by Charles Lacey

Chapter 9

Our years in statu pupillari came to an end. Arthur took me on as a partner in his business. As he said, he was getting no younger and needed someone reliable who could take over the business when he retired. And Sanwar, of course, qualified – and with outstanding marks, as I had fully expected – and found a post as a house surgeon at the Lansdowne Hospital in Bath. And although the house surgeon is the most junior of medical staff in a hospital, I had no doubt that he would rise to the top of his profession. Though at that time I had no idea just how that would come about.

Now that we both had an income, we were able to start house-hunting. We found a charming little two-bedroom bungalow in the Lansdowne area of the city. We rented it jointly, of course, unwilling to buy anywhere until we were sure we were going to stay long term. We both liked Bath, which is one of the world's handsomest small cities, but it was, and is, an expensive area and we would probably not be able to afford as large a place as we would have liked. Besides, Sanwar didn't expect to remain as a house surgeon for more than two or three years, after which we would probably need to move again.

But in the meantime we both kept busy. Sanwar worked long hours at the hospital, sometimes arriving home exhausted. If I were there I always had a meal ready for him; if I were away I always left something in the slow cooker or a meal that he could heat up in the microwave. I worked some of the time in Arthur's workshop in Bristol, some in various parts of the country doing stonework repairs in situ and some in a little shed at the back of the bungalow. For I was beginning to enjoy stone carving, making small decorative items. It would have struck me as pretentious to call them Sculptures, but in effect, that is what they were, though on a small scale.

We heard from Victoria from time to time. She had moved in with her new boy-friend Paul Marton, in Keynsham which is about half way between Bristol and Bath, and was working from home doing typing. It sounded interesting, as she did work for several academics from the University as well as two or three authors and occasionally preparing PhD theses. She visited us a couple of times, once with Paul who wanted to meet us. He was a pleasant lad, around my age and with the same interest in keeping fit. And he obviously adored Victoria, and she him. So, we thought, at least there's a happy ending there.

But I sensed that Sanwar was becoming a little frustrated and would have liked to move to a more responsible post. We'd talked it over, at least in outline; as long as it were somewhere in England, preferably either in the West Country or the West Midlands my own work would not be seriously affected.

It was becoming clear, too, that promotion for Sanwar was fairly unlikely, at least within the foreseeable future. He was well liked and well regarded, but in a smaller hospital promotion is largely a matter of dead, or at least retired, men's shoes, and most of the senior Lansdowne medical staff seemed pretty settled.

"How would you feel about moving?" he asked me one evening after dinner. He was sitting with the BMJ – the British Medical Journal – open on his lap.

"Depends where," I replied, "In principle I don't mind."

"I think I'm ready for a change. I've got as far as I ever will in the hospital hierarchy, unless I take an FRCS or FRCP. I'd really like to have a try at general practice."

I was surprised, but tried not to show it.

"Why not? You're still young enough to change direction if it doesn't work out. Have you anywhere in mind?"

"There are two or three practices advertised in the BMJ. They mostly want experienced men. But this one caught my eye." He fished a pencil from his pocket and circled an advertisement.

Busy general practice in the suburbs of Derby requires junior with a view to eventual partnership. Applications welcome from recently qualified persons. Apply Samuel Fleet Medical Centre, Derby.

"Go for it," I said. "If nothing else it'll be good practice at interviews."

A week later saw us on the train to Derby, a city I already knew slightly, having worked on the Cathedral there. The Samuel Fleet Medical Centre turned out to consist of two substantial terraced houses knocked together and converted into a practice. We went in and spoke to the receptionist. A wooden plaque on her desk announced her as Fiona Tilbury.

"Yes," she said, "One of the Doctors will be out in a moment. Please take a seat."

I always wonder why one is invited to 'take a seat' rather than 'be seated' or 'sit down'. But we did so, and I gazed around me. Surprisingly for a practice in a rather dingy area, the waiting room was comfortable and handsomely furnished, with light wood panelling to chest height and what looked like a Morris wallpaper above. The receptionist sat at a splendid oak desk, and the chairs were of wood, comfortably upholstered, far more attractive than the usual institutional horrors.

