The Patient

by Pab [Reviews - 6]

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  • All Ages
  • None
  • Standalone

Author's Notes:
Britain, 1963. The snow was terrible as the year began. A group called the Beatles grew in fame as the months went by. A young lad was given a small guitar badge with Paul McCartney's face on it. President Kennedy visited Ireland, Britain and West Berlin. November brought both a tragedy and the beginning of a new institution. This is how it might have started...

Dr Chesterfield had had rather a busy morning, so was annoyed when his secretary told him a young woman was in reception, asking to see him. But when he learned it was in connection with her grandfather, John Smith, his attitude changed at once.

Smith was an old man in need of a haircut, stopped by the police because he had been vandalising one of their police boxes. It soon became evident to them that he was, as the officer had put it, “off his rocker.” Hence his admission to a psychiatric hospital under Dr Chesterfield’s care. Two weeks had passed and this was the first appearance of anyone who claimed to know him. It was also the only relative he claimed to have, his granddaughter, a young girl still in school. This had prompted efforts to track her down so that she could be taken into care. But there was no record anywhere of Susan Foreman.

So he told his secretary to bring her to his office. He decided he would interview her before contacting the authorities. Smith had given no address or life history and had no identification. Chesterfield even suspected his name was false. So this was an unexpected but welcome surprise.

He had another surprise when he saw her. She was blonde, mid-twenties, smartly dressed and very attractive. He was ginger, mid-fifties, portly and his face lacked that symmetry so essential to good looks. But, though an expert on the mind, he had no insight into the fact that he was eye-catching for the wrong reasons, and automatically began to flirt.

“May I take your coat?” he asked, with unctuous charm.

“Thank you,” she replied, smiling. “It’s very hot in here.”

“Yes, you’ll need to feel the benefit of this when you go out. Isn’t the snow dreadful? Still, one of my patients assures me she arranged it specially to welcome in 1963. If that’s the case, I told her, I’d have rather have stayed in 1962!” He guffawed a little too effusively and added, “Won’t you take a seat, Miss...?”

“Fordham. Suzanne Fordham.”

He sat opposite her and resolved to make a point of keeping his eyes off her legs, given that he was acting in his official capacity.

“How is my grandfather?” she asked.

Dr Chesterfield shook his head as he looked over the patient’s notes.

“He’s not at all well, Miss Fordham. As you may have been told, we had to admit him under section.” He leafed though the notes. “His name is Smith, I take it?”

“Yes, John Smith.”

“He insists on calling himself the Doctor. Has he a medical degree?”

She smiled. “Not at all. He’s... well, I don’t think he has any qualifications at all.”

“I see,” said Chesterfield. “He hasn’t given his date of birth.”

She frowned in thought. “Oh, I’m not sure. He’s sixty-eight, so that would mean he was born in...”

“Eighteen ninety-five,” said Chesterfield. He made a mental note that she didn’t know her grandfather’s birthday. “What can you tell me of his background?”

“Oh, um...” She thought for a moment then said, “He was an electrical engineer. He left school when he was sixteen, I think. Went into the Navy — that’s where they taught him about electrics. And he worked for the electricity company until he retired.”

Dr Chesterfield made no immediate response. It was plainly absurd that someone born in 1895 would have left school at sixteen. This girl seemed not to know some basic facts of history.

“I’m sorry, Miss Fordham, I should have asked earlier — have you any identification?”

“Of course,” she said. From her bag she took a small card holder, which she opened and handed to him. It held her photograph, her name and, strangely, the information that her grandfather, John Smith, was her next-of-kin. He handed it back, fully satisfied. She took it from him and put it in her bag, without properly closing it, and, for a brief moment, he thought it looked blank.

“And no other relatives, apart from yourself?” he asked.

Miss Fordham gave a brief, sad smile. “Both my parents died when I was young. My grandparents brought me up. Gran died a few months ago — I think that’s what pushed my grandad over the edge.”

