My father intended to retire in September, when he would be turning sixty-two. On the fourth of July he came home from work in agony and went into hospital. He was told he had stomach cancer and he died on July the 23rd.
My father was a doctor and very tidy, without being fanatical. When he came home from the surgery, he always tucked his case in a dark space beside the foot of the stairs. He placed it carefully, so that it stood upright and was always parallel with the bottom banister. I doubt he ever took much notice of this, he just did it automatically. On the day he came home sick, he dropped his bag in the hall and ran up to his bed.
The bag was on the rug, at an angle to the stairs, in a place it had never been before. It stayed there until after my brother, another doctor, arrived to take him and my mother to hospital, and then I lifted it up and carried it across to the foot of the stairs and placed it very carefully in its right place. It remained in that space for the next five years.
About four years after my father’s death my mother decided to go to Britain on holiday. Neither of my parents had stepped foot in England since moving to New Zealand in 1959. This was the trip she was meant to make with my father after his retirement. I was living in Germany and so went with her to the Peak District, the place she had especially wanted to revisit with him.
One cool May morning we started to follow a track up a mountain. During the previous ten days my mother had talked continuously about the places she knew as a girl, the places she had gone climbing with my father, where they had camped, where they lived, worked. Every place we visited was a place she should have seen with him. Within minutes of starting our walk we were in a queue. Every step we took was determined by the person in front of us, their pace, their hesitations. If we paused, the walkers behind us banked up until we maneuvered out of the way. It began to rain and the cloud closed in. Our companion, an old family friend, brought out her map and compass. We couldn’t see more than five metres ahead; for once we were alone on the mountain. The rain grew heavier, joined now by a cold wind. We passed a section of rock, not upright rock but horizontal, coffin-like slabs in the grass. We kept going up and along, through the mist, the driving rain. Eventually we came to a place that seemed to be the top. It was impossible to tell, the mist was so thick. We circled the area and all but bumped into a cairn and a trig. And there, seated on boulders, in groups of two or three, were all the other walkers. It was the most agonising, desolate moment of my life.
The house I grew up in, and returned to frequently during my student years and months of unemployment, was sold to a rich neighbour. No one lived in it, and it fell into a state of disrepair. It was damaged in the earthquake, and demolished. Nothing remained. The land has reverted to wilderness; the growth so dense that the garden is not only unrecognisable but impassable. Even the lime trees that graced the long drive have fallen down and lie in a heap.
My father’s doctor’s case sat on a shelf in the garage of my mother’s new house, up on the Port Hills. As a kid I used to play with the case as if it were a kind of doll’s house. It was constructed to stand upright, and its main compartment was divided into drawers of various shapes and sizes, each with a small leather pull tab. I would ease open all the drawers, removing the stethoscope, the reflex hammer, the blood pressure gauge, the otoscope, examining them carefully. My father taught me how to take blood pressure, how to watch the gauge and mark the slight hiccups as it dropped, and to listen to the change in volume of the heartbeat. One small drawer in the case contained disposable syringes, another flat drawer was lined with thick sponge, glass vials arranged neatly in the perforated spaces. There was a drawer full of pills, numerous small golden cylinders labeled with patients’ names. Another drawer was filled with bandages, gauze and rolls of tan-coloured cotton tape. This drawer had a very particular smell, almost like an amber perfume: sweetish and warm, a little like sun-warmed skin, a little like cloth sticking plaster.
Recently I visited my mother, and brought the case home with me. Inside were all the bandages, pills, and instruments that I remembered … all there exactly as my father had left them when he went from doctor to patient in a single day. I opened the drawers, inspected everything as I always used to do, and returned each item to its right place. Tucked inside a cloth pocket on the inside of the lid were some papers and a prescription pad. I hadn’t noticed these before so I pulled them out to look. And there was my father’s neat handwriting. His signature on the bottom of a form. It’s the only piece of his writing I have.
Laurence Fearnley is a novelist and essayist who lives in Dunedin, New Zealand. Her ten novels include the 2011 NZ Post Book Award winner, The Hut Builder. She was the joint winner of the 2017 Landfall essay competition, and has has recently co-edited To the Mountains: A Collection of New Zealand Alpine Writing, an anthology of New Zealand mountain writing which will be published by Otago University Press in June 2018.
‘The Doctor’s Case’ started life in a collection of essays about scent but has since been repurposed and will now feature in a novel about scent.
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