It was me wing that led to us meeting up again. It was acting up something dreadful: shooting pains any time I moved it the wrong way. I had to take time off work, which is no good when you’re the boss (sets a bad example) so I went to me GP. Well…not my GP – he was off on holiday and a locum was filling in. I remembered him straight-off: that pale-haired poof who used to be at the EMS hospital in Bridstow during the war. To my surprise he remembered me. I could see it in his eyes as he asked me to take my shirt off so he could look at the shoulder. I think he half-expected me to refuse, maybe even to make a big fuss. (I could tell.) I have mates who would’ve if they knew he was what he was. (He’d toned it down a bit since the war so it wasn’t as obvious.) Anyway, I didn’t say nothing; if a bloke is good at his job that goes a long way with me, and no one ever said nothing bad about his work back at the EMS, not that I’d ever really had much to do with him then. Basically, I reserved judgement.
So I just took off my shirt, and my undershirt too when the doctor asked, and he moved my arm this way and that, and checked how me fingers was working too, making clucking noises about loss of dexterity, which I had noticed gradual-like but not made a fuss about. He thought it was something I ought to have made a fuss about and told me I shouldn’t have waited so long. He said it was a symptom, just like the hurting was a symptom and you should always listen to what your body is trying to tell you. Bit of shrapnel had moved to the wrong place, he thought, and was maybe pressing against a nerve. He said he’d refer me to a specialist. Meantime he offered me a prescription for painkillers which I took. And after a searching look at me, he told me not to go back to work just because the pain was gone ‘cause I could do myself permanent damage that way. He said he’d put a rush on it so I wasn’t away from my business too long because he could tell I was the kind of man who liked to keep busy. All I can say is: if he was typical of poofter doctors then I’m all for it because he was better than my regular doctor.
The letter setting the appointment came through quite quickly, even though the specialist couldn’t see me ‘til next month. First I had to have an x-ray done at the local hospital at Ifield Lodge. But then I was to go up to Harley Street in London.
“Fancy me seeing some toffy-nosed specialist,” I said to Madge the day I opened the letter. “That’s the NHS for you. We all get treated like toffs now.”
Madge was all for making a day of it, Plan was: my oldest would take the young ‘uns to school on his way to work and Madge would come with me. She’d buy out all the shops in Oxford Street while I saw the surgeon and then afterward we’d take in a show. We rang Ireen (who still lives in London) and she got us tickets to The King and I. She said we could kip on her sofa for the night; but I said no, if we were going to do it right we should get a hotel room for the night. I booked at the Regent Palace just off Piccadilly Circus which I’d been told had a bang-up breakfast.
We caught the 7:59 to Victoria and I toddled off to the doctor. Not that he called himself that.
“Mr Deacon,” his receptionist said, looking down her nose at me, “is running late.”
“This early in the day?” I said, surprised. I had arrived promptly for a 9:30 appointment. She turned sour as a lemon at that, oozing reluctance as she told me he’d had to fit in some kind of emergency case and would be with me as soon as he could.
I sat for a good three-quarters of an hour in that waiting room. At first it was just me and one other bloke – an upright military type who gave me a long level look before he ignored me and went back to reading The Times. But as I waited others came in, and took their seats with varying degrees of impatience. I couldn’t blame them: that posh surgery – with its leather sofa and green brocade wing chairs! – had absolutely nothing to read. I’d picked up the latest Beano at the railway station for my younger boy and leafed through it, chuckling over Dennis’ scrapes. And I counted myself lucky I’d brought The Express with me.
“Reg?” A quiet voice interrupted my enjoyment of Grandma’s latest antics. “It is you isn’t it.”
I could feel a broad grin spread across my face when I looked up. I hadn’t seen him in years but I recognised him at once.
“Spud! Fancy meeting you here.”
I jumped up and held out my hand to shake his, at which point I saw the cane. His eyes looked tired and his mouth had stress lines round it.
“Then again, maybe not,” I said. “That leg’s been giving you more trouble.”
“It’s never really stopped,” he admitted, “but it’s been more trouble than usual recently, so when Ralph got back he rang Alec and asked him to fit me in.
“So you’re why I’ve been waiting. At least it’s for a good reason, and not just because the doctor’s been nursing a hangover.”
Out of the corner of my eye I could see Miss Prunes the receptionist stiffen in outrage; but beyond her, the eyes of an intelligent-looking thin man in a classy suit twinkled.
“Introduce me, Laurie,” he said, coming over.
“Reg Barker,” I said, “and I rather fancy I’m your 9:30.
“I think you may be right,” he replied. “How do you and Laurie know one another?”
“We met in 1940 – on the beach in France,” Spud explained, “and later at the EMS Hospital. You won’t have met him because you were at the main hospital in Bridstow.”
“An old friend, then,” the doctor said. “I shall make sure he gets first class care,” he assured Spud. To me he added, “If you could come this way, please?” which reminded me of the real reason for being here.
“Look, Reg,” said Spud, “are you busy after this? It would be good to catch up. Ralph won’t mind – will you?” He turned his head toward the chap in uniform who had been there when I arrived, and who now approached.
“If you want, Laurie, I could go to the Register Office and meet you later.”
“If you have the time, Reg?”
“Then I’ll wait.”
