“Unfaithful unto Death”

My latest novel is a black comedy called Unfaithful unto Death. Here is a short extract:

Chapter 1: A Doctor’s Lot

Somewhere in southern England around 1980

Evening surgery was running late, and Dr Cyril Peabody wanted his dinner. He tried to ignore the rumblings of his empty stomach and concentrate on his work.

His tenth patient, the village postmistress, waddled into his consulting room with maddening slowness. “Evening, doctor.”

“Yes, Mrs Bream, what’s the trouble?”

“Just a touch of indigestion, I shouldn’t wonder,” she replied complacently.

Cyril did not consider this an adequate reason for taking up his time on a fine Friday evening. He said “You’re grossly overweight, you know.” Mrs Bream looked so indignant that he tried to make a joke of the matter by rubbing his hands together and adding “Don’t worry, my dear madam, we’ll soon have you looking as sylph-like as a schoolgirl once again.” She gave him a hostile stare.

“Now. What exactly do you mean by indigestion?” asked Cyril.

Mrs Bream looked at him as if he was a backward child. “Dr Greatorex used to give me some white medicine,” she informed him.

Cyril murmured “Curse these country bumpkins” to himself as he wondered how far to investigate her case. He wrote in Mrs Bream’s file “?Indigestion?” enclosed by prominent quotation marks, and added “Low IQ.” He recalled with nostalgia his time as a hospital doctor, when there would have been a student nurse to undress this old biddy ready for him to carry out a physical examination, and to write out the cards for the relevant tests: chest X-ray, barium meal, cholecystogram, full blood count, urea and electrolytes, liver function, ECG. As it was, doing it all himself did not seem worth the effort.

He reached for the prescription pad, saying in a bracing tone “Jolly good. I’ll give you some more white medicine. Come back and see me if by any chance it doesn’t do the trick. And we need to get rid of a stone or two.”

“Evening, doctor,” said Mrs Bream, and before she was out of the room, Cyril firmly pressed the bell for his last patient: Sebastian de Winter, age forty-four, of Easton Green Manor.

Sebastian de Winter was a giant of a man with a thatch of black hair, a jutting forehead and a worried expression. He glanced suspiciously at the notes on the desk. Cyril asked briskly “Well, Mr de Winter, what’s the trouble?”

“I had another bout of chest pain after lunch today. Scared the hell out of me. My blood pressure’s way out of control – you know that I suppose? Garth Greatorex has been handling the problem but he’s off duty this evening. Well, you know that too of course.” The patient leaned forward and continued earnestly “Frankly, Dr Peabody, I want a second opinion. They tell me all this is due to stress. It’s a month since I had a full physical checkup, and I’d like you to give me another ECG.”

Cyril’s interest was aroused by talk of chest pain, blood pressure and ECGs. He decided to ignore the mention of “stress”, for it would be too bad if this case turned out to involve one or both of his two pet hates, “social problems” and “psychiatry”. Cyril was interested in human bodies; he enjoyed finding out what was wrong with them, and gained satisfaction from putting them right. He was not at all interested in the human mind. He replied “By all means, Mr de Winter, delighted to oblige. As you may know, I had a great interest in cardiology in my most recent hospital post. We’ll give the problem a thorough review.” Fatigue forgotten, he rose to the challenge of demonstrating his medical expertise and, with any luck, outshining his senior partner Garth Greatorex in diagnostic skill.

Sebastian de Winter gave a history of chest pain occurring after meals and accompanied by a sensation of dread. He also complained of headaches and disturbed sleep. Cyril did not ask about his personal circumstances but the patient volunteered an account. The symptoms had started soon after his father’s sudden death from a heart attack. Sebastian had inherited the Easton Green estate with two hundred acres of farmland, and a vineyard just starting production. The burden of managing these assets was a heavy one, and his wife did not give much support. He was drinking up to half a bottle of Scotch every night in an attempt to relax and get a few hours’ sleep. He worried about his high blood pressure; Dr Greatorex’s various prescriptions had either failed to bring it down, or caused unacceptable side effects.

Physical examination revealed no abnormality except a raised blood pressure reading of 175/95. Cyril fetched the portable ECG from the clinical room. He took pride in this machine, which had been out of order when he arrived at the practice. He had got it working properly and used it on many of his patients, though none of the other doctors showed any interest in the tracings he obtained.

