Tuesday 30 October 2012

Dr Jack Lantern's out of hours call

flash of lightning outlined the shape of a car as it made its way down the lane, its occupant carefully steering it through the torrential downpour.  The driver sat forward in his seat as much as he could so that he could see out of the windscreen.  The single wiper swept valiantly back and forth as it desperately tried to clear away the streams of water that poured down the slippery pane of glass. 

The driver loved his old Austin Ruby, but admitted that she had not been the best choice of automobile to take out in the middle of a night such as this.  Built in 1937, he had found her listed in a used car advert in the local paper a year ago, and had had to buy her.  Her bodywork was in excellent condition, having been lovingly cared for, after all she had only had the one owner and had been garaged since she had been purchased.  He had had no choice but to take her out on this night, as his normal everyday car was in the garage in town to get its brake pads replaced.

He had groaned inwardly when he had received the ‘phone call from Mrs Perks, the sound of her urgent voice down the earpiece giving him no choice but to haul himself from the comfort of his warm sheets and to don the clothes that lay across the back of the bedroom chair.  Her husband had died in mysterious circumstances six months earlier, his half-eaten, twisted body found face down in a waterlogged ditch with his bicycle a few feet away.  It had been first thought that he had been a hit and run victim, and that the local wildlife had predated upon his body. However, investigations from the gallant men in blue had revealed no tyre marks upon the road that would have hinted of a sudden brake stop, no revealing paintwork upon the two-wheeled method of transport and no obvious signs on poor Mr Perks’ body.   He had had to certify him dead at the scene, and had known deep down that something did not quite fit, but he had never been able to fathom quite what was wrong. The coroner had filed a report of accidental death, with the cause of the unfortunate man’s demise put down to a mistake in the steering of the bicycle.  After all his body had been found in a ditch on a bend in the road, and he had been reported as missing on a night rather like the one the man was guiding his car through on this particular night.  So, life in the sleepy village of Morcambe-on-the-Moor had settled back to its usual quiet normality. 

The car crossed the boundary of the village and passed the church on its right, St Egbert’s; an Anglo Saxon building encircled by row upon row of crooked, moss-covered, and mainly broken, gravestones and cracked tombs.   Another lightning flash and the side of the defiant structure lit up eerily to reveal its stonework with a brief view of several gargoyles and grotesques. Their contorting faces moved as if made of flesh rather than stone, and they seemed to twitch and mouth obscenities at each other and to whomever else might happen to notice them.  However, there was only one other in the vicinity so to do, and he was too busy watching the road ahead to notice. 

He shuddered, more with cold than anything else.  These old cars had no heating, and although he was wrapped in overcoat, hat, scarf and gloves, the cold was penetrating through the cloth.  He noticed a few lights glowing through the windows in the vicarage next to the church, signalling that at least someone else was burning the midnight oil, and he mused that it was probably the vicar desperately trying to finish his sermon for tomorrow’s Sunday service.  He briefly envisaged the man poring over his paper, pen in one hand, glass of brandy in the other and smiled cynically to himself at the image.

Something ran out in front of the car and he pressed his foot on the brake, causing the Austin to come to a sudden,  jerking halt.  ‘A rabbit,’ he thought to himself.  ‘But surely that was too big for a rabbit?’ he continued the conversation in his mind.  The engine chugged away causing the chassis of the car to gently bounce, as the wiper continued to sweep back to and fro, its hinge looking as if it would break in two at any moment.  ‘Most likely a hare, much too big for a rabbit,’ he surmised.  He was not good on animals.  Human bodies were his thing.  Ask him a question about the adrenal glands and their respective problems, and he could talk for hours (well perhaps not hours but he could keep an audience reasonably interested for 20 minutes or so).  But challenge him on the difference between rabbits and hares and he was completely lost, other than to say that one had bigger ears and boxed with its prospective mating usurpers in the spring. 

He glanced at the passenger seat and the Gladstone bag that sat there, its leather slightly worn at the corners,  the gleam from its dark leather long faded with the years.  It had been his father’s, and his father’s before him and by carrying on the medical tradition in the family, he was happy and felt privileged to be able to utilise it now.  They would be proud of him he had thought, as he had packed it for the first time after he graduated from medical school back in 1952.  That was four years ago, and now he was practising in the small town of Netherwitch, about five miles from Morcambe-on-the-Moor.  As well as Netherwitch, his medical services were sought from four villages in total, which  - oddly enough - were  situated to the four corners of the compass, Morcambe being to the west. 

