More than ten years in the job and I’d never called in sick. Not once. But last week I did. It felt utterly exhilarating to lie like that, knowing that I wasn’t sick in the slightest. Well, I’m sick of lots of things, but nothing they would happily give me a day off for. Terrific is what I wanted Judy to shout out. I wanted her to jump slightly, guffaw and clap at the same time, like she used to do when something really tickled her. But no, she just shuffled on down the hallway and turned off all the lights that I now forget to extinguish on purpose. At least she didn’t slap me, which has become something of a regular occurrence. I think she has come to realise that I would never slap her back.
I actually didn’t tell her what I was planning, but I thought she might guess in the end. Strangely, I even wondered if she might offer to accompany me down the coast, and not give me excuses about migraines, or television shows she couldn’t miss, or how she had to take some important call from her family. I’d left the clipping from the paper on the table with a circle around the name: Doctor P.B. Waverly. I thought she might remember the stories she used to love to listen to.
I bought flowers to take with me, but a lot of good that was. I saw later in the death notice that some miserable person had requested that no flowers be offered. A donation to a charity? But it’s him I wanted to honour, to buy something nice for, to have something colourful and sweet-smelling to place on his coffin. Posting off a cheque to some charity was just simply not the same.
I remembered enthralling Judy with my tales of mowing the lawns for Waverly, when I was not even 15, with nowhere near enough muscle on my arms to push a machine that looked more like a steamroller. He refused to discuss a price when I first knocked on his door and enquired about a job. He said he would pay from one weekend to the next, whatever I thought to be the fair price for a particular day’s work, implying that some days I would slacken off and others I would be keen and sprightly. Sometimes I asked for five quid, when the grass was low; other days, when it seemed like a jungle, I boldly asked for 10, way above what the other lads in the neighbourhood were getting. But he always paid, never questioning my price. Once I pushed him up to 20 quid when the grass was extra long and damp and he’d left it weeks before calling me up. Sometimes I fibbed and demanded more than I merited, especially when some new vinyl just couldn’t be ignored.
Several times, while felling the grass, I caught sight of him in one of the upstairs windows, naked and having stand-up sex with someone who was not his wife. I suspected he deliberately came close to the window, knowing that I might be watching, as if he were proud to be showing me how a man should be with a woman. Once he pushed a lady’s buttocks so forcefully up against the glass that I feared they might come smashing through.
Other times I saw him dancing up there with his dog, holding her up by her front paws and really seriously dancing, like with a woman, bringing her close to him, spinning her around. The dog, named Sally, had enormous patience for her master; another dog would’ve bitten off his nose. That was the kind of dog I was always going to have, with its long, fluffy fur and a wet kiss on the cheeks for anyone who wanted it. I even started saving up my pocket money when I was told that a puppy like that didn’t come cheap. Suffice to say that my Judy refers to dogs of any nature as stinking mongrels.
Our Doctor Waverly was a maverick, to borrow a word from my father. In fact, my parents asked me more than once whether it was such a good idea to be working for a man who had such a strange reputation in the town. There was no way, of course, that I was going to forfeit my weekly bundle of notes because of some nasty country gossip. I lied and rigorously defended Waverly, telling my father that I had never seen anything out of the ordinary. No, it was malicious to suggest that he took young nurses home from the hospital when his wife was away delivering meals to the elderly. And I swore that I’d never seen him dancing the polka with his collie.
Young Simon, he said to me one Saturday (I never understood why he thought an adjective was always necessary before my name), what if I pay you not to mow the lawns?
Not to mow them?
Well, who jolly well said that grass always has to be cut down to nothing?
But it’ll be messy, I offered, without even really thinking about it.
Nonsense. You’re just saying that because that’s what you’ve heard, what you’ve learnt, what you’ve been programmed to think. Don’t you love long grass? Jumping in and rolling around in it? Losing yourself in it? Taking a girl into it and making her giddy?
But everyone mows the lawns.
Which is exactly why we shouldn’t do it!
But I’ve been mowing yours for months. You asked me to.
