by Michael Henrik Wynn
This story begins in the gas-lit and fog-covered alleys of Victorian London. There are prostitutes in the night along the banks of the Thames, shouting young boys sell newspapers and horses make their way across cobblestones. There is music from a gambling hall, loud cheers and a doctor makes his bet. He is well-dressed compared to the others there, his dark suit and coat are clean and unlike those creatures of the night around him, his grey beard has a healthy well-kept glow.
Dices are thrown, money is exchanged back and forth as the doctor drinks. He becomes intoxicated, not only by the mild beer, but by the perpetual thrill of the game. His roaring laughter is often heard from a distance, even overwhelming the false notes of the piano and the hum of the anonymous throng. But then suddenly it is as if time runs out, the music stops, the crowds disperse and he left alone with a man holding a quarter of the doctor’s life-savings in his merciless hands.
Being a medical man, the doctor glances at the man’s face, almost trying to analyze away the man’s resolute features, his heavy build and uncompromising stare. But moments later, he is grabbed by men who have crept up on him unseen, and drawn into an alley. One punch to the gut, and the doctor falls over by a dustbin as the heavy wooden door slams shut behind him. There is total silence. He is removed from both streets and shop windows. He looks up, and sees stars glisten as he gets to his feet.
In the morning, he wakes up with a throbbing head-ache in his bed next to his wife. His baby cries in another room. At first, he is filled with joy, thinking how wonderful it is to wake up to such a spectacle. But then he remembers that it might soon be gone.
In the next few weeks, the problem consumes him. He is unable to concentrate on his job. But being a very respected man, none of the patients have the audacity to complain. How would he find the funds to continue? What could he do to undo the damage?
The doctor was in luck. That winter a terrible pandemic hit London. Fever, running noses, coughing – crying babies in his crowded waiting room. It was all very lovely, he thought. But was it enough? He often worked into the night, and sat alone counting coins at his wooden desk by a solitary candle until dawn.
Walking home as the early morning rays penetrate the smog, standing on Westminster Bridge staring down-stream just as the bending river is revealed by morning, he realizes that it was not enough. He sighs.
But the doctor is in luck again. One day, a new patient enters his room. He notices him immediately because he is much taller and stronger than his usual patients. It has now been half a year since his disastrous gambling loss, but the doctor immediately recognizes the man who ran the game in the gambling hall. He, of course, being a professional thug, does not recognize the doctor. The doctor soon realizes that he is a nobody, just another worthless victim. The man talks to him as if they have never met. Not being very strong or brave himself, the doctor hides his fury behind a polite smile. He listens to the man’s chest, makes the usual examinations. The man has a mild cough, nothing more. He walks over to scribble a prescription in a corner hidden by a screen. But as his pen is about to hit the paper, he thinks: what a pity that the man does not have a more serious illness? Something that could both make him suffer and helpless, the way he had been helpless in that alley, where he lost his financial security, and perhaps even his well-furnished apartment?
For a second, he dismissed the idea, shook his head and resigned to his fate. But then he turned, glanced over the screen and observed the unsympathetic countenance of the man. He was really very ugly in daylight, there were scars on his hand and arm, as if they had been badly cut by a blunt edge years ago, perhaps a broken bottle, and then they had healed very very slowly, leaving an unnecessary blemish on an already rugged appearance.
The doctor was suddenly filled with contempt. He grabs a piece of cloth still dripping with blood from the pregnant consumptive female who had visited his clinic before the thug. When he feels the moist on his fingers, he gets an idea. He grabs a bottle of cough syrup, opens it, places a funnel on top and squeezes the cloth until blood drips down into the interior of the bottle. It is not much, he thinks as darker drops dilutes and vanish in the warm liquid. But if certain unverified theories about the transmission of disease were true, it might be enough. He shakes the bottle, cleans his hands and returns to his patient.
“Sir,” he begins politely, “I have here a bottle of the most common cough syrup. This is what you require in order to regain your health quickly. But it is imperative that you follow my instructions to the letter. This medicine must be stored in a cold room. So every evening, try to lower the temperature in your dwelling a little, perhaps by keeping a door ajar, or not putting as much kindling on your fire as normal.”
The man makes a grunt of dissatisfaction, knowing quite well how uncomfortable the evenings are when the chill of dusk descends. But, like most patients at the time, he also knows that all medicines require suffering. So, he does not protest, but nods and stares to the floor.
