We Brits are nothing if we cannot queue. It’s in our blood, our DNA. It’s a milestone in our early development. We’ve watched people do it since we were knee-high, when we accompanied our parents and grandparents to the post office, or dutifully joined the back of a line at a theme park or a museum, sometimes without even knowing what we were queuing for. There is an order to things. It doesn’t necessarily mean we’re happy about it. We might tut and roll our eyes and huff and puff and tap our watches, but we know how to wait our turn. We know that we have no choice.
So when this system is interrupted, it makes us nervous.
This is my immediate thought as I join the semblance of a semi-queue outside the Drummond Street health centre early one Friday morning. I am waiting for a blood test, for which there is no set appointment, there is only a ticket system given out on a first-come-first-served basis from 08:00 onwards.
I have been here before, several times, when there was a perfect queue that lined the street. It was so perfect in fact, that I commented to someone later on that it was a radiant system, exactly the sort of system you’d expect from the British-born NHS. People had filed in, one by one, when the doors opened at 08:00, and sloped towards the counter in single file, everyone dutifully keeping their place in the line. We took our tickets in turn, and we sat and we waited to be called numerically, and we knew that everything was just as it should be. The early bird catches the worm, as they say, and the early queuer (that's queue-er) catches the first appointment at the clinic. It’s the way of the world.
Except on this particular day, things are not at all as they should be. The queue is not clearly defined. There is a core group of queuers that runs about 6 or 7 people deep along the glass fronted building. Then there are a few rogue queuers who are creeping up around the sides, forming not a line, but a bunch. There is a woman immediately in front of me, a small lady in a bright blue sari, who obviously thinks this ‘bunch’ is fair game, and she shuffles her way through to wait amongst it. A man arrives on a bicycle, a skinny, white, bald man, and accidently rams his bicycle wheel into the legs of a slim white woman in a black dress (one of the ‘bunchers’), as he mounts the kerb and fixes his bike to the bike rack. He too then joins the bunch, not the queue, showing complete disregard for the people trying to do things properly. What is going on here? I think to myself. I can tell that most of you are also British. Queuing is what we do best! It's our thing.
At the front of the queue, there is an old white man hunched over a wooden stick. He is keen to establish himself as the leader of the queue, and is getting so antsy about the non-queue forming behind him, that he actually takes to leaning on the door. Perhaps he has been here since 07:00 to secure his place, and is now feeling weary. There is another older gentleman, not clutching a stick, who is keen to show everyone that although he hadn’t been the first to arrive, he remains in a very noble second position.
A figure from inside the building approaches the glass as the clock strikes the hour, and unbolts the door. The throng of people (we are now a throng) take a collective step forward. I anticipate that the bunch and the queue will now merge, each group allowing one of their members to cut in one by one, like amiable drivers caught at a busy junction, to form a new queue as we pass through the doors and make our way to the ticket machine.
But this is not the case. Any semblance of queue that there had been disappears in a puff of smoke as people cross the threshold into the building and create what can only be described as a stampede towards the dispenser of paper numbers. I am now unwillingly participating in a race. The poor man at the front (the one with the stick) is being overtaken by the man without the stick. The bald cyclist approaches from the outside lane and cuts people up by swooping in at the front. He overtakes both the woman in the black dress and the woman in the blue sari, but neither of the hobbling men. They have conjured up a certain vigour that neither of them has seen in the last twenty years. Everyone is doing that walking-quickly-but-not-quite-running thing that children do when they’ve been told to slow down.
By the time I arrive at the ticket machine, where – thank heavens – people have no choice but to fall in line (some people may not be able to queue, but they obviously draw the line at physically pushing and shoving), I am several places behind the bald man, the woman in the blue sari, the woman in the black dress, the hobbling men, and countless others. A pale woman in glasses, who I have not seen before, cuts in front and is about to take the next ticket when my rage gets the better of me.
“Excuse me, sorry, there’s a queue…” I announce, with all the Britishness I can muster - furiously cross, and yet still apologising.
