This is a story written about two years ago for submission to a competition. It didn't win anything. I think I was writing from the perspective of the sort of doctor I like to think I was. Or the sort that I would have liked to have been, anyway. Doctors need to be sensitive to pain in all of its manifestations, spoken or unspoken. And the best doctors know well the awesome healing power that can result from affording the opportunity to listen without interruption and without judgement. And with kindness. This 'gift' - for want of a better word - of sensitive listening is not the prerogative only of doctors. A nurse, social worker, the milk delivery man (are there any left?) or your grannie may be just as skilled. But a doctor possessed of it is a safer doctor - much less likely to prescribe useless or even hazardous medications where they are not needed.
A Boy and his Dog
‘Is this seat taken?’ The young man holding a tray with a coffee pot and cup looked down at Veronica. Something suggested that he was talking to someone he knew. Perhaps that was his way. He was casually dressed without being untidy. And he was young, probably much the same age as … as Davy. But it was the way he smiled at her that precluded a refusal.
‘No – it’s not taken. You’re welcome to it. It’s certainly busy in here.’ She looked up at him. The face was unfamiliar. Yet the voice - there was a softness in it that she half recognised. But from where?
‘Not the best time to try to grab a quick cup of coffee.’ He glanced back over the crowded café and the slowly moving queue at the self service counter. Veronica recognised his accent as Irish. She smiled without making any comment, feeling little inclination to engage in small talk with a stranger.
Perhaps the best way to make the point, without appearing rude, would be to take out the novel she’d just bought. She reached into her bag. As she pulled out the slim paperback, something caught between the pages and fell to the floor at the young man’s feet. Immediately he reached down to retrieve it. He placed it carefully in front of her. Of all things … it had to be that – a small photograph wallet. Was it just by chance, or was the deft movement of his hand causing it to lie open on the table a deliberate one?
‘Well, she’s a lovely dog. And the lad – your son?’
The photograph of Davy together with their beloved border collie cross was something that Veronica treasured, a reminder of times that were perhaps the happiest in her life. But it was a private thing, not something she would have shared.
She nodded, and gazed down at the picture. The young man held her in his gaze but said nothing, yet it was his very silence that spoke to her:
Won’t you tell me about them?
‘Yes - Davy’s my son. He moved to
not long after he graduated – he’s a seismologist, working out ways to predict
earthquakes. So we don’t see much of him, sadly. And Millie – well, she died
not long after Davy left. She was Davy’s dog, you see, although she was very
much a family pet.’ To her dismay her voice caught. She realised that she was
on the brink of tears, and in the presence of someone – a man – whom she’d met not
five minutes ago. Tokyo
Was his silence one of tact, or respect? No platitudes, no assurance that he understood – however could he understand her awful sense of loss? Bill had been altogether accepting of what had happened. Kind and gentle though he was, she felt that even he, her husband, had little idea of what she had gone through.
She began to feel as if she was being drawn into another world, inhabited by just herself and this young man whose name she didn’t even know. A tear dropped on to the back of her hand that rested gently, tenderly on the photograph. And the words began to flow. She spoke of things that she had bottled inside herself for all those months; of love, and loss and abandoned hope. It was not until her voice faltered and there seemed no more to say that he spoke again.
‘But Davy will come home. You know he will. With all the experience he’ll have gained over there he’d probably get an academic position – a good one too.’
Veronica nodded. “I know that. He always promised …’
‘And you’ll get another dog.’
The shake of her head was emphatic. ‘No. Never. I couldn’t go through that again.’ She remembered her sense of desolation when Millie had died in her arms. How could one grieve so for … for an animal? Bill had become quite seriously worried about her, and had persuaded her to go to old Doctor Morrow, their GP. He had been very kind, told her that grief was grief whatever its cause. He gave her a prescription for some tablets which she never took. But it was the way in which he affirmed her right to grieve over a dog that had started the healing process, painfully slow though it had been. As she had left the consulting room he reminded her that she would not be seeing him again as he was retiring after nearly forty years in practice. He assured her that she and her husband would be in safe hands with Doctor Byrne who would be taking over. ‘He’s been my assistant these last two years’ he had told her, ‘and he has all the qualities of a good family doctor. A good listener, for a start. Something that’s become all too rare among young doctors, in my view’. As he ushered her out to the waiting room he pointed to a man who had his back turned to them, talking to a uniformed nurse. ‘That’s him over there.’ But she had barely noticed him.
