Because of the telephone, Dr. Adam Hutton, the newly arrived locum tenens was occupying the conjugal bedroom. He got into bed, tilted the reading lamp, and pulled up the eiderdown. The moment he laid hold of it, he remembered the roast fowl at supper. The roast fowl had been good and substantial; so was the eiderdown, and the phrase ‘spot lessly clean’, which the eiderdown demanded as its due, could have applied with equal propriety to the fowl’s accompanying bread sauce.
Everything in the room brandished cleanliness, merit, and substantiality, while, at the same time, the colouring of wallpaper, carpet, and curtains plainly indicated that they had been chosen because they would not show dirt. ‘All the best bedrooms in Horn Street must have been like this,’ he said to himself. ‘Still are, for that matter, I dare say.’ Behind a chink in the curtains (he had pulled them apart to look out) the windowpane glittered like a diamond, and in through the opened window came the familiar, grimy smell of the industrial West Riding. He had not smelled it for nearly thirty years.
But in his youth he had only guessed at such bedrooms, deducing them from furniture shops and advertisements. The cleanliness, merit, and substantiality of his own surroundings had been of a shabbier, more arduous kind, and the smell of grime much more insistent, while he, with the thudding industry of a small engine, had fought to learn, and to be able to go on learning, until, by the end of his teens, he had finally learned himself out of his station and away from his birthplace, never to return. Get-on-and- get-out, get-on-and-get-out, get-on-and-get-out. . . If they had not been the words of his private heart, the print ing shop across the street would have dinned them into him.
And he was still within the letter of his vow. He had not returned. This was Mexley, not Goatbridge. Identical in griminess and clatter, eclectic hideousness of public buildings and stoical ugliness of working-class streets, Mexley and Goatbridge and Hudderbeck and Wendon and Gullaby, sprawling one into another and laced together by trolley buses, were identical in mutual contempt, Goatbridge averring that folk in Hudderbeck never shut a door after them, Hudderbeck and Wendon cherishing a legend of what went into Mexley pies, Mexley, Goatbridge, Wendon, and Hudderbeck jeering at Gullaby greenhorns, and Gullaby on its hillside looking down on their smoky rooftops as on the Cities on the Plain. ‘God knows what got into my head,’ said Adam Hutton; and opening the street map of Mexley, which was not Goatbridge, he began to memorize its layout. Knowing Goatbridge, he found it easy enough to put Mexley together by its street names. Foundry Street, Wharf Street, Hoggle Yard and Slaughter Yard and Tanhouse Yard, Bull Ring and Laystall Lane – that would be the old part of the town. And Douro Crescent and Portico Place would be the former residential quarter, left now to brass-plate users, solicitors, and town offices – he need not trouble to memorize that square of the map. Odd, though, that he could not find Horn Street. Realising that Horn Street had got in from Goatbridge and that he was half asleep, he put out the light.
In his dream it was a Christmas morning, and the Goatbridge Brass Band was standing on the roof of the fire station, playing ‘Christians, awake! Salute the happy morn.’ But he was in a double bed in Mexley, and the telephone was ringing. A voice that might have come from any one of his aunts said, ‘Is that you, Doctor? I’m in the call box – Mrs. Bella Heaton – and it’s Joseph. He’s been throwing up these last three hours, and I don’t like the look of his nose, and his feet are like ice, and- ‘
‘I’ll come at once. But first tell me your address.’
A voice completely changed and concealing ineffable astuteness remarked, ‘You aren’t Dr. Walker, though.’
‘No. Dr. Walker’s in Wales, on his holiday. I’m doing his work. Now, tell me where you live.’
‘Oh ! Well, I dare say you might as well as not.’
As he left his room a door across the landing opened, and Miss Linda Walker appeared. ‘Oh dear! Your first night, too. I’m so sorry.’ She wore a blue dressing gown. She had put on her spectacles. Her hair stood out like brass filings. ’Can you manage? Will you be able to find your way?’
‘Perfectly. Mustn’t wake your mother.’