Sebastian de Winter’s ECG showed mild left ventricular hypertrophy, but Cyril felt able to give an honest reassurance that it was “essentially within normal limits”. The patient replied “Thank God.” Cyril wondered what to do about the raised blood pressure. The man had already been tried on many of the standard drugs: frusemide, propranolol, bethanidine, methyldopa. In the drawer of Cyril’s desk there were some free samples of a new drug called Amaz. It was claimed to reduce blood pressure by some novel mechanism that Cyril could not remember. Recalling the excellent lunch at the Angel’s Arms which Millford Pharmaceuticals had given to celebrate the launch of this new product a week or so before, Cyril announced “I’m not too happy about the blood pressure, but I’ve got some splendid new tablets here which should bring it under control. Come back next week and we’ll see how they’re suiting you.”

“The stuff Greatorex gave me made me feel sick as a dog all day,” said Sebastian de Winter mournfully. “I suppose I’ve got to expect the same with these.”

“Nausea is a common side effect from medication of any kind,” Cyril told him. He added an opinion of his own “Mainly psychological in origin – don’t think about it and you won’t get it, in other words.”

The patient made no move to leave. He asked “Couldn’t you give me something to help me sleep?”

“Never prescribe sleeping pills. Deplorable things,” said Cyril, who never suffered from insomnia himself. He had had enough of the consultation, and was determined not to be drawn into anything that smacked of psychiatry or social problems. Defeated, Sebastian de Winter put the bottle of Amaz into his pocket and shambled out of the consulting room.

Eight o’clock. Cyril put his stethoscope into his medical bag, snapped it shut, and was striding out of the Health Centre when Linda, the young receptionist with the fluffy blonde hair and curvy figure, waylaid him. “Dr Peabody! There’s two late visits come in!”

He cursed his bad luck under his breath. “Not your day, is it?” remarked Linda brightly.

“I sometimes think a doctor’s lot is not a happy one, Linda. Are these visits really that urgent?”

“Well, I should think the first one is. Poor Mr Harland, he only lives up the lane there, he’s got lung cancer and he’s very bad. His wife’s a nurse at Harphamstead Hospital – she wouldn’t ask for a visit over nothing, I’m sure.”

“Suppose not,” said Cyril. “And what’s the other?”

“Old Miss Gray from Cottage 2 by the duck pond. Says she wants to see one of the male doctors urgently. She’s a little bit eccentric, you know,” said Linda. “Actually, between you and me, she’s plain batty. Don’t tell anyone, but she came round here one day and told the whole waiting room Dr Greatorex was a brazen libertine – whatever that may mean. He was awfully cross.”

Cyril smirked with relish over the anecdote. He asked “And what’s wrong with this Miss Gray?”

“She wouldn’t say. She wants to speak to you in confidence.”

“And where is this duck pond?”

“In the dip past Graves Farm. At least it’s on your way home.”

Cyril did not appreciate the tranquil summer evening scene as he drove away. He was beginning to suspect that his recent career change had been a big mistake. His only previous experience of family medicine had been as a single-handed locum in a quiet West Country practice during his summer holiday. He had rather enjoyed that, and considered he had achieved several significant diagnostic triumphs. But working as a dogsbody at Market Beeching Health Centre, with the senior partner breathing down his neck, was what his mother would call quite a different kettle of fish.


Unfaithful unto Death is available for Kindle or in print from Amazon.com or your local Amazon site, and as an ebook from Smashwords and other online retailers. Please share this with any of your contacts who might enjoy it.

UUD Smashwords cover


Many years ago a friend introduced me to the fascinating and mysterious world of the Tarot, a set of 78 cards that has been used since ancient times for divination and as an aid to psycho-spiritual development and intuition. Its origin is unknown; the complex images could be seen to derive from the myths, legends and belief systems of many civilisations including those of Egypt, India and China, and it has been known in Europe since at least the 14th century. There are numerous different decks available, featuring artwork in styles ranging from the traditional to the quirky.

I studied the Tarot myself for a while and did occasional readings for friends, but was perhaps deterred from continuing when I realised what powerful effects the symbols could have. With their universal relevance they almost always seem to relate to the life situation of the “querent”. One woman told me afterwards that her chosen cards had been instrumental in her decision to divorce her husband; fortunately this turned out a good decision. One man took his spread to be predictive of his own death, despite my efforts to interpret it more constructively, and he did die suddenly not long afterwards. It is indeed hard not to be shocked and distressed by some of the cards, such as Death, The Hanged Man and The Devil, even though they are not intended to be taken literally; instead, they symbolise in different ways a common Tarot theme, that of letting go of the old to make way for the new. Other cards, such as The Star and The Sun, show much more beautiful and positive images. Whether or not the Tarot has any occult significance, as opposed to being a psychological tool, I think it should be regarded with respect and not used frivolously.

