Doctor Edward N. Quack GP MB BS, came to a shuddering halt in his tornado red Golf Sport. It was something the car often did of its own accord, since regularly the driver left the controls before stopping. The car was sturdy, however, and liked to do things on its mechanical initiative.
The private car park outside the surgery was deserted. Beads of perspiration sprang from the doctor’s forehead. His darting black eyes scanned the area for patients. Minutes crawled by. The griping pains in the pit of his stomach screamed at him. This morning, unusually, there were no public vehicles parked in spaces reserved for medical staff.
Edward tried to dismiss the irritable bowel. What would Elizabeth, his wife, suggest? Deep, relaxing breaths? Yes. That was it. Deep lung-filled breaths. Steady in, slowly out. And a vision of a tranquil sea. Must not forget the tranquil sea ...
Pains filled his stomach. Edward saw the stern end of a scuppered ship and a mountainous wave sucking up the wreck as the pains engulfed him.
Meditation, Elizabeth had recommended; let everything go and concentrate on your breathing. See your tranquil ocean or your green meadow, find your point of light and rise to a higher consciousness. He was trying, but where was the damned light? It was pitch black when you closed your eyes. Didn’t everyone know that?
Pains destroyed him again. In his opinion, two five-milligram valium and a double whisky were not transcendental, but they worked.
Edward relaxed in his seat and thought about a whisky again. It was then he saw his reflection in the mirror. Not bad, he thought, for early forties and a crushing workload. The eyes were still intense, the mouth firm and mature, cheeks high and distinguished.
He arched his eyebrows and gave himself a twisted grin. The type of smile he reserved for the most challenging of his patients. Yes, he still possessed a bedside charm, despite the tiny lines crowding the corners of his eyes. Fifteen years of general practice had etched them close to his temples, where, once in his twenties, a shock of dark hair had fallen.
He found himself longing for the cool blue lavatory situated on the top floor of the surgery. A cool blue oasis in a medical desert, reserved for his own use. The only place in the world where he could pass as much wind as he liked, without the risk of someone hearing him. At home, in the en suite, a banner strung across the door reminded him that the very loo roll he was about to use was responsible for half of the planet’s deforestation. Whilst the ancient plumbing system upon which he sat, chemically endangered human kind’s most diverse eco system. But in his third-floor surgery loo, he could sit in the blue room for as long as he liked and dream of buttered toast and cholesterol-eggs and Kentucky fried chicken, light years away from the reality in which he now found himself.
Seventeen years on from his marriage to Elizabeth and he was sliding down the slippery slope of yet another high-fibred week. A can of unadulterated apple juice lurked in his pocket and half a kilo of nuts and raisins had been Sellotaped to his stethoscope.
Had he changed that much? Had he allowed himself to become a pawn of this alternative society? Was he now a vegetable-eating wimp of a man, who did not have enough backbone to refuse his wife’s soya and, instead, demand steak? How much longer could he go on being something he wasn’t? By God, even camels didn’t eat as many dates as he did.
Suddenly the silence of his private grievance was broken by church bells. He registered them vaguely as the awful rush of last night’s nut roast gurgled under his rib cage.
Edward opened his car door and imagined the little blue room. He lurched forward, vowing not to stop for anyone. Not even Mrs Willoughby’s outstretched hand bearing the day’s unsigned prescriptions. Nor would he acknowledge the rows of pasty-faced patients, staring owl-like towards his consulting room. He would aim for the stairs and the promised relief at the top of them.
“Morning, Dr Quack!”
He recognised the voice as Mrs Argyle’s, an ancient surgery hypochondriac, who appeared in front of him. A squashed animal of some kind, pulled low over her eyes, was wrapped around her head.
Edward considered bolting, but in view of his circumstances, reconsidered.
“I said,” came the greeting once more, “good morning, Dr. Quack.”
“I heard you the first time, you old bat,” muttered Edward, under his breath. “I said, up with the lark, are you, Mrs Argyle?” He could see the venomous eyes under the fur, freezing him to the spot.
“Depends,” squawked the red lips, “larks stopped singing hours ago. That’s church bells you can hear - eleven o’clock service!”
Mrs Argyle wondered why the man staring at her with a crazed expression, had not been struck off the medical register long ago. He was still running around loose, mad as a March hare, unaware that his trouser zip was undone. He was, however, good for some of her needs - other than diagnosis of illness, something she could do well enough herself on Google. It was the writing of the prescriptions she couldn’t do. But a concentrated ten minutes in the idiot’s consulting room, soon resolved this problem. Rarely had she left the surgery without the medication of her choice.
“Mustn’t keep you,” she muttered.
Edward threw himself at the surgery door. He twisted the knob, pulled it viciously and tried to keep calm. He attacked the door again, but to no avail.
