Friday 8th. Arthur sat quietly gazing out into the tidy garden. He’d been summoned an hour earlier. His aunt was dying in an upstairs room, attended by a colleague. As nursing homes go, it wasn’t bad. Large entrance hall, tall windows, plush carpets and curtains. One of many large properties built by wealthy Victorians and no longer viable as a place for a family to live. Flats for students or homes for the frail. Not that his aunt was frail, she was twenty stone at least. Arthur’s mother said she was big-boned. Thighs like rugby balls, uncontrolled by stocking tops, indecent in knee length skirts and low chairs.
She’d taken a turn for the worse six weeks earlier. Admitted to hospital and fully worked up as they say these days, but never really responded to the treatment. Kinder to let nature take it’s course. She wasn’t paying.
‘Dr. Ambler, would you like a cup of tea?’ a teenage girl in a light green overall stood in front of him.
‘No, not really.’ She disappeared behind an imposing wood staircase and a mature lady in blue took her place.
‘Nice to see you again, doctor.’ Arthur visited the nursing home regularly as part of his duties, ‘Not the best of circumstances I’m afraid.’
‘True. These things happen.’
A young man in a smart suit came down the stairs and joined them.
‘Matron, this is Dr. Miles.’
The two men stood side by side. Dr. Miles looked anxious and appeared to be checking out the carpet’s floral pattern. Arthur wondered what he’d found down there that was so interesting. These youngsters could be so shifty. You knew where you were with colleagues of your own vintage, usually with a knife in your back. He coughed, straightened his back and fixed his sights on something indeterminate in the distance.
Matron touched Dr. Miles on the arm, ‘Dr. Ambler would like to know how his aunt is.’
‘Yes, sorry. I’m afraid she’s in a coma. Probably won’t last the day.’
‘No need to apologise. Its been expected.’ Arthur turned, picked up his coat and walked out of the front door.
He paused at the end of the drive next to a sturdy stone gatepost and turned up the collar of his coat against the autumn weather. A storm was brewing. He realised he’d not said thank you. He’d catch Miles later.
Aunt Blodwen was not the last of her generation, nor the first to pass over, but as his father’s only sister, Arthur sensed the thin end of the wedge. At least, she’d ended up on Nob Hill. Recognition for the seventy years or so she’d spent muddling through the food chain. From meagre to grand in six short weeks. She’d certainly the figure for it.
Blodwen and William, Arthur’s dad, had been born and raised in the next village to the nursing home. Today there was no distinction, just a main road, but in 1920’s it had been them and us, plebs and patricians, workers and the bosses.
Sketching out the family history had never been part of the Ambler way. Arthur kept a note of snippets dropped casually into conversation, intending one day to include them in a formal account. It wouldn’t happen. He knew he would be doing other things. Not like his alter ego, Dyce, a seedy detective from crime fiction with a small but enthusiastic following. Dyce would nag at stuff until it gave in from sheer fatigue. Commitment to justice and truth despite the cost. No promotion, no family to speak of and a restlessness that interfered with sleep. Dyce would get a result but made few friends on the route.
Blod was the eldest, born just before the first World War. Dad came second, just after. According to Arthur’s mother, when Blod was asked what she wanted her younger brother to be christened she replied Willie and Willie went on the birth certificate. Arthur as a child, assumed dad’s name was actually William after one of his teachers refused to put Willie down on some document or other. It can’t be Willie. Must be William. Well if you say so thought Arthur. Dad always refused to discuss it, conferring a deeply silent black look on anyone who tried to. The same black look appeared regularly during Arthur’s childhood, for good reason sometimes, and sometimes not. He didn’t talk much about his own childhood, though he once admitted Arthur’s grandparents had been strict. They rented a greengrocery business near the town centre where Blod and Willie had to stand at the dinner table to eat. Arthur once came across a 1915 greetings card from France. Grandad must have been there during the war. It addressed Blod as his sweet little darling, signed Da. Arthur’s mother had put her index finger to her lips when another black look had answered his innocent question how Blod had got on with her father. There were photos from the 1920’s when Blod and Willie were growing up, but no dates, names or locations were written on the back. The gaps were large and Arthur had learned not to enquire too deeply. He wasn’t Dyce.
The hospital was a five minute walk. Uphill, through a residential area for the profossional, as an estate agent might describe it. Large buildings with large price tags. The rain started as he made the entrance hall. Those who witnessed his progress through the foyer and up the stairs might have assumed he was engrossed in the latest difficult case.
‘Would you get me an outside line Mrs. Ward?’ Arthur sat at his desk, still in his coat and dialled his father’s number.
Mrs. Ward twisted her right wrist up and down twice. Arthur nodded. She left the room with a kettle.
‘Ah. How are things?’
‘As we expected. She’s on the way out.’
‘You did what you could Arthur. I’ll ring Michael.’
Arthur stood and put his coat on the hook, under the trilby he hadn’t worn to the nursing home. He looked out over the doctor’s car park. The rain was heavy and people were scurrying to and from their cars. Still the most discussed item at medical staff meetings. Arthur didn’t want to park with the great unwashed. Didn’t spend half his life getting where he was to share the privilege. They’d be trying to get rid of the doctors’ dining room next.
‘Coffee, Dr. Ambler.’
The phone rang and Mrs. Ward answered. She mouthed the name of the caller across to Arthur who shook his head. ‘Dr. Ambler is not in the office and he has appointments all afternoon. Can I get him to call you back?’ She then held the phone as far from her as possible. Arthur could hear the snorts and grunts of telephone noise that passed for shouting. When it finally went quiet Mrs. Ward thanked the caller and replaced the receiver.
‘That thing is going to melt. Second today. Can I suggest you answer his calls?’
A surgeon with more than the usual attitude. Arthur couldn’t imagine what it would be about, ‘I’d better be on my way.’
He couldn’t avoid Mark Hossein, his immediate partner on the firm, waiting outside his office. ‘Just a quick one. I know you’ve got clinic, but I wanted to catch you about the meeting tonight.’
As he went over his concern Arthur grew curious as to why this and why now. Enemies he could prepare for and manage. Supposed friends were unpredictable. The issue seemed trivial, but he could never be sure. The wrong move and it could return to haunt him. Hossein could be lining him up for a firing squad. ‘Good point. Needs to be thought about carefully. See you later.’
