MRS JACOBSON’S NIECE
The young psychiatrist is determined to work with a hopeless case, a ghostly statue from the past so he can woo the girl he loves.
Jonny’s letter informed me he was hopping over to India. Could he bunk with me? I was more than delighted.
Jonny was the only son of the widowed Professor Kenilworth, one of my teachers in a London medical college after the war. Perhaps because he considered me a promising student, the Professor invited me frequently to his villa in Hampstead Garden Suburb. Jonny had looked upon me as an elder brother, seeking advice for his growing pains.
Shortly after starting my practice in London, the Professor took young Jonny to India. He had been engaged to lecture at the Medical College in Calcutta. A year later they were back in London and, almost immediately, I was summoned to his home.
“Trevor,” said the Professor, “I have recommended you for the position I vacated,” and he insisted I take advantage of the opportunity. I asked him why he had left India so precipitously. Not until I was established at the Medical College in Calcutta did I realize he had not answered my question.
Jonny wrote regularly. He informed me of his decision to follow in his father’s footsteps. I was delighted to learn of his success in his studies and that he had gone on to Psychiatry. I rejoiced when he qualified and when he was accepted into partnership on Harley Street.
“I’ve taken the name of Keene,” he wrote, “so as not to be confused with my illustrious father.”
I was touched he never permitted our communication to break. So, when I received the letter concerning his planned visit to India, I wrote immediately a welcoming reply.
I had long since left the Medical College and was now the Director of the Harrington Nursing Home. I greeted him in my air-conditioned office.
“Jonny!” I exclaimed as I shook his hand. “Is it really you? You were such a skinny fellow when I last saw you. My word! Nine years already! Thinning a bit on top, old boy, but I must say you look more like a gallant Lothario than a respectable psychiatrist. I’m willing to bet most of your patients are female.”
I led him, sweating and smiling, to my desk. I felt irrationally proud of this handsome young man.
“Forgive my not being at the airport this morning. I trust the driver had no trouble finding you.”
“None at all,” said Jonny, dropping into the chair before my desk, “only I’d forgotten the heat. It’s a relief in here.”
“Enjoy it while it lasts,” I said. “Power cuts several times a day.”
I parked myself in my chair, pleased to have his company at last.
“Look here, old boy, you’re what, twenty-six?
“Twenty seven almost.”
“Among your patients, wasn’t there one you could be serious about? Look at me, thirty-eight and alone. Don’t make the same mistake.”
“To tell the truth, Trevor, I’ve yet to meet someone I could live with for the rest of my life.”
“You’re probably too choosy, like me.”
He smiled. “Probably,” he said. “Young girls seem too superficial. The ones I liked were married.” Flippancy did not hide his sincerity. “It’s the woman wiser for suffering who interests me.”
“That’s the psychiatrist in you.”
“I know just the girl for you.” I rose from my chair with an air of mystery. “But right now, I’d like you to meet someone who’ll interest you professionally. Brought in some ten years ago, suffering from catatonic schizophrenia like you’ve never seen. I inherited her.”
He followed me to a private room. Without knocking, I led him in. He reacted with a start. His eyes widened. Considering the object seated on a wheelchair by the window, it did not surprise me. A very thin, very worn-looking woman, with skin of flaky parchment, with grey hair straggling down the sides of her face, with eyes fixed unseeing, a statue in the ghost world.
“She looks a hundred, doesn’t she,” I commented. “Would you believe she’s not yet fifty?”
“Let’s go,” said Jonny, laconic and brittle.
Outside, he asked, “Why did you speak aloud in front of your patient?”
“Old Mrs Jacobson?” I exclaimed. “She doesn’t hear a thing. She might as well be stone.”
“You’re wrong, Trevor,” said Jonny. “She hears everything.”
I confess to a wave of annoyance.
“Oh, come now, Jonny, you were in there not twenty seconds. I’ve looked after her for six years. What makes you so sure?”
“She blinked several times while you spoke.”
I was so irritated, more with myself than Jonny, I did not expand on Mrs Jacobson’s history then. As it was nearing lunch time, we drove home. I showed him his room and told the bearer to unpack the sahib’s things while we ate.
Over lunch, we small-talked about London. The memory of the morning still lingered. I attempted to stifle the awkwardness by encouraging Jonny to speak of his father, now in surly retirement.
