I don’t know if doctors in the UK still do home visits but they did when I was a kid. GPs were highly respected in those days. Here’s an idea of what it was like in the 50’s.
On the rare occasions he was called out to our house in Pilgrims Hatch, doctor Draper was treated with a degree of reverence that was more befitting a king than a general practitioner. On second thoughts, make that a queen, for we’d all been dutifully watching young Elizabeth’s coronation on the miracle which had recently arrived on the scene: television.
Our TV set stood in its own imposing upright cabinet, wood-veneered and cocky having dispatched an old piano to the rag and bone man, candelabras and all. The screen was green and you watched it through a fish-eye lens designed to make it look bigger. When it was switched off the television continued to emit a hot transformer smell to warn off any little fingers that might otherwise have been tempted to meddle with its innards.
When it first swaggered into our front room the television set came with strict orders not to go within six feet of it—no mean task in a ten foot-by-ten room already inhabited by a sturdy three-piece suite, the leather of which was blotched and scuffed as if afflicted with impetigo. But it soon settled in. After acquiring a few cigarette burns along its upper edges and a tabby cat curled up on the warm spot on its top, it put you in mind of a portly Russian gentleman wearing a fur hat who, when Dr. Draper was coming to visit, had to suffer the indignity of being polished and having doilies positioned strategically over his dog-end blemishes and having his tabby hat surgically removed.
If Dr. Draper was due at 10am he usually turned up late in the afternoon. A 2pm appointment meant some unearthly hour the following morning.
“He’s such a busy man!”
“The least he could do is phone to let you know.”
You see, not only did we have a TV set, we also had a telephone. Coxtie Green 339. An easy number to remember because it was the same as the green bus that chuntered along the main road not far away. The telephone was kept at the foot of the stairs by the front door, under which an icy draught blew dutifully in order to curtail conversation and keep the bill down.
“He’s a wonderful doctor. Not like the others in that surgery who spend their days in the Rose and Crown downing gin and tonics.”
Dr. Draper was tall and bald, an upright man of few words. He would rat-tat-tat importantly on the front door as if he were the postman with a telegram. Most visitors had to go round the back of our house to get in—even the rent man knew that—but not Dr. Draper. His lofty status entitled him to have the front door dragged open across the bristles of an unwilling doormat. He never apologised for his lateness.
“What seems to be the trouble?” he would say.
Well, if we had known what the trouble was he wouldn’t have been called out, would he? And the cat wouldn’t have caught fire.
Now an ailing child was expected to adhere to certain conventions pertaining to a doctor’s visit. He was to lie straight-jacketed between Robin-starched sheets, he was not to drink all the Lucozade in one go, neither was he to leave phlegm-filled handkerchiefs on show nor was he to be cheeky and under no circumstances was he to make a miraculous recovery before the doctor had been.
In anticipation of one such visit, the house had been subjected to a cleaning blitz that began the moment the appointment was made. Carpets were hoovered raw, window panes were cleaned until you could confuse them with thin air. Sheets were changed, leaky taps had their washers fixed, locks were oiled, rooms were aired and passing children were scrubbed. Then cupboards were tidied, chipped china was binned (wouldn’t want the doctor to think we were harbouring germs) and the Russian gentleman’s furry hat was shooed from its eerie.
Displeased, the cat pointedly licked the spot on its fur where it had been touched, as if to remove the affront, then sloped from room to room looking for trouble. It got under people’s feet, it hopped into the coal bucket then hopped straight out again. It trod coal dust all over the carpet then carefully retraced its steps, enlarging the pawprints to make it look as if the dog was to blame. A half-drunk cup of tea minding its own business on an arm of the settee took fright when the feline swished its tail. It promptly upended itself and belched lukewarm tea over the dog which, for reasons best known to itself, began to bark at the damp patch soaking into the carpet. It was weird that way.
If there was one thing our cat couldn’t abide it was barking so, what with one thing and another, it had worked itself up into a lather by the time the hoover poked its noisy nose round the door only to get brutally attacked for its pains. Now this was not your ordinary playful ambush to which cats are wont, rather it was a full-on, go-for-the-throat affair, all claws scratching, back legs pumping, spit and squawk and take that! The hoover’s bag came away from its body as the cat wrestled it to the ground, filling the room with a week’s worth of dust and releasing from its bowels various small objects that had been missing for weeks.
“I’ll murder that cat when I get hold of it!”