Afternoon clinic. Respite and minefield. Relief from the normal hospital chaos but a stage on which the unwary could trip. You were it and appearance mattered. Someone once asked him if Hippocrates and hypocrisy had the same greek root. As far as he knew Hippocrates was the name of a man he’d replied. Arthur glanced at his list and sighed.
A lady in blue peeped round the door, ‘Not good news then?’
‘You look worn out. Wouldn’t you be better at home?’
‘You did all you could.’
Blodwen had been admitted on his watch. A colleague would have come in, had he asked. A colleague could have taken over the following day, had he asked. She was a sick old woman and something in him wouldn’t let go. Unethical some had said. Others thought it unwise. Dr Miles had eventually taken over, needing to confirm that a sick old woman did not have the reserves to come round.
‘Dr. Ambler! Dr. Ambler, are you ready?’
Arthur roused himself for his first patient.
‘You have to shut it down, I can’t staff it after next week.’
‘So soon?’ said Andrew, pasty faced with prominent ears. Arthur often thought he was a martian.
‘Look, we’ve seen this coming for long enough,’ said Mike, looking annoyed as he turned to Arthur for support.
Arthur felt his face go warm and red as his voice went louder, ‘Yes. We’ve talked about it forever. What’s going on Andrew. I thought we had an agreement?
‘What do we need to do, Mike?’ asked Andrew leaning forward and pointing with a finger. ‘How is it going to work? Where are the emergencies to be admitted? The numbers aren’t going to change. We’ll just have more outliers. The junior training may be at risk.’
‘You know the answers. We’ve talked about it loads of times,’ said Mike. Arthur felt really angry, ‘We’ve had this out at least twice Andrew, and don’t keep asking Mike the questions, as if he will say yes when the answer is no. Lets make that a decision then?’
The other five faces round the table were stiff, their bodies rigid, arms folded. The department was into cutbacks, and not the tinkering at the edge sort, but serious amounts of money. Each was going to lose something.
These committees were the latest way of trying to get medics involved.
Arthur chaired the meetings but rarely felt in control. He had little to do with day to day running. Mike did that. A career “suit” with his own supervisor. Young, ambitious, competent, but not really answerable to Arthur. The power went up another line straight to the chief.
‘Arthur, you’ll have to go and tell the rest of the senior medical staff. I’ll start to wind down the operational side.’
The chief already knew. The amount of money could not be saved in any other way, and the perceived wisdom was they were overstaffed anyway. Management knew what had to happen. Arthur just needed a little nudge.
‘Anything else. Right, we’ll call it a day.’ What had Hossein been on about? Arthur had forgotten.
Mike stayed behind, ‘Well its done. You’ve a hard job Arthur, keeping Andrew and the guys sweet yet doing the needful.’
Arthur stared into space.
‘I heard. Its just that I’ve mostly coped with work. Everyone makes mistakes. Occasional run in with a boss, overtired, trying to hard. But this. There’s no pleasure in wheeling and dealing for months, thinking you’ve an agreement and then finding you haven’t. They’ll blame me and I lost my temper.’
The door closed behind Mike and Arthur pondered on events, still seated and still absently gazing nowhere. A committee room dominated by a large table and twenty or so chairs. Windows to one side. Plain white walls with an incomplete set of senior staff portraits. He knew the newer retirees wouldn’t dream of it. We’ve had some awkward confrontations in here. He’d been put down once by one of the older guys. Retired and not on the wall. He always felt cross and helpless when the memory intruded. What am I carrying that around for? He let his muscles relax, and slowed his breathing. Awkward confrontations all his life and never dealt with them well. He always moved on. Often with a cloud over his head. How was he going to get out of this one?
Ward closure was big. Serious winners and losers. He’d dithered and listened and dithered a bit more, until events had overtaken him. He squirmed at the thought of the chain of events he’d likely set in motion and what was being said in the corridors and toilets. He’d been part of that merrygoround once, but it took up so much energy and didn’t achieve a lot. Andrew would occupy all his time even at social gatherings. Jane got livid. They’d stopped going and he was out of touch with the gossip.
The training he’d had for the job said you must take the troops with you, but they weren’t with him. So it had been left to the last minute. A traitor to his colleagues and spineless to the managers. He was not cut out for this. Like an unpleasant filling in a bastard sandwich.
‘How do you think the meeting went?’ Arthur had bumped into the chief, Hugh Brewer, down in the basement. No natural light. Hugh was a senior medic who’d seen and done most of it and survived. Bruised but well scrubbed, smiling and thoughtful. He gave the enviable impression that he slept nights.
‘I nearly lost the will to live.’ said Arthur. Hugh laughed.
‘Andrew gets far too much into the detail. It holds us up. There are other times and places for that.’
‘I’ve said this before. You should tell him. Detail is Mike’s job, he’s the manager.’
‘Oh, we do, but he still does it. And Jack’s another problem. He hardly says a thing, but I bet he’s round in Andrew’s office trying to cook up some plot. Bloody politics.’
‘Jack’s’s just an old woman. He did speak to me earlier, but I referred him back to you.’
Arthur’s eyes became unfocussed, brooding. Were they deliberately sabotaging his efforts? Didn’t they realise how difficult it was? They couldn’t agree on anything. They were only interested in their own interests rather than the big picture.
‘Arthur . . . Arthur.’
‘Sorry Hugh, miles away.’
‘These guys are getting under your skin. No need. Stick to what you and Mike have to do. We have very few options. Even Andrew and Jack will see that eventually.’
‘Yes Hugh.’ Arthur hunched his shoulders and shuffled away down the dingy corridor.
It was well after six o’clock when Arthur returned to an empty office. Mrs Ward had left a note on his desk. “Tried to reach you and leave messages to ring the nursing home. See you Monday.” Arthur knew what that was about.
Aunt Blodwen and Uncle Edward had been part of the fabric of Arthur’s life before he left for university. His first memory was of them living in a district that now would politely be called rough. Then it was fashionable enough. Council housing. Rented, but lots rented in those days and lots bought their own during the Thatcher years. Long terraces with greeen spaces front and back. A little bit of country in the town. Most people made an effort to turn them into gardens. The house had five rooms with a staircase leading up from the front door. Only ever opened for the doctor. Everybody else came in through the back kitchen door.
