Anne Goodwin’s debut novel, Sugar and Snails, about a woman who has kept her past identity a secret for thirty years, was published in July...read more 2015 by Inspired Quill. Her second novel, Underneath, about a man who keeps a woman captive in his cellar, is scheduled for May 2017. A former clinical psychologist, she is also the author of over 60 published short stories, a book blogger and speaker on fictional therapists and on transfiction.
Arthur Jekyll was a doctor. Of course he was, how could he be otherwise, when both his parents, and their parents before them, had been doctors? What other options did he have when all the terrors and comforts of his formative years had been accompanied by a heavy dose of familial doctoring?
The general consensus at the hospital was that Arthur was a good doctor: one who could soothe the most fretful patient with the kiss of his stethoscope. Nurses abandoned all hope of a social life for the chance to work alongside him, happy to negotiate their attendance at weddings and school sports days around Dr Jekyll’s duty roster. Managers were emboldened to kick off their shoes and turn away from the computers on their desks to contemplate the flowerbeds in the car-park after reviewing his monthly outcome reports.
Arthur strode the hospital corridors with the air of a man who was fulfilling his destiny. And doing it well. Smiling. Until one of those viruses that do the rounds each winter wormed its way through his defences and he had to take a few days off sick.
So what? Doctors can get sick just like anyone else. Even those, like Arthur, with doctoring antibodies circulating in their bloodstream since infancy. And it was only your bog-standard flu: unpleasant and debilitating but no big deal for a not-too-unfit man of forty-three. A few days in his pyjamas watching mindless sitcoms should have seen to it. Should have.
Battling his aching limbs between sheets soggy with sweat, the thought came to Arthur that he was tired of doctoring. This thought surprised and unnerved him but, once it was out, he could hardly unthink it. The more he thought, the more he realised that he hated doctoring, and everything about it. He hated the patients who would piss on him and shit on him until he had exorcised the pestilence from their bodies. He hated his retinue of puppy-eyed students who sucked like leeches on his every word and gesture. He hated the bureaucrats who could flip from friend to fuehrer at the drop of a Department of Health directive.
“I want out,” he told his wife when she brought him his scrambled eggs on toast. “I’ll do any other job, sweep the streets, anything. I just don’t want to go back to that hospital.”
Sheila wiped his brow with a cool flannel and made sympathetic noises. But she knew that, even if she were to work full-time, it wouldn’t be enough to pay the mortgage and keep their two kids in pizzas and videogames. “We’ll discuss it when you’re better,” she said.
For all his delirium, Arthur knew he couldn’t get better until the doctoring problem was sorted. So Sheila came up with a compromise: Arthur would keep his job but, every other weekend, instead of carrying out his duties as husband and father, he would do his own thing. It didn’t matter what, they agreed, as long as it took his mind off doctoring and didn’t entail breaking faith with his marriage vows. Sheila would look after the kids, as usual.
Arthur spent the last day of his sick-leave musing on how to use this gift of free time. Any hobbies had long been cast aside to make space for studying, interminable hours on-call and, later, changing the occasional nappy. So it was not without anxiety, and some embarrassment, that he kissed Sheila and the kids goodbye on the first Friday evening of his part-time new life. But the farther he drove away from their neat suburban house the lighter he began to feel. The burden of his responsibilities slipped off him with each mile of tarmac. His weekend in an anonymous Travelodge under an assumed name -- his associations to Mr Hyde were of a damp wooden hut from which men with binoculars could spy on the wildlife, rather than the dangerous alter ego of his namesake in the story -- was as relaxing as a holiday in some tropical paradise. Arthur realised that, until that weekend, he had not known the meaning of the word bliss. Nothing could match the feeling it gave him: not his graduation; not his wedding; nor even the birth of his two beautiful children. It was like a shot of morphine, with no unwanted side-effects.
His excursions soon became incorporated into the Jekyll family routine. On alternate Friday evenings, Arthur drove off in the Mercedes, bummed around, and came home again forty-eight hours later. He didn’t go anywhere in particular, just any place where no one knew him as Dr Jekyll. First he stayed in cheap hotels, then in youth hostel dormitories, and then -- inspired by an unusually warm and dry summer -- he slept out in the open, with a large bin-bag to ward off the morning dew. This wasn’t about saving money; more seeking out a lifestyle as different as possible to that bequeathed to him by his parents and grandparents. He parked the car in some out of the way place and set off walking with little thought about where he might end up. As he grew more confident, he added amusing challenges: surviving all weekend on whatever money he could make busking (not much); posing as a deaf-mute who didn’t know sign language (serenely isolating); avoiding all objects and places beginning with D (an intellectual version of not stepping on the cracks in the pavement).