Say what you will about our cat, it was no fool. It released its stranglehold on its prey and scarpered, with angry curses hot on its tail. It scooted down the passageway, squeezed through a crack in the kitchen door and made a bee-line for the fanlight. The dog gave chase but cowered in a corner as soon as it got told off. At such times it was liable to wee, which it did.
Finding the fanlight closed the cat slowed its pace and began to pick its way defiantly along an obstacle race of assorted items along a portion of the window sill that it knew full well was out of bounds. A cactus plant, a china carthorse, a battlefield of dead dog-ends in an it’s-about-time-I-was-emptied ashtray. After successfully negotiating a jam jar of things that might come in handy one day, the cat decided to arch itself over a packet of Daz. Once on the other side, it trod in something that must have offended one of its back paws, for it balanced itself on three legs and kicked out, karate style, with the remaining one in an attempt to rid itself of some imaginary sticky stuff.
The packet of Daz looped the loop as it flew through the air, spraying washing powder in a pretty spiral as it went. Its trajectory took it high over the kitchen sink and down over the gas cooker, after which it hit the wall, narrowly missing the cuckoo clock, before slithering to earth and wedging itself between the skirting board and the dog’s dish, into which it happily emptied the remainder of its contents. Alerted by the rattling of its dish, the dog arrived and began to wolf down the unexpected meal. After two gulps it realised its mistake and began to back away like a servant from an emperor. It shook its head and disgusting retching noises came from it. With each step backwards it hunched its shoulders and deposited a mouthful of sick on the floor, each dollop frothing alarmingly as the detergent reacted with the slime.
“What the devil’s going on in here?”
Cat and dog collided with each other as they dashed for a narrow gap of freedom available between the kitchen table and the stockinged legs that supported the menacing voice. The dog won this race, forcing the cat to scale a stockinged leg (“Ouch! Get off, bloody cat, I’ll have your guts for garters”) and on up the heavy brown curtain that was drawn across the kitchen door on winter nights. In a dazzling display of heel hooks and hangings-on-by-one-paw, the cat negotiated the overhang under the curtain pelmet and hauled itself on top. On sunny days this was one of its favourite vantage points from which to spy on the dog and, if conditions were suitable, dive bomb it.
“I’m sick to death of animals! We’re not having any more after these ones…”
Cuckoo!, cuckoo! …
“And you can pipe down, too!”
The cat took on a slightly demented look as it eyed the cuckoo.
“My goodness, is that the time?” said the stockinged voice.
The cat’s eyes widened to their maximum aperture; it crouched and readied itself to pounce.
“Don’t you dare!”
But it was too late. The animal bridged the gap between the pelmet and the cuckoo clock as majestically as any leaping jaguar. The cuckoo never knew what hit it. For a moment the cat dangled there, its front claws embedded in the wooden roof of the clock, its teeth clenched firmly over the bird’s body and its back legs flaying the air as it tried to establish a foothold on the pine cone pendulum weights.
Now by rights there was nothing wrong with the nail in the wall upon which the clock hung. That it came away from the wall, complete with rawlplug and a clod of plaster, was entirely down to the cat, as was the fact that the whole package landed in a saucer of milk, and that the landing spot was right on the rim of the saucer and that the milk catapulted into the air in an “I can fly!” moment, closely followed by the saucer itself.
The pendulum clock never properly recovered from its ordeal. Somehow, its cuck got separated from its oo, so that on the hour it went cuck-cuck-cuck but never oo. On the other hand, plaintive oos could happen at any time, sounding like the dying throes of a tyre puncture. The cat looked rather silly with an upside down saucer on its head and dribbles of milk running down its neck. But this was no time for merriment.
The house looked as if a tornado had hit it. The kitchen floor was a modern art study in plaster, milk, dog sick and washing powder, there was spilt tea and coal dust to clear up in the front room, the hoover needed mending, there was a coughing child upstairs to check on and an enamel chamber pot to be retrieved from under its bed and emptied. The Russian gentleman’s warm transformer smell pervaded the atmosphere and house flies and dust clouds vied for airspace with bits of fluff all along the hallway, making it necessary to turn the light on to see through the fog. It was going to take a month of Sundays to clear up all this mess. It was a good job Dr. Draper always turned up late.
The house fell silent and held its breath. Every bit of it, animals and all, was in a state of suspended animation as the consequences of this unexpected punctuality sunk in.
“This is awful, it can’t be him, he’s never on time!”
But it was him.
