until proven otherwise. He had devoted his whole life to his business, and had not had the time to develop other interests; and now even the local park was closed to him since he was mugged there. It is a truth universally acknowledged that a small man in a suit and a tie is asking to be robbed.

'When I came to this country, it was very nice,' he said. 'They delivered to your door, and no one was taking. Now it is a rubbish country.'

Anyway, back in my room I stopped contemplating the meaning of life, and turned my attention to a somewhat smaller, but more clearly defined ques- tion: why did I no longer have a waste- paper basket under my desk? Pilfering, perhaps? A management economy mea- sure?

The ward smoke alarm went off in the midst of my reflections. I went to see what was happening: the alarm was being tested. It took three men to test it, one up a ladder, one with a clipboard at the base of the ladder, and one — a Fire Prevention Engineer — to oversee oper- ations.

And then, suddenly, the whole mean- ing of life became clear to me: so to arrange things that we survive until tomorrow.

Theodore Dalrymple