Much to her surprise, Sheila saw their marriage strengthen and the children blossom as Arthur became a more contented man. She began to conspire in protecting this other life: scouring the charity shops for I’m-not-a-doctor clothing; absolving him from the responsibility of phoning home; and concocting clever cover-stories lest friends or family should try to make contact while he was off on his travels.
Furthermore, his unconventional mini-breaks seemed to make Arthur an even better doctor, were that possible. He might have arrived home on a Sunday evening looking and smelling like a bath-phobic down-and-out, but at eight o’clock the next morning he’d be sporting his white coat and stethoscope with extra conviction. Having found the perfect balance between freedom and responsibility, his work was once again a pleasure.
When the post of Medical Director fell vacant, colleagues were queuing up to persuade Arthur to apply. And why not? He had all the necessary experience and qualifications. He submitted his application without a word to Sheila. He wanted his promotion to be a surprise for her, a vindication of his unorthodox hobby. And, on the slight chance of his not being offered the post, her ignorance would shield her from any disappointment.
The interview was scheduled for nine o’clock on a Monday morning. The old Arthur would have spent the previous weekend doing a dry-run with a colleague, and swotting over the latest policy documents downloaded from the Department of Health website. But the new Arthur was aware that the best preparation was to get well away from all that, to retreat into his other identity in order to return completely refreshed.
On Friday evening he set off down the motorway as usual, Woody Guthrie on the CD player, and nothing about his person to identify him as Dr Jekyll, soon-to-be -- if all went well -- Medical Director. After sleeping on the back seat of the Mercedes in a secluded coastal car-park, he hid his keys among a pile of rocks and set off walking at first light.
As he tramped the cliff-top paths in the drizzle, he waited for the usual sense of euphoria to sweep over him. It didn’t happen. He’d successfully sloughed off Dr Jekyll but neither the chorus of seagulls nor the whisper of the waves against the rocks could conjure the spirit of his alter ego from his hiding place. But he wasn’t overly downhearted. He’d spent enough weekends avoiding Dr Jekyll to have faith in their capacity to revitalise him, regardless of how active a part Mr Hyde might play in the process.
Arthur spent a restless Saturday night under the inadequate protection of a municipal bandstand dreaming of the candlewick bedspreads and Full English Breakfasts of his childhood holiday B&Bs. He had little enthusiasm for rambling the next day. He was cold and hungry, and the slight throbbing above his right temple warned him of an impending headache. He decided to take a train to a station close to where he’d left the car and aim to be home in time to help the kids with their homework and scan the job description before tomorrow’s interview.
It didn’t worry Arthur that he had no money for a ticket. He knew that these small trains often didn’t have a guard at weekends. Were he to encounter one, he would say he’d lost his wallet. He recalled a colleague’s tale of this very situation en route to a conference in Brighton. The guard had simply taken his name and address and he’d been able to pay up when his wallet turned up in the laundry basket a few days later.
Arthur boarded the train and sat down beside a woman in a shiny raincoat. She sniffed the air and promptly got up to squeeze in beside a pregnant teenager across the aisle. Arthur shrugged and settled down into the fuggy warmth of the carriage. He was looking forward to seeing Sheila and the kids again.
He didn’t realise he’d fallen asleep until he felt someone shaking him roughly by the shoulder. “Ticket please.”
Arthur explained he didn’t have a ticket, nor his wallet, but would happily leave his name and address.
The guard frowned. “I wasn’t born yesterday.”
Just roused from sleep, Arthur struggled to make the transition back to the rule-bound world of Dr Jekyll. “Pardon?”
“How would I know it was the right address?”
Feigning absorption in their newspapers, their babies or their egg-and-cress sandwiches, the other passengers listened in.
“I’d give you my word,” said Arthur.
The guard rolled his eyes. “How do I know you even have an address?”
“No fixed abode, more like,” said his ex-neighbour, the shiny-raincoat woman.
“Look, you can trust me, I’m a doctor.”
People laughed. Well, it was a bit of a cliché.
“And I’m the Prime Minister,” said the guard.
A woman twisted round from the seat ahead. She smiled at Arthur with tangerine-painted lips. “Just show him some form of ID.”
Arthur slapped at his second-hand fisherman’s jacket and dirty ill-fitting trousers, trying to conjure up some doctor-documentation from imaginary pockets. “I don’t have any.” It was a pity he’d left his car keys behind, although the guard may not have been reassured by evidence of the tramp’s access to a Mercedes.
The train slowed down as it approached the station.
“Listen, sir,” said the guard, “let’s have no more fuss. You get off here and we’ll say no more about it.”