“He did not want me to come here, but I over-ruled his every objection. Don’t you want to return to England, Trevor?”
“Hardly. I know I would be a fish out of water there,” I said. “The Indian way of life quite spoils one.”
We adjourned to the lounge for coffee.
“What about your patient?”
“Hmmm?” I knew whom he meant.
“Oh yes,” I said, “Mrs Jacobson. Well, not much to tell really. Her daughter – Sandra, I believe was her name – died in a most bizarre manner. Swallowed sulphuric acid. Collapsed on the broken bottle she’d dropped. A jagged piece of glass pierced her under the diaphragm and punctured her heart. A freak accident. Created quite a scandal. Over a love affair, I believe. Passions run high in this climate. The mother’s mind snapped. One moment, a rational human being; the next, a vegetable. She was a leading figure in the city. Very rich.”
I paused to enhance the effect of the words to follow.
“Her niece manages her fortune now. Charming young woman. Very pretty. Comes in twice a week to visit her aunt. Never fails. As a matter of fact, she’s the girl I want you to meet.”
“Oh?” He lifted a quizzical eyebrow.
“She answers your requirements,” I said. “Been through a lot, that girl. Orphaned at ten. Taken in by her aunt, and four years later, witness to the double tragedy – her cousin’s death and her aunt’s immediate breakdown.”
“How old is she?” asked Jonny.
“Aha!” I wagged a victorious finger. “I’ve got you interested.”
He smiled. “I’d be a fool not to be interested in a pretty girl.”
“She’s twenty-three,” I informed him, “and she’s refused every proposal of marriage she’s ever had. Even one from a Maharaja! She’s friendly enough but there’s precious little else I can tell you. She discourages even the most innocuous personal probes. Her private life is… well… private. Believe me, even her servants know no more than what she discloses to the world. For the ladies of the community it’s horribly frustrating.”
Jonny again raised an eyebrow.
“Perhaps, with your charm,” I continued tongue-in-cheek, “you’ll draw aside the veil of her reticence. She’s more than just pretty. She’s deep… she’s charming…” – it wasn’t enough; I searched for the right phrase – “and… serene. Yes, serene.”
“Has this paragon a name?” asked Jonny.
“Estelle. Estelle Morrison.”
Estelle’s visiting days were Tuesday and Friday at 10.00 o’clock in the morning. So, on Tuesday I took Jonny with me to the Home. I told the receptionist to buzz my secretary on the intercom the moment Estelle arrived. Promptly at ten, my secretary informed me Miss Morrison was waiting.
“Send her in.”
I came forward from my desk to greet her.
She entered, her hand extended toward me. The flare of her A-line frock of green and white whirled about her knees. Her hair, almost black and shining with health, attractively framed her light copper face. Her large brown eyes reflected bright intelligence. Her aura of sombre nobility never failed to affect me.
She cut short her greeting when her eyes fell upon Jonny.
“Come in, Estelle,” I said.
She did not react. I took her hand; she seemed unaware of it. She stared at Jonny. Softly, almost to herself, she said: “Coco?”
Jonny looked at her with positive appreciation.
“Meet Dr. Jonny Keene,” I said. He threw her a smile to charm Circe herself. “He’s on sabbatical from England,” I explained. “Plans to loaf for a month. Then get down to the serious business of gaining experience in his field. Believe it or not, he’s a psychiatrist.”
Quite oblivious of my chatter, she accepted the hand he held out to her while her eyes searched his face. Suddenly she shook her head.
“Forgive me, Dr. Keene,” she said, releasing him at last. “I’ve been rude. For a moment, you reminded me of someone I knew as a child. But he was not nearly so good-looking.”
She spoke without a hint of coquetry. Had she not been quite so indifferent, it may have been less embarrassing.
“Thank you,” replied Jonny, not in the least put out. “I’m delighted to return the compliment. It’s always refreshing to meet a beautiful woman who speaks plainly.”
I had never seen Estelle Morrison blush, but here she was, crimson from her neck up. She turned away.
“I was not seeking a compliment,” she said.
“Neither was I,” returned Jonny. “All the same, it’s pleasant to receive an honest one.” She gave him a fleeting smile. “I understand you’re here to see your aunt,” continued Jonny. “I’d be delighted if, afterwards, you’ll permit me to take you to lunch.”
