What have I got myself into is chapter one from Stones in my Clog, by Bernard Preston.
Dr Bernard Preston, chiropractor, sat in his consulting room alternately
staring wistfully out the window, and glaring at a pile of mail.
Listlessly, he took in the blind man walking past in the teeming rain, a
jazzy umbrella in one hand, his white stick in the other rhythmically
beating out his journey; the man’s eyes zigzagged from side to side to
another tune. Seesaw nystagmus , pondered Preston. I can’t help him,
poor man. No one can. It was indeed fortunate that our chiropractor
could not see into the crystal ball.
Stones in my Clog is Bernard Preston's third book of short stories from the chiropractic coalface. Having made the huge decision to sell his practice and move to Holland for a few years, he frequently found himself asking what have I got myself into?
His last patient for the week, a difficult lumbar stenosis, had just left and he was exhausted. This was the weekend that he and a small band of crazy friends had been planning to dismantle their gliders and schlep them off to three days of infinite delight in the Drakensberg Mountains. Why do the weather prophets always get it right when we’re planning to go soaring? They never do the rest of the time, damn it, he muttered morosely.
There was a timid knock at the door. Tanya Hastings, a junior associate who was on call that weekend wanted to ask for a week’s leave in the middle of the summer, but quickly changed her mind when she heard Preston snort. Tanya recognized that sound. Her boss was in a foul mood and any request, reasonable or otherwise, was likely to invite a pursed lip and choleric outburst. This was not a good moment to make any requests. Of course, Tanya knew all about the planned weekend; hadn’t he been boasting to them endlessly about it over a hastily swallowed sandwich for the last few weeks? Only once had she been crazy enough to go flying with him. For at least a year the memory gave her the shivers even when she ventured a journey in one of those Greyhound buses with wings as Preston dismissively called them.
‘Goodnight Dr Preston,’ she called gaily. ‘Have a nice weekend.’ Had Tanya been secretly, guiltily, hoping that his crazy flying machine would fall out of the sky, and she would inherit the practice? Little did she know; she was about to get it buckshee anyway.
Sourly, Preston gave her a dismissive nod and turned again to his two most hated chores; that pile of mail, and a list of reports that had to be written. He loves his work with its daily challenges of patients in severe pain, and the conditions that mystify clinicians of every ilk, but by Friday, exhaustion had set in. Working at the coalface, as he cheerily called his clinic on a Monday morning, had sunk to toiling at the salt mines.
Not only was he exhausted; his hopes for a weekend aloft thwarted, Preston was also miserable.
Mondays, Preston had a ruddy outdoor look about him, his bright red hair tinged with grey, as he approached his sixtieth year. That hair matched his fiery temperament but it was his energetic, green eyes that really caught one’s attention. They glowed with a tangible enthusiasm for life.
But after a full week down the mine, it’s his face that would strike you as grey, the bright eye dimmed by exhaustion. The week had taken its toll.
Sally his secretary had been pleading with him for several weeks to finish those reports, to which he fatuously retorted, why do tomorrow what you can do next month? Now it could be put off no longer. Savagely he scanned the mail, throwing fully a half directly in the round file.
He was about to toss what appeared to be yet another form letter after the rest of the junk mail, when he spotted the foreign stamp. Hastily he tore it off, dropping it into one of his father’s old balsa wood cigar boxes, saving them for a patient who laboriously raised funds for dogs for the blind.
About to consign the letter to the recycling bin, he spied a photograph through the chink in the envelope. Ripping it open, he read,
Dear Dr Preston,
We are looking for an experienced chiropractor to join us in our busy practice in the Netherlands. Should you be interested in a change of scenery, please forward your CV to the above address as soon as possible. One small caution: you will have to master the rudiments of the Dutch language before entering practice.
With friendly greetings,
Jaap Hartog, D.C.
Preston gave another of his infamous snorts. After gazing at the photo of the impressive looking clinic, shaped in the form of a vertebra, he spun the letter viciously towards the wastepaper basket.
