This week I had to fill in a form to register for a new doctor. Last time I registered was when I returned to the UK after 25 years living abroad; that was a fairly painless process, the only confusion being when they asked for my National Health number and I gave one in a format that they stopped using last century.
This time, although I had the right format number, I had to fill in a ten page questionnaire with all sorts of slightly bizarre questions. The one that caught my attention most was:
If someone cares for you, what is their name and telephone number?
I don’t know how it is that straightforward neutral words on the page can echo in your head in a threatening tone of voice, but I found the question intimidating: I felt they were asking because they wanted to track down and eliminate anyone who had the temerity to show affection towards me.
Naturally, then, I declared myself friendless.
You might argue that there’s a difference between care for and care about, but I think they can be used interchangeably. After all, when Nina Simone sings “My baby don’t care for clothes,” she doesn’t mean he drops his dirty washing on the floor each night and kicks it all into a corner until the cleaning lady comes round. (Not that the cat in the Aardman animation has many clothes.)
Even in Spanish, where there’s a huge difference between no le importa – “It doesn’t matter to him” and no lo cuida – “he doesn’t look after it”, there is a grey area where take care of, care for and care about can overlap.
This poem features in my collection Around the Corner from Hope Street and is based on something that actually happened to me many years ago when I was walking along the Paseo del Prado in Madrid:
He stops me on the street and thrusts
a pen and clipboard at me.
–Firma, he says.
–Contra la droga. Avoiding eye contact,
I shake my head and walk on
but he follows. –¿Eres inglesa?
English? What’s your name?
On the way home, it’s difficult
not to smile in recognition, admire
his perseverance. The clipboard is forgotten
as he dances alongside my silence:
–Where you live? You speak Spanish?
What’s your name?
At the corner, he pleads
just one last question –
sólo una más: –¿Tienes a alguien
que te cuide? Do you have anyone
who looks after you?
That time, although the question was good-natured rather than threatening, I was quick to deny being friendless.