Arthur glanced out of the window as the station sign came into view. Still two more stops before the one he wanted. He grabbed his rucksack in preparation to alight from the train, while the woman from the seat in front nodded in encouragement. But when he tried to stand, he felt his head pounding and a wave of nausea overwhelmed him. Even if he were to stumble off the train, it would be an arduous trek to his car in this state. “You could phone my wife. She’d vouch for me.”
The guard sighed. “Wait there.” The train came to a halt and the guard left to oversee the passengers getting on and off. He returned as the train started up again. “Where’s your phone, then?”
“I haven’t got one.”
The friendly woman with the orange lipstick passed her mobile back to Arthur. Struggling to focus, he keyed in his home number.
The guard snatched the phone from him. “I’ll do the talking.” A pause, while passengers rustled newspapers, jiggled babies and bit into their sandwiches. “Ah, good afternoon, Mrs …?” He scowled at Arthur.
“Dr Jekyll, that’s a good one.” The locals hadn’t seen such entertainment since the Punch and Judy tents were on the sands. “Mrs Jekyll? I’m sorry to bother you but I’m trying to locate your husband. Is he at home this afternoon? … Dr Jekyll’s away at a conference, you say?” The guard nodded at Arthur’s friend with the tangerine lips. “Flying into Heathrow late tonight? … From the Seychelles?” He raised his eyebrows in the direction of the shiny-raincoat woman. “I wish I had his job! … No thanks, no need to leave a message. … Goodbye, Mrs Jekyll and thank you.”
The woman with orange lipstick shook her head as she took the phone from the guard. “He needs help. You can’t put him off the train in that condition.”
“Don’t worry,” said the guard. “I’ll radio ahead to the next station. Get the police to come and pick him up.”
As the guard scuttled off, Arthur reassured himself that the police would have more important matters to attend to than an off-duty doctor boarding a train without the means to purchase a ticket. When the shiny-raincoat woman met his gaze, he felt brave enough to wink at her.
She turned away with the kind of face his children made when Sheila had allowed some unpalatable food -- olives, maybe, or unadulterated vegetables -- to encroach upon their end of the dining table. Arthur was amused to realise that, to his fellow-passengers, Dr Jekyll was a far less credible character than Mr Hyde.
Tangerine Lips responded to his laughter with an expression of concern. “If I were you, I’d get my story straight before the next station. The police won’t take kindly to your playing games with them.”
“Impersonating a doctor,” Shiny Raincoat told Pregnant Teenager. “That’s against the law.”
Arthur tried to summon up his memories of half-watched police dramas to envisage the probable fate of a smelly vagrant posing as a doctor to avoid paying his fare. Surely the worst that could happen would be a night in the cells deprived of his belt and bootlaces. They’d grant him one phone call -- it was always just the one phone call -- to apologise to Sheila for not being around to read the kids their bedtime story.
All of which would be fine, were it not for the appointment panel assembling in the boardroom eighty miles away around the time the police would be sending him on his way. If he could get a message through to them, they might be willing to reschedule. After all, the gossip at the hospital was that his interview was merely a formality.
The stumbling block was the single phone call; he’d have to ask Sheila to forward his apologies to the panel. He hated to dump more problems on her after all the support she’d given him, he hated to spoil the surprise, but it was the safest option.
The train began to decelerate. “Any sign of the police on the platform?” Shiny Raincoat asked her neighbour.
Arthur felt her disapproval nagging at his temples. He wondered whether being escorted from the train by the police would count as having a criminal record. Were that the case, it wouldn’t be only his promotion at risk, but his entire career. He couldn’t afford a night in the cells; he’d have to rise above his shabby clothes and convince them of his bona fides.
“Four of them,” said Pregnant Teenager, pressing her face against the window as the train approached the station. “No escape.”
Arthur thought how lucky he was to have a wife like Sheila, so determined to find the good in people. But might not she, too, have her limits? Might she be less tolerant of his alternative lifestyle once she saw how it could jeopardise their livelihood? No one would blame Sheila were she to cancel his weekend leave from now on.
Under his second-hand lumberjack shirt, Arthur felt a trickle of sweat run down his back. Because of the irresponsible Mr Hyde, his professional life was in peril. But without him, the ambitious Dr Jekyll might expire from an overdose of doctoring.
The train came to a halt. Tangerine Lips turned round. “You’ve got to cooperate,” she said. “Tell them your real name and everything will be all right.”
Arthur wanted to believe her. Life would be a lot less complicated with just the one name. Perhaps the time had come to jettison his superfluous identity.
A policeman entered the carriage and immediately seemed to pick out the troublesome tramp from among the other passengers. He strolled down the carriage towards Mr Hyde, looking stern and unsympathetic.
Arthur sat back in his seat, feeling almost euphoric as he waited for the constable to come and release him from his baneful doctoring.
First published online at The Rose & Thorn, 2010 (website now defunct).