Read an Excerpt
A Late Phoenix
A C. D. Sloan Mystery
By Catherine Aird
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1971 Catherine Aird
All rights reserved.
Dr. William Latimer gave the screw a final twist. It was the last of six screws. Four would have done the job quite well but he was a careful, cautious, and conscientious man and he had used six.
Carefulness, cautiousness, and conscientiousness were the three good "c's" which had been drilled into him at his medical school by the lecturer on medical ethics. Then the same lecturer had gone on to warn the class against the other three "c's." The bad ones. Those which led a doctor into danger—conduct, canvassing, and covering.
Conduct (infamous in a professional respect) didn't trouble William. If any lady patient had designs on his spotless professional reputation there was always the redoubtable Miss Tyrell within earshot. Miss Tyrell was his receptionist and secretary. Ramrod thin, austerely dressed and bleak of expression, she could be guaranteed to quell any patient with a look. Miss Tyrell stood no nonsense from anyone.
Canvassing was another unlikely risk. He had come to this practice precisely because it was small. That had been what he had wanted. Somewhere not too ambitious where he could make a good beginning in general practice without very much outlay.
Covering meant he mustn't set up in practice with a faith healer or lend his backing to any other medically unqualified person. Dr. William Latimer had no intention of doing this. He was on his own in his practice and he intended staying on his own.
After the last twist of the screw he stepped back and took another look at the plate on the wall.
W. LATIMER, M.B., CH.B.
He had paid attention at those lectures; more, perhaps, than the rest of the class because he didn't come from a medical background or even a professional one. Doctors' sons, he knew, learned these matters at their fathers' knee. They came strangely to him, the son of a carpenter.
He twisted his lips wryly. He was what was known as first generation pinstripe. He picked up the measure, the spirit level and the screwdriver—there were some things he had learned at his father's knee—and wondered how soon he would be able to afford to have the house painted.
Before very long, he hoped. There was no denying the general air of neglect about Field House. His predecessor had let things go and then he had died and there had been more neglect while the National Health Service Executive Council had sorted out the practice and his executors had wound up his estate.
William Latimer's gaze shifted upwards a fraction and rested on the plate above his own.
HENRY TARDE, M.R.C.P., M.B., CH.B.
It was brass and was polished daily though Henry Tarde had been in his grave nearly two months now. That was nothing, though, compared with the third plate on the wall. That had been rubbed to illegibility, though if you stood very close and knew what you were looking for you could still make out the name Manderson.
Field House had been a doctor's surgery for a very long time. True to a medical tradition that he had heard about, William Latimer had left both plates on the wall above his own. It was a sort of professional ancestor-worship, he supposed, because if anyone wanted to consult Dr. Manderson now they were something like thirty-five years too late.
Standing as he was, so close to the front door of the house, he found himself really looking at it for the first time. In its way it was quite a fine piece of work, though there was no doubt whatsoever that it needed painting. A bit of putty wouldn't come amiss either in some of the cracks. There was an architrave which his father would have approved of, though the left-hand abacus was badly split.
William glanced over his shoulder.
That would have been the bombing. Doctors' houses were like public ones and often stood at a street corner. Field House was no exception. It, too, was on a junction of four roads. And the opposite corner was still a bomb site.
Now he came to think of it, that was one of the things which contributed to the general air of neglect that he was so aware of. He had been told that the St. Luke's area of Berebury had caught the worst of the town's bombing in the last war. Certainly there were still quite a few tattered bits of ground dotted among the otherwise tightly packed houses.
Once, though, it must have been a very well-to-do part of the town because Field House was a substantial building—late Georgian, early Victorian, decided William. And it had been built in a field—hence the name.
William felt he should have looked at the deed of Field House and made sure about its date but he had really only had it in his hands for a matter of moments. That had been in the solicitor's office, when they had been en route between Henry Tarde's bank and his own Building Society. And, he thought ruefully, at this rate it didn't seem likely that he was going to see them again for another thirty years or so.
At least the bells on the doorjamb didn't look as if anything needed doing to them. And he could vouch already for the fact that they worked. The day one, anyway. So far no one had tested the night bell beside it. That was another thing that was only a matter of time. He knew that. Sooner or later he was going to be dragged from his nice warm bed in the middle of the night to somebody else's bedside. He hoped it would be later if only because he didn't know the streets of his practice in daylight yet—let alone in darkness.