Another lightning flash, and the road ahead lit up for a startling moment, showing the continual stream of rain as it buffeted the road surface, forming puddles to the side of the road.  But it also brought with it the shape of something else.  And this time it could not possibly be described as a rabbit, or even a hare; it was much too large to  have been either.  He cleared off the condensation that had started to form on the glass of the windscreen with his gloved hand. He leant further forward in his seat until the tip of his nose touched the cold glass,  to try to get a better look, but before he could discern anything, the light afforded by the flash of lightning had gone, leaving just pitch black ahead of him on either side of the beam of the  pale light emanating from his headlights.  ‘I must be seeing things,’ he muttered to himself.  He would never have admitted it to any of his mates, but this  journey was beginning to scare the shit out of him.  Something was wrong ... eerily wrong,  just as it had  been when he had been called out to sign the death certificate for Mr Perks.

He had not been back to the village until now. It consisted of only around twenty occupied  houses, the others had been left to decay, and  those that were left seemed to be inhabited by slightly unusual people. As prospective patients they seemed either to be as healthy as oxen,  or grinned and bared  any aches or pains, or just did not wish to travel to Netherwitch to seek out help, for he rarely had to treat anyone from Morcambe-on-the-Moor. 

Mrs Perks was just one of a handful who had visited his surgery, and she was – as he had put it when handing his secretary her notes to file one day – a rather odd kettle of fish, eccentric to say the least.  Susan, his secretary, had given him a knowing nod as she had taken the notes, and had intimated in her reply that Mrs Perks was not as odd as some of the people who lived in Morcambe-on-the-Moor.  He had quizzed her on this, but in response she would only suggest that he took the time to visit the local library and look up the village’s history.  He had not.  It was not that he was too busy; he wasn’t.   He had quite simply forgotten so to do.

‘Alright, Jack my old son, let’s get moving,’ he said to himself.  ‘There was nothing there just now, it was just shapes formed by the light and the rain.  Pull yourself together, Mrs Perks is waiting for me, so no time to waste.’  And he put his foot on the clutch, changed from neutral to first gear and gently pushed his foot on the accelerator, vacating the clutch as he so did.  The car wobbled into forward motion and soon he was on his way again. 

There were no lights in the village, and everybody – apart from him, Mrs Perks and perhaps the vicar – seemed to be asleep.  Onwards he drove until he saw ahead, on what he could only describe as a natural roundabout - it being just a largish mound of grass covered earth -  a venerable old oak tree.  His headlights caught the shape of the gnarled indentations and knots on the dark bole. He tried, in vain, to not acknowledge his ideas that he could see faces staring out at him from the bark.  He could see that it had clearly set its roots down many decades before,  and he would have discovered - had he not forgotten to read about the village in the library archives - that it was, in fact, reputed to be at least as old as the church.   It had stood on its solitary mound since the roads had been laid with tarmac, its continued existence owed to the villagers of the time expressing their dismay at the thought of one of their oldest ‘inhabitants’ being ripped from its earthy home. 

In each direction there was darkness, but he knew that he had to turn right on to Old Hag Lane where he would eventually find Mrs Perks’ cottage; she had told him as much in her hurried ‘phone call.  As he manoeuvred the vehicle around the oaken roundabout, the squeaking sound of the wiper blade on his windscreen alerted him to the fact that the rain had stopped. And, he mused, remarkably suddenly considering its ferocity over the last few hours.  It had been raining most of the evening, and had been  hard at it when he had settled himself under his blanket three hours before setting off on this journey.  The sharp suddenness in its abatement just added to his uneasiness, but – again - as to why he knew not.  All he knew was that the hairs on the back of his neck were  tingling. 

‘This village gives me the bloody creeps,’ he muttered as he changed gears clumsily, causing the little car’s engine to rev angrily in protest. 

He inched the car slowly down  Old Hag Lane, occasionally peering into the tiny rear view mirror. As the Austin trundled along, the world behind him was enveloped into darkness and there was no real reason for him to keep checking the road behind him; there was no-one else out on the roads at this time of night.  Or was there?  He turned his gaze back to the road ahead, but something caught his eye and he immediately looked back through the mirror again.  He could have sworn he saw a shadowy shape lolloping alongside the hedgerow on the nearside of the vehicle.  The tiny red lights at the back of his car seemed to pick out something pale, almost human in shape. He checked both rear view mirrors quickly in succession, but  this time could see nothing.  Where was Mrs Perks’ house?  ‘Jeez,’ he said aloud. ‘What the hell is going on in this place?’

