Books: Mea Culpa: A story by David Widgery

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'SO. What am I supposed to do about it?' said Harry Meyer for the third time that morning, his shoulders hunched with exasperation. 'The flat is too small, far too small. They all are. But I'm a doctor not a social worker. Go to the damned Housing Department about it.' The Bangladeshis before him looked dolefully at the grimy lino, defeated by the doctor's wrath. Why does the whole bloody family have to come anyway? thought Meyer as he scrawled a prescription for paracetamol suspension to prove to himself he was indeed a doctor.

'Housing-man says: 'You go to your doctor',' protested the defeated Mr Miah as he fumbled with the consulting-room door knob, which had worked loose with constant turning. Miah, whose last job had been in a Luton smelting works 14 years ago, had married on a trip to Sylhet and produced four Bethnal Green children with his sad young wife, Jana Bibi. He wore his hair comb-ploughed like a Denis Compton Brylcreem advert, no hat and an English jumble-sale suit. The combination made him look much older than his years. His children, in trainers and an odd mixture of bomber jackets and ankle-length skirts, were using Mrs Bibi's yellow sari alternately as a screen from the doctor and to wipe their snotty noses. 'You tell housing wallah, fuck off from Meyer,' the GP bellowed as they filed out. They departed to join another queue at the end of which someone else would say they had to go elsewhere. The doctor walked, shaking his head, to the sink to squirt his NHS aerosol, which restored the proper smell of institutional rectitude to the surgery. And balefully pressed the bell for the next customer.

By the end of the morning, he was exhausted. Twenty-two patients, seven referral letters, three complaining about waiting-list delays and admission cancellations, a row on the phone with a stuck-up paediatric registrar and a wrestling match to extract a stinking piece of Lego from a baby's ear. Some fool on the phone wanted him to send money to NHS SOS. Like every other day, alternating between the headlines of life (rape, violence, sudden death) and the small ads: worms, toothache and athlete's foot. Someone had even asked him for a new corset. A decent lass he had helped through depression, positive smear tests and a sad abortion was leaving London, because of 'the schools'. He saw a couple he had known since he started the practice 40 years ago. The husband was growing steadily more demented after a bad stroke. Once alert and elegant, he had become sufficiently deranged to require constant nursing by his wife. She was now 'a carer', whether she liked it or not. And she did not. He took the sherry bottle down from beside the urine-testing equipment and poured his first of the day.

He stared intently across the barbed wire and security-barred window to the railway line and the flats beyond. He could remember before there were council flats. When the close was a little world of its own, where everyone minded everybody else's business but no one went much further than Liverpool Street, except in case of war. In those days he had presided over birth and death in people's front rooms. Doctors were respected then, even truculent Jewish ones like Meyer. 'The more people say against you, the more I agree with you,' a patient had told him in his first year as a GP, which he had spent overturning the medical mismanagement of his predecessor. Now people went off to the Hospice to die. And he hadn't used his microscope for decades. His medical-instrument cupboard was covered with a thick layer of dust, a museum of previous enthusiasms. When he had enthusiasm. He'd won a medal for child health but nowadays didn't do much with the kids except give them paracetamol for their endless influenza.

Meyer was fed up. Meyer, Miah, what's the difference? We come here from God knows where and try and make the best of things. Our children hate us for it and then we die. Mea culpa. 'The only wisdom I have ever learnt in this job,' he used to say, 'is that the good die young . . . and in considerable pain.' He could still smell the cheap fat smell of London when he, Whitechapel-born, walked with new Jewish arrivals in flight from Vienna and Berlin and tried to persuade them that the museums and parks made up for the awfulness of what passed for cafe life: Lyons, ABC, Express Dairies.

'God wasn't a social worker,' he also used to say, often to social workers. He had imagined God as some sort of heavenly social democrat. Now he didn't any more. The Spanish Civil War, the defence of Stalingrad, the Sputnik had once been Meyer's litany. Then things had become more modest: the NHS, the BBC, comprehensive schools. But now Doctor Harry, kosher product of the Communist culture of Whitechapel, wasn't so sure. He sat on the surgery table scowling at the Daily Telegraph (which he read for the sport). It had an editorial entitled 'Socalism RIP'. It was easy to say now that we were nave about Russia, but people don't understand what it was like then.