An hour-and-a-half later the chiropractor let himself silently out of his clinic, the fluorescent streetlights already glowing a dull orange. Night had swept over Africa but it was too early for the winers and diners. The streets were nearly empty; a street child dressed in rags, sitting with his back against a stop sign, didn’t even raise his head from his knees as Preston impatiently revved his beloved ‘dream machine’ . With difficulty he blotted out the image and reined in the heavy motor cycle as he negotiated the suburbs, before opening the throttle on the long climb up the escarpment to High Whytten where he and his wife Helen had lived for more than a quarter of a century, taking the sharp turns with glee, and ignoring the perils of a fresh diesel spill, or splatter of gravel on the wet road. It had stopped raining, but a heavy, foggy gloom swirled around the escarpment.
What have I got myself into relates the painful process that the Prestons went through in their decision to enjoy a hiatus in Europe.
‘You’re late, darling. How was your day?’
‘Oh, I am sorry. What was so bad?’ asked his wife of thirty-five years. ‘Had another row with that horrible doctor Bird? None of my friends will consult him you know.’ ‘No, nothing to do with him. Just look at that mist! And it’s been pouring all day.’
Helen gave a little snigger, a deliciously musical sound that only served to add yet more gloom to the already melancholic look on Preston’s face. ‘Oh, poor boy! Can’t go gliding, that’s what it is, isn’t it! Was anything else dreadful?’ ‘Yes, I had to write three reports after the last patient left. You know how that always gets me into a foul mood, but I couldn’t put it off any longer.’
‘Oh, you poor boy,’ she repeated. ‘That’s what happens to procrastinators. Here, let me help you get those wet things off, and then I’ll pour you a cup of tea and put a beer in the refrigerator. That’ll cheer you up.’
Helen gave her husband a warm kiss, with just enough promise to lift the clouds, but she was careful not to venture too close. He was drenched and Bernie could easily become distracted if she wasn’t chary. She and Sally had had a conspiracy going for years: they were forever plotting new ways to get Bernie to finish his chores, and the wet weekend was an unexpected godsend.
Clandestinely Preston knew all about their conniving of course, happily letting the women kid themselves that their schemes were quite concealed, but acknowledging morosely that his will to go gliding, or trout-fishing, or … often came a poor second to their collective wills. By Friday evening, the ebullient, self-confident chiropractor of Monday morning had metamorphosed into a weary and compliant husband. All through the week he chuckled that behind every great man there lies a cagey woman fooling herself that it is she who is pulling the strings but, by late Friday, even Preston doubted himself. It was Helen who sat firmly in the driving seat.
A few moments later, having shed his dripping leathers, Bernie stalked into the enormous kitchen that also served as their living room. His nose twitched unexpectedly. Was that beer he could smell? Helen emerged from the pantry, a quart of Bernie’s home-brew carefully held in a hand-towel, her face a picture of fury. ‘Take all those damn beers out of my kitchen! From now on you can do your brewing in your own workshop. Just look at my pantry!’
In the angry tirade that followed, from every scowl and glare, the implications for Bernie’s second-to- favourite hobby became rapidly obvious. ‘Oh, dear! Did one of them burst?’ ‘Can’t you smell? You’ve turned my kitchen into a cheap-smelling brewery! This moment, take the whole bloody lot out before another explodes.’ Known as the Silver Fox to her pupils, and She who must be obeyed by her husband, Preston’s wife had a deceptively homely look about her, the jet-black hair of her youth turned to silver, and vital kindly grey eyes, until anyone dared cross her. Then her face would rapidly take on a chiselled, frosty look, her eyes narrowing as the fox emerged. Wise people would either leave, or quickly change their tune. Helen Preston was not a person to mess with.
It took a full half-hour for Preston to clean up the worst of the foaming malt but there was no evading the stench. ‘I must have bottled this batch before the fermentation was complete,’ he mumbled contritely. ‘I’m sorry darling, I’ll do penance this weekend.’
‘Damn right you will!’ said his wife, pretending again to be enraged, pouring herself a glass of Le Bouquet. Wandering through to the lounge, Helen hung up her husband’s leathers near the log-fire that added just a little cheer to the frosty atmosphere. She smiled for a split second, careful not to let him notice. First it was Bernie’s beekeeping that had been dispatched to the nethermost parts after a pot filled with honey and wax-cappings had boiled over on her stove. Mead-making soon followed, though she never let Bernie know just how much she loved that honeyed wine. Oddly it tasted rather like whisky, she always said, just safer. Still, she was relieved it was mead, not moonshine, that was maturing by the gallon in some dark corner of her husband’s den. Whilst repairing the air-speed-indicator from his glider a few months earlier, Bernie had spilt oil on one of her treasured tablemats so fixing things at the kitchen table too had been sent packing. Now it was his precious beer’s turn.
