Friday, 30 September 2011

In Memoriam

This again has its origins in real events, with the details altered and the name of the patient changed to ensure anonymity and confidentiality. It is another in the series "Of Love and Loss". I originally wrote it about eight years ago.

In general practice, the accumulation of years inevitably leads to a steadily growing mental catalogue of personalities whom one has met, sometimes come to know well, and for one reason or another have moved on again - to another county or country or, all too often, away from this mortal coil entirely.

          Kenneth was one of these. He "adopted" me in my green years when I was newly arrived at my practice, over a quarter of a century ago. And while he certainly had the avuncular air about him - with which I felt comfortable enough - he was clearly a vulnerable and wounded man. Relapsing depressive disorder had been a part of his life since his own youth. He was anxious to discover just who had replaced my predecessor in the practice, and anxious to know how I would take to him. We quickly became comfortable with one another. For he was not a "demanding" patient in the sense that we GPs tend to use the word. Appointments never went over their time. He seemed happy enough to know that I would continue to see him once a month for an update, a chat about things in general, and his repeat prescription. At that time he was on a monoamine oxidase inhibitor, sticking to the prescribed regime obdurately in the manner that slightly obsessive people tend to do. "Ah, it’s Kenneth next" I would murmur to myself with a sense of relief when I was tired or running a little late. For I knew that, if the occasion required it, he would not delay with me. "I can see you’ve had a busy afternoon, doctor."

          He learned very quickly that I had a young family. "What they need, of course, doctor, is plenty of fresh vegetables". And he left a bag of the most delectable purple sprouting broccoli from his allotment, at the reception desk the next day for me. I don’t think the children were quite into the brassicae in those days, but that night my wife and I feasted upon it.

          "Do you enjoy gardening, doctor?" he enquired the next time he called. I told him I was something of a novice, but yes, I did enjoy it. But our garden, being in the city, could only cope with a modest display of annuals. I was a potato and tomato man myself, but space simply did not permit it. I don’t think "grow bags" had arrived at that time. And that was the gist of our conversation.

          "What about an allotment?" He asked next time. I told him that I would love one, but in those days there was something of an allotment craze, and the waiting lists could be years long. "Don’t worry about that, doctor. I’m on the Committee!"

          A month later he was helping me to dig the couch grass out of my newly acquired patch, leased to me at a rental of about £3.50 a year.

          Life got busier with the children growing and the increasing professional demands. I had taken up postgraduate teaching by then, with its inevitable intrusion into my time away from the surgery. Kenneth said to me "You need to watch out, doctor" and went on to enlarge "I see your ground’s not looking its best. Could be a problem there." I agreed, sheepishly. "Problem is, doctor, the women". I did not understand what he was on about. "It’s women - on the committee! Cor, they want the whole site to look like it’s been manicured!" He did what he could to help me. But things went from bad to worse, and one August we returned from a holiday to find that it had been "requisitioned" as Kenneth put it, by a fit retired couple with plenty of time on their hands. I never saw it looking so pristine. But the soul had gone out of it, I thought.

          This unfortunate turn of events coincided with a deterioration in Kenneth’s health. He developed a bowel problem which worried me a bit and him a lot more. I told him I’d like him to see a specialist. I don’t think I fully appreciated the anxiety this suggestion provoked in him. At his appointment he was told he would have to have a barium enema, for this was in the days before lower intestinal tract endoscopy was the almost routine matter that it is now. He was terrified at the prospect. Not the thought of the procedure itself, but by the horror of the notion that it might cause him to be incontinent when he got home, and soil the carpet. He was not to be reassured. He quickly relapsed into profound depression, so profound that I feared that he might go so far as to make an attempt on his life. The bowel problem was put on one side, and an urgent psychiatric referral set in motion.

          "Do you think they’ll give me the electric shock treatment, doctor?" He was utterly changed from the man who had helped me weed and sow on those sunny evenings the previous spring. "I do hope they will. It really brought me through the last time ..."

          All this took place at a time when electro-convulsive therapy had slipped from favour. Pressure groups claiming to champion the "victims" of psychiatrists were in the ascendance. Doctors had been sued.

