Authors: Anthony Burgess
The Doctor Is Sick
W Â· W Â· NORTON & COMPANY Â· INC Â·
to L. W
The Doctor Is Sick
âAnd what is
smell?' asked Dr Railton. He thrust a sort of ink-well under Edwin's nose.
âI may be wrong, but I should say peppermint.' He awaited the quiz-master's gong. Beyond the screens that had been wheeled round his bed the rest of the ward could be heard eating.
wrong, I'm afraid,' said Dr Railton. âLavender.' Gong. But he was still in the round. âAnd this?'
âProbably something citrous.'
wrong. Cloves.' There was a tone of moral indictment in the gentle voice. Gently Dr Railton sat on the edge of the bed. Gently, with womanish brown eyes, long-lashed, he looked down at Edwin. âNot so good, is it? Not at all good.' The knives and forks percussed and scraped weakly, an invalids' orchestra.
âI have a cold,' said Edwin. âThe sudden change of climate.' The dying English year rattled at the ward windows, as if begging for a bed. âIt was well up in the nineties when we left Moulmein.'
âYour wife came with you?'
âYes. Officially as my nurse. But she was air-sick most of the time.'
âI see.' Dr Railton nodded and nodded, as though this was really very serious. âWell, there are various other tests we shall have to try. Not now, of course. We'll get down to work properly on Monday.' Edwin relaxed. Dr Railton, seeing this, pounced with a tuning-fork. He brought it,
sizzling like a poker, up to Edwin's right cheek. âCan you feel that?'
âNo, no, can you
âOh, yes,' Dr Railton looked grim, allowing Edwin no triumph. He got in quickly with:
âHow would you define “spiral”?'
âSpiral? Oh, you know, like a spiral staircase. Like a screw.' Both of Edwin's hands began to spiral in the air. âGoing up and up, turning all the time, but each turn getting progressively smaller and smaller till the whole thing just vanishes. You know what I mean.' Edwin begged with his eyes that this definition be accepted.
âExactly.' said Dr Railton with his new grimness.
But evidently he did not refer to the definition. âNow,' he said. He got up from the edge of the bed and brutally pushed the bed-screens away. They freewheeled squeakily a yard or so, and a wardful of ice-cream-eaters was disclosed with appalling suddenness. âGet up out of that bed,' said newly brutal Dr Railton with a no-more-of-this-malingering gesture. Edwin's pyjama trousers had lost their cord somewhere between Moulmein and London, and he blushed as he drew up the stripy folds from around his ankles. The ice-cream-eaters looked on placidly, as at a television advertisement. âNow,' said Dr Railton, âwalk in an absolutely straight line from here to that man over there,' He pointed to a tense-looking patient who nodded, as showing willingness to participate in any helpful experiment, a patient imprisoned in cages and snakes of rubber tubing. Edwin walked like a drunk. âAll right,' said the tense patient encouragingly. âYou're doin' all right, truly you are.'
âNow walk back,' said Dr Railton. (âSee you later,' said the tense patient.) Edwin walked back, drunker than before. âNow get back into bed,' said Dr Railton. Then, as if none of this really had to be taken
seriously, as if he were only paid to be like that and over a couple of pints you couldn't meet a nicer man, Dr Railton boyishly laughed and play-punched Edwin on the chest, tousled his hair and tried to break off a piece of his shoulder.
âMonday,' he promised laughing at the door, âwe really start.'
Edwin looked round at his ward mates who now lay back replete and tooth-sucking. The tense patient said:
âKnow who he was?'
âDr Railton, isn't it?'
âNah, we know that. What he was before is what I mean. Mean to say you don't know? That's Eddie Railton.'
âUsed to be on the telly when he was learnin' to be a doctor. Played the trumpet lovely, he did. Just goes to show you, dunnit?'
A negro ward orderly came to Edwin's bedside. He caressed the bed-clothes lingeringly, looking liquidly through thick intellectual spectacles. âNow,' he said, âyou eat.'
âNo, really, I don't think I want to.'
âYes, yes, you eat. Must eat. Everybody must eat.' The deep tones of a negro sermon. He marched gravely towards the door. The tense patient called from his nest of tubes:
âHere, fetch us an evenin' paper. There'll be a bloke sellin' 'em in the 'all just about now.'
âI have no time,' said the negro orderly, âto fetch evening papers.' He marched out.
âThere you are,' said the tense patient in disgust. âJust goes to show you, dunnit? There's a right good bleedin' specimen of a good Samaritan for you, ennit? I mean, it shows you, dunnit? Fair drives you up the bleedin' wall, dunnit? Straight up it does.'
