DOCTOR IN CLOVER
First Published in 1960
'You may be surprised to hear,' I announced to my cousin, Mr Miles Grimsdyke, FRCS, 'that I've decided to do the decent thing and settle down in general practice.'
'Do I attribute this decision to a severer sense of professional duty or to a severer hangover than usual?'
'Neither. But all my chums from St Swithin's seem to be installing wives and families and washing machines, and it seems high time I did the same. Take my old friend Simon Sparrow, for instance. Why, in the days of our youth we got chucked out of pubs together, and now his idea of whooping it up on a Saturday night is taking the lawnmower to pieces. Believe me, I'm going to become dear old Dr Grimsdyke, the chap who's brought half the district into the world and pushed the other half out of it, beloved by all until it's time to collect old-age pension and chiming clock from grateful patients.'
'I suppose you realize, Gaston, how difficult it is these days to get into general practice?'
'Of course. Quite as bad as getting into the Test Matches. But not for fellows like me who know the ropes. You've heard of Palethorpe and Wedderburn, the medical employment agents?'
Miles frowned. 'The people in Drury Lane? I have never had recourse to them myself.'
'I happen to know old Palethorpe personally. We met last summer, on an occasion when I was able to offer him valuable professional advice.'
I didn't mention to my cousin we'd run into each other at Sandown Park races, where I put Palethorpe on such a good thing he'd kept my medical career close at heart ever since. Unfortunately, Miles has no sense of humour. It's the tragedy of modern life that so many people-dictators, tax collectors, tennis champions, teddy boys, and so on-seem to have no sense of humour, either.
'If you really intend to settle down,' my cousin continued, 'I might say I am delighted that you have chosen this particular moment to do so. In fact, I will confess that is exactly why I invited you for lunch today. More greens? One should keep up one's vitamin C this time of the year.'
'Enough is enough, thank you.'
It was one of those beastly days in midwinter when dusk chases dawn briskly across the London roof-tops, and fog was hazing even the chilly halls of the Parthenon Club where we sat. The Parthenon in St James's struck me as about as comfortable for lunching in as the main booking-hall at Euston Station, but Miles was one of the newest members and as proud of the place as if it were the House of Lords. I supposed it fitted into his self-portrait of the up-and-coming young surgeon. He was a small, bristly chap, generally regarded as embodying the brains of the family, who had just reached that delicate stage in a surgical career when your car is large enough to excite the confidence of your patients but not the envy of your colleagues.
'And how exactly are you earning your living at this moment?' Miles went on.
'I have many irons in the fire,' I told him. 'Though I must confess the fire isn't too hot. There's my medical articles for the popular press, to start with.'
Miles frowned again. 'I can't say I've noticed any.'
'They're all signed 'By A Harley Street Specialist'. Of course, it would be gross professional misconduct to put my own name.'
'You certainly show a remarkable ingenuity for practising without actually doing any medicine.'
'Which just proves what I've always held-medicine's a jolly good general education. It teaches you the working of everything from human nature to sewage farms. Not to mention all those little bits of Latin and Greek which are so useful in the crosswords.'
'But you must realize, Gaston, the time has come to put this free-and-easy existence behind you for good. You're not a mountebank of an undergraduate any more. You must now maintain the dignity of a qualified practitioner.'
'Oh, I agree with you. Being a medical student is really the worst possible training for becoming a doctor.'
Miles dropped his voice below the hushed whisper permissible for conversation in the Parthenon.
'I am now going to tell you something in the strictest confidence.'
'Mr Sharper at St Swithin's is to become Professor of Surgery at Calgary University.'
'Really? I hope he enjoys crawling about in the snow potting all those bears.'
'That isn't the point. There will therefore be an unexpected vacancy on the surgical consultant staff. I shall in due course be applying for it. As Mr Sharper's own senior registrar, I do not flatter myself in believing my chances are excellent.' He helped himself to another boiled potato. 'Though as you know, considerations other than the strictly surgical sometimes weigh strongly with the selection committee.'
I nodded. 'I remember one chap was turned down because he wore knickerbockers and arrived for the interview on a motor-bike.'
'Quite so. To be perfectly frank, Gaston, it might embarrass me if you simply continued to flit about the medical scene-'
'My dear old lad!' I hadn't realized this worried him sufficiently to stand me a lunch. 'I may be a poor risk for a five-bob loan, but you can always rely on me to help a kinsman. A couple of weeks to say farewell to the haunts of my misspent youth, and I'll have made myself scarce from London for good.'
Miles still looked doubtful.
'I hope the permanency of your new position is more durable than some of your others.'
'They were mere flirtations with work. This is the real thing. And everyone will say, 'See how that steady chap Miles has put even old Gaston Grimsdyke on his feet.''
'If that is indeed so, I'm much indebted to you. We may not always have seen eye to eye, Gaston-'
'Oh, come. Every family has its little misunderstandings.'
'But I assure you I have always acted entirely for your own good. And what precisely is this position you have in mind?'
'GP up north,' I explained.
I had been in Palethorpe's office that morning, when he'd greeted me with the news: 'I have exactly the right opening for you, Dr Grimsdyke. General practice in the Midlands-the backbone of England, you know. Assistant wanted, with a view, as we say. Start end of January. Dr Wattle of Porterhampton. A very fine man.'
'It doesn't matter what the doctor's like,' I told him. 'How about his wife?'
Palethorpe chuckled. 'How I wish our other clients were half as perspicacious! Fortunately, Mrs Wattle accompanied the doctor when he called, and I can assure you that she is a highly respectable and motherly middle-aged lady?
'It is their sorrow to be a childless couple, alas. I believe that is why they particularly asked me to find some decent, honest, upright, well-mannered, single young practitioner to share their home with them.'
'I can only hope you come as a nice surprise,' muttered my cousin when I told him.
'At last I feel set for a peaceful and prosperous career,' I went on, enlarging on my prospects a little. 'Who knows what the future holds? The dear old Wattles might take me to their bosoms. They might look upon me as a son to enlighten their declining years. They might send for their solicitors and start altering their wills. There should be plenty of lolly about in Porterhampton, too. They make turbines or something equally expensive up there.'
'My dear Gaston! You know, you really must grow out of this habit of counting your chickens before the hen's even ovulated.'
'What's wrong with a little imagination?' I protested. 'Lord Lister and Alexander Fleming wouldn't have got far without it. Anyway, at the moment roots are fairly sprouting from my feet like spring carrots.'