“Well, it’s a bit more than over the edge, Miss Fordham. It’s quite a florid delusion. He refers to you as Susan Foreman.” He looked up to see her response, if this name might mean something.

She shrugged. “It’s a close approximation to my real name, Suzanne Fordham. What exactly is this delusion?”

“He believes he is an alien called the Doctor. He says that he travels in space and time in a time machine — this police box he was trying to break into — called the...” - he consulted his notes - “Tardis.”

A look of sorrow wrinkled Miss Fordham’s brow and she shook her head sadly.

“He says,” continued Dr Chesterfield, “that the Earth is in great danger and only he can save it. Apparently,” he leant back and took off his glasses, “a race of lizards is infiltrating the top levels of governments around the world, disguised as human beings.”

“Oh Lord!” exclaimed Miss Fordham, putting a hand to her mouth. “This is my fault. I should never have taken that teaching job in Cardiff. If I had been on hand to keep a regular eye — ”

“Nonsense, Miss Fordham,” said Dr Chesterfield, taking the opportunity of her distraction to ogle her legs. “This would have occurred whether you had been present or not. And let’s face it, this snow has caused so much disruption.”

They spent a few more minutes, discussing the prognosis and likely duration of the stay.

“From what you say,” said Miss Fordham, “it seems that grandad may never leave the hospital.”

“I’m afraid it’s a distinct possibility. He’s quite insane, you know.”

Miss Fordham sighed. “If that’s how it’s to be... It’s the best place for him, I suppose. Regarding the fees, I can pay what’s already owed, plus enough for the next several months. I just want to make sure he can stay here safely.”

Dr Chesterfield’s expression was so obvious that she asked, “I’m sorry, is something wrong?”

“Your grandfather isn’t a private patient,” said Chesterfield testily. “He’s under the National Health Service.”

“Oh,” said Miss Fordham, colouring slightly. “Of course, yes, of course.” She looked at him uncertainly. “So... there’s no fee then?”

Chesterfield was perplexed. Her accent was British, though he couldn’t pin it down to any particular area. How could she not know about the NHS? He decided to test her a little.

“Not at all, no. No one needs to pay for medical treatment any more. Not like the bad old days, eh? I expect your grandfather’s told you all about it.”

“Oh yes,” she said keenly. “Yes he has.”

“The horror stories back then,” said Chesterfield. “Women with a prolapsed womb, which they had to tie up and endure for years. Chronic illnesses untreated, acute illnesses untreated, children going without medical care because their parents couldn’t afford the insurance or pay the fee. People choosing between buying food or going to the doctor. Dreadful, dreadful. Thank God we don’t have that any more.”

“Yes, yes,” agreed Miss Fordham, but there was something in her manner that convinced him she had been unaware of this.

He was uneasy. But, really, although it was inexplicable that anyone wouldn’t know about the NHS — one of the glories of the country — it was perhaps possible that she simply thought psychiatry was exempt.

“The point I wish to be sure of,” she said, becoming somewhat grave, “is that my grandfather won’t be released. He’s been saying strange things for some time and I really don’t think he’s safe to be out.”

“Indeed?” said Chesterfield. “What sort of things?”

“Oh, as you say, that there are lizards, intelligent lizards from another planet, able to disguise themselves as human beings, replacing top politicians the world over.” She gave a peal of laughter. “Why, he might even tell you that I must be one of them for wanting him to be treated!”

Chesterfield smiled, rather than laughed, and used her distraction as another opportunity to look at her legs. Definitely nothing lizard-like there.

“Well, he did allege that the policemen who arrested him were really lizards. Don’t worry, Miss Fordham, I don’t think your grandfather will be released any time soon, if ever.”

“That’s reassuring,” said Miss Fordham, getting to her feet.

“Would you like to see your grandfather?”

“What, now?” said Miss Fordham, a little disconcerted. “Thank you, but perhaps not. I think it might unsettle him. But I will be along to see him at some point... where is he being held?”

“He’s in Ward Four, second floor.”

