She retracts the swab, I shake my head like a wet dog and direct an exaggerated wince towards my mate, who's queuing in the surgery car park with the rest of them.
I'm quite certain it's my friend, even though he's wearing a mask. The blue swatch is doing an inadequate job of containing his red beard, while the massive shoulders he once used to pummel fellow NRL players into the turf fill his high-vis shirt in unmistakable fashion. His body is one that appears to have been forged rather than grown. It's hard to believe he was ever a child, far more feasible adolescence was, for him, an existence of bubbling away in molten form before being poured into a rigid mould (then again, maybe that's true of us all).
Do we put too much stock in faces, anyway?
When we lived in a golden age of frequenting hardware outlets with impunity, I happened upon an acquaintance with whom I was only connected via clinical thrashings on the squash court. Used to his shape vibrating in victory, on this day, it swelled with something extra. Still behind masks, we exchanged greetings and I asked how he'd fared in his most recent match. He'd forfeited because he'd been preoccupied that night helping his partner give birth to their first child. I couldn't see his face, but I knew what was going on; a silly grin from ear to ear, the kind new fathers wear for weeks - a joyful mask of its own, scraps of which, if you're lucky, can cling to your whiskers for life.
As per their plan, they'd had a home birth with a doula, something pedestrian to their generation but hippy and outlandish (and frightening) to mine.
But that's the way our world works. Their little girl will grow to be more adaptable than her parents; far more so than my generation and easily eclipsing those blessed boomers, now facing the end of their Faustian pact with mortality while they - as if pharaohs being buried with gold jars and slaves - do their darnedest to take everything with them to the grave.
A few days after that painful probe in the car park, my phone pings, exciting a familiar Pavlovian trill in my chest. The accompanying text message signals important information as much as it does my own reanimated ability to adapt.
Your COVID-19 test result for the sample collected on 16/08/2021 is NEGATIVE. This message is from Laverty Pathology.
Good news, of course, yet somehow troubling in the way I absorb this potentially life-and-death update so casually, aligning to a time of plague while cleaning up after dinner.
Every day we're adapting more readily than we might have ever thought possible in that prosaic antebellum of nothing more concerning than reality TV, terrorism, climate apocalypse and super bacteria.
We're becoming as malleable as the language of the pandemic itself.
To be honest, I never thought "COVID-19" (the word, at least) would catch on.
Still a little punch-drunk after the fires, we were just getting comfortable with the omnibus "coronavirus", when they went and distilled it down to a specific disease. I thought "COVID-19" far too clunky for everyday use but, obviously, I was way off because "Covid" (sans 19) or even "covid" (lower-cased for your convenience), is now shorthand and adjectival for anything from cuisine to attire to hairdos.
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Now it's "Delta" and, again, we're all in.
I've baulked against the frivolous use of Delta because it reminds me of a female performer, but perhaps not the obvious contender.
The title track to American singer-songwriter Iris DeMent's fifth album, Sing the Delta, is a beautiful piece of folk inspired by the artist's upbringing in the Arkansas Delta, the deepest south of the Deep South.
I love the song but now, given the context, can't listen to it through the prism of the pandemic.
So you're heading down a southern way
Passing through the delta sometime today
In my mind pictures line the walls of a place I used to know and vividly recall ...
For the past two years, there's barely been a week when we haven't embraced new terminology. We're old hands at "flattening the curve" (so 2020), we've turned "contact tracer" into a profession more noble than brain surgeon and we've sensibly consigned fly-by-night lexicon-botherers such as "doomscrolling" to the semantic dustbin of history. I wish "jab" would go the same way. What was ever wrong with good old "injection"? (other than the inability to fit in a headline).
More recently, we're being warned against the ramifications of "letting it rip" or we're contemplating the enormity of multiple "exposure sites" or we're calculating ratios of the "reproductive rate" or we're promoting "passports" to something far more profound than a booklet once used to fan ourselves at Denpasar airport.
Some of these words and their loaded meanings will stay with us, others will fall away because (let's hope) they're no longer required.
It will be our children who will carry this strange era and its vernacular into the future. As with any generation, their language, their argot, will be shaped by trauma, however it might be normalised.
Doing my best to help our nine-year-old with his "online learning" activities this week (he's dreaming if he thinks he's getting credit for that haiku), it's apparent the language by which he and his cohorts will navigate their own education will be so very different to the naive, analogue parlance of my own academic awakening.
I grimace with the same kind of pain as when subjected to a long, white stick up my nose, when I listen to these locked-down, on-screen pupils (everyone has turned into Max Headroom) discuss with their teacher such essentials as "logins" and "passwords" and "digital folders".
To me, these terms of an unwelcome modernity, seem to be taking up the time which could be otherwise devoted to "verbs" and "Is before Es" and "six times tables".
This is no criticism of our hardworking, Covid-era teachers saddled with the impossible task of maintaining some semblance of continuity while battling the twin tyrannies or distance and technology. They deserve the patience and support of parents and even a little understanding if - when this is all over - they should want to take some of the practices of the digital classroom back into the bricks-and-mortar template.
What teacher couldn't use a "mute" button?
- B.R. Doherty is a regular columnist.