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Authors: Richard Gordon

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8

The dean looked up as he heard the crash against the wall.

‘Ah, tut!’ He wrinkled his nose. The noise was bad enough, but it was more unpleasant always to be smelling Sir Lancelot’s meals, which seemed to consist entirely of onions. He turned back to the foolscap on his knee as a door slammed violently in the next house. ‘Dear me, dear me,’ muttered the dean. ‘Altogether, it’s like living in the back streets of Naples.’ It would be so much more agreeable if Sir Lancelot could be persuaded to leave, he thought. Indeed, it seemed to be becoming essential.

He clicked down his ballpoint. Scoring through a line, he substituted,
Sir Lancelot’s usual inflexibility was, however, broken by the adroit persuasion of close colleagues, and he was fortunate in spending his final years in academic serenity as vice-chancellor of the University of Hampton Wick
.

Another door slammed beyond the wall, rattling the collection of silver running cups. The dean began to think urgently how best to persuade Sir Lancelot to accept the academic hot potato. Any offer originating from himself would at once arouse suspicion, hostility and even derision. He supposed he could play on Sir Lancelot’s popularity with the St Swithin’s students – though he felt the rugby club kept the surgeon as their president only to trundle him out at inter-hospital matches with their other mascot, a stuffed gorilla. The invitation would best come in a roundabout way, from some third party. The dean tapped the ballpoint against his front teeth. Why not Frankie herself? She would certainly agree to the change of candidate, if she thought there was a sound chance of hooking him. He knew she was fond of Sir Lancelot, for whom she had once worked as house-surgeon after leaving his own medical unit. Though not so fond as of myself, thought the dean with a smile. His mind went back to another students’ May ball, the year Frankie had been president of the union. Little did Sir Lancelot – or anyone else – know exactly what had happened in the dark behind the bandstand. If word of such behaviour had leaked out –

The sitting-room door was flung open. His daughter Muriel strode across the threshold.

‘Yes? What is it?’ He was irritated at losing such an agreeable train of thought. ‘I’m busy for the moment on Sir Lancelot’s ob–’ The dean hastily checked himself. ‘Obturator foramen. I’m doing an anatomical sketch for him.’

‘Where’s Mother?’

‘In the kitchen getting dinner, of course.’ Muriel remained standing, one hand on the door-handle. ‘Do come in, my dear, or go out. It’s extremely draughty.’

‘Can I have a word with you, Father? Alone?’

‘Yes, of course. But do make it sharpish. As I said, I’m very busy on Sir Lancelot’s obit –
obiter dicta
. I’m making a collection of them.’

Muriel shut the door. She stood rigidly against it, hand still grasping the knob.

‘I say, are you all right?’ asked the dean. ‘You look rather pale.’

‘Yes, I’m perfectly all right. Or rather, I’m not. I mean, I’m not ill. Everything’s perfectly physiological.’

‘Then I’m relieved to hear it.’

‘Father… I’ve someone outside in the hall who wants to speak to you.’

‘Well, bring her in, for God’s sake. Why on earth all this fuss? It’s your own home.’

‘It isn’t a she. It’s a he. One of the students.’

‘As dean of the hospital, I hardly need to be introduced to my own students.’

‘No. No, of course not.’

‘Which one is it?’

Muriel swallowed. ‘Edgar Sharpewhistle.’

The dean looked relieved. ‘I thought it was some scallawag who’d got himself into trouble, or got you into trouble, or something. You can easily get led astray by these young men, you know. You can find yourself driving without proper insurance, parking on double yellow lines, that sort of thing.’

‘You’re sure you feel strong enough, Father?’

‘I’m always delighted to talk to such an intelligent, industrious and generally admirable student as Sharpewhistle. You know I regard him as something of a decoration to the medical school.’

She suddenly looked doubtful. ‘He can come back another day, if you like.’

‘Do stop havering. Bring the poor fellow in.’ Muriel opened the door. Edgar Sharpewhistle came in silently and stood beside her. He looked shamefaced and pinker than ever. Both stared at the dean without speaking. ‘Well,’ exclaimed the dean cheerfully. ‘What’s the reason for this pregnant silence?’

‘Errk,’ said Muriel.

‘What’s that, my dear.’

‘Nothing. Nothing, Father,’

‘Well, what
is
it, Sharpewhistle?’ The dean began to sound impatient. ‘You’ve come about your cases up in the ward, I suppose? That cysticercosis in bed number six–’

‘No. It isn’t about that, sir.’ The student seemed to be speaking with a mouth full of sawdust.

‘Then it must be the dermatomyositis in bed number ten. Very interesting urinary creatinine levels. I hope you’ve studied the electromyograph? They’re not entirely typical patterns, but perfectly clear to the astute diagnostician – as of course you are. I expect further investigation in the shape of a muscle biopsy–’

‘I didn’t come about the dermatomyositis, sir. I want to marry your daughter.’