“Good,” said Miss Fordham. She held out her hand. “Well, thank you, Doctor. Believe me,” she added with a sharp smile, “you’ve taken a great weight off my mind.”

“I’m glad,” he said, shaking her hand. “Rest assured, my dear, we shall take very good care of your grandfather. Very good care indeed.”

“Music to my ears,” said Miss Fordham, her smile turning to a grin.

He watched her walk off, half studying her figure, half musing that something didn’t seem quite right. She was just the sort of woman he found most attractive and yet... What was it? He shrugged and walked down the corridor, past his secretary’s office.

“Oh, Dr Chesterfield!” she called. “Your cousin rang.”

“Which one?”

“The American one. Can you ring him back between two and four? He’s in a meeting now.”

“Okay. And he’s not American, he’s Canadian.”

“He sounds American,” said the secretary.

Chesterfield started as though jabbed with a spike. “For God’s sake, don’t tell him that. They don’t realise they all sound the same to us.”

“Well, I ’spect we all sound the same to them!”

“I expect we do,” said Chesterfield as he began to walk slowly up the stairs. He couldn’t help reflecting on the encounter he had just had. There was definitely something not right. It felt as though the woman of his dreams had walked into his office, just the type he liked... It was odd. And then he shook himself and thought, “I’ve spent too long in this place. An attractive girl walks into my office and I get paranoid! I need a holiday. Wonder if I could take the wife to the south of France. Get away from this interminable snow. Nineteen sixty-three! You can keep it, if it’s going to carry on as it’s started.”

Chesterfield went to Ward Four and was told by a nurse that Smith refused to come out of his room. Nodding in acknowledgement, he went into Smith’s room. Smith was by the window and turned sharply on his heel, his manner belligerent.

“Didn’t your mother teach you to knock, young man?” he demanded, grasping his lapels.

“Now, John,” said Chesterfield, ignoring the rebuke, “what’s this about you refusing to come out of your room?”

“So,” said Smith, in the same attitude, “first, you simply waltz into my room uninvited and without knocking, and now you address me by my Christian name as though I were a small boy. For your information, Chesterton, I prefer to be known as the Doctor.”

Chesterfield sat in a chair and made an effort to look relaxed and reasonable. His voice was calm and soothing when he spoke. “No,” he said, “I am the doctor. You are the patient.”

“So you persist in this delusion, do you?” retorted Smith. “I tell you again, this planet of yours is in grave danger.”

“Yes, yes, the lizards,” said Chesterfield. “Now, think about it, John. How could lizards possibly take over the world? They don’t have the brain power for one thing.”

“You really are a simpleton, aren’t you?” said Smith, shaking his head. “I’ve already told you that these are sentient aliens that spread their empire by the insidious infiltration of prey species.”

“Yes, John, you’ve told me all that — but really! Come on, now. It’s like something from a threepenny science fiction magazine. But let’s not argue about that. I just met your granddaughter.”

Smith dropped his hands from his lapels. “Susan? Where?”

“Downstairs. But her name’s not Susan, is it? It’s Suzanne.”

Smith gave an impatient wave of his hand. “Susan, Suzanne, what does it matter? Really, dear boy, do try to isolate the essential and ignore irrelevancies.”

“Surely it’s important that you can’t remember your own granddaughter’s name.”

“Not at all. It’s simply a convenient label she took when we landed here.”

“Ah.” Chesterfield could not suppress a smile. “Of course.” That was the thing with delusions — it was impossible to argue the sufferer out of them. He got to his feet, his mind ranging over the range of medications available to him, even as he noted that nothing had worked yet. “Do come out of your room and mingle, there’s a good chap. I should hate to...”

His words fell away as a strange humming filled the room. He was immediately grabbed by the change in Smith’s demeanour. A smirk of satisfaction had come upon his face and he once more grabbed his lapels.

“Look, Chesterton, you fool. Look!”

