Eyes popping with embarrassment, she clapped her hand over her mouth.
“I’m so sorry, you must get that all the time,”
She took her hand away and gave a grimace of apology. The doctor donned his habitual, forced smile.
“It’s quite alright I’m used to it,” and then could not quite resist adding,
“By this point.”
“You’re lucky really,” she said,
“My maiden name was Ham. I was at least two stone heavier in school, two stone heavier than I am now that is, and they killed me for it. The other kids I mean,”
She continued to smile apologetically.
“With their jokes. Hammy Jan, piggy ham, I’m sure you can guess,” she swallowed with almost comic awkwardness, the shine going out of her smile.
The doctor was scanning her paper work on his desk. It was only rarely that he faltered in his approach and found himself stalling, letting the women stew in their awkwardness and breathy pleasantries. In the silence she went on.
“That’s probably why I married so young, and chose Pete, for his surname. Cole. Ham to Cole. Much better, I thought.”
The Doctor looked up and smiled.
“Very respectable, I like your Pete very much.”
There was a pause as she smoothed her skirt under his smile, his familiarity half-settling the air.
“Of course, I’d forgotten how you know him-golf?”
“Golf,” said the doctor at the same time, and they guffawed over their shared clumsiness.
“Yes, I’ve not known him too long, just joined the club recently actually-” the doctor began, but in her eagerness she cut him off.
“Oh, Pete’s been golfing for years. He was one of the founding members after ’45. Practically lives at the club, he’ll see you right.”
She felt perhaps she had over stepped and swallowed her next comment, pushing features into an obedient smile, still smoothing her skirt. Stroking it, really.
“I have your referral from Dr McKay.”
Her hands stopped.
He took off his glasses, laid them on the desk and turned his chair to face her fully. She saw his brow crease a little. It felt like he was looking her up and down. Men did that with things. Cars. Animals. Horrifically, she felt the heat rise above her breastbone and over her cheeks as she thought of the first time Frank had looked at her. There was the same feeling of scrutiny. She never could hold a blush.
“Are you hot Mrs. Cole?”
“No no. No.” Back to smoothing her skirt down. Don’t make eye contact.
“You seem a little flushed.”
“No, no,” her laugh was short and tight.
“I was, well I did think you might be, given as you were a ladies’ doctor,”
“You think gynecologists should be women now?”
“Something like that yes.” It was his turn for an apologetic smile. He picked up his glasses and twirled them slowly in his fingers.
“I can assure you I am just as competent as a woman.”
“Oh I didn’t mean that, I just meant- I was just surprised to see a man. Dr McKay didn’t tell me anything. He just said I’d have to go to the ladies’ doctor.”
“He was quite right.”
The doctor took another moment of quiet, glasses turning smoothly as he took in Mrs. Cole. She was 40, just this last month. He knew that from the notes. Her graying hair was tightly, maybe freshly, set in neat curls and she had on the usual dot or two of makeup; the lip colour, the uneven dash of rouge. He found this unusual, not because their post-rationing community was still strapped for luxury, but rather this age and class of women should be mid-way through her morning housework. Spending, as he did, nearly all his time with women, he was sensitive to their clothes, and the creak of their upholstering underwear or, in the case of the younger women, the lack of that creaking. Mrs. Cole wore blue, a new and unlaundered blue that pulled her body in at the waist. She had neat ankles. For her age. Perhaps she kept a Sunday best for appointments like this. Though not all appointments could be like this.
He drew breath to speak but held it in a moment of surprise as he noted the space where her wedding ring ought to be. What with his sights set on Judy he was in the habit of eyeing wedding bands these days. There was only a white circlet of skin, years of sunburn and work marking its absence.
For whatever reason she followed his stare and slapped her right hand over her left.
“I’m such a silly, I left it off for the washing.”
There was something in her tone, her eyes popping wide like they had a few minutes ago, that gave him pause. He thought himself a sensitive man, and he knew woman.
“My ring, you were, I thought you were looking at my hand.” He put his glasses back on and smiled,
“Not at all. Now Mrs. Cole, can you tell me a little about what’s going on,”
Now she was confused; her heart burned and it was fear like she hadn’t felt in years. Why was she here? She thought of Frank’s eyes and her chest would not ease up.
“What’s going on?”
“Yes symptoms, obviously I have your notes but I’d like to hear from you.”
“Well it’s the itching mostly.” She leaned forward and lowered her voice; he was always amused at how many of them did this.
“It itches something awful doctor.”
“Pain with urination?”
“I…well yes actually.” It was uncanny, this doctoring, like he could read her thoughts. She tried to place an imaginary hand across her mind’s eye.
