The Dragonfly by Raymond Hopkins - HTML preview
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My name is James Foster, and I am a doctor. To prevent the obvious question, I come from a town over a hundred miles to the north of Gloucester. Where that is doesn’t matter in the slightest. It isn’t relevant to the story, except insofar as the inhabitants of the area are known for their hardheaded, no nonsense or frivolous attitude to life, an attitude which I may fairly claim I am in full sympathy with.
Having little or nothing in the way of false modesty, I can say that I am a good doctor. At least, few of my patients die under treatment and of those who do, none have ever come back to complain. I work in general practice, in partnership with two other, somewhat younger doctors, on the outskirts of a busy little town, a job that gives me as much satisfaction now as it did almost thirty years ago when I first started, although I have a much smaller practice than I used to. Nor do I work as long hours, preferring to give more time to family life than I once could. Of course, treatments change over the years but people do not change, at any rate not very much. I’ve reached the stage where I could safely say that I had seen it all before, and that life had little in the way of surprises. This is what I thought, and firmly believed, up to a few months ago, up until the time that Bernard Harris came to see me.
After his visit my comfortable little world was shattered in a way which I couldn’t even begin to imagine beforehand. Not that anyone would notice. I mean, I haven’t started to swing from the chandelier, singing Rule Britannia and making monkey noises at passers by. There’s nothing like that. My wife has probably sensed that I’ve gone a bit quieter and more reserved, but she certainly puts that down to the strains of work and the fact that I am winding down towards retirement from a job that I have always given myself to wholeheartedly, ever since I first qualified. Nor do I wish her to believe anything else. I love my wife deeply for many reasons, not all of them obvious and I have no desire to cause her any unnecessary alarm. There is no doubt that I have been given a great deal to think about and I almost wish that I hadn’t.
I should explain that, although I have been a doctor all my working life, that wasn’t my original intention. Before changing to medicine, I had been training for the priesthood in the Catholic Church. It was a training I took seriously, naturally, until the awful day when I realised I had lost my faith. Or perhaps I simply realised that in fact I had never had faith, not the sort that a priest needs at any rate. The whole thing seemed to be a set of meaningless rituals. Of course, our whole lives are ruled by rituals of one sort or another, but these were the sort that it was impossible to accept without living a life of lies. Worse still, without living the same lies on behalf of other people. Don’t misunderstand, I have the deepest respect for truly religious characters and I can see a deep need for some sort of faith. It simply wasn’t for me, that’s all. I tried hard to overcome my doubts, but failed. It was a traumatic time for me and my parents. They, I know, were bitterly disappointed, although they never showed it, neither by word nor deed. Since that time, I have never entered a church, even getting married in a registry office, so deeply did the experience scar. I believed then, rightly or wrongly, that if a man was to do a thing, it should be done one hundred percent. Either I was wholly part of the church or I was completely out. Now, I do not know what to believe.
After searching around for a while, I turned to medicine, thinking that if I couldn’t cure men’s souls, I could at least help to cure their bodies. I considered that if science didn’t always have the answers, it could provide a foundation from which I could work and build up a new way of life with new thinking patterns. It was during my medical studies that I met the young woman who was later to become my wife. There were difficulties during the first years of our marriage, largely because of the effects of my earlier training, but she was the very epitome of patience and understanding. I willingly pay tribute to the woman who helped me through those difficulties to become the man I am today.
One of the difficulties arose from our only child, a daughter we both loved deeply. When she died of cancer while still quite young, my despair went deeper than the love I bore for her. It became clear that not only could I not cure souls; there were strong limits on my ability to cure bodies as well. Naturally I had always been well aware of the fact, but a man can hope. Of course, one cannot apply dispassion to one’s own child but I began to wonder and question the meaning of life all over again. It was my wife who pulled me through that very dark time when science failed and there was no faith left to help. Well, my wife is not really relevant to the story as such, although my daughter is, very much so, but I give the background, as it may make what follows more credible.
Mr. Harris asked to see me one day in early April of this year. At that time he wasn’t actually one of my patients but I assumed he had just moved in to the area and was changing his doctor, as he changed his address. This proved to be the case, as he explained, yet wasn’t totally the way of it.
’I hope you don’t mind my coming to you,’ he said. ’The fact is, I was told you were an older man and were prepared to give a bit more time to your patients. It’s a rather sensitive matter, you see, and I’m not sure I could explain it to a younger man.’
I put on my best expression of disinterest, knitted my fingers together and leaned forward to listen. Quite what I expected to hear I couldn’t say, although I have heard enough in my years in the profession to be able to say that I really have heard it all before. Or so I thought. What he told me was so far outside of my experience that it disturbed my sleep for several nights afterwards and indeed, disturbs my waking hours to this day. For this reason, I thought it better to put it all down on paper, in the hope that I can make some sense of it.