The scale of the impending shame was too much for the 100w light bulb in the hall. Pop! it went, and fizzled out. The dog thought about barking but wisely decided to draw no further attention to itself. A hastily-removed apron was flung off in the kitchen, an attempt was made to hang the cuckoo clock back up on the wall, in fact as much clearing up as could possibly be squeezed into the 10 seconds separating the kitchen from the front door was done at breakneck speed.
Cats do make the strangest noises when their tails get trodden on, don’t they?
“Oh, get out from under my feet!”
The cat shot along the hall, found the way blocked by the dog, turned tail and arrowed into the bathroom.
Well, I say bathroom but bath cupboard would more aptly describe it. Into the tiny space were crammed a WC with a proper overhead chain, an enamel bath, a washbasin and a fat Turkish geyser.
Among our cat’s more disgusting habits was the one which required it to teeter on the edge of the lavatory seat before skiing its front paws down the inside of the pan so that it could lap water from it. Its head would pop up from time to time to see what was going on.
The story went that when the cat was a kitten it got stuck in the pan. Before it could sort itself out, the man of the house, trousers down and unaware of its presence, darkened it’s horizon in preparation for ten minutes of peace and quiet with the Daily Mirror. The kitten, wide eyed and playful, enjoyed batting anything that was dangled over its head… but therein lies another tale.
“Alright, alright, I heard you the first time!”
As much as it liked the Russian gentleman, so the cat detested the sweating Turk. In those days, gas-fired water heaters were immense contraptions, with a mass of pipes spilling out like podgy entrails from a slit belly, controlled by various taps and knobs. It couldn’t manage anything as fancy as central heating but it did produce a nice hot bath, once you had removed the black flakes that the gurgling water dislodged from its boiler innards. To get going, the whole gubbins relied on a pilot flame accessible through an aperture in the boiler casing which was just big enough for a cat’s tail.
The front door required several jerks to scuff it fully open over the mat.
Dr. Draper raised his hat.
“Good day to you, Madam, may I come in?”
Stepping aside to avoid a billow of hoover dust, the prim gentlemen allowed an eyebrow to arch.
“The bag came off.”
As he pinched the tips of his brown leather gloves in readiness to remove them, the doctor took in the scene. Most working class homes he visited were spotless by the time he arrived.
“I’m ever so sorry. It’s our animals.”
Dr. Draper’s other eyebrow arched when his eyes alighted on the dog, which was sitting lop-sided on one of its hind quarters, leaning a shoulder heavily against the wall. Its snout was pointing directly up at the ceiling, a glassy look of ecstasy in its eyes. Its free back leg was paddling ten to the dozen to relieve an itch. When it had had enough of scratching itself, the dog set itself back on an even keel, dug its back claws into the carpet and, once it had got sufficient purchase, dragged itself along to wipe its bottom. It could move quite fast this way, rather like a departing aircraft gathering speed down a runway.
“That animal,” said Dr. Draper sniffily, ”needs worming.”
Having run out of carpet, the dog stood up, sniffed its way back along the trail it had made, sat down again and repeated the whole operation. Dr. Draper’s nose wrinkled.
“What’s that funny smell?”
“What? Oh, that must be our Russian.”
This was not going at all well. Normally speaking the front room door would have been left open so that the doctor could see our TV set but it was such a mess in there that the door was not even ajar.
If the doctor had possessed a third eyebrow it too would have shot up at this point.
“The cat got it.”
“Got what, Madam?”
“I see,” said Dr. Draper, looking as if he were in two minds about getting out a syringe.
“And the dog has been eating Daz.”
The doctor’s lip curled. He had a dry wit did Dr. Draper. He also possessed a very long nose down which to look.
“I dare say that will cure the worms.”
“I’m so sorry doctor. I wasn’t expecting you this early and I’m worried about my son.”
“What seems to be the trouble? Has he been eating Daz, too?”
The doctor’s hat and coat were placed reverentially over the banister while the man himself was ushered upstairs to where the air was cleaner and the young patient was mopping up spilt Lucozade with a handkerchief of the banned type.
“Good day to you, young man,” said the doctor from on high as he unclasped his black bag. From it he took a stethoscope and a chrome-plated contraption with a light on one end for looking down people’s throat with.
“Are his bowels moving?”
We were not in the habit in our house of monitoring each other’s visits to the Turkish geyser’s room so the whippersnapper’s knowledge of bodily function terminology was but rudimentary.
“He wants to know if you have been to the toilet properly.”