Underneath both bells was another circle of polished brass. Instead of a push-button inside it, though, there was a plug on the end of a little chain. This was the most old-fashioned method of all of summoning the doctor from his bed. It was a speaking tube which led—William Latimer knew not by what devious route—to a spot in his bedroom wall just level with his pillow.
A preliminary whistle from street level presumably shot him into wakefulness and then he unplugged his end and had a cozy chat with the caller. What the doctor's wife thought of this arrangement he did not know and he, William Latimer, had not yet taken unto himself a wife to ask.
He walked up the three steps to the front door and turned round. His practice—though he still thought of it as Henry Tarde's practice—was literally all about him. There were no other doctors in the St. Luke's part of town. The nearest were in Vittoria Street and they were the consultants. Vittoria Street was Berebury's own local Harley Street.
William had wanted to call it Victoria Street at first—the Old Queen having left her name on a quite remarkable number of thoroughfares—but he had been corrected by the precise Miss Tyrell. Vittoria, he was told, had been a battle in the Peninsular War at which the local regiment—the West Calleshires—had acquitted itself with distinction. Hence the street name.
There were no other doctors in St. Luke's because there was no longer any need for them. In that area of the town which lay nearest to the Market Square the shops and offices had pushed the homes and the people who lived in them farther and farther away. In the east—the poorer houses always seemed to be in the east end—the Town Council had cleared many of the tight little streets and built fine new houses on the outskirts of Berebury.
So now the roads were clogged every morning and evening with those same people coming back into the town to work, to shop, and to school. At the other end of St. Luke's—the Park Street end—the prosperous folk had gone even farther out—to the villages—and they commuted to their offices and shops and professions each day too.
Yet St. Luke's wasn't a twilight zone. Berebury was too old a town for that. Some of its loveliest houses were right in the center, and there would have been more of them too but for the bombing. Nevertheless these exoduses at each end of the St. Luke's area had meant that William Latimer had come to a small practice. Dr. Henry Tarde had been in Field House for a long time and it would seem that his practice had diminished nicely for him as he grew older and would have wanted less work.
William Latimer opened the door. Soon patients would start coming to the surgery door as they had been coming every Monday morning for the last hundred years and more. Somewhere he could smell his breakfast cooking, though—alas—the meals served by his housekeeper, Mrs. Milligan, did not always live up to their olfactory promise.
He still paused for a moment before he went indoors. It was one of those startlingly lovely September mornings, all the more enjoyable because it carried with it the unmistakable message of autumn.
There were other changes in the air, too, besides the weather. It looked as if some time soon the corner opposite Field House was going to cease being a rough tangle of broken brick and overgrown weeds. Just before eight o'clock this morning a lorryload of men had turned up and begun to spread themselves over the old bomb site.
Actually the first thing they had done had been to erect a little shelter and start a brazier going but, that achieved, they had started clearing the larger trees and erected two boards. Mark Reddley and Associates (Developers) Ltd. proclaimed the first, a well-lettered and discreet advertisement. The second, altogether a more casual affair, was propped up at a drunken angle against a few bricks and said simply Garton and Garton, Builders, Berebury.
Dr. Latimer looked across at the workmen and noted the immediate contrast between them and those young archaeologists who had been digging the same site all weekend. William had paused yesterday morning and looked down at their carefully laid string and little trowels. There had been four men and a girl and they had scratched about all Saturday and Sunday.
He had called out "Any luck?" to them at one stage yesterday.
Their leader, a young man with a beard and wearing open sandals, who the others addressed as Colin, had shaken his head ruefully. "Nothing Saxon yet."
William Latimer wasn't an archaeologist but he would have said they needed to look no further than themselves for Saxon remains. The girl with them, industriously crouched beside a narrow trench, was pure Saxon, long blond hair falling unattended over her bent shoulders.
He had seen them all troop away, tired and dispirited as the light went last night.
The arrival of the workmen explained the archeologists' concentrated work over the weekend anyway. After this morning there was obviously going to be no chance of investigating any old civilization here. The second half of the twentieth century wanted to use the space.
He watched the workmen for a few more moments.
The odd thing about their leisurely pace was that it actually got anything done at all, but it did. Their breakfast was under way, too. The tantalizing smell of sausages cooking on their open brazier drifted across Conway Street and reminded him how hungry he was. He turned on his heel and went indoors. Miss Tyrell would not expect him to be late for morning surgery.
