If the soul and the ego were objects we could look at, the soul would be a translucent heart beating.
I continued to function, morning surgery, rounds after lunch, evening surgery, on-call at night. It was a cold winter, and Spike was vicious. My need of morphia to control the pain was at times acute, but never did it interfere with the conscientious discharge of my duty. I am a man of robust character and did not permit my judgment or competence to be impaired. Nonetheless, that winter my need was acute, and I was forced to raise my dosage and shift from intramuscular to intravenous injection, for quicker effect. I kept a supply of the drug in the surgery, in a cupboard under lock and key. An inspector from the Home Office did drop by, unannounced, one morning, but the books were quite in order. In fact—as I was quick to point out to him—I prescribed a good deal of morphia to my patients, as the practice included many elderly persons among whom cancer was common. The tolerance for morphia of patients like these—Nan Hale-Newton was a case in point—increased (I told him) over time, and often quite rapidly: it was not rare that a ¼-grain dosage would have to be raised to three grains within a matter of weeks. For this reason I always had to have a large supply on hand, and the man from the Home Office was satisfied that no illicit prescription was occurring.
February was a month of gales, high winds, and angry seas, and Elgin was battered continually by storms. One wild night I heard glass breaking overhead, and went up to the top floor to investigate. There were rooms up there that I hadn’t visited since the days I was first in the house, rooms in which Charles Martin still had furniture stored. Only one light worked, on the landing. I limped along the dusty creaking boards and into each of the rooms, where sheeted furniture skulked like pale fat phantoms in the shadows. In the corner bedroom at the end of the corridor two panes of glass had been blown in. When I opened the door the gale caught it with great force and flung it back on its hinges against the wall, and then went howling down the corridor as though trapped and bursting for its freedom. There was nothing to be done until the morning, but I didn’t go back downstairs. I sank into a sheeted armchair and remained there for many hours, such was the lassitude that overtook me during the long nights, this past winter.
There was a lot of death about. A number of my elderly patients succumbed to cancer (Nan Hale-Newton went out a year earlier, just a few months after I took over from Charles Martin). Then Jean Fig died. She had first been to see me after that disastrous dinner party in the spring. In the clear light of day she’d looked even iller. Her skin had that distinctly yellowish-green tinge, and the bags under her eyes were quite as deep and dark as those under my own. Jaundice perhaps? After a few polite interchanges concerning the dinner party I asked her what appeared to be the problem. “I do hate to bother you, doctor,” she said, “it’s probably nothing at all.” She’d be a handsome woman, I remember thinking, if she relaxed a little. Why was she so tense, so angry—was it Hugh? He’d always seemed perfectly affable to me. “I’m always tired but I can’t sleep,” she said. “And I get these attacks of diarrhea, but I never know when they’re coming.” Probably, like most women of her class, she suffered in a hell of quiet desperation. “I threw up after dinner and I had to go to the bathroom five times during the night. I just don’t know what’s wrong with me.”
“We’d best take a history then,” I said, summoning my brisk warm physicianly manner, “and then I’ll examine you.”
Jean Fig’s history had shed no real light on her complaint. The usual childhood illnesses, a fractured metatarsal at the age of 19 when a horse trod on her foot at a gymkhana, married at 23, no children. “Why no children?” I said.
“We can’t,” she said. “We’ve tried, but we can’t. I don’t know whether it’s my fault or Hugh’s. He says it’s mine, but he never says why he thinks so.”
I then asked her to go behind the screens and get undressed. “What, everything?” she said.
Fifteen minutes later she was again sitting across the desk from me. I had probed and prodded and palpated, I had listened to her heart and her lungs, I had tested her reflexes and taken her pulse, which was a bit on the quick side, but apart from this I couldn’t find a thing wrong. “Probably a mild attack of gastritis,” I said. I made her up a bottle of Mist Explo. “Come back and see me in a couple of weeks, will you?”
“What exactly is gastritis, doctor?” she said, taking a few coins out of her purse.
“Not serious,” I said, “mild inflammation of the mucous membrane of the stomach. Should settle down pretty quickly.”
“And would that make me tired?”