The family had a visiting rota. Every Sunday tea someone would come to them or they would go to mum’s sister or to Blod’s. Same meal. Cold meat salad, bread and butter, tinned fruit and carnation milk. Move all the furniture back in the main room and open up the loose leaf table. Only differences were the house smell and the colour of the dishes. Blod had pink plastic pudding bowls and the house smelled of liqid you put down the toilet to freshen it up.
Edward’s son, Michael, had the spare room. He also had a James Dean haircut, a loopy greased coiffing forever needing a comb. He must have moved out when Granny Ambler, Blod and Willie’s widowed mother, moved in. A brief bout of leukaemia and several openings of the front door. An Irishman with syringes mixed up with fluff from his tweed jacket. She was eventually admitted to the hospital. An imposing pillared frontage with a statue on a plinth and the names of the worthy in gold lettering on the entrance hall wall.
Arthur remembered the Sunday morning dad was unexpectedly called away. Kitchen still damp from the weekly wash and the smell of Sunday dinner on its way.
‘Granny Ambler’s dead,’ Arthur informed his older brother.
‘Crap,’ was the reply. But she was. He wasn’t allowed to the funeral. Went to the tea afterwards, in the upstairs room of a pub. Beef in gravy with all the trimmings. He was impressed, as any primary schoolboy was impressed by food and football. He’d often tried to picture how dad had taken it, but nothing came to mind. Mum said he’d gone as quickly as he could to the hospital but when he arrived granny’s bed was empty. ‘It upset him a lot’, she said. Arthur would never have guessed.
Blod and Edward had in a small business in The Market. Along with The Town Hall, large grimy stone buildings of civic pride. Hundreds of rooms and corridors, steps, doors, big spaces, little corners, shadows and bright lightbulbs. They had a shop on the side street and a studio up in the attics, separated by one hundred yards of cobbled street and ten flights of stairs. Blod had worked for the previous tenant. She would have still been at home with Gran and Grandad Ambler when he died and she must have taken over the lease. Arthur didn’t know when or where Edward arrived on the scene, but he came with Michael whose own mother lived in The Midlands. Michael had a brother of no fixed abode between long spells on a merchant ship. Rumour had it he had children in Newcastle.
The business flourished so they took on a mortgage and moved. Another five rooms, semi-detached, but more of a hall and landing. They took their pink pudding bowls with them. And, they got a car. Three gears, sliding doors and seats you could adjust. Daytrips entered the Sunday rota. Arthur remembered going to Southport beach. It was the day before older brother’s ‘O’ levels. Mum said if he hadn’t learned it by the day before then he wasn’t going to learn it then. Fast stream at a boys’ grammar school. Destined for Oxbridge. Arthur couldn’t see the problem. Older brother already knew it all.
Two significant things happened to Arthur that day. He batted for hours at cricket on a perfect hard packed sand wicket. Whatever they chucked down at him he negotiated safely or swatted toward the sea several miles away. The other glorious event involved Michael’s girlfriend. Arthur caught sight of her bare left breast as she was changing out of her swimming costume.
Along with their prosperity, Blodwen and Edward’s Christmas presents took a turn for the better. Arthur got a two-storey garage with a lift that really worked. An army tank and a transporter. A punch bag on a stick that whipped back and smacked the unwary. The pearler was a space gun that fired plastic darts tipped with suckers. Lick them and they’d stick to anything. You can’t give a lad a present and not let him play with it. Arthur knew he must have been clueless as usual, totally unaware of the gathering storm. ‘Watch out’, ‘don’t do that’, ‘Arthur be careful’. And then bull’s eye, perfect contact in the middle of dad’s forehead, brilliant, and everybody falling about laughing, trying not to look at dad who hasn’t seen the funny side. Another black look. Arthur kept the gun, but the darts went missing.
It was hard to see what had attracted Blodwen to Edward. He wore a leather harness down his back and between his legs. A war wound dad said. He seemed to be all made out of corners, particularly in his preferred black double-breasted blazer with regimental badge. Even in a sweater his corners didn’t soften. Never without a collar and tie. Arthur wondered if he ever went to bed in them. His straight wiry grey hair was raked back and, despite cream, refused to conform to the contours of his head so the ends at the back became spiked. With chubby cheeks and yellowing teeth he had a devilish look about him. Two weeks every year, in winter, he went blue and breathless and wouldn’t let Blod get the doctor.
Edward had fads and a habit of not finishing things. Michael said he couldn’t even finish a cigarette. Smoked forty Senior Service a day, scorch marks on all the shelves and long trails of ash in the trays. Rose bushes planted and overgrown, goldfish pond covered in unpleasant green slime, a greenhouse with glass overlapping so the rain and the wind blew in, the latest tape recorder, big TV, an organ, a cine camera. Dad said Blodwen tried to keep her eye on him, but he simply bought loads of stuff for her as well, mostly chocolates. Hundreds, thousands of them, in huge presentation boxes. Sort of thing that’s around at Christmas time Blodwen had every week. He must have had a standing order down the tobacconist. It was one of those shops that shared entrance with the one next door. Right into the tobacconist and left into the sweet shop. Right to be engulfed by the smells of St Bruno and Twist and left to pear drops and chocolate.
It wasn’t just the chocolates that made Arthur smell a rat about Blod’s diet. Everyone at some time will have reached across the dinner table for a morcel that had tasty and eat me written all over it. But Blod did it every meal, always for the fatty bits. The greasier and bigger the better, enough for an eskimo.
As Arthur got older so Sundays got longer and more boring. The women would get the tea and wash up. Older brother went to church, which was an excuse to see his girlfriend. Dad and Edward would talk. Arthur did none of these and even if he was allowed to watch TV, which he wasn’t, it was the god slot. Relief only came when everyone gathered for Sunday Night at the London Palladium.
It wasn’t boring every Sunday. Depending on the time of year and the weather, Arthur could play out with a soccer ball. There was no room around the rented terrace, but the new house was out in the country, opposite a hockey club. No members there on a Sunday to tell him he couldn’t and the goals were a good size. Then a friend of Blod’s said he could join an organised game down on open ground in the middle of an estate nearby. Older boys and men, but a few lads. The star attraction was the manager of the local town team. Played professional in the twenties. Arthur couldn’t punch his weight but he was skilful enough to win praise. Pity he couldn’t go every week.
