“He’s at it again!” Muriel Hornbellows announced angrily. “Half past seven on Sunday morning! There’s no peace!”
Burton Hornbellows groaned and pulled a pillow over his head. His wife’s obsession with their neighbour’s DIY activities was more irksome to him than the sound of hammering that vibrated through his bed frame.
True, since Doctor Weem had moved into their quiet Plushbrough street peace had been a much rarer commodity. His neighbours concluded that his complete makeover of the little terraced house had to end eventually, so they tolerated the sawing, the grinding, and endless deliveries from lorries, even the one that disgorged a complete wagon full of concrete through the good doctor’s front door. From the evidence of splintered floorboards in his back yard they deduced that he had filled his old cellar and laid the ground floor to concrete. This despite publican Harry Bugle’s observation that, if the four lorry loads of soil leaving the property were anything to go by, the depth of the cellar must have been increased rather than filled. Then there was the ironwork – a substantial load of steel joist – after delivery of which Weem’s windows flashed with sparks from acetylene cutters for a month and a half.
There were reasons for the doctor’s neighbours to bite their tongues, not least of which was grudging admiration, for he was working alone at what everyone supposed was a major building project behind those closed green curtains. Then again, as their local medical practitioner, Doctor Weem had a certain power over them. Should they be too vocal in their complaints, they feared repercussions. His was a National Health Service surgery; dissenters could be struck off. And anyway, it had to end soon, didn’t it?
After four years, it hadn’t.
“Look at ‘im!” Muriel Hornbellows muttered as an aside to her neighbour Clara Gusset as the slightly built, bespectacled doctor shuffled deferentially past them on the far side of the street. “I don’t know where he gets the energy!”
“Well, he do save a lot in prescriptions what he don’t write.” Clara opined. “An’ there’s a powerful lot as were regular customers for ‘un afore he came, who’s on no bugger’s list but St. Peter’s now.”
“That’s true.” Muriel acknowledged. “He’s lost another one. Susan Garflute passed on t’other night.”
“I’m tellin’ you. One day, like that..” Muriel made a vertical gesture with her hand. “Next day…”
“She only went to see him for a boil on her neck.”
In spite of its small population, Plushbrough had become a Klondike for the undertaking profession, and three new parlours had opened since the benevolently smiling Doctor Weem had taken over medical practice in the town. His snap diagnoses were the stuff of legend – invariably inspired, and frequently wrong. His keen diagnostic eye identified the only epidemic of dengue fever ever to strike an English country town, though he had to stoutly resist a visiting second opinion’s verdict, that of common influenza. When Albert Sloopwater developed sickness and a cough the local water company had to counter Weem’s diagnosis of cholera, an exercise that cost them several hundreds of thousands of pounds.
At the time of Muriel Hornbellows’ Sunday morning observation a public enquiry into Weem’s competence had been in progress for some time. There was an inevitability about the verdict it would reach, and everyone felt sure his days were soon to be numbered. Yet there were sympathetic voices: his gentle charisma had built him a substantial vote of support and public sympathy.
“Yer house must be coming on, Doctor dear!” Hettie Boosey challenged him, as he eyed a large television in the window of TV World speculatively.
“Nearly finished!” Was Weem’s smiling response.
“I expect it’ll look marvellous when it’s done.” Hettie was never shy of an opportunity. “You’ll have to invite me round, dear. I’m good with wallpaper, you know.”
Speculation was rife. Whenever the doctor was known to be in surgery, a small gathering would form outside his home, probing for a peek between those thick green curtains.
“It’ll be minimalist, certainly;” Gwen Hawkes opined. “He’s a minimalist man, you can see that, can’t you?”
Jack Spencer was of a different opinion: “More of a brutalist approach, I’d say. And industrial – yes, industrialist!” Jack saw himself as a man with a superior artistic sense. “All that concrete, you know. And a lot of sheet metal he had delivered the other day, didn’t he?”
While the British Medical Association minutely scrutinised Doctor Weem’s unusual record, his neighbours watched his remodelling efforts with equal intensity. But everyone missed the two large lorries that slipped quietly up to his house at three-thirty one morning. They made their deliveries silently, they departed unnoticed.
The next morning Doctor Weem found two visitors waiting at his surgery. One wore a police uniform.
“We’ve been looking into your past, Doctor.” The suited man from the BMA told him severely. “And you haven’t got one, have you? No medical training, no qualifications, and no previous experience as a general practitioner; although we suspect you are the Mr. Harbinger who passed himself off as a consultant cardiologist at St. Bretts in 1998. Anything to say?”
Doctor Weem had nothing to say. His patients were sent home and so, after lengthy questioning and a successful application for bail, was he. He was watched accusingly as he entered his front door, locking it behind him.
“I told you so!” Hettie Boosey said triumphantly.
“I knew right from the start!” Said Clara Gusset. “He’s a wrong ‘un, that ‘un, and no mistake!”
“Maybe us’ll get some peace now!” Muriel Hornbellows said, gratefully.
She was mistaken.
The rumble began at two o’clock the next morning. Merely a threat at first, like distant thunder, it grew to an earth-shattering, ear-splitting crescendo. What at first was a vibration in Burton’s bed frame became a shaking of epic proportions, so violent Muriel could not keep her feet to get to her window – and this alone was fortunate because had she done so the white light would surely have blinded her.
Mortar loosened, glass splintered, chimney stacks tottered. The parked cars in the street were tossed into the air. In a final orgy of quaking noise the little houses around the residence of Doctor Weem were flattened like a procession of dominoes, and Muriel, along with Hettie, Clara, Jack, Gwen and many others did find the peace they had been seeking.
So the undertakers of Plushbrough rubbed their hands together, ready to reap the good doctor’s final harvest, and alone of all the street, Burton Hornbellows – saved by his iron bedstead – stood gazing dumbly at the vast crater that was all that remained of Doctor Weem’s house. It took him a while, shocked as he was, to understand the meaning of the concrete pit within that crater, but at last he found an answer. He raised his eyes to the heavens and he almost laughed.
The strange radar signal remained on screens at several tracking stations in the northern hemisphere for some days, but it was slowly fading and, with other more important projects to pursue, was soon forgotten by the scientific community.
As for Weem, I cannot tell you – I simply don’t know. That his crude, almost comic home-built launch platform actually worked is beyond doubt. Something contributed that faint signal. Did he survive? If he did, for how long? We’ll probably never find out. But, sorry as I am for those his extreme focus destroyed, I sort of like to think of him in his capsule out there among the glory of the stars, polishing steam from his glasses so he might better see Jupiter or Neptune, with his face set in that gentle, respectful smile.
© Frederick Anderson 2016. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Frederick Anderson with specific direction to the original content.