I read Helen Ashton’s name somewhere, I’m not quite sure where, a month or so ago. I realised that she was one of those authors reissued by an interesting press whose name I hadn’t run through the library catalogue to see if any more of her work had been kept in stock. I’m not often lucky, but this time I was. I found that there were a dozen books, some fact and some fiction, tucked away in reserve stock.
I couldn’t find out much about the majority of those books; I couldn’t even find a proper bibliography of the author; and so I decided that it would be sensible to order in most successful book first.
I found that this is one of those books that captures the story of a single day in the life of its protagonist, and that in doing that illuminates his whole life and the world around him. It’s one of those books for people like me who marvel at the fact that every person they see, every person they pass in the street, has a whole life story; and wonder what some of those stories might be.
Doctor Serocold is an elderly doctor in a small country town. His day begins early, when he is called to the deathbed of his partner, the man who had been his mentor and who has become a dear friend; and it ends late as he watches over the birth of a child, and the start of a new life. The events of the day, and his awareness of his own mortality as he waits for the results of his own medical tests, draw out a rich seam of memories and emotions.
The tone is exactly right, it catches a gentle melancholy, a sadness that a life is reaching its final act and a quiet determination to keep living. The clarity of the characterisation and the perfectly chosen details make this story so very engaging.
Doctor Serocold really was classic example of the traditional family doctor, the man who knows all of his patients’ lives, as well as their medical histories. He approached everything that he encountered with compassion, empathy and understanding, and with just enough wryness and character, to make him distinctive. He was aware that the world was changing, that the cottage hospital that he had helped to establish must grow; and he hopes that the young woman doctor he has taken on as assistant, whose skills and qualities he has come to admire, will be accepted by the community and will want to stay.
I liked him, and as I shared in his thoughts and followed him through an eventful day I came to understand why he had become the man he was, and why he wanted to continue on his chosen path.
The doctor’s day is busy. There is a visit to an elderly spinster; a difficult woman who he has learned to deal with tactfully. There is a routine operation at the cottage hospital, that he finds more difficult than he should, maybe because a younger doctor who he knows considers him rather old-fashioned is serving as his anaesthetist. There is the matron to talk with, a capable woman he knows that they are lucky to have. There is a visit to a young man who is still living with terrible war injuries, who he wants to steer away from his over-protective mother and towards the young woman who he can’t quite believe loves him. And, maybe most movingly of all, there is a visit to the woman he loved and lost, and he will have to confirm her suspicion that she is gravely ill, and accept her wish that there is no fuss and that her family is not disturbed.
Every character, every emotion, every detail, is captured beautifully and precisely; and they come together to create a wonderful picture of Doctor Serocold and the world around him.
I was sorry that the end was a little contrived, and a little rushed, but everything else had me captivated.
I can understand why this quiet book was so warmly received in its day; and I’m very glad that a wise librarian held on to a copy.