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Authors: Richard Gordon

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13

Sir Lancelot Spratt was at that moment switching off the engine of his Rolls in his garage across the road from No 3 Lazar Row. The troubles left behind him hadn’t crossed his mind since seizing his fishing rod back that morning on the bank of frying-pan pool. Only as he reached the front door, reverently bearing the huge trout on a length of plank, did he wince at the prospect of mollifying an infuriated housekeeper. She would doubtless be luxuriating in a fit of the sulks, if he knew her – skilfully mixing an impression of offendedness and servility, perhaps with a hint of high-minded forgiveness, which would be insufferable. He unlatched the door and stood in the hall. Silence. It occurred to him suddenly that she might have fled. That would be even worse – having to get his own lunch, and Frankie inviting herself for dinner as well. But there were more important things to be decided first.

Sir Lancelot crossed the hall and pushed open a door into the small kitchen. He opened a cupboard and took out a hefty spring-balance. Heart pounding, he set it on the table, adjusted the pointer to zero, and gently laid the fish on the pan. He caught his breath as the needle spun round. Eight pounds two ounces. He touched the pan with his finger, but withdrew it guiltily. Eight pounds two was good enough. Almost the national record for a rainbow trout. He glowed as he already visualized it in its glass case, lacquered and glass-eyed, a brass plate below proclaiming
Caught by Sir Lancelot Sprats FRCS
, to be admired and envied in the rod-room not only by the major and the vicar but generations of fishermen yet unborn.

He heard the quiet tinkle of cutlery in the next room. He stiffened his shoulders. He had better face her.

Miss MacNish was in the dining-room taking the cover from a plate of cold ham and tongue, beside it a salad of lettuce, tomatoes and sliced hard-boiled eggs. She dropped her eyes remorsefully. ‘As I thought you might be late, Sir Lancelot, I put out something cold. I hope that will be adequate?’

‘It looks most inviting, Miss MacNish.’

She started to toss the salad. ‘Did you pass a comfortable night, Sir Lancelot?’

‘Perfectly comfortable, Miss MacNish. An outing is always the more enjoyable for being unexpected.’

‘I’m very glad, Sir Lancelot.’

‘Thank you, Miss MacNish.’

He sat down, suddenly realizing he was hungry. She went on with the salad, unseeingly.

‘Oh, Sir Lancelot – !’

‘Yes, Miss MacNish?’

‘I spoke hastily last night, Sir Lancelot.’

He looked at her with a compassionate but slightly pained expression, like the Recording Angel permitting a fresh start. ‘I think we had best overlook it, Miss MacNish.’

‘The tripe, Sir Lancelot. It all went to waste.’

‘I don’t think that need embarrass the household exchequer.’

‘After you left, I… I could have cut my hand off, Sir Lancelot.’

‘Nor do I think such radical surgery called for, Miss MacNish.’

He started on the cold ham. He wished she would stop mucking about with the salad and give him some. ‘It was very difficult about my cats, Sir Lancelot.’ He raised an eyebrow, hoping for the moment she had evicted them, or dropped them in a sack into the Thames. ‘You see, I have so little companionship… I’ve no family left in the world… I never married.’

‘I’m sure, Miss MacNish, the last was not for want of asking.’

‘Oh, Sir Lancelot–’ To his horror he saw a tear splash into the salad, hitting a hard-boiled egg. ‘I nearly left you last night.’

‘Please feel free to resign at any time that you wish, of course. Though I make no secret that your absence would cause me considerable distress.’

‘But it’s unthinkable! I should never be happy away from you, Sir Lancelot.’ She stirred the salad more vigorously still. He noticed one of the eggs was disintegrating. ‘I’ve grown so used to you, Sir Lancelot.’

‘And perhaps I to you, Miss MacNish.’

‘I’m really…really very fond of you, Sir Lancelot.’

