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Authors: A. J. Cronin

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The committee had three members: Scrygemour, who was small, benevolent and shiningly bald, and two solid Yorkshire businessmen of the stand-no-nonsense school. When they had looked me over, the interrogation began. I was in my best form: quiet, alert, convincing, modestly forthcoming yet personally reserved: not pressing the advantages I had thought up, letting them winkle all the good points out of me as though it embarrassed me mildly to acknowledge them. Yes, I admitted I liked children, had always got on well with them, not only as one of a large family but in my extensive practice. At a mention of the excellence of my testimonials I betrayed no surprise naturally enough, since I had composed two of the better ones myself. Yes, I agreed calmly, a South Wales colliery town was not perhaps socially the most desirable field of action for an ambitious young man. Yet, oddly enough, it
I had purposely chosen that location to study pneumoconiosis, adding a moment later when this floored them: ‘Which, as you obviously know, gentlemen, comprises the pulmonary diseases – anthracosis, silicosis, and tuberculosis – specially affecting workers in the mining industry.'

An impressive silence followed this well-thought-out gambit; after glancing at the other two, Scrygemour remarked: ‘That is a point of considerable interest to us, Dr Carroll.' Then, diffidently as though scarcely hoping, he cleared his throat:

‘I don't suppose you would happen to know German, doctor?'

I smiled, staking my entire position on the clincher. Either I was in, or out flat on my ear.

‘Aber, mein Herr, Ich können das Deutsch gut sprechen.

It knocked them cold – they hadn't one word of German amongst them. And before they could recover I let them have a few more fluent, though not particularly appropriate, cuttings from my little green book.

‘Entschuldigen Sie, mein Herr, können Sie mir zeigen wo der nächste Abort ist?
' (Excuse me, sir, can you direct me to the nearest lavatory?)

‘Zimmermädchen, ich glaube unter mienem Bett ist eine Maus.
' (Chambermaid, I think there is a mouse under my bed.)

‘Very satisfactory, doctor. Very.' This actually from one of the hard types. ‘May we ask how you acquired such proficiency in the language?'

‘Mainly from my study of pulmonary diseases in the original German text books,' I murmured, knowing that I was home, even before they had me in again, after a short wait outside, to congratulate me and shake me warmly by the hand.

Of course, it was a thoroughly discreditable performance. It was cheap, contemptible, despicable, downright dishonest. But when you have been on the verge of the bread line and been kicked around for seven years, your sense of ethics becomes somewhat blunted. And although next morning I was prepared to cry ‘
mea culpa, mea maxima culpa,
' I was happy, that same afternoon, to be packing my bag for Schlewald. After all, in my usual fashion, I could try to exonerate myself. The Jesuits, who were partly responsible for my schooling, had, in the brief term of our relationship which occurred when I was extremely young, imbued me with their most practical principle, that the end justifies the means. And in utilizing my only means of persuasion upon these worthy Yorkshiremen I was no more than accomplishing a necessary act to achieve a necessary end.

So at least, for the moment, let us admit that I was safely here in Schlewald, happily anchored in the Maybelle Clinic, breathing the delicious mountain air and gazing about me with a mildly proprietory air. It was one of these perfect Alpine afternoons that lit the landscape with a pale translucent blue. In the pasture before the clinic, which stood high on the southern slope, autumn crocuses, still unfolded, stained the vivid green where rivulets of cold clear water tumbled over each other downhill to the river. In the pinewoods across the valley the toy train that ran to Davos had begun its slow vertiginous climb, turning on its own tail, stopping now on a loop of the higher grade as though to recover steam, but actually to allow the Davos down train to pass. Above, on the scar of the Gotschna Grat, a faint dusting of early snow was already anticipating the sunset, turning from gold to a rich rose madder. Distantly, and far below, dwarfed by the mountain, the roofs of Schlewald Dorf looked cosy,
was the word. Lush descriptions apart, it was a sweet spot, and when you thought of those miners' rows, the slag heaps without a blade of grass, the surgery bell going day and night and Tonypandy Blodwen croaking in your half awakened ear: ‘Eh, doctor bach, I'm mortal sorry to 'ave you out again but it's a britch and I canna' get the 'ead away:' – well, it was peaceful as a bottle of tranquillizers. I liked it here, in fact I was completely sold on it.

