Nat Luurtsema’s life changed forever after a trip to the GUM clinic. Well, maybe not forever.
Picture by Cécile Graat.
It is a good thing to have a sexual health test. It is a responsible, mature thing to do, I tell myself as I flick through a very soft copy of Red magazine. Inarguably, it is the right thing to do.
I mean, ideally, in a perfect world, I wouldn’t have visited my mum the previous night and she wouldn’t have surprised me with a huge present. I’d been nominated for an award the year before and had never got around to framing the certificate, so she’d done it for me, which was very sweet but now I am now sat in the GUM clinic brandishing my own name in a very large font.
“Take a bag,” she’d said, “put it in a bag.”
I’d pushed her placcy bags aside: “Think of the environment.”
The bags are already made, why do I think shunning them helps? For fear an oil magnate will see me enjoying my third-hand Sainsbury’s bag and think “people sure do love those darn bags!” and insist his (or her. But let’s face it, almost certainly his) factory churns out more.
“Keep the place tidy!” he’ll bellow down the phone, “wrap them round the necks of sea-birds.”
I turn my certificate round so my name now faces me. I could’ve done that 10 minutes ago but I wanted everyone to know I was doing well, despite the fact I was free to have someone look at my vagina at 2pm. Self-employed, not unemployed, bitches.
I hug my certificate. I’ve always been a bit flighty, I’ve got four or five careers on the hop, because I’m impulsive and keep doing new things, making it hard to progress in any real, financial way. So, I like this certificate, it’s an achievement no one can take from me and it makes me feel like a proper person. At some point, I did something of quality. And then I took it to a clap clinic.
I loosen my grip and return to staring at my second favourite thing in the room: a sign that says “Communal Gynaecology.” If it takes a village to raise a child, of course your vulva needs an ensemble.
I try to peek at my number one favourite thing in the room – a woman in her 60s calmly perusing her diary. She’s mum-age! And yet here she is clearly having an active sex life with, one must assume, a slight element of the unknown! How inspiring.
I smile at her, before realizing how rude I’m being. She’s not a skateboarding dog for God’s sake. Grow up, Nat, at her age she’s probably much better in bed than you are and doesn’t have to apologise for getting her hair all over someone’s face and making them cough.
I give her a respectful nod, in deference to all her excellent sex techniques, honed over time and out-lasting wars and prime ministers.
“Nat…Luurtsema?” the receptionist calls out. I hoist up my certificate like unwieldy ID and nod.
The examination is fine, apart from the bit where I undress prematurely and sit shivering and topless while we chat. She asks me when I last got tested and I say never and she looks unimpressed. I try to explain.
There’s a man who lives near my parents in Watford, he’s not a rich man, he lives in an unremarkable semi near a busy road, but he owns a helicopter. He loves his helicopter, washes it regularly, but he only flies it once every couple of years. So most of the time his helicopter stays untouched, under tarpaulin.
The final time I say the word ‘helicopter’ I gesture discretely at my crotch, she nods and we both enjoy the many elastic possibilities of the English language.
I skip out of the clinic feeling like a woman of the world, responsible, mature, though still amused by Communal Gynaecology.
That evening I attempt to cook dinner for a man I have known for only three days. As we pick through shattered chicken and hard vegetables I tell him he could be my boyfriend. I do it nonchalantly, like the position’s available but it doesn’t have to be filled, it’s just an opportunity to consider if he’s looking to better himself. Like how John Major is Knight Companion Of The Garter but the Queen’s tights won’t fall down without him. I aim for that sort of breezy noblesse-oblige vibe when I mention the office of boyfriend is currently unmanned.
“What are you, 14?” my new boyfriend replies. Ungrateful serf.
The next day, I get a phone call from Mary at the clinic. “Now, you tested negative for HIV, AIDS and gonorrhea,” she says. This is, technically, a good statement, but I don’t like it. What is “now” doing there, lingering around ominously? Bugger off, “now”.
“But…” Oh hello “but”, come to give “now” a hand, have we?
“But you tested positive for syphilis and it looks like you’ve had it for 10 years.”
I always wondered how I’d react to properly shocking news like this. Tears, trembling, a wan hand to the mouth, a Meryl Streepy glacial composure?
“Fuckshit,” I say and sit on a wall that isn’t there. “Syphilis!?” I squawk from the floor. “That’s a 17th century thing!”
“Oh no, it’s alive and well.”
“Doesn’t it…I don’t know… kill babies and rot your bits?”
“Are you pregnant?” she asks, her voice spiked with panic.
“Nothing to worry about,” she says, slipping back into calm soothing tones which now do not fool me FOR A SECOND.
Nothing to worry about?! Mary has a very laidback attitude to the things she condescends to worry about. I bet her personal finances are carnage.
“Do I need to tell anyone?”
The press, Mary, the national media… “Ex-boyfriends!”
“Oh no,” she says. “You’re actually only contagious for six weeks after you first get it.” I store that nugget of trivia away for dinner parties.
“Can you come into the clinic in three days? And Nat? DO NOT Google syphilis. Promise me?” My mind bulges with the thought of all the horrific things I would see if I did, meaning I might as well have Googled. My poor little helicopter.
I like this certificate, it’s an achievement no one can take from me and it makes me feel like a proper person. At some point, I did something of quality. And then I took it to a clap clinic.
I call my mum, because unfortunately for her we have a close relationship. She gets straight to the heart of the issue.
