As soon as Sebastian Henry Bartholomew Skinner entered the room, he felt at a distinct disadvantage. For one thing, his view, limited at the best of times, even behind the lenses of the bleary NHS spectacles which had done him doubtful service for fifteen of his nineteen years ( “ ... four months and a day ...” muttered the doctor to himself ) was completely blocked by a sizable white wall garlanded with a stethoscope and crowned with receding hair. In addition, he felt a little conspicuous - a justifiable sensation, as a huge and curtainless plate-glass window occupied the entire length of one wall, commanding an uninterrupted view of the College over the road. Not that he particularly minded the view, but in the circumstances ... He was very goose-pimply.
“How are you?”
The white wall shook like an earthquake, and the stethoscope leapt aggressively at Skinner. A look of pained surprise crossed his features. This was a blow below the belt. Had he not come here to find out? There was a catch here, somewhere ... He steeled himself, fixed his gaze on an unenlightening diagram of the human ear and said, determined to give nothing away,
“Very well thank you. How are you ?”
Ha! That gave him something to think about! Totally unexpected! But the white wall refused to be perturbed in this nascent battle of wits. It growled deep in its interior and remarked that its name was Dr. Johnston.
Skinner leapt to life, his voice rising to a pitch of feverish excitement.
“You couldn’t be related to Dr. Samuel Johnson?”
“Pardon?” enquired the doctor, and started to examine Skinner’s ears. Skinner was now profoundly agitated.
“I was just wondering ...” he muttered inaudibly, “if he was a distinguished forbear or something.”
The doctor’s own ears were sharp as a hypodermic needle. Deep within, a chain reaction set in and at the climax of an astonishing explosion of unwarranted mirth he declared he would forbear to answer that question. And his had a T, he added. Did Skinner suppose that Dr. Johnson didn’t care for golf?
Skinner, confused, was having difficulty retaining his mental balance. He was envisaging a stout, evil-looking dignitary driving his periwig into a bunker irritatingly short of the nineteenth green.
The doctor took pity on his victim.
“No Tee,” he explained patiently. “You aren’t very quick on the uptake, are you, young man? Sad. Very sad.”
He looked very sad. Such subtleties were wasted on the younger generation these days. Why, when he was a boy ... Perhaps it was the ears. He subjected them once more to a prolonged scrutiny. He had to admit he was Rather a One for Ears. He had done in fact, often. He did now. This upset Skinner, being rather sensitive about his ears, mainly because they were relatively large and of an undeniably curious shape and unparalleled hue. The hue became even more unparalleled when they were exposed to the wind, which was their normal condition.
Now they were slowly mantled with a fierce blush. The effect spread, and Skinner became quite a stunning colour. The blush was fighting with the goosepimples and as a result the unhappy youth looked as though he was undergoing a sudden and serious attack of scarlet fever.
“‘When ‘a was naked,’” murmured the doctor, “‘he looked for all the world like a forked radish ...’” and suppressed a giggle. He was a literary man in his leisure time. He idly wondered if Skinner could be Justice Shallow reincarnate, but decided - not without regret - that the odds were against this interesting phenomenon. With a sigh he turned his attention to Skinner’s chest.
“Thin. aren’t you,” he remarked.
Skinner apologised profusely. It ran in the family, he explained. “But ...” proudly, “ I think I am putting on a little weight!”
The stethoscope planted itself with disbelief on a shivering rib and explored.
Suddenly it stopped, and an expression of dreamy wonder spread over the doctor’s face.
“Remarkable! Absolutely remarkable!”
Skinner quite naturally wished to know what was so remarkable; after all, a fellow has every right to know what is going on inside him. For this intruder to keep such personal information to himself would be most unfair.
“Your heart is vertical,” Dr. Johnston accused.
“Isn’t it meant to be?” asked Skinner in wide-eyed innocence.
“No,” was the retort.” Then the doctor had an interesting thought.
“I say, young man ... if you should meet your end sometime - which I’m sure you will - "
Skinner winced ...
“... you will let me have it, won’t you?”
