The chain chinks as I wiggle the key in the bike lock. My finders are clumsy in the December cold. I dump my bag in the basket, and I’m off, slowly gaining pace in the late afternoon fog. As I emerge from side-streets to turn onto the main road to the hospital, I become aware that this quiet journey through the enveloping gloom will be life-changing at its end. Just as I can’t see the huge horse-chestnut trees of the college I’m passing, neither can I see the outcome of this quest.
I think back six weeks to the final feedback of the supervisor of my last placement. ’You’d better get down to your books’, he said. ‘You’ve got an awful lot to learn in the next fortnight’. That was true enough. My month in general practice had exposed huge holes in my medical knowledge. But his next demand was devastating. ‘You’d also better find some self-confidence from somewhere.’
I gasped as his denigration hit home. In one stroke he had both required and destroyed whatever wisp of self-respect I had been clutching to myself. I managed to maintain my dignity just long enough to be dropped off at the station, but in the endless suburban train journey home I disintegrated.
Arriving home after the train journey, I sat in an armchair in the silence of my room, my tears now spent. With the quiet clarity that comes after an emotional storm, I knew the only thing to be done was to lay it all down. ‘God, if you want me to be a doctor, you’ll have to get me through. I can’t. I’m terrified. I know I’m going to clam up in the vivas. I’m going to go blank when they interrogate me.’ I was now able to look my dread in the face. ‘If I fail, I fail.’ As a result the week of the vivas passed with a calmness which surprised me. I sensed God was with me whatever happened.
The spokes of my bicycle wheels whirr in the silence. My fingers ache as the freezing air pierces the fabric of my gloves. I can still feel in my body the gut-stirring shame of the supervisor’s condemnation and the ache of my despairing sobs in the train. I also hold taut the question posed by the uncanny peace of the viva week. Was it enough?
The trees on the roundabout outside the hospital emerge from the mist. I circle them, relieved at the absence of traffic. My legs power up the last incline, and I free-wheel to the bike racks. Heart pumping, I break into the warmth of the clinical school, totally focused on my objective – the list of those who have qualified. I round the corner to the notice-board and join the swarm of excited students jostling for a glimpse of the life-altering list. ‘Calm,’ I tell myself, as my brain screams urgency. ‘Read it slowly. You don’t want to miss your name and think you’ve failed.’ J’s, K’s, L’s.. At last M’s. Relief rushes through me. Macartney, R.A. That’s me. I glance at the heading paragraph, checking these are those who have passed, not the failures. Its pompous words match the formality of the heading crest, obfuscating rather than clarifying: ‘The following candidates have obtained exemption from the Final MB.’ ‘Why can’t you just say we’ve passed?’ I think, irritated.
My friends in the common room are joyfully straightforward. Holding out a glass of champagne and a fragrant mince pie they salute me: ‘Happy Christmas, Doctor Macartney!’