He wasn't quite sure whether he had inherited Miss Tyrell as secretary-cum-receptionist or if she had merely inherited him as Dr. Tarde's successor. A bit of both, he decided fairly, as she greeted him after breakfast from her little office beside his consulting room. Perhaps she was like the fixtures and fittings specified in the briefly seen deed of the house.
Perhaps she just went with the practice.
"Seven new calls, Doctor, only one of them urgent. I said you'd go there first."
Geographically his was a close-knit practice and he passed his own house (well, his own and the Building Society's) several times during the course of the morning while he set about seeing the seven new calls and any number of old ones. On one occasion he was just in time to see a large yellow vehicle at work on the old bomb site.
It looked more like an artificial cockroach than anything else. With consummate ease it tugged up a well-established elm tree. Not only with ease, but without ceremony. There was no surrounding circle of watchers while somebody shouted, "Timber." Nobody shouted anything as the yellow thing went into reverse gear and simply pulled. And that in spite of the fact that the tree could have been all of twenty-five years old. Uprooted, the yellow machine dragged the tree to a corner of the site where two men with bandsaws descended on it without delay.
Miss Tyrell took a gloomy view of the noise.
"It'll go on for months, I expect, Doctor. And this is only the beginning. You wait until they start with their pile drivers or whatever it is they make their foundations with."
"Yes, indeed. No, no sugar, thank you," murmured William. Miss Tyrell had conjured up coffee to coincide with his arrival—almost as if she had been expecting him.
"Dr. Tarde always used to come back about now," she said, "to see if there were any new calls."
"Oh?" he said oddly disconcerted. "And are there?"
"Not this morning. There quite often are." Miss Tyrell consulted a list in front of her. "If you should pass this way again and see the sitting-room curtains drawn you'll know that something else has cropped up and I'd like you to come in."
"Thank you," said William gravely. At least he would know now that it didn't signify a death in the house.
Miss Tyrell ran her eye round the consulting room. "Otherwise, Doctor, I think everything's all right."
"Thank you," he said again.
"Mrs. Milligan's gone out shopping. I'll do the letters and the filing until she comes back. And I'll be back in time for evening surgery."
"Right." He didn't want to stand in the way of Mrs. Milligan going shopping. "Tell me, Miss Tyrell, what's going to be built opposite?"
Miss Tyrell's hatchet face grew longer. "Shops of some sort, Doctor, I think, but there's been so much argument about that site over the years that I'm sure I don't really know what the upshot will be."
"Plans," she said lugubriously. "First one lot and then another and then somebody wouldn't sell and then he would—only by then the Town Council wouldn't let him build what he wanted.
There was talk of a compulsory purchase order at one time—or so I heard—but nothing came of it." She sniffed. "And before it was all settled they started this business about a ring road."
"Here?" he said, dismayed. "You mean just outside my house?"
His and the Building Society's, of course, but all the same ...
"That's right," she said. "But you needn't worry. They changed their minds about that too."
"I'm very glad to hear it."
"Everyone's changed their minds so often," she said grimly, "that it's just as well there are some people left who can still get things done."
William Latimer abruptly decided it was time he got back to his round. He drained the last of his coffee. "How do I get to Shepherd Street, by the way?"
Miss Tyrell told him.
The next time he took a look at the bomb site was after his luncheon. Mrs. Milligan's visit to the shops had meant a piece of steak which would have been nice if it had been cooked properly. William took a little stroll along Conway Street preparatory to going out on his afternoon round. These were the less urgent cases, the chronic sick, and the very old.
Like a magnet the sight of other men working drew him back to the bomb site corner.
He wasn't the only one. The spectacle had also attracted an elderly man who was leaning on a stick, two small boys, and a young woman pushing a pram. There was a baby girl in the pram who was patently delighted with the workmen.
"Dada," she said impartially.
"Dada," she said, catching sight of William.
But it was the elderly man whom William recognized. He lived in the house farther down Lamb Lane—next to the bomb site—and was called Herbert Jackson. He had chronic bronchitis, and William had already treated him.
He waved a stick at the bomb site. "They ain't rushed themselves, Doc, have they?" "Well ..." said William consideringly, looking at the workmen, "it's heavy work, you know."
"I don't mean today, Doc," wheezed the man. "I mean since it happened."
"Oh, haven't they?"
"The morning after this little lot copped it they was round from the Council promising to rebuild. And such houses as you've never seen. With everything you could think of inside ..."
Excerpted from A Late Phoenix by Catherine Aird. Copyright © 1971 Catherine Aird. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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