Russell Grimley

“You want your usual?” 

“Has she been in yet?”  Russell Grimley was on edge.  Sol Abrahams’ café, just across the street from his flat, was his sole supply of victuals in this last year, but just lately his erstwhile girlfriend had taken to eating there too.

“Marika?  No.   She don’t come in this early.  You want your usual?”

Russell gave a single eyebrow response.  Ever since Sol had introduced him to his special breakfast pasties he had eaten nothing else – they were too addictive.   “And coffee.”  Sol completed his order for him.  “I’ll get it for you.”

Russell bolted his food down, almost choking in his haste to escape an encounter with Marika, who he felt sure was stalking him, and to keep an appointment at his doctor’s surgery. 

He had no faith in the power of medical doctors to heal, and he had no faith in Doctor Staffana.   Even this morning’s act of attending Doctor Staffana’s waiting room, crammed as it was with the sniffling and the coughing, set his nerves to jangle mode.  However, the wait gave him time to wonder at Marika’s vengeful persistence, since they had mutually agreed they could not live with each other anymore.   Did she still feel aggrieved, just because he had sold her revolting pet dog while she was out at work?

“Does it hurt?”   Doctor Staffana gripped one of his shoulder blades with a vigour that threatened to tear it off.  Russell yelped.

“When did you first notice this?”  The doctor prodded the other shoulder blade.

“A couple of nights ago.”

“It was the pain, you felt?”

“No.  It hasn’t hurt at all, until you did that.  I just had the sensation of lying on two tennis balls, or something.  Then, last night, worse.”

“I think we must refer you, although I warn you, the waiting list for this specialist is very long.  In the meantime, take this course of antibiotics.  Any allergies?”

#

Mr.  Greybasin, the specialist, studied his notes, stared over the top of them, then hid behind them completely.   At length he allowed them to float to his desktop.  

“You have been coming to see me for six months, Mr.  Cringey…”

“Grimley.”

“It says here you are Cringey.  Are you not Cringey?  You seem to have the same complaint?”

“Never mind.  Cringey will suffice.  Can we do something?  This is getting worse!”

Worse?   Much worse.  The deformation of Russell Grimley’s shoulder blades was now so noticeable he was, in appearance, a hunchback.   At work, his specially made jackets and his built-up shoes had failed to disguise the prominence of the bones or control a peculiar hopping walk that seemed to go with them, and had earned him a street name: ‘Quasimodo’.

Mr Greybasin turned to his computer screen, perused the information upon it for a few seconds, then made some experimental stabs at the keyboard.

“Your case is most interesting.   Most int-er-est-ing.   Yes.  The concensus seems to be you have a genetic condition we call Proteus Syndrome.   Have other members of your family suffered similar bone overgrowths?”

“No!”

“Well it has manifested itself rather late, which is probably to your advantage, as it appears to have restricted itself to your scapulae.  There are those very pronounced clavicles, and we have to keep an eye on your spine, but the distortion may never spread further.”

“What are you saying –  I’m like the Elephant Man?   Can’t you do anything?”

“Your condition is very rare – however, we have come a long way since Mr. Merrick: there are certain drug treatments…”

#

In the months that followed Russell Grimley’s life became intolerable.  His condition worsened, prohibiting any attempts at sleeping, as had always been his custom, on his back.  What was more, his rapidly altering centre of balance caused his gait to degenerate into a series of hops which made the stairs from his apartment to the street almost beyond his capability.  Sol Abrahams was the first to acknowledge these changes.

“You don’t look well, Russell!  Why  are you walking so odd?   Do your feet hurt you, maybe?”

Soon after, Grimley’s employers, feeling that his profile no longer matched theirs, sacked him.   And now there was pain, sometimes so acute Russell felt that his shoulder blades must burst with the agony.   One afternoon, as he lay on his side in his bed with no reason to get up, they did burst.

