Dr Armstrong: An Old-Fashioned Family Doctor
This is a Christmas like no other. Who would have thought, a week ago, that the whole village would end up crammed into the Manor, like a relic of our ancient, feudal past?
Christmas is normally a quiet time for me. My sugery is closed on Christmas Day and Boxing Day, of course, but the villagers know they can call on me in emergencies. They seldom do, though sometimes they come to me in January, coughing fit to wake the dead. "It started on Christmas Day," they tell me, and they have been suffering ever since, without seeking help.
At first I thought they were being stoical and English, not wanting to make a fuss, not wanting to bother the good old doctor on his day off. We hear of these things in medical school – of old ladies who apolegetically call for an ambulance after four days of lying there with a broken leg. "You can come to me at any time," I used to tell them, and I still do, although I have since learnt that this is not the reason they suffer in silence during the holidays. No, it's because it's Christmas. People want Christmas to be perfect. If they feel ill, they try to pretend the illness isn't there. Things are not supposed to go wrong at Christmas. If they ignore it, they think, it will go away, and Christmas will be what it is supposed to be.
This Christmas is different. It's the snow that started it, I think. At first it was a pleasant addition to the festive season. The children were overjoyed, of course, and even the staidest of adults let themselves get swept up a little in the excitement. But the snow just would not stop falling. It got heavier and heavier, and colder and colder. That was when I started to be afraid. People die in winters like this.
I was called out on Christmas Day itself, for the first time in a dozen years. Mrs Catesby was giving birth to twins, a week earlier than expected. Admittedly, I cannot attribute this happy event to the snow, and it is always a pleasure to deliver babies. I know we are encouraged to use the hospital now, but I am a doctor of the old school. It is so much more comforting for the mother to be at home in the bosom of her family, especially on Christmas Day. If I had sent poor Mrs Catesby to hospital, she would still be there, cut off by the snow, while her husband fretted at home.
It is the first Christmas birth this village has seen, and it set the festive season off to a perfect start. New life at Christmas; hope in the middle of winter. I am sure Mr Beaumont would find something to preach about there.
Although, now I come to think of it, I remember that Alice Stanton's youngest was due on Christmas Day. "I hope he comes early," she used to say to me, "or properly late, after New Year.
I asked her why. In my innocence, I thought that a Christmas birth would be a truly miraculous thing, but women see things differently from us men. Alice had already looked ahead and seen what life would be like for her little one.
"He's got eight older brothers and sisters," she explained. "He's going to have precious few moments that are just for him. At least let him have a birthday of his own. I don't want him to have to share his special day." She smiled then, her hand on her bump. "Besides, I have to make Christmas dinner for ten. I won't have time to have a baby."
I never thought to ask if Mrs Catesby had made dinner before the babies came.
So the Catesby babies were delivered – one boy and one girl, and as ugly as all new-born babies are, although of course I would never say so to any of the mothers. I returned to my dinner, and that, I thought, was that.
It continued to snow through the night. It grew colder, and the snow grew ever deeper. On Boxing Day, I was called out to treat a sprained ankle, and a nasty bump on the head. The Randall baby went down with a fever, and I paid calls to some of my old ladies, to make sure they were looking after themselves in the cold. Even in this day and age, the cold can be a killer. Then we had a broken ankles, and the day after that, Fred Pettigrew sprained his wrist.
It was then that Miss Greythorne came up with her idea of inviting everyone to the Manor. The first I knew of it was when her new butler, Mr Lyon, came knocking at my door, asking me if I would accept Miss Greythorne's invitation. He was extremely polite, even humble, yet somehow he made it sound like a command. Certainly, I never considered refusing. Within minutes, I had gathered up a decent collection of medical supplies, and was heading out of the door without even a change of clothing, my scarf trailing and my coat only half fastened.
And here I am. We have a broken leg already, and various bumps and bruises. Mr Lyon tells me that the Stantons intend to come later, bringing an unfortunate old man that Paul and Will found in the snow after the Christmas Day service. "He will need especial care," he tells me, and his eyes hint at something more than his words are prepared to say.
I am not sure that I like this new butler of Miss Greythorne's. He is perfectly polite, but he looks at me sometimes as if he thinks he knows his job better than I know it myself. I do not like this.
