A 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?
New item of conversation. What does she want the doctor for? Once she was out of earshot.
Now they were all inside with their fans on or their air conditioning. Numbers on the houses, just as in a city. No sign of a doctor.
Where the sidewalk ended there was a large brick building with gables and a clock tower. Perhaps a school, before the children were bussed to some larger and drearier centre of learning. The hands stopped at twelve, for noon or midnight, which certainly was not the right time. Profusion of summer flowers that seemed professionally arranged – some spilling out of a wheelbarrow and more out of a milk pail on its side. A sign she could not read because the sun was shining straight into it. She climbed up on to the lawn to see it at another angle.
Funeral Home. Now she saw the built-on garage that must hold the hearse, and some built-on businesslike addition that could have been for a swimming pool or indoor badminton court. But in this case wasn’t.
She turned on to a side street where there was no sidewalk. Less well-kept houses, a frank lot of clutter out in front. But after a block or so a surprise. Very well-kept places indeed, so that the town or village became a suburb, the houses all slightly different yet somehow looking all the same. Gently coloured stone or pale brick, peaked or rounded windows, a rejection of the utilitarian look, the ranch style of past decades.
To her eyes they looked a little silly.
Nevertheless there were people out. They hadn’t all managed to shut themselves up with the air conditioning. A boy was riding a bicycle, taking diagonal routes across the pavement. Something about his riding was odd, and she could not figure it out at first.
He was riding backwards. A jacket flung in such a way that you could not see – or she could not see – what was wrong.
A woman who might have been too old to be his mother – but was very trim and lively-looking all the same – was standing out in the street watching him. She was holding on to a skipping rope and talking to a man who could not have been her husband – both of them were being too cordial.
The street was a curved dead end. There was no use going further.
Interrupting the adults, Jean excused herself. She said that she was looking for a doctor.
‘No, no,’ she said. ‘Don’t be alarmed. Just his address. I thought you might know.’
Then came the problem of explaining that she was not sure of the name. They were too polite to show any surprise at this but they could not help her.
The boy on one of his perverse sallies came swinging around, barely missing all three.
Laughter. No reprimand. They all remarked on the beauty of the evening, and Jean turned to go back the way that she had come.
Except that she did not go all the way, not as far as the Funeral Home. There was a side street she had ignored before, perhaps because it was unpaved and she had not thought of a doctor living in such circumstances.
There was no sidewalk, and the houses looked to have not much relationship to each other. A couple of men were busy under the hood of a truck, but she thought it would not do to interrupt them. Besides, she has glimpsed something interesting ahead.
There is a hedge that comes right out to the street. It is high enough that she does not expect to be able to see around it, but thinks she might be able to peek through.
That is not necessary. The lot – about the size of four town lots, really – is quite open to the road she is walking on. There appeared to be some sort of park, with flagstone paths diagonally crossing the mown and flourishing green grass. In between the paths, and bursting from the grass, there were flowers. She knows some of them – the dark gold and light yellow daisies for instance, pink and rosy and red-hearted white phlox – but she is no great gardener herself and there are clumps of all colours that she could not name. Some climbed trellises, some spread free. Everything artful but nothing stiff, not even the fountain that shot up seven feet or so before falling down into its rock-lined pool. She has walked in off the street to get a little of its cool spray, and there she finds a wrought-iron bench, where she can sit down.
A man has come along one of the paths, carrying a pair of shears. Gardeners evidently expected to work late here.
It has not occurred to her that this could be anything but a town park.
Tall and very thin and dressed in black shirt and pants that closely fitted his body.
‘This is really beautiful,’ she called to him, quite sincerely yet in her most assured and ladylike, almost beguiling voice. ‘You keep it up so well.’
‘Thank you,’ he said. ‘You’re welcome to rest there.’
Informing her by some dryness of voice that this was not a park but private property, and that he was not a village employee but the owner.
‘I should have asked your permission.’
Preoccupied, bending and snipping at a plant that was encroaching on the path.
‘It’s yours, is it? All of it?’
After a moment’s business, ‘All of it.’
‘I should have known. It’s too imaginative to be public. Too unusual.’
No answer. She was going to ask him whether he liked to sit here by himself, in the evenings. But she would not bother. He was not an easy person to be around. One of those who prided himself, probably, on being like that. After a moment she would thank him and get up.
But after a moment he came and sat down beside her. He spoke just as if the question had been put to him.
‘Actually I only feel comfortable when I’m doing something that needs attending to,’ he said. ‘If I sit down I have to keep my eyes off everything, or I’ll just see some more work.’
She should have seen right away that he was a man who didn’t like banter. But still she was curious.
What was here before?
Before he made the garden?
‘A knitting factory. All these little places had something like that; you could get away with the starvation wages. But in time that went under and there was a contractor who thought he was going to turn it into a nursing home. There was some trouble then, the town wouldn’t give him a licence, they had some idea there’d be a lot of old people around and they’d make it depressing. So he set fire to it or he knocked it down, I don’t know.’