He had expected the comforting sight of lights to greet him at any moment, but when he eventually stopped the car outside Rose Cottage, he was slightly confused to see the building shrouded in darkness.  There was not even one light illuminating the cobbled path to the front door porch. ‘That’s weird,’ he thought to himself.  He flicked on his torch to  check the address on Mrs Perks’ patient file....Rose Cottage.  
He looked up from the file just as a shape landed on the bonnet of the car with a thud. He jumped in his seat and an overwhelming feeling of fear swept over him.  ‘What the.....’ he said aloud.  The yellowy  light from his torch caught a shape in its beam and his heart raced.  He laughed manically and slumped back in his seat when he saw the large, rather portly, ginger cat  looking back at him, its green eyes glaring in the light. 'A cat ... a bloody cat.  That is all it is, Jack,' he said aloud.  After sitting for a few moments while his heart rate settled back to near normal, he placed Mrs Perks’ notes into the Gladstone bag, grabbed it, and opened the door of the car.  ‘The quicker I can get this over with, the quicker I can get back to my bed,’ he thought.  Closing and locking the door, he shone his torch at the garden gate and opened it slowly.  He picked his way carefully over the uneven cobbles and reached the front door.  

He knocked.  No response.  

He knocked again, this time with more urgency.  “It’s me, Mrs Perks.  Dr. Lantern,” he called out. At last a light flicked on inside the cottage and a few moments later the door opened. 

“Ah...Mrs Perks.  You telephoned? You have a problem?” he said peering round the door at the woman.

“Evenin’ doctor,” replied the tiny, grey-haired old woman in front of him.  “Telephoned?  Me?  There be nowt wrong with me.  That would not have been me doctor, who ‘phoned you.  What you doin’ out on a night like this’n? You lost?”

‘No, Mrs Perks. I am not lost.  You telephoned me...’ replied Jack somewhat annoyed and unnerved at the same time. 

‘I be tellin’ you I didn’t ..... I ain’t got no telephone,’ replied Mrs Perks.  ‘But come on in, doctor and I can make you a nice cup of tea if you like,’ she continued.  ‘And you can have a piece of seed cake too if you  would care to.’

She opened the door wider and he stepped in, removing his hat as he did so.  His eyes quickly took in every detail of the tiny hallway ... no telephone.  She led him into the sitting room ... no telephone. 

“You sit yourself down there, doctor.  I’ll put kettle on,” said Mrs Perks, and she disappeared back into hallway.  All his instincts were telling him to leave, but Jack really could do with a cup of tea before setting off home again.  He removed his gloves, scarf and overcoat and looked at his watch .... 2.31 am.  He wondered if there was any way that  he could engage this woman in conversation for the next few hours, at least until dawn so he could drive back home in the comfort of daylight. Someone had obviously played some kind of trick on him this evening and he was as angry as hell, but there was nothing whatsoever that he could do about it now.  But to trick the old woman in such a way seemed callous, so he decided that he would just see what happened.

Mrs Perks came back in with a trolley on wheels, full to the brim with teapot, cups and saucers, plates, small milk jug, sugar bowl, spoon and knives, with a plate adorned with a large round seed cake taking pride of place on the bottom shelf.  The trolley clattered as she pushed it across the carpet.  He noticed that the cake had already had one sizeable slice removed from it.

“I am sorry to have awoken you, Mrs Perks.  It would seem that somebody thought it would be funny to have me driving around in the middle of the night.  I am sorry that you have been involved in their prank.”

“That be no problem, doctor,” Mrs Perks replied as she settled herself down in the armchair next to the hearth.  “Since Mr Perks passed on I don’t get many a visitor.”

Jack thought it odd that she appeared so relaxed about being woken up in the middle of the night.  Perhaps she didn’t even realise what time it was?  He put it down to the unfortunate, and rather cruel, result of old age. 

Mrs Perks poured out the tea and handed him a cup and saucer.  “Help yerself to milk and sugar, m’ dear,” she instructed softly. 

Jack settled back in his chair and sipped the hot beverage.  Mrs. Perks handed him a plate with a slice of cake neatly placed upon it and he thanked her.  He took a bite.  The taste of the light, airy sponge on his taste buds seemed to soothe away his anger.  “This is delicious, Mrs Perks,” he said between mouthfuls.  She smiled. 

“It was Mr Perks’ favourite,” she announced.  Her expression seemed to have changed, only slightly, but Jack could discern what seemed to be a slight look of malice in her eyes. “He had a slice that night he passed on,” she continued.  Jack thought it an odd thing to remember about the night of her husband’s passing, but again put it down to the ravages of senility.

He heard scratching at the sitting room door.  “It seems your cat wishes to come in,” he said, taking another sip of tea. 

“I don’t have a cat,” was the reply.  Her voice seemed miles away.  The door slowly opened and Jack saw, through clouded vision, several creatures creeping into the sitting room, on all fours, just as those he thought he had seen in his rear view mirror.  He tried to move, but he had lost all feeling in his arms and legs.  The drugged seeds had done their work again. 

‘I’m sorry doctor, but they are hungry,’ were the last words he heard.