Difficult People

Extracted from a novel by Edward Picot

Synopsis: Dr Storey, a single-handed GP working in rural Kent, is becoming so stressed that sometimes he can't breathe.

His patients are driving him mad, especially his two most difficult ones, Mrs Dempster and her schizophrenic daughter Sally. His wife Jane is bossy, argumentative and sexually uncooperative. His daughter Emily outwits him at every turn. And the NHS seems to be going from bad to worse. Secretly, he dreams of leaving the medical profession and earning his living as a market gardener.

Then an opportunity comes his way. He publishes a letter of protest - about the Government's plans for out-of-hours cover - in a medical magazine. The BBC picks up on it, and sends a reporter to interview him for the television news. This reporter, an ambitious young woman called Kirsty Short, invites him to take part in a documentary series about General Practice. But she also seems to be trying to seduce him.

In the meantime Jane has been entrusted by her mother - who's off on holiday - with the care of a ninety year old relative called Aunty Kate. Jane wants to give her a treat, so she decides to cook her a meat pudding. Her mother warns her in advance that rich food may not suit the old lady, but Jane, too stubborn to back down, insists on going through with her plan.

Normally Jack didn’t drink on Wednesday night, because it was one of his nights on call; but the second person to ring him up and congratulate him was Dr Narayan from Steepleton. “You should take the rest of the evening off and celebrate,” suggested Dr Narayan. “Transfer your calls to me.”

“Oh, no,” said Jack. “You don’t want to be chasing round after my patients all night long. It’s meant to be your evening off.”

“Yes yes yes,” insisted Dr Narayan in his rapid way. “Come along, come along. You’re not on television every day, you know. Take the evening off and have a drink! You must, you must! You deserve it!”

Jack couldn’t help feeling that he really did deserve it, so he gave in. He punched out the call-transfer code on his telephone, then fetched a bottle of red wine from the pantry, and two glasses from the cupboard in the kitchen.

“Percy’s agreed to take my calls for the evening,” he explained to Jane as he went back into the living-room. “Isn’t that kind of him? So now we can have a bit of a celebration. Do you want a glass of wine?”

“It’s a bit late to start drinking, isn’t it?” said Jane disapprovingly, glancing at her watch.

Jack looked at his own watch in turn. “It isn’t even half-past nine yet! Come on, Jane, don’t be such a killjoy. I’m not on telly every day, am I?”

“No, you have a drink if you want,” said Jane. “I don’t fancy one. I’m off to bed in a minute.”

“You miserable bugger. Won’t you even have one drink with me? I wish you would. It won’t be much of a celebration if I’m sitting here on my own.”

“Don’t be so pathetic, Jack. If you want a drink, you can perfectly well have one my yourself. I don’t see why you have to drag me into it, when I’m just about ready for bed and I don’t even fancy a drink in the first place.

“But I won’t enjoy it so much if I’m drinking alone! Especially not if you just sit there disapproving, with your arms folded and your lips pursed, looking exactly like your horrible mother.”

Jane uncrossed her arms and did her best to smile a free-and-easy smile. “I’m not being disapproving, Jack. Honestly, if you want a drink and a bit of a celebration then go ahead and have one. I’m just not in the mood for anything alcoholic myself. But don’t forget you’ve still got to get up for work tomorrow morning,” she added, in a more admonitory tone. “You can’t afford to get rat-arsed.”

“I’m not going to get rat-arsed,” said Jack, who by this time was pulling the cork out of the bottle. “I’m just going to sit here, and watch a couple of hours of telly, and drink a couple of glasses of wine. I videoed an old Western the weekend before last, and I haven’t had a chance to watch it yet. Hour of the Gun - it’s supposed to be a really good one, all about Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday. I think I’ll watch that.”

“Lots of people shooting each other,” said Jane, unconsciously refolding her arms and repursing her lips.

“Yeah,” said Jack, not registering his wife’s disapproval, because he was rummaging eagerly in the cupboard under the television. “Loads of shooting. Bad guys biting the dust. Will you sit and watch it with me?”

“It doesn’t really sound like my kind of thing, Jack.”

