I shivered in my thin grey coat and pulled it close around me. Was it the nippy air or the penetrating gaze of the man who stared at me across the table? I was being interviewed for a house officer’s job. But he hardly asked me any questions. His finely shaped hand casually caressed his beard as he continued to stare at me. My discomfiture made him smile.
“Those white blotches in his beard!” I thought, “How very becoming, like a little boy who has spilled porridge down his chin.”
“You’ll do,” he said at last, “Can you begin work tomorrow?”
He wasn’t a popular figure in the hospital. Housemen trembled at his foot fall and nurses scurried away. His temper tantrums were the talk of the Unit.
“A difficult man,” they said, “Stay clear.”
I fell to watching him closely, this demon who put the fear of God into those around him. Even his patients held him in awe.
“If he weren’t such a good surgeon, we’d go elsewhere,” they said, “The man isn’t human at all. He’s got no feelings.”
I was his houseman and therefore had no choice but to spend many hours in close proximity to him. I was silent most of the time and spoke only when addressed. In his presence I felt clumsy and completely inadequate.
One day while assisting in an operation, I did everything wrong. I dropped the instruments, cut the wrong ties and obstructed rather than helped. He was furious and muttered under his breath, which didn’t help any, especially as the eyes of the entire theatre staff were on me. Tears trickled down and seeped through my mask.
“You leave the theatre at once,” he barked.
I crept away humiliated and miserable.
Later in the day I was summoned to his office.
“I’m sorry about this morning,” he said, “But there’s a limit to what I can tolerate. Stop treating me as though I were an ogre. Only then I can teach you something. Isn’t that what you are here for?”
I had come to UK for my post graduation. But I wasn’t so young as the other houseman. I had taken time off from professional life to become a wife and mother. But premature widowhood had returned me to the professional fold. UK was new and strange to me and there was much I had to learn. I felt particularly low after a tiring day at the Antenatal Clinic. The boss and I were having a cup of tea before packing up for the evening.
“I’m going home,” I blurted, “I don’t think I can carry on with these studies.”
He was taken aback by my sudden outburst and was silent for a long time. Then he said,
“If Columbus had turned back no one would have blamed him. But no one would have remembered him either.”
The change in our relationship was subtle. There were no confidences exchanged or intimacies shared. However, life for some reason or other felt different. I no more trembled and quaked in his presence. Difficulties were sensibly discussed. He was a kind and patient teacher and I was quick to learn. Neither was he as tight lipped and distant as he used to be. During our numerous coffee breaks we talked on subjects ranging from medicine to politics, from music to religion. We agreed on some but differed on most. At times our discussions turned to heated arguments. Others looked on with bated breath.
“Don’t push your luck too far girl,” they cautioned, “One day he’s going to turn around and chew off your head.”
“He seems to like you,” others said, “I guess it’s because you aren’t afraid to air your opinions.”
“He’s always singing your praises when you’re not around,” my colleague assured me.
One day I was invited to meet his family. His wife was a local politician. She was a sturdy handsome woman who dominated the scene and wouldn’t let anyone get a word edgewise. There were three teenage children too, as mute as their father in her presence.
“I get the message boy,” I thought, as he dropped me back, “There can be no nonsense between us.”
We had many evenings together. Sometimes I accompanied his family to concerts, movies or even church. I obviously posed no threat to his wife. She was so puffed up with her own importance. Her attitude was at best, patronizing. But there were times when we went alone. We steered clear of personal matters and often sat in companionable silence. The evening would always end in an hour or two of quiet conversation on a variety of subjects.
“What a dull preoccupation for a pair of grownups,” one might say, yet in finding in me a good listener, he drew me close to his heart.
Three beautiful years sped by with incredible speed. Ours was a special kind of relationship – a non-verbal communication; an intimacy without actual physical contact; a glance, a word, a smile which implied, “I love you for no reason at all. My love is absolutely unconditional.”
“What have you done to the guy?” my friends asked. “He seems to have mellowed. Why, he even smiles these days.”
My days in UK were over all too soon. We said our ‘good byes’ on a crowded dance floor on Christmas Eve. Our strange affair had to end as neatly as it had begun, with no fuss, no tears, no recriminations. Somewhere among those faces was his wife. But we were oblivious to anyone but ourselves.
“I hadn’t realised how little you are,” he said, “You barely reach up to my shoulders.”
His gentle hands caressed the small of my back, as he drew me closer to his beating heart.
“It hurts to let you go. Thank you for being an angel”
As his lips brushed my hair he whispered, “The thought of you will never leave my heart.”
Almost ten years later on a visit to UK, I paid him a visit. He was alone, seated in an armchair. His hair had turned to silver but his instant recognition gladdened my heart. I threw my arms around him in a big bear hug and heard him whisper, “Beloved forever.”
By Eva Bell