It is technically a lie (which is, of course, the problem), and the woman’s face reveals that she has never seen a queue quite like this before. She furrows her eyebrows in confusion, and then looks momentarily horrified at her own faux pas. She apologises awkwardly before allowing me to pass in front and take my ticket before her. I am number ninety.
It is a small victory, but part of me actually feels guilty for making an example of the woman in glasses. She clearly isn’t the only deviant in the mix, and as we each silently take our seats, it now feels like there is a tension between us as we cross and uncross our legs and smooth down our skirts and look up at the muted television and read the flickering subtitles on BBC breakfast. Neither of us looks at the other, because we both feel absurdly ashamed for our crimes – her for not queuing, and me for reprimanding her for it.
Ten minutes later, one of the phlebotomists comes into the reception, a tiny Asian woman dressed in a purple tabard - and shuffles some papers in a ring binder.
“Eighty – eighty one – eighty two – eighty three – eighty four!” she announces with a loud, shrillness. The people clutching the corresponding numbers stand up and circle around her like cats waiting to be fed. Everybody else sits up in their chairs in eager anticipation, and optimistically begin to gather their bags.
“Good morning! Come through please!” she tells them.
The rest of us sit back and sigh a collective sigh. On BBC breakfast there is World Cup coverage and an update on the Thai boys trapped in the cave. People glance up from time to time to follow the stories, and then back to their phones or their newspapers, or their numbered tickets which they clutch between sticky fingers.
After ten minutes or so, the phlebotomist returns to her folder and crosses off the next five numbers as she calls them out.
“Eighty five – eighty six – eighty seven – eighty eight…… eighty eight?...... eighty nine!”
I look down at my ticket – it is still number ninety – and scowl at the bald man as he joins the small collection of people at the reception desk, now in wave two. This is an injustice of the highest order. How will he sleep tonight?
Another ten minutes pass, and as soon as the phlebotomist comes back once again to read out her numbers, I am ready.
“Number ninety – ninety one – ninety two – ninety three – ninety four!”
I am beside her before she has even finished the thread, smiling keenly and holding up my ticket to make sure she knows who is next. Glasses Woman is behind me, which I note only from the corner of my eye. It pains me to realise that publicly shaming her for her earlier lack of decorum has got me nowhere. We are now being taken through at the same time.
“Good morning!” the small lady announces cheerfully to the five of us.
There is a murmur of a response. None of which sounds cheerful.
“Oh. Not so cheerful. Cheer up everyone. It's Friday!”
This elicits a small chortle, but nobody goes as far as to heartily laugh. This lady clearly has no idea what we’ve all just been through.
We are led into another corridor, and numbers ninety to ninety-two are sent into a room where three other phlebotomists are waiting for us, begloved. Numbers ninety-three and ninety-four are asked to wait outside.
I sit down in the chair, and offer my bare arm to a smiling Indian lady. She confirms my name and date of birth, and tells me to make a fist, which I do before looking away and focussing on a pink princess clock on the wall.
“Okay, sharp scratch!” she says, with a little too much glee.
And then there it is, the sharp scratch, over and done with almost before it has begun. She presses a ball of cotton wool against the entry wound and tapes it to my arm with military speed.
“Thank you! Have a nice day!” she announces as she packages up my blood. The whole encounter has taken approximately 45 seconds. I am out of the door before she calls number ninety-two. I waited 40 minutes for this.
I exit the building and head back out into the unseasonal warmth of this particular June morning, shielding my eyes from the bright dazzle of sunshine. I make my way across the road, towards the bus stop outside Warren Street station, where I need to catch my second bus into work.
There is a crowd of people at the bus stop, all awaiting the different busses due in the next two to three minutes. They are a group, a cluster, a collective, a mob, with no clear beginning and no clear end. I hover towards the edge of pavement on the outside of the circle, like the renegade they are forcing me to be, and I wait. Nothing is sacred anymore.