He’s not from around here, she thought, or he wouldn’t talk so openly.
‘I’m not from around here,’ he said. ‘I don’t know everything. But I had a friend who was from here and when he died I came and I was just going to get rid of his house and go. His house is over there.’
She could see now beyond a mountain-ash tree a house that didn’t look as if it could have anything to do with this garden.
‘Then I got hold of this cheap because the contractor had left it just a hole in the ground and it was an eyesore.’
‘I’m sorry to be so inquisitive.’
‘That’s all right. If I don’t feel like telling I don’t answer.’
‘I haven’t been here before,’ she said. ‘Of course I haven’t, or I would have seen this spot. I was walking around looking for something. I thought I could find it better if I parked my car and just walked. I was looking for a certain doctor’s office, actually.’
She explains about not being sick, just having an appointment tomorrow, and not wanting to be running around then looking for the place. Then about parking her car and being surprised that the name of the doctor she wanted was not listed there.
‘I couldn’t look in the phone book either because you know how the phone books and the payphones have all disappeared now. Or else you find their insides ripped out anyway. Of course you would often find the phone book ripped away.’
‘It’s so silly.’
She tries again to think of the name but he says it wouldn’t ring a bell anyway.
‘But I don’t go to doctors.’
‘You’re probably smart not to.’
‘Oh, I wouldn’t say that.’
‘At any rate, I’d better get back to my car.’
Standing up when she did, he says he will walk with her.
‘So I won’t get lost.’ She means it as some mild sort of joke relating to her fecklessness so far.
‘I always try to stretch my legs at this time of the evening. Working in the garden is OK but it can leave you cramped.’
‘I’m sure there’s some sensible explanation. I must strike you as some crazy old biddy not fit to be let out alone.’
The garden is a memorial to the friend who died. Gay. Lovers.
How she would like to talk to somebody fresh.
They walked along without meeting a soul. Soon they reached the main street, with the medical building just a block away. For some reason the sight of it made her feel shaky, and absurdly alarmed lest the right name should have been in place all the time, and she had just managed to miss it. She left his side when they got to it, saw that she had not been mistaken, and then pretended that her interest had been all the time in the next window with its strange assortment of china-headed dolls and ancient skates and chamber pots and quilts already in tatters.
‘Isn’t this peculiar?’ she said. ‘I mean, can you think of anybody –’
He was not paying attention to her. He said that he had just thought of something.
‘This doctor,’ he said.
‘I wonder if he might be connected with the Home?’
They were walking again, passing a couple of young men sitting on the sidewalk, one with his legs stretched out. He took no notice of them, but his voice had dropped.
‘Home?’ she said.
‘You wouldn’t have noticed if you came in from the highway. But if you keep going out of town towards the lake you pass it. Not more than half a mile out. You go past the gravel pile on the south side of the road and it’s just a little further on, on the other side. I don’t know if they have a live-in doctor there or not but it stands to reason they might have.’
‘They might have,’ she copied him, and then wondered why on earth she had done it. ‘It stands to reason.’ She wanted to go on talking to him longer, to begin making silly jokes. But she had to think about the whereabouts of her keys, as she often did before getting into the car. She was regularly worried about whether she’d locked the keys inside or dropped them somewhere. She could feel the approach of familiar, tiresome panic, then she found them, in her pocket.
‘It’s worth a try,’ he said and she agreed, thanking him.
‘There’s plenty of room to turn off the road and take a look. If there’s a doctor out there regularly, there’s no need for him to have his name up in town. Or her name, as the case might be.’
As if he, too, was not anxious for them to part.
‘I have you to thank,’ she said.
‘Just a hunch.’
He held the door and closed it, and waited there until she had turned to go in the right direction, then waved goodbye.
When she was on her way out of the town she caught sight of him again in the rear-view mirror. He was bending over, speaking to a couple of boys or young men who were sitting on the pavement with their backs against the wall of the store. They had been there when he was with her but he had not bothered with them.
Maybe a remark to be made, some joke about her vagueness or silliness. Or just her.
She had thought that she would come back through the village and thank him again and tell him the doctor’s name (she was pretty certain now that she would find it). She could just slow down and laugh and call it out the window.
But now she thought that she should just take the lake shore, and stay out of his way.
Never mind. She saw the gravel pile coming up, she had to pay attention to where she was going.
Just as he had said. A sign. A notice of the Lakeview Rest Home. And there really was, from here, a view of the lake, a thread of pale blue along the horizon.
A spacious parking lot. One long wing with what looked like separate compartments or good-sized rooms, at least, with their own little gardens or places to sit in front of them. A latticed fence quite high in front of every one of them for privacy or safety. Though nobody was sitting out there that she could see.
Of course bedtime came early in these establishments.
She liked how the latticework would provide a touch of fantasy.
