Memories – Dr Van Rossum

Doctor Van Rossum was a Dutchman. Like many modern professional immigrants they find themselves working in the poor parts of their adopted homeland.

He was a tall man. He barely had a trace of an accent. I was used to both parents speaking with accents although I did not then realise it. But Doctor Van Rossum spoke English in a slightly different way to everyone else.  His voice was more cultivated, smoother, and his appearance was firm and upright.  He did not live in Poplar, but he worked very hard there.  I have often wondered what a Dutch protestant was doing in the East End of London in the 1950s, but I never thought of a rational explanation.

He had a wonderful surgery. It was installed some distance from our house. You entered a shop, with the windows painted green up to a height of about seven feet. Inside there was a square room.  Around the walls of the room stood a mixture of chairs, each pushed tight against the brown painted walls. In one corner was a small coffee table with two or three children’s comics. A very threadbare carpet lay across the floorboards, or part of them at least. The doctor’s secretary worked behind a hatch. If you wanted to speak to her you pushed the bell and she opened the hatch.

No patient ever thought of bringing a book or a newspaper into the surgery.  Doctors’ surgeries were places where you were meant to suffer. Everyone glumly sat on the uncomfortable chairs staring at each other.  No-one said a word. If you put twenty east-enders into a pub, or party or funeral or even a park there would be talking, animation. This was not the tradition in surgeries. I suppose most of the patients regarded the traditional concept of Surgeries unhappily.  Once you went in you were on the slippery slope to consumption and death. They could barely believe in antibiotics.  Many people did not believe in immunisation and refused to permit their children to be experimented upon.  So children caught Polio and other dread diseases.

If you needed to relieve the boredom you looked around.  The surgery had been thoughtfully painted with a cream skirting and cream ceiling and best of all a cream picture rail upon which no pictures hung.

For excitement the designers of the surgery had also provided a hatch (painted light green).  When it opened you would find the Doctors’ nurse ready to tell the next person to go in.

You opened the door of the surgery, and in you walked with your Mummy. You looked around first to see how many people were ahead of you. There were always lots.  You recognised nobody. Your mother walked to the hatch. It was always closed.

There was a bell button in the frame of the hatch.  It was set in a series of concentric circles, presumably made of Bakelite but was covered in layers of green paint. You were not allowed to push the bell. The place was too solemn. Bell pushing required the joyless slightest of nudges by an adult. It would never do for the child to be treated to a good long ring. The hatch opened, usually very promptly. The nurse usually knew you by sight. She would get your medical records-written on large yellow envelops, and put them in order.

You waited a timeless wait.  If there were not too many children there you might get a read of the comic, but usually only when it was your turn to go in.  You walked into the light green door which was in the same wall as the hatch.

As you walked in you left the misery and the real world behind you. It was bright wooden and friendly.  Dr Van Rossum always greeted you politely and kindly. He usually stood at his sink as you came in and was washing his hands.  He must have had the cleanest hands in Christendom.

The Doctor was kind. He was dedicated. He was the person who could make you better. He worked so hard.  He sat at the desk next to the wall. It was made of highly polished oak and had a roll top to it. There were numberless compartments, and the good Doctor kept them all neat, and ready for action. He listened most patiently to what you had to say, and shook his head with mild sorrow as he learnt exactly where the pain was. He felt the pain himself. He knew precisely how bad it was.

He gravely sympathised as he scribbled a prescription in handwriting that seemed to us to be purposely illegible. He had to write so badly so that only the Chemist would know what was wrong with you.  It would not do if you knew yourself.

After the ritual of prescription writing was finished Doctor Van Rossum placed the prescription on his desk, as though to settle it down before he handed it over to us.

There was no attempt to educate the people about medicine. The good Doctor dropped his pearls of wisdom about simpler matters.

“Make sure Robert keeps the wound clean.”

“Shall I put some Dettol in the bathwater?” my mother asked. I do not know why she asked this because she always put a capful of Dettol in the bathwater.

“That is not necessary” said the good Doctor, no doubt conscious of the cost of antiseptic to poor East End families.  “Make sure he uses plenty of soap and warm water.”

He usually then gave your mother the prescription. Eventually she took it to the chemists. It was for black medicine. It tasted bad. It was labelled in exquisite handwriting “The Mixture”.  The chemist wrote that on labels which were printed with the legend “Shake the bottle” and of course the bottle was extremely well shaken.   Did you know that unshaken black medicine comprises of ink black thin fluid that floats and think mucky dark grey fluid that settles?

Walking back from the surgery was a prescription in itself. I always felt better to know that the good Doctor had seen me. He had prescribed medicine to make me better.  Each step was lighter and better. I eventually figured out that all Doctors, even Doctor Van Rossum, guessed what was wrong with you, mostly. They did not know for sure because they had to rely on what you told them. But that did not matter; it was the  presence of the doctor that cured you, not his medicines.

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