“No… I’m sorry,” said Estelle.
He ignored her refusal.
“It’ll be infinitely more pleasant than staring across the table at Trevor.”
“Thank you very much,” said I.
“I… I’m afraid I can’t.”
I sensed apprehension in Estelle’s reluctance.
“Tomorrow, then,” persisted Jonny.
“No… not tomorrow.”
“I’ll pick you up on Saturday night. Eight o’clock.”
“Call me.” She was evasive. “Trevor has my number. Now, if you’ll excuse me…”
She hurried to the door; I opened it for her. As she passed, she gave me a perfunctory smile and I could not help but observe her cheeks still glowed.
The whole community was agog when Estelle went out with Jonny. Who could deflect his persistence? They were seen at the cinema and, later, at a local nightclub. She had never before indulged in such frivolity. The more unkind commented, how could her majesty permit her royal person to be jostled by the rank and file on the dance floor? Those who thought of her as already an old maid (poor thing) were anxious to see if this caper would finally end in a marriage knot. Over Jonny, the women sighed: “Dr. Keene is soooo dashing, isn’t he?”
For myself, I am mortified to admit my inability to control my curiosity. I felt my relationship to Jonny – in loco parentis, as it were – gave me the right to probe. All I got for my pains was a charming snub.
About a week later, Jonny approached me in my office.
“Would you mind if I worked with Mrs Jacobson, Trevor?”
“Jonny,” I explained, “an army of psychiatrists have tried to reach her. Estelle has spent a fortune – even brought Sir William Lewis-Barrington over from London two years ago. Incidentally, you’ve had quite an effect on her. I’ve never seen her so – um, what shall I say? – involved.”
“Involved in what?” said Jonny. He could be quite infuriating.
“Oh, I don’t know. In life, if you like.”
“We’re talking of Mrs Jacobson,” he said.
“Don’t waste your time, Jonny. You should know there’s a dimension no one can reach. As she can’t speak, it’s unlikely we’ll ever know what blocks her progress.”
“Nevertheless,” said Jonny, ever persistent.
“Save yourself the frustration. I’ve informed my friend, Dr. Abinash Mukerjee, of the Calcutta Mental Hospital, you’ll be round to see him shortly. All I need do is lift the telephone receiver and arrange the appointment.”
“Thanks, Trevor, but I believe I can help Mrs Jacobson. I’d like to try.”
“Dr. Mukerjee’s desperate for aid.” I persisted.
Jonny grinned at me.
I shrugged. “Very well, go ahead. I certainly don’t mind.” I wagged my finger in his face. “Don’t say I didn’t warn you.”
“One small thing, Trevor.” He rose to leave. “Don’t let Estelle know about this, please.”
“Why?” I asked. He smiled enigmatically. “Oh, as you wish!”
My exasperation was evident.
He turned at the door.
I raised a frowning face. He flashed a broad beam.
I had to smile back.
“Get out!” I said. “And the best of British luck!”
Jonny was adamant none but Mrs Jacobson’s nurse be permitted in her room. He requested I too, observe this rule. I insisted the nurse report her progress, if any, to me. “Damn it all!” I expostulated. “She’s my patient.”
Four days later, fluttering excitedly, the nurse reported: “She turned and looked at me. Oh, Doctor, she actually turned her head.”
Progress was rapid. She moved her fingers three days later. Hand movements followed the next day. Shortly thereafter, the nurse found her with tear-stained cheeks; memories were returning. I was at a loss to understand.
“You’ve done wonders,” I told Jonny over the dinner table. “What are you using on her?”
“But that’s been tried before.”
He forked a piece of curried chicken into his mouth. I eyed him with suspicion.
He shrugged and produced his smile.
“When can I see her?” I pressed.
“Oh, in about a week.”
He pushed his chair back.
“What about dessert?”
“I’m meeting Estelle. We’ll grab an ice-cream at Magnolias.”
And he was gone.
Exactly seven days later, he ushered me into Mrs Jacobson’s room.
“Here’s your doctor, Mrs J,” he said, addressing the living corpse. “He’s taken good care of you.”
Mrs Jacobson turned. Her eyes, bleary but comprehending, searched for mine. Lazarus had come forth. She extended her hand. I took it and kissed it.
“I am delighted with your progress, Mrs Jacobson,” I cried.
