At The Hydro
It is the hour beyond which all hopes dangle, at which the ashen sky assumes the varicoloured comportment of native bismuth, and at which also Dr. Lindsay – what doctor was yet born who is not a creature born to habit? – it is the hour at which also Dr. Lindsay customarily takes in the Kanimbla from the full-drop windows of the poorest, southernmost stateroom office of the Lion of Medlow on the scarp, when the porter arrives unbidden in a confusion of flailing arms and legs – the tail of a white floor-length frockcoat redounding on the gilded oolong mandarins of the sanatorium’s celebrated oriental wool carpet – when the porter arrives unbidden in such a state, Dr. Lindsay is etherised in a Transvaal reverie. The good Doctor makes a temple of knotted fingers and watches a hatted figure – more shadow than man – shadow and man both stationed by a grove of dusky wattles atop a sudden precipice out in the valley beyond the tennis court. What purpose has he, this Magwitch of the cliff? His general bearing signals hesitance and indecision framed in olive drab and whitegums beetling with reedy light. The good Doctor – bushman born! – the good Doctor makes out little more than the smoke enshrouding the shadowed shape atop the cliff, though whether it be the smoke of plug, or twist, not even a mastiff – conchlike nostrils cocked to the breeze – not even a mastiff might tell at this remove. The Doctor, though – sure as the sugarglider trusts its weight to the dark though it bears fur – with like decisiveness and self-belief, the good Doctor would bet on foulest plug. This is the Mountains, and no man ever found himself at such an elevation atop a cliff and contemplating the drop with presence of mind enough to enjoy yet a final puff of tobacco were he able to afford in life to savour twist of any respectable quality. Yet there is, in any event, a man stood tall, though irresolute, in cracked boots – mosaic of poverty! – in cracked boots stood tall upon the clifftop, and smoking, and thinking, as Dr. Lindsay watches from his window, when the porter arrives in a flap, and says –
– Dr. Baur’s askin’ fer yer, Doctor.
Says Dr. Lindsay, immaculate –
– He’s with a patient, I’d hazard.
– ’e is, the porter nods, and eyes the Doctor’s bottle that’s erect as a judge of the Nineteen Counties upon the desktop – Room 185 – ’e says yer ter come.
Says Lindsay –
– Go on ahead, quick sticks – tell him, Dr. L. is upon the Veld.
Nods the porter, thinks too late to beg a swig, and rushes from the room.
Lindsay turns back toward the window. But empty is the cliff, and deeper is the dark. A potter’s pipe of creosote and clay gone into the valley.
Surgeon’s fingers hatched with scars smooth down lapels on surgeon’s breast. Dr. Lindsay turns on his heel as one born to the parade ground, fetches up the bottle, draws upon the spirit of action that brought the bush to bear, and makes at a two-step for the escritoire. Sliding out the topmost drawer, the good Doctor liberates from the linseed-oil camphorwood closeness inside a Bedouin blade – much-fingered souvenir of the war with the Mahdi – turns the weapon over in the palm of his studied hand. The fine leather sheath has begun to fray at the hilt-end. Dr. Lindsay draws the blade from its housing and sees it has browned with time – the native sheen of Kalahari steel obscured, save for within the depths of a hardbitten scratch – as though the blade, thirsting for blood, has hardened against itself like a lungfish – has hardened against the oxidising air of a continent undreamt of. Dr. Lindsay sheathes the desert dirk, turns, and ventures out as though to undertake his round.
Immediately the joins the main upon the hall, beneath the murals of The Fall and man’s dogtoothed fight to recover his birthright from native bite and hardscrabble claw – no sooner has he trod the hall than Mr. Pentridge – unhappy victim of stoppage and retardation of the bowel – Mr. Pentridge frogmarches by with all his gifts below the belt suspended above the mandarins of the sanitorium’s celebrated oriental wool carpet. And who has unstoppered him? Though he be not unstoppered, in truth, but the tube be unstoppered that has lately been introduced to that unhappy rectum to flood the lowermost bowel with water bought and shipped from Wiesbaden – and at such expense! – so the question, as it occurs to Dr. Lindsay, is most appropriately a question in two parts (as all the best questions are): who has forgotten to remove the tube from the unfortunate Pentridge’s sorry rectum? Or, who, having elected to leave said tube in said neglected rectum, has failed to stopper said tube? Yet the answer seems as nothing to the trail of questions Mr. Pentridge draws out behind his bowlegged frame, fouling up the celebrated mandarins of that hallowed carpet.
– How might such volume of material as this be evacuated from a person so perennially obstructed as you, Mr. Pentridge – queries Dr. Lindsay – and by something so insubstantial as water (a solvent, yes, but a good deal thinner yet than shit)?
The question, so phrased – being, as it is, a question more suited to a field hospital than to a luxury mountaintop health spa – the question belies the good Doctor’s readiness for practice in a facility offering up douches of Keene’s mustard powder dissolved in a solution of spring water and castor oil.
– I’ve et nuthin’ but mangoes since I’ve bin ’ere, answers the newly relieved Mr. Pentridge.