Or at least, that was how it felt. It felt as if the blades had turned upon their axis and, true to their name, slashed like razors through the flesh of his back.  His screams echoed through the rooms of his fourth floor flat, turning heads far below in the street.  Unconsciousness, sweeping over him in a merciful grey veil, was his saviour at last.

#

In time he must wake, Russell told himself:whilst wondering how, if he was as unconscious as he thought, he was able to make such an objective assessment.   Colours whirled about him; his head sang to him in plangent tones.  Was he awake after all?  Was he drugged?

Russell tried blinking to clear his vision, once, twice, then again.  He tried turning his head to one side.  Yes, his eyes were capable of functioning, that was certain, but what they saw made little sense.  He was looking down through a whirlpool of detail to a central, stiletto-sharp object: the object, he suddenly realized, being Sol Abrahams’ nose!   So strangely altered was Russell’s vision it took him a moment to recognize Sol, a moment more to see that the café proprietor, standing in the doorway to his emporium, was looking back up at him.  There was nothing between them but the clear vista of the street, and Sol’s eyes were wide with terror!

#

Detective Sergeant Oliver Wadforth ran tired fingers through his hair, reluctant to meet the gaze of the strange apparition that faced him across his desk.   “Let’s get this straight.”  He said.  “You were perched on your windowsill, and you wanted Mr. Abrahams to help you?”

“Yes.  Although I prefer the word ‘sitting’ to ‘perched’.”  Russell was resisting a powerful urge to bang his mouth on the edge of Wadforth’s desktop. Speech was unaccountably difficult.  “I panicked!”

You panicked?   Imagine what that poor old man felt, standing in front of his shop, when he saw you looking like that, perched in a fourth floor window?  And then, to make matters worse, when you swooped down on him with those – those…”

“These?”   Russell asked helpfully, stretching his shoulders.  They were very new, his wings, and they felt stiff.

“Don’t!”  Wadforth made a grab for his paperwork, which whirled like butterflies before the draught Russell created.  “Don’t flap those things in here!”

“I didn’t think!  I mean, when did I learn to fly like that?  I woke up to find myself on my windowsill and I just wanted to get down to him, to ask what was happening to me, that’s all.  It all seemed so natural.  Will he be all right?”

“I won’t lie to you.  It was a heart attack.   He’s doing OK.   But what the hell do I do with you?  Technically, you’ve committed no offence, although there should be some law to stop you doing it again.  So I can’t charge you, but nor can I let you walk out of here like – well, like that.”

“You could call my doctor.  He’s been following my case.”

#

Mr Greybasin’s notes seemed to occupy him for a long time, a space Russell filled by banging his mouth on a peanut bar his receptionist had thoughtfully provided.   Eating was yet another of the myriad things that were proving more difficult as the hours passed, because he no longer possessed arms or hands to hold onto food, and he had yet to learn to use his feet, the talons of which still protruded through the wreckage of a pair of shoes.   Eventually Mr Grebasin looked up.

“There can be no doubt about it.”  He said.  “You are a bird.”

“Is it curable?”  Russell asked.

#

The ‘Cringey’ remained the City Zoo’s star exhibit for much of that year, and eventually it seemed Russell’s life story would be reduced to a placard that explained him to a host of curious visitors, who came to stand in open-mouthed awe before his cage.  His twelve-foot wingspan was majestic, his dark, green-tinted plumage a wonder to behold, so when he exercised in the ample space the Zoo provided his soaring flight filled the audience with admiration. 

His keeper was kind enough, though perplexed at his unique condition:  “Why, I know you must be lonely, like; but I’ve no idea where we’ll ever find a female to keep you company, and there’s the truth.”

Russell had long forgotten how to talk in anything other than a series of squawking cries, so when, in late November, he noticed Marika standing among his devotees he had nothing he could say, nor anywhere to hide.  The piercing focus of his eyes could not miss the smirk upon her face, forcing him to pause, humiliated, in the middle of shredding a dead rat his keeper had provided for lunch.

