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5: Time the Tiger (part 3)


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« on: January 23, 2023, 02:35:15 am »

During the remainder of that day the two friends might be found in various parts of the town, up to 11 p.m. when they returned to Rotting Hill. Their cab took them up Wimpole Street on the way to the Heppel Laboratories. As they ascended one of the two celebrated streets of costly medicine-men Charles reacted characteristically to his surroundings. "The art of medicine," he said, "will decay in this country. The National Health Act writes finis to fine work in surgery and dentistry, and doctors will sink to the status of druggists—with more responsibility and less pay." To which Mark replied, "Charles—rubbish! When medicine ceases to be a profitable racket as it is at present it will be far better placed to make real advances. They may even discover a cure for the common cold."

The man with the dirty white clinical-coat who let them in said: "I suppose it's for a blood-draw?" "I imagine so," said Charles. "My friend is badly in need of a letting." The man himself looked like a blood-donor in the last stages of pernicious anaemia, but he was a hectically talkative Cockney.

When Mark's turn came to go in to be "drawn" he expected to find himself in a laboratory, spectacularly antiseptic, white jars and tubes containing human blood, labelled and ready for diagnosis, lined up on glass shelves. The tools for "the draw" would be much in evidence. But this was a Socialist dream. What actually happened was so much the reverse that Mark supposed a preliminary interview was considered necessary.

A dingy sitting-room of the Trollope period was where he found himself. No vacuum cleaner ever came near the dusty shelves and decrepit leather arm-chairs. The doctor would have been all the better for a little mechanical suction too. But he was unmistakably a doctor: he invited Mark, with great urbanity and kindness, to take off his jacket and to be seated near him beside an untidy desk: and when they were both smilingly seated close together by the desk he invited Mark to roll up a sleeve. This was it, then!

The doctor, still smiling, examined Mark's left and right arms, well stocked with muscles and fat. "I think we will take it from the finger," he announced with quiet affability—he could not have spoken more softly or smiled with better breeding. "Your hands are very cold," the doctor remarked sympathetically. And indeed, the room was so cold that Mark's hands were like ice rather than flesh. The doctor was evidently used to this complication. He led his case to a wash-basin. There the hands were practically boiled, and they both went back to the chairs again. The doctor smiled with exquisite courtesy and kindness. "Warmer now!" he said. "Yes. The hands are," said Mark. The doctor apologetically took his right hand and gently stroked the middle finger with a piece of wet cotton wool. Then rather unexpectedly he jabbed an instrument deep into the ball of the fingertip.

The doctor drew out the instrument and proceeded to squeeze the hole he had made quite viciously. He murmured a complaint about the paucity of blood, then jabbed his instrument in again. "Sorry!" he murmured (he was a very perfect gentleman) and started squeezing again and collecting the red trickle.

"My blood," said Mark, "refuses to visit so exposed an outpost of my body. It lurks in the well-covered trunk until I get into a warmer room. Then it may come out."

The doctor smiled gently and indulgently as he fixed on the band-aid and said "I am so sorry the room is not warmer. When we throw out this Government, Mr. Robins...!" Mark looked at him severely as he put his jacket on and very coldly observed: "It is not the Government that is to blame, sir, as you know quite well! Good day." As they were being shown out by the hysterical anaemic Cockney with the dirty white coat, Mark enquired, "Is this a National Health Service place?" to which the answer came with a laugh. "No, sir ... not by a long shot. We do have National Health Service patients, sir, when the other laboratories are flooded out as I might say with them. Let me see, yes, sir, there was one of them this morning, sir." Charles burst into a laugh which caused the doorman to jump almost out of his dirty white coat.

"I," said Mark sternly, "am that National Health Service patient. I shall immediately report the filthy condition of this place, and the lamentable disregard of sepsis. Why do you not send that coat to the wash? Good morning!"

Charles remained on the doorstep holding his sides, which a gargantuan laugh threatened to split. He stamped about gasping for breath.

"You are growing into an idiot!" said Mark.

"But I would not have missed that for anything. 'Why don't you send it to the wash?' Ha, ha! Sublime! The Welfare State in action. An informer!" And he pointed at his friend a trembling finger. "Snooper!"

"Shut up." Mark walked smartly away.

