My mother’s best and dearest friend was a psychiatrist.
In a similar vein to Fernando, I’ll call him Rudolf. The reasons for this name-change will soon become apparent.
Rudolf was newly-qualified when he met my mother at the hospital in which she’d trained and then worked.
They were firm friends from the off. They both loved Impressionist art, classical jazz, all manner of foreign travel.
Each of them had hitherto enjoyed the privilege of being the smartest person in any room. I am a little surprised they didn’t make name badges. Something in the style of – Rudolf, Genius, too clever for chit-chat – would have been appropriate.
By the time I knew him, Rudolf had been in practice for many years, in both the NHS and private health care.
I can’t begin to imagine the frightening and terrible things he must have had to guide his patients through over the years.
If I forced myself to think about it, he must have listened to some horrifying things. Little else could explain what happened on my twenty-eighth birthday. We’ll get to that..
Once, Rudolf was on a plane travelling to some far-flung destination, where he might be the only English-speaking person for miles around: it was his favourite sort of location.
He had such an ability for learning, and would want to become proficient enough in the local language, at least, to get a hotel room and talk a little philosophy over cocktails.
About halfway through the flight, an attendant came up to Rudolf and said they’d seen on the flight data that he had the title of ‘doctor’. They wanted to check if he was a medical doctor, or perhaps a doctor of divinity or some-such. He explained, in some detail, that he was medically qualified in the first instance and then specialised in psychiatry. It was practically a date.
It transpired, there was a passenger towards the front of the aircraft who was having a heart attack. Date apparently over, Rudolf was out of his seat in an instant.
Her rhythms were all over the place but the lady was conscious.
“Are you the doctor?” she asked Rudolf.
He nodded and reassured her that everything was going to be alright.
“Am I dying?”
Rudolf paused for breath, then simply said, “Yes.”
“Thank you, doctor,” she replied. And very abruptly, she died.
I’ve known Rudolf since I was a week old. In all honesty, when he said yes, I think he probably meant – yes, in the sense that we’re all dying.
Rudolf came down to Devon for my twenty-eighth birthday. It was the summertime, and he wanted to see the sea. We drove down to a nearby town, where every second shop sells fish and chips or cream teas, and the pedestrians walk into the road as if they’ve nothing left to live for but in reality, they’ve seen an interestingly, possibly phallic-shaped cloud worth giggling at. We found a tearoom.
Rather like that feeling when you’re used to the hustle and bustle of Tesco at teatime, and you find yourself in almost-church-like Waitrose at dusk, we were out of place.
I had been cutting my hair myself for some years, had tears in my jean-cuffs and although my tattoos were hidden, there was something on the waitress’ face that suggested she knew I was the type.
Rudolf asked for a menu, looked around at the pastel walls, daubed in their nursing home green, and chairs covered in doilies, hundreds of doilies, and called the waitress back. He folded his menu, rose and tapped my arm.
“We’re just going to see if there’s somewhere else we’d like more. We may be back,” he said, flatly, “but I doubt it.”
I was so proud.
Indeed, we did find a restaurant on the seafront, with picnic tables and umbrellas outside. Much better. It was a baking hot day. The sun was shining on the sea, and the red cliffs out to the east stood like sunburnt, raised-vein mountains.
A wizened, waif-like waitress brought out bread rolls, cutlery and a little bowl of butter cubes. We ordered drinks. This was more like it.
From nowhere, a giant seagull (it was the size of an emu) landed on the table, and started pecking at the butter cubes. Rudolf barely looked up.
Quick and quietly, he lifted his hand and punched the seagull squarely in the chest.
The bird fell back onto a unused seat. We watched it hop over to the next table, not perturbed in the slightest, where it proceeded to eat half a ploughman’s lunch directly off the plate of someone who was just staring at Rudolf in open-mouthed disbelief.
Rudolf took hold of the catch on the garden umbrella in the middle of our table – flipped it down – and let the fabric land, soundless and flatly on our heads.
When I was growing up, a lot of the other kids used to go to the seaside to blow up seagulls. I never joined them, but I heard the stories so many times, it feels like I did.
Before I tell you this one, I’ll point out, I’m not recommending this as an activity for bored teenagers in the summer holidays.
I am at a point in my life where I have many friends, now in their thirties, raising their own children, who feel enormous remorse over what they did. I won’t specify precise ingredients, for the same reason. There’s no point storing up guilt for twenty years’ time.
That said, if you have any knowledge of the home sciences, you’ll probably work it out for yourself.
The kids went down to the seaside, bought bread, butter and an indeterminate household ingredient and made sandwiches on the beach. They tore them up into small pieces and threw them to the seagulls.
If the seagull only got a small piece, on eating it, the bird would try to fly away from its own stomach, and fairly quickly, fall from the sky. Those seagulls that got a larger dose, blew up mid-air.
Holidaymakers have a hard time with seagulls stealing their chips and ice creams, and they can be pretty vicious in their theft of tourist food, so I think the kids thought they were performing a public service.
It was the mid-nineties. Very few people had the internet, and those who did wouldn’t have it in their own homes.