After that swanky waiting room, the doctor’s office wasn’t as posh as I’d expected. In fact it didn’t look too much different from my own GP’s surgery – except for the desk. In place of the usual metal office desk Dr Deacon had a pretty decent polished-oak number with leather on the top, not the kind of battered old thing you can get at the local secondhand, but a quality deal. He already had the x-rays and ignored me at first to look at them. Then he came round the desk and picked up my hand, checking my fingers and never saying a word to me the while. Then he told me to take off my shirt so he could look at my shoulder. And then he scolded me, saying much the same as the other doctor, though less polite (called me a bloody fool for waiting). I needed an operation, he said, and he’d schedule it for next week.
“What – no waiting list?”
“I took you as a favour to an old friend, who said your case was urgent and shouldn’t wait for the usual NHS list,” he explained. “He was right – not that I’d expect anything different from Sandy Reid; he’s always had a real talent for diagnosis.”
I realised this Deacon fellow must be one of them too. He didn’t look it, but he couldn’t know both Spud and that GP and not be one.
“There is a piece of shrapnel there and it’s in a tricky position – it needs a delicate touch,” said the doctor. “Be careful with it until I can take it out.”
“Shouldn’t they have taken it out back when I got it?” I asked, a bit aggrieved. I’d been wounded in the service of King and Country, after all.
“Surgery in war was more about saving life and limb, than chasing after tiny scraps of metal that didn’t seem to be causing any trouble. And had it stayed where it used to be that bit of metal probably wouldn’t have created any difficulty for you, not for the rest of your life. But it didn’t, and now it needs to come out.”
“And you’re the man to do it?” He looked younger than me.
“I wouldn’t trust it to anyone else. Now: you need to take care of yourself before I see you next. No dancing, no carrying heavy objects.” He looked at me hard. “No lifting your children.”
That gave me a shock. They’d be bound to run to me when we got back and while my girl was too old to be picked up, my five-year-old would expect it.
“No sex unless you’re on the bottom,” he said.
That was plain-speaking and not something I liked to hear from one of them.
“Let her do the work, for once, man,” he advised, “you’ll strain that shoulder otherwise."
And with that, my appointment was over and I was back in the waiting room lickety-split, and his door was shutting behind his next patient.
Spud had been as good as his word and waited; he steered me to a nearby pub. It wasn’t until I was seated with half the pint down me throat that I came to myself again, to find Laurie looking sympathetic.
“That doctor friend of yours is a bit…a bit….”
“Alec has that effect on a lot of people,” Laurie said. “He’s pretty intense when he’s doing medicine.”
I took another couple of swallows, enjoying the flavour of the bitter this time, while looking round. “This is all right,” I said, “bit of good fortune coming here.”
“The Golden Eagle is still nice and traditional,” Laurie said. “Alec introduced us to it. Sometimes he meets us here for a drink after his office closes.”
“Us?” I wasn’t sure I wanted to ask, but then: this was Spud. I knew he couldn’t be involved with anything too...shady.
“My friend Ralph and me. You saw him back at Alec’s surgery. He’s on a merchant ship, so he’s away a lot of the time, but when he’s back in England he stays with me. He’d be here now but there was a death on board his ship last trip and as Captain he had to go register it.”
I took another deep swallow before I managed, “So he’s a decent chap.”
“The best,” Laurie answered. “And how is Madge?”
I knew what he was really asking – were we still together? I’ve heard that asked lots of different ways from old mates I met up with after losing touch. Typical Spud not to ask outright.
“We’re still together,” I said. He’d earned the right to straight talking. “And we’ve got three kids now.” I took out my wallet and flipped through to the pictures.
“Young Reg is doing his apprenticeship; he just got engaged to a nice lass; and that’s our Laurie,” I said. “We named her after you, seeing as how we’d never have got back together without you and she got started not long after. She’ll turn thirteen next birthday, and the boys are already starting to sniff round.”
Laurie smiled. “Growing up fast then.”
“Stands to reason: she looks like her mum. But she’s got a good head on her shoulders too, says she’s going to train to be a teacher.”
“And the boy?”
“George – he was a bit of an after-thought. Not that we weren’t happy enough to have another, just not planning to.” I could feel my face aching I was smiling so.
“Looks like you,” Spud commented.
“He’s a bit of a chip,” I agreed. “Mad for cricket – good all-rounder. We have a wicket permanently set up in the garden.”
“We moved to Crawley a few years back – you know: one of those new towns they’re setting up. Madge wasn’t too keen at first – thought she’d miss all her old mates – but I insisted. I wanted something better for my children than the dust and dirt of London that I grew up with. Got a decent three-bedroom semi; and Len and I opened a garage. It’s doing well.”
“I’m glad Reg.”
And he was too. I could tell. “What about you Spud,” I asked.
“I’m at the Daily Express,” he said. “My father was a reporter before he died and when I finished at Oxford I met one of his old friends by chance and he got me a job as a copy editor.
“So you’re doing OK.”
There wasn’t much to say after that. We chatted a bit about what happened to some of the other men on the ward. Spud had run into Neames a couple of years ago – said he was the same old nasty piece he’d always been. (Stands to reason – people don’t really change, not deep down.) We also chatted a bit about the English defeat at football and the plans the government had announced to develop television. But you know: we really didn’t have much in common save for the war, and being in hospital together.
“I’d best be getting off,” I said. “I’m supposed to meet Madge; she’s spent the day shopping in Oxford Street, and I’d better find her before she bankrupts me.”
Spud gave the polite laugh this quip deserved and we shook hands at the pub door. He headed north toward the Tube; I started walking toward Oxford Circus where me and Madge had agreed to meet. We’d done the polite thing and exchanged addresses but in all honesty I didn’t suppose we’d meet again. Still it was nice to know he was going on all right. One for the Christmas card list.