“Don’t tell that boy.”
“He’s called my boyfriend.”
“After three days? How old are you? Don’t tell him.”
When I tell him, he’s pretty good about it, but with hindsight I wish I’d waited until he was a bit further away from work, and didn’t have to keep breaking off our discussion to wave goodbye to colleagues.
“Doesn’t it rot your … Bye Nick… Or turn them … yeah, you too, see you Monday!… turn them black or something?”
It is a bit mismanaged, I hold my hands up, but I’m pretty sure syphilis affects the brain. I’m relying on the only non-rotted parts of my cerebellum to navigate a very tricky situation.
I rack my brains back 10 years to how this could’ve happened. Did I ever date Napolean? I do like boats.
The next day I have a meeting about a new film, in which the lead character behaves erratically and eventually kills herself, because “she has syphilis, so, you know” and everyone around the table makes a yikes face. Don’t make that face, put those teeth away, it’s not that weird, it could happen to anyone, apparently. I burn with solidarity for my misunderstood deranged, infertile, feverish (possibly, can’t Google it) syphilitic comrades.
Over the next three days I start to see myself differently. Not as a diseased person, but as someone who has lived. A woman of the world. I’ve finally got life experience, I’m basically the Wife Of Bath.
I’ve been waiting decades to get this sort of life experience though I wasn’t expecting quite so much of it, delivered in such a concentrated dose. (I don’t mean to trivialize a disease but I can, because I have it, so maybe check your privilege and back off, yeah?)
I don’t think I have any symptons, or maybe I have loads and over 10 years I’ve just learned to live with them. How typically brave of me, I’m so stoic. Occasionally I think about my bravery and tear up a little. Then wonder if emotional instability is a symptom.
I make a list of little ailments I have always had and I take them with me three days later to see if any of them are actually symptoms of syphilis.
The list reads:
Headache if I use my laptop in bed.
Over-reacting to criticism
Cramping calf muscles
Repetititive Strain Injury in my iPhone hand.
Looking at the list I can’t imagine Napolean being bedeviled with these problems, but without Google I have no idea about anything. My head is so empty it’s just an ear-holder. I resolve that after this appointment I’m going to set up a support group for sufferers. It’ll be an app, so people don’t have to venture anywhere near the internet and its apparently gruesome gallery of images.
After three days of getting used to this new idea of myself, I’m back in the waiting room. This time I have leaflets hidden in Red magazine that talk me through syphilis and all its many exciting ramifications. I’m not going to break this news to my boyfriend on the steps of his work. I think I’ll need to lie him down and elevate his feet first.
I try to get comfortable. I’m holding the certificate again, partly because the frame needs adjusting, but mainly because I feel a lot better when I’m holding it. Apparently a decade ago I made a big sex mistake that I can’t remember (and there’s a worrying sentence) but also in the last year I did a good thing. So holding this certificate makes me feel fuck-up neutral.
The receptionist calls my name, perfect pronunciation yet again – all hail the NHS! This time in the consulting room I know not to take my clothes off unless asked, so we have a much warmer conversation, with eye contact. Mary asks if I’ve slept with anyone high-risk, I explain about my lack of life experience.
When I tell him, he’s pretty good about it, but with hindsight I wish I’d waited until he was a bit further away from work, and didn’t have to keep breaking off our discussion to wave goodbye to colleagues. It is a bit mismanaged, I hold my hands up, but I’m pretty sure syphilis affects the brain.
She says, you’re being very brave and calm. I make a modest face, I love it when people tell me I’m behaving well, it happens so rarely. I’m not sure this has sunk in yet, she says perhaps we should look at your results on the screen to help you process it? I agree, bravely and calmly, and she loads up my records. Call it low self-esteem or what have you, but it’s curiously gratifying to see my name and details on her screen – further reminders that I exist and am a person in the world. A syphilitic person, sure, but don’t judge until you’ve walked a mile in my shoes.
We stare at my screen and the three tests that indicate syphilis. They twinkle NEGATIVE, NEGATIVE, NEGATIVE at me. We look at it in silence, Mary’s pen, poised for pointing, droops to her lap.
“Now, I’m not medically trained, but…” I say and she picks up her phone and makes two phone calls, rubbing her eyebrows vigorously. I make a sympathetic face at her. I understand that from a professional point of view, it would be much better for Mary if I had syphilis, and I’m sorry for that. But I can’t pretend this isn’t the best news I’ve had in three days. I guess technically I haven’t walked a mile in my shoes either.
Twenty minutes later I skip out of the consulting room, find Communal Gynaecology funny again, give back all my leaflets to the receptionist and thank her for them but I don’t need them anymore.
I don’t have syphilis! I have never had syphilis!
But you know what I have? Life experience. No one can take that off me. I have lived, I have stared into the void of possibilities and skipped away consequence-free and I feel amazing. It should be an experience present. Sod hot air balloons, misdiagnose someone for three days and then reveal that they’re fine again!
I walk off, a wiser woman, with a disgusting anecdote and cramping calves. Many days later I Google syphilis and think that Mary’s advice might have been the single wisest thing I’ve ever heard, making her now fuck-up neutral too.
Nat Luurtsema is an BAFTA-nominated screenwriter, stand-up and author. Her first feature film "Annie's Got Body Issues" is out next year and she's also a third of Radio 4 and BBC3 sketch group JIGSAW.