I walk into the cubicle, with Ken in tow. There I find an eight-year-old boy, hoeing into a packet of chips.
“Call me Spud,” he says, without looking up.
With that, he raises his head, and smiles from ear to ear.
“This is my Mum,” he says, gesturing across the cubicle.
Spud lets out a laugh. “She’s not your Mum! She’s my Mum!”
I look across at Mum. She holds her head in her hand. “He was sick when we brought him in here, I swear.”
“Hey, I believe you. Kids turn around quickly,” I say.
I look around at the intern, who has been taking down everything I’ve said. He looks confused.
“Kids turn around quickly?” he parrots. I nod. He scribbles some more. It’s like owning a puppy that can write.
“These are admission notes, Ken. You don’t have to write everything. In fact, nothing that we’ve said yet should go in the notes.” Ken looks deflated. I look back at Daniel. “In fact, just put the pen down, Ken. I don’t even know that Spud is going to need admission.”
Spud lets out another little laugh, a delighted cry. His Mum rests her head in her hand, shaking it some more. Ken looks at me like I’ve scolded him. It’s like the Charades Olympics.
“It’s okay, Ken,” I repeat. “Let’s…just…listen.” Reluctantly, he puts the pen on the bench.
I turn back to Daniel, just as he begins to pull the auroscope off the wall.
“So you weren’t crash hot this morning, Spud.”
“What was going on?”
“Sore eyes. Stiff neck.” He fiddles with the expensive equipment, bouncing it up and down by the cord, oily finger marks trailing all over it.
“So I heard. The emergency doctors were worried that you might have meningitis.”
“That’s what they said, yeah.” He tires of the auroscope, letting it go by his side. It springs back up like a bungy, hitting the wall, before bobbing up and down on its coil. Its tip scratches the wall, making a sound out of a B-grade horror movie. Ken looks frightened.
“Cool,” Daniel says.
I grab the auroscope, putting it back in its holder. “Not that cool, mate. Six hundred bucks cool if it’s broken.”
“I don’t care.”
“Sure you will. Once mum pawns off your iPod, X-Box, Wii and PS3 to pay for it you will.” He looks at me and frowns, stopping dead. “That’s right. All of them. So let’s just settle down a bit, okay?”
I glance around the room. Spud gives me his complete attention, his Mum has lifted her head out of her hand, and Ken now stands motionless. We’ve gone from Charades to Statues. Ken gives me one more pleading look.
“You can write if you need to, Ken.” He smiles, picking up the pen, touching it quickly to the page.
“So Spud,” I continue, “the sore eyes and the stiff neck. What happened?”
“Problem with light in your eyes?”
“Nausea? Vomiting? Lethargy? Sore joints?”
“All gone,” says Mum. Her head returns to its rightful place.
“So they all just kind of disappeared, hey?”
“And no fever at any stage?”
I shine a torch in Daniel’s eyes. He doesn’t blink. I stare at the back of his eyeball with the ophthalmoscope, the non-greasy companion-piece on the wall. His eyes stay open. I complete a neurological exam, testing his tone, power, reflexes and sensation. Perfect. I check his abdominal, respiratory and cardiovascular exam. Everything is completely normal.
Ken takes notes the whole time.
“There’s one more thing I want to do Spud. I need to raise your leg while you lie still.”
“Yeah? You really need to do that?” He looks genuinely excited.
“I do, yes,” I say, a little confused.
“Then watch this.”
With that, Spud takes his leg, holding it at the ankle. He takes it in a grip that looks odd, initially. It begins to make more sense when he takes his leg and places it over his head.
“Is that what you wanted me to do?” he asks, a little breathless.
“Well, not exactly, Spud…”
“…What, you need it to go further?”
“No!” I yell, worried about what comes next. “No, I was not going to take your leg and put it over your head. I just wanted to lift it up off the bed a little bit.
“Oh,” he says, disappointedly.
“Did you know he could do that?” I ask Mum. She shakes her head some more.
“Well it’s not meningitis,” I say.
“Are you sure?” asks his Mum.
“That last test is normally called the ‘Straight Leg Raise’, or – in Spud’s case – the ‘Over the Head Raise’. It puts a stretch on the lining around your spine, the meninges. With meningitis, raising the leg causes a lot of pain, as it puts pressure on the meninges. The fact that Spud can stick his leg over his ear gives me a fair indication that he doesn’t have meningitis. In fact, it gives me a fair indication that you’re somewhat of a freak, Spud.”
Spud slaps his thigh like a good ol’ boy. I just which he had a piece of wheat between his teeth.
“So I think you’re okay, partner. You haven’t got meningitis, and you are free to join the circus.” He laughs again.
“So why the headache?” Mum asks
I look at Ken. He looks at me with fear, before returning to the safety of his page.
“Don’t know,” I say shaking my head. “Headaches come and go. Maybe it was a first-presentation migraine. Maybe just a bad headache. I’m not sure. But what I am sure is that it’s not meningitis. I’d suggest going home and having a good rest, Spud. And try to keep your legs in front of your head, at least for today.”
“Sure,” he says, taking my hand in a shake.
“Thank you, Doctor,” says his Mum.
“Pleasure.” I look down at the cheeky cowboy on the bed, the one who almost tore the equipment apart, until I threatened to confiscate his electronic pacifiers. After that, he turned into a real character. A real little lad.
“See you Spud. It’s been a pleasure.” He slaps me on the back, and winks at me.
“Pleasure was all mine, doc.”
I frown, looking at his mother. She laughs.
“Just one more question for you Daniel. Why do they call you Spud?”
“We live on a bit of property,” Mum says, interjecting, “and Daniel has always been interested in growing things. So we got an empty wine barrel, cut it in half, and filled it with soil. And Daniel grows potatoes in it.”
“I love potatoes,” he says shaking the chip wrapper like a talisman.
I pause for a second.
“What were you doing this morning?”
“Tending the spuds.”
“You do it every morning?”
“Most mornings,” he says.
“Do you use fertiliser?”
“Of course, man,” he says, “Dynamic Lifter.”
“And you used that this morning?”
“How much?” He looks back at me with confusion. “How big is the packet?”
“Well, it was pretty big, I guess.”
“It was?” asks his Mum.
“You used the whole packet?” He looks off to the side. It’s the first time I’ve seen him look anything but confident. “How long after you poured the whole pack of Dynamic Lifter over your barrel did you start to get sore eyes and a headache?” He furrows his brow some more, before grinning sheepishly. He raises his arms in a shrug.
“At least the spuds will grow though,” he says, finally.
Mum’s head returns to her hand. Spud laughs. I leave. Ken continues standing there, writing something.