Short Story by Phil Brown
Dr Harry McDowell stared down at the busy street. He spent a lot of time looking out the window lately, down on to Wickham Terrace. It was such a familiar scene and yet, these days, it seemed almost alien at times. He felt detached, that was the problem, here in his rooms several floors above the landscape. He’d enjoyed the view out this window for thirty years or so and it was only recently that this feeling of estrangement had set in. He watched the people scuttling by beneath him, moving at various speeds. The young and healthy fairly zipped by but the old and infirm just beetled along, stopping, sometimes, to steady themselves, hanging on to the head of a parking meter or propping against a parked car. It was, of course, a bit comical but he felt for the old souls, he really did.
From this window he could see as far as the corner, a crossroads from which Edward Street plunged down into the heart of the city. People walking up from town would stop at the top of the hill and draw breath, as if they had just summitted a substantial peak, then cross the road, often with X-rays under their arms and hope, or maybe trepidation, in their hearts. When they got to their doctor’s rooms on Wickham Terrace, a labyrinth of medical expertise and the occasional witch doctor, (which is how Harry McDowell referred to any so-called natural therapist) - would the news be good or bad? Some folks would return to the street crushed by the weight of a diagnosis that threatened to separate them from everything they held dear.
As he watched the people below – one dodging cars, just making it to the kerb in time - he thought about all the people he had sent to their deaths. Of course he was not a God; he did not have dominion over life and death, but when the crunch came, sometimes it felt that way. He could remember going home to the house on Gregory Terrace some nights, numb from the day’s consultations after imparting bad news to a patient. His wife, Nellie, would know as soon as he walked through the door how the day had gone and would leave his dinner aside for a time, put some Chopin on the old gramophone and let him sip his whisky in the half light of the living room until he could finally face a meal and some conversation. He behaved as objectively as he could in his professional capacity and his demeanour never gave a hint of the inner turmoil he sometimes experienced. He felt guilty about the fact that sometimes, as a patient poured his or her heart out, all he could think of was that one of his antiquarian prints was crooked or that he couldn’t wait to get home that evening to begin the book he had bought that day.
He remembered one day in particular when, after laying down his verdict and entering into some solemn conversation about facing the final hour he had paused and asked quite absentmindedly: “Do you care for the works of de Maupassant at all, Mr Doran?” His patient had looked at him quite blankly.
“No never mind,” he had said. “Nobody knows his stories now, I suppose.”
Still, this is what he did: this was his life’s work and he couldn't really relate to the fact that one day that work, and his life, would also be over. Then he could retire to the old Queenslander he and Nellie had lived in their entire married life, sit on the back veranda and watch the untamed garden grow ever more unruly as he read and smoked his pipe and drank tea. That idea seemed attractive on the one hand but his work, odious as it was at times, was important to him. He took it very seriously. But he was old fashioned, he knew that, and something of a relic in the building, the oldest doctor, and the only one who remembered what things were like before the city became a concrete jungle that obscured the view and cast shadows over all the previously sunlit places. He even remembered the war and how the city was when it was headquarters to thousands of American troops. He had seen an American officer or two for various problems– one whose condition was exacerbated by a close working relationship with General Douglas MacArthur who had an office just down the hill at that time. The great man had terrorised this nervous captain from Milwaukee who had developed a range of symptoms because of his inability to deal with the great man’s temper. What would they say about such symptoms today? Probably that he had “internalised” things and that he needed psychiatric treatment – lots of pills and mollycoddling. Balderdash, he thought. He had told the man to pull himself together - that when you’re in the army you have to damn well take orders as well as give them.
In those days he wouldn’t dream of seeing anyone - officer, gentleman or otherwise - without his coat on. Now the doctors wandered around in their shirtsleeves, practising medicine but looking for the entire world as if they were on a perpetual holiday. If a man’s going to work, thought Harry McDowell, he should be dressed for work. Clothes maketh the man. All very well to loll around the house with an open neck, but never in one’s rooms! What would old Mrs Rawlings says if she were still alive, he wondered, still gazing down at the street. She had been his receptionist for nearly twenty years when she had suddenly gone to her reward, too early. She would never have stood for a doctor in casual attire. In fact if she’d had her way she would have applied a dress code to patients as well – the thought of that made him smile. They were never kitted out to her satisfaction and their behaviour left a lot to be desired too. A certain amount of decorum was required in a doctor’s rooms, she always said, no matter how sick you were.
