My companion toyed with his chargrilled ciabatta and gazed abstractedly out over Islington High Street.

'Nothing wrong with the food, I hope?'

'Not at all. Delicious. Just that, look, I'm feeling a little apprehensive. Tomorrow's my first big day as a pillar of the establishment. I'm going to my first board meeting as a non-executive director of Boghouse trust.'

'Don't worry about it, mate. We worked long and hard for this: people like us are in the driving seat now.'

'Yes, but now I'm really up to my neck in it. Big time. You see, just because I wrote all those election press releases about waiting lists, people think I'm an expert on the NHS. Truth is, I know bugger all - even less than the Tory placeman I took over from.'

'Didn't Frank send you a starter pack for new directors?'

'Yeah, I skimmed through that this morning. But all it tells me is I'm supposed to be committed to the public service values of accountability, probity, openness - eh? - and equality of opportunity. I know all that.

'But ask me how many doctors there are in the NHS or how much an ingrowing toenail costs and I look a complete prat. It's worse than pretending to be interested in football.'

'Funny you should say that: I've got just what you need. Cop a look at this.'

'What is it? The rough guide to the NHS?'

'Nearly right - The Pocket Guide: it'll fit in the back pocket of your jeans without wrecking the bum line.'

'Jeans? Who do you think I am - William Hague?'

'Sorry. But apart from that, it's aimed at people just like you. It's packed full of snippets of information, mainly lifted from The NHS Handbook. Bang up to date, with all the new white papers and those unfortunate waiting list figures. Even a page on health action zones. And handy little facts you can use when you're being open and accountable, like the fact that operating theatres cost an average pounds 10 a minute.'

'Cool. And packed full of dirt on health service management scandals?'

'No, this is the NHS Confederation, remember. But the Pocket Guide isn't just facts and figures, it teaches you the lingo, too. Spend an hour reading it and you'll be spouting off about outcomes and clinical governance like a native.'

'Actually, one thing I've been dying to find out: what does NHS stand for?'

'Hang on, I'll look it up. Here we go: 'to promote the establishment of a comprehensive health service'.'

'No, no, no, I meant what do the initials themselves stand for?'

'Ah. I'll check the glossary, it's got five pages of key words. Here we go... meta analysis, number needed to treat, outpatient. No joy, I'm afraid. You're probably supposed to know that before you take on the job.

'Better leave it out of the conversation until you've checked with Millbank.'

Michael Cross