I am not one of these arrogant young doctors, always boasting that I went to this glorious university, or that glorious medical school. I am an old-fashioned doctor, caught twenty years after my proper time. The world I live in is dying. I see myself as a proper local doctor, who lives in the heart of his community, and visits every patient at home. I do not want to go into practice with younger men. I do not want to have a shiny surgery in a shiny town, and know people only as names on a piece of paper. People sit all alone and worry for days before making an appointment with a distant doctor, a stranger in a far-off town. When the doctor is their friend and neighbour, they pop round for a chat, and their worry is eased. Sometimes, I think the most important thing a doctor can do is listen.
I wonder if Mr Lyon knows this. He does not look like a man who likes to listen, and his face is sharp, and not given to sympathy.
Still, one must always be polite. "I'll prepare a bed for him, then," I tell him, "so I can examine him, and see what care he needs."
Now that he mentions it, I do remember my landlady telling me that Max Stanton had phoned on Christmas Day, while I was out delivering the twins, and that Roger himself had phoned a few hours later, to say that it was a false alarm, and I didn't need to come. "He's sleeping peacefully," he said, apparently. "Panic over. It was nothing that a wash and a sleep can't cure."
I'd presumed he was talking about one of the children – a fall from a sledge, perhaps. There are so many of them in that family, and it's rare to find a time when at least one of them isn't suffering from some cough or cold or little accident.
I remember joking with Alice some months ago, saying that I expected at least one of them to go into medicine. "I need a successor, after all," I said, "and I'm not as young as I used to be." My father was doctor in Huntercombe before me, but I have no sons. I had hopes for Stephen, who looked after his younger brothers with a concern that was beautiful to see, but he chose a different path. Max chose art at a young age, and Paul's destiny was always plain to anyone with eyes to see. "But maybe it's not meant to be," I said, pretending to be regretful – or perhaps not pretending it, after all
"There's still time," Alice said. "Who knows what the younger ones will turn out to be. We might have a doctor yet."
If I was a betting man, I would have put money on Will. He was always a quiet child, sensitive to everything around him. He's clever, too, if what Alice says is true. But Alice disagreed. "Oh no, not Will," she said, shaking her head. "He spends too much of his time with his head stuck in a book, and he's happier with history than science. No, if any of them decide to become a doctor, it will be James."
"James?" I was surprised, and made no attempt to hide it. James is a pleasant boy, but he has never struck me as studious.
"James likes people," Alice explained. "Oh, he complains about his brothers and sisters all the time, but he hates to be alone. And surely you have to like people to be a doctor, Dr Armstrong. I can tell you do. You've been a friend to us these many years, not just a doctor."
I blushed at the compliment. Sometimes I envy Roger, for having a wife like that, and I envy them both for having such a good bunch of children.
"But Will…" She sighed. "Every spring, he creeps into the Manor grounds just to stand there in silence, looking at the glade of flowers. Paul followed him once, because he was worried about where Will could be going all by himself. Paul told no-one else, and I haven't told anyone, either. You wouldn't catch James doing that, or any of the others, except, perhaps, Paul, but Paul's different. His music makes him different."
"Are you worried about Will?" I asked, sensing more to this than Alice was saying. "Do you want me to…?"
She shook her head. "Oh no. He's just a quiet one. Many children are. I'm not used to it, with my chattering rabble." She sighed again. "Sometimes I think it would better if he had a special talent, like Paul with his music. He's clever, of course, but not excellent. He's near the top of his class in every subject, but he doesn't sparkle. I think people overlook him, and I think he lets them – encourages them, even."
But that was all last summer, and why it has come to mind now, I do not know. Will's had his birthday since then – I must remember to wish him happy birthday when he gets here. But it is James that I want to see. Alice was joking, of course, but… Oh, I am a sentimenal old man. I have no sons of my own, and I would like to think that the good people of Huntercombe will be cared for by one of their own for many years to come. That way I can retire content.
But I fear I am resisting the inexorable march of the thing they call progress. I think I am clutching at straws. It is a terrible thing indeed to place the hopes of an old man on the innocent shoulders of a child.
But if he comes… Children like to be let into secrets. They like to be given important jobs to do. We have a little sick room set up in the cloakroom, and there's nothing that a young boy shouldn't see. Maybe I'll ask him to hold something for me, then casually talk him through what I'm doing. From such small sparks a lifelong interest can grow.
Ah! The door opens, and here they are – Roger, Robin, Paul, Will… No James.
It was a foolish fancy, born from too little sleep, and this strangest of Christmasses. I become all doctor, and set to work.