Thereafter Marika came every day; she came to his cage, and stood watching him or sat on a close-by bench, often eating one of Sol Abrahams’ special pasties.  She would flaunt the food before him, agitating him until he could no longer stay on his perch, but flew around his enclosure, seeking refuge.  Sometimes he even skulked in his night-box until she went away; but then, sometimes, too, he would vent his inner anger with a screeching sound he had invented, glaring down upon her with baleful looks.  And so matters endured right through the winter, until upon one early March day he noticed how large and loosely fitting was the coat Marika had thrown around her shoulders, and how she stooped.  Was it his imagination, or had her walk taken on a peculiar, halting gait?  No, there was no doubting her disability, and as it increased her visits became less frequent.  In May, they ceased altogether.

“It’s a miracle!”  Russell’s keeper enthused one day in June while cleaning out his cage.  “A perfect female match for you m’beauty, and a companion at last.  I’d start doing a bit of nest-building, if I were you!”

© Frederick Anderson 2021.  Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Frederick Anderson with specific direction to the original content

The Lady in the Wood

The Lady in the Wood

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From the horizon of my memory there was, had always been, a lady in the wood.

Walking or running among the fallen of an autumn morning when I was very young I met her there, picking wild herbs and toadstools from among the trees.  This was in the year my mother first sat me down before a piano.  The lady’s clothing was new to me, so as I described her to my father I likened it to the piano keys.  I did not mean it unkindly, Such was the picture I had of her, which would stay with me over time.

My father explained that the lady lived alone in the wood, and I must always be polite to her, so the ‘Piano Lady’ joined my list of those to whom I must always be polite, which in those days was just about everybody.   Was she another aunt, like the ones who visited at Christmas?

“She is not one of your family, Dominic.  Sister Augusta is a recluse, a very religious person.  In many ways, we are her guests.”

This seemed strange to me.  The wood was ours, a part of the ‘grounds’ surrounding our home.  Why was it acceptable for this oddly-clothed lady to live so freely among us, almost as though we were honoured by her presence?

“She’s a bride of Christ.”

“Does she talk to Him?”

“Quite possibly. I wouldn’t be qualified to judge.”

Further answers would trickle down to me gradually, with the years.  Long before I was born, my mother told me, Madders End was a priory.  The peaceful acre of green patrolled by our mower each summer once yielded to the feet of a dwindling order of nuns who tended vegetables in the walled garden where roses now grow or chattered noisily through echoing corridors where I ran, roller-bladed and played chase with a streak of white fur called Taffy.

For centuries Madders End novitiated a steady supply of fledgeling nuns, earnest women who craved the peace to be found within its doors.  But as centuries change fashions and devotions must alter too, so there came an age that brought no new brides to plight their troth to Christ.  One by one His ancient harem kept their appointments with Him in Paradise until so few remained they could no longer sustain their living at Madders End. The old house came up for sale.  My parents saw the place and loved what they saw.  They bought it, the house and all its grounds together – the stony beck which runs down to the River Madder past the orangery, the tranquil little garden alight with spring flowers where those who gave their love to God now rest, and the wood – the five-acre wood, with its solitary tenant.

Sister Augusta, like the little garden, came as part of the deal, her right to remain enshrined as a condition of purchase.  Years before, hearing the priory had a ‘hermit’ in its midst, a benefactor had supplied Sister Augusta with a caravan which was pitched, at her request, within the five-acre wood.  When the Church moved the last two of her Sisters in Christ to a care home Sister Augusta remained, stubbornly self-sufficient and really quite charming, to become my constant companion throughout those special growing years.

Our relationship began with the simple, direct language of childhood.  “How old are you, Sister?”

She looked genuinely perplexed.  “Do you know, I’m not sure.  How old do you think I am?”

“A hundred and fifty.”

“Well, that must be about right.  How old are you?”

“I’m six and three-quarters.”

“You’re very brave, coming into the woods alone.”

