woman goes to her doctor to have a prescription renewed. But the doctor is not there. It’s her day off. In fact the woman has got the day wrong, she has mixed up Monday with Tuesday.

This is the very thing she wanted to talk to the doctor about, as well as renewing the prescription. She has wondered if her mind is slipping a bit.

‘What a laugh,’ she has expected the doctor to say. ‘Your mind. You of all people.’

(It isn’t that the doctor knows her all that well, but they do have friends in common.)

Instead, the doctor’s assistant phones a day later to say that the prescription is ready and that an appointment has been made for the woman – her name’s Jean – to be examined by a specialist about this mind problem.

It isn’t mind. It’s just memory.

Whatever. The specialist deals with elderly patients.

Indeed. Elderly patients who are off their nut.

The girl laughs. Finally, somebody laughs.

She says that the specialist’s office is located in a village called Hymen, twenty or so miles away from where Jean lives.

‘Oh dear, a marriage specialist,’ says Jean.

The girl begs her pardon.

‘Never mind. I’ll be there.’

What has happened in the last few years is that specialists are located all over the place. Your CAT scan is in one town and your cancer person in another, pulmonary problems in a third, and so on. This is so you won’t have to travel to the city hospital, but it can take about as long, since not all these towns have hospitals and you have to ferret out where the doctor is once you get there.

It is for this reason that Jean decides to drive to the village of the Elderly Specialist – as it seems suitable to call him – on the evening before the day of her appointment. That should give her lots of time to find out where he is, so there will be no danger of her arriving all flustered or even a little late and creating a bad impression right off the bat.

Her husband asks if she would like him to go with her, but she knows that he wants to watch a soccer game on television. He is a poet who watches sports half the night and makes up poetry the other half, though he tells her to say he is retired.

She says she wants to find the place herself. The girl in the doctor’s office has given her directions.

The evening is beautiful. But when she turns off the highway, driving west, she finds that the sun is just low enough to shine into her face. If she sits up quite straight, however, and lifts her chin, she can get her eyes above the blind ahead. Also, she has good sunglasses. She can read the sign, which tells her that she has eight miles to go to the village of Highman.

Highman. Population 1,553.

Why do they bother to put the 3 on?

Every soul counts.

She has a habit of checking out small places, to see if she could live there. This one seems to fit the bill. A decent-sized market, where you could get fairly fresh vegetables, though they would not often be from the fields roundabout, OK coffee. Then a laundromat and a pharmacy, which could fill your prescriptions even if they didn’t stock the better class of magazines.

There were signs of course that the place had seen better times. A clock that no longer told the time presided over a window that promised Fine Jewellery but now appeared to be full of any old china, crocks and pails and wreaths twisted out of wires.

She could make out some of the doctor’s trash because the space in the front of this forsaken shop was where he had chosen to park. She felt like looking for his office on foot. And almost too soon to give her satisfaction she saw a dark brick one-storey building in the utilitarian style of the last century and she could bet that was it. Doctors in small towns like this used to have their working quarters as part of their houses, then they had to have more space where cars could park, and they put up something like this. Reddish-brown bricks, and sure enough the sign, Medical Dental. A parking lot behind it.

In her pocket she has the doctor’s name and she gets out the scrap of paper to check it. The names on the frosted-glass door are Dr H.W. Forsyth, Dentist, and Dr Donald McMillen, Physician.

These names are not on Jean’s piece of paper. And no wonder, because nothing is written there but a number. It is the shoe size of her husband’s sister, who is dead. The number is O – 7½. It takes her a while to figure that out, the O standing for Olivia but scribbled in that hasty way, and even then she can only recall faintly something about getting slippers when Olivia was in the hospital.

That’s no use to her anyway.

One solution is that the doctor she will see has newly moved into this building and the name on the door has not been changed yet. She should ask somebody. First she should ring the bell on the off chance that somebody is in there, working late. She does this, and it is a good thing in a way that nobody comes, because the doctor’s name that she is after has still not risen to the surface of her mind.

Another idea. Isn’t it quite possible that this person – the crazy-doctor, as she has chosen to call him, when speaking to her husband – isn’t it quite possible that he (or she – like most people of her age she does not automatically allow for that possibility) – that he or she does operate out of a house? It would make sense and be cheaper. You don’t need a lot of apparatus for the crazy-doctoring.

So she continues her walk away from the main street. The houses she walks by were mostly built in the nineteenth century. Some of wood, some of brick. The brick ones often two full storeys high, the wooden ones somewhat more modest, a storey and a half with slanting ceilings in the upstairs rooms. Some front doors opened just a few feet from the sidewalk. Others on to wide verandas, occasionally glassed-in. A century ago, on an evening like this one, people would have been sitting on their verandas or perhaps on the front steps. Housewives who had finished washing the dishes and sweeping up the kitchen floors for the last time that day, men who had coiled up the hose after giving the grass a soaking. No garden furniture such as sat here empty, just the wooden steps or dragged-out kitchen chairs. Conversation about the weather or a runaway horse or some person who had taken to bed and was not expected to recover. Speculation about herself, once she was out of earshot. But wouldn’t she have put their minds at ease, stopping and asking them please, can you tell me, where is the doctor’s house?


Bonfire
The End?