The dean jumped up, open-mouthed. ‘But how extraordinary.’

‘What should be extraordinary about it in the slightest?’ demanded Muriel.

He looked his daughter up and down, with the expression of being introduced to her for the first time in his life. He had never thought her to have the slightest interest in men. Not Sharpewhistle, nor in any man at all. He had felt this an admirable deficiency in a young woman, allowing her to concentrate on her work, to take a balanced view of life, and to practise a welcome economy in clothes and entertainments. ‘I mean, isn’t it extraordinarily sudden?’

‘We met when we started at St Swithin’s five years ago, Father. We have been in each other’s company for a good part of every day since.’

‘It’s simply that I imagined two students of your remarkable calibre would have been concentrating on your work,’ said the dean uncomfortably. ‘That you’d be far too busy for any…er, hanky-panky, as we used to call sex and so on in my day.’

Sharpewhistle gave a slow smile. ‘Love will always find a way, sir.’

‘Even in hospital, I suppose? The ward sluice-rooms must be absolutely pregnant with possibilities.’

‘Errk,’ said Muriel again.

The dean rubbed his hands in a businesslike way. Though it was not a situation he had anticipated, vague ideas from his youth flickered in his mind. One asked about parentage and prospects, in that order.

‘What’s your father?’ he asked the suitor.

‘He’s an actuary in Pontefract, sir.’

‘Well, I’m sure that’s very fascinating work. And Pontefract is probably a delightful place. They have a castle there, and cakes, don’t they? What’s your future like?’

‘I hope to win the St Swithin’s gold medal, sir.’ He turned to smile at Muriel. ‘Unless my fiancée does?’

‘Your fiancée? Who’s she? Oh, I see. Yes. Well.’ The dean stopped. ‘You’re not going to get any financial support from me, you know. Put that out of your head for a start. I’m taxed to the bone. To the very marrow. Nor will you live with us, either. We need every inch.’

‘I hope my winnings from
IQ Quiz
will pay the deposit on a small house, sir.’

The dean nodded. He did not approve of
IQ Quiz
, nor anything else on television. But it
would
be convenient to have Muriel’s top-floor flat free, as a spacious study and library for himself. Apart from anything else, it would move him further from the smell of Sir Lancelot’s onions. He took a closer look at his future son-in-law. The fellow was admittedly no Adonis. Indeed, the dean wondered if he might be somewhat abnormal, an overweight achondroplastic dwarf. ‘You should have extremely intellectual children,’ he said in a consoling voice. ‘Muriel! You’re trembling.’

‘Emotion, Father.’

‘Do I take it you approve, then?’ asked Sharpewhistle.

‘Yes, I er, think, er. Yes.’

Muriel pursed her lips irritably. ‘Don’t you suppose Mother should be consulted as well?’

The dean started. He had quite forgotten that Josephine might have some interest in the matter. A pleasant thought brightened his face. ‘I’ll fetch her from the kitchen. And I believe the moment calls for champagne, doesn’t it? I remember now, I put a bottle in the refrigerator last Christmas, but never seemed to get round to opening it. Or perhaps it was the Christmas before. Well, behave yourselves.’

With the coy grin to which all newly-engaged couples are subjected, suggesting they are avid to perform a variety of intimacies the instant they are left alone, the dean bounced from the sitting-room.

Sharpewhistle blew out his cheeks. ‘Well, that’s that, then.’

‘I told you it would go all right. My father’s a perfect lamb, really, when you get the hang of handling him. I can’t understand why you were making so much fuss.’

‘You didn’t leave me much time to make up my mind, did you? It’s hardly an hour since you heard your test was positive.’

‘Why did you want time? I should have thought that positive result would have made up your mind for you.’

‘Well, yes.’ He stuck his small fat hands into his trouser pockets. ‘Muriel, you’re
sure
you’re…you’re sure you’re sure about all this?’ She glared at him. ‘I mean, well, there are easier ways out.’

‘There aren’t. Or do you regard marrying me as the most excruciating of penances?’

‘No, no, not that…but these days… Of course, some people do have objections to termination on religious or moral grounds. I’d be the first to respect them. But like most medical people, I don’t think you or I would suffer qualms of conscience, even if perhaps we ought to.’

‘I am not going to seek a termination. It is simply that I think it is wrong. A coward’s way out. I never like starting anything that I don’t intend to go through with to the end.’

‘I suppose you know your own mind best,’ he said uncomfortably.

‘You’re quite right, Edgar. I do. And when I am determined to do something, nothing in this world can divert me. You have put me in this condition, and you must marry me.’

‘That’s fair enough, I suppose…’

‘After all, it is unlikely that any other people would ever want to marry either of us.’

‘True, true…’

‘While you and I are completely matched in tastes, outlook and intelligence.’