It was neither a very large wood nor a very attractive one.  No tree was particularly tall, or statuesque.  There was a lot of ground cover, brambles and the like, over which an anaemic mob of silver birches and struggling oaks milled like hungry gulls.   Early conversations between Sister Augusta (“You must call me Gussy, it’s easier”) and I were conducted sitting on a fallen birch log she favoured as a place for contemplation.  When winter came I would visit her at ‘home’, bringing newspapers from our house and a casserole or two prepared by my mother.

Sister Gussy’s caravan, for some reason, possessed no wheels.  It rested on railway sleepers to one side of a clearing in the wood, glaring defiantly out from the undergrowth with its big windows at one end, buried deep in verdure at the other.  Inside it was as clean and austere as you might expect, its only furniture a bed, a table, two elderly leather chairs and a little cooker that hissed and hiccupped its way through a cylinder of gas tucked from sight beneath its skirts.

Skirts?   Yes, ‘skirts’ were a distinctive influence in Sister Gussy’s décor.  From the heavy velvet divide shielding the dormer end of her caravan to the odd pieces of cloth that draped from curtain wires over every cupboard, nook and cranny; wherever there might be doors there was a ‘skirt’ instead, and each ‘skirt’ had an identity of its own. If Gussy needed the pewter dish from which she ate I would find it ‘behind the rabbits’, a shelf covered by a fragment of child’s pyjamas with a rabbit print; so, too, for her religious artefacts (behind the pink stripes), her toiletries (the pandas), and so on.

“So much better than cupboard doors which are forever falling off, or swelling and becoming stuck when the weather’s wet, you see?”

She had very few cubby holes in that caravan and very few possessions.  With a child’s frankness, I pointed this out to her in one of our early overtures of conversation.

“I have all I need.”  Gussy told me.  “The Lord provides, but He is a bit naughty sometimes, because He lets me forget where He puts things.  He is particularly mischievous in the spectacles department!”

Gussy’s heavy, brown-framed National Health specs were a constant vexation to her.  “They persist in hiding from me the moment I turn my back.”

The only other structure in Gussy’s clearing was a small wooden hut discreetly tucked away in the overgrowth behind the caravan, which she referred to as ‘The Necessary’.  The remaining open ground was her garden, planted with neat rows of turnips, carrots, beans and every naturally rooted comestible you could think of.  There were clamps of potatoes, forcing pots of rhubarb, stakes for peas to climb and raised beds full of herbs, although the visual clinicity of this earthly paradise was rather ruined by an array of polythene cloches and netting.

“The birds are absolute terrors, you see?  They are convinced they need my food more than I,”  Gussy explained, musing, as an afterthought,  “Perhaps they do.”

A small bed of marigolds grew discreetly in one corner of the garden.  I remarked upon these being her only flowers.

“Flowers are rather sinful, aren’t they?  An indulgence.  The Lord said I can get away with marigolds because they are quite nice as a tea and good for the skin, but He knows the truth, you see.  I believe I pointed out that chrysanthemums are very tasty too, but He thought that was a step too far.”

Many were the enchanted hours I spent, child and later youth, talking and reading with the ascetic recluse of our woods, while my family shared in the bounty of her garden because, like all well-tended gardens, it unfailingly exceeded its carer’s needs.   Her protest:  “I shall never eat all these!” as she sent me home with a trug full of goodness became familiar to our kitchen.  She might have shamed us for our feckless treatment of grounds that had once fed an entire priory; now so devoted to lawns and vanity they produced not so much as a lettuce, but she never did.

If I have given the impression that we had our darling Sister entirely to ourselves I have misled you. The winding lane by which, at some distant time presumably, the caravan had made its way to Gussy’s clearing was frequented by others too.  Father Macalbee, our local priest, visited once a week to take her confession, and I remember an acutely shy old man in a black coat who I unwittingly interrupted one day, deep in discussion with her.  I was about to retreat but he spotted me and retreated sooner.  He had a car parked in the lane.  He drove away.

“That is Paul,”  Gussy told me,  “A dear friend!  I am obliged to him for the provision of this caravan, and I have known him since the days when our priory prospered.  Alas, we are not so young these days, but he has been most generous to our church and he does not forget me.  We often pray together.”