The telephone buzzed on the receptionist's desk, and she said,

"Dr Khurana, if you like to go through, Dr Beaumont will see you now. Dr Mitchell's out on a case but he will be back soon."

Sanwar went through the door indicated by the receptionist, and I prepared myself to wait. After a few minutes a man came in briskly and went through the same door. Two or three minutes later the receptionist's telephone buzzed and she asked me to go in as well. Unusual, I thought, I hope there's nothing wrong. I went in and there was Sanwar, smiling broadly, sitting in front of a desk behind which were a woman and a man. To my surprise there seemed to be something familiar about him. Sanwar took my hand and squeezed it, smiling more broadly still.

"Don't you remember Dr Mitchell?"

"Umm… there's something familiar…"

"Aiden. We met him and Paul in Krakow, at that art exhibition."

It was indeed Aiden. I'm sure my astonishment must have showed in my face, as he grinned broadly. I asked after Paul, his partner.

"He's very well. He did the furnishing when we took over the surgery from Dr Fleet."

"What?" I asked, "Is all that lovely panelling his work?"

"Yes, and the chairs and the desk as well. The patients feel better as soon as they come into the waiting room."

He broke off and looked interrogatively at Dr Beaumont.

She nodded back to him.

"Well now, Dr Khurana – Sanwar – when could you start?"

"I'll need to give a quarter's notice at the hospital, but as soon as you like after that."

"Splendid. We'll get the contract drawn up and sent to you as soon as possible. There's a bedroom and sitting room free upstairs if you need them, but you won't have any problems finding a house to either rent or buy. Derby's a fairly cheap area for housing."

Aiden was as good as his word. Three days later a large brown envelope arrived. Sanwar signed the enclosed contract, which I witnessed, and the same day Sanwar sent in his notice to the Hospital Secretary. By pure chance I had to go to Derby to do some repairs on St Margaret's Church, and Aiden insisted that I stay with him and Paul while I did so.

I also took the opportunity to start house-hunting. As Aiden had said, property prices in Derby were quite moderate in comparison with Bath, and we still had a good part of Grandad's money left which we would be happy to invest in a house.

So we spent a couple of weekends in Derby, looking at houses, comparing different possibilities. This one had a nice garden, that one had a lovely big sitting room, the other had an en suite bathroom (then an unusual feature). At Aiden's insistence, we stayed with him and Paul and they made us very welcome. I have to say, it was lovely being able to sit all evening holding hands without fear of 'what someone might think'. Eventually we decided upon a house in a suburb to the South of the city. The house itself was pleasant but nothing out of the ordinary, but the previous owner had been a vintage car enthusiast and there was a huge garage in the back garden which I thought might well be converted into a workshop for myself. There was also a tiny third bedroom which Sanwar decided to appropriate as a study for himself; he knew I was squeamish about medical books and body parts, but he had already decided to start studying for a further qualification.

The day came for us to move in. We'd already been living together in rented flats for the best part of ten years – longer, if you count the two years in Poland – but this was the first house we had owned jointly, so it was a very special moment.

We stood in the front garden and I said to Sanwar, "Wait just a moment." I took him in my arms and scooped him up, and then carried him over the threshold.

At that point the removal van arrived and we had to start telling the men where to put all the furniture. By early evening we had got things more or less straight, but we were too tired to start cooking, so I popped out for fish and chips.

We'd let all our families and friends know our new address, of course, and we had a stream of visitors staying as soon as the house was ready. Sanjay and Shivani were the first; they had the bedroom and the children slept on the settee and a couple of camp beds which we borrowed from a friendly neighbour. Next, to my great surprise, were Victoria and her boy-friend Paul. They only stayed three days, but we were very touched that they clearly held us in great affection. Next came my parents. I made a special effort for them, and I was glad I had, because Mum insisted upon giving the house a thorough (if unnecessary) cleaning.

