As if in emulation of a particularly nasty species of viper, Doreen Slugg jabbed a hideously long-nailed finger repeatedly with a sneering malevolence at the red button which hung at the end of the wire that was looped around her bedpost, fantasising with each thrust of the grotesquely ossified claw about venomous fangs biting again and again and again the pretty face of his stupid cat. She could hear quite clearly the buzzer sounding downstairs, and yet Henry did not come, though usually he was up those stairs immediately he was summoned like the timid little lapdog he’d always been. This was most irregular.
Reaching for the heavy walking stick, precursor of the recently installed buzzer arrangement, she began to beat the threadbare patch of carpet beside the bed, imagining with each blow that it was the balding skull of the miserable worm who called himself her husband. Thump, thump, thump, thump, she hit the floor until, in her mind, she’d smashed his head to pieces and splattered his worthless brains around the room. Thump, thump, thump, until her hugely fat arm could raise the stick no more. And still he did not come.
She put her head back and employed as a last resort the piercing contralto which in her younger days could shatter a wine glass across a room, or bring to heel a recalcitrant spouse from a mile away. She screeched his name over and over and over again, until her larynx was raw and her lungs, ragged and exhausted, gasped for oxygen. She listened for his approach, but heard only an eerie, echoing silence.
This was getting serious. Her pillows needed plumping as a matter of some urgency and her morning tea was already seven minutes overdue. Her bag needed emptying, the remote was on the blink, and Trisha was about to start. It just wouldn’t do. By God, he was going to pay for this when eventually he deigned to put in an appearance. His life wouldn’t be worth living. Where was the useless, lanky specimen? Probably out the back, playing with that fucking cat. He seemed more fond of it, spent more time with it, than his own wife. By Christ, she’d make his life a misery when she got hold of him. Did he not have a sympathetic bone in his body? Twelve years now she’d been bed-ridden and the selfish, unfeeling bastard didn’t give a toss about her. But make no mistake, she’d make him regret this for the rest of his stinking life. Well, he’d left her no alternative this time. Reaching across to the telephone, she called for an ambulance.
Professor M.T. McAtheter first identified the condition as far back as 1950 when working at the Coburg Institute for Congenital Diseases of the Mind and Body, which had been founded by the Crown Agents to investigate ways of helping the newly-born heir to the throne lead as normal a life as possible, given the horrific extent of his physical and mental abnormalities.
While conducting an epidemiological study of the numerous genetic defects associated with the royal family and other close-knit, inter-bred communities, McAtheter noticed a peculiarly high incidence of women of low intelligence taking to their beds permanently in middle age for no apparent reason beyond a petulant and stubborn reluctance to do anything else. Such a long-term sedentary existence will, of course, eventually cause genuine and serious medical problems such as obesity and heart failure, but such secondary ailments apparently serve only to vindicate, by the twisted logic of a feeble mind, these patients’ original state of torpor.
This condition, named McAtheter’s syndrome, which is purely psychological in origin, will be well known to all ambulancemen, though it can be easily mis-diagnosed and is often mistaken for motor neurone disease or multiple sclerosis. Almost exclusively it is found in menopausal women of severely limited intellect, though a new temporary strain has been emerging recently which seems to affect mainly younger women of African origin who simply lie on the floor and claim they cannot move. The cause of this is invariably emotional, being an adult version of a toddler’s tantrum, and once the noisy and dramatic arrival of an ambulance has served its purpose of teaching the spouse or children the required lesson, recovery is swift without further treatment. Unknown a few years ago, acute McAtheter’s now accounts for almost four per cent of ambulance journeys.
As it happened it was Albert and I who arrived at Slugg Cottage to find no one answering, just a very friendly and rather attractive young tortoiseshell cat on the doorstep which rubbed its head against our legs and purred in a most endearing fashion. We could make out nothing through the windows, but through the letterbox could be seen quite clearly a pair of grey flannel trousers above a couple of slippered feet which appeared to be suspended in mid-air about six inches above the hall carpet, and distinctly audible was a high-pitched voice beckoning, presumably in vain, someone called Henry.
Looking about and seeing no one, we set our heavy boots to work on the front door until the lock yielded and we made our way inside. What struck us first upon entering the premises was the sight of a thin, bald man of about seventy hanging from the upstairs banister by a length of household electrical flex tied around his neck. He was quite dead and as such of no further interest to the ambulance service. Swinging him aside, we ascended the stairs, following the voice as if drawn, remarked Albert, by the very daughters of Terpsichore, until we came to a bedroom at the back of the house in which we discovered what appeared to be the result of some bizarre scientific experiment which had somehow thrown up a cross between a very pallid hippopotamus and an enormous human female. Whatever it was, it was wallowing on a bed with a ridiculous wig perched upon its head and a large wooden stick in its hand, and it turned towards us when it became aware of our presence, and spoke perfectly comprehensibly with a local accent.
“I can’t walk. Where’s me 'usband?” I cleared my throat and affected an attitude of professional gravitas as I considered the best way to break the news to this woman that her husband of forty-odd years had chosen to take his own life rather than endure another moment in the thrall of such a ghastly creature. I opened my mouth to speak but Albert had already beaten me to it.
“Good morning, madam,” he began, adopting his best funeral director’s voice, and wringing his hands with mock obsequiousness. “I’m very sorry to tell you . . .”
“What? Where is 'e?”
“I’m afraid, madam . . .” Albert paused interminably, creating an air of tension and suspense worthy of the finest actor. The woman appeared genuinely concerned, even frightened, though more, I suspected, for her own welfare than that of poor Henry.
“Tell me what’s 'appened?” She was becoming agitated and waved her stick at us belligerently, but we bravely stood our ground as Albert continued to address her.
“It grieves me, madam, to have to tell you . . .” He stared at her with a penetrating solemnity.
“For God’s sake, what? Tell me!” She was about to snap.
“It’s your husband, madam . . .” Another long, long pause.
“What about 'im? Please!” At last, that word.
“I regret to inform you, madam, that your husband . . . is . . . completely bald.”
At these words the woman gasped as if in shock, and then as the light of understanding dawned she launched into a violent fit of cruel and malicious laughter, beating her stick gleefully against the carpet. Then she began to cough and splutter a bit, and then to choke, struggling for breath and clutching at her ample chest. Her face had turned a remarkably vivid shade of red and I wondered if ‘cerise’ was the right word to describe that particular hue. Albert agreed that ‘cerise’, from the French for a cherry, possibly derived from the old Norman ‘cherise’, about summed it up.
The etymology of Mrs. Slugg’s complexion proved to be a fascinating subject for discussion because it changed colour quite dramatically before our eyes, but after a few minutes we were struggling to keep up because neither Albert nor I could think of the correct word to describe a very pale greyish-blueish sort of a tinge with a subtle hint of yellow. Although he conceded without argument that it was not a valid word for a recognised colour as far as the OED was concerned, being either a noun meaning a dead body or a verb used colloquially in theatrical circles meaning to become helpless with laughter while attempting to perform, Albert suggested that if one were to market a household paint in that colour, with perhaps a kitchen or a bathroom in mind, then the simple appellation of ‘corpse’ would suffice perfectly adequately. I could only concur.