When he returned the hall light was on and a thermos, a mug, and a plate of sandwiches stood on the hall table. Yorkshire hospitality. Mrs. Bella Heaton had already forced cocoa and seed-cake on him. But he ate the sandwiches, for the raw air had given him an appetite. After leaving his patient he had gone to view Goatbridge by the pale moonlight, driving back by the Gullaby Road, whence Gullaby Old Church, silhouetted on the hilltop looked as alarming as ever, gaunt and yet glutted, its churchyard crammed with enormous, jostling black headstones.
Breakfast was at eight. Porridge, ham and eggs, pikelets, potted shrimps, a blazing fire at his back, and a purple radiance shed on Mrs. Walker’s spotlessly white hair from the band of coloured glass in the window. He was so insistently fed that he could barely get in his thanks for the thermos and sandwiches.
‘Linda’s her father’s daughter,’ said Mrs. Walker in tones of mild pride. ‘She knows. What’s our motto in this house, Linda dear!’
‘Keep up the doctor, and he’ll keep up the patient.’
‘That’s right. And you may rest assured, Doctor, if you should be out on a night call, Linda will always have something ready for you, no matter how often. And when you’ve finished your breakfast, she will be ready to show you the files and the forms and the registers and the day book and the appointment lists. Linda does all the book- work, and she’s qualified as a dispenser. She’ll make a wonderful wife for a doctor, one of these days.
‘ Even for a mother, Mrs. Walker was shameless. Linda was not shameless; she was merely willing.
Adam had no fears. It was only a fortnight, and he could be heartless for much longer than that. He would be heartless, civil, and inscrutable.
But as the day wore on, with surgery hours, and visiting, and midday dinner, and visiting, and a groaning tea table, and surgery hours again, it was to himself that he grew inscrutable. What the devil had possessed him to come here – What sentimental lunacy, what decrepitude of mind?
Getting on and getting out, he had finished his training, and travelled on a research scholarship, and passed the war years as an Army doctor, and spent his accumulated pay on buying a partnership in a South Coast practice; and then, not liking the shape of National Health Service, had got out of that and into the research laboratories of a new firm that was making a good thing out of vaccines and antibiotics. There he proposed to remain, well paid, well thought of, interested in what he was doing, and near enough to London to be able to ease himself into a degree of culture that would make his old age creditable and entertaining. And then, because he was glancing through the British Medical Journal in order to compare his firm’s advertisement with the advertisements of other firms, ‘Mexley West Riding’ caught his eye. What followed was dementia. Reading that Dr. James Walker required a locum tenens during the second fortnight in March, and even while scornfully commiserating the wretch who could only get away for that meagre release, he became con vinced that if he did not snatch at this chance of going to Mexley, the rest of his life would be meaningless. So in tense was his madness that not even the words ‘live as family’ could deter him. He had been going to Rome in April. Changing the date of his holiday, he arranged to go to Mexley in March. But why! But why! To be within smelling distance of the Goatbridge gasworks when the wind blew from the sweet south! To hear the Mexley Choral Society rehearsing Stainer’s Crucifixion? To discover experimentally what went into a Mexley pie? With the whole vehemence of his Goatbridge breeding he exclaimed, ‘Mexley !’
But by his third day in Mexley, subdued by hard work and harsh air, grossly hungry, grossly sleepy, shamelessly trifling with Mrs. Walker’s shamelessness and automatically relying on Linda’s willingness, Adam began to feel it almost a matter of course to be there. In the preliminary correspondence, Walker had said that he would leave a detailed list of the patients under treatment, so that his locum might know from the start what would be required of him. This list turned out to be a great many slips of waste paper scribbled over with mysterious abbreviations – patients and treatments intermingled with memoranda about drugs that would need to be replenished lyings-in to be expected, and fishing tackle that Dr. Walker would want on his holiday. These were piously handed over by Linda, but every morning she supplemented them with a neatly written schedule, telling him in a sweet full voice that Mr. Bucklaw and Mrs. Protheroe were cancers, that Miss Eden’s boy was an epileptic, Mr. Murgatroyd a faker, ‘And old Mrs. Robertson – she’ll expect to be looked in on to-day – is another. But you mustn’t tell her so; other wise she’ll send for you in the middle of the night with a heart attack.’
‘I don’t know why your father wanted a locum. You could do it all, and cook the pudding into the bargain. Who are these other regulars for to-day?’