          His appointment came through very quickly, to our mutual relief. But when he saw me the next day he was in a state of near despair. "They say they don’t do it now. They want me to start some different tablets".

          The following morning, when I was away at a conference, one of my partners was called to the block of flats where Kenneth had lived to certify him dead. "He was very dead" she assured me, visibly shocked, that afternoon. "His brains were splattered all over the floor of the basement."

          The Coroner said that because it could not be certain that he had intentionally thrown himself down the stairwell from his fifth floor flat, he would record a verdict of accidental death. His wife was grateful and relieved about that. But I did wonder, as I have often wondered since, if we really do have an accurate idea of the incidence of suicide, and whether the denial of what is pretty self evident really serves to help people with mental illness. It is certainly clear that it provides a modicum of comfort for their grieving families.

          From time to time I am called to that same block on visits to other patients. The heavy steel hand rail on the stair case at the ground floor still bears the concavity where Kenneth’s head made its final and catastrophic impact with it, and cascaded its contents on to the floor below. And I think of his honest, gnarled hands as he helped me to lift the first crop of new potatoes from the good earth on a warm summer evening twenty years ago. And I think of all the things he did for me, and of all the things I was never able to do for him.

Monday, 26 September 2011

The Beachcomber

This is my first story in a series entitled "On Love and Loss". Elements of it are based upon real events. I did indeed gather ancient bones when I was a boy from the bottom of an eroding cliff at Dunwich in Suffolk. And my father did have a visit from the police some months after we had moved from a property which was demolished by developers. His life was blighted by grief, not for me as I survived him, unlike Miko, but for my mother and my stepmother.

The Beachcomber

Two police officers stood at the front door. Some questions about where I had lived before moving in to the flat. And then, with appropriate gravity, “We have to inform you sir, that human remains have been found at that property.”

I was thrown by the announcement. In my initial confusion I found my mind racing back to happier times. When my son was preoccupied with the adventure of growing up, and his mother still my wife. He now irrevocably lost to me; she also lost to me, having sought solace, and finding disillusionment, with another man even while we still lived under the same roof.

I was shocked, and frightened. Were they accusing me? Would I be spending tonight and many more to come in a police cell on suspicion of murder?

“Are you able to account for them?”

Of course I could account for them. I knew at once the significance of their discovery, and wondered how I could have been so careless. Our leaving the house that had been home, a contented home to our small family, had been precipitate. It held too many memories, which could only sustain a grief that was almost impossible to bear. Even then Mary and I had started to bicker and on at least one occasion had had a furious row, over nothing very much in particular. I know now that this had more to do with our suppressed rage at our loss rather than anything seriously wrong between us. And a sense of shared guilt which I know now was groundless. Yet we were almost consumed by it.

Michael … Miko, you were my only son, my only child. And I adored you. What might you have become had had you not gone? Every parent sees their child as exceptional, but there surely was something quite unique about you. Not just the driving curiosity common to all young children, but the sheer joy you experienced in your discoveries. You were a hunter after things to fire your imagination, and your imagination fired further your desire to seek out yet more wonders in the world where you found yourself. You of the grimy knees, the scuffed shoes, unkempt hair and perpetual grin. Yet you were quite without guile. You were a respecter of wild things and their habitats, although there was little enough that they could keep secret from you. Fossil hunter and star gazer you were. And an avid beachcomber on our occasional holidays by the sea.

I hear his voice even as I think about him. “Dad, Dad! What’s this? It looks like a baby shark!” He had run to me clutching a dogfish, pretty much intact and only recently dead,  judging by the absence of stink. He insisted on taking it home. “I’ve seen fish pickled in jars in the museum. Couldn’t we do that?” I warned him of what his mother might think, but he was not dissuaded. At a hardware store on the way home we bought a quantity of methylated spirit under the suspicious eye of the brown-coated shop keeper. An hour later the creature was consigned to an old sweet jar, suspended incongruously in purple preservative, and placed with pride on the mantelpiece in the boy’s room.