I did nothing of the sort, dear boy. You asked me for the job. But I now ask you this: does it look good to you, so clipped back to the dirt and without any shape? I’d hoped you might see for yourself how bad it looks. It’s nothing but conformism (which I had to look up at home later).
I looked out over the lawn but couldn’t think straight.
Let’s just let it grow back now, right up towards the sun where it’s supposed to be.
So I’m out of a job?
Rubbish. I’m going to pay you to make sure that nothing gets lost in it, that the blades come up free of constraint. You will also pull out all of those other jealous weeds that might attack on a side wind.
Jealous weeds? I did wonder (following Waverly’s own logic) why the grass had more of a right over the weeds to reach up towards the sun. But I just didn’t have the nerve to say it, not when he was so fired up and talking so fast.
You can also help me create a maze that runs through it, he said. What fun we’ll all have when it’s finished.
I pictured myself with one of the nurses, being encouraged to strip off our clothes and run through into the densest part of the jungle. If only.
In the weeks that followed he paid me exactly what I asked for. I pulled out weeds that didn’t match the bright blades that grew higher and higher, and I chucked out lost balls and litter that swept in from the road – or the things that furious neighbours tossed over their fences because they couldn’t believe that someone would leave their front lawn so out of control. I gave up trying to explain to my parents the change in my working schedule.
Those memories made me stand and look out over what remains of the garden I created with Judy. What a pity we left everything go to seed and the grass to become so thin. We’ve gone so crazy on the mowing that the ground looks like it’s been chopped up by a plough. No garden, no passion, my gran would always say.
Judy stood over me with a cigarette as I polished my shoes. She blew smoke into my face.
So you’re taking a day off, she said. Getting all dressed up in a suit, driving for five hours and buying expensive roses for some old geezer you used to mow the lawns for?
Was this your father then, Simon? Is that it? You mowed lawns for this old guy and he turned out to be your real biological father?
You need a coffee, Judy.
I’ve had three already, but I’m still bored.
She pushed me gently to make me fall forward. My hand landed in the black tub of polish.
So I take it you’re not coming, my sweet?
Not unless you tell me it’s your long lost father. Or how about someone related even? Or at least someone we’ve had contact with over the past 20 years? Jeez.
I’ll see you on Friday then.
So how did he die this psychiatrist?
Our eyes locked.
He killed himself.
He what? Psychiatrists aren’t supposed to top themselves.
It was true. The thought hadn’t crossed my mind. Just as we don’t ever expect a dentist to have rotting teeth, or a plumber to have to clean up after the eruption of their own blocked toilet. A psychiatrist is supposed to be the happy, rational one, who talks others out of such a terrible plan. They are the ones who know how to get others to grin and bear it and pretend everything is okay. How could they then turn around and chuck it all in?
Judy gave me a look of disgust. And you want to pay tribute to this guy, who couldn’t even practise what he preached?
Who on earth practises what they preach?
She didn’t say goodbye or wish me well when I headed off.
You’ll be lucky if I’m here when you get back, she said.
She didn’t mean it, of course. She always said that whenever I left the house.
I phoned her later from the motorway. Why didn’t you ask to come then?
Same reason you didn’t invite me.
Don’t you remember me talking about him? All those things he used to get me thinking about? He was a genius. I miss him.
Yeah, so I gather.
I asked her if she remembered the thing about why we wash our face in the morning, and I could swear I almost heard her laugh.
He drove me crazy with his seemingly easy questions that got me so worked up.
I told Judy not to hang up just yet. So why do you still wash your face when you get up in the morning, even if you’ve had a shower the night before?
You’re going to go weird on me. I can hear it in your voice.
It’s just a question.
You’ll lose your job and then we’ll be in the shit.
Heavens. It’s just a question about washing your face in the morning.
There was silence. Then she sighed. I don’t know.
That’s how I responded all those years ago to Doctor Waverly. Sometimes it was best to play dumb with him, especially when football practice was not far away.
But it doesn’t get all dirty when you sleep, does it?