---

But Mark had not lost Charles. As he entered the marble halls of the Richelieu near Piccadilly, Charles was at his side—or he was at Charles's. This most famous establishment has always specialized in poor food. But the grill room lunch was a carefully calculated insult to the British palate, delivered by a staff of deaf but noisy Italians, who flung the plates down on the table, and rushed away, deaf to the protests which at once arose. The "soupe brésilienne" was dirty yellow water, the "foie braisée mode de Mayence" was literally a piece of blackened shoe-leather, the "pommes soufflées Richelieu" had never "blown" and tasted of last month's fats, and the "baba au rhum" had no rum and was not a baba. The coffee tasted so rancid and bitter that one sip was more than enough.

"If you put a five shilling ceiling on what may be charged for a meal...." said Charles in answer to Mark's muttered apology, lighting a cigarette. "A man has to live."

"He does not have to live at the expense of the community. This is bad behaviour!"

"Report 'em!" Charles winked at him.

Mark eyed the wine list with distaste. "What will you have, Charles?" They had a double "Fine Maison" and Mark spoke of Ida. "I was thinking the other day," he said, "we haven't met since...when was it? Being out of England most of the war years in the East damages one's time-sense, deflates the perspectives or something."

"It was 1936 I believe, down at Tadpole's."

"So it was, so it was!"

"As a matter of fact," Charles told him, "she is coming down to stay with me and is coming to London tomorrow."

"Is she really—you didn't tell me, Charles...."

A mixed expression came into Mark's face, which he struggled to conceal. It was the outcome of inharmonious emotions. In his effort to shut off the true expression he acquired one of sheepish benevolence. "How is old Ida now?" he asked, frowning in sympathetic puzzlement, as if he had asked a pretty difficult question. "I have often meant to get you to tell me how she spends her time. You don't see much of her, do you, but I haven't seen her for over ten years. I was awfully sorry to have missed her last year. That was your fault! Has she altered...I mean become a blue-stocking or anything?"

Charles smiled enigmatically. "Come along with me tomorrow to her club; she would like most awfully to see you, I know."

"May I, Charles? An excellent idea, I still have a day or two's sick leave. It will be most exciting seeing Ida again. Another snort? I'm going to. Waiter!"

---

A half-hour later the two friends stood in one of London's largest stores, the brown paper parcel still held by Mark rather carefully, against his left-hand breast pocket. The thick and sluggish stream of shop-gazing charladies, finding an obstruction, bumped it and rolled around it. For Mark and Charles stood together muttering in the middle of the MEN'S SHIRTS. They examined attentively a batch of shirts of most attractive soft check, conspicuously displayed.

"Sixty shillings," said Charles pleasantly, "of which fifty per cent, I expect, is purchase-tax. You bought two. So you paid Cripps sixty shillings when you fell for this pretty checkwork."

"Try not to talk like the Daily Express," Mark observed.

"Oh, well, you love Cripps so much you probably feel patriotic about it."

Mark asked a tall shopman where the manager of the department was to be found.

"I am the assistant manager," he was politely informed. "The manager is away."

A young man came up to him with a bill which he initialled or something. Mark opened his parcel and revealed a shirt identical in all respects with the attractive pale blue checks displayed on the counter. The assistant manager gazed at the shirt and then looked enquiringly at Mark.

"Have you had any complaints about these shirts?" Mark asked him.

"No, sir. None whatever."

"I bought two of these here recently. Have you a room where I can put this shirt on?"

Mark and Charles were conducted to a small room and Mark changed into the shirt he had brought in the parcel. Not only his hand but all his bony wrist and a piece of his hairy forearm protruded from the cuff. "When first I wore this," he told the assistant manager, "it was rather embarrassingly long in the sleeve, the cuffs almost reached my knuckles. This has only been washed once. You can see for yourself what has happened to the cuffs. They receded at least four inches, leaving my wrists high and dry."

The A.M. produced a tape measure and adjusted it to the area in dispute. "Yes, sir," he agreed. "Two and a half inches."

"I call it four inches," Mark corrected him.

"We, of course, will give you another shirt." There was to be no unseemly dispute, the A.M. made it clear.

"It was this shirt I bought, though. I do not want just a shirt. I was not short of a shirt."