Bernard Preston tells how it really is at the coalface in this his third volume of chiropractic short stories; what have I got myself into is chapter one.
Theirs is a happy marriage, and secretly Helen is delighted in all her husband’s pastimes, even when they irk. “An occupied man is less likely to prey inwardly upon himself, like Father has done all his life,” she said to her mother once, defending her husband’s many absences. “I suppose,” sighed the martinet. Like mother, like daughter. “Or go astray like your father did.” Urged on by her mother, Helen was sanguine: she would never be a doormat, and she fenced constantly with her husband. It was she who was lord of the manor.
Bernie appeared shortly, soberly wondering how he was going to charm his wife. Plonking himself wearily on the couch next to her, he stretched his legs out on a pouf and hit the kill button on the remote. He hates the invasion of television and the imposition of its clamour into their private life. Helen scowled momentarily and then fondly took her husband’s hand, chuckling at his half empty tankard. ‘So, did you have a beer fountain?’ Glumly Preston nodded.
Helen too enjoyed a drink in the evenings after a long day in the classroom. Gently she swilled her Le Bouquet, sniffed it and took a little sip. ‘How’s Janet doing?’
Bernie cheered up immediately. ‘Magic. She thinks I’m God’s gift to sore backs! Eighty percent less pain than yesterday.’ A neighbour had sprung a rib after a shower of sneezes and pleaded with Bernie to find an appointment for her. ‘Good. Any interesting mail?’
‘Nope. Just the usual junk, and a request for yet another report. Oh, and a letter from a chiropractor in the Netherlands looking for an associate. A beautiful clinic, I must say; amazing, it’s shaped like a vertebra.’
‘From the Netherlands!’
‘Yes. Chris phoned me yesterday to ask if I had also had a letter. Apparently this guy has canvassed every single chiropractor in South Africa. He must be desperate.’ ‘He probably thinks that you can speak Afrikaans, and will pick up Dutch quickly.’
‘Well, I can’t but I expect he’ll get a few responses from fed-up Afrikaners .’
Soaring, the sport of fools and fanatics. GLIDING ...
It was a sobering weekend in more ways than one. In the early hours of Saturday morning there was a phone call from Bernie’s cousin. Her husband, a farmer in the district, had been shot in the back of the neck and was lying unconscious in hospital, and later that day rumours started flying about that their neighbour, Nellie, had been raped in the middle of the night by an intruder armed with a knife. After the hospital visit, both of them shocked to the core, they sat talking morosely, cups of tea in hand, and mulling over the events of the last twenty-four hours. Eventually Bernie stretched, saying, ‘Well, I guess I’d better get on with your pantry cleanup!’ ‘I was wondering if you were going to conveniently forget,’ said Helen, an unseen glimmer of a smile tweaking the corner of her lips. Consigning her husband to over an hour on his knees, Helen supervised him as he wiped down every bottle of fig jam and Chinese-guava jelly, and cleaned up the last vestiges of glass splinters with wet tissue paper.
‘I’ll have Housemaid’s Knee by the end of this!’ said Bernie.
‘Serves you right! What’s that anyway? It sounds awful.’
‘No, not so dreadful; it’s only a bursitis. I see it all the time in the clinic. Won’t you bring me an old cushion, please?’
‘Oh, how you doctors love your technical names! Do parsons get it too?’ Helen giggled, hunting in a corner of the pantry for a piece of foam rubber left over from re-upholstering an ancient rocking chair she had found at an auction. She enjoyed seeing her husband on his knees, planning a new riposte for his barefoot-and-pregnant jokes. She writhes when Bernie taunts her periodically, should she complain about the long hours spent marking her schoolgirls’ scripts.
