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4: The Room without a Telephone (part 5)


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« on: January 22, 2023, 07:36:13 am »

AS ELDRED was not a strong man it was some days before he could even take a few steps. But Dr. McLachlan was visibly elated. He took all the credit for Eldred's surviving his bad doctoring.

On his side the patient was well pleased with his physician. For had he not introduced him to a community of expert recluses, who daily demonstrated for him an immemorial technique, enabling you to give the impression that you are a mile away, when in fact only separated by a yard or so from another person. Eldred began to practise under the bedclothes, twirling his thumbs while he chatted with Nurse Tanner, as an aid to self-abstraction.

One evening patient and doctor, as usual, engaged in a little frivolous speculation: Eldred imparted, in the first place, how vastly he esteemed the nuns and the good work for which they were responsible. He went on:

"When these execrable monopolists, the socialists, have abolished by taxation all the other clinics and nursing-homes outside the state-hospital system, the Catholic clinics will still be there. They will be the last refuge of free medicine. One will still be able to be ill like a gentleman, thanks to them."

"There is the Masonic Hospital," McLachlan observed. "That is outside the National Health Service too."

"Is it indeed?" Eldred looked up quickly. "How did they manage that?"

"Some influential Freemasons went to see the Health Minister, who quite likes influential vermin! It is a wonderfully well-appointed hospital—the best in England in fact—and particularly difficult to get into."

"For non-Masons."

"No, for Masons!" bleakly the little doctor laughed. "Patients of mine who are Masons have been unable to get in, though I tried very hard for them. Were they indignant!"

"Ah!" Eldred seemed to be interested.

"Then I believe—I am not sure about this though—that the Labour Hospital has been left outside the National Health Service."

"What is that? I suppose a hospital for members of the Labour Party."

"I do not know."

"In the Welfare State there must be privilege!" By a hairsbreadth the patient escaped a belly-jeer.

The Matron entered.

"How are you tonight, Dr. Eldred?" she enquired.

"Feeling much better," he told her. "Much better. Oh, Sister, there was something I had to say. I think you should all make a novena to your patron saint for me."

As he was speaking her expression changed in no way, but before he had finished she had turned away and quickly left the room.

"I fear I offended her," Eldred observed.

"No. Evidently what you said reminded her of something. She is very forgetful."

"She misunderstood me, I think," Eldred explained. "What I was about to say was this: I propose to write a short history of the order to which she belongs. That was why, I meant, they should make a novena for me, or some other suitable devotion. For I shall need all their prayers."

"Oh, I see," McLachlan laughed distantly. He went over gravely and sought information of the clockwork in the patient's wrist, taking out of his waistcoat pocket a massive professional man's gold watch. Eldred, smiling, lay quite still. This was always McLachlan's procedure when his patient said anything he did not like. And he had not liked the request for the novena any more than had the Matron.

For the rest, as Eldred lay there, day after day, during the maddening hospital routine of cleaning, nourishing, evacuating, and he steadily refused to look at a book or much more a newspaper, he immersed himself in a luxurious barrenness. Was he not buried alive? He was buried deeper, hour by hour, by these Irish dwarfs, hissing as they worked. Would he ever be so happy in any other mode of existence? Since the days when first his ambition began to impose its idiot disciplines, he had known no relief. Here he had found it. The hissing dwarf that solemnly scrubbed his face, and the grinning one that tickled his feet, were all the company he ever wanted.

Often he spoke to the friendly girl of her conversion, and that of her parents. He wished to peer into her mind and discover how conversion affected the thinking of the Movie-bred twentieth-century young: an injection of the medieval into one of Hollywood's spiritual brood. But it was the nuns who were of course his principal study, from the immovable Matron to the gay but equally evasive Sister Bridget. "Ah, God bless ye!" she would say with fervour after he had said he would send her a gold crucifix he had seen in one of Rotting Hill's antique shops. But she was not to be bribed into departing from edification of Irish gaiety. There was no other mode.

