“I offered the album to your father after she …” Donald said. “But he didn’t — said he couldn’t bear to have it.” He smiled sadly.
I looked at him. I thought: Why did you make and keep an album full of photographs of my mother? Why? And how did I know then, aged nearly thirteen, that darkening summer evening in Barnton, that Donald Verulam had been in love with my mother? What made me sense that? How do children intuit these things? I have no idea. But I remind you I was no ordinary child. Already in those days my mind was working in distinctly personal ways. I cannot explain why this conclusion presented itself to me with such particular force, but as I flicked through the pages, contemplating this pretty young stranger who had given birth to me the day she died, I felt myself brimful of a new liberating certainty. I had divined something; I possessed my first adult secret. I nourished it and let it grow inside me, warm and exquisite.
This realization allowed me to cope with my father’s strange coldness towards me, of which I became more aware as I grew older. He was never unkind or cruel. His attitude towards me was one of irritated bafflement rather than antagonism. He saw his second son, somewhat small of stature to be sure, but fit, personable, polite, the thick black hair now neatly parted on the left, the face, before the imminent ravages of adolescence, agreeable, open, apparently intelligent and, from some angles, distressingly reminiscent of his dead wife’s. Yet this boy’s intellectual development seemed insuperably retarded. By age thirteen I could read and write, though my spelling was vile, but I appeared incapable of making any real progress with my other school subjects. “Bad,” “lazy,” “stubborn,” “plain stupid,” were the epithets that figured on my school reports. Except for one: arithmetic.
“It says ‘excellent’ here,” my father addressed me across the dining table. “Why?”
“I don’t know. I just find it easy.”
“Well, why don’t you find anything else easy, for heaven’s sake!”
“I don’t know.”
“Latin: ‘no progress.’ Compositions: ‘unsatisfactory, makes no effort.’ Then I read ‘excellent.’ What am I meant to think?”
“I don’t know.”
“Stop saying, ‘I don’t know,’ idiot child!”
“You’re clearly not an imbecile. An imbecile wouldn’t get an ‘excellent’ for arithmetic.” He looked at me. “Spell ‘simpleton.’ ”
Ah. This I knew was a trick.
“No!” His eyes thinned above his cheek tufts. He looked at me with what I can only describe as despair.
“If you don’t improve, John, I shall have to take steps to see that you do. I’ll not allow a boy of your age to bamboozle me.”
These “steps” had been referred to with increasing regularity over the last two years. I was not sure what he had in mind; I feared a private tutor or some sort of crammer. I hung my head with a suitable display of filial humbleness and left the room. I was not as perturbed as I looked. Since my discovery of Donald’s love for my mother, other complications had suggested themselves to me that made my father’s ire and hostility more comprehensible. What if Donald’s love had been reciprocated? In terms of attractiveness there was no comparison between the two men. I hugged my secret to me like a hot-water bottle. It protected me; it set a distance between me and my father. Donald Verulam and Emmeline Todd … it seemed entirely natural and likely.
Fancifully, I contemplated my face in the mirror. My mother’s eyes, her brows. In the looking glass I thought I began to see traces of Donald’s high forehead. I stretched my neck and swallowed, trying to make my Adam’s apple bob like his. Could there have been something more?
I tried to elicit more information from Oonagh.
“Oonagh, did my mother have many friends?”
“Aye, surely. She was a very popular woman. Much loved.”
“By who, exactly?”
“All sorts. Everyone. Family — brothers, cousins — always busy, always visiting, out and about.”
“Did my father go with her on these visits?”
“Well, he’s a busy man, ye ken.”
She was giving away nothing. But her reticence convinced me she knew or suspected more.
My father was still a busy man. His work at the infirmary kept him away from home almost all week. At weekends he often returned to the wards for a few hours to see how his patients were progressing. He kept a journal — a professional journal — and wrote up his observations every night.
He was always experimenting with new techniques of treatment, and these experiments were the only thing that formed a bond between us. It all started when I was about ten. One evening he came into my bedroom, a rare event.
“Johnny,” he said stiffly, “would you like to help me with something?”
I could hardly say no.
“This weekend, would you do me a favor? Eat nothing but apples and drink nothing but water.… I’ll give you half a crown.”
He explained what he was on about. He was alarmed at how many of his patients died after surgery. He felt sure that the key to their survival lay in the purification of their diet. A “complete cleansing of the system” was his aim. You have to give him some credit. Working in the days before sulfanilamides, penicillin and our modern antibiotics, and in the earliest days of sterilization, he had come across something that later generations would endorse. But he was working in the dark.
“It’s the sepsis, you see, Johnny, I’m sure. Somehow we’ve got to keep the system unadulterated.”
He had been most distressed by a recent case, a little girl who had pricked her finger on a rose thorn. The tiny puncture had become inflamed; poultices had been applied but to no avail. When she was brought in to see Father her finger — middle right — was swollen twice its size and a nasty plum color. Father was a follower of Pasteur and Lister. Scrupulous cleanliness was his watchword. Over the next few weeks, in such an environment, he first lanced the finger, relanced it, amputated it, then removed the girl’s hand, then her arm up to her elbow. He was contemplating whether to take her arm off up to the shoulder when she died.
“And all because she pricked her finger on a thorn. A tiny thorn …” There was a look of stunned incomprehension in his eyes as he told me this story. It was a real affront, cruelly illustrating his basic powerlessness, and questioning his calling as healer. Hence this new obsession and my role in it as guinea pig.
At first I was happy to comply. He had never taken such a close interest in me. I ate apples and drank water all weekend. My pulse and blood pressure were taken hourly, my urine analyzed and my stool examined.
“How do you feel?” he asked on Sunday night.
“Any different from normal? Do you maybe feel a wee bit better than you did on Friday?”
I looked at him. His pale, clear blue eyes. Dad, I said to myself, I want to help.
“Yeeees …” I drew it out. “I think I do feel a wee bit better.”
“Good lad. There’s your half crown.”
And so, once every two or three months I would be called on to help with the great system-cleansing experiment. There was the bread and milk diet. The root vegetable diet. The meat diet. The salted-fish diet. I went on a week-long rice pudding diet — rice pudding for breakfast, lunch and supper — during the holidays, which earned me a guinea.
“How do you feel? Bit more strength?”