For whatever reason, it may have been a visit to the caravan of a supplicant with a media presence, or maybe even an initiative by The Church itself, Gussy’s reputation as a solitary all at once became ‘viral’, and spread far and wide.  As I grew to youth I saw more and more visitors make the pilgrimage up the muddy lane to her door; some who sought only her blessing or her company, others who wanted scraps from the plate of her wisdom, which encompassed much.

In a media-savvy generation the fame of such a good and truly honest person was inevitable, my father said, and it seemed he was right, for soon executives in big cars came creeping over the ruts in the lane, bearing offers from newspapers, radio, and television.  Gussy responded to them all with enthusiasm, never once showing impatience with those who trampled her garden or intruded upon her devotions.

“I have become rather a failure as a recluse,” She confessed when I light-heartedly accused her of straying from her mission; “I have to tell myself I am doing the Lord’s work, and I never take a step without asking Him.”   Her face split into a delighted smile; “If only I didn’t enjoy it so much!”

Our family watched Gussy’s first television appearance on a morning show, unsurprised by her calm, almost lyrical defence of her God but afraid for her then, and with reason.  Soon she was holding down a regular spot on national television, contributing short accounts of episodes in her life which exemplified triumphs of faith.  Those stories were compiled as a book that, if it did not exactly top the sales charts, at least made royalties she could pass on – as she passed on any fees – to her beloved Church.

Throughout these adventures the caravan remained Gussy’s retreat, her garden her consolation. As her travels made increasing demands on her I saw her less frequently, as much my fault as anyone’s because I was immersed in my studies, you see, with the Royal Academy beckoning.  I was committed, by this time, to my music.

Sitting at my bedroom window the other day I recalled the last conversation we shared before I departed for college.  I asked her if she felt there could be any chance she could return to her former life.

She pondered my question gravely for a moment.  “If God asked it of me, of course I would.  He makes the running, Dominic, not me.  If He tells me I am more useful spreading His word, I can’t refuse, any more than you can close the lid on your piano when the world means you to play.  I know you do not share in my belief, but I assure you He lives and moves in us both.”

“You must miss it; the peace, the turning of the seasons, all that?”

“Bless you, they still turn.  I am still here, much of the time.  I miss my few special friends.  You, I shall miss when you are away; Paul, I miss him, too.”

“He doesn’t visit you anymore?”

“No.  His years are a heavy burden, and Paul is a very private person – he rejoices in solitude, you might say, as much as I.  With all the dashing to and fro I have to do these days, he is put off, I think.  I haven’t seen him for almost a year now.  It is God’s will.”

I met Sister Augusta just once more, a year later, on the very day I returned from Academy for the winter break.  Previously, between terms I had called at the caravan,  finding it locked and the precious little garden neglected.  I knew she had many engagements; everyone, it seemed, wanted a share of her: ‘a piece of her’ to echo my father’s words.  I would hear news of her successes from all over the world, from the Americas, Australia, Europe – she even had an audience with the Pope. So when my father told me she had come home, that November, I was almost surprised until the look on his face told the rest of the story.

“A friend of hers, someone called Paul, died this summer, and it seemed to rip the heart out of her,  She’s very ill, Dom.  Too ill to live on her own anymore, so Father Macalbee has arranged for her to be cared for by the nuns over at Monckton Delaval.  She knows you’re home today, so Father Macalbee is bringing her here, because she especially asked to see you.  You should prepare yourself, my boy.  She’s extremely frail. Much has changed.”

In my young years I had yet to be close to one who was dying.  The Gussy who Father Macalbee helped from his car outside our door was not the bright star I had known, but a shrunken husk of a life no more than a step or two from eternity.   She brought a parcel wrapped in brown paper which the good Father carried for her and placed by her chair.