Smiling, flushed with pleasure, she replied, ‘Mr. Holmes, disseminated sclerosis. Ben Trotter, Parkinson’s disease. Miss Rawson, arthritic and bedridden. Mrs. Ack royd, cardiac dropsy. They’re all in Tanhouse Yard, so you’d better leave your car in Bull Ring. And if nobody answers the door at Number Eleven – that’s Mrs. Ack royd it will be because the niece she lives with is out fitting. She dressmakes. So just walk in and up the stairs to the front bedroom. But mind the stairs. Father says they’re rotten, and the coffin will have to come out by the window. They’re shocking places, those houses in Tanhouse Yard. They ought to be pulled down. Nobody lives there but remainders.’
Still flushed, still smiling, she straightened the papers and went away, for it was part of her willingness that she knew when she was done with. As soon as she was out of the room he unstraightened them again, pencilling in queries and alternative medicaments. Walker was still in the epoch of Ferri Phos., Tinct. Val., and Card. Co. This was a pity; for as a musician reading a single orchestral part can deduce quite a lot about the composer’s merits, Adam, reading Walker’s clinical notes, often perceived acumen, and some times even diagnostic brilliance. Someone really ought to overhaul the old man and bring him up to date.
Most of the younger patients were ready enough to be brought up to date. They had read articles on modern medicine in popular papers, knew that recent discoveries were wonderful, and asked if they couldn’t have some of these injections, like Aunt Gertie when she died in the hospital. No such readiness was shown in the quarter between Foundry Street and Laystall Lane, where the uncontaminated voice of Mexley remarked, ‘Doctor never give me blue physic’ or ‘Hayen’t you any of t’old stuff left?’ or’ Never set eyes on nowt like this.’
Miss Rawson, arthritic and bedridden, whom he found standing on a stepladder in a long flannel nightdress, engaged in putting a bit of shine on the gas bracket, consulted him about her football pools and, finding that he didn’t know much about them, gave him a long lecture on how to do permutations. When he got away he almost flinched under the westering light, which had broken through the day’s long dullness. Every detail of Tanhouse Yard was as brilliantly affirmed as if Vermeer had painted it. There was no answer when he knocked on the door of No. 11, so he pushed it open, to be confronted by a dress- maker’s dummy, alarmingly actual in a flimsy white satin wedding dress. If it had not been for Linda’s directions, he might have taken it for the ghost of Anne Boleyn or some such headless heroine. But, of course, that onslaught of raw light had left him dazzled.
He went upstairs and into the front bedroom, and into another attack of light and of pictorial quality. The high double bed faced the window. Exactly centred in the bed was an elderly woman, sitting up against a heap of pillows. She must have been a fine robust creature in her time, and she still displayed tokens of an obstinate vitality; for her hair was the hair of a young woman, smooth nut-brown hair, very thick, and plaited into two great ropes that hung down over her subsided breasts. But what overwhelmed him was the way she queened it over the bed. Never – so it seemed to him – had he seen a bed so mastered, so pos sessed, by its occupant and though she had those subject pillows heaped behind her, her spinal column needed no such support. Straight and sufficient, it could have carried the weight of a pediment poised on that large shapely head with its ropes of plaited hair.
Her voice conveyed nothing beyond local breeding and the fact that this was no Miss Rawson to delay him in con versation. He asked his questions and examined her. To judge by her disease, she might be dead in a couple of months; to judge by her physique, she might live another two years. Her answers were brief, plain, and dismissing as though she knew all this for formality and waste of time. Her instinct tells her not to talk, he thought. A big black- and-white cat lay beside her, as unforthcoming as she. ’Company for you,’ he said, constrained by her lack of con versation to say something, however flat.
‘That’s right.’ Her eyes were so sunk into the stained caverns of their sockets that he could not tell their colour, or the direction of their glance. She did not turn her head, but as he opened his case and stood debating whether his alternative to the medicine Dr. Walker had been giving her would be any more to the purpose he felt she was watching him ‘Have you anyone to go to the chemist – Enright, in Church Street”?
‘ ’My niece.’
‘I’ll leave a prescription there. It might ease your cramp. She could call for it later this evening. Dr. Adam Hutton is the name.’ –
But was it taciturnity? It might be some sort of oncom ing coma. ’I think I’ll take your pulse again. ‘
As he took hold of her wrist, the cat began to purr.