At last he turned limply toward the smiling gorgon. “Must be stuck,” he said flatly.
“Or locked?” she offered waspishly.
Edward frowned. “Why should it be locked?”
“I should have thought that was obvious.”
Edward looked around him suspiciously.
Mrs Argyle heaved up her bosom and narrowed her eyes. “Take it from me that I’ve never known that door to open of a Sunday, and God knows I’ve tried. On the point of death I’ve been and cried like a baby for attention. But does that door open? Not likely. Not on a Sunday, it won’t.”
“Sunday?” Suddenly it all made sense to him. Ovens oozing slow-cooking roast beef. Bells pealing. A deserted surgery. And a locked practice.
He stood immobile.
“A spare pair of keys would come in handy,” advised Mrs Argyle as she turned away and, like a festering wound, the temptation exploded within Edward to grind the obnoxious woman into the earth. Her great, swaggering bulk seemed to broadcast her triumph over him.
He limped dejectedly back to the car. There was no rush now. The accident had happened!
He opened the car door and folded a copy of the Telegraph over the seat. Sitting down was hell, but he persevered and opened the window. He would soon be home.
He started the car and comforted himself with plans for the future. He would not allow this to happen again. His irritable bowel would be re-educated. Elizabeth wouldn’t like it, but he would insist on the food he preferred. Fries, eggs and bacon, steak pie, pancakes and buttered crumpets.
Distractedly, he swung the Golf out into the road. Peanut butter sandwiches and treacle tart, he visualized longingly, as the car hurtled toward the Avenue.
“I shall insist on full-cream milk and a whisky before my dinner,” he muttered, staring sightlessly ahead.
The driver of a yellow Mazda swerved to avoid the Golf coming towards him on the wrong side of the road. But in no time at all, Jack Andrews, resident of thirty-six Mayfly Road, found himself looking dazedly through his shattered windscreen, at the moron who had just driven into him.
Normally a peaceful, law-abiding soul, a killer’s instinct now leaped within Jack. Why had he not finished off his damned menace of a neighbour, when he had the chance last week? Accidents happen on pedestrian crossings.
He just hadn’t had the nerve. And now he regretted it bitterly.
Mrs Argyle was not unduly worried about being late for church. At last she had beaten the system. True, Quack was the weakest part of the system, but nevertheless, still the system. She’d shown the National Health up for their true colours; exposed their inefficiencies.
She stepped heavily into the gutter to get a better look at the accident down the road. It was his car, the red Golf. He had done it again, carved up some poor soul and it looked a bad one too. People like Quack always escaped with their lives. It was the other blighter who suffered. Mrs Argyle stepped back on the pavement and arranged her fur hat neatly. A deep satisfaction spread inside her. She gazed up at the clear November sky and pulled back her shoulders. She was feeling much better. Cutting around this way to church had done her a power of good.
The diversion had really paid off.
Elizabeth Edward drew the heavy drapes and let in the sunlight. She sipped dandelion tea from a Staffordshire breakfast cup. The garden reflected her mood. Trees dripped steadily in the weak morning sunlight and the gutters on the outhouses sagged with soggy fallen pine needles. This confusion reminded her of Edward last night, trying to eat his meal in a wet overcoat. She had watched him steaming like a kettle, oblivious to the world around him, eating his meal.
Wouldn’t it have been an idea to take off the wet coat, she had asked?
No. That would have meant untying the string around his wrists securing the cuffs which would otherwise have let in the wet. But wasn’t it a good idea to have dinner comfortably?
No. He did not want to untie the string nor take off his coat, since he had not finished hacking the bush in the garden. At all costs, it had to be hacked more before nightfall.
The bush, a smooth, glossy-leaved laurel, had grown harmlessly into the cabbage patch for years and had supported the outer wall of the shed. But its time had come, when Edward had fallen over a protruding root. The bush was dangerous and had to be felled.
Elizabeth had thought the only dangerous thing in the garden was her husband. But argument was useless. Edward did not need a reason, he had found an extreme. Soon that part of the garden would be flattened and the surrounding muddle would be left to grow moss and weeds.
Moving across the room, Elizabeth stretched out lazily on the sofa. Edward would not be away long. She could, of course, have reminded him it was Sunday, but instead, she had pretended to be asleep, whilst listening to the bathroom noises and rushing steps downstairs. Edward had gone – mistakenly – to work.
Elizabeth smiled at the memory. She began breathing deeply. Closing her eyes she felt the tips of her fingers tingle. Her body relaxed.
The years had treated her kindly she began to reflect, despite living with Edward. Only yesterday Guy had told her she was an attractive woman. Thirty-eight was not the end of the world; she was well-preserved he had told her when she’d admitted to feeling a little jaded.