“There’s no need to raise your voice, Trevor,” said Jonny. “Mrs Jacobson hears perfectly well. Don’t you, Mrs Jacobson?”
The following day, Jonny permitted Estelle to visit. I waited outside. When they emerged ten minutes later, Estelle was struggling to maintain her composure.
“Thank you, Jonny,” she said. “You’ll never know how grateful I am.”
“Prove it,” he returned.
Her answer was a faint smile.
“I’ll call for you tonight,” he said, leading her down the corridor. “This silliness must stop. In any case, you must acknowledge we do have something to celebrate.”
“It’s hard enough as it is, Jonny,” I heard her say. “Don’t make it any harder.”
“I’ll call for you tonight.”
Forceful chap, our Jonny!
As I was finishing a lonely dinner, Jonny came in looking rather down-in-the-mouth.
“Hello, Jonny.” I looked at my watch. “What are you doing back so early?” He sat down silent and disconsolate. “Have you eaten anything? Bearer, bring a plate for the sahib.”
“I don’t want anything,” said Jonny.
“Come now, Jonny, this isn’t like you.”
“I’m sorry, Trevor.” He pulled himself together. “I’ve no business behaving like this. You deserve an explanation. The fact is I need some advice.”
“Anything I can do, old fellow.”
I sat back to listen.
He called for her early that evening and instructed the driver to take them to the Strand, a quiet, romantic road along the banks of the Hooghly River. The diamond ring he had purchased was in his pocket. He was happy and sure of himself. When the car was parked, he told the driver to take a walk.
He turned to Estelle.
“What say you to a honeymoon in Hong Kong?”
She stared at him with a strange, hurt look.
“I’d planned to get down on my knees,” he continued, “but it’s a bit cramped in here.”
Two large tears slid down her cheeks. She kissed him chastely on the mouth, put her arms around him and drew her body close to his, laying her head on his shoulder. Presently she pulled away and began to shake.
“Oh, Jonny!” she sobbed. “I can’t. I can’t.”
“Why can’t you?” he demanded. “You love me, don’t you?”
“Yes,” she confessed. “But I just can’t.”
“Talk sense, Estelle,” he said, forcing her to face him. “No riddles. No games.”
At this point in his narrative, Jonny rose from the dining table and paced the room. Lighting a cigarette, he continued through a cloud of smoke.
“Her face contorted; her voice was barely audible. ‘I am guilty of murder,’ she said.”
Jonny turned to my shocked, incredulous face and repeated, “Yes, she did say murder. And having said it, she sobbed with horrible intensity.”
He scraped back a chair and, once again, sat down.
“It was impossible to get any coherence from her. She kept repeating: ‘Murder. Murder.’ I had to slap her to bring her to some degree of control. I called to the driver. We drove to the Nursing Home, where I gave her a sedative. I then took her home and instructed her ayah to put her to bed.”
“By the looks of you, you should have prescribed a tranquilizer for yourself too,” I said.
“Never take the damned things,” he replied.
The next day, Jonny insisted I accompany him to Estelle and all but dragged me to the car. The driver saluted as he let us in.
I noticed the pallor over the skin of her lovely face when she greeted us, but she seemed under control. I was not at all comfortable.
“I came to see how you are, Estelle,” I said. “Jonny tells me you were not too well yesterday.”
“How kind of you,” she answered as she took her seat upon the couch. “Do sit down.”
The ayah, barefoot and clad in a white sari, entered with a tray holding tall glasses of freshly squeezed nembu pani, iced lime juice. Estelle left hers standing on the glass-topped side table. I swallowed my drink and, in the ensuing silence, watched the ring of water form at the base of her glass.
“Well,” I said, rising with false heartiness. “You look well enough, my dear. I’m pleased you don’t need my services so I’d best return to my duties.”
“Sit down, Trevor.” Her voice was calm but firm. “You’d better hear what I have to say. It may help in my aunt’s recovery. Until yesterday, I believed it was hopeless.”
I sat down.
At first, she spoke unemotionally, never once raising her eyes from the carpet. Occasionally she paused, as if waiting for stabs of pain, provoked by each memory, to pass.