Football was the reason to get up in the mornings. Impromtu games wherever there was a bit of space for two sets of coats. The year Arthur took his eleven plus, the school formed a team and joined the local league. Proper practice on the pitch after school dinner. No kit to start with. Arthur borrowed a shirt from Michael which laced up at the front. Couldn’t afford too much in the way of boots. Cork studs, half of them missing after the first game. But Christmas and birthdays were helpful. Eventually he swapped folded up newspaper and magazines for shin pads, and red stockings replaced old pairs of darned grey school socks. Big for his age, Arthur commanded the right back position. Solid, dirty according to many left wingers, but not the referees, and he could pass and kick a dead ball a fair way. He never crossed the half-way line. That was for the dribblers, the good players. They won promotion to the first division. Knocked out in the semi final of the cup. Pie and peas, jelly and ice cream and Hopalong Cassidy films as a treat one night after school. They gathered behind the goalposts every other Saturday to watch ‘Town’. They walked to the ground where dad gave him the ninepence for the lads’ entrance. The players were legends and he could still recite the team sheet. He dreamed of being just like them.
Only three out of the team went onto grammar school. Arthur’s Mum said he’d never have passed without it.
Saturday afternoon. It was large. Four storeys. A long straight drive and parking for a fleet of cars. A garage to hold a ball in. The porch door, reached by a short flight of stone steps, had a brass plaque asking tradesmen to use the side door. A legacy from former days, but it was still in place. Presumably the plumber dutifully went round the side. A desireable district in Victorian times and not shabby now despite being under seige. Overgrown and neglected public park across the road. An estate with a grim reputation two streets away. A retail estate on the horizon. It was designed to demonstrate wealth and power and it did so successfully. A model for those on the way up. A privilege to be invited whatever the occasion. Jane was cautious about attending engagements in aid of charity, but Arthur disregarded her concerns. He knew she wasn’t keen on the hosts. A surgeon with a thriving private practice. Three children at public school. Wife at the centre of the social scene. They were on top of their game.
‘I’m not sure we should have brought Tony,’ said Jane.
‘We can’t leave him alone with Laura. And it is billed as a family day out.’
‘But we should be with mum and dad. Aunt Blodwen only just died.’
‘We don’t have to stay long.’ Arthur would stop long enough for a few drinks at least.
The hostess, Roberta, spotted them, a diminutive fair haired pocket battleship. ‘Hi. Glad you could make it. We’ve set the bar up on the croquet lawn. Bruce is just supervising the barbecue. Games in the garage.’
‘Do you want to see about the games Tony?’
‘Have a lemonade if you want. Freshly made this morning.’
Jane and Arthur walked round the house to a flat area the size of a tennis court. Trestle tables covered by a crisp white cloth were attended by waiters, next to three stone hearths. White smoke drifted gently from the first. Arthur approached the host who was talking to a man in an apron and a tall white hat, ‘Bruce.’
The host carried on talking to the chef. Then they nodded.
‘Arthur, get yourself a drink,’ he said as he turned and shook Arthur’s hand., ‘Hello Jane.’
‘Looks to be going well,’ said Arthur.
‘Yes. Plenty more to come. The Shire Life photographer is here and a reporter from The Evening Courier. Do mingle.’
‘Don’t get drunk,’ ordered Jane as they went to the bar. A meeting of wealthy people who like to be seen with other wealthy people thought Arthur. He’d never have their kind of money, but they’d never have his qualifications and status.
Tony found them, breathing heavily.
‘That boy called me a thicko. It’s not right. He beat me at table tennis and laughed.’
‘Him,’ pointing to Bruce and Roberta’s eldest.
A familiar apparently random event. Boys will be boys. Tony can say things which irritate, like claiming to be good at table tennis whilst being inept. And some people can be cruel. Which was it? They would never know. It was simply about keeping the lid on.
‘Come on, I’ll give you a game,’ said Arthur. A chance for Tony to win something. It can be hard trying to lose, but it does come with practice. In front of ten or so children, Arthur did it by playing left handed.
‘Thanks dad. Another game?’
‘There’s a bit of a queue. Maybe later.’
Bruce came into the garage with a small group of guests.
‘Arthur. We are going down to look at my cellar. Want to come?’
‘I’ll stay with Tony if you don’t mind.’
‘Sure. Can I catch you later?’
‘Yes. Quiet word in your ear. There’s a bit of talk about the ward closure.’
‘That was quick.’
‘Had a pint with Jack after work last night and there were one or two in work this morning having coffee. There’s a move to vote you off as chair. I personally think the closure’s fine.’ Bruce turned and lead the group toward the tradesman’s entrance.
Thanks a million. Just what I need. Arthur felt hot as he bunched his fingers. He knew Bruce’s pet project depended on the closure, so he’d be a winner. Smug or what?
Tony and Arthur went in search of Jane. They found her and three or four others listening to Dr. Julian Jones, ‘Yes I made a complaint. I told them it wasn’t appropriate for a primary school to be serving chips.’ Arthur heard the rest of the diatribe without fully registering it. Dr. Jones was the new neurologist. Short, thickening waist, prematurely balding, speaking with a hint of a welsh accent.
‘Dr. Jones. I’m Arthur Ambler. I see you’ve met my wife.’
‘Dr. Ambler?’ A fleeting ghost of a smile or was it a smirk?
‘Settling in?’ Arthur heard the reply without taking it in. Why did he feel uneasy?
Roberta suddenly appeared, ‘You’d better sort your boy out.’
Arthur realised Tony was no longer at his side. The group next to the garage were a bit noisy. Someone shouted get off. Then high pitched crying. Arthur got there as quick as he could. Bruce had hold of a tearful Tony by the shoulder, ‘The brat. He’s just nipped me. Can’t you keep him under control Arthur?’
‘I can’t be everywhere.’
‘He punched me,’ said Tony pointing at his table tennis opponent.
‘You hit me first.’
‘You laughed at me.’
‘You’re just stupid.’
‘That’s enough,’ Bruce let go of Tony.
At one time Arthur might have smacked Tony. Plenty people over the years said he should. Others said that Tony would come to see it as getting attention. Another dilemma and no solution, other than deal with it there and then. He could do with smacking somebody though.
