A Stitch in Scarlet

By Alison Habens

He was not the bonniest doctor I’d ever seen, and I have been under a good number of medical men. He didn’t have the buttresses of Dr Watson, in his sick bay on Elm Grove, or the turrets of Dr Ward with his surgery on Elphinstone Road. At a glance, Doctor Doyle was all eyes, moustaches and thighs.

A brand-new brass nameplate appeared on the railings of Bush Villas and twinkled at me first. My stars have sometimes led me from one dispenser of medicine to another with a shake of Asclepius’ snake-stick. Previously, I have switched to cheaper prescribers, finding novice medics perfectly healing. So I was musing upon his potential services as I passed the frontage one day and witnessed A Conan Doyle MD stepping lightly as a fairy photograph through his iron gate. In a top hat, he looked like the type to provide my ‘elevation’.

I started to buy my thread from Hides instead of Handleys. Perhaps the walk to Handleys corner had always been slightly longer but I preferred a lady-like bustle to the hustle of King’s Road where the traffic was dire, carriages queuing in both directions and tradesmen’s carts parked on the tramlines. The gutters flowed with horseshit like the stables of Hercules, and I have often stepped in it.

Every other Saturday afternoon, when I set off to see my publican father and drunken mother in Fratton, the striped canopies of Hides Haberdashery hung so low as to infringe on my best hat, or force me to tread in the mire. But that route allowed a look through the undressed windows of No.1 Bush Villa, where the manly outline of Conan Doyle might be standing. So now I walked that way, ailment and all, every day.

My employers, Miss Webber and Miss Rider of Oakley House, heard the young doctor speak at the Portsmouth Literary and Scientific Society. Then, head and deputy mistresses twittered endless details of Doyle’s voyage to the Pole as a post-grad student, breathlessly outlining his ice-floe diagrams, and the stuffed terns on his lectern.

They let me go with them the following week to Penny Street hall and the rows of cane-bottomed chairs, where generals and reverends, journalists and surgeons, sat alongside the pink-cheeked ladies who had braved the frosty night for a talk, though they were not full members and mayn’t say a word. This time the speech lacked the thrill of Dr Doyle’s although the man himself asked long and learned questions in trilling Scottish.

I had taken my medication before leaving the house so felt no soreness as we walked, and talked very lustrous on the way. During the lecture I amused myself counting the hairs on the head of the chap sitting in front of me; but when the chairman got to his feet I thought of Orpheus singing to the king of the dead, so heartfelt that all of Hades’ tortured courtiers paused to listen. Who was who in that local society: which man there was Ixion stopped spinning on his wheel of fire, Tantalus ceased grasping for a drink, Sisyphus desisting in his absurd task? What manner of tormented souls were the ladies?

I could still hear the doctor’s voice, a trickle of Orphic residue in my veins next morning, as the scholars in my care were scraping their ABCs in chalk on slate. I could listen askance (at the same glancing angle as I could see his gleaming nameplate along the street) while I taught the baby class their alphabet; the bottom-most governess in a basic dame school. Classics, as promised in the prospectus, to the children of Southsea shopkeepers, as I had been taught it before by Miss Webber.

She spun me the myths; Arachne, Athena, Ariadne, stories woven for girls, with their warp of passion and weft of romance. On her lips the silk was feminine, though I knew the books she pulled it from had men for pen-names; Homer, Hesiod, Horace, a marble library shelf. I spun those plots again for the daughters of local storemen, and the sons of the genteel poor. An ABC for Portsmouth but, in my drug-addled mind, the letters became ACD.

I switched my ‘script to Dr Doyle’s dispensary. A young boy, his brother surely, a splinter off the healer’s rod, let me in to a bare consulting room. There, seal eyes watched as I sat in the patient’s chair; the Arctic explorer still in his walrus moustache. And still the public speaker from Penny Street hall, he diagnosed me before asking the first question:

‘Mild Scoliosis,’ Dr Doyle said. ‘Not so much humpbacked as slope-shouldered. But I suppose you feel it?’

‘Oh, doctor,’ I murmured. ‘Every stone of my backbone is hammer-struck. See. A spinal chord in the key of agony.’ I feel one can’t protest too much when the prescribing of medication is concerned.

Then I observed closely as he wrote the bill for my next dose of forge-water; his pen sucking the ink out of me and replacing it with sizzling relief. Flourishing his signature, curled like his moustache, he looked up to see me still transfixed by the prescription pad; and smiling said that his best writing was in short stories.

When I confessed that I was always imagining Orpheus singing to me in the chalk-scrape of the schoolroom or Hades chanting in the rhythmic snores of my fellow governess in the attic dorm, the doctor replied; ‘yes, that drug will give you the queerest ideas.’

I haven’t always taken cocaine for my back pain. Mother’s milk was morphine to me: but as I grew up, left home, took a teaching position, opium gave the succour. When the academic terms got stronger, I swapped poppy seeds for coca leaves.

Miss Webber knows I am infirm; God and all the children can see I’m not straight up and down. My spine cracks like cobbles on the Southsea shore as I stand at the chalkboard.

She saw me first in Sunday school, awarding the prize for neatest handwriting when I was five years old. When I was six, she taught her paupers composition; and upon reading my epic Miss Webber offered me a scholarship to her private school on Elm Grove. In fact, it was a scholarship plus lots of extra housework, to save me from my fiction; a heroic effort to disguise my father as Zeus, passing off his abuse as thunderbolts and lightening. My teacher has now conveyed to me all she knows about literature and life; but she has never even touched, with the tip of her cane, upon my character.

