7 MARCH 1992, Page 12

If symptoms persist. . .

LAST WEEK I admitted a patient to the ward who claimed to have taken 80 of her pills all at once. She had cropped hair dyed bright carmine and a devil tat- tooed on her forehead. I deduced from this that she was not gainfully employed, though I later learnt that she was on a municipal training course in child care.

The next morning she confessed she had taken only eight pills. This was more in keeping with the level of the drug found in her blood.

'I never knew you was going to mea- sure it,' she said with a pout, as if we had done something sneaky and dishon- ourable.

I asked why she took the pills, suspect- ing the answer in advance: boyfriend trouble.

'Him and me, we had a row, like.' What about? I asked.

About her inability to have babies, she said. Her tubes were blocked and the gynaecologists were trying to unblock them, but the boyfriend, who already had three children by another woman, repeatedly taunted her about her failure to conceive.

'He kept going on and on at me, so I either had to take the tablets or kill him,' she said. No other solution presented itself to her.

'Did you take them in front of him?' I asked.

'Yes. It was him what gave me them to take. He said I didn't have the bottle to take them, so I told him I did and he handed them to me one by one and I swallowed them.'

'You realise that in helping you he committed a crime?'

'I don't want to get him into no trou- ble.'

'I thought you said you wanted to kill him?'

'Yes, one day I will, the filthy little toe-rag.'

'How long have you known him?' 'Three months — since my husband went in prison.'

'What for?'


'Now let me get this straight — please correct me if I'm wrong. You propose to have a child by a man whom you have known for three months and whom you regard as a filthy little toe-rag?'

'Yes, that's right.' 'And the gynaecologists are helping you?'

'They haven't done nothing yet.'

'But they're trying?'


I wrote the history in the notes.

'Here, you're not writing none of this down, are you? If they see that, they won't help me.'

'Oh yes they will,' I said. 'They don't take any notice of things like that.'

Meanwhile, the filthy little toe-rag arrived on the ward. He was young, small and heavily tattooed; he had the expression of a hungry rodent.

As a six-foot-four prison warder had told me only the previous week, small men tend to be wiry and are often awk- ward to handle; they slip through your fingers like an eel.

The happy couple fell into each other's embrace, kissed and made up — at public expense, naturally. My patient looked blissfully happy, and — radiating joy — came over to thank me for all I had done.

As she and the toe-rag departed the ward arm in arm, I remembered the last line of a famous Chekhov short story: 'Farewell, my treasure.'

Theodore Dalrymple