A bit befuddled a couple of nights ago, he'd read aloud the titles of the Left Book Club editions which stood in a demoralised line in his large draughty library. They didn't make a word of sense and he tried to reassure himself with familiar passages. Sam Leff on public health, old Sam, whatever became of him? The Post-War History of the British Working Class by Allen Hutt. Stuart Gelder on the Chinese Communists. What about Tienanmen Square? Orwellian stuff. But then he'd never approved of Orwell and still wouldn't have the stuff in the house. 'Are you still up, Harry?' his wife shouted from the kitchen, where she chainsmoked with Art and Artists. 'For God's sake, I'm off to bed.' They'd met at a Left Zionist talk at the Whitechapel Gallery nearly 50 years ago, against Mosley in their teens, for a Second Front as young doctors. Why exactly does Miriam smoke so much nowadays? he brooded, over more sherry. He thought of his children, and of their enquiring optimism, which had always prevented him from losing faith. But he didn't see much of them now, and Miriam and he hardly talked except to grumble. He could no longer rely on them to protect him from doubt. And doubt it certainly was. Since 1956, the invasion of Budapest, he'd adopted a public scepticism about politics. Somehow this camouflage of irony had, by a process of political osmosis, become absorbed into his real identity. Over the last three years, with the apparent disintegration of the Soviet Union, he was no longer so sure it was a disguise. He was afraid he'd become a cynic.

It wasn't just politics. There had been a time when he'd been as devoted to medicine as to a lover, stayed up late with the journals, interrogated visiting consultants and measured haemoglobin in the surgery sink. In fact, what had drawn him into the Communist Party was as much its zeal for science as the fight against fascism. The party in those days had a good wad of scientists, historians and poets. People you could admire. Nowadays who was there?

Always argumentative, he often thought 'the line', as imparted by callow youths from King Street whose acne he treated, was batty. In fact he'd probably have been thrown out long before he left in 1956 if they didn't need his monthly sub. But medicine in the slums of the East End managed to make sense of what the zealots mangled. There were the masses all right, huddled but individuals, rich in their own lousy contradictions. If only they could get organised, they would begin to function not as separate atoms but more like the great interacting cycles of cellular biochemistry. Meyer had always loved molecular biology and once heard the great Hans Krebs lecturing on the cascades of enzymes which made the cell productive. To him politics and medicine had to be about biology and he was suspicious when he heard either called a science. He had a tendency to ignore the ugly pieces of political certainty handed down from the branch committee and the Daily Worker editorials. It was the sombre thrill of death, the vernal delight of birth, the low comedy of the sickbed which made some sense out of the messiness of humanity.

Not that he was a liberal. Or like the other doctors whose idea of culture was Chekhov at the National Theatre, and whose philosophy was what passed for philosophy in 19th-century provincial Russia, people saying: 'What's the point of it all?' Meyer's proletariat wasn't a historical instrument but something that cried and shouted and made love. Sometimes shouted back at him. But he forgave it for caring more about its pain than his dignity. So he believed the thanks of repeatedly reassured Cockney mothers, allowed himself to be slyly flattered by the intoxicated Irishmen who said he'd surely go to Heaven, and easily accepted with token protests the deference of the ingrates for whom he backdated sick notes. And beneath the irony which he donned as habitually as his brown army-style anorak, he believed there was a point to his work. And that the work fell into a larger march of human progress. When he arrived in his patients' sick rooms he seemed to fill them with conviction. His businesslike manner and easy familiarity made the patients feel safer. His medical equipment was held, not in the conventional doctor's Gladstone, but in a small shopping bag, as if to announce that he didn't need any artifice. But everything was exactly what he wanted and where he needed it. He was Dr Meyer and that was enough.

