A few weeks ago I had to take my wife for a battery of tests at a local Athens hospital.
As usual the main difficulty was finding parking space so, after dropping her off at the outpatients unit, I cruised around searching for a free spot.
Soon enough, I found a place with very few cars parked around it - the hospital morgue (νεκρoθάλαμος). Thanking my lucky stars, I left the car there and rushed to find my wife.
While waiting for her medical perambulation through the batteries of tests she would face, my mind moved back to where I had parked my car, and the reasons why so few other people left their vehicles there.
I came to many hypotheses, but none that really made any strong impression. Did it possibly have to do with a feeling of bad luck, I finally thought?
However, not wishing to pursue the matter then, I turned to the audio book I had carefully loaded on to a mobile phone. Leaning back, I plugged my earphones in and immersed myself into the tones of Patrick Macnee reading a novel. It was so enjoyable being able to close my eyes and just listen.
Five hours later, my wife had finished and, with the usual peremptory attitude shown to spouses, told me to take her home. “Where did you leave the car?” she asked. “Next to the morgue,” I replied innocently.
She gave me a strange look, but didn’t say anything; probably because she didn’t have a prepared retort ready. From the glint in her eye I supposed I would get one on the suitability of morgues as parking places when she’d thought out how to phrase it!
Saying nothing, I went to get the car and while walking to it, saw two covered trolleys being delivered. The heads were covered, but there were little tickets – name tabs, I expect – hanging from the toe of each body.
For a while I watched, then my interest moved to the little sign that advertised the morgue and, out of curiosity, I took a photo of it.
About a month later, an elderly relative asked me to take her to the same hospital for tests. I was really loathe to go that day, as I had many other urgent matters to deal with, but the feeling of duty one has towards elderly relatives reared its fearful head and gave me such an inner talking that I realised I definitely had to take her, like it or not.
But I was none too happy at the thought of the six hours I would probably spend waiting; and that started my mind wandering off again.
The morning before the BIG DAY, I printed out the photo I had taken of the morgue’s sign and transferred it to a name badge I made on the PC. It now read (in Greek) over 2 lines: Hospital Morgue, Reception.
Then, clipping the badge onto an old one left over from some IP Book Exhibition and carrying an old white lab coat hoarded from the past, I was ready.
I duly picked up my relative, drove her to the hospital, parked outside the morgue, got out of the car, donned my white coat and badge and walked round to the other door to let the lady out.
For a moment Nancy looked at me rather oddly; and I understood she wanted some explanation as to why I was dressed up as a morgue attendant.
I grinned and carefully explained to her that I wanted to test out a hypothesis that people thought that anything connected with a morgue was bad luck, and that it might speed up the length of time she spent waiting for her tests.
For an old bat, she was a good sport and quickly saw the amusing possibilities. “Lead on, Mr Morgue Reception,” she said, “lead on.”
We slowly walked to the out-patients department, handed in her IKA book, filled in the various forms and, with people peeping at me out of the corner of their eyes, but not daring to look at me full in the face as they shuffled as far away as possible without losing their place in the queue, made our way to the first department Nancy would have tests in.
Taking a ticket from the machine, we looked for a seat. There were about 20 people ahead of us and one empty chair remaining in the room. Nancy sat and I stood next to her.
Again people furtively eyed us, carefully scanning the old lady’s 90 year old face, then scrutinising the badge on my white coat. They were all obviously bursting to ask questions, but nobody had the guts to voice the first one.
Finally, a middle-aged and portly lady caught my eye, smiled at me and asked if my charge was feeling well. After a minute’s general chit chat, she then added: “why are you taking her around?” pointing emphatically at my badge; to which I evasively replied: “because I am accompanying her,” (remember, all this was in Greek).
There was silence, but after a moment a braver soul made a slightly more pointed second question: “but why is someone from your department with her?” Again, with a slightly serious look on my face, I replied: “I was asked to accompany her, in case I was needed!” Again there was silence - and it lasted longer this time.
Then the door opened and the nurse poked her head out. “Next please, ticket number 5,” she ordered, in a firm voice. Nobody moved, and then the person with that ticket waved it in the direction of Nancy. “I think the old lady should go next, don’t you?” Everybody nodded eagerly.
They all wanted to see the back of us. And I can just imagine the conversation that took place once we were on the other side of the door, and the relief they felt at Mr Morgue Reception and his possible client leaving the room. I just wished I could have heard the questions they must have asked each!
The same thing happened at each of the next five departments we visited. Invariably, first there was this curiosity and unease while we were there, and the wish to ask questions but the fear of being the first to do so.
Then followed the suggestion that we go into the doctor first, ahead of the queue - and the feeling of relief as we did so. I can’t answer for any of the conversations they probably had after we left, but I imagine they were much more animated and different than any I have ever heard in a doctor’s waiting room.
We had arrived at 8:30 that morning and by 10:15 we were both walking slowly back towards the car. I reckon we finished about 4 hours earlier than when I’d last accompanied my wife to hospital tests. Nancy, despite her age, was grinning all over her face like a schoolgirl. “You know, I haven’t had such a good laugh for ages,” she said. “We must do it again, sometime. It was a real hoot. Oh thank you, Mr Morgue Reception!”