Edwin toyed with steamed fish and a scoop of mashed potato, depressed as he looked round the ward. Everyone was in bed except his immediate neighbour. Most wore white turbans like Mecca pilgrims, though signs not of grace but of shaven heads. A ward full of sick hajis. Edwin's neighbour sat on his bed in a dressing-gown, gloomily smoking, looking out to the London evening in the still square. His face wore a clinical sneer, part of a complex syndrome. That afternoon, shortly after Edwin's arrival, two visitors from another ward had come, also with sneers, to compare sneers. A sort of sneerers' club. They had sneered good-bye to Edwin's sneerer neighbour and then sneered off. Very depressing.
A staff nurse, depressingly healthy, jaunted in, and the tense man of the cage and tubes said, âEvenin', staff.' The staff nurse jaunted on to the end of the ward, not replying. âThere,' said the tense man, âshows you, dunnit? What the bleedin' 'ell I done wrong now? Says good evenin' to her and she don't say good evenin', kiss my arse nor nuffin. Drives you up the wall, dunnit?'
âNo,' said Edwin, âI don't want ice-cream. No, thank you very much, no ice-cream. No, please, no. No ice-cream.'
âRelax,' came the negro preacher's tones. âYou relax, my little friend. That's what you here for, to relax.
Nobody's going to make you eat ice-cream if you don't want ice-cream. So I just leave the ice-cream here by your bedside just in case you change your mind and want to eat ice-cream some time later on.'
âNo,' said Edwin, âno. I don't like ice-cream. Please take it away.'
âYou relax now. Maybe you want to eat it some time later on.' The negro orderly gravely walked off. In a jumpy temper Edwin got out of bed, picked up the chill melting saucerful, ready to throw it. Then he thought: âCareful now, careful, take it easy, they'd love you to do something like that.'
âIf you don't want that,' said the tense man of tubes, âgive it to me. I'll give it to my youngster when he comes in tonight. Loves anythin' like that, he does. Anythin' cold. Fair laps it up, he does.'
Edwin put on his dressing-gown, a Chinese silk one crawling with dragons, and padded over to this man's bed. At its foot there was a glory of many charts â water intake and output, rate of saline flow, protein content of cerebrospinal fluid, as well as temperature and pulse graphs showing peaks, deep valleys. The name on all these was proud and simple â R. Dickie. âLike me to show you round the gas-works?' said R. Dickie. âThis here tube with that bottle upside down up there is like pouring sort of medicine into me, and this tube here is attached to my old whatnot, and that one goes into my back, and I'm not quite sure where that one goes to. And that sort of crane is so as how I can lift myself up, and that kind of cage is to stop things touching my legs. Marvellous what they can think up, ennit? Mind you don't kick that bottle on the floor over because that tube fixed to it at one end is fixed
to my old whatsit at the other. Keeps drippin' in all day it does. Later on they measure it. Marvellous, ennit? Straight up.' He had a red fifty-year-old face and hair much disordered, as if his hospital stay had really been a strenuous cruise in a trawler.
âWhat happened to you?' asked Edwin.
âFell off a bleedin' ladder at work. Me, I'm a builder.'
A simple and dramatic accident, a proud hazardous trade. Edwin thought of his own trade, his own accident. A lecturer on linguistics in a college in Burma who had one day, quite without warning, fallen on the lecture-room floor while lecturing on linguistics. He had been talking about folk etymology (
penthouse, primrose, Jerusalem artichoke
) and then, quite suddenly, he had passed out. He came to to find concerned, flat, delicate-brown Burmese faces looking down on him, himself saying: âIt's really a question of assimilating the unknown to the known, you see, refusing to admit that a foreign word is really foreign.' While he lay on the cool floor he could see quite clearly, on the fringe of the group that surrounded him, one or two students taking down his words in their notebooks. He said: âWhile we honour none but the horizontal one.' That, too, was taken down.
The doctors had taken a serious view of the matter, giving him a very dull series of medical examinations. A lumbar puncture had shown a great excess of protein in the cerebrospinal fluid. Dr Wall had said: âThat shows there's something there that shouldn't be there. We'd better send you back to England to see a neurologist.' Here he was, talking to a builder who had fallen off a ladder.
âIn Germany it was,' said R. Dickie. âPerhaps if it had
happened here it might have worked out different. Here they come now, you see. They're lettin' them in.'
They were letting them in. The flowers were being wheeled out on trolleys, the water-bottles filled for the night, and they were letting the visitors in. To R. Dickie's bed came various grey women and a small thumbsucking boy who began to eat Edwin's ice-cream. To the prone Mecca pilgrims came cheerful grape-laden families, including hearty men in pullovers with copies of
. To Edwin Spindrift came Sheila Spindrift. With Sheila Spindrift was a man, unknown to Edwin.