Jane and Roberta caught up.
‘Time we went,’ said Jane.
‘Thanks for coming,’ said Roberta.
Arthur used to feel stunned. Not what he’d signed up for as a parent. He couldn’t describe how he felt just then, but murderous was close.
‘Told you we shouldn’t have taken him.’
But it would have meant none of them going. How much did you cut yourself off?
‘You and your posing colleagues. Who do you think you all are? For the sake of your position we’ve left Laura babysitting Kit and Tony’s been in a fight.’
Arthur knew that wives supported their husband’s professional careers. Roberta certainly thrived on it. How was he going to manage the latest news, besides shoot them all? Go home, have a drink, give Hugh a call.
Sunday afternoon. ‘Here we are,’ Arthur pulled on the handbrake.
‘Right, come on Tony,’ Jane opened the passenger door and walked up to the front of a single storey redbrick and glass building. Tony and Arthur followed as Jane rang the bell. Arthur glimpsed the foyer through the window next to the entrance. A pale girl of about thirteen was rocking back and forth in a chair.
A middle-aged face appeared at the window and smiled. The sound of a door being unlocked and there she was in the doorway, right hand extended.
‘Hello, I’m Jemma. You’ll be Doctor and Mrs. Ambler. And Tony. Come in.’
Jemma locked the door behind them, ‘Come through to the office. We’ll show you your room then Tony. I’m sure you’re going to like it.’
A small boy came up to Jane, gave her a hug and walked away. ‘That’s Shaun. You’ll be one of the oldest to stay here Tony, and the tallest,’ Jemma unlocked another door and switched on a light, ‘find a seat. Here’s James.’ They all shook hands with man in his late twenties. Levis, trainers, a pony tail and perfect teeth. As Tony was taken off to his room, Arthur felt a small ball beginning to grow in his stomach. Jemma asked them how they were getting on and tried to explain how the place was run. Arthur smiled and nodded, pleased to see that Jane at least was engaged with these formal processes. He wanted to leave, or more precisely run away. Much like Tony was feeling he imagined. Shaun reappeared and sat on the floor.
‘Shaun, how about going to the lounge? asked Jemma. Shaun appeared not to be listening. Jemma got up from behind her desk and gently lifted Shaun to his feet and pointed him out the door. ‘Let’s take the tour.’
Jemma showed them the kitchen and lounge. Flowered curtains, hard wearing carpets, scuff marks on the skirting board, scarred wallpaper. Pictures of nursery rhymes, closed toy boxes, TV up and out of reach. Then Tony’s bedroom and the bathroom nearby. All neat and clean, but Arthur wondered why it smelled of stuff you cleaned toilets with. And not many children and the two they’d met were much younger than Tony, and less with it. At last it was something. Their main supporters had been Arthur’s parents and odd nights off at friends. But Tony could be such a handful. He could be frightening. They needed more formal organised help. Social workers changed every three or four months. Day centres opened and closed. Private care expensive and a day’s journey. A family who wanted to cope but who were close to despair. Laura fifteen, a pain since her thirteenth birthday and baby Kit. Tony went to the right school and did well in the classroom. Forever getting into scrapes in the playground, nipping and biting and saying stuff that wasn’t on. Good with his words and a great memory. But the words were in the wrong places and said to the wrong people. No one likes being told they shouldn’t smoke. Or that they were fat. The words had kept him in the wrong school for a while until he trapped a boy’s fingers in a toilet door in front of the headmistress and said he meant to do it. She interpreted the words correctly. A case conference with dainty speech therapist and a german educational psychologist. Whisked away within days to the right school. Tony didn’t seem to mind, but the headmistress did. Arthur and Jane didn’t get a say.
A home life that was crap. But everything had to be hidden. They could manage. Sure. Jane close to tears most of the time. Arthur more grumpy than necessary. Laura on the edge of delinquency and visiting a psychologist of her own. And yet everyone smiled when the front door opened. Tony’s headmaster was not one for mincing his words, ‘It’s to be expected in a middle class family.’ All the evidence was there if the seven or eight social workers had been with them long enough to make an analysis. And it wasn’t doing Tony any favours. The nipping and biting turned into punching, chinese burns, strangling and knives. The words came from the lavatory or worse. Another educational psychologist. One from the hospital this time, ‘We don’t like to label.’ No help there then.
Arthur took things into his own hands. A chat with a colleague, a name at a London teaching hospital, an appointment within a month. A label and the for social services the earth moved.
‘It will be like being on holiday, you know, going to stay with gran and granddad. Just for the weekend.’ Arthur was lying, but it was true for this weekend at least. The plan was for Tony to become a permanent resident. He’d become too dangerous.
Arthur felt as though someone had died.
The phone was ringing as Arthur unlocked and opened the front door. Christ what’s that about. Sunday afternoon. I’m not on call. He went in and took off his coat slowly, hoping they’d ring off. They didn’t.
‘I’m glad I’ve caught you. It’s Jemma from Hagg House. Little problem. Getting Tony organised for a bath, we noticed bruising on his back. Something and nothing I know, but we can’t be too careful. He’s gone to casualty. A precaution.’
‘Thanks. Keep us posted.’ All the attention won’t worry Tony. Boys were forever tumbling and bruising.
‘Jane, don’t suppose you’ve noticed bruising on Tony’s back?’
‘No. We’ll check when he comes home. I’ll see if Laura and Kit are ok.’
Monday. Arthur sat at his desk. A cup of coffee before paperwork. The door opened and Mrs. Ward looked in to check if he was there. No coffee.
‘You’d better read this,’ she handed him a piece of paper. ‘it wasn’t stamped confidential.’
Arthur saw it was a letter from the new guy they’d met the day before at Bruce’s do. About a referral that Arthur had made the previous week. The letter began by outlining the problem and his recommendations for change. As Arthur read the final paragraph, he felt a chill in the pit of his stomach,
‘. . . The current management has been entirely inappropriate and has undoubtedly contributed to your patient’s deterioration. This amounts to gross neglect. Your patient’s daughter was present when I visited and I kept her informed of developments. Regards . …………. ‘
Arthur’s mouth fell open, shocked. His head filled with unanswerable questions. How dare he the bastard? What does he think he is playing at? Doesn’t he realise this is not the way we go about things? Even if a colleague had something to say, it was usually said quietly, away from prying ears. Where is he? I’ll give him something to think about.
