In this short extract from my novel, The Water Meadow Man, Sister He’l – an officious person with a particularly nasty view of the NHS – tries to get dear old Martin Lunsford to fill out yet another intrusive form. Fortunately for us all, there is a gatekeeper at the door of Oak Cottage to lend a hand. Read on…
“Yes, I understood he was in the navy”, Sister Helen attempted to claw back some authority.
“Very much so. He was involved heavily in the hunt and destruction of the Bismarck in ’41. That was before his move into Naval Intelligence but he never talks about that for obvious reasons”.
“Yes, indeed”, the woman’s voice softened slightly. “Would you mind telling me your relationship with Mr Lunsford?”
“I would, but it’s hush-hush you see”, Fawley was obviously enjoying himself immensely.
“I left Mr Lunsford some correspondence on my previous visit, I wonder if you can tell me if he has read it?”
There was a pause. What Lunsford was unable to see as he crouched at the top of the stairs just out of view of the sharp-voiced woman was that Fawley had bent down and collected the small pile of letters that had mounted up on the doormat. He fanned them out and gestured with his eyes towards them. “Is it here?”
Sister Helen saw her letter immediately, “Yes, yes it most certainly is”, she plucked it from the fan and waved it in front of him. “And it’s not even opened!” she said in astonishment.
“What does it allude to? How can I help?” Fawley’s voice was soft and genuinely seemed to offer help to Sister Hel’s project.
“Do you live in the village?”
“I do. I am. Here I am.”
“Would you mind answering this questionnaire? It would be immensely useful in enabling the most accurate collation of health data in this area. I, we, the Health Service, are collecting and tabulating statistics you see. To better understand the changing fitness of the nation to operate for the good and indeed the betterment of the nation. It won’t take more than five minutes”, she had taken a clipboard onto which was held several sheets of paper: her questionnaire.
“Madam”, said Fawley, “I would be honoured to contribute”.
Sister Helen made as if to come into the house, maybe to sit at the kitchen table, drinking tea, discussing her ideas with the tall, grey-eyed, red haired, high cheekboned, young man. He made no movement to suggest that he was inviting her in. Instead he said, “I am so sorry to seem oafish but I’m afraid the rest of the house is closed to the public for reasons of safety and security. I’m sure that someone in your position can understand”.
“Horace Johnstone. Mr Horace Johnstone of this manor. You may know of my family?”
“I am sure I must Mr Johnstone”, she smiled and took the top off her Parker pen.
“Call me Horo, all my friends do. Now, shall we begin?”
Lunsford sat down, straining to hear every detail.
“Question 1: Mother’s Maiden Name?”
“Helena Pisula, God rest her soul”.
“Question 2: Father’s Full Name?”
“Brenton Fitzwilliam, damn his eyes to hell”.
“You didn’t get on with your father?” She sounded to Lunsford as if she wanted to comfort Fawley.
“He was a vicious swine, a drunk and a philanderer, but let us go on with the next question”.
“Date of birth?”
“I wish I knew”.
“I beg your pardon, Mr… Horo”.
“I wish I could tell you. You see shortly after I came into the world, my father murdered my mother in a sotted fit of jealousy. He gave himself up to the police and put me into the care of the state who then put me into the care of two cruel aunts who never told me my true age. Instead they made me sleep in the attic and tend to their garden. Thankfully I was able to make my escape with the help of my only friend, Mr William Wonklestein. To this day I am unable to say if I am twenty or twenty-thousand years of age”.
Sister Helen felt that somehow something was wrong, “Please Mr Johnstone, I believe that you’re not taking this process seriously, surely a man like you know how old he is”, this was not a question.
“Sister, may I call you Sister, not everything in this new age we inhabit is as simple as one might hope. Let’s say that my birthday was September 25th, 1957 would that help your survey?”
“Please call me Miss Cousins, and yes thank you”, she felt certain that he had provided her with the correct information, after all why wouldn’t he? “Now, if we may move along”.
“We may. What is your next question?”
“Question 5: where was your place of birth?”
He answered quickly, Adelaide was clawing at his leg, and the game was getting boring, “Crosschester, the Royal County Hospital”.
“Excellent, excellent. Next question”, what followed were a series of questions about which diseases, illnesses, breaks, sprains and fractures Fawley had suffered from since childhood. He answered with random yeses and nos as the fancy took him. Sister Helen prepared to finish, turning to a new set of questions she explained, “These data are aimed at getting a more national picture of what people want from the National Health Service. Please answer honestly”, he nodded. She began.
“Does the National Health Service do enough for British natives? Yes, No or Don’t Know?”
“I don’t know”, said Fawley, who didn’t care.
“Are hearing aids luxury items or should they be funded at the expense of taxpayers?”
“I think they should be tax funded, same as spectacles, callipers all that sort of thing”.
She frowned and made a note.
“Would you be in favour of State funding to remove the threat of hereditary disease and ease the burden on families? Yes or No?”
“Could you explain a little more about what you mean?” Upstairs, Lunsford was keen to hear the answer.
“It’s good that you asked, many people don’t show an interest. What we mean in the case of this questionnaire is that if it was possible for the Health Service to ease the pain of families afflicted by crippling or otherwise preventably damaging issues would you be in favour of this?” Her pen was poised over the tickboxes.
“That sounds like a wonderful idea”, Fawley nodded.
Sister Helen smiled and nodded.
“Last question, and think deeply please before you answer. This is not simply about your own family but the nation as a whole and, of course, the happiness of our children specifically, do you understand?”
