The head of department finished asking me questions and gestured towards his colleague who until now had been sitting silently taking notes. I’d been concentrating so hard on the questions I’d hardly noticed the presence of a second man in the room.
“May I introduce Dr Richard Evans, Tristan?” said the professor. “He’s at Stanford this semester on an exchange programme and he’s assisting with our admissions process.”
I turned my attention to Dr Evans and found myself gazing into a pair of piercing blue eyes which seemed to be coolly assessing me.
“I’m from England, Tristan,” he said in those clipped tones which I always associate with royalty. “I’m employed at one of the major London teaching hospitals where I’m involved with the training of medical students. It’s a great privilege for me to participate in the selection interviews here.”
He smiled at me and half my brain cells ceased to function. There was something boyish about his startling good looks and I felt a jolt of attraction despite him being so much older than me. To cover my confusion I started babbling.
“My parents will be pleased when I tell them I met an English doctor. They love everything English. That’s why they called me by this stupid name. I think they must have wanted me to be a veterinarian but I reckon human patients will be easier to handle…”
I tailed off. What a dreadful start! I was hardly demonstrating my commitment to a career in medicine. It sounded as though I was choosing medical school as a soft option.
The mischievous glint in Dr Evans’ eye convinced me that he enjoyed watching candidates dig themselves into a hole. At least I had the sense to shut my mouth and stop digging. When it was clear that I wasn’t going to offer any further crass observations, Dr Evans turned his attention to some printed pages on the desk in front of him.
“I’ve read your essay,” he began and my stomach did a back flip. I craned forward to try and see the papers he was scanning and I realised he actually had my essay in front of him. My buttocks clenched convulsively. Maybe my body was remembering the ‘encouragement’ I’d received to complete the essay. Maybe my brain was recalling some of the unguarded admissions I’d made in the course of it. I don’t really know; I can only say that the reaction was immediate and instinctive. I braced myself for what was to come.
“I enjoyed reading your work, Tristan. There’s a refreshing honesty about it.”
For refreshing honesty, read stupid revelation.
“It raises some interesting issues which I’d like to discuss with you. I see you suffered from the dreaded mono in high school. I think that’s what we call glandular fever. What’s the correct name for the disease here?”
I wasn’t thinking about scientific questions and I struggled to resuscitate my comatose brain cells, finally coming up with the correct answer.
“Infectious Mononucleosis, sir.”
“How would you describe the symptoms?”
This time I was ready. I’d read up on this the night before. Or rather, Gavin had sat me down and insisted I read up on it. ‘If you mention things in your application then you should expect them to be picked up at interview,’ he’d said. ‘It’s the most basic preparation you can do.’ I’d argued and moaned. How could they expect me to have any medical knowledge before I started the course? ‘If you’re serious about this then they will expect you to have done some reading on the straightforward stuff,’ he’d insisted. He sat down with me and helped me look it up. I silently gave thanks to Gavin as I launched into a recitation of the symptoms: sore throat, fever, fatigue, weight loss, pharyngeal inflammation, petechiae and loss of appetite. I could see that Dr Evans was impressed by my answer.
“How is the disease transmitted?” he asked. “And how do you explain the fact that it is most common in young adults?”
I knew it was a viral disease and I was able to describe the diagnostic tests to verify its presence. I wasn’t so sure of the reason why young people were most at risk.
“It’s sometimes called the kissing disease,” I said hesitantly. “A viral disease is spread by the exchange of bodily fluids and I suppose… that young people…”
“Come on, you were infected, Tristan. You must have some idea of how you came to catch the disease!” He was laughing but he didn’t seem to expect me to elaborate. Instead he moved on to discuss the demands of the course. Gavin had had a serious talk with me on this issue as well.
“You understand that attendance at all classes is a requirement at medical school.”
I nodded emphatically.
“If, just for the sake of argument, you fake a dental appointment to take a Friday off, it could be bad news for those patients you have to treat for an affliction you know nothing about. You can’t tell a patient that you missed the lecture on his or her disease.”
Why, oh why did I ever write about forging a note for an imaginary dental appointment? I raised stricken eyes to Dr Evans and encountered a look of understanding and reassurance.
“But then no one will have any reason to suspect you might have a less than exemplary attendance record, will they?” he asked as he calmly folded my essay and slipped the sheets into his pocket.
“No, sir,” I breathed, hardly daring to believe that he was going to dispose of the incriminating evidence. “If I’m accepted at Stanford I can assure you that I will give my studies the very highest priority. My partner is fully supportive of my career aspirations and he will help me keep on track with my studies.”
“Would you say that you need a firm hand to keep up to date with your work?” Dr Evans asked blandly.
Was I reading too much into that question? I thought Dr Evans had just indicated that my essay wouldn’t be used against me.
“My partner is very studious,” I replied. “I do find it an incentive to work alongside him.”
“Yes, in my experience it’s always a help if there’s someone able to get to the bottom of your problems, someone who can help you fly by the seat of your pants when necessary.”
No, I hadn’t been reading too much into the question. Dr Evans was having fun making oblique references to the nature of my relationship with Gavin. But he wasn’t laughing at me. There was a warmth in his expression, and the smile he directed at me spoke of a shared understanding which excluded the other interviewer. I suddenly realised that this handsome Englishman knew from personal experience what it’s like to get your tail whipped. He clearly didn’t think that it made him unsuited to the medical profession and he wasn’t making any adverse judgments about me.
He turned to his colleague and said, “I think that’s all I need to ask this candidate, professor. I’d just like to say that it’s been a pleasure talking to Tristan who is a very interesting young man.”
“We’ve both enjoyed meeting you, Tristan,” said the head of department. “Unfortunately, we cannot give you a decision today. We will allocate places when we’ve interviewed all the candidates and you should hear from us by the end of the month. I know it will be an anxious wait but I’m afraid I have to deliver this sting in the tail at the end of every interview.”
If he expected me to be downcast he was disappointed. I caught Dr Evans’ eye and we both burst out laughing.