She spoke with difficulty, “It is a picture given to me by my blessed friend Paul, who has left us, so I thought it fitting it should come to you and your wonderful family.  It is a gift, a token of my gratitude, now my work here is done.

“The land is yours, now.  I have arranged for my caravan to be transported to Monckton Delaval: the good sisters there are taking me in, and that is my legacy for them.  God will always protect you, and I pray we shall both have some small memory of each other.”

Mercifully quickly, within a week, my dear Gussy was dead, and I was left to mourn, as we all mourned.  She asked, at the last, if she could be buried alongside her Sisters in the little garden where the spring flowers grow, and we gathered there to watch her take her place in earth I like to believe is made warmer by her presence.  That, we thought, closed the book upon our life with Sister Augusta.

The picture she gave us had a place of honour on our dining room wall.  It was old, an oil painting on board of a pleasant country scene featuring a stone monument beside a river.  My father thought it looked Dutch but of no special merit.  Its value was in the gift.  Gussy wanted us to remember her by it, and this we did.  Before long, though, it began generating memories of its own.

My father’s curiosity led him to some old catalogues.  What he found he laid before us all in the dining room.  What he suspected the internet seemed to confirm.  We deliberated for a long time before we telephoned the police.

An art expert from the Victoria and Albert Museum shared our suspicions, and a representative from a Boston art gallery seemed jubilant that Govert Flinck’s seventeenth-century ‘Landscape with Obelisk’, stolen from his gallery many years before, had been found.

The police acted quickly, and it was good that they did, because the sisters of Monckton Delaval were already stripping Gussy’s old caravan down when they arrived and declared it a crime scene.  Within a false inner wall they discovered three more stolen works of art and more than four hundred thousand pounds in used bank notes, a bequest their priory would never get to spend.

Gussy ’s shy friend Paul, later investigations discovered, as Paul Massingberd, international criminal, had every reason to be shy.  To his unwitting friend, he had given a generous ‘gift’ – a caravan large enough to conceal a portion of his ill-gotten gains, in case forced retirement curtailed his gangland income.  He died, though, before he had a chance to make any withdrawals.  No-one was ever charged.

I like to think that Gussy would have been greatly amused by this turn of events, and beyond the reach of mortal man she could quietly smile, as she saw a fresh aspect of her life’s story unfold.  After all, she had lived most of her life in poverty, sleeping within a few inches of a fortune.  She couldn’t have known, could she?

Photo credit: 

Banner: Marc Pell from Unsplash

Joshua Applegate on Unsplash. 

Frank Eiffert on Unsplash

© Frederick Anderson 2021.  Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Frederick Anderson with specific direction to the original content.

Doctor Basu

“He’s at it again!”   Muriel Hornbellows announced angrily.  “Half past seven on Sunday morning!  There’s no peace!”

Burton Hornbellows groaned and pulled a pillow over his head.  His wife’s obsession with their neighbour’s DIY activities was more irksome to him than the sound of hammering that vibrated through his bed frame.

True, since Doctor Basu had moved into their quiet Plushbrough street peace had been a much rarer commodity.  The Doctor’s neighbor concluded that his complete makeover of the little terraced house had to end eventually, so they tolerated the sawing, the grinding, and endless deliveries from lorries, even the ones that disgorged complete wagons-full of concrete through the good doctor’s front door.  From the evidence of splintered floorboards in his backyard they deduced that he had filled his old cellar and laid the ground floor to concrete.  This despite publican Harry Bugle’s observation that, if the four lorry loads of soil leaving the property were anything to go by, the depth of the cellar must have been increased rather than filled.  There was the ironwork – a substantial load of steel joist – after delivery of which Basu’s windows flashed with sparks from acetylene cutters for a month and a half.  Then, finally, the roof.

The original roof had been veiled by scaffolding and green tarpaulins from the day the doctor arrived, and everyone assumed that the old one had been beyond redemption, in keeping with their own experience because every roof in the terraced road was composed of old slates, and almost all of them leaked.    So that was the explanation, wasn’t it?