– Well, now – let’s keep it up, then, shall we? says the Doctor, drawing up the hems of his slacks and the tails of his coat and nodding without deference to the orderlies who support the leaking Pentridge by the arms. But, for Christ’s sake, take some roughage!
– It’s as ’ot a day as I’ve known here yet, says Pentridge in parting.
– It never burns so hot as Bloemfontein, answers Dr. Lindsay, as one who might have anticipated the observation (and not only by the scent of woodsmoke thick with tannin on the air).
Where on to next for Dr. L, but headlong into the breach of soda and gin, of sodden cackles and dewy hackles that is Cat’s Alley? And Summer is the season! For catting – for sweating, for foul-smelling sebum and greasy slicks unfathomed, and all those ill-humours and villainies of temper lately mothballed over winter now set free upon the cocktail lounge.
– So nice to see you up and about, Mrs. McGuigan, says the Doctor, bowing to a tabby flushed with distillate and laced into a cinched faille evening gown in some vomitous, strident hue.
– And you, too, Doctor – out of your confinement – and this with a grin more suited to the task of cleaning Mr. Pentridge’s gravyboat tailings from the magnificent plush woolen carpets of the hall than to paying due regard to a Doctor of medicine come not lately to Medlow and with every recommendation but for being the Superintendent himself.
Here yet, as the sun drops beneath the skyline like the Darug moon. Here yet. Though now, beyond the commodious bay windows of the hall that so sanctify those selfsame plush woolen carpets with dawning and the sun, beyond the windows is a glow unsummoned by either sun or moon, playing wicked now about the faces of the watching cliffs. Strange falls – gumleaves stricken, smold’ring grasses, seedpod screws aflame, all bit about the edges by angry orange – rain down upon the promenade outside. Did you ever see the bush alight at night? What mother welcomed a son home from war with more fierceness of feeling than that with which the accelerants of our native scrub greet an advancing flame?
Here is Miss Keeling, bare-breasted and statuesque, with a chin like a Hoplite’s thwarted pike and some curvature of the upper spine. Yet she wears about her shoulders a hospital gown of calico and pearlshell, but clasped it is not – nor she.
– Cover yourself, Miss Keeling, says the Doctor.
– I’ll not! Retorts the flagrant Miss, and stands unchallenged as the laced and liquor-loosened cats and quolls of the scold’s gallery at the Doctor’s back tear into a millennial set-to, sparked by some eternal flick of the Cruel Goddess’ supple wrist. And with such shrieking! With such fervid howls and yelps and tearing cries that they should rouse dead Breakeneck Morant from beneath the turf, and with such flourishes of the ninetails that the bonewhite spots upon the faces of the quolls are soon bespattered with claret and mucosa.
– I have business on the wing, says Lindsay, unruffled, and leaves Miss Keeling to her exhibition and the scrap.
Eyes the doctor a tumblerful of Pimms bejeweled with cucumber as he marches onward along the quarter-acre carpets of the gallery. Flame pursues flame along the course of the Kanimbla and breaks upon the stony rim as good bloodstock upon post and rail. Dr. Lindsay passes the casino and draws near to the ward in which the chiefmost Medical Officer of this great white follywhale beached upon the cliff anticipates his arrival.
A mealymouthed hand from the commissary approaches with a cart but partway covered with crisp table-linen, and steaming as though in burlesque imitation of the gathering conflagration beyond the whitewash parapet outside.
– Are we to cook? asks the fearful master of naught but a trolleyful of food.
Dr. Lindsay – possessed of all the purpose of a man returning to the Laager to re-arm – Dr. Lindsay brushes past this quavering pudding of a man and raps upon the door of room 185 with the blood-gilded lumpen knucklewhites of a military surgeon been too long indoors.
– Lindsay? comes Baur’s sharpish bark from within.
– As ordered, Dr. Baur, answers Lindsay, throwing open the door and lunging into the room with one hand already in his coat-pocket.
– Are we to trace our descent to the birds? asks Dr. Baur, pushing back his spectacles upon the bridge of his nose in consternation.
– I have lately plucked a feather from the terminal point of my very coccyx, answers Lindsay, unperturbed – and what, my good Baur, has prompted such a fanciful flight?
– Consider this, says Baur, pulling back the seat of the gown that has until now obscured the pubis of a man stretched prone upon a gurney at the centre of the room (the stink of turpentine and woodsmoke!) – This patient has neither bladder nor urethra – has, instead – has instead a cloaca, much like a duck.
Dr. Lindsay regards the proffered sphincter – Dr. Lindsay stooping now, as though his frame remembers, suddenly, the weight of a rifle – Dr. Lindsay paling to the quick as the forefront licks at the very masonry of the valleymost broadside of the Hydro Majestic and driest smoke, reeking now of formic acid and the scorched flesh of a man just sunk up to his knees in the burnt-out bowl of a rotted treetrunk still a-smoulder in the ground, driest smoke fills the room – Dr. Lindsay regards the wholly unholy pucker of that raptor’s reliquary grafted somehow to a man’s anus, and sighs as he has not sighed since last he boarded a clipper at The Cape.
– Have you brought the knife?