“From the moment I entered this house as a girl of ten,” she began “my cousin, Sandra, made my life miserable. She resented my intrusion. She was sixteen years old at the time and she could devise the most vicious punishments. She would frighten me in the middle of the night with awful, ghostlike sounds, knowing how timid I was. She broke an expensive vase and swore she saw me do it. She went so far as to cut herself and accused me of throwing a knife at her. Needless to say, her mother believed her and I was considered a hateful child, ungrateful and incorrigible. I learned to choke down my tears so as never to reveal how much Sandra hurt me. I swore myself to revenge.”
She paused. Jonny and I ventured a glance at one another.
“Three years of hell went by. Then she brought Coco home to meet her mother. He had arrived recently from England. All the girls in Sandra’s crowd found him attractive. Even I, at thirteen, made him the object of my first romantic crush. I adored him. But Sandra commandeered him. The flattered and bewildered young man must have fancied himself in love. He became a regular visitor. He never came without something for me. It might be a pastry, or a Ludo game, or any silly thing. If not a present, he would slip me a rupee and whisper it was for an ice-cream. I took to following him like a pet dog at his heels. This annoyed Sandra and on her complaints, my aunt would shoo me away. I peered at him from behind door curtains or I would hide behind the couch just to hear the sound of his voice. I was wildly jealous of Sandra.
“I’m not sure when but after several months I noticed Coco coming over when Sandra was out. I began to observe things. As soon as Sandra would leave, my aunt would pick up the telephone.
‘Coco? … Sandra asked me to call. … Fifteen minutes? She should be back by then.’
I knew Sandra would not be home for hours, having been invited by an ex-school friend for tea.
“You may not believe it now but my aunt was uncommonly beautiful. She was in her late thirties then, but she could have dropped ten years. I can still hear her husky voice and that very sensual laugh, as she said to him, ‘You’re a very attractive man, Coco. If I were twenty years younger, I wouldn’t let you out of my sight.’
“I remember every detail of that fateful day. It was raining heavily, the first day of the monsoons. Though the rain brought relief, it was still hot and sultry. My aunt had her usual Mah Jong session and I remember the disgruntled remarks about her lack of concentration. The game broke up at noon. She was restless. At the lunch table, she snapped at Sandra, ‘How on earth do you propose to go out in this rain? The roads will be flooded.’
‘Oh, Mummy!’ said Sandra. ‘If I were to wait for it to clear, I’ll be stuck indoors for months. I’ll need the car.’
‘No. I’m sorry, Sandra. Not today.’
‘It’ll have to be a taxi, then. Slip me fifty rupees, Mum.’
“I gave my aunt a wide-eyed look. A taxi cost no more than three or four rupees. I was surprised when my aunt handed her the money without a word. Invariably, there would be an accompanying lecture on thrift and the plaint that Sandra was a spoiled child.
‘Stop staring at me, Estelle,’ said my aunt. ‘Haven’t I told you a million times it’s rude? Finish your lunch and get straight to bed for your rest.’
“I went to my room but I couldn’t sleep. I heard Sandra go out and, five minutes later, the tiny tinkle of the telephone bell. My aunt asked the operator to connect her to Coco’s number. I heard her greet him and invite him over. She said she would not hear of it in this rain. She would send the car round. A half hour later, Coco was in the house. I heard whispered talk for a while, then silence. I slipped out of bed and tiptoed to my bedroom door. I peeped from behind the curtain. With a thrilling shock, I saw them kissing with their arms tight about each other. I heard her cry softly, ‘Oh, my God, Coco, I never dreamed I could ever feel like this. Kiss me again.’
“She led him toward her bedroom. I waited and a few minutes later, I followed, stealthy as a cat. Because of the heat, doors are never closed. I could hear the whirr of the ceiling fan within. I lay down along the wall and peered in from under the heavy curtain. I could not see my aunt on the bed but I could see his naked bottom rising and falling over her. My throat constricted and I could hardly breathe. I was so afraid I did not stay long. I slunk away and went back to bed. I lay there trembling, remem¬bering the slim white backside, like smooth marble, lifting and falling, and the sounds of my aunt’s low moans.
“Later, I heard him leave. My aunt came into my room. After listening to my regular breathing for a few moments, she left. I continued to lie there, my mind awhirl. Slowly it dawned on me what a powerful weapon I held. Sandra wanted to marry Coco. She had often said as much to her mother. In her own way, she must have loved him. At any rate, she wanted him. To me she would sneer, ‘Coco loves me. He loves me, you hear. When he marries me and takes me away to England, you will never see him again.’