The doctor smiles as he realizes his power over the brute.
“This first bottle is not cheap, but it is essential that you take it every evening and morning. You see, there are some – very few don’t worry – who do develop further symptoms. Then you must double your dose.”
“I understand”, the man says and gets up. “What do I pay you?”, he says as his height almost looms over his much smaller physician.
When he hears the sum, he shouts “But Dear Lord!!”. The doctor is suddenly intimidated. What can he do if the man simply beats him to the floor, takes his medicine and departs? But then the thug reaches for coins from his pocket, wipes snot from his mustache, grabs his coat and pays what he is due. The doctor sighs with relief as the man shuts the door behind him.
From his window, the doctor sees him walk down the street, stopping to cough by some derelict barrel and then vanish behind some horse. The doctor smiles, and almost laughs. He draws the curtains and decides to leave work early that day. On his way home, however, he suddenly realizes that his problem is not yet solved. He had inflicted pain on a very evil man, but the debt was still there. Nothing had changed. The joy that he felt was completely gone as greeted his wife. He had still betrayed her, and he could barely look at the baby.
Three weeks later, there is a knock at the door of his clinic, and the brute appears once again. This time his face is covered in sweat. But this was a man of immense strength, so he stood upright still, like some towering bronze pillar.
The doctor let him in, examined him and immediately recognized the early symptoms of consumption. At first he was a little confused, had to hide behind the screen in the corner again to think. He kept glancing at the man in secret trying to make up his mind. Was he happy, or was he not happy about this? Then suddenly the force of the gut punch came back to him. He was happy. In fact, the doctor was thrilled. He once again looked up at bottles from his previous patient. He remembered that a patient he had bled that morning suffered from the worst case of syphilis he had ever seen. In fact, he had been frightened, and thrown most of the rubbish away immediately. But there was one bloody rag left. The doctor meticulously repeats what he done the first time.
He looks at his sweating patient, but is still nervous. At first he is uncertain about whether he would dare to up the price on his cough syrup. But then he thinks about his wife and child, how they would suffer because of this horrible giant. “This is an extra strong mixture,” the doctor says, “I am afraid it is a little more expensive.” The giant sighs, and the doctor turns to hide his smile as he is paid. “Thank you, Sir, the doctor says. “Come back if you get any worse, Mr Jones-Smythe”.
The brute suddenly smiles, shakes his head and says. “Never mind about those fancy names. Most people just call me Bricklayer-John.”‘
“Yes, I am a brick layer. Big by birth, but work has made me strong, you see. Perhaps I shouldn’t complain. It gives me a few extra bob now and again. I just stand by some door most of time. Some weasel pays me a five bob for this. But only once a month.”
“I see”, doctor says as the man leaves.
The doctor then returns to his family in the evening, but now he is a little confused. Had he done the right thing? What did he really remember from that night he lost his money? So much time had passed that the facts were blurred. Who did what, and when? Was it Bricklayer-John who had hit him? Looking at his baby and his wife, his worries settled. The man was still not a nice person. He was still just as unsympathetic, even if it was all part time. Part-time thug was just as bad as full-time thug.
Now six months passed, and as if by a miracle the doctor managed to get his budget in order. He reckoned that it would take him five years to recover his loss. But he was in charge, and his darling wife and baby would never know. Patients started coming in larger numbers that autumn. There was much to do for an important person. So much responsibility.
One day, a pregnant woman entered his office, the most gorgeous creature put on this earth, he thought. The doctor, however, was a man completely devoted to his wife, both in spirit and in mind. He would recognize beauty wherever he saw it, but that would be as far it would go.
As he treated the woman, he recognized the symptoms of consumption. He almost had to look away as he informed her of his diagnosis. He heard a sob. He took a seat next to her.
“Will you manage?”, he said.
“I suppose I will have to,” answered the woman, her long black hair slightly lifted by a sudden gust of wind from an open window.
“I will shut the window”, the doctor said and got up.
“You see, my late husband was a hard working man. He would work from morning till evening. He said work made him into a bull. But bricklayers meet a lot of people. Then he had an extra night job sometimes as well. I can forgive John for giving me this plague. But never for being unfaithful to me.”
The doctor turned suddenly towards his patient and stared at her in horror.
“John gave me syphilis, as well, you see. Bricklayer-John, what a monster he was!!! But at least he left me well cared for.”