Elizabeth was well aware she could have affairs. But this, of course, she did not say to a colleague. Though lately she found confiding in Guy was of great help. But the children had swallowed up the early years and now there was a vacuum. Jessica was independent, a young woman of seventeen. At fourteen, Neville was a victim of modern technology, his room a no-go-zone.
Elizabeth sighed. These few precious moments she would use for herself, then she would phone her good friend, Kate.
Deep breath in, deep breath out. Look for the point of light, forget everything and just be. Find the quiet place. The place called Elizabeth. Soon she would be in a windswept field of corn, enchanted by the smell of ripened earth. The sky would be cloudless and blue and from somewhere close, the song of a thrush.
“E-liz-a-beth!” Her name jarred through the house like stones in a tin can. Her heart raced. The field faded, the birds fled. “Liz! For God’s sake, let me in!”
God no longer lived here, she thought bitterly. God had moved out long ago with something called sanity.
“Please?” His voice was soft and pleading. “Elizabeth, we may have our differences and occasionally I might be to blame for some of them. But it’s inhuman to keep me out here on the porch.”
Rising slowly to her feet, she went to the hall. Three long fingers poked through the letterbox trying to catch the key tied to the string. The fingers lunged, missed and scraped painfully on the sharp edge of the letterbox.
“Ouch!” her husband roared.
Elizabeth smiled. Edward did not like the sight of blood, curious for a doctor.
“Damn it all, Liz, let me in!” His voice broke pitifully.
Elizabeth slid off her robe and entered the downstairs shower. A few minutes later she emerged, wet and wrapped in towels.
“Christ, Elizabeth, what took you so long?” he demanded as she opened the door.
“I was showering.”
“Why the devil didn’t you stop me this morning?”
“I was asleep.”
He stormed inside. “It’s bloody Sunday.”
“Well, I didn’t.”
She watched her husband disappear upstairs, together with a copy of the Telegraph. When he came down for breakfast, she would tell him.
“It’s Sunday,” Edward protested as he sat in the kitchen eating his breakfast. “You can’t go out! Sunday is the one day we have together.”
“How kind of you to remember.”
“Sarcasm is the lowest form of wit.”
Elizabeth turned from the sink, her hair wet from the shower. Edward found this slightly disturbing, since he was attempting to persuade her not to go out.
“Stay home,’ he tried smoothly.
“Because I – the children – we are a family, for heaven’s sake.”
“We’ve been a family for the past fifteen years but you haven’t noticed.”
“This is nonsense,” he decided, wondering if the Savlon was working under his bath robe. The warmth of the Aga was beginning to make him uncomfortable.
“I’m going out to see Kate and I may stay over,” his wife informed him. “Meanwhile perhaps you could play host to your children. I’ve left lunch in the fridge but you probably won’t even have to serve it. No doubt they have schedules of their own.”
“Are you serious?” he spluttered, dropping his spoonful of Shreddies.
She turned to look at him. “I’ve never been more serious in my life. I’m not asking for your permission, Edward. I don’t need it. This is the twenty-first century, though, of course, you may not have noticed.”
Feeling at a disadvantage, he stood up. “You know they’ve brainwashed you, don’t you?”
He pointed his finger at the bookshelf. “Just because she’s written a bloody book on saving the whales.”
She gazed at him with pity. “It isn’t brainwashing. And it isn’t just the whales. It’s a million things you seem to have no conception of. The rainforests, the greenhouse gases, the endangered species, the rape of our countryside - the unconscionable practice of factory farming.”
Edward glared at his wife. “Shall we stick with something closer to home? Such as this damned irritable bowel, a result of all the rubbish you feed me. From now on, I want something decent to eat; real food, like eggs and bacon and fried bread.” He pushed his bowl resolutely across the table.
It was then that he noticed the dog. Its massive black bulk was stretched by the Aga. Two large, reddish eyes opened. A long tongue slithered from its jowl. Edward shuddered in fear.
“The last time you ate fried bread you had a heart attack,” Elizabeth reminded him.
“That was five years ago. I haven’t seen an egg since.”
“But you’re alive – just - aren’t you?”
Edward bridled. “My heart is not the subject here. It’s your nefarious dealings with cranks.”
“Cranks?” Elizabeth stared at him. “No need to worry about cranks, Edward. I’m fully qualified on the subject of cranks. One in particular!”
Edward began to feel threatened. “No need to raise your voice,” he faltered, “you don’t seem quite yourself.”
“I am more myself than I have ever been.”
“Let’s discuss this later. When you’ve calmed down.” The doctor studied his wife’s eyes and moved toward the pantry since the dog stood blocking his escape.
“Sit!” he tried forcefully. “Elizabeth, you are upsetting Lucifer. Make him sit ... please.”
“He doesn’t like you shouting, Edward.”