“Oh, please, darling. Just share the moment with me.”

She sighed. “I’ll sit and watch the start; but if it’s too violent, I’m off to bed.”

It was too violent. She got up and left after the first half-hour, declaring that the film was horrible. Jack was too absorbed by that time to pay much attention. The main effect of her departure was to leave him free to finish the rest of the red wine, the last drops of which slid down his throat - ironically enough - just as the film came to an end, with Doc Holliday drinking himself to death in a primitive nursing home on the Mexican border.

Jack looked at his watch, and realised with a slight shock that it was getting late. He heaved himself out of his chair, and somehow almost fell over the coffee table, which was standing in the middle of the room about four feet away. The empty wine-bottle was on it, and when he bashed against the table-edge the bottle began to sway and teeter about in an alarming manner, but he managed to grab hold of it before it fell. After that, he stood up straight and kept perfectly still for about thirty seconds. No: it was all right: he wasn’t drunk. Not properly drunk. He was at the stage where everything happened rather quickly, that was all. And things kept looming up on him. Whichever part of the room he looked at, it seemed to come looming towards him. Even the brightness of the electric light was looming through the air more vividly and urgently than usual. And his thoughts - his thoughts were looming up in his mind, big and important, one after the other, but with no obvious connection between one thought and the next.

After a while he decided, very sensibly, and with a strong feeling of self-approbation because he was being so sensible, to go into the kitchen and drink a pint of water before he went to bed. So he picked up the empty wine-bottle and his glass very carefully, and walked very carefully through the hall and the dining-room. Despite all his care, he arrived in the kitchen rather suddenly and with a kind of a swoop; and having arrived, he couldn’t immediately remember what he was supposed to do next. Luckily, he noticed a bottle of port on top of the fridge, which one of the patients had given him a few weeks earlier, and he realised that the next thing to do was to pour himself a large one out of it. And once he’d poured the large one, and taken a couple of sips - rather sickly, but otherwise very satisfying - he remembered, by another stroke of luck, that another of his patients, even longer ago, had given him a bundle of genuine Cuban cigars, which he had accepted merely as a courtesy, because really he didn’t smoke. This seemed like the ideal moment to try one of them, though; so he swooped into the pantry, found the cigars and a box of matches on the top shelf, and came swooping back out again.

With his cigars, his box of matches and his glass of port, he swooped himself into a chair at the dining-room table. Then there was a long fumbly interval during which he tried to unwrap the cigars. The plastic wrapper gave way all of a sudden in the end, and the cigars went rolling all over the table-top. He picked one up, but he couldn’t remember what to do about piercing the end; so he bit it off like the cowboys did, which was revoltingly bitter and left it all ragged; and then he couldn’t think what to do about an ashtray, and he couldn’t be bothered to fetch a saucer from the kitchen, so eventually he carefully took at the fruit out of the china fruit-bowl on the table and used that; and then he sat and smoked his cigar and drank his port. The port got more and more sickly with each mouthful he took, while the cigar-smoke was intensely thick and brackish and burned his mouth and his eyes and made him cough terribly. But apart from that it was all extremely satisfactory.

After an indefinite period he sat up straight with a shock, and realised that he must have been asleep. His glass was empty, but there was still a lot of his cigar left and it was still burning. As a matter of fact, he realised after a moment or two, while he had been sitting there with his arms crossed and the cigar tucked between the fingers of his right hand, it had burned a large hole in the front of his jumper. That was a nuisance, but he couldn’t be bothered to think about it now; in fact he had a bleary expectation that when he woke up in the morning the hole might not be there any more. He looked at his watch again: it was now well past midnight. He thought longingly of his bed, but it seemed an immense distance away. However, he staggered to his feet eventually, threw the remains of his cigar out of the window - not wanting to stub it out in the china fruit-bowl - and then began to plod his way upstairs. He had to drag himself up with the aid of the bannister. The swooping sensation which had accompanied all his movements earlier had now worn off, and in its place a tremendous heaviness had come over him.