“I think so, yes”, said Fawley who was bored.
Lunsford was leaning comfortably against the wall, his hangover marginalised by the fact that he wouldn’t have to deal with this woman and all these questions.
Sister Helen said, “If you were to be told that a child of yours was going to be born a cripple, in such pain as to make it incapable of contribution to the wider society when it reached the age of majority, and of such a diversion of valuable resources prior to this age that it would threaten the care of happier and healthier children, would you consider a termination of the pregnancy to ensure the greater good?” she took a breath.
Fawley thought about the question. Lunsford considered it.
“That’s an exceptionally long question, Miss Cousins. Very lengthy. If I’m being honest with you, I went into it with the full expectation of coming out the other end with an answer but I have to admit that I got lost halfway through. And now I don’t quite know where I am”.
He put his index finger to his bottom lip because, as far as he was aware, that’s what people did when they were thinking deeply about something and he didn’t want there to be any confusion. He didn’t want her to think he was being rude or simply drifting off to think about something else.
“Could you simplify it for me?”
“I’m afraid not, no Mr Johnstone. After a great deal of thought, and considering all the possible interpretations, it was decided that this was the optimum way of describing the question and reaching a reasonable set of answers”.
Sister Helen wanted this question answered because it went to the heart of the petition that she was hoping to send to the government in Westminster. It was the key to her endeavours.
“Oh, I see, I think. What was the question again?” Fawley always thought the absolute best in people. In his experience of travelling the world, it took a great deal more effort and commitment to be rotten than it did just to get on with things. So, he had honestly not understood the question, which appeared to have very many cracks in its foundations. Maybe he was wrong.
Sister Helen had considered the gentleman to be of above average intelligence at the start of this questionnaire. She had a niggling feeling that something was up. However, the statistics were hungry for data rather than specific people, so nothing lost there. She tried to imagine how she could simplify the question, maybe that was all to the good in fact. Maybe it would help harvest more potent data because, if she was honest, the low quality of interviewees she’d had to contend with hadn’t inspired her.
“I will try, Horo. Would you terminate the result of a successful copulation if you knew that the issue would be unable to contribute to the wider society? That it would in fact be a drain not only on your family but on normal children?”
Fawley was still flummoxed but he didn’t want to disappoint the woman who appeared from the look in her eyes and the deepening colour of her cheeks to be greatly concerned with his answer.
“How do you mean?” he asked.
Upstairs Lunsford had nodded off. Adelaide had gone back into the kitchen and was curled up, dreaming of fields and running.
Sister Helen looked at Fawley in disbelief, raising one eyebrow.
“Do you mind me asking you something”, Fawley felt stupid, he felt awful. He’d been so concerned with himself and his thoughts that he’d totally forgotten about the woman.
“Please”, she was exasperated, “do. What would you like to know?”
“Is there something wrong with your child?”, he held out his hand to hold hers and then thought better of it. Just touching people like that was often not very appreciated especially not in England.
“I, you, I… what? I don’t have any children”, she was stunned.
“Oh. I don’t understand the question then. Do you mean if there was some magical way we could see into the future of our child and see for certain that they were going to do harm to people, would we stop them being born? I’d have to see the magic really. I’d also have to see why my child did the harm in the first place and try to stop it”.
“No. No, I do not mean any such thing. There is no magic here!”
Fawley tilted his head slightly and pursed his lips.
She continued, “I am talking about science. Science!”
“Oh”, he felt foolish but relieved, “I’d like to see the science then”.
“There is no science yet!” she seethed. “We are imagining it!” Lunsford woke up with a jerk and his head spun.
Fawley smiled, and skipped very slightly on one leg, “Then I will imagine that all the kids are happy then”.
Sister Helen looked at him the same way she looked at all idiots, with anger.
“Please pass my card to Mr Lunsford on his return and tell him he needs to make an urgent appointment”, she handed him a card that she’d had printed some months before at her own expense, one of 20.
“He’s a very busy man”, Fawley assumed a faux serious tone, and held out the letters. Look, according to this postmark this letter is from one of his Naval Intelligence contacts in Birmingham. And this one”, he examined a letter from an insurance company in Rhyl, “looks as if it’s from a government.
“Can you please ensure that Mr Lunsford reads my letter as soon as he returns from Italy. It is imperative that I am able to assess his fitness and complete the valuable work of public health currently being carried out for this area”.
“Madam”, Fawley sounded steely for the first time, “what is your name? Who are you working for? What is your angle?”
“Your angle” he interrupted before she could build up a head of self-righteousness. “I don’t see any official looking imprimatur on this letter. There is no seal, no notification, there is nothing at all to tell anybody that it comes from The Health Service. It is hand-addressed. It is in a white envelope. All official documentation in this Great Britain of ours is, proudly ours I may say, are always enveloped in beige or brown. I demand sight of your credentials and the title and name of your chief of staff immediately madam. As a citizen of this nation of free people I have that right as stated in Magna Carta, ratified in the Enclosures Act, and re-ratified in The EEC and the Single European Act of 1973”.
Sister Hel was aghast. Nobody in this benighted village had ever had the temerity to question her authority. Yet here she stood in front of this young man – although his darkening eyes suggested he should be much, much older – in her freshly ironed uniform and notes obviously with both inherent status and natural authority, only to be questioned and arrogantly so. She wasn’t standing for it but as she was about to speak the tall man indicated the door.