“I had no idea how potent my weapon was but I determined to use it. And I did – that very evening.
‘Yah! Yah! Yah!’ I mocked. ‘Coco doesn’t love you. He doesn’t care two pins for you.’
“I snapped my fingers in her face. All I could think of was how much I wanted to hurt her, to pay her back for the years of misery she had inflicted upon me.
‘You little brat!’ She grabbed my hair. ‘How dare you say that? Take it back. Take it back at once.’
‘Let me go!’ I screamed. ‘I won’t take it back. Let me go! I saw him and aunty making love. So there!’
“She released me. I was delighted to see her face had lost all colour.
‘Liar! What do you know about making love?’
‘He and aunty were naked on the bed together,’ I spat out. ‘I saw his bottom going up and down, up and down.’
‘Oh, my God. MOTHER!’ Her shriek was terrifying, her face horribly contorted. ‘MO-THER!’
“A fire, a rage burned in her eyes that I shall never forget. She dashed into the bathroom. My aunt came running into the room.
‘What is it? What’s happened?’
“Suddenly I realized what a terrible thing I’d done. I backed away. She grabbed my arm.
‘What happened?’ she repeated, anger shining from her eyes.
“I cowered against the wall.
‘Where’s Sandra?’ she demanded.
“We heard the crash of a shattering bottle, followed by a thud. We both ran into the bathroom. Sandra lay face down in a red-stained puddle that hissed as it spread.”
Estelle stopped speaking. Her eyes were downcast.
Jonny and I said nothing. There was nothing to say.
At last, she lifted her wet eyes to his.
“You see, Jonny,” she said, “I am responsible for my cousin’s death. My aunt is the living reminder of my culpability. I told you once you couldn’t understand the depth of my gratitude for my aunt’s progress. Now perhaps you do. I love you, Jonny, but I could never make you happy because I could never be happy. How could I be? Try to understand. I love you too much to let myself ruin your life as I ruined… “
She stopped to regain control of her emotions. Jonny remained silent.
“If only I knew where Coco was, if only I could see him, beg him to forgive us for the pain we caused him. If only I were sure he’s put the pieces together. If… If… That’s the worst kind of torture – not knowing.”
She hid her face in her hands. Jonny went over and sat beside her, putting an arm around her. She fell to sobbing against his shoulder. He let her cry and, when her sobs subsided, he said, “Look at me, darling.”
She moved back and looked into his eyes with such distress it had me fighting my tears.
“Don’t you see,” he said, “if anyone can make you happy, I can. Now don’t interrupt. Just rest your head here and listen.”
He laid her unresisting head back on his shoulder.
“You owe Coco no apology. He was much too young to be in love or to know what he was doing. Sandra took too much for granted. She was obviously suicidal and would have found some excuse to take her life. You were simply the catalyst. I’m sorry it has caused you to suffer all these years. But you must not blame yourself. It was not your fault.”
His eyes took on a look of resolution. He had reached a decision.
“This Coco, who showed you so much affection and brought you gifts every time he came over – did his father lecture at the Medical College?”
Estelle lifted her face from his shoulder.
“And did they leave for England immediately after this business?”
“Yes,” she said bewildered, “but how…?”
“Was this Coco a gangly fellow with pimples?”
She was staring at him, wide-eyed.
“Ten years is a long time, my darling. You were such a little girl.” He kissed her cheeks, her hair. “I was drawn to you then. I love you now, so much.”
She scanned his face incredulously. “Coco?”
“I too, had to see you again. To be sure you were all right.”
“Oh, Coco!” She put her arms around him, laughing and crying at the same time. “Why didn’t you tell me it was you?”
“I was afraid you’d hate me.”
“Hate you? I could never hate you. I was angry with Aunty. I was afraid for you. You were engaged to Sandra and I thought we’d ruined your life.”
“Engaged to Sandra? What made you think that?”
“Oh Coco, I love you so much,” she said and clung to him.
I rose and left them, dabbing at my eyes with my handkerchief. They did not notice my departure. I now knew why Jonny was succeeding with Mrs Jacobson; why only he could bring her back to the land of the living.
I let myself out and stepped jauntily toward my car, where the driver held the door open for me.