The phone rang. It was the secretary of the consultant psychiatrist apologising that he couldn't do a domiciliary for at least two days because he was at a conference on Inner City Health Care in Ottowa. 'That's marvellous,' he snapped. 'I'll tell my patient to stop dementing for another couple of days.' He remembered when he used to do home visits with Len Cohen, who set up the cardiology department at the London. Len was a fairly competent general physician and a good raconteur who called himself a cardiologist because he had got hold of an ECG machine early on and loved to play about with it in people's bedrooms. Meyer used to mock him gently, out of hearing of the patient, about his squiggly bits of electro-cardiogram paper. 'So what are you going to do if he's had an antero-lateral infarct, Len? Just the same as I'm doing in any case. Bed rest.'

Len had died of a heart attack, like so many doctors. He'd had a grainy old photograph in the BMJ obituaries which had talked of his war service, love of bridge and devoted surviving wife in the manner of BMJ obituaries. Didn't mention he'd been the secretary of the CP's London medical section in the early 1950s and fixed up all the vital divisional votes when it looked as if the British Medical Association might succeed in sabotaging the foundation of the NHS. Those were the days, before the Cold War set in, when we had dreams and were young enough to do something about them. Meyer still remembered the East End he came back to from the Services, knocked to pieces with wreckage strewn from here to Essex, the docks rubble, most of the people gone, many of them dead. But there was optimism then, Russia wasn't a dirty word and socialism, that was something noble, clean and unquestionable.

It was 1.30 and he was due for lunch. He'd reluctantly arranged to meet an old school friend in the Aphrodite Steak House. Well, buy him lunch that amounted to. The Aphrodite was an odd place which Meyer only got to know when one of the waiters became manic depressive and filled its sinks with heaps of potatoes and unwashed plates. It was a typical East End steakhouse, bank managers and business lunches at dinner time, minor criminals and closing-time drunks in the evening. Bloody big steaks with Black Forest gateau and house white which tasted of aftershave.

Ben Hagan was hovering outside, looking a lot older as they slapped each other's backs. It turned out that he was still in the digs in Lewisham to which he moved to be near union headquarters. He'd spent years living out of suitcases, haggling for votes in conference-hall bars and being snarled at by strikers. All for a union watch and a TUC long-service medal. 'Well, you should laugh, Meyer,' said Ben when they had exchanged pleasantries about manic waiters with the manager and ordered their prawn cocktails and steaks. 'I was at a Party history meeting last weekend, well we don't call it the Party any more. About the British Party, as it was then, and the Russians. Anyway, you know old Sadie Connor, the lawyer's mother? She proceeds to have a heart attack and the whole proceedings come to a standstill while we wait for an ambulance. Which, as you know, takes ages. Still, it being a Party meeting, there were plenty of doctors.' I hope they brought their damn ECGs, thought Meyer as he poured the aftershave. As ever, there was something about Hagan he couldn't help admiring.

'So you, Ben, how goes it? How is the Party or the Democratic Movement or whatever it is?' They were on to the gateau and a second carafe of wine now. 'Me?' said Ben. 'Me, I'm expelled, that's what.' He went on to say that the new democratic opposition who took over the Party from the hardliners proceeded to expel more people than ever before. 'Loyalty oaths, Harry] I was required to sign a pledge that I would not engage in 'factionalism'. Me who joined in '34 at the age of 12.' Well, you look older than 70, Ben, in fact you look to me very like wheelchair material pretty soon and then who's going to look after you? No more delegations to the Black Sea by the sound of it, thought Harry beneath his listening smile.

As they parted, Meyer felt a sort of tightening in his chest which he dismissed as a sentimental pang. He gave Hagan a farewell embrace, clutching him harder than he intended, then recoiling somewhat embarrassed. And as he drove the old Rover towards Rothschild Buildings he remembered an elderly Croatian florist at Number 32 with breast cancer he'd looked after. Then another Balkan tragedy, Dubrovnik under bombardment, glowing as boats burnt in the harbour like a Verdi opera. He remembered the holiday he took there with Miriam. In fact he'd preferred Yugoslavia to Israel, not so many maniacs about.