Muriel Hornbellows was unconvinced.   “Why don’t t’ Planning Department do nothing?”  She complained.  “He must be doin’ thousands of illegal fings in there, as we can’t see!”

In fact, the Planning Department had done something, in the person of their local officer, Barry Muntjac, who performed one of his surprise visits to the house one May morning.  Doctor Basu answered his knock.  “Make an appointment,”  The doctor advised him.

“I don’t have to make appointments,”  Barry retorted.

“Talk to your superior,”  Said the doctor.  The door slammed shut.

To be fair to Mr Muntjac, he did approach the County Planning Officer, but the result gave him little satisfaction.   Resources, his superior told him, were scarce at the moment, and a small matter of a purely internal property renovation, which was obviously desperately required, was of little concern.

There were reasons for the doctor’s neighbours to bite their tongues, not least of which was grudging admiration, for he was working alone at what everyone supposed was a major building project behind those closed green curtains.  Also, as their local medical practitioner, Doctor Basu had a certain power over them.  Should they be too vocal in their complaints, they feared repercussions.  He ran a National Health Service surgery; dissenters could be struck off.  

And anyway, it had to end soon, didn’t it?

After four years, it hadn’t. 

“Look at ‘im!”  Muriel Hornbellows muttered as an aside to her neighbour Clara Gusset as the slightly built, bespectacled doctor shuffled deferentially past them on the far side of the street.  “I don’t know where he gets the energy!”

“Well, he do save a lot in prescriptions what he don’t write.”   Clara opined.  “An’ there’s a powerful lot as were regular customers for ‘un afore he came, who’s on no bugger’s list but St. Peter’s now.” 

“That’s true.”  Muriel acknowledged.   “He’s lost another one.  Susan Garflute passed on t’other night.”

“No!”

“I’m tellin’ you.  One day, like that..”  Muriel made a vertical gesture with her hand.  “Next day…”

“No!”

“She only went to see him for a boil on her neck.”

In spite of its small population, Plushbrough had become a Klondike for the undertaking profession, and three new parlours had opened since the benevolently smiling Doctor Basu had taken over medical practice in the town.   His snap diagnoses were the stuff of legend – invariably inspired, and frequently wrong.   His keen diagnostic eye identified the only epidemic of Dengue Fever ever to strike an English country town, though he had to stoutly resist a visiting second opinion’s verdict, that of common influenza.   When Albert Sloopwater developed sickness and a cough the local water company had to counter Basu’s diagnosis of cholera, an exercise that cost them several hundreds of thousands of pounds.  

The wheels that rolled towards Basu’s nemesis may have ground slowly, but their destination was obvious.  At the time of Muriel Hornbellows’ Sunday morning observation a public enquiry into Basu’s competence had been in progress for some time.  There was an inevitability about the verdict it would reach, and everyone felt sure his days were soon to be numbered.  Yet there were sympathetic voices: his gentle charisma had built him a substantial vote of support and public sympathy.

“Yer house must be coming on, Doctor dear!”  Hettie Boosey challenged him, as he eyed a large television in the window of TV World speculatively.  

“Nearly finished!”  Was Basu’s smiling response.

“I expect it’ll look marvellous when it’s done.”  Hettie was never shy of an opportunity.  “You’ll have to invite me round, dear.  I’m good with wallpaper, you know.”

Speculation was rife.  Whenever the doctor was known to be in surgery, a small gathering would form outside his home, probing for a peek between those thick green curtains.

“It’ll be minimalist, certainly;”   Gwen Hawkes opined.  “He’s a minimalist man, you can see that, can’t you?”

Jack Spencer was of a different opinion:  “More of a brutalist approach, I’d say.  And industrial – yes, industrialist!”  Jack saw himself as a man with a superior artistic sense.  “All that concrete, you know.  And a lot of sheet metal he had delivered the other day, didn’t he?”

While the British Medical Association minutely scrutinised Doctor Basu’s unusual record, his neighbours watched his remodelling efforts with equal intensity.  But everyone missed the two large lorries that slipped quietly up to his house at three-thirty one morning.  They made their deliveries silently, they departed unnoticed. 