‘Naturally, I have over the years developed an attachment to yourself Miss MacNish. Living in close quarters, that is inescapable. Do you think I could have a little salad?’ Women were prey to emotional disturbances at her particular time in life, he thought. It was best to humour her. ‘Perhaps you and I
should
see a little more of each other. It’s quite abnormal that we should be so near and yet so far, if you follow me. I don’t see why we shouldn’t be intimate, do you, Miss MacNish?’

‘Oh, Sir Lancelot!’ Turning pink, she spooned some greenery on to his plate.

He was pleased to see her touched by his kindness. ‘Now if you’ll excuse me, I have a lot of work to get through before our guest arrives this evening. I know Dr Humble appreciates your cooking – though not nearly so much, I’m sure, as I myself.’

She hurried from the room in delighted confusion. ‘A plump and pleasing person,’ he quoted absently. He drew from his inside pocket the dean’s obituary. He read it again carefully as he ate everything in sight – the ham, the cold apple pie, the chunk of Stilton, the dish of walnuts pickled by Miss MacNish herself. He uncapped his fountain-pen to make an alteration.
Lychfield’s later years were undeniably of some sadness, and sometimes of some embarrassment, to his family and friends, after he was abruptly seized with a madness involving bizarre hallucinations
. Sir Lancelot looked up. He wrinkled his nose, He began uncontrollably to tremble. Slowly, he forced himself to cast his eyes round the room. There was one about somewhere.

He laid down the pen. He clasped his hands, turning the knuckles white. He could not do without Miss MacNish. She and her vermin were hopelessly inseparable. So he must make the superhuman effort of tolerating them. ‘Tenderness,’ he muttered. ‘Like a baby.’ He started violently. There was Kensington, the lean grey one. It was sitting on the ledge of the open window, washing itself.

‘Pussy-wussy,’ said Sir Lancelot.

Kensington leapt from the window and rubbed itself against his hairy tweed trouser-leg, purring loudly.

He gingerly reached down a hand. ‘What a nice little baby you are! What a bonnie child! Diddums, then? Come to daddy, there’s a dear ickle fing.’

He suddenly scooped it up. He sat with it on his knee, stroking it vigorously. A broad smile broke across his troubled features. ‘I’ve managed it! All done by transference. By God, that feller Bonaccord can’t be so damn stupid as he looks. Nice baby! Pretty puss!’ He went on stroking it delightedly. It struck him the animal was more docile than usual – most fortunate for such a delicate experiment. He supposed it had recently been fed. It had settled comfortably in his lap, eyes closed, still purring contentedly. Then Sir Lancelot noticed a flake of pinkish, raw fish caught in the fur of its back.

Kensington went flying. He pulled open the door of the kitchen. Chelsea, the black one, looked up in surprise. It was perched on the scales, with some fish-bones, some fins and the head. It leapt for cover under the sink, but Sir Lancelot was too quick. He grabbed the cat by the tail and held it up. The door from the hall opened. Miss MacNish stood on the threshold.

‘My poor Chelsea!’

He dropped it squawking to the floor. ‘Your bloody cats have eaten my fish.’

She glanced at the remains on the scales. ‘In that case, I am extremely sorry, Sir Lancelot. I am quite prepared to reimburse you the cost from my wages.’

‘Cost! Do you realize, woman, that fish was entirely irreplaceable? Why, those cats might just as well have finished eating the Mona Lisa.’

‘I’m afraid they were rather hungry, Sir Lancelot. They wouldn’t look at the new sort of cat-food I tried on them this morning.’

‘I don’t care if they were starving to death–’

‘You were very cruel, holding Chelsea up like that. It couldn’t have been any good for its tail-joints at all.’

Sir Lancelot said something which even at that moment surprised him. ‘You’re sacked.’

She stared at him. ‘How can you say that?’

‘Why shouldn’t I? When the happiness of a lifetime has been consumed by your cats.’

‘One moment you are making indecent suggestions to me–’

‘What!’