Again she became aware of the young man’s gaze. He seemed to encompass her sorrow, as if to lift it from her. Had she made a fool of herself again?
‘You’ll have another dog. Not for the pleasure and the fun it will give you, but for the care and love you will give to it. I think you understand me.’
Veronica made no reply. She felt suddenly drained. And then the young man stood up, lent forward slightly almost in a bow, and rested his hand gently on the back of hers. ‘Thank you for sharing that with me. And for letting me have that chair!’ He turned and walked away, and in a few moments was lost in the crowd.
* * *
Christmas that year, for Veronica and her husband, was going to be a double celebration: Davy had telephoned them and told them that he would be joining them at home. And he would be staying for good. The news served to accelerate Veronica’s return to good health. She started to take herself on long walks in the hills again, and though her heart ached for Millie’s companionship she was able to console herself by contemplating Davy’s return. After a visit to her hairdresser for styling and some highlights, Bill greeted her back at the house with enthusiasm.
‘You look ten years younger! I hardly recognise you. Davy will wonder what’s happened to you,’ he beamed.
‘Well, it must be a pretty impressive job for you to have noticed,’ she laughed.
She busied herself in the house and the garden as the passing weeks brought Davy’s return ever closer. Bill decorated Davy’s bedroom, and in doing so he managed to aggravate an old back injury shifting a heavy chest of drawers. Veronica was inclined to fuss.
‘We’d better get you to the doctor to see if he can arrange some physiotherapy. We can’t have Davy coming home to an invalid father.’
It was the first time that Veronica had been to the surgery since her last interview with Doctor Morrow. She noticed that there had been subtle changes since he had retired: new pictures on the walls of the waiting room above the racks of health education leaflets, and a play house for the children. They were not kept waiting long.
‘Mr Bill Smithson, please,’ announced Doctor Byrne.
For Veronica, the recognition was instant. The young man standing at the open door of his consulting room was he – the very one she had opened her heart to that time in the busy café at the department store. Bill got slowly to his feet. She remained seated. He turned to her.
‘Come on – come in with me!’
‘No – I’d rather you …’
‘That’s all right, Mrs Smithson,’ the doctor called across to her. ‘Best if you come in too, I think.’
To Veronica’s relief he gave no sign of having recognised her. She supposed she had changed rather in appearance since their first meeting. And men … well, men often didn’t notice in the way women did. But when he smiled at her …
Some carefully directed questions and a brief examination of Bill’s spine with a check on his reflexes soon clarified the problem. Doctor Byrne agreed that a course of physiotherapy together with simple pain relief would in all probability get him back to his usual self quickly enough. He excused himself while he made some notes at the computer keyboard. And then looked up at the couple sitting opposite him.
‘So your son is coming home. You must be looking forward very much to that.’ Veronica found that he was gazing directly at her.
‘Yes. We’re delighted. He seems to have gained quite a reputation in his work. He’s landed himself a really good position.’
The doctor nodded. ‘And he must be so excited to be returning home. I’m sure you’ll be having quite a celebration.’
The enthusiasm in Bill’s response was barely concealed. ‘We certainly are. For starters, a dinner party for all the extended family. And a special surprise too. A present. We haven’t told Davy anything about it … her.’
The doctor looked over quizzically towards Bill.
‘Yes! She’ll be ready to join the family in just a few days. The people from the refuge came and checked us out. But I knew there’d be no problem. We had a border collie cross before, you see, so we know how to care for a dog. Wait a moment …’ he fumbled in his jacket pocket. ‘I’ve a photo’.
‘Well, that’s a grand thing. A caring, loving home that she sorely needs, no doubt.’ His voice gentle and measured, the doctor passed the photograph back to Bill Smithson, but his smile was for Veronica. And then she remembered the first time she had heard it, all those months ago, as the old doctor had shown her out through his waiting room.
Henry Tegner May 2011