When he got to the top, he stumbled into the bathroom, went to the toilet and brushed his teeth. Then he undressed extremely slowly out on the brightly-lit landing, because he was frightened of waking Jane if he tried to take off his clothes in the darkness of the bedroom. Then, leaving his things in a heap at the top of the stairs, he crept into the bedroom, up to the side of the bed, and slid himself beneath the duvet.

Jane woke up immediately. “Poo, Jack,” she said, “you absolutely stink of alcohol. What time is it?”

“I dunno,” mumbled the Doctor. “After twelve.”

“My goodness! What on earth have you been doing?”

“I fell asleep at the table.”

“I hope you didn’t finish that entire bottle of wine.”

“Shut up, Jane. I want to go to sleep.”

But Jane, instead of shutting up, propped herself on one elbow and stared and him through the gloom. She gave several loud, suspicious sniffs. “What’s that I can smell? Have you been smoking a cigar?”

“Yes,” said Jack shortly. He lay on his back with his eyes closed, wishing she would leave him alone, and trying to conquer a slow nauseous spinning sensation.

“You idiot, Jack. You’d better not be sick. If you’re going to be sick, you can just bugger off to the spare room.”

“I’ll be perfectly all right if you stop nagging me and let me go to sleep.”

“Well, don’t expect me to sympathise when you feel terrible in the morning.”

“I never expect you to sympathise under any circumstances, darling,” he replied thickly.

“I just think you’re a complete idiot, Jack, I really do.”


“Well, you’ve got nobody to blame but yourself,” she observed, in a voice which sounded so much like her mother that he almost said so out loud. He managed to resist the temptation, however - recognising, even in his present state, that he wouldn’t be allowed any peace until he let her have the last word - and to his relief she lay down again without any further remark. Almost immediately, he could tell by her breathing that she had gone back to sleep.

Jack lay awake for some minutes longer, still struggling against the illusion that he was spinning slowly round and round. Eventually he remembered an old trick of his father’s. He stuck out his right leg from underneath the duvet, and placed his foot on the floor. It worked: he felt steadier straight away: and even though his right leg was now rather cold, he fell asleep a few moments later.

He woke up - after what seemed like only a short time - with a lurching, panicky foreknowledge that he was about to vomit.

He jumped out of bed, and his right leg gave way. It was full up to the hip with a boneless mixture of static electricity and blood pudding. In spite of this, he somehow managed to blunder across the room, wrench open a door and throw himself through it - straight into something impenetrably dark and soft and solid. There was a clash of metal, and an avalanche of heavy material. He had thrown himself into the wardrobe, and the clothes were coming down on top of him.

He staggered back out again. Jane was sitting up in bed and saying something as sharp as the edge of a tin, but he didn’t have time to listen because the vomit was surging up his throat and scalding the back of his nose. He could taste the port and cigar far more vividly now than he had done the first time around. He managed to find the door to the landing, and lurched through the brightness towards the bathroom, only to fall over the pile of clothes at the top of the stairs. He pitched forward onto his hands and knees, his mouth and cheeks filling up, and a trickle of something which burned like acid coming out of his nose - scrambled into the bathroom like an animal, threw himself forward until his head was over the bowl of the toilet, and let it all come surging out, with a roar like a wounded lion.

When the spasm was over he heard Emily’s voice from the other side of the landing.

“Mummy! Daddy woke me up! What’s he doing?”

“He’s being sick, darling,” replied Jane in her most abrasive tones. “He drank a whole bottle of wine all by himself, and smoked a great big cigar, and now he’s made himself terribly ill. That was stupid of him, wasn’t it?”

“Yes,” agreed Emily, terribly grumpy at having been woken up. “Horrible Daddy.”

“Come in with me, darling. Stupid old Daddy can go and sleep in the spare room, and then he won’t disturb us if he has to be sick again.”

Jack said nothing, but reached up to flush the toilet, with his head still dangling over the bowl. The cold water rushed and swirled, and the droplets spattering onto his face made him feel a little bit better. When he could move, he was going to go downstairs and force himself to drink two pints of water, which was what he should have done in the first place.

©1999 by Edward Picot

Want to read the whole novel? Why not place an order?