The pulse rate was unchanged, the pulse itself a fraction steadier.
‘Well, you’ve got a very creditable pulse.’
The purr grew louder. He looked down at her. It ceased.
‘Was that you?’
‘I wondered when you’d notice it. It’s quite tiring to do. Aren’t you going to tell me I’ve got a creditable purr?,
Her composed expression hardened. The purr began again, easy and lulling.
At this, the cat sat up and examined him. Under their joint scrutiny, he somehow got out of the room. As he heard his hobbledehoy feet on the stairs, he realized that his departure had been exactly that – awkward, bashful, and incompetent, like the boy at Goatbridge; and when he reached his car, he only half believed that it was his, or that he would be able to back it out and swing into the stream of traffic.
No wonder that such women with their cats were burned for witchcraft!
A doctor has his professional magic, too, and by the end of the day Adam had contrived to forget about Mrs. Ackroyd. But that night, as he got into bed, he remembered how she had lain, majestic and central, and he felt a childish obligation to settle himself with equal dignity exactly in the middle of the bed. Almost instantly, he was asleep. All that night, he dreamed of Goatbridge, only waking for long enough to be aware of this before plunging back into a further depth of dream. It was the genuine Goatbridge. He walked through the familiar streets – Crane’s Lane, burrowing between the tall mills and crowed over by the stamping thud of machinery, and Union Street, with its abrupt falling perspective of mean little shops and sham- lavish barrows along the pavement edge, Technical Street and Jubilee Street, and Old Snout, and once, looking down from Old Snout, he caught sight of the canopy of smoky green and pink above the fairground and heard the steam-organ music, hot and strong, like a cough linctus. But the intensity of that bygone woe turned him aside and he went down Crab Street. There the trolley buses clanged by, the greasy brilliance of engraved and gilded glass ennobled the windows of The Dog Tavern, Dotty Jenny hurried along, whispering to herself, ‘No bread at the baker’s,’ and outside the Labour Exchange the men of his father’s generation were waiting in a queue to draw their unemployment money. But in some way all this was trans parent, so that wherever he looked he saw the rise and fall of the landscape – not just in a crannied view at the end of Church Street, or desolately preserved in the bluff of rock and sickly turf above the goods yard, but everywhere manifest, shouldering itself out of houses, silent amid the clatter of machinery, sombre through the neon lights of the picture house, rough underfoot though he trod on stone pavements. And sometimes it seemed that Goatbridge was something cast by a magic lantern on the dark moorland, and at other times it seemed that the moor was welling up through Goatbridge like a gathering mist.
In the morning, he woke knowing that this dream had in some queer way enriched him. It was as though he had borrowed the Eye of Time, and by viewing Goatbridge in its simultaneity of existence and non-existence had arrived at a complete clinical observation that would at last resolve his conflict of nausea and mysterious craving. So to Mrs. Walker’s inquiries as to how he had slept he replied that he had slept remarkably well.
‘And you’re looking well, too, if I may say so. Much better than when you came. After all, there’s nothing like one’s native air.’
Linda’s spectacles, so clean that they were like something in an operating theatre, flushed as she looked up. ‘But, Mother, Dr. Hutton comes from the South.’
There was a twang of reproach in her voice. Mrs. Walker said nothing. Neither did he.
But how on earth had the old schemer snuffed it out?
This was Saturday. On Sunday, Linda appeared in a purple tweed tailor-made, but a providentially difficult labour spared him from seeing much of it. At Sunday supper there was another roast fowl, and Mrs. Walker remarked that one wouldn’t think he’d been there only a week, he seemed quite one of the family. Linda reported that Mrs. Beaumont, encountered on the way home from evensong, had no words to express how wonderfully Dr. Hutton had put his finger on what was wrong with Delia. With intimidating frankness, Mrs. Walker asked Linda if Dr. Hutton wasn’t just the co-partner that Father needed. Turning to Adam, she went on, ‘I know I’d be glad to see it. I’ve been saying for these last five years “James, you must take a co. or you’ll be dead of overwork before you retire.” Now, can’t I tempt you with this nice thigh, Doctor?’
During Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday, Adam began to see his results, and to plume himself on his management of patients more intricate than Miss Beaumont. He spent his spare time studying their case histories in those files that Linda’s neatness made such easy reading. He began to be as the God to whom all secrets are known. The Hippocratic lust for intervenient power and insighted meddling sprouted up in him, all the stronger because he had cut it to the ground. By Wednesday midday he was saying to himself that as he had changed his course before, he might change it again, and go back to general practice, this time not in the genteel suburban Home Counties but in some town like Mexley, where sickness and death, with a greater variety of tricks up their sleeves, would be more interesting foes to combat – though not Mexley itself, where Mrs. Walker’s intentions threatened a higher price than he cared to pay. For that matter, there was also Walker, who might not match his daughter in being so very willing.
On Thursday morning, Walker’s daughter, instead of knowing when she was done with, hung about the surgery, fidgeted her way as far as the door, paused, and turned back.
‘I don’t know how to put it, but I must. I’m afraid Mother may have annoyed you on Sunday.’
‘When she said about this being your native air. She didn’t mean it unkindly – quite the contrary. It showed how much she thinks of you. But coming from the South, you might not take it that way. I’ve been feeling really worried about it.’
‘There’s nothing to worry about. As a matter of fact, your mother was partly right. I wasn’t born in the South; I just happen to live there. ‘
And now, if she asked the obvious question, what was he going to say? But though her lips parted, it was not in inquiry. She stared at him with round eyes, her healthy, high-coloured, rawboned face remade by its expression of compassion and enlightenment as though she had diagnosed a secret woe in him.
‘Do you think that’s so dreadful?’ he asked.
‘Well . . . Yes! Yes, I do. I can’t imagine anything more wretched than to live away from one’s roots. Of course, it’s nice to travel – I went to Switzerland once and enjoyed every moment of it. But I wouldn’t have enjoyed it – it wouldn’t have been like Switzerland if I hadn’t known I’d got the West Riding to come home to.’ He looked towards the window. Above the half-curtains it showed him the top of the lorry that was screaming past, the slate roofs and staring upper windows of the houses opposite, the murky sky, the whitening flashes where the wind bent the driving rain. Since the feeling her words had aroused in him was too foolish to be said, he would sing it:
’O Bay of Dublin, my heart you’re troubling,
Your beauty haunts me like a fever dream.’
‘Whatever you are, you’re not Irish!’ she exclaimed, and went away before he could stop her. Which was as well, since he had been so nearly betrayed into kissing the girl. He had been so nearly betrayed that when he got his car out from the garage he welcomed the grime on the wind- screen and the spatters of mud on the body as though they were so many bracing admonitions to him not to make a fool of himself. All that morning, he was on the lookout for such admonitions. They did not lack. He was recognized by Mrs. Beaumont, who was wearing a transparent pink raincoat, and good-heartedly waved a small bunch of mimosa at him. He waited for ten minutes in a traffic jam while two van drivers who had collided got out of their vans and circumstantially established that the other was at fault. His roof began to leak and he suspected he was getting a cold. But though the mimosa afforded him the pleasure of telling himself that Rome would not be like Rome if he hadn’t the West Riding to get away from, he knew that he was only being toppled toward leaving, as earlier he had been toppled toward staying. Perhaps this was what happened when one had no roots.
That night, Mr. Joseph Heaton, who had seemed to be recovering, died. He was an alcoholic, a surly old bully and incontinent. But he was dead. At the end of the match, death has suddenly outplayed Adam, sneaked a pawn into the back row and made a castle of it. Adam’s reaction was to feel that he now had no alternative. He would stay, he would root – not for any sentimental reasons but because he wasn’t going to be beat. If need were, he would marry Linda. So he thought, eating sardine sandwiches and feel ing delightfully cool-headed. In the morning he felt cool-headed merely. But during breakfast it seemed to him that he must have shouted these intentions aloud and been overheard. Linda ate like one suspended in a trance, and when he handed her the marmalade she took it as if he were worshipping her with his body and endowing her with all his worldly goods. Mrs. Walker said no more about Linda’s excellences. Apparently, she felt there was no further need to. In a voice that might have been breathing o’er Eden she remarked that Dr. Walker would be home tomorrow evening, and that it would soon be spring. In fact, she was wondering what best to do about the bedrooms. If he stayed on over Saturday night – and he had given no indication to the contrary – the best bedroom would have to be turned out on Sunday, a thing she didn’t like.