The doomed youth found this in exceptionally bad taste. His knees knocked hollowly, his toenails dug into the scarred linoleum, and the offending organ felt as though it were trying to get back where it beonged.
“H ... have what?”
Now Sebastian Henry Bartholomew Skinner objected strongly to being referred to as a carcass. He was a young man in his prime. The flower of English youth. His was not an unsound constitution; his asthma only came on about once a week, and he possessed an acute sense of smell. (His family never slept very soundly, owing to his anxious nocturnal peregrinations. Once in fact he did actually discover a small gas leak - fortunately harmless.) He had been injected for mumps at the age of seven and had, as a result, a mild attack - an episode which had dealt a severe blow to his faith in the medical profession, even when he was informed that it might have been Far Worse. He was quite a good walker - except when it was cold and then his knees cracked. He did not feel quite ready to meet his Maker just yet, and said so.
“Never mind!” observed the body-snatcher cheerfully, “Your time will come!” Then his voice dropped, and its tone became more serious.
“You know, we can’t let a unique specimen like you go unpickled, can we?”
Skinner thought we could. However, he managed a weak, wobbly smile, and said he supposed not - but let’s not rush things, shall we? He could have sworn that the doctor gave an evil chuckle as he glanced at the drawer marked SCALPELS ... (no doubt to intimidate all those who entered there with a disposition as cautious as Skinner’s) ... but after one nerve-wracking moment when he was almost, he could swear, forced into an overwhelming black chair which mysteriously materialised from the farthest corner, he was merely obliged to remove his spectacles and read the card on the opposite wall.
“H,” he said.
“Yes, go on ...” said the doctor encouragingly.
“Oh.” The medical man, who had never had any cause to complain about his own eyesight, was nonplussed.
“Well then, I suppose you had better listen to the watch.”
He wrote something down in a disconcertingly deliberate manner; then arose, removed his wrist-watch, and pressed it icily against Sebastian’s hot ear. The ear jerked away, deafened ... and the watch retreated.
A few paces further.
The doctor backed around the table near the window,
He flattened himself against the pane.
Johnston raised his eyebrows, looked anxiously at the drop from the window, and said, “Well, you’d better get up and stand by the door, then.”
The watch shattered on the lino roughly forty feet from where Skinner was now standing, and its owner advanced unsteadily. He murmured, “Never mind about the ‘H’,” and dizzily shook Skinner’s tangled fingers.
There was a babble of girlish voices in the street below the window to whose environs Skinner had now unwillingly returned, and on looking down his gaze met that of six or seven Young Ladies becomingly draped in college scarves over what could be seen of their outdoor clothing. Turning away with a confused blush, the embarrassed, half-clad youth found himself once more deposited in the terrifying chair and requested to submit his feet to the scrutiny of his tormentor.
“Flat,” muttered the latter, settling himself once more to the unloveliness of his client’s physique. Skinner was hurt. He felt that being subjected to the indignity of being told one’s feet were flat when one knew it perfectly well already was not only an insult to the intelligence with which he was generously credited by his family ... he reflected with modest pride ... but Going a Bit Too Far. The next moment he let out an unearthly shriek.
The doctor looked up enquiringly.
“Uh ... I’m afraid I’m a little ticklish around my insteps ...”
“I’m so sorry. It shall not happen again, I promise you...” (... so that was where they were!) Did Skinner detect a hint of irony in the tone?
Meanwhile his persecutor had turned his attention to Sebastian’s toes.
“Long ... almost prehensile!” he whispered.
The owner of the toes was becoming slowly enraged. Long, yes. But Almost Prehensile? If they had been uncompromisingly Prehensile he wouldn’t have minded so much. After all, prehensile toes are of some use. But to add that injurious Almost ... to intimate that his were digits of unnecessary length and of no use whatsoever except to call for an undeservedly large shoe and to get irretrievably stuck down the bath plug ... this entire affair had been too much for Sebastian Skinner, Jr., and when his adversary blew shatteringly down his toenails, watched them twitch, and then with an amused and delighted countenance had the effrontery to observe under his breath, “Ape-like!” the galled youth was goaded to rare fury. This was the last straw! He did what, in the circumstances, was the only thing a self-respecting human being would do ... belted him one up the bracket with the nearest convenient foot, sending the doctor spinning back in a hail of disintegrating instruments, grabbed what he could of his clothing, and beat it.