But thoughts of Mrs Rawlings were evanescent images from the lantern lamp of his mind’s eye. Could he even actually recall how that tartar of a woman looked, or what her voice sounded like? He had a sense of her through recollection but he realised that sense was fading and that she was now just an idea, a hint of someone who had once been but was no more.
At his age of course so many people he had known had passed from this world into the next, if there was a next. He had grown up in a very religious household and his father was a pillar of the Presbyterian Church and though he had been a church-goer much of his life, largely at his wife’s behest (they had met through a church social group) he wasn’t sure about all that heaven and hell malarky. Matter may be transmuted into other matter, he felt, as in dust and ashes, but whether the consciousness survived he really wasn’t sure. There was no evidence either way really, was there? Then again, some nights he would sit on the veranda beholding the vault of heaven, star spangled and brilliant before the city lights grew too bright, and believe that the vastness he beheld might be full of souls: that the departed frolicked along the Milky Way and existed in a way altogether unfathomable in an inexplicable universe.
To retain such moments of wonder was difficult though, particularly when one’s life was spent in several small rooms a few levels above an unremarkable street in a subtropical city at the wrong end of the world. For, no matter how much he and his kind pretended that Brisbane was a little satellite of Britain and that the culture would forever reflect Empire, the climate and natural world revolted against the idea. But even so in these impossibly humid summers Dr McDowell and his colleagues dressed like they all lived in another country altogether. He yearned for the Brisbane winter days when his suits finally warmed him instead of suffocating. The problem was that the weatherboard house, which suited the balmy summer evenings, became an icebox on those surprisingly cold winter mornings when he rose early to stoke the fireplace to warm the house for his wife. Nobody had fireplaces nowadays he thought. He knew because there were no chimneys on the houses they built nowadays and what’s a house without a chimney? Not a proper house at all he felt. The brick boxes that now peppered the suburbs and had encroached, even into gracious Spring Hill, conspired to destroy the charm of the suburb he had lived in nearly all his adult life.
Along Gregory Terrace though things remained largely intact, thankfully, and people seemed to care about keeping up appearances, which suited him. Strolling up the street in the evening even now, in this age of speed and TV when manners were forgotten and Empire was but a dim recollection, he could still fool himself into thinking he was still living in the what he thought of as the good old days.
Looking down at the street he smiled and realised that he was now officially an old fogey. He realised that the world had changed. Evidence of that was the fact that he didn’t recognise any of the makes of car that he saw tearing past on the road below. Good God, he remembered a Queen Street with horses tethered by the side of the road near parked cars. Now the whole street was sealed off. They have killed the very heart of the city I love, he thought. There was hardly anything left of the place, as he once knew it. And the buildings of his youth that were still standing, the gracious structures of his salad days, a veritable Golden Age in memory, are now treated like museum pieces. When that yokel farmer had been in charge of the state many of them had been seen off in the middle of the night but even now in this supposed enlightened age they were still disappearing.
The last straw for him had been the annihilation of The Shingle Inn cafe, a hallowed place in his mind. He and Nellie used to have lunch together there when she came down to town for the day. Cakes from The Shingle Inn would always grace the table at her morning teas and mince pies and Christmas puddings were always purchased there when the season was upon them. If he tried hard he could imagine the taste of a passionfruit patty-cake or the rich fruity flavour of a mince pie. Even in recent years he would pop down to The Shingle Inn and sit amidst the wood-panelled splendour so redolent of the mother country. Because it had been he and Nellie’s special place it became almost like a shrine of remembrance for him after she died. Then, one day, it vanished, packed into boxes somewhere apparently – all those rich fittings dispensed with for mere commercial expedience. And what had replaced the old buildings where The Shingle Inn once stood? A monstrosity of steel and glass and tiles, a palace to mammon where the lights seemed brighter than the sun and ostentation and vulgarity were everywhere. How could the city fathers stand for it? Why was there not a riot when the icon had been dismantled and carried away and replaced by this vast nothingness? He shook his head.