A young moon, pale as a sliver of Emmentaler in the persistent light, was beginning to slide over the ridge and suddenly from across and far away came the sound of an Alpine horn. A herdsman sitting by his lonely hut on the upper pastures with that ridiculous six-foot wooden tube which, like the Scottish bagpipes, is hideous near the eardrums but which, floating down from the hills, has a magic all its own. Again it came, vibrating in the still air. It hits you, that prolonged deep sadness, losing itself in the distance, silenced by the peaks. It cuts the cord, and suddenly you too are lost. You sink into yourself, and given a chance, some secret misery sneaks up from your subconscious.

With me it is always the same – a torment and a mystery – I am in that dark empty street of an unknown city and in the dead silence of the night I hear footfalls behind me, slow, persistent, menacing. I cannot turn round and must sweat out the agony of that unknown pursuit until suddenly a dog barks and all is still again.

Oh, come off it, Carroll, and stay happy. No one is interested in your private little phobia, at least not yet. It was time for me to get back to my tea and ramekins.

Then, as I turned, I saw someone come through the lodge gates – Hans, the postmaster's son, hurrying up the drive, now waving to me with something in his hand. A letter.

‘Express, Rekommandiert, Herr Doktor.
' It was probably my monthly cheque and for this the Swiss post never keeps you waiting.

He was pretending to be out of breath, but as I was in a soft mood, when I signed the receipt, I told him to hold on, went into my sitting-room which opened off the terrace. This was a snug little room with a warm red carpet, solid, well-polished, comfortable furniture upholstered in brown velveteen, while on the table Matron very thoughtfully kept me supplied with a bowl of the Valais fruits, apricots, pears, apples and cherries, which were so plentiful at this season.

‘Catch, Hans.' I threw him a big Golden Delicious apple from the open window.

He wouldn't eat it now, I felt sure, but as a true little Swiss, to whom possession is ten points of the law, take it home, polish it, and keep it – at least until Sunday. I watched him go off with a
vielen Dank, Herr Doktor.

Then I examined the letter, and was suddenly set back on my heels. It wasn't possible! The envelope was postmarked Levenford, that most distasteful, almost fatal word from which in all its connotations I hoped I had finally cut myself adrift. Reluctantly, I opened the envelope. Yes, from my old playmate, Francis Ennis.

My dear Laurence

I must ask pardon for failing to write congratulating you on your appointment last summer. There was a very pleasing little paragraph in the ‘Winton Herald'. May I now, belatedly, wish you every success in your new and most worthy endeavour.

And now I hesitate to proceed. For I am constrained to ask a special favour of you.

You remember Cathy Considine, I'm sure, that very sweet companion of our boyhood days who married Daniel Davigan, and was so recently and tragically widowed. Yes, Laurence, theirs was a model marriage, a shining example of marital unity. It was a fearful blow when Dan was taken. You must have seen the account and obituary notice two months ago in the public press, locally, at least, it created quite a stir. And lately, alas, another affliction for the sorrowing widow. The only child, Daniel, just seven years of age, and without question a most remarkable and exceptionally clever little boy, has turned quite poorly. Very pale, glands in the neck and, not to put too fine a point on it, a suspicion of T.B. Canon Dingwall, though in retirement and still in his wheel chair following another slight stroke, has shown a great interest in the boy, has brought him along in every way – actually Daniel is two classes ahead of his age – and he has taken the matter up strongly with Dr Moore who at once suggested a spell, brief we hope, in a sanatorium. All very well to suggest, but here, with the waiting under the new Health Scheme it would be a good six months before a place could be found for Daniel. And then only in the Grampians, which I dare say bear no comparison with your sunny Swiss Alps.

So it has been decided that Cathy must take the boy to Switzerland and devote herself to his cure. The two dear pilgrims propose leaving here on Tuesday of next week, October 7th, arriving Zurich Airport at 5.30 p.m., and as they have no contacts in that city and must feel quite lost, I am relying on you at least to meet them. If you can do nothing further, please see them on their way to Davos where they have an address from Dr Moore. But Laurence, if it is at all humanly possible, won't you take charge of them yourself, find a place for Daniel in your clinic, get him well again? Please! For the boy's sake. God will bless you for it, Laurence, and we, all your good friends in Winton, will never cease to thank you.