The gale had blown itself out, the rain was a drizzle, it was a discouraging morning for a man who had made up his mind overnight. Adam knew that his mind was made up, but he knew immediately that he had got a cold in his head. He would let sleeping decisions lie till the morrow, when he would talk seriously to Walker about that partner ship. Meanwhile, the patients he saw on his rounds all informed him that they wouldn’t be seeing him again, or that tomorrow they would be saying goodbye to him. It was irrational to resent being signed off like this; nevertheless, he resented it, and stayed longer and inquired more elaborately than he otherwise might have done. He had a long list, and in order to finish it he had to go out again after the evening surgery hours. By the time he came to Tanhouse Yard, it was so late that many windows were already lit up. The front-bedroom window of No. 11 was one of them. Well, Mrs. Ackroyd would not waste her penurious syllables on telling him she would not be seeing him again. If said at all, it would be said by him, and she would respond with an ‘Aye,’or a ‘That’s right.’
To-day the niece was there. She opened the stairway door, and sat down again to her sewing machine.
The bedroom seemed smaller, the bed larger, the sick woman more sickly and less splendid, though she lay in the same grand attitude and held her head as erect as before. The burst of sunlight had romanticized her. The bleak gas- light stripped all that away. The cat wasn’t there, either. Something else was. On the dressing table, dominating it, as she had dominated the bed, was a large photograph, a ’professional’ photograph, glossy and glaring, of the head and torso of a naked woman. Her hair was heaped up on her head in a sort of casque. Her breasts were casqued in nets of sequins and imitation jewels. Slantingly across the bottom corner was printed in italic capitals Betty d’ Orsay, 1928.
He looked from the photograph to the woman.
‘Ay. That’s me.’
‘You?’ he said again.
‘Aye. She’s me, and I’m her. It was done a couple of years before the show came to Goatbridge. But I’m still her. “All Our French Artists’ Models Are Alive.” ‘
‘Must you always laugh at me?’ He exclaimed, and fell on his knees beside the bed, and buried his face.
‘Poor Adam! You took love hard, didn’t you! I never saw a boy take it harder!’
He heard her cough as her breath gave out. After a pause she went on, ‘And you telling me you were Dr. Adam Hutton! I knew you the moment you came in. I’m glad you’ve got on in the world.’
‘Goatbridge Fair, eh?’ She said. ‘Half a dozen of us, lit up in hutches behind glass. And you came along with the rest for a sixpenny stare. Reckon you’d never seen a naked woman before.’
‘I have never seen a woman since.’
‘And picked on me. Poor Adam, it was the hard nut you picked. You might have got any of the others. And the letters you wrote, and the way you pestered me! You thought I was French!’ she exclaimed, and began to laugh.
‘You tried to talk French to me: “Je vous aime.” ‘
‘Why wouldn’t you have me?’
‘I was too young love. If I’d been five-and-forty instead of five-and-thirty, I’d have gobbled you up, back, belly and whiskers.’
‘What happened to you afterwards? How did you get here? No! Don’t talk! It’s bad for you.’
‘Well, whatever else, I didn’t forget you.’
‘And you got out that photograph.’
‘Aye. I don’t rightly know what for. But it wasn’t for a tease.’
He had already begun unplaiting it. Released, her hair sprang into his hand as if to be fondled.
‘Shall I purr?’ She said after a while.
‘Don’t do anything my darling. Lie back, and let me play with it.’
She lay back against her pillows, her hand following his through the mesh of her hair, her eyes dwelling on the photograph.
‘Poor Adam!’ she murmured, speaking not to him but to the woman of 1928.
‘Poor Adam!” That’s what you said then, when you wouldn’t have me. But now you say it better. Or I believe it more.’
‘Poor Adam! Poor Bet, too! But it had to be, like. Still and all, I’m glad I got out that picture.’
‘Will you give it to me?’
‘I’d rather have it now.’
‘Why not? There’s some brown paper in that top left- hand drawer.’
He wrapped up the photograph, and opened his case. It was too large to go in. He stared into his case as though into another world.
‘Did those pills do your cramp any good?’
‘They eased it a bit.’