He was drawn to the sea and the sea shore. Even the days in high summer were not long enough to satisfy his desire to seek out exotic treasures in the shingle and the flotsam cast up by the previous winter’s gales. On two or three occasions we gathered driftwood and lit fires in a roughly constructed hearth of stones. Sausages cooked in a cheap frying pan, fresh bread and tomato sauce we feasted upon. I see Michael’s ketchup smeared face split by his grin, and in my imagination I ruffle his hair again. No queen or king ever delighted in such banquets as we tasted then.

Back home he arranged his treasures haphazardly in seed boxes and placed them on roughly constructed shelves in the redundant hen-house. Outside he hung a sign “Michael’s Miniature Museum”. Friends and visiting family would be taken there for a tour of his exhibits. Not all shared his enthusiasm, but this invoked little more than pity in the boy. “Dad, they just don’t see” he once said to me in a tone of exasperation.

I saw his point - and theirs. Not many shared his enthusiasm for abandoned birds’ nests, the bunch of porcupine quills given to him by a keeper at the zoo, and his prized dogfish. But his collection was essentially for his own enjoyment and it seemed that he thought little of other people’s views on it. As the months went by it became clear that finding a space for everything was going to be a problem. And it was equally clear that any sort of a “cull” was not an option for consideration. I noticed, however, that with the passage of time he did become more selective about what he picked up.

The last summer that I shared with him was what I guess was something of a pinnacle for the boy. We rented a cottage on a remote part of the Suffolk coast, close to one of its wide estuaries. Desolate and wind whipped, it clearly appealed to something deep within Michael’s heart. I never saw him so happy. He did his homework too. “Did you know, Dad, that a whole town was washed into the sea just here?” he told me as we walked at the foot of a low, sandy cliff. “They say that on some nights you can still hear the church bells ringing deep under the water!” His mother put her foot down at his suggestion that we might camp out there so that we could experience the ghostly tolling for ourselves.

“You could get swept away by the tide in your sleep” she cautioned. He did not press the matter. For he had also learned that the coastal erosion was still very much ongoing. Yet he seemed content enough to occupy himself pretty much entirely with his searching among the sea wrack for whatever might lurk beneath the glistening fronds. This year, too, he became more inclined to wander off on his own, always promising his anxious mother that he would not go so far as to lose sight of us or we of him. The fact that he showed fewer of his discoveries to us caused us less concern. With hindsight it may well have been that we were remiss in showing less interest than we might have done. But this was all in the days before contamination with used syringes and other unsavoury human detritus had begun to blight our shorelines.

I did not discover the full extent of his collection until early in the next year, when I was able to steel myself to go through his things.

“Sir?” one of the officers jerked me out of my reverie. “Are you O.K? It’s not as if we’d suspected … the pathologist said that the bones are very, very old.”

I nodded. “Yes, I know they are. Hundreds of years old.”

“Much older than the house even. Seems that they were put there. In a box, under the stairs. So you know about them?”

With relief I realised that the police officers were not, after all, making any sort of criminal enquiry. Perhaps they already had a pretty good idea of how the remains had come to be there and just wanted confirmation.

I nodded “Five years ago  … we, my son and his mother and I … we were staying near the east coast. It’s a part that gets hammered by the gales in the winter. I’m told that the waves smash into the cliffs when the tides are high. They’re soft, and several feet get cut away each year …”

I recalled the conversation I’d had with a local, a retired coastguard from a nearby town. He told me how some years earlier the erosion reached the edge of the grounds of a long ruined monastery, encroaching at last upon the burial ground of the monks who had lived and worked there. It seemed that the sea was no respecter of the dead. In the wake of every onslaught was a scattering of bones across the shore. When he found them I think Michael must have realised what they were and could not resist taking such as he came across and adding them quietly to his other trophies. But I did regret his not telling his mother and me what he had done. It was never in his nature to be secretive.

“We thought that might be the way of it, sir. Probably best if you have a quiet word with your lad some time. This has taken up some police time that could have been better used …”

“Of course. I’m sorry. I’ll have a word with him … later today.”

