Last Night, Ah Yesternight.
It was on his sixty-ninth birthday that Dr. Duncan resolved to learn the banjo. He has always wanted children, or a Persian cat, but his wife had run away to Spennymoor thirty-five years earlier with a wandering insurance man, leaving a rice pudding in the oven. From that first unhappy moment, he had cut a forlorn figure, sitting day after day in his dim surgery, with his pullover on backwards.
One night, as midnight boomed, he received an urgent call to go to Mrs Proudfoot at the off-licence. It was a hazardous journey, because the lamp kept going out on his bicycle and he had a slow puncture, but he was not a man to forget his Hippocratic Oath; it went everywhere with him, in his saddlebag.
The distraught widow greeted him with tears coursing down her bodice. 'It's Jumbo, my Persian cat,' she sobbed. 'He's slumped across the hearthrug, breathing thickly.'
Dr. Duncan tapped the cat's knees and said it was a clear case of mumps; he would pedal back to his surgery for his forceps if she would run on in front, waving something white. She instantly doffed her camisole, saying she would do what she must. As it happened, it was a pink camisole, but all camisoles are grey in the dark, as any Persian cat lover would know.
It was the start of a sad sweet affair. Mrs Proudfoot trimmed the wick of his bicycle lamp, although the forceps were never the same again, and Dr. Duncan reversed his pullover and took to playing the Peer Gynt Suites to her on his banjo, by ear. The cat, breathing thickly or not, left the hearthrug and went out for several long walks around the fish factory.
It was the view of Seppy Elphinstook, the misogynist barber, that Mrs Proudfoot would have doffed her camisole anyway. She had a history of doffing her camisole, he claimed. Herbert Mangle, the Wallsend poet, who was in love with Mrs Proudfoot just then, said this was a deplorable impugnment of the widow's honour, even though true. He was on the rebound from enormous Councillor Mrs Dutt, who was on the rebound from Seppy Elphinstook, who was on the rebound from Emily Hunkers, the butcher's daughter.
'If you've loved so many women,' said Herbert Mangle, 'how can you be a misogynist?'
'That's how,' said Seppy Elphinstook.
Herbert Mangle withdrew and composed his Ode to Dissimulation:
I've loved a lot and loved too well
And sighed my share of sighs;
But when I kiss I always tell,
Which saves a lot of lies.
Romantic love is just a myth,
I've known from early youth:
The Ladies whom I've dallied with
Have taught me that bald truth.
Oh yes, I own to clay-like feet,
But then I've always found
It's sentimental self-deceit
That makes the world go round.
He then decided to elope with Mrs Proudfoot at three o'clock the next afternoon on the greengrocer's horse; he would have done it at the more quixotic hour of two in the morning, but the horse was twenty-nine and saw very badly in the dark, with or without a trimmed wick.
He placed a kitchen chair against the widow's bungalow window and gallantly climbed up it, defying his vertigo, while the horse nibbled her hollyhocks.
'Yoo-hoo, Mrs Proudfoot!' he called.
'Who's there?' Mrs Proudfoot called back.
'I've come to elope with you,' Herbert Mangle informed her.
'I'm flattered,' Mrs Proudfoot responded. 'Believe me, Mr Elphinstook, I'm flattered.'
'It's not Mr Elphinstook,' said Herbert Mangle. 'It's Herbert Mangle.'
'Whoever it is, I'm flattered,' said Mrs Proudfoot. 'But I rather think another loves me, if you can leave it of the time being.'
He climbed back into the saddle and the horse galloped into the hollyhocks, because it saw none to well in daylight.
But did another indeed love Mrs Proudfoot? Peer Gynt Suites notwithstanding, Dr. Duncan lived with the memory that his wife still sent him a tie on her birthday, because she could never remember his. It was always the wrong size and now he was just a rueful old man with a house full of ties and banjo strings. His housekeeper did her best, diligently polishing brasses, but she was no substitute for a Persian cat.
Another midnight was booming when he received a desperate message that Jumbo had been seized with a further racking spasm of mumps. It was a sentimental self-deceiving widow's ruse. He arrived to find Jumbo departing briskly for the fish factory. Mrs Proudfoot had set her table with flickering candles and tossed him a salad. Even as she expectantly watched him doff his bicycle clips, however, she sensed that their brief hour of magic had departed. His eye had resumed it's forlornness and his pullover was on backwards again.
She held out the tossed salad, but they both knew that between them and the tossed salad and the forceps and the tears on her bodice there had fallen a thirty-five-year-old shadow. Nevertheless, she summoned a wistful smile as she murmured, 'At least come back if you have another slow puncture.' It would never happen. He kissed her hand and left. It was a case, said Herbert Mangle, of 'Thy breath was shed upon my soul betwixt the kisses and the wine.'
Rumour had it that the doctor's wife's paramour had long since been promoted to insurance inspector and there were tales of how the guilty couple led a wild life in Spennymoor, going to dinner dances two and three times a year. On her sixty-seventh birthday, she sent him a sock instead of a tie. She realised, she wrote, that the bird of Time was on the wing and she hoped to finish the second sock by Christmas.
Dr. Duncan laid the sock beside the rice pudding and sat for a long time, gazing unseeingly into the oven. He offered to play the Siegfried Idyll on his banjo to his housekeeper, but she said if it was all the same to him she had some brasses to polish.
He still had his Hippocratic Oath, of course, and made a brave stab at Herbert Mangle's vertigo, but vertigo wasn't mumps, whichever way you looked at it.
'His life was a sad anti-climax,' said Herbert Mangle, 'from the day of his wife's departure.'
'One thing would have made it a sadder anti-climax,' said Seppy Elphinstook.
'What's that?' asked Herbert Mangle.
'If she'd come back,' said Seppy Elphinstook.