‘Mrs. Ward. Would you get Dr Jones on the phone.’
‘Dr. Ambler, do you think that’s wise?’ she walked across to Arthur’s desk and gently touched his arm, ‘You’re normally so good at doing things the correct way. The girls are saying this new bloke’s a bad egg.’
‘The other secretaries.’
‘Didn’t take him long . . . . Normally. You said normally. Have there been other problems?’
‘No, nothing to speak of.’
Arthur wasn’t convinced, but he let it go. The paper in his hand reminded him he didn’t need any more bad news just then. He was sinking. Has Jones copied this to anyone else? Just what did he say to the daughter? Arthur checked the letter, but there were no clues. What do I do now?
‘Nothing. Give it some thought,’ said Mrs. Ward. He must have asked the question aloud.
What if he had got it wrong? The man was nearly eighty. Sat on a time bomb that he couldn’t have known about. Lifelong stability suddenly gone off for no good reason. It happened. Arthur had asked for help from colleagues. They hadn’t reacted like this. Just given their advice in the normal way. The daughter. How come he didn’t know about a daughter? He was normally so thorough. There again, normally. Something was coming off the rails.
‘I’ll be off to the ward.’
He walked up dimly lit stairs, bare walls relieved by grimy windows. More views of more car parks.
Arthur knocked on the office door next to the ward entrance and went in, ‘Good morning sister. How are things?’
‘How’s Mr Rees?’
Sister Murray’s usual cheer left her, ‘He died on Saturday.’
Arthur had not been on call, ‘Oh.’
‘The daughter and son-in-law were here. Staff Nurse Walton spent a lot of time with them. Sounds as though they are going to take it further.’
‘Take what further?’
‘Seems they never got a consistent tale of dad’s illness. Different every time they asked. The son-in-law made a lot of notes. First time we’d seen him.’
Continuity used to be the watchword. Relatives always had a face to recognise. A face that said this is here and we know what’s happening. Now nurses had their specific patients and a list, hurriedly written at the start of the shift. Well qualified but not in touch. If you weren’t on the list you could get a different bullletin each day. Not their fault. How could junior doctors be expected to fill the gap. Cross-covering from somewhere else in the hospital. The boss was the continuity but he couldn’t be there twenty-four hours a day. The trick was spotting who was going to be a problem. A sixth sense that comes with time served. Was it deserting him? Blodwen and now this.
Wednesday. Arthur read his mail. A complaint had come in to the chief which had been acknowledged, and would Arthur kindly respond to the allegations in some detail. They’d been quick off the mark.
‘I’ll make some coffee,’ said Mrs Ward.
‘Thanks.’ Arthur pondered. He recalled the sick elderly man, next to a window. ‘Can we get the notes out, Mrs Ward?’
‘They’re here, waiting a discharge summary.’
Arthur opened the notes, trying to reconstruct a life, and a death. He jotted short phrases on scrap paper, and murmured several times. ‘Mm, I can see what the bloke is getting at. Who is he? Dr. Rees. Oh, I see. He must be the son-in-law. Is he a medic? That clot Jones has really dropped me in it. Needs a charm transplant. But, strictly speaking, what he’d written was correct. It just wasn’t the done thing, to be so blunt in the notes. ‘I’ll do a reply after the round, Mrs Ward.’
Arthur worked hard on it over lunch, Mrs Ward typed it up, and his response was away to the Hugh Brewer by the early afternoon.
He mentioned how uneasy he was to Jane that night. ‘Its not your fault if your instructions are not carried out.’
‘True, but I should have picked up that the guys didn’t do as I asked.’ Drugs and fluids not stopped. At least the notes show the right direction.
‘Wasn’t he going go die anyway?’
‘Well he was very sick, but some things may have helped him on a bit.’
‘You sound to have asked for lots of advice from colleagues.’
‘Yes, that was helpful.’ But it hadn’t been. One of the complaints concerned one of them. About Bruce in fact. He’d seen Mr Rees when his daughter was there. Never one to mince his words. Your father is dying. If you’ve any further questions, talk to Dr Ambler. Not much Arthur could do about that. There was little else to do now, but leave it to the Hugh.
‘What are the arrangements?’
‘Crem at 3 o’clock and a ham tea back at The Co-op.’
A standard J. B. Priestley then, thought Arthur. Michael and Arthur’s father had managed the arrangements so far. They were now waiting for the vicar. Blod had never been religious, but it was still the done thing.
‘What kind of person was she?’
‘She was good with figures,’ said Arthur’s father, ‘we both were. I ended up in accounts at The Gas Board. No qualifications. The war saw to that. She got into business and did well. Managing stock, advertising, attractive shop window, helpful to the customers. Our Mary here,’ indicating Arthur’s mother, ‘worked for her.’
‘Yes. Fifteen years. It was all very new when I started. One of two shops in town, as well as the chemists. It needed the artistic and technical side, so she sent Edward off to night school. It was his hobby you see. That’s how they met. He was a customer.’
The vicar paused, weighing things up, ‘I don’t mean to pry, but my notes refer to Blodwen Ambler. Who is Edward?’
Arthur’s mother and father exchanged a rueful glance. Michael chuckled, ‘My dad,’ he said, ‘He died a while ago. Never divorced from my mum. Blodwen took his name but it wasn’t official.’
‘Brought you up as her own though Michael,’ said Arthur’s father.
‘I see,’ but Arthur sensed the vicar did not see. Michael hadn’t said anything that explained anything. Arthur knew that Blod had done everything she possibly could for Michael, particularly when they first moved in together. A teenager, lifted from one life and catapulted into another, a school in the wrong part of town, no levels and no prospects. Blod cared for him and got him off to evening class. A role in the business, marriage, a gushing wife and a son Paul. Not a blood relative but still a proud grandmother. Michael had always been great with Arthur, a snotty nosed schoolboy after all, and Arthur had looked up to him. Football was the link. Michael had been good enough to sign forms as a goalkeeper with a team in The Midlands, but it lost momentum with the move. Dad said he’d been a bit stubborn as well.
‘We can manage that,’ said the vicar. After some discussion about hymns and readings he left, followed shortly by Michael.
