Posts Tagged ‘The Locum Tenens’

Sylvia Nora Townsend Warner (6 December 1893 – 1 May 1978)






















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 

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.

‘Mrs. Ackroyd?’


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

’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.’

‘Aye.. ‘And then, with a slow, broad grin, as if mocking 
her own taciturnity she added, ‘That’s right.’

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 

‘Well, you’ve got a very creditable pulse.’

The purr grew louder. He looked down at her. It

‘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.

‘Stop it! Please stop it! You might strain your heart’

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, 

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.’

‘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

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,

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.’

He rose from his knees, sat down on the bed, and took
 hold of her two plaits as though they were ropes to save a
 drowning man.

‘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.’

‘My love, my love, I don’t think that! May I undo this 
plait? I want to feel your hair.’

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 

‘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 was thinking I’d have it sent you after I was dead.’

‘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 

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.

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?’

‘Joseph Heaton.’

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.

Read Full Post »