“But I’ve got a sore throat, said the child, eying the chrome-plated contraption warily, “I’m not ill down the other end.”
The cat, meanwhile, perched on the latch of the bathroom window fanlight, was trying to decide if it wanted to be in or out. One minute it had its whiskers twitching in the cool air outside the fanlight and the next its head ducked back inside, as if it had forgotten something. It slid back down the window and hopped from the edge of the bath onto the toilet seat, After a quick glance at the Turkish geyser and his gleaming pilot light, the cat set about getting itself a drink.
Doctor Draper had slipped into his standard home visit routine which, by a process of elimination, enabled him to discard the more dire of possible ailments. He knew which epidemics were going around, his years of experience had convinced him that there were few things a child didn’t get over quickly if it was kept warm and encouraged to sleep.
“Shall we take his temperature?”
What distinguishes a doctor from a vet is the end into which he inserts a thermometer. The cat had bad memories of its only ever visit to the vet, including the indignity of having its temperature taken. It did get revenge by sinking its needle teeth into the ball of the vet’s thumb, but then if you can’t take it you shouldn’t go round poking cold thermometers up cats’ bums.
“Yuck, it tastes like hospitals,” complained the boy after the instrument had been removed from under his tongue.
“Give him some Liqufruta to loosen his cough and you can rub some Vick on his chest. I’ll write you a prescription for a tonic.”
The house felt cheated somehow. You’d have expected a snooty doctor who wore soft leather gloves and drove around in a Wolseley to come up with something more scientific than the common or garden remedies that everyone knew about. It was hardly worth all the upheaval. Fortunately Marmaduke appeared on the scene to take him down a peg or two.
Marmaduke had first entered the house one warm day by hauling his – or was it her?- fat body up through the bath plughole. It took him a long while to get out of the bath because he’d climb nearly to the top only to slide back down again in a tangle of legs. It was thanks to the cat that he managed it in the end. It scooped him up on a paw, which it then shook, launching Marmaduke into low orbit around the oilskin lampshade before parachuting back towards the floor, only to be batted for six by the cat, with a stroke Denis Compton would have been proud of.
Fortunately, Marmaduke could move fast when he needed to so he scuttled away and sought refuge in the cupboard under the stairs until the cat lost interest. After a few tentative forages out into the open, he laid low until people with death slippers stopped whacking the very spot he’d been standing on until a split second before. Then he ventured upstairs.
Doctor Draper took a pad of prescriptions from his black bag and proceeded to write the name and dosage details of the pick-me-up in an esoteric scrawl that only one solitary chemist in the high street was able to decipher. It was at that moment that Marmaduke lost his footing on the light fitting he’d been investigating in the hope of finding something fattening and initiated the sequence of events that was to result in the doctor’s losing his aplomb, to the general satisfaction of all present apart from his goodself.
“Cuck!, cuck!, cuck!”
Time was flying by and the doctor had other visits to attend to.
Marmaduke landed heavily amidst handwriting that bore an uncanny resemblance to his legs, now that the latter were in disarray. Then, as he attempted to right himself, a murderous fountain pen angrily brushed him off the pad and followed him through the air like a Spitfire chasing a doodlebug. Marmaduke tucked his legs in and made himself into a soft ball, meaning that when he hit the wall and slid to the floor behind the child’s bed he remained unharmed. The fountain pen, however, was not so lucky. After flying out of the startled doctor’s hand, it arrowed into the wall, stubbing its gold nib painfully and releasing a splat of ink which soaked into the wallpaper, where it remained for many a month as a mirthful reminder.
“I’m awfully sorry, Madam,” said Dr. Draper, his embarrassment showing as purple patches spreading across his bald head. He got down on all-fours and began to feel around for his pen under the bed.
Perhaps in the more affluent circles in which doctors moved they forewent the convenience of chamber pots. This might explain why Dr. Draper was unprepared for the presence of one such under his patient’s bed and why, as he fished around for his pen, he succeeded in dipping his hand into it, stirring up its contents and then spilling them as he hastily withdrew his dripping fingers.
It was only wee. It might, after all, have been far worse.
The young patient received a salvo of black looks containing silent just you wait till he’s gone threats which intimated that Madam was likely to be on the warpath for quite some time.
“I have another pen,” said the doctor, regaining his composure, “may I wash my hands?”
But there was worse to come.
“Here,” said the patient, handing a handkerchief of the banned type to the doctor, whose disgust was mounting by the minute.