Turning his Rover into Bethnal Green Road he drove past the old hospital, now boarded up, its entrance still elegant with porticoes and rococo window frames. There was a large yellow For Sale hoarding mounted in the front garden where the porters used to plant daffodils and tulips. Beside the hospital was a council block which had been a stronghold of the Party in the days of Red Stepney, when it was an unruly place of noise, bustle and children. Now it was converted into private 'executive housing' but remained unlet, executives desirous of an address in the Cambridge Heath Road having proved rather scarce. The traffic was awful, it seemed always to be getting worse. Meyer sat watching two bricklayers clad in T-shirts and trainers filling in the front of what had been a large clothing factory. In one of the windows someone had carefully stencilled 'Arsenal: The Greatest' so that it could be read from the road.

Perhaps that's what everything now felt to him, final. The mocking graffiti, the young alcoholic men already drunk on an arid patch of green opposite the surgery when he'd arrived at 8.30 this morning, the patients who despaired of ever finding work. Far from being swept along on the great free market, the East End was sinking in it. Even the pubs were boarded up, which had never happened in the 1930s. A large swastika appeared painted on the decrepit map outside Bethnal Green Gardens with the simple wording 'We're back'. These reactions were all over Europe. France, Schleswig-Holstein, Baden-Wurttenburg. The Dutch, the Swiss and the Italians. And us.

I may be confused about Yugoslavia but I'm certain about one thing, he said to himself. Societies like the East End don't stay put. They are fought over, their values are challenged, their cultures the subject of argument all the time. There is a new philosophy which says no one is responsible for what is happening, that the mess is just a kind of accident. And we, who should know better, are being told to keep quiet about it. Well, whatever else he was, Meyer wasn't going to be like one of those East European turncoats who changed their ideology as often as was necessary to keep hold of their privileges. Maybe to keep his beliefs he would have to disbelieve his faith. He remembered a Polish Catholic priest he'd met in Prague who'd been imprisoned by the regime for nearly 15 years and kept his faith alive by constant prayer, reading and reflection. Then, when he got out and the Church became legal and he started to draft his first sermon, he realised that he didn't believe in God any longer. So, instead, he pleaded with his peasant listeners not to drink so much vodka and told the men not to beat their wives and children. Meyer understood that now. It's the people who give the faith, not the other way round.

It was up to him not to betray his faith. Because his beliefs, or the best of them, were not abstractions but shaped by his work with his patients. Ill people, ill-housed and ill-fed and ill-used people. The bloody NHS, which he battled with and cursed every day of his working life, now that was something that mattered, an Atlantis of values and experience. Meyer was tired and he was bitter too, but he had made a kind of decision. He would turn up at the Postgraduate Centre that evening for the first time in years and even if he didn't know any of the young doctors, he would insist on talking about Mile End hospital and the wards they were proposing to close down.

It was then that the pain hit him, a wrenching blow to his chest causing him to groan out loud, a numbing extension down his left arm which made it difficult to hold the steering wheel and made each breath a gasped ordeal. The London Chest Hospital was up ahead and he tried to steer the Rover on towards it. But with terrible difficulty.

Meyer's funeral was in Edmonton, at the Orthodox Jewish Burial Ground. Somehow orthodoxy had taken him over. Women and men were separate, there were many official mourners who had not known him and few who did. Miriam stood alone in a state of shock. The Chair of the Postgraduate Centre had found her way there and stood with a white paper skull cap to show respect. The funeral cart took him through the grim grey stones and men with hats and beards lowered his coffin. Other men queued to place handfuls of earth over it. Ben Hagan stood at the back expecting someone to say something about Meyer's part in the NHS and support for progressive causes, but the priest mentioned only his medical work.

Extracted from 'Infidelity', edited by Marsha Rowe, a collection of 10 stories by Colm Toibin, Penelope Fitzgerald, Penelope Lively and others, published by Chatto on 15 July at pounds 12.99

David Widgery was born in London in 1947, qualified in medicine in 1974, and died last year. A GP in the

East End and an active socialist, he lived in Hackney with the fashion historian Juliet Ash and their two

children, and was the author of 'Beating Time' and 'Some Lives'. This was his first and last work of fiction

(Photograph omitted)