I read it again, slowly, shuddering slightly over ‘the dear pilgrims', then instinctively I crushed the letter, tight and hard. What a rocket! What a blasted imposition. Coming after me ‘for old times' sake', thanking me in advance, handing me the good old heaven will bless you. And spoiling my Tuesday in Zürich, the one day of the week when Svenska Örnflyg were normally free of regular flights.

Yet, how could I give Ennis the brush off. My name would stink at home. I would have to do something about it and, after all, it was only on a short-term basis. I supposed I must handle it but, as always, I would do so with calm detachment and mature consideration.

Chapter Two

The probationer brought the tea-tray into my sitting-room, that snug little carpeted den with the easy chair before the blue and white tiled wood stove. She was a fresh country girl from the Valais, smelling pleasantly of the dairy and with well-formed milk-bars, who, as she went out, before closing the door always gave me a look over her shoulder not altogether bovine. But today I failed to respond, nor did the fragrant cheesy odour of the fresh baked ramekins break through my moodiness. Yes, the letter was a nuisance, a confounded nuisance, it had upset me, taking me back to a period in my early life that I was never unduly eager to recall.

Personally, I cannot endure throwbacks, they interrupt the action which is dying to burst forth, but to put the picture in perspective it must be related that at the age of fifteen I had gone to live with my grandparents in Levenford. One month before, with that touch of the absurd apparent to those familiar with the beginnings of my erratic career, I had precociously won the Ellison Bursary to Winton University, an achievement somewhat dulled when it became apparent that to enter the University I must attend Levenford Academy for one year to take the Higher Leaving Certificate examination of the Scottish School Board.

My welcome by the Bruces at their semi-detached villa in Woodside Avenue was not effusive. In running off with my Catholic father, their favourite daughter had deeply distressed them. And now, fifteen years later, fulfilling their worst forebodings, they were landed with the sole surviving evidence of that ill-fated union.

My grandfather, Robert Bruce, was an upstanding, dignified burgher of the town, retired on a pension from his position as head of the timber department in the local shipyard of Dennison Brothers, whose staid existence was transfigured by the belief, generally regarded as fictitious, that he was the lineal descendant of the Scottish hero who, after cracking de Bohun's skull with his battle-axe in single combat, led the Scots to victory over the English at Bannockburn in 1314 – a date I was never permitted to forget.

Do not imagine that my grandfather was either a fool or a laughing stock. He had documents, genealogical trees, extracts from meetings of the local Historical Society, and had traced his family in Levenford as far back as the fifteenth century, a record in which the name Robert was generic. Moreover, Cardross Castle where King Robert I died in 1329 stood by the river Leven on the outskirts of the town and it was from here that Sir James Douglas had set out to take the heart of Bruce to the Holy Land, only to fall, fighting the Moors in Spain. Without digressing further, it is enough to say that my grandfather's obsession or, if you prefer it, delusion was honest, and so deeply felt, that he made every year a pilgrimage to Melrose Abbey where the casket containing the heart of King Robert was now enshrined.

Some of this genealogy rubbed on to me and, suitably embroidered, was often socially opportune, but this apart, Bruce treated me always with decent toleration and a fine sense of justice, while my grandmother, a small, bowed wisp of a woman, devoted yet quietly resigned, her head carried patiently to one side – she was slightly deaf – addicted to the Bible, strong tea and the works of Annie S. Swan, and to the habit – to me endearing – of talking soundlessly to herself, her lips moving to the accompaniment of little nods, grimaces and other subtle sympathetic changes of expression, decidedly was, despite the worn-out look of Scottish wives who have served strong men hand and foot, a sweet person.

Levenford Academy which, under the terms of the Bursary I was compelled to attend, was a solid, old-established institution situated in the heart of the Borough, with the excellence and all the prejudice of the true blue Scots Grammar School. My advent here was even less welcome, and it was with some relief that I discovered a co-religionist already in my form – Francis Ennis, son of Dr Ennis. As the only two Papists in the Academy we inevitably drew together, not at first from any natural affinity, but simply because we were in the same uncomfortable boat, objects of suspicion and derision to our fellow scholars.

BOOK: A Pocketful of Rye
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