‘Blod never had a family of her own then,’ asked Arthur.
‘Well there was a good reason for that.’ said his mother looking across at Willie who looked gloomy but didn’t interrupt. ‘Edward was a cook during the war. Served in the middle east. That’s why he was always spouting arabic. Typical Edward, nothing to do with guns. There was an accident in the kitchens and a serious injury. Pensioned off and had to wear this dirty great leather harness down his back between his legs. Blod had to put it on for him. We never knew, but we thought it might have had something to do with the break up of his first marriage. It seems when Blod and Edward started a life together there was an understanding he couldn’t have more children.’
‘But there were other things going on. She left home to set up with Edward in her mid thirties. She’d been dad’s favourite and it looked like she was going to be the daughter that stayed at home. Dad took it bad and mum crossed Blod off for a while. But dad was the worst. His darling shacking up with a married bloke. Not what he’d expected. It wasn’t long before he died, when you were born. One in, one out. Death certificate said Cardiac Infarct. Sixty years old. He was portly and smoked but his heart was broke for other reasons too. Blod carried that around. She was a stout teenager and young woman. We were a stout family, but she ballooned after dad died. Tried all sorts of diets. Doctor set her off smoking would you believe? She kept the smoke in her mouth, never inhaled. It was a waste of time like the rest of them. If only she’d been as good at counting calories as she was at business. Mind you they spent it all, enjoyed it during the good times.’
The market was condemned as a fire hazard. Pulled down and replaced by a concrete box. Civic pride no longer. Blod and Edward moved into new premises, but the business didn’t flourish. There wasn’t enough coming in to keep pace with costs and there was a lot more competition. Arthur’s mum and Michael left. Debt replace profit. Asset turned into liability. Time to retire. Not a lot left after selling the house and business. They rented a high rise flat, eleven storeys up, reachable by lift. Still five rooms but the lounge had a helluva view. Sunday tea carried on with the pink plastic dessert dishes, Arthur a high school boy. Would he try for university and follow in older brother’s footsteps? Have to buck up and commit to studies. A disappointment to his mum and dad otherwise. He ate his tea and was out as soon as he could, with his pals. Coffee bars in the town, and girls.
Edward died suddenly here, eleven storeys high. Aortic aneurysm on the death certificate. Taken to the new concrete hospital. State of the art replacement for the marble pillars, stone statues and gold letters. Arthur was near the end of his university course by then, a resident in a children’s unit.
‘My uncle’s just died,’ said Arthur.
‘Oh,’ said Tom, ‘Didn’t know you had an uncle. Were you close?’
‘We were once. Mum and dad still were.’
They were sat in the lounge. Nothing special. A place for students to be together. Minimal, modern, newly built. Chairs and a TV. Lots of windows, white walls. OK for parties. Better than some of the places they’d stayed. Better than the flat the boys on the firm shared. Damp, mouldy, dark drafty staircases, small windows, greasy kitchens, polluted bathroom. Perfect for parties.
‘Better catch the next train. Chris might give you a lift to station.’
‘Oh, I don’t know. Too much to do.’
‘You’re always working. Can’t be a problem taking one or two days off. There’s no roll call. Who is going to notice whether you are there or not?’
Arthur had to admit they were left to it a lot of the time. You got signed up at the end of a firm, but not a lot of checking went on. Some had a short exam, but lots didn’t. He wanted to clear it with somebody though, ‘I’ll give the dean’s office a ring,’
Tom, Chris and Arthur had been together since the dissecting room. An old high room in the original university buildings. Traditional deep red brick monuments with clock towers, inscriptions on stone tablets, large archways, marble staircases and grassy courtyards. Probably a lot more grass at one time. Mostly a car park by Arthur’s time. The lecture theatres were semi-circular, the pews steep and dizzy, and above them tall narrow gloomy stained glass windows topped off by vaulted ceilings. Arthur learned anatomy, physiology and embryology in these hushed church-like spaces. Hushed that is apart from rowdy weekly student medical society meetings.
There were other lecture theatres across the university campus. Concrete boxes for pharmacology, pathology and psychology. Dreadful excursions to chemistry. Arthur never fully understood the way it was taught and why they needed it. The public health course didn’t make sense but the buildings were interesting. Could anyone know how the health service works?
After two years lectures came second to hospital placements. Groups of eight or so students were allocated to a firm, located in hospitals up and down the city. Next to the docks, in the city centre, out by the ring road. Some were the same vintage as the anatomy lecture theatre – Victorian teaching hospitals with more gold letters and statues in the entrance hall, high ceilings, circular wards, large baths, nursing sisters and midwives with bad smells permanently under their noses. Heaven knows when some of the others were built. They’d had a specific role once, but the disease or the fashion had moved on. They were not suited for their more modern roles so they were converted, piecemeal prefabricated lumps and bumps, added on when needed.
Each firm was a double act, Walker and Money, McDonald and Wood and so on. Two surgeons or physicians or whatever. Many of the older consultants were legends. Reputations built on the things they got up to as students and juniors, or their record as teachers. The younger ones were a different breed of steely professionalism. Lots of new things could be done for illness and litigation was just around the corner.
Different hospitals, different generations of consultant, same fear and trepidation for the teaching ward round. Adversarial, like the law. Sarcastic if you were lucky. Teaching by humiliation. Not fun. Whilst the pompous consultant was the norm there were exceptions. One senior guy punctuated his clinics with explanations of the derivation of words and phrases. Another taught in his rooms in the city’s Harley Street, on an endless quest to write a book on signs and symptoms. Yet another took them on home visits. They once discovered a confused old lady on her upstairs bedroom floor, more or less flattened by an ancient wardrobe she’d pulled over. The local football ground was visible from the window.
What kept them sane was the firm. Tom and Chris were easy going ex-public schoolboys from the healthy North Wales coast. They wanted for nothing. Arthur worried about affording toothpaste. But they didn’t have expensive tastes, so Arthur coped, just.
Blodwen had come up to Arthur after Edward’s funeral, just as he was arranging a lift down to the station.
‘Good of you to come Arthur, you must be busy? How goes it?’
‘Always something to do. I’m in paediatrics at the moment, but we have pathology finals in September. So it’s busy.’
‘I was wondering what your uncle Edward died of?’