‘I’ll leave you some more. I suppose I ought to go over you.’
She saw the agonized look on his face, and cried out, ‘No, no! That you won’t!
‘ ’Always the same cry. What a woman!’
‘Now you must go. Oh, for goodness’ sake, dust your knees! Is it to-morrow you’re leaving?’
‘Yes. Unless you ask me to stay. Oh, my love, my love!’
Briefly and calmly she considered it.
‘You must go, lad. Best for both, this time.’
When he looked back from the stairhead, she was dreamily replaiting her hair.
He sat for a long time in his car, shuddering and twisting his hands, shaken not by this classical grief of the present but by the untamed remembrance of his former woe. A prostitute was walking up and down, and presently she came and tapped on the glass. He shook his head, and started the car. He was at a loss where to go or how to get through the next few hours, till a sneeze reminded him that he had a cold, and could make it a pretext for going straight to bed.
On Saturday, Dr. Walker, getting his full pound of flesh, arrived late in the afternoon, as Adam had done a fortnight earlier.
‘Hullo, hullo! Well, here I am, safe back in time for tea, And how are you all? Hullo, Hutton, everything gone all right?’ Without waiting for an answer, he turned to his wife. ‘Ada! I’ve got a piece of news for you. Splendid news. But I must have a cup of tea before anything else. I haven’t tasted a decent cup of tea since I left home. Cat-lap!’
He poured the tea down his wiry gullet, handed back the cup to be refilled, rubbed his knees, and announced, ‘Ada, I’ve got a partner. I met him at the hotel, he was lunching there. He’d come to Llangibby for his aunt’s funeral – from Scotland, the deuce of a way to come for an aunt! – and was travelling back that same night. Well, we got to talking I took to him, he took to me. So far, he’s a trainee- assistant with a view – some place near Peebles, with a sulphur spa – but there wasn’t enough future for him. I soon found out that what he wanted was to come south and see the world. Come to Mexley, I said. We’ve got a bit of everything, even anthrax. Of course, he’s never had an anthrax, and his eyes positively sparkled. Nice-looking fellow, too, and quite young. His name’s Maclaren, and he’s coming to have a look round next week. So there you are, and I hope you’re pleased, Ada. ‘
Mrs. Walker said it was the very news she’d been hoping for, and that she rather believed Mrs. Beaumont had had a grandmother who went to a spa in Scotland – though she couldn’t say what was wrong with her. ’
Nothing at all, if she was like the rest of that family. And Linda, my girl, cut me a slice of cake, and get ready to find a nice little house for him. Not too far out. Or a maisonette. Lodgings won’t do, because of the children. Didn’t I say he was a married man? Well, he is. And an anaesthetist. Just the very thing we want. Well, now, Hutton let’s get down to it. Any deaths?’
Linda was toasting herself a crumpet at the fire. Her hand was steady, her face composed. Only when the crumpet fell off the toasting fork and she was so slow to retrieve it could one have guessed that her thoughts were sad and elsewhere. Poor Linda, Adam thought, one blow on top of another, rat-tat ! It was as though he had glanced out of his own tragedy and seen the sawdust trickling from a doll.
An hour later, he was driving south over the same route he had come by.
“The Locum Tenens” comes from the inimitable pen of one of the best and most underrated writers of modern times, Sylvia Townsend Warner. The brilliance of her writing is the result of a finely honed craft and constellation of writerly skills not often found in a single individual. Her acute eye and ear catch the defining moment when a glance picks out the particular image that frames the whole picture, and the defining note that imparts its tone to ordinary speech in a way that imprints its sound in the mind of a reader. Even the names of her grim and seedy Northern towns, Mexley, Goatbridge, Hudderbeck, Wendon, Gullaby, come smeared with an atmosphere of post-industrial grime of poverty and decrepitude worthy of Dickens, and the street names – Foundry Street, Wharf Street, Hoggle Yard, Slaughter Yard and Tanhouse Yard echo down the almost medieval antecedents of these places with the finality of shoveled-in clods thudding dully on a coffin freshly lowered into the grave.