Not long after this Jan and Krzystof came over from Poland to stay with Paul and Aiden; we had them all over to dinner. We held a brief conversation with Jan and Krzystof in Polish, which only served to demonstrate to us how rusty we were in that language. We were able to follow them, as long as they spoke slowly and clearly, but framing answers to their questions, or finding questions to put to them, was challenging, to say the least.

After this, things settled down pretty well. Sanwar was going down very well in Derby; there was quite a substantial Indian community there and on hearing that there was a doctor there who spoke fluent Urdu, patients flocked to the Samuel Fleet Medical Centre.

Sanwar generally took the morning surgery, while one or both of the other doctors went out on house calls. Then he had part of the afternoon free for study, then did a few afternoon calls or took a further surgery. Evening, weekend and overnight "on calls" were taken by the three doctors in rotation. We had a telephone put in next to our bed as I insisted that Sanwar sleep with me as usual in spite of his protestations. Actually he'd have hated sleeping in the spare room, and I'd have hated not having him next to me. And in practice the night-time emergencies were few and far between as most of the casualties went to Derby General. But on the few occasions when Sanwar was called out, it was usually justified.

At the same time I was keeping busy. Arthur was close to retirement and tended to deal with the paperwork and design side, but left the practical work mainly to me, other than small pieces that he could do in his own workshop. I travelled the length and breadth of the Kingdom, doing repairs on ancient, and sometimes very famous, buildings. I occupied spare working time with carving little grotesques which sold surprisingly well. I found a London dealer who paid good prices, though I'm sure he charged his customers a good deal more than he gave me! But that's how dealers stay in business, of course, and he had a number of good, regular customers. A businessman, but at least an honest one.

Not long after this Arthur took me into partnership and we traded as Wiseman and Hemming. Though Arthur died a couple of years ago now I still keep his name in the business. I have an apprentice of my own now, a girl, which would have surprised most people a few years ago. But Emily is a good worker and surprisingly strong in the arm.

But talking about staff reminds me that four or five years ago the doctor's receptionist left to get married and have a baby. They were at their wits' end to find a replacement. It needed someone with good typing and telephoning skills, but two other factors were more important. One was complete reliability and meticulous organization. The other was a sympathetic manner. They interviewed I don't know how many scatty girls but couldn't find anyone who could really do the job. And then at one of our meals together Sanwar and Aiden put the problem to Paul and me.

"I may be able to help you," I said. Aiden's eyebrows went up, and Sanwar looked puzzled, and then enlightened. He was always quick on the uptake. We were dining at our house, so I excused myself from the table and went to the telephone. Two days later, Victoria came to Derby, still with the same boy-friend, and they appointed her on the spot. She is still the same lovely, gentle personality and has endeared herself to doctors and patients alike. How many people actually know her secret we have no idea, but she is very much part of our local community. We were grateful to her Paul, too, who was happy to uproot himself so that she could take the job with us. He's a motor mechanic, so finding another job was not too much of a problem for him, and he looks after all of our cars.

Every couple of weeks either Paul and Aiden come to dinner with us, or we go to their house. There is a special quality to educated men's conversation when no ladies are present. In my experience one feels very free to speak one's mind, though the old prohibition, common in Army messes, upon discussion of religious or political topics, is probably a sensible one. But the four of us had lived very different lives and brought widely varying experiences to our dinner table conversations. Paul and I got on well from the first. We were fellow craftsmen, though working in different materials. But skill learned in one practical trade often transfers easily into another, and we spent many a happy and companionable hour in one another's workshops.

One of the first topics we explored when we went to dinner with Paul and Aiden was the history of the Samuel Fleet Medical Centre.

"Who was, or is, Samuel Fleet?" I asked.

Aiden smiled. "He was a local doctor who lived in one of the two houses which the practice now occupies. He was a local GP, of no great note except that he was a first-class doctor and a very shrewd and kindly man who was greatly liked and respected locally.

