Then I noticed The Book. Quite a lot of patients bring books with them to the surgery, and I like to think of this as a compliment, a sign of how tranquil and relaxing our waiting room can be; a bit of time to themselves, no outside distractions, no demanding children, no worries about bills and relationships, a temporary release from life's vicissitudes. Just themselves and a comfortable chair (well, maybe not that comfortable) and that soothing faded green paint beloved of the NHS. The ambience is hushed, like a library or a cathedral, an island of contemplation in a world that seems to revolve ever faster.
Or it could be that they come expecting a long wait.
The books are usually chick-lit or thrillers, maybe the occasional wannabe Da Vinci Code lookalike (the shroud of Turin has been revealed by carbon-dating to be a representation of St Paul cutting Goliath's toenails and accidentally chopping his leg off, and the Church attempts to keep this quiet lest the world descend into savagery).
But this book was different; Dante's Divine Comedy, no less. I consider myself reasonably well read (as a columnist I'm always looking out for someone to plagiarise), but this was beyond me, and I found it rather intimidating. However, I was buggered if I was going to be patronised by a patient, so under the pretext of calculating his cardiovascular risk (and we all know how useful and practical that is), I Googled The Divine Comedy.
'Ah,' I said, 'We have reached the Tenth Circle of Hell.'
'There were only nine circles,' said the smart-ass.
'Wrong, buddy,' I said. 'St Luke himself reserved the Tenth Circle for those who demand antibiotics for minor upper respiratory tract infections; demonic warthogs perform wedge resections with insufficient local anaesthetic.'
'I'll be leaving then,' he said, getting the message as a scholarly young man should.
'Hang this notice on the door on your way out,' I said.
'Lasciate ogne speranza, voi ch'intrate,' it proclaimed.
Dr Farrell is a GP from County Armagh.
Email him at GPcolumnists@haymarket.com