The anger of the previous evening dissipated, Helen brought her husband several cups of honey-tea whilst busying herself baking a batch of nutty-wonders, one of Bernie’s favourites, chatting merrily with snippets about the children. Ten cardboard cases of honey bottles soaked in sour-smelling beer, and another four crates of unexploded beer bottles were evicted. And still the rain poured down, keeping the remorseful chiropractor well and truly engaged under his wife’s stern thumb.
‘Good,’ she declared eventually, grinning, as Bernie removed the last crate. ‘From now on, you and all your hobbies are consigned to the Outer Hebrides!’ Forced to eat humble pie, and unable in the pouring rain even to escape and potter about his beehives, Bernie had a melancholic weekend of it, wearied by the constant clash of wills.
It took a full twenty-four hours before Helen really lightened up, but their evening fireside drinks soon had them both thoroughly down in the lees once more. ‘We’re drinking too much again, Bernie,’ Helen said, glass of wine in hand. Bernie was staring glumly at another half tankard of beer, the other half having predictably sprayed on the lawn outside bringing sudden joy to the crickets. ‘Poor Nellie. Can you imagine what it must have been like, an old woman like her? It’s only six months since Tom died, and …’ she gave a shudder.’
‘Terrible. It’s a mercy that John’s in a coma.’
‘Do you think he’ll recover?’
‘Who knows? He’s sure to be paralysed, poor bastard. I had no idea what to say to Alice this morning. What’s this new rainbow nation of ours coming to, Helen?’ Bernie leaned slowly forwards and tossed a fresh log on the fire.
Helen shook her head, staring moodily into the embers. She gave a start as a knot gave off a sharp crackle, sounding momentarily like a volley of gunshots. They were both on edge. Peace slowly returned to the range as the log settled deeper in the ashes, Helen alternately, nervously, swilling her glass and gently running her finger around the rim. The eerie sound irritated Bernie, but he said nothing, wondering instead whether he should quickly finish the whole case of overripe beer before yet another exploded and gouged an eye, or tip the lot out. He hates to waste.
‘What was that you said about a letter from the Netherlands, Bernie?’ Helen asked eventually after a pregnant silence, interrupting her husband’s beery thoughts. ‘I wasn’t really listening yesterday.’
‘Oh, a chiropractor in Holland is looking for an associate. Have you heard of … um, Maasstad I think it’s called. I can’t say it rings any bells.’
‘It does sound familiar. Maasstad … I think some important treaty was signed there. Wasn’t that where the European Union was formed? ’ Helen loves history as well as mathematics. ‘What do you think?’ she continued.
‘What do you mean, what do I think? Think about what?’ ‘Think about living in Europe for a couple of years.’ Preston was stunned. ‘In Europe! Are you crazy? Just like that! Sell the practice and give up everything we’ve built up over the years? And what about my gliding? I’d sooner die.’ ‘Well, you might. Literally. Dying I wouldn’t mind, but being raped by a savage …’
‘Yes, but …’
‘Bernie, you know better than I that we have perilously few savings. You’ll have to work until the day you drop!’
‘I plan to anyway, Helen. You know how I love my patients.’ Preston placed another log more carefully in a cooler corner of the ashes, staring blankly as the flames slowly started licking at the timber. A branch from their treasured, very old liquid amber had come tumbling down in a storm a couple months earlier. He had resented that Saturday away from his gliding pals, but the day out in the fresh air, with only the harsh whine of the chainsaw and sharp blows from the heavy axe for company had not been unpleasant. He’d even been able to make a few rough planks that were drying in his den for some future carpentry. Despite all his complaining, Bernie actually enjoys any form of exercise. Being closeted up all day, and the boring reports, of course, are the only parts of his work that he really dislikes.
‘You’re right, though, about our meagre savings what with the way the value of the Rand has collapsed since we went to Chicago … gosh, how long ago was it?’
‘Twenty-five years, silly. Don’t you remember the invitation to go to the reunion?’
‘Oh yes, of course. It’s just impossible with the exchange rate.’ He shook his head sadly, thinking of long-lost friendships built up around the cadaver that he and three other young men had spent a whole year dissecting. ‘I wonder what Ernie’s doing. He’s vanished without a trace.’