The main wing, where the front door was, had a more serious or official style. Public buildings had been changing in the past few years, just as private houses had. The relentless, charmless look, the only one permitted in her youth, had disappeared. Here she parked in front of a bright dome that had a look of welcome, of cheerful excess. Some people would find it fakey, she supposed, but wasn’t it the very thing you would want? All that glass must cheer the spirits of the old people, or even, perhaps, of some of the deranged people who had to be lodged here.
She looked for a button to push, a bell to ring, as she walked up to the door. But it was not necessary – the door opened on its own. And once you got inside there was an even greater expression of space, of loftiness, a blue tinge to the glass. The floor was all silvery tiles, the sort that children loved to slide upon, and for a moment the thought of these people sliding and slipping made her happy. Of course it couldn’t be as slippery as it looked, you would not want them breaking their necks.
‘I didn’t dare try it myself,’ she said to somebody in her head. ‘It wouldn’t have done, would it? I could have found myself in front of the doctor who was going to test my mental stability.’
At the moment there was no doctor to be seen.
Well, there wouldn’t be. Doctors didn’t sit behind desks here waiting for patients to show up, did they?
And she wasn’t even here for a consultation, just checking up on an elusive name, and making sure of the time she was to show up tomorrow.
There was a rounded desk, waist-high, whose panels of dark wood looked like mahogany though they probably weren’t. Nobody behind it at the moment. It was after hours of course. She looked for a bell but did not see one. Then she looked to see if there was a list of doctors’ names or even one name of a doctor in charge. She did not see that either. You would think there would be a way of getting hold of somebody, no matter what the hour. Somebody on call in a place like this.
No important clutter behind the desk, either. No computer or telephone or papers or coloured buttons to press. Of course she wasn’t able to get right behind, there seemed to be some lock, so there might be compartments she could not see. Buttons a receptionist could get at and you couldn’t.
She gave up on the desk for the moment, and took a close look at the space she found herself in. It was a hexagon, with doors at intervals. Four doors – one was the large door that let in the light and any visitors, another an official and private-looking door behind the desk, not that easy to access, and the other two doors, exactly alike and facing each other, would obviously take you into the long wings, to the corridors and rooms where the inmates were housed. Each of these had an upper window, and the window glass looked frank and clear enough for anybody to manage.
She went up to one of these possibly accessible doors and knocked, then tried the knob and could not budge it. Locked. She could not see through the window properly, either. Close up, the glass was all distorted.
In the door directly opposite there was the same problem with the glass and the same problem with the knob.
The click of her shoes on the floor, the trick of the glass, the uselessness of the polished knobs made her feel slightly more discouraged than she would care to show.
She didn’t give up, however. She tried the doors again in the same order, and this time she shook both knobs as well as she could and also called out, ‘Hello?’ in a voice that sounded at first weak and silly, then aggrieved, but no more hopeful.
She squeezed herself in behind the desk and banged that door, with practically no hope. It did not even have a knob, just a keyhole. There was nothing to do but get out of this place and go home.
All very cheerful and elegant, she thought, but there was no pretence here of serving the public. Of course they shoved the residents or patients or whatever they called them into bed early, it was the same story however glamorous the surroundings.
Still thinking about this, she gave the big door a push. It was too heavy. She pushed again.
Again. It did not budge.
Again, again. She could see the pots of flowers. Outside a car going by on the road. The mild evening light.
She had to stop and think.
There were no artificial lights on in here. The place would get dark. Already in spite of the lingering light outside, it seemed to be getting dark. No one would come, they had all completed their duties, or at least the duties that brought them through this part of the building.
She opened her mouth to scream but it seemed that no scream was forthcoming. She was shaking all over and no matter how she tried she could not get her breath down into her lungs. It was just as if she had a blotter in her throat. Suffocation. She knew that she had to behave differently, and more than that, to believe differently. Calm. Calm. Breathe. Breathe. She knew the right thing but her mind was swamped, her head was swamped with blackness. Thick. Not air any more. Nothing available to her but a head of wool.
‘Better,’ she said. ‘Oh, what a relief. To be better.’ The person with her was wearing a blue-flowered smock and plain blue pants. Her name was Sandy – it said so on a pretty sequinned pin on her shoulder. Aside from that there was nothing about her that indicated an interest in decoration. She was heavy and plain and probably younger than she looked. A bunch of kids at home. A slack husband, if any.
She said, ‘OK, Jean.’
‘It is such a relief,’ Jean said. ‘I’ll just tell you briefly what I have been bothering around about and then I have to get home. It’s extraordinary what I’ve been through for such a simple thing. You see, I have an appointment to see a doctor whose name I can’t seem to get straight but I was supposed to find him here and I have followed some directions as well as I could but no luck. I felt that I’d got into some ridiculous sort of trap and I must have a tendency to be claustrophobic, it was alarming –’
‘Oh, Jean, hurry up,’ said Sandy. ‘I’m behind already and I have to get you into your nightie and all. That’s the same thing you tell me every time.’
Photograph © Neal White / Gallerystock