They took their leave and left me to my thoughts, and the lonely evening that lay ahead of me. At last I put on my coat and set out on the familiar route to the cemetery. Ten minutes later I was standing by the grave. “Well now, Miko … would you ever guess who came to see me today?”

Tuesday, 30 August 2011

Billy Ricky

This was written in July 2010. It is a piece of very short fiction and was originally to be submitted for a competition  - I didn't get round to sending it, so I have no idea whether it might have won or not.

Billy Ricky

In the borough cemetery in Writtle Road, Chelmsford, is a monument to the thirty nine people killed by the 367th Vergeltungswaffe 2, or V2 Rocket, to strike England. It detonated on Tuesday December19th, 1944.

My uncle Tod was one of the forty seven people seriously injured in the blast. He survived, badly disabled, and so his name is not among those inscribed on the monument. He was blinded and lost both his legs.

After the War, and following many months of rehabilitation, he became a familiar sight on the pavements and parks of the city in his battered wheelchair, and always in the company of his black mongrel, Billy Ricky. He certainly had many friends who would stop and pass the time of day with him, or help him and his dog – who was by no means trained as a guide dog – to cross the busy main street.

When he was failing at last I called in on him at the little prefab where he lived. I remember distinctly his saying to me “Born lucky, I was!”

“Lucky, Uncle? You can say that when … when …”

“When I’ve ended up a ruddy cripple!” He could be blunt at times. But his smile seldom left his face. “No. You see, if it wasn’t for old Billy here, I’d have been dead.”

The dog, old and grey muzzled now, stirred at his feet. His tailed thumped a couple of times on the floor.

“You see, he knew that rocket was coming. Those things broke the sound barrier. There was no warning. But he knew. He was never given to excitement. Always easy going. But there we were, walking up Henry Road on the way to my shift at Hoffman’s factory, when he just went berserk. Barking, growling, pulling … he pulled me right off the street and I fell in to the gutter, on top of him. And then the most god-almighty bang. That was the last I knew for a week, until I woke in hospital. But Billy was OK, weren’t you, boy?” Another half hearted tail wag.

The two friends died within a week of each other, not long afterwards. I had heard before that dogs were psychic, though I am sceptical of such notions.

But I am in no doubt at all that Uncle Tod was convinced of it.

Mr Momiji

This story was written in November 2010. It won a commendation in The Writer, a publication for medically qualified writers, and has appeared in the Summer 2011 edition of the journal.
Mr Momiji
Jon Lawson stared at his wife across the dinner table. He could hardly believe that she had just spoken the words she had without the slightest hint of artifice in her expression.
She was lying.
The implication brought him out in a cold sweat. What possible reason could she have for denying what he knew, for an absolute certainty, to be the truth?
She was lying.
He had always believed that dishonesty of any kind was contrary to Ginny’s nature. He had thought her to be a principled woman, both at home and in her work as a teacher. But yesterday he had seen with his own eyes how she had cheerily waved off the man from their garden gate. A man he had never set eyes on before. They’d not noticed him as he turned the corner at the top of the road. On impulse he’d retraced his steps, not returning for an hour or so. Of course, she’d not been expecting him so soon. There’d been yet another failed interview. He’d caught an earlier train, anxious to be home, imaging no reception other than one of quiet comfort and sympathy, or so he’d thought.
He had tried to make his enquiry sound nonchalant. Anyone called while he’d been out? His implication being that someone might have called round, or telephoned, about a job possibility when she got back from the school. She’d shaken her head.
“No. Not a soul. It’s really been very quiet.”
For the first time he could ever remember, she had told him a lie.
She must have seen something in his expression. “Something bothering you, darling? You’ve gone quite pale.”
He drew breath, on the verge of challenging her, yet quite unable to for fear of what she might tell him. He could only shake his head and mutter “I don’t know how much longer I can take these … these rejections”.
He’d hoped against hope that she would have told him that she’d had an unexpected visitor. If not about a job, perhaps one of her many cousins from Australia, visiting as they did from time to time. She’d have been telling him enthusiastically about the news she’d had about her family. But no. She had kept this meeting from him, and he could think of only one reason why she should have done so. Ginny was attractive in both looks and personality …
            “Don’t take it so badly,” she murmured, the ever familiar concern in her voice.
Jon shook his head and said nothing. His redundancy had come out of the blue some three moths previously. Shock had given way to resentment, resentment to suspicion that someone had had it in for him. And fear that Ginny, such a rock in the past, was beginning to lose respect for him. He’d been rotten company over the weeks, he knew. Sometimes he wondered how she put up with his moods. Was her cheerfulness and optimism just a cover-up? Yes, now it seemed as if had been all along.
“Who the hell wants to take on a time-expired university lecturer? And a lecturer in botany of all things?” The bitterness in his voice was scarcely concealed.
She shook her head “You need a break, dear. It’s a fine morning. Take your sketch pad to the park. The maples are looking so lovely just now …”
Jon nodded. “Might as we’ll. It’s not as though there was anything else lined up.” In truth he wanted to get away from her, to find the opportunity to gather his thoughts. To decide what he must do.