‘Quite, indeed…’

‘So what are you worrying about?’

‘I’m not, not really.’

‘Then look a bit more cheerful before Father comes back. Anyone would think you were booked to go into hospital instead of on honeymoon. We’re going to be very happy.’

‘Oh, I’m sure we are. Very happy indeed.’

9

‘My darlings!’ Josephine appeared, behind her the dean, both smiling broadly.

‘This must be the coldest bottle of champagne in London.’ The dean set it on the table beside Sir Lancelot’s obituary, while his wife kissed the newly-betrothed pair with maternal murmurings of delight. He produced four smallish glasses from the triangular cupboard in the corner where he kept his decanter of sherry. ‘I am quite delighted, Muriel my dear. And of course for you…er, what
is
your name? I can’t keep calling you Sharpewhistle.’

‘Edgar, sir.’

‘Charming name,’ said Josephine.

‘Your news was something of a surprise. It was my second one today. At lunch I was handed, out of the blue, a vice-chancellorship. Of Hampton Wick University.’ The dean chuckled. ‘Were I superstitious, I’d be on my guard for a third shock before nightfall.’ He started fiddling with the foil of the champagne cork. ‘Strange, how I think of you both as very young for this momentous and very serious – indeed quite solemn – step of matrimony. I remember, I was thought no end of a dog, because your mother was a young bride. Yet of course, you’re really most mature by today’s standards for the process. Mind you, it’s not that I approve particularly of today’s standards towards marriage nor towards a great deal of other things. But I suppose it is not the doctor’s job to moralize. Only to diagnose, which requires considerably more intelligence. They say young people now become sexually active earlier because they are better fed in childhood. Well, perhaps so–’

‘Lionel, I’m sure they’re not interested–’

‘The Victorian skivvy seduced by the rascally squire was probably quite infertile, after a vitamin-deficient diet of bread and potatoes, thus saving a good deal of trouble to everybody. But today’s plump, healthy girls…pop goes the weasel, as one might say, before they’ve mastered the three Rs. They start multiplying even before they learn their tables, eh?’ He gave a laugh. ‘What’s that, Muriel?’

‘I just coughed, Father.’

The dean went on fiddling with the champagne cork. ‘Though I fancy young folk marry not because they are seized with overwhelming passion, nor inflamed by the widespread titillation of the age. It’s simply that today they earn more money. They see those advertisements in the Sunday coloured supplements – all those smartly-clad people in their sleek open cars, all of them experts in food, drink and internal décor, all wife-loving, home-loving, and of course completely odourless.’ He wrinkled his nose. Yes, Sharpewhistle did pong a bit. ‘And what happens? Young people want these consumer durables for themselves. Nice houses, nice cars, nice wives, nice babies. Did you know that the number of women marrying under twenty-one was under sixty thousand a year before the war? While in the latest Registrar-General’s returns it was no less than
one hundred and sixty-one thousand
, the largest group by ten per cent–’

‘I do wish you would stop giving us a lecture, Lionel,’ said his wife shortly. ‘Just open that bottle of champagne. When are you thinking of the wedding, dear? After you both qualify at Christmas, I suppose.’

‘No, next Monday,’ said Muriel.

Josephine started. ‘You seem a little eager, dear.’

‘Monday?’ The dean looked irritable. ‘That’s quite impossible. I’ve got a meeting.’

‘It will be Monday,’ Muriel repeated.

‘But Muriel!’ objected her mother. ‘How on earth will you expect to have a wedding-dress by then? Or even a wedding-cake? And we can hardly expect our friends to come to the reception at such short notice. We couldn’t even have the invitations printed. We’d have to telephone everybody, which would take absolutely days–’

‘Monday.’

‘Surely you
want
a white wedding, dear? Not one of these hole-and-corner businesses in a registry office?’

Muriel swallowed. ‘I think a registry office would be best.’

The dean put the bottle down. ‘There’s no need to be secretive about it, you know. After all, a man in my position, dean of St Swithin’s, Fellow of the Royal College and all that, is rather expected to put on something of a show. Half medical London will be delighted to come and drink my champagne. The expense will to some extent be justified by helping my private practice–’

‘I think it would be better to have a quiet ceremony, Father. Then people won’t find it so easy to remember the date.’

Josephine clasped her hands. ‘But surely, your wedding day is a date to remember–’

‘I am having a baby.’

‘What!’ The dean dropped the champagne bottle. ‘You mean you’re…you’re… Good God!’

‘How nice,’ said Josephine.

‘Nice?’ The dean glared. ‘It isn’t nice at all. Not one bit.’

‘Don’t be stupid, Lionel. Most couples these days prefer to keep their independence by staying unmarried until the girl’s in the family way.’

‘It’s immoral. Completely immoral.’