With his head he nodded to a wardrobe. To Chesterfield’s astonishment, a second wardrobe was appearing beside it, out of thin air. In a moment it was solid. Chesterfield took a step towards it and put out his hand, but then the door opened — and out stepped Suzanne Fordham. But this time, she wore a tan waistcoat over a brown sweater, with matching trousers and boots.

“Ah, Dr Chesterfield,” she said brightly. “Catching flies?”

Chesterfield realised he was gaping and snapped his jaw shut.

“Grandfather!” exclaimed Miss Fordham. “Found you at last. How many times have I told you not to wander off?”

“I was following a lead,” said her grandfather testily. “Then I tried to get back to the ship, but it was a real police box.”

“What...?” said Chesterfield, but couldn’t continue the question.

“Oh, our ship here,” said Miss Fordham, indicating the newly-arrived wardrobe, “is able to disguise itself as a local object, wherever we land. It was disguised as a police box earlier.” Seeing that Chesterfield was still perplexed, she added, “I am a traveller in the fourth dimension — time. And I take my grandfather with me — though I don’t know why. He’s more trouble than he’s worth.”

“Nonsense, child,” said her grandfather. “Let’s just leave this accursed planet at once. I really have had quite enough, thank you very much.”

Chesterfield was pointing past Miss Fordham and at the wardrobe. It’s door was open and the interior appeared vast.

“It’s... It’s...”

“Oh yes,” she said, matter-of-factly, “it’s smaller on the outside. It’s a relative dimension in space — nothing you need worry your pretty little head about. The only trouble is, grandfather has meddled with it, so getting it to land exactly where and when I want isn’t easy — it’s been two days since I saw you in your office. But finally I got here!”

“You mean,” said Chesterfield, finally regaining his voice, “you’re... aliens?”

“Indeed we are, my boy, and as far beyond you as you are beyond the amoeba.” The old man waved him aside and said, “Now, stand out of the way, there’s a good fellow. It’s time we were leaving.”

“Then... then... there really are lizards taking over the world?”

Miss Fordham smiled. “Not any more. I’ve sent them packing. They won’t be back again.” She winked at him. “Wasn’t really teaching in Cardiff.”

Chesterfield nodded in acknowledgement then said, “So Suzanne Fordham isn’t your real name?”

“No,” she said, “nor — what was it? — Susan Foreman. Just an alias adopted while I’m here.”

“So what is your real name?”

“Oh,” she said, motioning her grandfather into the wardrobe, “who I am really doesn’t matter.”

She gave a final smile then stepped into the wardrobe and closed the door. A few seconds later, Chesterfield watched in astonishment as it faded into the air.

This was a disturbing experience for anyone, but more so for a psychiatrist. He went out of the room and checked that John Smith’s name was among the list of patients. Then he went back to the room and saw plainly that John Smith wasn’t there. He looked around the ward. There was no sign of John Smith.

“Are you all right, Doctor?” said a nurse.

“Yes, perfectly,” replied Chesterfield, somewhat distractedly, then added, “John Smith wants to have a lie down. Best not disturb him till supper time.”

“Right oh,” was the response, which was further confirmation that John Smith had indeed existed and wasn’t the product of a mental derangement. But still deeply shaken, Dr Chesterfield went downstairs, sat at his desk, leaned his elbows upon it and joined his hands level with his mouth. There he sat for some minutes, trying to take it all in.

His reflections were broken by his secretary leaning in the doorway and saying, “Don’t forget to ring your cousin. The Canadian one.”

For a moment, Chesterfield appeared not to have heard her. She was about to repeat herself, when he unjoined his hands, mumbled, “Right,” and reached for the phone. She left as he dialled the number.

“Ian!” cried his cousin. “I’ve been trying to get hold of you! It’s just that we haven’t seen you for so long, we thought we’d invite you and Barbara for supper this Saturday evening.”

“Oh, er... Of course, Sidney, yes. Yes, that would be delightful.”

“Good. Shall we say seven?”