"Of course not, sir, I quite appreciate that. No shirt today as I dare say you know, sir, is 100 per cent safe, most unfortunately. The trouble is in the factory. In the weaving of the fabric if they do not weave it close ... well, there is a space between the threads. Naturally, sir, when you wash this cloth the space between the threads tends to close up. The cloth shrinks in other words. It is the work people. They will not work as they used to. Since the war it is terrible. Not that we don't insist, sir, that goods we buy are tested. Oh, yes. As an instance, in the Swiss factory where these shirts come from everything is thoroughly washed before it is made up."

"These cuffs must have extended well over the fingertips mustn't they before that wash!"

The A.M. tittered politely. "That's right, sir. That's what puzzles me."

"Are people, customers, still too timid to complain?" Charles asked him. "If they take home an article of this sort have they not the spirit to bring it back and raise hell? Do they think anything is good enough for them? Because they are merely English?"

"A year ago they were, well, a little like what you say, but they do complain now. There are people bringing back things all the time. But I wish they would complain more!" protested the assistant manager. "You would be surprised the kind of goods we get sometimes. A consignment of thin vests arrived this summer. We opened up one vest and there was a blooming great hole the size of a half-crown right in the middle of the back. We opened up a few more and I'm blessed if there wasn't a hole in every blooming one! All had to be condemned of course, but I'm bothered if I can explain this Swiss shirt."

He affected to muse for a moment. "It is just possible, of course that these shirts come from here."

"What!" Mark was indignantly alert. "From England?"

Charles lay back in his chair and laughed. "Never from this land of competence and integrity! What are you saying!"

"I don't say it is so," the A.M. corrected. "It is possible, that is all."

"Do you mean that material was sold by us to some Swiss factory," Mark demanded, "which that factory proceeded to make up into shirts: and that when the first of these shirts began to be sold to the Swiss they duly shrivelled up (like this one) in the wash? As you see I cannot even button this collar. And did the Swiss—is that your theory—then send the whole consignment over here?"

"To sell them to the poor boobs of English—that sort of thing?" Charles added.

"Well it's you that put it like that you know, sir! I know nothing about it at all, I only think that perhaps the shirts themselves were made here for export to Switzerland. The Swiss are fond of checks you see—the way we like stripes. But" (catching sight of the displeasure which Mark did not seek to hide) "remember I know no more than you do. I am only trying to put two and two together." The cloud on Mark's face made the man nervous. Could he, he wondered, be a shirt-manufacturer?

"Your explanation seems to me an exceedingly plausible one," Charles told him. "You are to be congratulated on your brutal frankness."

Mark was silent. Thoughtfully he took off the shirt. "Will you please let me see what you propose I should take in exchange."

Back at the counter the assistant manager muttered obviously confidential instructions to the young man serving at that counter. At last two shirts were produced from some secret recess and laid side by side for Mark to make his choice. One was of exceptionally cheap and garish blue, coarsely striped, the other white.

Charles said in Mark's ear, "They keep these for such occasions. You would look well in that blue one!" Mark shortly left, his shirt beneath his arm, informing the assistant manager that he would write to the management. "It is disgraceful!" he added, in a rather official voice. As they marched away Charles affected to be concealing a smile which Mark affected to ignore. When they reached the street Mark said his head was aching badly, which indeed was the case, and that he thought he would go back to the flat if his friend didn't mind. In an offensively "understanding" voice Charles advised him to rest up for a while.

They arranged to meet at a downtown restaurant for dinner and Charles took a cab to keep an appointment with an eye-doctor. This had been the main purpose of his visit to London.

---

The eye-specialist, who was one of the leading consultants in this specialty, possessed a large, brilliantly-lighted residence, eloquent of wealth, health, and a beacon-like eyesight. Within, it was sumptuous. The young woman who answered the door (one of the doors of Death, after all) breathed an expensive friendliness. The strains of "Cosi Fan Tutte" came down from halcyon regions above, also brilliantly lighted, at the summit of a vast staircase. "How fortunate it is," thought Charles—as he passed into the costly and cosy waiting-room (which was actually warm) and took up a copy of Life—"how fortunate it is that I only suffer from astigmatism."