‘You call yourself “an English gentleman”. Well, the whole world knows what that means. An English barefaced hypocrite. Don’t you imagine I haven’t noticed the hungry way you’ve been looking at me–’

‘How do you expect me to look, when I’m waiting for my blasted dinner?’

‘Then just a moment ago, you suggested intimacy.’

‘Good God. You must be mad. Absolutely mad. Like the dean. I’d be obliged if you kept strictly to your flat until you leave at the end of the month.’

‘I shall be leaving today, thank you. You can hardly expect me to spend another night under the same roof as a dirty-minded old man, can you? Though in my book, cruelty towards human beings is not nearly so revolting as cruelty to poor dumb animals who can’t stand up for themselves. Come, you poor dears…’

She gathered both cats from the floor. She left the room. Sir Lancelot stood gazing at the remains on the scales. Slowly, he shook his head. ‘The enormous skill I brought to that catch,’ he muttered brokenly. ‘That superb cast, under the bridge…’ He produced his handkerchief and blew his nose loudly. He went out to the sitting-room, collapsing into his chair, staring ahead blankly. Half an hour went by, before he heard Miss MacNish thumping downstairs with her cases. He looked through the window. She was clutching a brown wicker basket which moved of its own accord. He supposed she had telephoned for a taxi. He certainly wasn’t going to offer her a lift to King’s Cross. The door slammed violently behind her. He shut his eyes. He hoped the cats would enjoy the bracing fish-scented atmosphere of Aberdeen.

14

When the front door of No 3 slammed after Miss MacNish, the dean in No 2 winced as his silver running cups rattled once again in their glass case. ‘I do wish the fellow would learn to leave his house in a civilized manner,’ he muttered irritably. ‘You’d imagine that every time he went out he was being blasted off to the moon.’

He turned back to the sitting-room sofa, on which lay Dr Bonaccord with a bare midriff.

‘So it’s nothing serious?’ asked the psychiatrist anxiously.

‘I don’t think so. The history hardly suggests a peptic ulcer, nor anything particularly definite at all. I am certainly not anxious to submit you to barium meal screening, or anything quite so uncomfortable at this stage. We’ll wait and see. Drop in again in a fortnight.’

Dr Bonaccord sat up, tucking a mauve-striped shirt into his trousers. ‘Then what’s the cause of the pain?’

‘As far as one can pinpoint a cause for these things in every case, I would say irregular and unsuitably cooked meals.’

‘The bachelor’s perennial problem?’

‘It would seem so. Even in these days of instant pre-cooked everything. Couldn’t you employ someone to do for you?’

‘They’re not easy to come by. I’ve cast my eyes round, but without much success.’

The dean gave a laugh. ‘Well, I can only suggest you take a wife, Bonaccord.’

‘That treatment might be a little radical. I’m too set in my ways.’

‘Oh, come. You’re a young man. Not like me. I’m well into middle age. I’m finished. All passion spent. A burnt-out roman candle. Or perhaps only a squib?’

Dr Bonaccord at once looked interested. ‘How long have you suffered from those sort of feelings?’

‘About six months. Since my son George got married.’

‘Perhaps you’d care to talk to me about them?’

‘Well…now you mention it…’

‘Why not make yourself comfortable? Lie down.’ A little shamefacedly, the dean took his patient’s place on the sofa. Dr Bonaccord brought up a chair at his head. ‘What’s the main trouble?’

‘That I have nothing whatever left to aim for in life. Nothing! All that lies before me is a well-tarmacked dead straight motorway leading to the grave.’

‘Ah! The death wish.’

The dean looked up irritably. ‘I thought you psycho fellows had rather dropped that concept?’

‘A lot of Freud’s teaching has become unfashionable, of course. And personally, I simply don’t believe that
all
adult activities are sublimations of the sexual drive. Just because my secretary’s fond of bananas, for instance, doesn’t mean to say she’s an obsessional fellatrice.’