“Have you noticed any, um, any abnormalities?” She wouldn’t understand this word he thought, but her embarrassment was infectious. He coughed and asked her if she had noticed the appearance of any warts in the uncomfortable area. Her stare was frozen shock, again the swallowing, again the blushing. He could read these creatures like a book.
Oh my god, she was thinking. Oh my god. This is it.
“I haven’t looked doctor,” she said stiffly. Let her have her moment of dignity he thought, however paltry.
“You have haven’t checked yourself? For abnormalities I mean-”
She had regained enough of herself to be stiff and what she hoped was censorious, she was a Ham woman after all, though not for many years.
“Doctor I know you are a professional but women don’t tend to look at themselves…down there.”
She paused and raised her chin.
“That area. It’s awkward.”
He opted for earnestness.
“But Mrs. Cole there is nothing to be embarrassed about. With the use of a compact mirror, the angle you understand…”
She was 40 years old, what in the name of the almighty did she think she was doing? It was only now, at 40, now the world was steady after all that war that her own world was under siege. Where there had once been quiet habits and routine now there were new words and pleasures and ensuing humiliations. The doctor named one now. When she said nothing he said the word again.
“Are you alright?”
This was it. The punishment.
“Yes, yes I’m fine.” She licked her lips.
“You think that’s what it is?”
Though it was different from the expected one, the one that caught out the younger women in the 40s when the GIs had flocked all charming and heady to their unmanned towns. It wasn’t just the younger ones they were interested in. Some went for a little extra weight in the outline, a little breathlessness. Plus the older models didn’t expect a new life and a new world. Though of course at that point she still wanted only what her husband gave her and held up her hands, laughing, to say no. But here it was. She had thought, dreamed maybe, that her age was her immunity, but obviously no one is allowed to be that happy.
“Oh I know it. Please don’t worry its not fatal”…he gave a little chuckle
“Just, inconvenient shall we say. You’ve had your children?”
No one is allowed to be that happy. She never forgot the time her husband had said that to her, the first night he forgot to kiss her.
“Oh yes, years ago.”
“Well then, just very uncomfortable for you I’m sure,”
He looked at her, both of them quiet for a moment and then he took off his glasses again. The nature of these afflictions offered up the patient’s privacy with almost uncomfortable vividness. Although he could barely admit it to himself, he was only human, only a man after all and at times the visions were there. What she would look like, naked, across the bed, spreading for whomever stood above her. He slipped his finger between his shirt and neck, pulling at its tightness.
“It’s definitely a warm day isn’t it?”
She nodded, then looking down at her hands and murmured “What do we do?”
“What do we do? Oh you mean the medicine,” he caught himself looking at that ring finger again.
She had asked that question of Frank. Frank, who liked to see her in blue. Frank who had driven her here today while Pete was at the club. Frank who said he was always happy when he was with her, who knew all the ways, awkward and in turns sublime, to access her.
“Did your husband bring you today?”
Too sharp Jan, she thought to herself, step in now to soften that snap.
“Sorry, I mean no, no he is at the club.”
-“Golfing,” they said together, though this time with no laugh on her part.
“Well I can give you a course of medication, pills, to start now in fact but it might make you a bit sleepy, its best you don’t drive yourself. How did you get here?”
He knew he didn’t need to ask that question, but there was something, just something. He liked Pete Cole. And he knew women.
“Mrs. Cole although this doesn’t carry the threat of long term damage, at least in this current state- something like this is highly infectious.”
She was still silent. God help me.
“What I’m trying to say Mrs. Cole, is that a disease like this doesn’t come from nowhere. And there are dangers.”
“Of course. I understand.”
“Do you Mrs. Cole, do you understand that this comes from somewhere and goes somewhere else if one isn’t careful?”
Of course he knew men as well, and come to that he did not know Pete Cole outside the pleasant camaraderie of the golfing club. But the dress was new, and there was the ring finger, and he had his responsibilities. Men deserved loyalty these days. If nowhere else than from each other. He wondered if Pete knew his wife was here. Again the quick image of the softness under that dress, the loosened hair…
He drew his prescription pad across the desk and without looking at her explained what he was going to give her, what it might do to her stomach and how she must bath herself. “Ablutions” he called them. She nodded saying nothing. Inside she felt muted, numb almost, and there was no comfort to be drawn from thoughts of Frank.
And then he handed the prescription to her, letting his fingers touch hers for just a moment more than necessary. He thought there was little he could say at this point.
“It’s a changing world, is it not, Mrs. Cole.”
She had no idea what he meant and rose without a word. She remembered her manners with her hand on the door to leave and, half turning, said:
“Not at all Mrs. Cole, have a nice evening. I’m off to the golf club myself. Nice night for it.”
She paused, as though making to turn back, then opened the door and left him.
Outside she exhaled heavily, clutching at her heart that was beating so hard it felt as though it belonged to someone else entirely.