This was one of the many eminent specialists who had refused to take service under the State. "Cosi Fan Tutte," Charles approvingly reflected, "does not belong to the same dimension as the Welfare State!" But when he found himself in the presence of the large preoccupied man, with a shock of white hair, he received no response to the first of his disparaging remarks about socialized medicine. The man he had come to consult went down in Charles's estimation. "Whatever did Williams want to send me to this old fool for?" he grumbled internally.

His was a routine eye-test, "no thrills", as they say in Harley Street when no pain is to be inflicted. The massive and clumsy frame used for tests was stuck upon his nose. The big anguished-looking red-faced man then delicately placed lenses out of a box in the empty sockets of the frame. He dropped one of these, which later was discovered in the cuff of Charles's trousers. The lenses of course were revolved and Charles was asked what he could see. There was sometimes an embarrassing absence of rapport between what Charles saw and what the doctor thought he ought to see.

The doctor, twisting the lense slowly towards him would comment, "Now that is better like that, isn't it?" Charles would answer, "I'm afraid not." "Not?" the doctor would ask with surprise. He then would place another lense in one of the sockets and say confidently, "Now that is clearer, isn't it?" When Charles would answer "No, that is worse" the doctor would observe gruffly, "No, it can't be worse. Let us try again. Now I will put back the one that was there before. Remember what it looks like through this. Now"—and snatching one out and placing the disputed one once more in position (and it was during one of these lightning exchanges that a lense flew out of the doctor's hand and nestled in the trouser cuff)—"now is that not better? You can see better with that can't you?" "No, sir, I am afraid not. I cannot see so well." This happened more than once. Charles naturally concluded that the great specialist was no magician. The doctor, on his side, decided that Charles was one of those insufferable patients who always try and put the doctor in the wrong. At the end of the test he was even less talkative than before.

When Charles said, "I suppose I shall have to wait months for these bifocals," the doctor said: "Probably. That, however, is not my affair." "You could not," Charles asked, "use on my behalf, sir, one of the priorities they give you?" But the only answer he got to that was: "It is dispensing opticians who are the people to talk to about that, not doctors." Meanwhile the specialist was making out the prescription for the spectacles. "Do you mind where you go?" he asked Charles. "You don't mind where it is?" A curious question. However, Charles declared himself indifferent, and the specialist said, "Then go to Davis and Merks. You have on this envelope their address." And Charles saw that the name "Davis and Merks" was printed on the envelope. (The old devil gets a rake-off, mused Charles.) "I will telephone them and see what I can do."

---

Charles would of course have preferred one of the spacious and dignified Wigmore Street Opticians' saloons, where a staff of impeccably mannered male mannequins still fit spectacles upon one's nose as though it were a historic nose and as if Debrett were their bible. But he sat in Davis and Merks modest premises in an insignificant side street for a long time before he realized the sort of place he had been sent to—before it dawned upon him that the treacherous old eye-doctor (obviously playing a dirty game, with one foot in both camps, but his left foot having precedence over his right foot) had sent him to a National Health Service shop.

When he first went in he sat beside a woman in a fur coat with a well-dressed youngster. They seemed to him quite nice people until the fur coat spoke. He was deeply shocked to hear the accents of the Harrow Road. There were a couple of bald men who looked like clerks in his father's office. Although deploring the presence of what Mr. Orwell called "Proles", and wishing that the eye-doctor had better taste in opticians, he was still a long way from understanding the dirty trick that had been played on him. The eight tables, at which client and shopman sat face to face gazing into one another's eyes, were huddled together, and at each were two figures, their intent faces a foot or two apart. Charles became increasingly fascinated in the problems of a young charlady having her spectacles adjusted at the nearby table. Charles watched the expressions in the assistant's face and studied the extraordinarily expressive fat little back of the youthful charlady.

A mirror stood upon the table, placed there that she might gaze into it. As she studied the revolution her personality must endure, the addition of a pair of ultra-gay spectacles doing strange things to her face, alarm and doubt were expressed by her back muscles. As the quizzical eye of Mr. Charles Dyat was trained upon this bauble, this festively-coloured nose-toy, he reflected, "That's what gets their silly votes! God, why did those dratted fools of Tories never think of spectacles—coloured like sugar-sticks? Thirty million pairs of cheap specs would have won for them a hundred seats!" But now came the buxom young char's leisurely (everything luxuriously leisurely) terminating of the proceedings. Time was made for slaves and slaveys—and Britons were no longer slaves. She poked several short black neck-curls back under her bulbous tammyish cap. And oh with what delicate restraint the assistant advised her: "Always clean them with water—with—well, tap-water."