Arthur did his best to describe the likely series of events, but Blodwen pursed her lips, apparently not satisfied, ‘What’s happened to your accent? It sounds posh.’
‘Well it’s changed.’
‘Must be rubbing up against public schoolboys,’ he said. Not that Tom and Chris spoke like The Queen. But Arthur was training up in a profession. There were certain standards, a certain position to adopt. Distance to be created.
Friday 15th. Funerals just are, or those in the Ambler family just are. To be endured. The crematorium was in a fashionable suburb of town. They started from Blod’s high rise rental, a select party admiring the lounge view. Arthur’s older brother had come. Paul looked like he’d been hit by a bus. Michael quiet and pale. Arthur’s father prompted him, ‘The cars are here Michael. Best get organised,’
‘Yes,’ and he opened the front door. Hope the lifts work thought Arthur. Michael sat with the coffin. The rest followed. Black limo’s. Well within the speed limit, a tight schedule to meet the crem’s timetable. Mostly not on the main roads, a council estate to negotiate first. Arthur recognised some of his boyhood haunts. Escape from home. What’s happened to your results? You used to get good marks. Spending too much time playing out on that building site. You should know your lessons as well as you know the adverts on tele. Who is that girl you’re walking out with? The adolescent hiccoughs settled enough for him to get good levels. Then it had been one campaign after another. Mum and dad got off his back. But then someone else got on. You got rid of him and yet another climbed up. Exams, bosses, interviews, disappointments, successes, deaths. Being punch drunk must feel like this he thought. Blodwen had always seemed happy enough, though one of her favourite sayings had been “Death where is thy sting?”
‘There’s the nursing home where Blod was,’ said Arthur’s father. Then onto the main road for a couple of miles followed by a turn up a wide road flanked by grass verges, pavements, high hedges, and glimpses of roof and chimney tops that suggested exclusive mansions. At the end, it was left through the entrance to the golf club and right to the crematorium. Quite a choice. Long waiting lists for both. What was the point? The point was to arrive. Arthur had not figured out where that was.
‘Just passing to your place now, Arthur,’ said his father.
Right at the end. Stragglers from the previous event were walking up the long sweeping drive through sparse autumn gardens. So quiet. A good turnout. Arthur had no idea who most of them were. A dire oration from the vicar. How could he have done justice to someone he’d never met? But then they hardly heard it. Arthur’s father was an atheist. Older brother a cynic. Mother a lapsed presbyterian. None of it made sense to Arthur. Then the curtain closed with the final hymn and they were away down the long exit.
Michael went in search of Paul who’d disappeared into the gardens, leaving Arthur’s father to say thanks to the congregation and invite the long-distance travellers back to the Coop for tea.
Michael returned just as a red face bearded character stood next in line, holding out is right arm, ‘William, this is Martin.’ Arthur’s father shook his hand, mouth open, seemingly uncertain.
Then it dawned, ‘Brother Martin, I mean Michael’s brother.’
‘You’ll come for a bite, Martin,’ said Michael.
They became stragglers as the next line of black limo’s arrived.
It was a buffet back at The Coop. Ham sandwiches, cold meat pies, tea and buns and soft drinks. There were bottles of wine, but Blodwen didn’t so they didn’t. Except Martin.
Arthur introduced himself.
‘Ah the doctor,’ said Martin.
‘What do you mean?
‘Is that where your family are from?’
‘I’m on me own. Kids live nearby.’
‘I didn’t know you were still in touch.’
‘Letters, the odd phone call, occasional visit. Enough to know what’s what and whether I can get a sub. She won’t have left much, dad didn’t either.’
Arthur made his excuses.
The guests dwindled. Standard lines to make a courteous exit.
‘Thanks, nice spread. I’ll be off.’
‘She was a lovely woman. We’ll miss her.’
‘Nice service. Must get back to work.’
Arthur and his father were the last to leave.
‘That was a surprise, Martin turning up.’
‘He’ll have come for money,’ said Arthur’s father, ‘sore point. Blod and Edward helped out during the good times, and were happy to. Generous to us and Michael and then Paul. But Martin kept turning up. Must have had some sort of hold over Edward. Continued to squeeze money from them when the business began to fail. Could have helped make it fail. Nothing in the kitty this time though. She couldn’t even pay for the funeral.’ A substantial speech for his father and a tad bitter.
It took a death and a cremation for the dark side of the family to emerge. Things that Arthur wouldn’t have known about otherwise. He could see why. Not a story his mother and father would wish to be common knowledge. It didn’t achieve anything for it all to come out now, but Arthur felt part of something he hadn’t done previously. ? outrage is the real way he would have reacted.
Monday. ‘Come in Arthur.’ Arthur walked into the chief’s office. If status and power were measured by office and carpet size then the chief had lots. No wood panelling though. Modern concrete hospitals didn’t do wood panelling. But they did do nice-smelling coffee.
Arthur sat in front of a dark polished and tidy if not quite empty wood pedestal desk. The chief had an unopened file on his blotter which Arthur assumed was his.
‘How’s it going Arthur?’
Arthur knew this was the prelude to the chief’s version of how it was going. He was tempted to say nothing, ‘Fine,’ he said.
‘Everything alright at home?’
‘What are you getting at Hugh? What has home got anything to do with anything?’
‘Hold on Arthur,’ The chief held up his hand, ‘I’m trying to help out here. Word is things are not going well. There are some specific things that can be sorted out. This letter from Dr. Jones is clearly out of order. However he does mention a more general point about truculence and an overbearing attitude. No one else has written to me, but you know what this place is like. People talk.’
Arthur’s attention wandered to a tightness in his chest and feelings of shortness of breath. What were they saying about him? Did he care? Jones was obviously a troublemaker. They don’t say it to your face, but they go on at length when you’re not around. What were they saying? Was it about juniors, rota’s, equipment, holidays? Like big kids. Always precious. Who was doing better than them. Always wanting more. Always claiming patient care will suffer if they don’t get what they want.
‘Arthur, are you listening?’
‘Yes.’ He tried to calm his breathing.
‘Fact is Arthur, we think you need some time off. Take a month or two. There’s nothing pressing here.’
‘That won’t be necessary,’ said Arthur. Bastards trying to get him out of the way, ‘I’m late for my daughter’s birthday; she’s sixteen today.’
Blodwen was happy enough