"He attended my grandmother in her last illness," added Paul. There was a moment's silence; we already knew that he had lived with his Grannie in Derby for a number of years after his mother discovered that he was gay and threw him out at the age of fourteen. She sounded like a complete harridan!

"But Dr Fleet was one of those rare and special doctors to whom each and every patient is important. Sanwar is becoming such a one."

Sanwar made modest noises.

"Oh, yes", Paul continued, "You'll never be famous or become what they call a celebrity. But you'll live on in people's hearts. To my mind, that's of far greater importance. You're still under thirty but already you have done more good in the world than most politicians and the like will do in their entire lives."

Aiden broke in. "And Jack, your name may not be remembered long beyond your lifetime, but in a thousand years some mason or historian will find your private mark on a cathedral and wonder about the craftsman who carved that stone."

I confess that I'd thought of that, though not quite in those terms. But yes, I did build with the idea that my work should last more than a few years. And I was using, after all, tools and techniques that can have changed little since the Middle Ages. I deliberately avoided using things like powered saws, preferring to cut stone myself. After all, I reasoned, how can a man know his material if he does not work it with his own muscles, guided by his own eye?

But in the end, I reflected, a man can only walk the path before him. Whether he does so in an honest and generous spirit, or merely with the aim of getting the maximum monetary gain for the minimum effort, is his choice.

I put this notion to the company, and thought back to Nick Green and to Victoria. The one was interested only in the most immediate and crude gratifications, the other had proved to be gentle and careful. Each had made their choice, each reaped the consequences. One a criminal record and a thoroughly bad reputation; the other, the love of a good man and the name of someone reliable and competent and very much liked in their community. The irony being, of course, that Green was someone of completely conventional sexuality, unimaginative and 'normal'; while Victoria was someone who had drawn actual violence because of her sexual identity. How lucky Sanwar and I had been, I thought, that we had found one another. Paul and Aiden were another such couple, each brought up in a prejudiced religious tradition that forbade their love, and yet they, too, had found each other and worked out their own future together.

I determined, and it did not surprise me in the least to find, when we discussed it in bed together, that Sanwar had the same thought: that we would invite Jan and Krzystof over from Poland, or visit them there, and have a special time together with all of us, including Victoria and her Paul. Sadly, this never came about as Jan died, very suddenly and unexpectedly, from heart failure. He had never recovered from the dreadful privations he had experienced under the Nazis and his great and loving heart had finally abandoned the struggle. His first love had been killed before his eyes, but he had had thirty loving and fulfilling years with Krzystof. It had been our privilege to meet them and become their friends.

We lost touch with Mase and Rudi. In his last letter to us Mase told us he was about to be married. With all my heart, I hope they had a good marriage, though I can't help wondering how well it would have worked, at least for him. He was a good man, kept under by a demanding and conventional father. But it was his choice; he could have broken free. Whether he could have had a future with Rudi who can tell? The Russian Communist government had a nasty habit of arranging for dissidents, be they political, intellectual or sexual, to disappear without trace.

Someone once said to me, 'Life is what you make it'. I disagreed then, and I disagree now. Far too much depends upon external factors. But what you do with the hand you are dealt, that is a matter of personal choice. Sanwar and I were lucky that we found each other young. Grandad and Papaji were separated for many decades and yet had at least those last few years together.

But I must put down my pen. I think I've said all that I have to say. And my sweet Sanwar is waiting for me to come to bed, waiting for us to show, once again, how much he loves me, and I him.



This story depends upon coincidence. And yet astonishing coincidences do happen. For example, a few years ago I was on holiday in Norway when a woman came up and spoke to me. The reason she did so was purely that I was wearing a colourful knitted pullover and she was interested in the pattern. It was only when we introduced ourselves that we realised that she was not only English but was also a well known novelist and the mother of two of my students.

So I invite you to suspend your disbelief at least for the time taken (if you have done so) to read this little tale. A good part of the world's literature, from Homer onwards, has depended upon its readers' willingness to do just that.

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