The insightful reading I had yesterday from Samantha Jung-Fielding stimulated much reflection and promise for the future. To summarise just a few of the cards that particularly resonated with me: Ace of Swords: change beginning on the mental level with new attitudes and ideas. The Empress: creativity and abundance, happy relationships. Nine of Swords: fear and despair, but the threats are in imagination rather than reality. The Fool: appearing as the final card in my spread, this represents the start of a new adventure! My complete Celtic Cross spread is pictured below.

Celtic cross


Memories on Milford beach

In this morning’s winter sunshine we walked along the bottom of the cliffs between Takapuna and Milford, part of Auckland’s North Shore Coastal Path. This must be one of the best short walks in New Zealand but, as the warning sign says, it “requires a reasonable level of fitness and is not suitable for prams”. It is not really a path at all, but involves stepping over mounds of black boulders and lava flow, the residue of long ago volcanic activity from what is now Lake Pupuke. In the middle there is a narrow concrete section with a steep drop on both sides. At low tide, the rock pools and golden bathing beaches are exposed. At high tide there is a risk of getting soaked by the waves crashing against the rocks. There is a spectacular view across the sea to the island of Rangitoto, another extinct volcano.


This walk holds many memories for us. Towards the Milford end we pass the house where Brian and his brother grew up. When his parents came to live there in the 1930s it was a modest weatherboard dwelling. There was no heating and the roof leaked, but having a beach outside the garden gate provided a wonderful outdoor environment for children. In the early 1980s, after Brian and I had met in England, we came out to spend holidays there. His mother looked after us beautifully and I remember idyllic hot summers when we went swimming every day and drank gin in the evenings. Now the house, no longer in the Barraclough family, has undergone a multi-million dollar conversion. The only reminder of Brian’s parents and brother, all now dead, is a plaque on the bench outside the fence.

Medicine in memoir and fiction

I’ve been staying up late to read Do No Harm – a compilation of clinical case histories,  interspersed with personal memoir, by British neurosurgeon Henry Marsh. It gives a riveting, though sometimes gruelling, account of the challenges involved in operating – or deciding not to operate – on patients with life-threatening conditions such as brain tumours, brain injuries, and strokes.

Henry Marsh writes with honesty, thoughtfulness and compassion and his book would seem equally accessible to healthcare professionals and general readers, though it is not for the squeamish. I would strongly recommend it to anyone considering a career in neurosurgery, for it can be difficult to find authentic accounts of what working in this or any other medical specialty is really like. Although my own ambition to become a doctor was partly inspired by the library books I read as an impressionable teenager – The Healing Knife by George Sava was one, and another was about a leper colony in Africa – they were already out of date, and I suspect conveyed a romanticised picture. When I got to medical school and was confronted with the reality it became clear that I had little interest or ability in either surgery or tropical diseases, and chose quite a different career path.

Why don’t more doctors write books along the lines of Do No Harm? One reason must be the risk of breaching confidentiality and causing distress to patients themselves or to their relatives. The books by the late neurologist Oliver Sacks – for example The Man who Mistook his Wife for a Hat – are among the best-known examples of the genre, and won wide acclaim from many sources, but have been criticised in some quarters for exploiting vulnerable people.

Another consideration is that any realistic and balanced account is bound to expose the limitations of medicine, and the vulnerability of its practitioners. Perhaps this is not so important now that doctors and hospitals are no longer regarded with unquestioning trust and respect. Henry Marsh makes no attempt to gloss over the fact that some of his cases had a bad outcome, whether because the prognosis was hopeless to begin with or because he or his colleagues made mistakes. He clearly feels these failures keenly, agonising over them even if they were not his fault, giving parts of the text a confessional quality. He is also remarkably outspoken about his frustration with hospital management and the ways that modern NHS bureaucracy can hamper patient care. His frankness about these negative aspects is refreshing, although if I had the misfortune to be needing neurosurgery I think I might regret having read this book and realising how much can go wrong.

I have no intention of writing a factual account of my own medical career, partly for the reasons given above, partly because I don’t remember the details well enough. But writing is therapeutic and when channeling my work experiences into fiction I often find myself emphasising the darker side of my former profession. Readers may find my books unduly cynical unless they appreciate the role of black humour in defusing the stresses of working in medicine.