“It might.” I screwed the cap on my fountain pen and took off my spectacles.
“And look.” She lowered her head. “You see? I’m losing my hair.”
I frowned. Probably neurotic. Not enough sex, not enough love, too much quiet desperation. She was drying up like a forgotten apple in a neglected bowl. Impossible, I reflected, to fathom the hell that existed behind the facade of an English marriage—hadn’t I seen the example of your parents? What vile tortures, I reflected, what unspeakable cruelties were unleashed when the last guest left and the front door closed and like a black and pestilential fog intimacy once more descended! “Let’s see what happens when that gastritis clears up,” I said. Though I supposed it must be equally possible that when the last guest left and the front door closed ecstasy erupted, sensual joy, active love. Caring, candor, and affection. Unlikely, but possible. I made a note in my desk calendar, and we both rose to our feet. “Good morning, Mrs. Fig.”
“Good morning, Dr. Moore. And thank you.”
When I saw her next there was little improvement. Still that worrying yellowish tinge to her skin, and no real change in her inability to keep food down. I examined her, and again failed to find anything wrong. I felt more sure than ever that the problem was not organic at all, but psychological. Again I delicately broached the subject of her relations with her husband. It was hard for her to be candid with me, but after some gentle prodding she admitted that Hugh had indeed become distant from her, had withdrawn from her, and that they’d lost a connectedness they’d had for years, a connectedness she treasured for it was, she thought, what love is. “I’m sure it’s all my fault,” she said, “feeling ill all the time, having no energy, losing my hair—what husband wants to come home to a creature like that?” By then the poor woman was in tears. “I’m trying to make an effort,” she said, “but it does no good. He acts as though I’m not even there.”
The question embarrassed her. She had to be coaxed. But at last I got her to speak. In the past, she told me, they’d made love regularly, three or four times a month, and they’d always shown each other physical affection, hugs and strokes and so on. But all that had stopped, and she thought her own ill-health had as much to do with it as Hugh’s neglect: she was always so tired she had neither energy nor desire, the only desire she had was for sleep. Even so she had made an effort, she had tried, despite her exhaustion, numerous times to initiate love-making, but Hugh wasn’t interested. She had assumed he was preoccupied with his work, and had tried to get him to talk to her about it, but this had failed to elicit anything either. Probably it was just a phase he was going through. Men were such odd, incomprehensible creatures, she said, and it was so hard to make them talk.
I felt more sure than ever that her anxiety about her marriage was contributing to her ill health, which in turn was affecting her relations with her husband—she was caught in a vicious spiral, the distressed mind producing physical symptoms which exacerbated the original problem. I told her all this.
“I’m doing it to myself?” she said, a note of annoyance creeping in here. I’m making my own hair fall out? I’m turning my own skin yellow?”
“I think you probably are,” I said.
For a moment I thought she might tell me to go to hell, but she didn’t. Pity. It would probably have done her good. I sold her a bottle of Mist Explo and sent her on her way.
Jean Fig’s condition continued to deteriorate and eventually, after consulting with her husband, I decided she should be admitted to a private mental home in Bognor Regis. Her husband visited her every weekend, but her condition worsened. I was later told by the superintendent of the asylum that she had for some time before her death refused to see a doctor, claiming that none of us knew what was wrong with her. A tragedy. She was buried in the graveyard in Torport, and I found myself more moved by her funeral than I’d expected to be. Hugh Fig was manly in his grief.
Slowly that terrible year dragged by, each day bringing the grim specter of war just that bit closer. We expected to be bombed. The air raids on Barcelona the year before had been devastating, and it was not difficult to imagine the same for England—buildings smashed to rubble, dead and dying in the streets, the air black with enemy aircraft. And all that stood between us and Armageddon was the RAF, you and your kind. In March Czechoslovakia was devoured by Germany and Hitler entered Prague. It was this display of vulgar triumphalism that at last convinced me there was no alternative to war. At first Chamberlain made no reproach, despite the clear violation of the Munich agreement, though a few days later, realizing the violence of the country’s reaction, he admitted he had been deceived. At the end of the month he said that if Poland were threatened Britain would go to her assistance. There were still timid souls who felt that anything would be better than war; they were not in the majority, and I was certainly no longer among them. We’d already been issued gas masks, hideous things part pig-snout, part death’s-head, that stank of rubber and disinfectant. There were reports of people hoarding sugar and petrol. Military conscription came into effect, and not only men but women were in uniform everywhere. The boarding houses of Torport began to fill up with evacuees from London. Then in the small hours of September the first German troops moved into Poland.
