Empathetic smiling

EmpatheticSmiling#2aAn extract from my forthcoming book, TickTockTwo. I am returned to hospital with number one and number two ribs on the left, broken. The cause is a mystery.


Everyone in here is so bloody kind.

Worst of all is their damned empathetic smiling, so smug, so well-meaning, I can’t stand it. Worse than worst, they all smell of alcohol wipes. Come to think of it, over the past few weeks, since the “heart thing”, people smile at me a lot; in shops, offices, in the street, even when the occasion calls for seriousness and ritualised testosterone fuelled chest thumping. It invariably works like this: they notice the wheelchair first, then my stooped shoulders, the pained expression and gritted teeth, then my bashful eye is caught and almost immediately a reddish flush begins to spread from the neck along the jawbone to the cheeks and into their ears.  The face scrunches up like that of a new-born baby and beginning with a quivering chin there spreads across the entire facial landscape a tight-lipped-eyes-half-closed smile with a nut-wrinkly nose at the centre. Empathetic smiling! But, it doesn’t end there, as a final embarrassment, comes the dance. A waddle dance; arms straight, palms turned outwards, legs unbending, the body rocking from side to side, shoulders pressed back, over-emphasising the pretense of giving me the widest berth possible, something along the lines of a security guard keeping crowds at bay from a superstar, only in my case a superstar with an unmentionable and highly contagious disease.

Ah, here comes Graham. He’s the Orthopaedic Surgeon who’s been plaguing me. Tending towards rotundity, he has floppy hair, trousers way too tight around the calves and no belt. How does that work? Trousers have belt loops for a reason! And, he beams like a chimpanzee, all the time. More of a lop-sided grin from a mouth that’s simultaneously trying to shout around a corner. On top of that, to make himself more attractive to girls, boys, don’t care, mostly to himself I think, by stretching his eyes wide, just a fraction, so his eyes catch the light and glint. Far from the desired effect, he more closely resembles a scary coke addict. He ordered some tests as soon as I arrived on the ward and presumably he’s rushed straight from the lab to deliver the results himself. How kind.

Loitering at my bedside, nose buried in my medical notes, he grunts and heaves like some bourdoir madam scrutinising her clients’ credentials, furiously flicking the pages, he finally turns to face me and the smile is impossibly wide and white only this time, by contrast, his eyes are dark and shadowy and I know the results aren’t good.

It’s a complicated affair, this empathetic smiling, it conveys many commingled messages: pleasure, pity, gratefulness, guilt, humility, pride and censorship.  But the overriding characteristic is a hunger to be seen to understand the human condition and to recognise the difference from “the norm” forced upon the beneficiary, on me. In calm, precise and un-glinty manner, Graham tells me I have degenerative bone disease. But I must consider myself one of the lucky ones because he wouldn’t have been able to make the diagnosis so readily if my ribs hadn’t broken without apparent reason.

So, two irreparable diseases in one body.  Marvellous.


> Pictures: The Tears of a Clown: digitally remastered by Rod McRiven

> Websites: Gene Pitney    Marc Almond     Mythology of Clowns

> Listen: Gene Pitney and Marc Almond – Something’s gotten hold of my heart

It is hoped TickTockOne will be published before TickTockTwo, but in these times of paradox, paradigms and paraplumptitums, it may not be expedient to do so. TickTockTwo will be published by Barre Meunier Publishing in the autumn of 2019 and fills in the gaps left by TickTockOne.

Other works by Rod McRiven: Swell

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