Dr Doyle touched me. Every time he wrote my prescription, he dipped his pen deeply into me, and he took my soul for his subject matter. Nib-scratched for five shillings a week and did it make me better? No, it made me love the disease.

Each day, from morning prayers to bedtime stories, I watched from the school’s sash windows and often saw a top hat and cane, which could have been his, striding by. Every month, my apotheosis; the meeting of Portsmouth Scientific and Literary Society where I would be sure to see him, hatless and stick stowed below the chair.

Ladies made up more than half the audience; bonneted, heads bent over their sewing or knitting. Listening to the lectures, though we were never to speak; though the men even complained about us needle-working in public. Our intimate embroidery was as bad as if they were to smoke during the proceedings, they said.*

More than half of those ladies loved Arthur Conan Doyle, I believe; such fervent stitching could only be done by those who felt a sudden calling to be nurses. But I was the one who needed medication. Keeping my appointments religiously, I started to write a diary for of the joy of putting his name in it. Pen-pricked, the cure was now as painful as the cause; my backache and heartache, gut-sewn equal.

Though Dr Doyle continued to prescribe drugs for me, he didn’t deduce the class of my addiction. He knew I was hooked on fiction, telling me one month about his mental block, next month how he was writing a ‘Literary Mosaic’ in which all the famous authors of history appeared at his desk and dictated a plot in turns. Sterne to Smollet, Scott to Stevenson telling a mythical patchwork; something I could quilt during algebra, in the gaps between equations.

He had it published in ‘The Boy’s Own Paper’. There it lay at Christmas on his desk, wrapped in gift-colours: a surprise to me who’d taken the last of my December doses just before I came. The doctor’s eyes were duller today, unimpressed with his little publication, still seeking bigger inspiration. I said, in a tone that rattled like pearls on the table, he should count out his blessings like pills.

By my appointment in February, he’d started to write a new novel; and I told him of a dream I’d had about a raven. ‘Plucking out its feathers to dip in a bottomless inkwell,’ I had intoned. Attending his clinic in March, I saw the draft of chapter four on his desk; and reported a vision of hawk. ‘Plucking at a lyre with dainty claws,’ I now moaned.

He asked me if I’d heard the talk on Mormonism at our society that month. I said I had and was surprised he’d not seen me there, as I was wearing a new bombazine jacket and must have gleamed like a beetle’s wing in the gaslight. Then, gaily he said it was hard to tell one lady apart, as they all had their eyes sewn to the needlework in their laps, during the lectures at least.

‘Doctor,’ I replied, ‘there’s a scarlet thread of mystery running through the colourless skein of life, and our duty is to unravel it.’

I noticed the knees, which jiggled whenever he was seated, stopped on the other side of the desk. The tweed trousers which I wished to touch compulsively as a punishment in hell; the muscles bunching beneath the cloth, rough grapes to tantalise, were still. Then, in May, looking at me, he said ‘we could try an experiment’. Something along those lines, he said: ‘an experiment, in writing and the mind.’ Staring hard at me, he said: ‘in stories and the human soul.’

What the devil did ACD mean? I just nodded and my hat-feather signed enthusiastically but what the Dickens we were agreeing to wasn’t further discussed. The next patient was waiting, and I left the clinic feeling like I was shaking off a dark fairy dust.

Miss Webber found me, way beyond tea-time, wandering along Elm Grove. She said how I muttered, on meeting: ‘Is this the experiment? Are we trying it now?’ Returned to the classroom, I wore out the chalk writing some imaginary science on the board. Who knew if successful authors could embalm with ink the real characters they doctored in life?

By our next appointment I’d proven, to myself at least, that Dr Doyle had treated me since mythic times with songs and stories like the muse was his mother, and he was still singing now. Sidelong at the school gate, I could lean into his messages like scarlet threads strung along King’s Road for telegraphs to the underworld.

But before I’d had two more appointments, he found a better Eurydice than me. He met his wife at death’s door and sung her back from the other side: though his patient was her brother, whose case was, sadly, terminal.

I heard it from our parlour maid, told as ribbons of black crepe, from the house where her sister does, down by the Square Tower; where the lawyer’s wife had séances with the Hawkins family what had lost their son, and Dr Doyle went with them to the darkness, for the love of Louise.

I can get my medicine prescribed elsewhere; Dr Watson is equidistant if more expensive. But as for the voice whispering in my ear, I’ve had to go back to Ovid: ‘By this place of fear, this huge void and these vast and silent realms, renew the life-thread of Eurydice.’

For he broke off singing me back from the dead; though he did not detect it. Conan Doyle’s stories were getting well-known so he left this place of sport and small politics, seaside strolls and mediumship; and he went to live in London, where the lampposts were fancier and less far between, with his family and fame growing.

He wasn’t the best writer I’d ever read, and I have been under a good number of literary fictions. I can feel their spell as I stand in the ring where his doctor’s red light used to shine on Elm Grove. It hasn’t shone since he left for town and I’m reliant now on the moon. When it is half full, and my monthly dose is on the wane, it’s almost enough to illuminate A Conan Doyle MD where his nameplate used to be bolted to the railings. Writing and the mind, embossed in brass; embalmed in ink, stories and the human soul. Is this still the experiment? Are we trying it now?


*Accounts and anecdotes from Conan Doyle’s years in Southsea are documented in detail by Commander Geoffrey Stavert in A Study in Southsea – From Bush Villas to Baker Street – The Unrevealed Life of Doctor Arthur Conan Doyle. The minutes and mishaps of the Scientific and Literary Society are recorded on page 42. (1987, Portsmouth: Milestone Publications)