My attempt to have a small cyst removed from the spaniel was always going to be fraught with difficulty. My vets are in a posh area of London and have a name that sounds like a multinational reinsurance broker. This is because similar amounts of money go through their books.
To save their blushes, let’s call them Simon Fleece and Associates. When I call, the line rings a few times, then there is a pause before it begins to ring again in a different tone. When it answers, a girl says: ‘Simon Fleece and Associates answering service how may I help?’ My formerly friendly local vet is now so big and money-grubbing it has a separate call centre to take overflow calls, I realise. I am very, very scared.
I tell her I want to book an appointment and she says she will take my details and the time I want and get the receptionists to call me back to confirm. First I suggest 4.30 p.m. the next day and then, when I realise I can’t make that, I say: ‘Actually, I need to make it later.’
And she says: ‘So, do you want to move the appointment forward or back?’
‘Forward. No back. No, wait, I can’t work out which. But, as I say, I want to make it later than 4.30 p.m.’
‘I’m sorry, but I do need to get this clear,’ she says testily. ‘Do you want to move the appointment forward or back?’
‘I want an appointment later than 4.30,’ I say.
‘All right, there’s no need to be rude,’ she says, availing herself of her human rights already. ‘So you want to move the appointment forward?’
‘Do I?’ I say, my head aching from the mental effort of divining whether later than 4.30 is forward or back on the space-time continuum. ‘Isn’t later back? Or is it forward?’
I realise that I could be on the phone arguing about the meaning of later than
4.30 p.m. until Stephen Hawking intervenes. So I tell her to just get them to call me and slam the phone down. Eventually, the receptionist calls me back and confirms that I am being allocated a 5.30 p.m. appointment, which is what I thought I wanted although now all I really want is to work out whether 5.30 p.m. is forwards or back from 4.30 p.m.
When I arrive at the surgery the next day I am still pondering time’s arrow and the asymmetry of existence as the spaniel leaps on to the scales by the reception desk to try to reach the treats on the counter. ‘Oh, how funny! Is she trying to weigh herself?’ giggles the receptionist.
‘I guess so,’ I say, wearily, as it is best to enter into it.
Inside the consulting room, the keen young vet has a feel and confirms the pea-sized cyst has to come out. ‘When can you do it?’ I ask anxiously. ‘Tomorrow morning 8 a.m.?’ he suggests, twitching a bit weirdly.
The next morning, I take her back and have just handed her over to be led out the back by the giggling receptionist when I think to ask: ‘Oh, and can you give me an estimate?’
You could have heard a pin drop. The vet turns bright red and says: ‘But I thought you were insured.’
‘Yes,’ I say, ‘but even so, I’d like to know.’
The receptionist starts faffing and huffing as if this is all most inconvenient and after a few moments she slaps a piece of paper down on the counter with a figure written on it: £1,100 exc. VAT.
‘No, you don’t understand,’ I laugh nervously. ‘I don’t want you to take a cyst out of me. I want you to operate on the dog!’
They don’t see the funny side. They stare at me accusingly so I say ‘fine, see you later,’ and shuffle out. Then I sit in the car thinking, ‘Eleven hundred pounds, not including VAT.’ And I repeat that phrase over and over as my brain tries to digest the full meaning of it.
At first, it is more difficult to comprehend than whether 5.30 p.m. is forward or back from 4.30 p.m. but thankfully I grasp it quite quickly and as the light bulb pings on over my head I leap out of the car and run back into the vets.
‘Give me back my dog!’ I exclaim. ‘I’m going to get a second opinion.’
The vet comes out of his consulting room, his face flushed deepest maroon.
‘I think they’ve already put the tubes in,’ he says, hurrying out the back.
I bet they have, I think. They couldn’t even wait five minutes to get those tubes into my dog so they could start extracting cash.
He returns with a happily wiggling Cydney on a lead, thankfully not dragging a drip.