“Seven it is,” said Chesterfield. He put down the phone. Yes, his first instinct had been correct. By telling the nurse Smith wanted to rest, he confirmed that Smith had been present when he last saw him. Sometime after that, he had absconded. The request to rest had just been a ruse. That would be the official story. There would be a search, but only he knew that John Smith would never be found. Nor Susan Foreman or Suzanne Fordham.

It was then the realisation hit him that he had actually met, in the flesh, aliens from another world. He sat in his chair, his eyes wide, his mouth gaping, the very caricature of his patients, just as ignorant imagination would picture them.

***

“Well, that was a fabulous meal,” said Chesterfield, dabbing his lips with a napkin.

His cousin’s wife smiled with appreciation.

Barbara said to her, “Come on, I’ll help you with the washing up.”

And so Chesterfield was left alone with his Canadian cousin. By now, he had recovered his exterior calm, though his experience of a few days earlier had profoundly affected him, the more so as he had kept it all to himself. In fact, he now felt a desperate need to get it all off his chest. But that was impossible, of course.

“So,” he said, anxious to continue his appearance of normality, “how’s it going at the BBC, Sidney?”

“Well,” said Sidney, as he and his cousin walked into the lounge, “the biggest headache I have just now is to develop a new children’s programme — something educational, but entertaining at the same time. You wouldn’t believe how hard it is to combine those two elements.”

“I can imagine,” said Chesterfield. Suzanne Fordham and John Smith were foremost in his thoughts, but not enough to stop him continuing the conversation. “What format would the programme take?” he asked.

“I’m thinking of fiction,” said Sidney. “Possibly an adventurer who travels around the world, but, of course, we’ll be largely studio-bound and the budget isn’t that great. Probably we’ll stick to him travelling around Britain, in fact.”

They sat in a pair of armchairs. Chesterfield made as if to speak, then stopped himself.

But Sidney had noticed. “What?” he said.

Chesterfield knew he had to keep what he had seen absolutely secret — to do otherwise, even with family, would bring his sanity into question. And he knew better than most that sanity once questioned was sanity forever doubted. But he also wanted to get it off his chest and here was an opportunity to do so without arousing suspicion.

“What about a traveller in the fourth dimension?” he said and darted a glance at Sidney’s reaction.

“The fourth dimension,” said Sidney, frowning. “What on earth is that?”

“Time,” said Chesterfield. “A traveller in time. A time traveller.”

Sidney adjusted his body posture as he gave his cousin his full attention.

“Tell me more.”

“Maybe an alien,” said Chesterfield, feeling the dam begin to burst. “A young woman from an unknown planet. She has a time machine that can take her anywhere in space and time. Now, this machine happens to be quite bizarre, because it’s smaller on the outside.”

“Smaller on the - what?” cried Sidney.

“The inside is huge, but the outside is small, so it can land anywhere and disguise itself as anything common to where it lands. In London, it might be a police telephone box, for example.”

“I like it,” said Sidney, narrowing his eyes and pointing briefly at his cousin. “Where on earth did you get this idea?”

“Oh, out of the blue,” said Chesterfield. “And the young woman takes her old grandfather along with her on all her adventures.”

“It’s good, it’s good,” said Sidney, “but obviously you don’t know drama. We can’t have a young woman as the lead, because we need some adventure. And who’s going to buy the story of a girl owning a time machine? But...” He raised a finger. “If the old man owned the time machine and she travelled with him, well then we’ve got something we can work with.” He pondered a moment then said, “And aliens won’t work as the heroes — the audience won’t relate to them. We need a human to join them, a young man able to do the derring-do. Probably a woman as well, to stop any idea that he’s after this alien girl.”

But then he rubbed his chin as a cloud came over his face.

“Trouble is, Ian, I’m not sure the BBC would buy it.”

“Well, you’ve no better idea, have you?” said Chesterfield, slightly irked.

“No,” admitted Sidney. “So what would be the name of this grandfather?”

“Well,” said Chesterfield, leaning back and stretching out his legs, “what if he were to call himself the Doctor?”

“Doctor who?” said Sidney.

Chesterfield smiled. “Oh, just the Doctor,” he said.



END