The Doctor is Sick

Extracts from The Doctor is Sick (1960)

Edwin thought of…his…accident. A lecturer on linguistics in a college in Burma who had one day, quite without warning, fallen on the lecture-room floor while lecturing  on linguistics. He had been talking about folk etymology (penthouseprimroseJerusalem artichoke) and then, quite suddenly, he had passed out. He came to to find concerned, flat, delicate-brown Burmese faces looking down on him, himself saying: ‘It’s really a question of assimilating the unknown to the known, you see, refusing to admit that a foreign word is really foreign.’ While he lay on the cool floor he could see quite clearly, on the fringe of the group that surrounded him, one or two students taking down his words in their notebooks. He said: ‘While we honour none but the horizontal one.’ That, too, was taken down.

The doctors had taken a serious view of the matter….’We’d better send you back to England to see a neurologist.’

Outside, the main doors behind him, he was hit full in the chest by autumn. The doggy wind leapt about him and nipped; leaves skirred along the pavement, the scrape of the ferrules of sticks; melancholy, that tetrasyllable, sat on a plinth in the middle of the square. English autumn, and the whistling tiny souls of the dead round the war memorial.

The window opened gently and a still Autumn night entered cat-like. Edwin smelt freedom and London autumn – decay, smoke, cold, motor oil.

He walked down the side street to a wide thoroughfare of shop-windows and offices. This, he assumed, was one of the main arteries of London, a city he did not know very well. There were sodium street-lights, lights in windows. Occasional cars sped by. There was even an airline bus crammed with yawning passengers. Edwin saw himself reflected in a window full of tape-recorders.

The London office of the International Council for University Development was in Queen Street. Edwin hesitated outside, adjusting his cap, tightening the knot of his tie, smoothing his pyjama collar. The portals, a naked sculptural group above them emblematic of the Tutorial System, were designed to intimidate. The doors were all glass and hence appeared to be ever-open ; this again must be emblematic of something.

Yawning, head-scratching, he put on his shoes, saying: ‘War awe warthog Warsaw. Yaw,’ he added. ‘I beg your pardon,’ he said. ‘I’m just wondering what’s the best thing to do this evening. With you, that is.’

Edwin, so much himself a sham, felt a sort of kinship with the sham pleasures of Tottenham Court Road and Oxford Street as they travelled painfully towards Soho.

‘Gest na var welch purr?’ he said.
‘I think that’s very likely,’ said Edwin.
‘Gorch,’ nodded the man, and, seeming satisfied, moved out of the ward to the lavatories.

‘Witch the narnoth and cretch the giripull.’
‘Vearl pearnies under the weirdnick and crafter the linelow until the vopplesnock.’
‘Worch?’
Partcrock mainly at finniberg entering. Word fallpray when chock veers garters home.’
‘Wait. Weight. Wate.’
‘Vartelpore wares for morning arighters. Jerboa toolings in dawn-breakers make with quicktombs.’
‘Good.’

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