First published in 1978
To Pat Kavanagh
1—This Is It
'When did you first notice something was wrong?'
'Well, notice, it must be five or six weeks, I could give you the date if I had to. But then as soon as I did notice I realised something had been wrong much further back than that.'
'How much further back?'
'Oh..... A year? Year and a half?'
'About the time your other trouble started to become acute, in fact.'
'Yes. There must be a link.'
By way of answer the doctor gave a quiet sigh. His patient, a round-faced bespectacled man called Jake Richardson, was left to wonder whether this meant that the link was all too grimly real, that only a fool would suppose one existed or that the task of explanation seemed altogether daunting. Jake didn't wonder for long. To have gone on doing so would have been to concede the doctor (Curnow by name) too much importance. When asked why he persistently went to a man he had so little time for, Jake would say that disliking your GP was a good insurance against getting dependent on him.
Now Dr Curnow shook his head a few times and swallowed. In the end he said, 'There's nothing I can do for you.'
'Oh, but surely you must have a—'
'No. The only way is for me to send you to someone.'
'That was rather what I—'
'Excuse me a second, would you, please?'
Funny how it's got ruder to say please than not, Jake thought to himself as the doctor began to turn slowly through a small leather-bound book on his desk. He seemed to find its contents of unusual interest, even novelty. One page in particular absorbed his attention for longer than would have been necessary if he had been doing no more than reading the whole of it with care. After this interval he lifted his head abruptly and looked Jake straight in the eye for a quarter of a minute or so. Then he returned his gaze to the book before him, keeping it fixed there while he reached for his telephone. It had buttons instead of a dial.
'Dr Rosenberg? Dr Curnow here.' This information was enough to provoke a considerable speech from the other end, though Jake couldn't make out anything of what was said. 'I have a patient you might be able to do something for,' said Curnow at last. 'I have him here in the room with me. Name of Richardson, J. C. Richardson..... Well, you'll remember the Mr Pickering I sent to you last autumn..... Oh did he, I'm sorry to hear that..... Yes, I'm afraid so....' What Curnow heard next made him stare at Jake again but more consideringly, look him over rather than look at him. 'Certainly not. No question of anything like that....' Curnow's face changed, except for the direction and quality of his stare, and he started nodding emphatically. 'Oh
'A very able man, Dr Rosenberg. Very able.'
'Good,' said Jake. 'Rosenberg. Presumably he's some sort of—'
'Would you excuse me a second, please?' Curnow lifted a switch on what he no doubt called his intercom, which had started to hum hoarsely. 'Yes, what is it?'
'Sheikh Qarmat bin Ezzat el Sha'ket is here,' said a version of a girl's voice.
'Bring him in in thirty seconds precisely and cash as he leaves of course,' said Curnow, getting up. 'Well, Mr Richardson, you'll be letting me know how things go. Insides behaving themselves?'
'Oh, mustn't complain.'
'That's right. No pain in the abdomen?'
'Just a twinge or so, nothing out of the way.'
'Urine satisfactorily pale?'
'Yes thank you.'
'Faeces satisfactorily dark?'
'What about the haemorrhoids?'
'You mean piles. I haven't got piles,' said Jake truthfully. 'I don't have them.'
The doctor chuckled and shrugged his shoulders, tolerant of his patient's nervous or whimsical avoidance of the topic. 'Getting plenty of exercise?'
'I thought I was supposed to take it easy.'
'Mild exercise. Walking. Gardening. Didn't you say you gardened?'
'Yes I did. I do.'
'Keep on with it. It can't fail to do you good. Whatever's wrong with you.'
'Thank you, Dr Curnow.'
In the hall the man of the East, clad quite as if he had just arrived from there, without even time to freshen up after the journey, was approaching across a carpet that looked as if it had once taken a similar course: no doubt the gift of some grateful emir or caliph. The receptionist, a girl of twenty or twenty-five, was in