Another silence. It wakes me up. The answers were coming painfully.
Does it? But you’re already awake when you’re standing at the sink.
No, but it wakes me up some more.
Does it really?
I think so.
Maybe you just do it out of habit. You’re programmed to do it.
It makes me feel better. Can I go now?
Habits often do make us feel better. But I bet you feel just the same after waking, whether you splash water over your face or not. You would become more alert anyway, and the washing of the face has nothing to do with it.
It gets the sleep out of my eyes.
I laughed. You don’t need water for that. In fact, it’s better when the sleep stays dry, so it can be wiped out more easily.
But she had already hung up. Just as well, I suppose, as I know it’s not good to phone and drive.
The same question had my young self in knots for weeks. I asked everyone for their opinion, and no one really gave a convincing answer. Doctor Waverly was brilliant. I stopped washing my face in the morning, except when I was due to have a bath anyway. Judy probably continued to splash cold water on her face in the mornings out of spite, pure and simple. No, some silly old tale from a quack who dances with his dog should not be taken seriously.
I stopped off in a petrol station to buy some cigarettes. But before I got back to the car I found myself sobbing uncontrollably. I was blubbering like a child, and found it difficult to keep my nose from running at the same time. Some people parked up beside me stared and I tried to turn away to hide the fact I was so upset. I coughed and coughed as though I were sick, and pretended to spit something vile out of my mouth. I held my face in my hands and tried to work out what had made me so upset. Yes, I was sad that Doctor Waverly was dead, but I hadn’t seen him for so many years.
Back in the car it came to me that what was so upsetting was the brutal passage of time, that thing about witnessing the end of an era, the fact that all the dreams and plans I had as a teenager had not been fulfilled. I was overwhelmed with memories of Doctor Waverly and his powerful theories on how life should be lived. One of those was about the people we live with. He told me that 90 per cent of his mental health cases were patients who refused or were unable to get away from the families that were no good for them. If only people weren’t so stuck on sticking with their useless, dysfunctional families, he would rant.
I couldn’t help but think about Judy. Why were we sticking it out?
When I got to the church, half an hour before the service started, no one seemed to be able to point out any of Doctor Waverly’s close family. There only seemed to be friends and former colleagues. I got a blank look from one elderly woman when I explained that I used to mow the lawns for the doctor, back when I was a teenager. At first she took my hand, apparently to offer comfort, but she pulled away when she realised I was not someone more significant. She looked down at my nice black suit and tie, as though to inquire why someone like me would go to so much effort.
I did recognise someone in the end: another elderly woman who organised local performances of classical music. Mrs Diamond, the upholder of society’s values and correct decorum. I introduced myself, but she had no recollection of me.
I was there on the night of the fracas.
Doctor Waverly took me along to a concert you organised with some young group that played something quite modern and experimental.
Oh. I think I know what you’re referring to. Peculiar fellow, wasn’t he? He treated my sister, though, got her through all sorts of crises. Credit where it’s due is what I’ve always said.
She wandered off, shaking her head.
Yes, peculiar fellow he was. Doctor Waverly had invited me to accompany him to one of Mrs. Diamond’s highbrow concerts in the war memorial hall. Simple Simon needed a bit of cultural exposure, he jested. Actually, on the way to the concert in his car, he explained that no one else would go with him. I later discovered why.
We sat in a row in the middle of the hall, surrounded by people all dressed up, many obviously keen to be seen at such a cultural event. I spotted a couple of teachers from school and the owners of the newsagents where I bought my comics every week. The performance was very modern, to say the least. I’m no musician, but it sounded like everyone was playing whatever they wanted, randomly choosing high, screeching notes. I wondered if any of those people holding up the violins and brass instruments had ever had a single lesson. The title of the piece had something to do with Hiroshima, if I remember rightly. Everyone listened intently, with not a sound around us. The long, quiet bits, when there were just a couple of violins being tapped on the back with fingers, were unbearable. At the end, though, everyone applauded loudly and enthusiastically.
Except for Doctor Waverly.