The dean looked rather shocked. ‘She…er, seems a perfectly healthy young woman. I mean, one couldn’t imagine her…that is…’

‘But there’s something in the death wish. It has been brought across to us very strongly by highly articulate men of genius. It’s the mainspring of Maugham’s
Of Human Bondage
, you know. There was Edgar Allan Poe, of course, absolutely obsessed by it. And John Keats! Do you know what he wrote to Fanny Brawne? “I have two luxuries to brood over in my walks, your loveliness and the hour of my death. O that I could have possession of them both in the same minute.” He wanted to do her and drop dead at the same time. You couldn’t be more explicit, could you?’

‘But what’s all this got to do with me?’ the dean asked somewhat irritably.

‘I was coming to that.’ The psychiatrist looked down at him thoughtfully, rubbing his pudgy hands together. ‘You are obsessed with the idea of your inevitable dissolution. Right?’

‘Well…quite obviously one’s view changes about such things. Before thirty, you take for granted that your span on earth is limitless. Afterwards, you’re inclined to see your days are numbered. That’s why the young drive cars so badly. I can’t imagine there’s anything pathological in that.’


Of course
our outlook changes. “At eighteen our convictions are hills from which we look; at forty-five they are caves in which we hide.” Eh? That was by Scott Fitzgerald, an alcoholic psychopath. What you need, dean, is something to shake you up. To give you a completely new interest. To change your life entirely, overnight.’

‘Funny you should say that. In professional confidence, I was offered a new job only yesterday. But I turned it down. Funked it, I suppose. It isn’t easy adapting yourself at my age, you know.’

‘Not when you’re suffering from the male menopause.’

‘Now you’re being disgusting.’

‘But you can’t ignore your menopause, dean,’ Dr Bonaccord went on earnestly. ‘It’s a purely physical condition, which Strauss described rather touchingly in
Psychiatry in the Modern World
– “the smouldering fire of the endocrines in which from time to time certain embers flare up, emit sparks and subside into cold ashes”.’

‘I suppose those sparks might possibly be fun,’ observed the dean unhappily.

‘Life loses its savour, its freshness, its excitement, doesn’t it?’ The dean nodded. ‘Look at you – tense, anxious, forever driving yourself onward, a perfectionist, ambitious, always keen to shine above your fellows, over-conscientious, avid for responsibility, taut, tired, exhausted.’

‘Exactly.’ The dean looked gratified with this diagnosis.

‘And your sexual activity not a patch on what it was?’

‘Only on special occasions.’

‘It’s useless my telling you to relax, to go on a cruise, to take a holiday. That’s only a layman’s way of looking at the problem. With nothing to occupy your restless mind you’d get worse. Even suicidal. You need this fundamental new interest in life, that’s all.’

‘But what?’

‘There’s the rub. Only you can answer that. You know, it is precisely this situation which makes a fair number of men of your age go off with much younger women.’

‘Oh, I don’t think Josephine would allow me to do that, for one moment.’

Dr Bonaccord looked at his watch. ‘I must be going, I’m afraid. I have another appointment in a few minutes.’

The dean sat up. ‘I’ve a good deal of worry, possibly aggravating my condition at this moment. My daughter Muriel, you know. Very trying.’

‘I’m afraid tension is normal in any family. Quite understandable, when you remember that with the Oedipus situation basically the son wants to castrate the father and sleep with the mother. Daughters have the Electra complex, of course, which is the same thing the other way round.’

‘Perhaps I should take up golf?’ the dean suggested hopefully. ‘At least it would keep me fit. We doctors should look after ourselves, I suppose. We die just like our patients, from exactly the same diseases.’

Dr Bonaccord smiled. ‘A little
infra dig
, you feel? Yet even the nicest patients enjoy an inward glow of satisfaction, or perhaps of triumph, when they hear their doctor has predeceased them. You know, dean, human beings are really the most peculiar objects.’

BOOK: Doctor On The Brain
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