‘Such a gentle soul. Why don’t you try again to locate him? But, getting back to our finances, a nest egg in euros is precisely what we need.’ After a pause, Helen added, ‘In any case, I would love to see Europe. Just imagine taking holidays in Paris and Rome, and the Alps …’ Her voice took on a wistful, dreamy tone. ‘Blimey, Helen, how long have you been hatching up this little dream of yours? You’ve never said a word about seeing Europe before!’ Preston snorted.
‘Bernie, don’t be obtuse! We’ve holidayed quite enough in Britain and the States. It’s high time we saw Europe.’ Helen winked impishly. ‘Go on, where’s that sense of adventure the man I married once had?’ Getting to her feet, she said, ‘Now, it’s time I cooked dinner. What’s it to be, Ratatouille or Baba Ghanoush ? I picked a whole basket of brinjals from the garden this afternoon?’
‘The Ghanoush, please. I’ll come in a few minutes and make a big salad. I’m a bit gummed up today.’ After Helen left for the kitchen, Bernie sat staring moodily into space, giving another of his snorts: Not such a bad idea, actually. Next morning he secretly fished the Dutch letter out of the wastepaper basket before the cleaning staff dumped the trash.
What was it that made Christopher Columbus risk everything and sail off over the ocean blue? Fame, a pot of gold, adventure? And the patriarch Abraham? What made him pack up his tents, his sheep and goats, and set off with Sarah and Isaac for the Promised Land? A still, small voice?
The events of the weekend had us both deeply disturbed, and again raised issues that for some months we had both conveniently been sweeping under the carpet. The birth pangs of post-Apartheid South Africa had again been forcibly thrust up our proverbial noses, and abruptly it became quite clear to us both that we were in denial. The luxury of being ostriches could go on only so long and it was high time we faced our future squarely. After several long nights of prickly discussions into the wee small hours, Helen and I agreed we would fly off to Maasstad to test the waters. Though frankly terrified by my wife’s dream of a hiatus in Europe and relinquishing control of my professional life, I quickly took to Jaap Hartog, my soon-to-be new boss. With far too little aforethought, I interviewed and signed a contract written in High Dutch. I had barely a clue what it meant. The decision made, the next three years of our lives were spelled out. It was only later that I reflected, as in soaring, once a decision is made, one has to live with the consequences. Immense change, without a doubt, was imminent and we returned home to a mountain of stressful decoupling; even the Dream Machine and Golf-Echo-Xray had to go under the hammer.
Selling the practice proved to be a stumbling block. When at a cocktail party I announced to the assembled staff: “There’s change in the air. I’ve decided to accept an offer to work in the Netherlands for three years,” I caught Helen giving Sally a broad wink. Conspiring women!
‘Tanya, I take it you’re a potential buyer,’ I said to my junior associate later that evening. I named a very modest price, payable monthly for the next two years. I wished someone had given me that sort of start.
‘Yes, of course, Dr Preston. Can I talk to my parents?’
The upshot was a meeting with Tanya’s father, a hard-nosed businessman. He came straight to the point. ‘Why should Tanya pay you anything when she’s going to get the practice anyway for zilch?’ he asked. I had taken the young woman in when she was having a hard time getting started, not dreaming for a moment that I would end up giving away my practice. With the contract in the Netherlands signed and my ticket already bought, Tanya and her father had me over a barrel, and they knew it. So did I. There were, in fact, no other buyers in those depressed times, and Tanya got the practice for nothing; without me having to fall out of the sky! I could have been mean and taken all the files and contacts, and evicted her, but that would only have hurt my patients, and they were already more than angry enough with Bernie Preston. Thankfully she was a very good chiropractor and I could take some solace that I was leaving my patients in competent hands. Biting my tongue, not so much at the loss of filthy lucre but at the sense of betrayal, I made the decision to leave graciously, receiving not a cent for the good will of twenty-five years, lured on by a dream and a pot of real money: Euros. Oh, Helen, you’re the lover of Shakespeare. Why didn’t you warn me that all that glisters is not gold?
Stunned by the sudden change of direction our lives had taken, with more than a few misgivings that we were making a terrible mistake, I left Helen to pack up our goods and chattels and rent out the house. After saying a tearful goodbye to family and friends, I sailed off into our own great unknown. Helen joined me two months later, a whole five kilograms thinner. Stress!
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