I was horrified when he stood up and started booing. He drowned out the clapping with long, throaty boos, making angry gestures with his hands for the musicians to get off the stage. If I’d been able to snake down in my seat and slip onto the floor, I would’ve done it. Everyone seemed to be looking at me, as though I were the crazy man’s son. My teachers looked at me and shook their heads in disgust. Doctor Waverly was not put off. Why are you all clapping, you dozy flock of sheep? The music was rubbish but you’re pretending you loved it! You’re hypocrites! You hated it, as much as my son and I did!
My son? My son? Could it have been any worse? I wanted to die. I struggled to breathe and folded over in my seat. I dared not look at anyone. To my left I saw four men grabbing Waverly by the arms, dragging him down the aisle, as he continued to scream out about the pathetic sheep and the musicians who should be ashamed of themselves. You’re all living a lie, was the last phrase I heard him shout.
Afterwards, out in the lobby, I tried to tell as many people as possible that the crazy man was not my father and I’d just happened to be sitting there next to him. I said this five times to the teachers from school, but they just seemed to look at me with wide eyes of sympathy. I called my real father and asked him if he would quickly come and pick me up. On the way home I vowed that I would never mow the doctor’s lawns again.
As the funeral service progressed, with several dull hymns and predictable prayers, I realised that no one had told any stories like the ones I remembered. All of the tributes and anecdotes about Waverly were extremely tame and careful, not at all close to the truth about the man’s character and the impression he left on people. Why were they being so dishonest? Had they never spent any time with him? I gathered his wife had died some time before, burying a lot of the gems about the dear but infuriating doctor.
You’d think they were talking about a missionary, whose life had been nothing but meditation and purity, who had never experienced fun. All of his out-of-the-box thinking contained. Successfully conditioned. Perfectly rounded. Miserable in his rational, predictable existence.
An elderly gentleman gave a long and earnest speech about the merits of hard work, about the need to ‘make peace with our maker’, about the undesirability of a life led too far removed from the church. About three quarters way through I realised that the man had probably never met Waverly, and had probably just turned up to the service by chance, a regular in the parish who liked to participate in the weekly activities. Any opportunity to repeat his convictions! People at a funeral are such a well-behaved lot, too sober to shift in their seats and express any pang of boredom.
Waverly was being sent off with such a fizz that even the flowers in the tall vases at the front seemed to be wilting before our eyes. And who had chosen such dull colours?
When I got to my feet - and I can only say that it was far from voluntary - I did so with such a thrust that I almost tipped myself over into the aisle. I caught a couple of faces, confused stares, but nothing could stop the force that erupted from within, a surge of something that I’d never felt before, which made me shake and my sight become blurred.
Were those my words?
Boo to all of this nonsense!
They all turned to stare at me, all of those tidy, bored faces.
Shame on you! Waverly deserved better than this. He needs to be celebrated.
I pushed away a couple of arms that attempted to constrain me and I got up onto the bench behind me.
Boo to all of your politeness, your hypocrisy. You’re debasing a genuinely good man. He would mock you if he were here.
The minister was in front of me then, clasping my hands, his wide eyes begging me to stop.
Boo! Boo! I gave the thumbs-down sign with both hands.
They started a new hymn as I was pushed off the bench and led towards the exit. I tried to keep up the volume but a man was half covering my mouth, telling me to shut up as he pinched the skin around my middle. I felt no pain, though, just that strange surge of absolute elation.
I sat in the car for a long time before I phoned Judy. She didn’t say anything when I told her that I was heading further down the coast to see a man about a dog. I laughed when I said that, remembering how Waverly used that old expression a lot, to describe all of his unexplained absences to his wife.
But, in actual fact, I was going to see a man about a dog, a certain collie in fact. It was the address of a breeder I’d often heard about. Did he do collies that could dance the polka with their masters?
Judy sighed loudly, just to let me know she was still there. Then, when I had nothing more to say, she asked me if I had any idea of when she might expect me.
© Copyright, June 2013. S. Kearney. "A collie that can dance the polka".