The Spirit Rises is the somewhat sardonic title of Warner’s collection of short-stories, which includes the brief ‘homecoming’ turned ironic misadventure of the middle-aged and tightly buttoned-up Dr. Adam Hutton. This is no sentimental journey, but the Doctor’s irresistible compulsion to return to his raw and stifling origins. Cold fish though he is, deep in his heart is concealed a youthful passion which has somehow displaced all tender emotions and excluded all human attachments, in the irrational way that some dogs or cats attach themselves to a single human, and ignore all others. He has achieved his professional ambitions, he is well-off and financially secure, but it is clear that he has been unable to escape his past – a past which claims him even as it repels him, and draws him back to the origins to which he swore he would not return.
The tragic absurdity of ‘love gone wrong,’ and ‘lives gone wrong’ despite outward appearances to the contrary, is a subject well suited to Warner’s gifts. There are very few writers who are able to mix tragedy and pathos with a starkly unsentimental and ironical sense of reality and still plunge a reader into the murky depths of acute vicarious pain. The pain is made more bitter because both Hutton and Linda came so close to achieving a mutual salvation. Hutton’s dreams, his bursting inappropriately into song, his almost succumbing to the lure of matrimony, no matter how pragmatically, might have offered a redemption. Both he and Linda would have been able to root themselves securely in their native soil, and forge a human connection with each other.
Warner’s vivid portrait of the appalling plight of Linda Walker, hopelessly trapped as she is in her bourgeois role like a fly in ointment, (always a Doctor’s daughter and never to be a Doctor’s wife) is so vividly dealt with that it chills the blood. So assiduously sensitive and attuned to the needs and requirements of others, Linda’s virtue will be forever unrewarded. We sense that she will live with her elderly parents for the rest of her wasted life. It counts for nothing that she has sedulously and conscientiously trained herself to be the perfect doctor’s wife and assistant, because, after the evaporation of her one and only matrimonial prospect, there is no slot in the ghastliness of industrial West Riding into which she could possibly fit. All indications are that she will wither away in the parental home, her position as a fixture and an adjunct to her father’s practice, whittled away to nothing and permanently displaced, by the arrival of the young sprightly (and married) young doctor her insensitive father has chosen as the partner in his practice. But still we might suppose that Linda’s stubborn attachment – if not love – for her place of birth will persist, because we know she could not even have enjoyed the pristine beauty of Switzerland, had she not had the West Riding to return to. It is this bleak place, with its noisome atmosphere and squalid neighbourhoods, that holds her fast, and gives her at least a measure of ‘purpose’ to counter the otherwise emptiness of her life.
But Hutton will drive off into the night and pick up the thread of his uneventful life, sliding slowly and dismally into isolation and a dried-up old age, because he has by his very ambition, severed his own roots. His drive to escape his awful beginnings will no doubt carry him to a far more dismal end than he might have envisioned for himself. When he dies (I imagine intestate, for there seems to be no one to whom he could leave his estate) one can imagine that the bailiffs will open a drawer in his bureau , and find there, still wrapped in its original shroud of brown paper) the rather vulgar picture of a beautiful, naked young woman decked-out in in her passing finery of paste and sequins. They might crack a coarse joke or two about the deceased, and speculate about the secret past he concealed under his show of respectability, or even a hidden propensity to vice of a fairly harmless sort, but how could they know that the relic that had occasioned their awkward laughter was all that remained of the one and only love of a man’s life?
Love also bypassed Betty d’Orsay (how she could ever have honestly come by such a name?), stoically dying of something which seems to resemble congestive heart-failure, but Warner sets her off as a foil for the other characters. She lived the life she chose, single and independent and serenely ignoring the strictures of convention, which must have placed her beyond the social pale of even such peers as she might have had, had she taken to trouble to tolerate them. Her rejection of the youthful Hutton’s suit remains unshaken, even as death steals her breath and leans over her shoulder. She alone remains unbroken by life, her spirit as erect as her spine, her gift of arid humour and irony and her vast and substantial dignity show her to have maintained herself heroically free from and uncorrupted by weakness in a way that seems almost superhuman.
All the characters in this story appear in some manner to mere ‘place holders’ for something that has substituted itself for life. Their dreams are blighted, and their losses, acute. Life is passing them by even as they feebly flutter their wings as bugs do who are chloroformed before being pinned to the wax-board.
But Betty is different. She alone has lived, and continues to live – and it is her spirit alone that even in finality, seems capable of rising.