The next morning Doctor Basu found two visitors waiting at his surgery.   One wore a police uniform.

“We’ve been looking into your past, Doctor.”  The suited man from the BMA told him severely.  “And you haven’t got one, have you?  No medical training, no qualifications, and no previous experience as a general practitioner; although we suspect you are the Mr. Banarjee who passed himself off as a consultant cardiologist at St. Bretts in 1998.  Anything to say?”

Doctor Basu had nothing to say.  His patients were sent home and so, after lengthy questioning and a successful application for bail, was he.   It had been a momentous day – not least because the scaffolding that hid his house’s new roof had been peeled away that very morning, and the roof it revealed, an apex of gleaming steel, was spectacular!  But events had moved on, and the eyes that now accused him with such determination barely glanced at it.  Instead, they were focussed entirely upon Doctor Basu.  They watched him disdainfully as he entered his front door, locking it behind him.

“I told you so!”   Hettie Boosey said triumphantly.

“I knew right from the start!”  Said Clara Gusset.  “He’s a wrong  ‘un, that ‘un, and no mistake!”

“Maybe us’ll get some peace now!”  Muriel Hornbellows said, gratefully.

She was mistaken.   Enjoying the midnight silence and wrapped in sleep Muriel did not witness the opening of that steel roof – no-one did.  No-one saw as it spread its steel sections like the petals of a gigantic flower.

The rumble began at two o’clock.   Merely a threat at first, like distant thunder, it grew to an earth-shattering, ear-splitting crescendo.   What at first was a familiar vibration in Burton’s bed frame became a shaking of epic proportions, so violent Muriel could not keep her feet to get to her window – and this alone was fortunate because had she done so the white light would surely have blinded her.

Mortar loosened, glass splintered, chimney stacks tottered.  The parked cars in the street were tossed into the air.  From the eye of the cataclysm in a final orgy of quaking noise the rocket, with Doctor Basu seated in a capsule at its head,  rose; slowly at first, but with ever-increasing velocity.  The little houses that had flanked the residence of the doctor were flattened like a procession of dominoes, and Muriel, along with Hettie, Clara, Jack, Gwen and many others did finally find the peace they had been seeking.

So the undertakers of Plushbrough rubbed their hands together, ready to reap the good doctor’s final harvest, and alone of all in his street, Burton Hornbellows – saved by his iron bedstead – stood gazing dumbly at the vast crater that was all that remained of Doctor Basu’s house.  It took him a while, shocked as he was, to understand the meaning of the concrete pit within that crater, but at last he found an answer.  He raised his eyes to the heavens and he almost laughed.

No-one else would attest to the logical explanation for that huge explosion,and no expert eyes were present to watch the trace of Basu’s rocket as it ascended through the night sky.  The catastrophe was identified instead as a bomb that had exploded prematurely, and Basu, though his remains were never found, dismissed as a fanatic.

A strange radar signal remained on screens at several tracking stations in the northern hemisphere for some days, but it was slowly fading and, with other more important projects to pursue, was soon forgotten by the scientific community.

As for Basu, I cannot tell you – I simply don’t know.  Fanatic he was, of a kind, whose whole life had led him towards one moment of glory between Earth and the stars.   That his crude, almost comic home-built launch platform actually worked is beyond doubt.  Did he survive?  If he did, for how long?  Is his new surgery on Mars diagnosing Dengue Fever among a new list of little green patients there?  We’ll probably never find out.  But, sorry as I am for those whom his extreme focus destroyed, I sort of like to think of him in his module among the panoply of the stars, polishing steam from his glasses so he might better see Jupiter or Neptune, with his face set in that gentle, respectful smile.

© Frederick Anderson 2021.  Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Frederick Anderson with specific direction to the original content

Image Credits:  Features Image:  Muhammed Hassan from Pixabay

Milky way:  Free Photos from Pixabay