Hard to forget the atmosphere of those days. Dread. Fear. And also a certain grim satisfaction—elation, even—that the long days of tension and anxiety were over, that the dam was about to burst. There was no more hoping for the best, no more waiting-and-seeing, that was all past. Mrs. Gregor said little, as usual, but it was not hard to tell what was going through her mind. I like a lightly boiled egg for my breakfast, in the autumn and winter months, with half a slice of dry toast and two cups of tea—like yourself I’ve always been a light eater. As I read the paper that first Monday of the war, I kept an eye on Mrs. Gregor, on the assumption that what she felt the country felt, for she’d always seemed to me to be a sort of weather vane in this regard. That morning there was purpose and vigor in the way she set the water on the stove to boil, spooned tea into the pot, sliced the loaf for toast. She was eager, I could tell, to get the job started and get it done. She was ready. And so, apparently, was England, or at any rate a good deal readier than we had been two years before, in terms of aircraft production and the proper staffing and equipping of stations like RAF Torport that would be responsible for our security in the months to come. For of course no serious offensive campaign could be mounted unless from a secure base, as you yourself pointed out to me.
And where were you, what were you doing, as I made my way across the hall to the surgery, that morning? What were you feeling, as the probability became a certainty that you would fly a fighter plane in combat? You too, I daresay, felt Mrs. Gregor’s sense of purpose and elation. At the time I had no idea that you were a pilot-officer in training on Spitfires, no idea that our lives were moving inexorably closer, though there was, perhaps, something, that morning, that made me think of your mother with a more vivid apprehension than usual, and of the continuing viability of her spirit in the world—she seemed more distinctly with me, at the outbreak of war, than she had for some weeks—could it be that this was the first dawning glimmer of awareness I had of your approach?
The old people were the only ones not to share the general mood. Perhaps they remembered too well the horrors of ’14–’18. Perhaps the intimation of personal mortality made the prospect of the visiting of death upon multitudes disgusting—this I could understand: the scale shifts, the private death becomes insignificant in the epidemic. It seemed to the old men and women who came into my surgery that morning that a sickness was upon us, and what galled them was the warmth of its welcome; but they had neither the will nor the strength to resist. Then, as I went through the town on my rounds that day—and what a beautiful day it was, the weather was warm and clear and windless for the first days of war—I saw a gaggle of evacuated London school children down on the beach, East End children, dressed in rags, with grubby faces and grazed knees, screaming with pleasure as they scampered barefoot from the incoming tide—they’d never seen the sea before. Further down the beach soldiers were digging sand to fill sandbags. When I got home in the late afternoon Mrs. Gregor was busy with brown paper, sticky tape, and drawing pins, blacking out the windows of the rooms I used at night. It depressed me not to be able to gaze out of the study window, so I took to going up to the top floor and used the corner room for my nocturnal sea-gazing.
Actually I do know what you were doing at the outbreak of war, for you’ve told me. Practicing climbs to 30,000 feet, where oxygen hissed into your face mask from a black steel cylinder behind the armored bulkhead; firing your guns into the sea, raising a jagged plume of foam on the water; cloud flying and night flying, air drills and battle practice, and getting to know the Spitfire. You were never able properly to explain to me the joy of flying a Spitfire, but I think perhaps I understand. You told me how you once climbed through 27,000 feet of cloud, passed out, dived for four miles, and recovered consciousness just in time to pull out of it and climb again. In any other aircraft you’d have bought it, you said. Curtains.
Patrick McGrath’s last novels, Spider and The Grotesque, are available from Random House and Ballantine respectively. “Eros” is excerpted from Haggard’s Tale due from Poseidon in the Spring of ’93.
If the soul and the ego were objects we could look at, the soul would be a translucent heart beating.