‘Of course it isn’t a matter of morals, Lionel. Only of fashion. For centuries, hard-working country girls would never have dreamed of getting married until they’d clicked.’

‘Our daughter is not a bloody milkmaid.’

‘I suppose we could say it was a premature baby?’ suggested Muriel helpfully.

‘Do you imagine anyone believes that chestnut any more?’ demanded the dean angrily. ‘Look at them in the Sunday papers, actresses holding premature babies the size of primary schoolchildren.’ He jabbed his finger in the direction of Sharpewhistle. The young man had turned scarlet, and was pushing his back against the sitting-room wall as though anxious to break through the brickwork. ‘And it’s all your bloody fault.’

‘At least I want to marry her, sir.’

‘Marry her? You? By God, that’s out of the question.’

‘Lionel! Have you gone mad–’

‘Absolutely out of the question.’ The dean was a small man, but he could tower over Sharpewhistle. He jabbed him with his forefinger, hard on the sternum. ‘How
dare
you ask to marry my daughter. You, you bounder. You cad, who goes round putting innocent girls in the family way.’

‘But, sir–’

‘Shut up. Get out of my house at once. I’m not at all certain I shan’t want you at my office tomorrow morning, to answer for a blatant piece of student indiscipline. Thank God I didn’t open the champagne!’

‘Father, please be reasonable–’

‘You’re not much better, my girl. It takes two to make a quarrel or a baby. When did all this happen, anyway? Not under my roof, I hope.’

‘It was the night of the May ball.’

‘Oh? In your friend Tulip’s flat? I’ll have
her
in my office in the morning for sure.’

‘It was in Edgar’s digs. I didn’t go to her flat.’

‘Ah! You deceived me?’

‘Well, I… I suppose I’d drunk too much champagne.’

‘So you were fuddled? Half-senseless? Your inhibitions gone. A sitting target for ugly little pocket-sized predators like Sharpewhistle here. And who poured this champagne into you? I don’t have to ask.’ He gave a bitter laugh. ‘I noticed it. Don’t think I didn’t. Sir Lancelot, absolutely plying you.’

‘Father, why must you blame everyone in sight? Sir Lancelot was being very kind. He said a shy girl like me needed a skinful before she got in the mood.’

‘Mood? What mood?’

‘Sir Lancelot said that premarital relations were far less likely to kill you than smoking cigarettes, more enjoyable and much cheaper. That it was the only pleasure the Government hadn’t yet got round to putting a tax on.’

‘But what extraordinary advice for Sir Lancelot to volunteer to a young woman! To the daughter of his oldest and dearest friend and neighbour, into the bargain.’

‘That’s not fair. If you must know, I asked Sir Lancelot’s advice outright, during the party. That’s what he gave me.’

A door slammed. The dean spun round, staring through the window. Sir Lancelot was leaving his house, in ginger tweed knickerbockers and deerstalker, in one hand a pair of fishing-rods in cloth covers, on his back creel and net, in his other hand an overnight bag. The dean threw the window open.

‘Lancelot – !’

The surgeon glared. ‘Been making a lot of noise in there, haven’t you? Sounds like the last act at Covent Garden.’

‘I wish to speak to you.’

‘Sorry, cock. I’ve suddenly decided to go fishing.’

‘Good evening, dean. I’ve been ringing your bell for some time, but nobody seemed to hear it.’

The dean turned his head, to see Dr Bonaccord on his doorstep. ‘What the devil do you want?’

‘It was about my dyspepsia–’

‘What the hell do you mean, Bonaccord, coming along at this moment of supreme crisis in my life, and talking about your horrible dyspepsia? Though as a matter of fact,’ he added, ‘it might not be a bad idea if you came in and took a look at my daughter. Lancelot! Don’t you dare creep off like that. I demand an explanation.’

‘For God’s sake, dean. What’s the trouble? My plumbing rumbling again, I suppose? I assure you that I have problems enough of my own.’

‘Your behaviour is utterly disgraceful. I withdraw my offer of that delightful academic job.’

Sir Lancelot frowned.

‘What job? In my entire life you’ve never offered me so much as a drink.’ He started to move away.

‘Stop! I want to talk about Muriel.’

‘That is not a subject I choose to delay my going fishing, however delightful.’

‘You have ruined her.’

‘I beg your pardon?’

‘That is not putting it too strongly. You are responsible for fathering my grandchild.’

Sir Lancelot stared at the psychiatrist. ‘I say, Bonaccord. Be a good chap, will you? Get on to the relevant authorities and have an order made for the poor fellow to be put inside. Though if I were you, I wouldn’t venture inside his house without the strongarm squad. Absolutely raving, obviously. Sorry I can’t stay to help – with a bit of luck I’ll be tranquillizing myself on the banks of the Kennet before it gets dark. Perhaps you’d care for a nice brace of trout?’

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