The world was changing and he was powerless to stop it. But perhaps that’s as it should be, he mused, realising again that his responses were the responses of an old man now, a man nearing the end of his life. How had that happened? He could remember his youth so clearly … more clearly now than when he was merely middle-aged. In his advanced years the memories of his teens were frighteningly clear – so clear that he could replay them in his mind’s eye like old newsreels, reliving the glory days when he wielded the willow like a veritable Bradman – or so he felt at times – and when his athletic figure was something to be proud of. To rekindle the memories of his youth he only had to walk up the street and watch the boys who now attended Brisbane Grammar School spilling out of school of an afternoon. Had he really once been one of those energetic adolescent dervishes, tearing through life at breakneck speed, so anxious for the future that it seemed he couldn’t wait for it to arrive? And now that future, all that hope, all those aspirations seemed to be in the past. Everything had been said and done and that was the way of the world, was it not? But shouldn’t the vision splendid be visible from this lofty precipice? Wasn't contentment and fulfilment supposed to lessen the sorrow of living beyond a time when those you loved still walked the earth with you?
He felt serene about all that at times but today, gazing out at the street for what seemed like hours, he felt sadness at the passing of an age. Even yesterday seemed an aeon ago. Meanwhile the prints on the wall were gathering dust and the noise of the street rattled the windows unnaturally, jarring his senses. People came and went in his rooms as if he wasn’t even there and he hardly recognised anyone any more. Who were those women who sent the patients through and did his bidding? Why did they all seem so unfamiliar today? The youngest of them dressed in what he thought looked like her underwear on a daily basis. Lucky his mother wasn’t around to see such sights – she would have had what she called a conniption. She was a Presbyterian of the sternest stuff and would have been mortified to walk through town today and see the semi-naked youth disporting themselves all over the – what did they call it - The Mall? If she were alive today he would advise her to avert her gaze as she walked – avert her gaze and keep firm hold of her handbag.
He looked outside again and saw the shadows lengthening on the street below. At midday the scene was blanched by the sun, stark and unlovely in the white light. Now the streetscape looked softer as the sun began to fall and the humidity dropped with an afternoon breeze that ruffled the poincianas across the way.
I might as well make my way home, Dr McDowell thought.
There were no more patients to see and while there was usually work to be done, patients or no patients, he felt an unquenchable longing to be in his home, even if the woman he had shared it with for so many years was not there any more. Where had she gone? To that land from which no traveller returns, that place we are all destined for. What was she doing there, he wondered? Was she waiting for him or was she so blinded by the light, so happy in heaven that all thoughts of those left behind were banished? Or was the soul a mere wish, a figment, a mere biochemical shadow that quickened the flesh and died with it. The Sadducees suspected as much but Jesus begged to differ, didn't he? He had never been one for religion really, not for the Church that is but he was interested in theology, read the Gospels assiduously and admired Jesus for his courage and his revolutionary moral code and human ethics. But could one take it on trust that by proclaiming him God one was destined for eternity? Why should some be chosen and others left behind? That seemed unfair and the whole idea of eternity made him feel tired. When he felt this way, after a hard days work, he would come home and retire to his study. Nellie never minded. He would lose himself in literature for hours on end, smoking his pipe and dipping into Flaubert, Tolstoy, Dickens, Swift and sometimes the poetry of say Donne, Byron or Keats. There was solace in great writing and when he was younger he fancied he too might one day become a man of letters.
But somehow life slipped by and he was so consumed with his work and various social comings and goings that there really never seemed the time to put pen to paper. When they travelled overseas as they had done a few times in their younger years, unhampered by children as they were, he often lay on his chair on deck, sunning himself and imagining he was a writer and that this sojourn on the sea was merely a break from his hectic schedule of novels and engagements. Walking away from the building where his rooms were he thought of the journeys – how they seemed endless: time stood still at sea and the horizon seemed to suggest endless opportunity. Abroad one could be whomever one wanted to be he thought as he made his way up to St Paul’s Terrace. He liked to walk past St Paul’s Church on his way home some afternoons. He didn’t go there any more – religion and clubs of any sort were for people who felt the needed to be needed, who wanted desperately to identify with the herd and be seen to identify with the herd.