His first opportunity of trying out the techniques he was acquiring occurred about seven days after the haemorrhage. Still decidedly unsteady (and, according to his habit, exploiting his infirmity) he was dragging himself back from the bathroom, most theatrically the Invalid. A familiar figure suddenly appeared, and he heard himself greeted in a vaguely familiar voice, in tones of deep surprise.

"Dr. Eldred! A nursing-home is the last place I should have expected to find you, sir. Nothing serious I hope?"

The reporter whose face he had last seen, and fled from, a week ago in Rotting Gardens stood blocking the corridor. What was he doing here, the rat? Running someone to earth. His was the least welcome of visages: Eldred put on his usual mask for reporters; namely, suggesting that the stench of an exposed cesspool had suddenly reached his arching nostrils and curled lip, but that stoically he was smiling it off.

"What are you doing here?" he enquired of the reporter, rather in the manner of Sister Giles.

"Well, Dr. Eldred, that was precisely what I asked you just now?"

"I am just resting," he growled, the old manner returning. "I am just resting here for a short while. Yes, just resting. I was absolutely worn out, you know." And he squinted up at the other sideways, his head lolling forward.

The reporter expressed deep sympathy and confided that sometimes he "felt rotten" himself.

"Yes, you feel rotten," Eldred said heavily, "because of the rottenness of your life. But my life is rotten too."

The reporter expressed hilarious scepticism.

"No," Eldred heavily insisted, "rotten!" But he had become more lumbering and Johnsonian every moment. Though his frame lacked flesh, he felt bulky in his voluminous dressing-gown, so had started rolling from side to side as Boswell described his Master as prone to do. Alas, affecting to be a bigger man than he was, at least in girth, he was overtaken by the weakness ensuing from his loss of blood: at the end of a long roll to larboard he almost fell over. The wall of the corridor saved him but he fell heavily against it. He shook off the reporter's helping hand.

"My life," he growled angrily, "has been rotten. I am taking up the monastic life as soon as I leave here."

"You are becoming a monk, Dr. Eldred!" cried the reporter, dancing with delight.

"Perhaps a friar. It may be a friar."

"A friar!"

"One of a mendicant order, yes."

"Would you beg in the streets, Dr. Eldred?"

"That would be where I should beg."

And he crawled away dramatically, bumping the walls.

The following evening Dr. McLachlan entered with a newspaper beneath his arm. In his fruitiest, throatiest "social" voice, and with his frostiest smile, he said, advancing airily—"I see, Dr. Eldred, that you are proposing to become a friar when you leave here." He opened the paper and read: "If we are approached in Piccadilly by a gaunt austere figure in the dress of a Franciscan friar, and solicited for alms, that will be the great historian Dr. Eldred. He shuns the world as other men shun a contagious disease. But now, he tells your reporter, he is going a step farther. He can no longer tolerate even that degree of worldly contact; he spurns the comforts of his home in Rotting Gardens—he asserts, indeed, that he is tired of Rotting Hill and of our rotting life as well!"

The doctor placed the open paper on his patient's bed. There was the headline:

GREAT HISTORIAN TO BECOME A MONK.

Eldred shrank away from the shouting headline, pushing the newspaper away from him with horror. He whispered hoarsely: "That vile Fleet Street garbage fly I met in the corridor! Will you remove that yellow rag! I shall be sick. My stomach is not so strong as it was."

"Yes, but I suppose you did say something to the fellow, didn't you!" The doctor, for once outraged by that humbug which he had learnt to expect of Eldred, registered disapproval in his unlaughing eye.

"I told him that he stank!" Eldred shouted almost. Then dropping his voice dramatically: "But I said I stank too. I—do—stink."

Dr. McLachlan coughed.

"I suppose I said something to him, to get rid of him. They are a pest, they poison my life with their lies."

The doctor looked very sceptical indeed, as he watched his theatrically writhing patient, but he said no more.

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