“But you are shouting at me.”
“And I have reason to. You’ve blamed me for everything. For not stopping you going to work on a Sunday, for poisoning you, for having friends of my own - ”
“Now don’t exaggerate, darling,” he backtracked. “I was merely pointing out the pitfalls of – ”
“You have control issues, Edward. They are ruining our marriage.’
He stared at her. “Me? Control issues?”
“And behavioural problems.’
He gasped. “I’m a grown man! You can’t say that!”
“And a closed mind.”
“Is there anything else you’d like to get off your chest?” he demanded incredulously. “I mean, don’t feel you have to hold back.” He watched his wife’s face harden and knew it was the sort of remark he should have made when the dog was not present.
“Yes, there is,” she said decisively. “My life has changed in so many ways since the children have got older. I’ve had time to consider myself. To find out who I am. And to meet new people, like Kate.”
“You mean she of the, ‘curing-cancer-by-sticking-pins-into-the-jugular’, variety of new people?”
Elizabeth sighed. “Reflexology and acupuncture are alternative treatments. They complement traditional medicine. There are no miracle cures. It’s not black magic.”
“So you would have me believe.”
“Even you, Edward, cannot be that prejudiced.”
He was about to respond when the animal began to growl.
“Elizabeth, please do something with the dog.”
“So am I.”
“Animals sense fear. You’ve never made an attempt to befriend him. Like everything else in life, you refuse to consider another’s point of view.”
“Dogs don’t have points of view.” He retreated towards the pantry. The dog followed stealthily. “Certainly not this dog. For God’s sake, the animal is ferocious.”
“He was mis-treated. His trust needs to be won.”
Edward frantically searched his mind for a reply, but the snarling distracted him. He was no expert on rabies, but ever since Elizabeth had rescued the beast, its jaws appeared to have grown frothier. “Oh bugger,” he cursed, reversing into the pantry and closing the door.
He could hear it panting outside. “Elizabeth, you will have to get rid of that animal. It’s either him or me!”
In the kitchen, Elizabeth motioned the dog to follow her. Quietly going upstairs, she changed into jeans and a sweater. Then she went outside to her car.
“Quickly, Lucy,” she called affectionately. With a powerful leap, the dog seated itself in the rear of the blue Volvo hatchback. One ear was perked to the human sounds still coming from inside the house.
Neville looked around the kitchen and saw little activity. Usually, there were saucepans on the Aga and the smell of fresh herbs wafting through the house. But, to his dismay, this morning, the kitchen was empty. The fourteen-year-old scanned the table, the dirty pots and the sink; there was no sign of life or food. Eating was Neville’s main preoccupation in life. There was one place he could always find something. Neville hurried to the pantry and pulled at the latch. He heard a click on the inside. The door swung open to reveal his father.
The boy pushed his glasses to the bridge of his nose. He had never found his father in a cupboard before. It was an interesting situation and Neville wondered how best to exploit it.
“Hi, Dad!” Neville decided to play for time.
The doctor looked at his son. “Where is the dog?”
“Lucy? Dunno. Why?”
Edward peered at the space under the kitchen table. “Where’s your mother?”
“Don’t keep asking questions. Was her car in the drive?”
“Don’t think so. Why?”
“Because, because - why aren’t you at school?”
“No one goes on Sunday.” Neville decided the mention of school was a danger signal. “Why are you in the pantry?”
“For heaven’s sake, Neville,” gasped the doctor, stepping quickly into the kitchen, “what does it look like?”
Neville scratched a newly formed scab on the side of his face. “Hiding?”
“It looked like you were hiding.”
Edward turned on his son with a look of exasperation. “I was simply looking for the marmalade. Why should I be hiding? Go and do something constructive. If you want a job, I’ve got plenty for you to do.”
Neville moved quickly. He didn’t care for his father’s jobs; unpleasant and unpaid. “See you later,” he called, hurrying off. “And Dad, the marmalade’s on the table.”
Edward found himself alone.
Jessica was still away and Elizabeth must have gone to Kate, a beetle-eyed, nosy woman, with revolutionary leanings. This talk of opening a new Foundation had driven him mad, especially since his wife refused to see his point of view. He believed alternative therapies were fundamentally flawed. Treatment of the human body and mind required the assistance of drug regimes. But she had been blind and deaf to his argument since she had taken up with that set. Words like homoeopathy, aromatherapy and iridology had been bouncing around the house for weeks until even Neville had managed to get his tongue around them.
He shuffled around the kitchen and made himself a cup of tea, trying to distract himself from the pain of his throbbing haemorrhoids. Wearily he climbed the stairs to the bedroom.
It was only when he saw the pair of tights that the idea occurred to him. It was a crazy idea, but might it work? He was alone and desperate...
Elizabeth would never know...