As he fled down the steep, polished staircase to the main door he caught his left big toe in a trailing trouser-leg and precipitated himself down the remaining eight steps in an inadvisably irregular and damaging manner. He had no time to search for bruises; behind him he heard strangled roars and stayed no longer to ascertain their origin, but scrambled to his feet in undignified haste, dropping a shoe with an appalling clatter, and bolted into the street. It was full of girls. Blind terror gripped him and he flew down the street like a panicky pink whirlwind. His spectacles jumped under a passing car and the other shoe fell heavily on the toe of an outraged fishmonger. In the youth’s wake thundered a horde of excited females. Lining his path was a blur of gesticulating shoppers, rooted in their tracks in shocked astonishment. Ahead of him was a bus waiting at traffic lights next to the NatWest bank. With an enormous effort the whirling limbs clutched and fastened onto the platform rail just as the lights turned green, and Sebastian more or less fell upstairs.
The top deck was empty, and he collapsed gasping like a homeless goldfish on the back seat. When he had regained a little of his breath he proceeded to cram his jacket on. His shirt had got lost in transit. Suddenly the head of the conductor appeared over the top step.
“‘Ere, mate, wot d’yer think yer doin’ undressin’ on my bus? 'Op it, quick!”
“I was just putting my jacket on,” explained Skinner with as much spirit as he could muster.
The bus conductor regarded the pink expanse of bony chest with distaste and remarked, “Yer’ve got no shirt on.”
This was merely stating the obvious, yet it annoyed Skinner intensely. Had he been of a more reckless nature, he would have been moved to sarcasm. As it was, he took refuge in a careful search for his socks, which should have been stuffed up his trousers. The conductor’s gaze descended to Skinner’s knees which somehow, even more than most knees, managed always to look superfluous to the more essential but hardly beautiful regions of his legs.
The legs blushed.
“Where’s yer trousers?”
“Er ... I’m just putting them on,” was the humble reply.
“Why did yer take 'em orf then? Gort up late, did yer?” He waited for an answer but didn’t get one, so went on, “Well whatever yer’ve bin up ter - an’ it looks 'ighly suspicious I must say - yer carn’t go usin’ respectable public transport fer a dressin’-room. Nah, gimme yer fare an’ 'op it quick.”
“I haven’t got any fare.”
By this time Skinner had struggled into his trousers, but on the exploration of various pockets he had brought nothing to light except a drawing-pin (which had been troubling him for days) and an unsavoury-looking handkerchief.
“Look,” suggested the conductor patiently, though that virtue, acquired through sheer necessity in long years of public service, was wearing thin, “If yer’ll git orf my bus nah, I’ll forget abaht it. See?”
Sebastian was grateful, and, being no longer in a state of doubtful respectability, uttering profuse apologies and hearty thanks he tumbled down the stairs and leapt blindly off the bus.
Whether this worthy vehicle was moving or not was of no consequence to a man of Skinner’s mettle; suffice it to say that it was, and this fact, plus the fact that it had no intention of helping him to alight in a normal, unhurried and dignified manner, caused him to land rather ignominiously in the gutter next to a lamp post which in its instant enthusiasm to offer itself as a means of support induced a sweet, dreamless sleep to blot out entirely the afflictions of our weary friend.
When he awoke, something was blocking his view.
He raised his throbbing head from the pillows and squinted at it painfully.
“Go on!” it said, “Ask me where you are!”
“Why should I?” retorted the dazed youth, wondering what was so familiar about this looming white hulk.
“Well, one usually does at such a juncture ... you are abnormal, aren’t you!”
Sebastian fell back foaming in a welter of bedclothes. Life had nothing left to offer him but a nightmare of long, almost prehensile toes and a strange inside. Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori.
He passed out again.