The specimen of the acer palmatum was a particularly fine one, and exquisitely shaded in the early autumn. The fragment of pastel that Jon held between his thumb and forefinger ran deftly over the heavy paper block, reproducing the delicate tracery of the leaves and transforming the ephemeral reality into something that would outlast the seasons for, well, some years to come at least. As an illustrator he was good, and he knew it. His preoccupation took him out of the real world, and away from his mood of pain and anger.
            His reverie was broken by a childish cry. “Hey, Mama It’s Mr Momiji! Let’s see what he’s drawing today”
            He recognised the girl, a slight, pretty thing of about seven, with shiny black hair down to her shoulders. He put the block down on his knees and looked up and smiled at her. “Hi, Minami! No school today?”
            She shook her head. “No … half term this week.” Of course it was. Ginny had told him. That was why she wasn’t at school.
            Minami’s mother came up. “Aren’t you being a bit of a cheeky girl? I’m sure this gentleman isn’t really called ‘Mr Momiji’”
            “It’s what I call him. And the other kids from school as well. It was my idea! My own special name for him”
            “Oh.” Her mother looked apologetically at Jon, “I hope you don’t think she was being rude. You see, it’s the name we give to the maple tree in Japan.”
            “Not at all. And I already knew what ‘momiji’ means. I take it as a compliment”. And his thoughts drifted back to another time, some years before. The year he and Ginny had got married in fact. They’d been on a tour on the Hakone National park, in the foothills of Mount Fuji, south of Tokyo, at just this time of year. Suddenly a murmur of excitement had run through the throng of Japanese tourists on the coach, almost like a repeated sigh: ‘Momiji … momiji!’ They had entered a forest of maples, their changing leaves ablaze in the afternoon sunshine. For some minutes silence fell on the sightseers. They sat gazing through with windows, mesmerised and enchanted by the beauty of what they were seeing. It had been as if the hills had been engulfed by a sea of crimson fire, the scent of lush, damp vegetation wafting through the open windows in strange contrast.
“Now you’re looking sad, Mr Momiji. You’ve drawn such a lovely picture of my fairy tree. How can you feel sad?” Minami peered down at the block, her nose threatening for a moment to smudge the carefully applied pastel. “And I think I can see the fairies in there. Yes, I can. You are so clever!”
            Her mother smiled. “Come on now, Minami. We must leave your Mr Momiji to finish his drawing.” And turning back to look at Jon as he rose awkwardly from his seat she said, “You are a very talented man, I think. And you have a lovely way with children.” She paused for a moment. Then, softly, almost quizzically: “Momiji  sensei ... I think you could have anything you might ask for.”