Dr. Draper moved quickly for a big man. He trotted down the carpeted stairs, in a hurry no doubt to reach the bathroom, the whereabouts of which he had been told. Quite why he didn’t see the dog sprawled across its favourite fifth step was a mystery.
Left to its own devices, a dog will always pick out one stair as its own. It bases its selection on factors such as lack of draught, strategic lookout potential, absence of ghostly presence and maximum irritation value. Our dog defied anyone to tread on the fifth step while it was in residence. Consequently, as one of the doctor’s Oxford brogues descended towards its belly button the dog snapped at it and succeeded in latching firmly on to a mouthful of tweed turn-up. Warming to its task, it planted its feet firmly on stair four and began to shake its head furiously this way and that with sufficient force for the doctor’s leg to shoot out from beneath him and bring the man himself heavily down on his backside on stair six, from whence he bumped his way down the rest of the stairs on his bottom, in a manner more befitting a six-year-old child than a six foot something 60-year-old man.
As the doctor passed stair two his arm dislodged his hat and coat from the banister, with the consequence that the hat fell squarely over the dog’s head with an accuracy that could never have been repeated. With its vision thus impaired, the dog lost its bearings and careered in random directions and succeeded in dislodging the telephone from its shelf. Although telephones were sturdy affairs they were not designed for doctors to tread on.
Struggling to his feet, Dr. Draper shook his leg in much the same way as the cat, in order to free it from the tangle of wires and Bakelite. So doing, he managed to rip the cable from the wall, like the villain in a Hitchcock thriller.
Rubbing his rump and by now looking somewhat frazzled, the doctor made his way to the bathroom.
Meanwhile, the dog returned to stair 5 and sat happily chewing the brim of the doctor’s hat and Marmaduke, fed up with feigning death, deployed his legs and made a dash for it, only for an empty chamber pot to come crashing down and bring his days to an untimely end.
The thud that resounded through the house combined with the approaching presence of a creature that smelt uncannily like a vet was altogether too much for the cat. It lost its footing in the toilet and fell in, dislodging the seat cover as it went and depriving itself of light. The doctor entered the bathroom and locked himself in.
There was a small problem with our geyser in that when you ran hot water from the sink tap it released gas from its burners at a rate too low for the pilot light to fire it first go, meaning that when it did eventually ignite it was liable to go…
Doctor Draper, with his ears ringing and a look of dismay on his face, was not through with surprises in this house. Turning to face the exploding geyser, now happily gurgling hot water, he was confronted by the spectacle of a toilet seat cover which appeared to have come alive, opening and shutting like a pelican’s beak as the cat fought desperately to get out.
“Are you alright, Doctor? It does that sometimes.”
Before the doctor could answer, the cat managed to extricate itself and flew at his face, dug in its claws and used it as a springboard to leap up to the fanlight. Unfortunately, in its desperation it misjudged the distance and fell back to the window sill, twisting its body in mid air in as fine a show of feline aerobatics as you are ever likely to see. It rested a moment on the sill to catch its breath, glared at the bleeding doctor and rather stupidly let its tail twitch too close to the pilot light.
With its tail alight, the poor creature lifted off and rocketed through the fanlight like a Brock’s Thunderstreak on bonfire night and shot across the garden looking rather like Halleys’ comet.
“Madam, I believe your cat’s on fire!”
Feeling better, the upstairs patient tiptoed from his own bedroom into the one which looked out over the road. He arrived at the window in time to observe the doctor, bleeding and wearing his dog-chewed hat on back-to-front, hobble painfully to his car. He looked somewhat disorientated, as if he had spent too much time in the Rose & Crown. To round off the visit, the doctor banged his head getting into the Wolseley, the tyres of which screeched angrily as it pulled away.
When it reappeared, the cat had forgiven everybody. A smell of singed fur married rather well with that of the Russian gentleman’s hot transformer. Milking the sympathy engendered by its threadbare tail, the cat went from person to person demanding chin tickles. When it had had its fill it weaved back and forth a few times rubbing its flanks along the Russian gentleman’s knees before leaping up onto his head. It stood immobile for a moment checking what was going on outside then plonked itself down, contorted its body, thrust one of its back legs straight up in the air, hung its rasping pink tongue out to dry for a few moments then ducked its head down between its legs to conduct the necessary undercarriage ablutions. Once satisfied, it yawned, curled up and went to sleep.
The next time Doctor Draper was called out he sent his locum instead.
“It can yowl until the cows come home; I’m not having that cat in the house until the doctor’s been.”