The little shy respectful hesitation before actually referring to anything so plebeian as a tap—and then the little laugh of comradely complicity. "Why not, after all?" he might almost have said. "A little lady like yourself is broad-minded enough not to mind my mentioning the tap over the sink!"

At the street-door there was another leisurely palaver, shopman all smiling charm, as he deferentially yet a little flirtatiously held the door open. Charles heard him reassuring her. They would, she would find, quieten down with use. Yes, the canary-yellow would no longer, er, be quite so painfully canary (no longer scream at you, my dear, "I'm cheap!"—Charles supplemented these adieux under his breath).

The shop was emptying and refilling all the time and Charles missed his turn twice because of his absorption in the tap-water episode. It was now that he began to say to himself that there was something wrong about this place—something terribly wrong! After all, there were too many people in it, to start with.

A dark baldish individual, Charles noticed, was sitting alone at a table. He walked over and sat down in front of him. Charles did not like the face of this man, nor did Charles's face appeal to the assistant—who made no pretence that he was a "younger son" who had gone into trade, who obviously would say tap-water without a modest pause beforehand. But he was not uncivil. It was a skimpy table, it was close quarters; Charles silently handed him the "Davis and Merks" envelope.

"Bifocals," said the assistant, staring at the prescription.

"Yes. Bifocals," Charles repeated.

"You know, don't you, sir, that the earliest you can expect these, or any bifocals with as large a reading segment as this, is three months?"

"Three months!" Charles scowled.

"That is the earliest."

"Oh, dear." Charles looked disagreeable. "What is the smaller reading segment you spoke of?"

He was shown a bifocal with a round spy-hole for reading at the bottom, of about the diameter of a lead pencil.

"Why does it take so long to get these glasses?" he asked angrily. "Is it a result of the National Health Act chaos?"

A tough look came into the spectacled eyes opposite his own. "It is nothing whatever to do with the National Health Service."

"Oh, you deny that!" Charles said disagreeably.

"I don't deny anything. I tell you what the situation is regarding bifocals. It always has taken a long time."

Charles reached over and took the prescription from the assistant's hand—not without a certain difficulty.

"This is mine—excuse me!" He pulled.

"You cannot get them made quicker anywhere else."

Charles and the assistant darted a nasty look at one another, and Charles left the shop. He made his way as quickly as possible to Wigmore Street, and entered the first luxurious opticians he encountered, Craxton and Dawson, Opticians to H.M. the King of the Hellenes. It was five times the size of Davis and Merks, discreetly lighted—and completely empty.

"No blasted National Health Service here!" Charles told himself with satisfaction.

A tall distinguished grey-haired gentleman (he turned out to be the manager in person) approached. They took to one another at once. Both suggested by their demeanour that they had been born in a Palladian palace in a vast park, in which deer drifted from tree to tree: and naturally Marlborough and Magdalen in the clothes of Savile Row defeated with great ease the Secondary School and an Austin Reed suiting.

There was complete harmony—but alas the reality of popular government in its ultimate totalitarian phase imposed its ugly presence, inasmuch as the manager was sorrowfully obliged to confess that he had no influence whatever with the factory that makes bifocals. That factory is the only one doing bifocals: it has literally tens of thousands of orders to be executed before it can deal with any new order. Nothing any shop says makes the slightest impression. Such was the gist of the manager's information. Asked whether the National Health Service was responsible for these conditions, the manager answered, a little surprised, that of course that and nothing else was the cause.

"Why does not the Government set up a second factory?" Charles enquired idly.

"Why does it not do a great many things!" the manager countered. These two supporters of the old order parted on the best of terms. "Not a gentleman, but a damned sound feller!" was Charles's mental comment. The manager without realizing what he was doing, wrote "Major Charles Dyat, Tadicombe Priory" against the order though Charles had laid no claim to military rank.

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