He delayed longer than he had intended, strangely reluctant to return home. But he doubted that Ginny would be much worried about him. Not now. He became lost in his thoughts. He still had not the slighted idea what he should do. A car sounded its horn loudly when he stepped off the edge of a pavement and almost into its path. “You looking to kill yourself, mate?” shouted the driver out of the window. Momentarily Jon thought, well, perhaps I am
            He felt his mobile vibrate in his shirt pocket. He flipped it open. A text from Ginny … his heart went to his mouth. “What’s keeping u? Someone here I want u to meet. Need to talk urgently.”
            Was this it? Was this the end? He grasped his folding chair then slung it under his arm as if it were a gun, wishing for a moment that it was. He steeled himself as he rounded the corner and walked the last few yards to the house. At the open door stood Ginny. And with her a man, a man he recognised only too well.
 To his amazement she broke into an excited smile as he walked up to them. The man beamed as he held out his hand in greeting.

Ginny hugged her husband tightly. “I’m just so sorry we had to keep it from you until Michael could be sure. And I told you such a dreadful fib when you asked me this morning, if I’d seen anyone. What you’d have thought if you’d turned up while he was here …”
            Jon looked down and said nothing. Of course Ginny had expected him to be pleased. But his sense of relief in the realisation that the situation was not as he had feared was countered by a hot surge of resentment. Finding his words at last he looked directly at their visitor. “Mr Beaumont, while I appreciate your offer, I’m afraid I can’t accept it ...”
            The smile evaporated from Ginny’s face. “But Jon ... Michael’s offer is really generous. I mean, his publishing company is getting a name. And it’s not as though you were an established artist. And he’s said he wants the complete set!”
            Jon ignored her, his gaze fastened upon Michael Beaumont’s bemused face. “I can’t say that I’m exactly thrilled that my wife should have asked you here to go through my ... my private collection of illustrations without asking me. They’re my property, my own creations, and I’m not ready to part with them yet, however generous the offer I’m made.”
            “I guess we miscalculated there, Mr Lawson. But you know, you have a real talent. If you change your mind ...”
            Jon shook his head. “I think not. I am a teacher, a scientist. I’m well aware that my drawings are good, but they were never made to make someone’s living room look cute.”
            The man nodded, his lips pursed. “I respect that.” He looked at his watch. “I won’t take any more of your time ... and I have another appointment back at the office.”

Ginny stared at her husband after their visitor had left them, her eyes moist. “Don’t be angry with me darling – I meant it for the best.”
            Her husband nodded abruptly, a set expression on his face. “I don’t doubt it, Ginny. But losing my job, being out if work is my problem. I need to sort it out in my way. You don’t need to treat me as if I were a child.”
            “So, what are you going to do? Why don’t you give yourself credit. You ... you could have anything ...!
            Now it was Jon’s turn to look bemused. What Ginny had said. Almost an echo ...

It was some days later that he stood at the entrance of the regional television company. Assertiveness had not been an attribute of his, not until quite recently. But his sense of humiliation and the surge of uncharacteristic anger at the meeting with Michael Beaumont had sparked something. He hoped desperately that he could sustain his feeling of self confidence in the interview that was about to ensue. He had managed to get this far by, well, by being insistent, even pushy, over the telephone. The company director’s secretary had at last given in and agreed to speak to her boss. Miraculously, she in turn, for whatever reason, had agreed to see him.
            Jon waited for an anxious quarter of an hour in the plush foyer, his hands white knuckled in his lap. The summons came at last.
            “Mrs Holloway will see you now, sir.”  The secretary held open the door.
            At the sight of the slender woman who rose from behind the broad oak desk, his courage almost failed him. How on earth could such a … coincidence have come about? He had not thought for a moment ...
            Her smile was warm and disarming. “Come and sit down. And tell me what you have in mind that you think we can use!”
            He held his breath for a few moments, then took courage in both hands almost blurting out, “I’ve this proposal for a new series – an educational series directed at a young audience ... to show them something of the beauty and fascination of everything that grows in their parks, in their neighbourhoods.”
            The woman slightly forwards across the desk, and placed the fingertips of both her hands together. Her gaze was penetrating, but Jon did not flinch. Then she nodded her head slowly and smiled again. “Well, Momiji-sensei you certainly worked your magic on my little Minami.”
            “And you said that I ... I could have anything ... “
            “Well, then, let’s talk this all through.  And we’ll see if I am as good a judge of these things as I believe I am!”