But the church grounds were quiet on this day as he stood and stared upwards at the daunting steeple that still towered over Spring Hill. None of these towers of concrete and glass with all their gaudy aspirations could ever equate to the architectural wonders of the past, he felt. He walked down Union Street, past the workers cottages and noticed the smart cars parked in front of them. Time was, he recalled, when he wouldn’t have cut through here, when this part of Spring Hill was home to criminals and other unsavoury types, or so it was thought, who sweated it out in the gully between two ridges. On the other ridge was his home, Williston, named for the previous inhabitant, another medical man. It fronted Gregory Terrace and its grand visage overlooked Victoria Park and the golf links across the way. This was gracious living, he felt. For part of the year we swelter but we don’t let it get to us and we don’t let our standards slip because of it. We continue to dress like gentleman and ladies and to conduct our affairs as if we weren’t dwelling in a climate worthy of a Conrad novel. And luckily, most evenings we get a blessed breeze to cool us down.
Often at the end of a sweltering day he and Nellie would just sit on the back veranda after an early dinner, taking coffee or tea, and perhaps sometimes something a bit stronger in his case, watching the light fade while the breeze blew away the cobwebs of the day. Once the sun was gone the sky would darken quickly. Twilight would be nice, he felt, but one had to make do with the short amount of time between sundown and complete darkness. During that magic hour the sky would often fill with flying foxes coming to or going from their roosts, he was never sure where. Some of them would end up hanging like veritable vampires from their mango trees and into the night the mangoes would drop, bang and roll across the rooftops, vying with the possums as to which could make the most noise. The fecundity of the tropical night appealed to him and though he sometimes dreamt of living in a temperate climate he knew he would surely miss the dank fertility of the subtropical night. He would also surely miss the summer storms that swept in from the south and drenched and cooled the houses down.
As he walked down Union Street, across Water Street and up towards Gregory Terrace and home he felt comforted by the familiarity surrounding him. The developers had not tainted this part of Brisbane yet, he thought. Here and there the modern world had encroached with flashes of gaudiness where houses had been modified or flats erected on sites where once lovely old Queenslanders stood. But to a large degree the suburb was as he remembered it from his younger days. Strolling along Gregory Terrace towards his home he felt tired but comforted that he would soon be in his own world. He lived in that world alone now. But of course one was never alone when one had memories and he could almost smell the past it seemed so present. And all his precious memories were stored in this fragile, remarkable thing, the human brain, more complex and subtle than any damn computer would ever be - more astounding than any technology, more mystifying than all of science’s other mysteries. In this brain was stored a life and not only one life but also a record of the lives of others and it was all here at his beck and call, each evening. When he died would all that be lost? Who would there be to remember his wife and others he had loved in one way or another throughout this life? And if there is no one left to recall, what then? If recollection ceases, is that the end of everything? If there is nothing beyond the grave, he though it might be comforting to know one would be remembered, for a time at least. That there would be those left to think about you, to prop pictures of you on the dresser, to perhaps occasionally call your name.
But he was tired now, too tired to even begin to remember. Tonight he wanted to just sleep, to comfort himself in the blankness of the night. The memories would be there for another time.
He came to the gate and looked at the house, which to him was more than a house. It was like a familiar face, a friendly face when he regarded it. It seemed animated by the life that had been lived within it. It was hospitable and seemed to him to symbolise all the great qualities of a bygone era and all the wonderful qualities of his late wife. He paused and looked at it again. But it looked different tonight. Did it really? Yes, it did look different. How so? Someone had painted it, perhaps while he was away at work all day, he thought and then realised that was a ridiculous thought. There were no phantom painters who plied their trade without pay for any reward another than the satisfaction of seeing a house revived by a fresh coat of paint. Were there? Perhaps it was just a trick of the light as the sun shone its last beams across the street before disappearing into the hills.
He passed through the gate, up the stairs and on to the veranda. He looked around. There had been a chair over there, surely, he thought. There had been a chair and a small table but they were there no longer. The veranda seemed unusually bare. Perhaps he was getting old and senile. He liked to think that his faculties were all still sharp but perhaps he was beginning to forget himself in his dotage. Living alone could do that he was sure. No matter. Just to get inside and embrace the respite of the night in the comfort of his own home was all he longed for now, despite the fleeting feeling of discomfort that all was not as it should be.
Through the solid old wooden door with the heavy brass knocker he went, down the familiar high ceilinged hall but as soon as he stepped inside his unease returned. There was a hat and coat rack here, on this wall, he thought. Surely there was. I can’t have imagined that. One needs somewhere to hang one’s hat and one’s coat. But it was definitely not there anymore, which baffled him somewhat.
He wandered down the hall feeling dazed. Other things were amiss and, in a sense, he felt he had wandered into the wrong house. The floorboards in the hallway always creaked yet they creaked no more and the once springy floor now felt solid under his feet, rather than ever so slightly yielding.
He looked left into the living room. It was supposed to contain an old piano, was it not? And where was the heavily worn furniture of a married life together, and the cabinet full of trophies from their travels – carved ivory from the Orient and trinkets from the Middle East? And this was meant to be a dim, dark room, which was just the way he like it, not at all like this bright, shiny space. He put his hand up to his eyes to shade them from the light.
He went down the hall into the kitchen. He could still imagine Nellie rattling around that kitchen, as she did in her latter years, scaring the hell out of him as she tried to light the gas stove with one after another flickering matches. The flames usually went out before she got it anywhere near the gas, thank God. But meanwhile the kitchen would fill with gas until he’d turn off the ring, open a window and then turn the gas on again and light it himself while his wife, resignedly left him to it with a resentful “Suit yourself, I’m just a helpless female I suppose.”
But this kitchen wasn’t their kitchen at all. This was another kitchen altogether, a modern, soulless kitchen with shiny tiles and hardly anything in it.
He was a fool - an old fool - and had wandered into the wrong house. That was what had happened. How mortifying, how shameful that it could come to this. How would he ever explain himself? Best to get out before someone comes home and finds a stranger wandering the hallway. Best to beat a hasty retreat back down that hallway and outside, quick smart. He passed through the front door, back out onto the veranda and the sense of familiarity was still strong despite the obvious anomalies.
He went down the path, out the gate and when safely back on the footpath, public property where he could not be accused of anything, he turned back to regard the place. It looked like his house but wasn’t his house. That didn’t make sense, did it? He was tired, so tired. He had never felt quite as tired before and he rested against the low stone wall that segregated the front garden from the street.
Inside the house a woman came out of the bathroom. She moved through to the bedroom where her husband sat on the bed putting on his socks.
“You heard it this time,” she insisted. “Don’t tell me you didn’t hear it this time?”
“Heard what?” he asked, reaching for his shoes now.
“The same sounds you claim not to hear every night,” she said.
“The muttering and the shuffling, sounds. That’s what.”
“These old houses have a life all their own – they creak and shudder, particularly when they’re cooling down at night,” he said. “That’s all it is. Plus the fact that you’ve always had a very vivid imagination.” She padded down the hall quietly, as if she was sneaking up on someone, but the house seemed quiet now. Then she turned and called over her shoulder: “And I suppose it’s just my imagination that the kitchen light is on when I haven even been in there since we got home?”
“I don’t know what you’re getting at,” he called back “All I know is that we have to be at City Hall by seven for the reception and I have no intention of being late.”
“So you really think the nightly noises and weird goings on around here are all just my imagination?” she asked.
“Imagination is a wonderful thing,” he said. “But it has its limitations. And please, don’t start all that ghost stuff again.”
“No, I won’t start all that ghost stuff again,” she said, adding under her breath: “Even though the place is clearly haunted.”
She went down the hallway then, wrapping her robe around her as a slight chill ran through her. The front door was open. She could point out to her husband that they had closed it after coming in but he wouldn’t be impressed. She went out onto the veranda. It was dusk now and the first stars were appearing and for a moment, just a moment she felt – for it was a feeling more than anything – that she saw someone looking back at her from beyond the front fence. But there was no one there. “Are you getting ready at all?” her husband called.
“I am,” she said feeling the chill again. “I really am.” Suddenly she turned, went back inside and closed the door firmly behind her.
by Phil Brown
Copyright © Phil Brown