Alasdair Gray - A Unique Case
A short story from the Scottish author and artist's Every Short Story 1952-2012 collection
At the end of November Alasdair Gray launches his new book, Every Short Story 1952-2012. A Unique Case is one of the tales, a perfect slice of the much-loved Scottish writer’s endlessly inventive style
The Reverend Dr Phelim MacLeod is a healthy, boyish-looking bachelor who has outlived all his relations except a distant cousin in Canada. Though unsurpassed in his knowledge of Latin, Hebrew and Greek his main reading since retirement has been detective stories, but he can still beat me at the game of chess we play at least once a fortnight. I tell you this to indicate his apparent normality before the accident last year. A badly driven, badly stacked glazier’s van crashed beside his garden gate as he walked out of it, and a fragment of glass sheered off a section of skull with his right ear on it. I am his closest friend. At the Royal Infirmary I heard that no visitors could be allowed to see him in his present state, but I would be called if it changed.
I was called a week later. The brain surgeon in charge of him said, “Dr MacLeod has regained consciousness. We are providing him with peace, privacy and a well-balanced diet. His unique constitution makes it impossible for us to do more.”
“But is he recovering?”
“I think so. Judge for yourself. And please tell him nothing about his appearance that would needlessly disturb him.”
In a small ward of his own I found Dr MacLeod propped up in bed reading one of his detective thrillers. He greeted me with his usual calm, self-satisfied smile. I asked how he felt.
“Very well,” he said. “You are interested in my wound, I see. How does it look? The staff here are less than informative.”
In war films I had seen many buildings with an outer wall missing and the side of my friend’s head resembled one. Through a big opening I saw tiny rooms with doors, light fittings and wall sockets, all empty of furniture but with signs of hasty evacuation. There was also scaffolding and heaps of building material suggesting that repair was in progress. I said hesitantly, “You seem to be mending quite well.”
Dr MacLeod smiled complacently and pointed out that he would be seventy-six on his next birthday. I asked if he had any pain.
“No pain but a deal of inconvenience. I am forbidden to move my head and am sometimes wakened at night by hammering noises inside it. I sleep best during the day.”
After chatting with him about the weather and our acquaintances I returned to the surgeon’s office. I told him that my friend seemed surprisingly fit for a man in his condition and asked who was responsible for the improvement.
“Agents,” said the surgeon slowly, “who seem to inhabit the undamaged parts of his anatomy, only emerging to operate on him when nobody is looking – nobody like us, I mean. I am carefully keeping students and younger doctors away from this case. Mere curiosity might lead them to kill your friend by delving into what they understand as little as I do.”
“There are obviously more things in heaven and earth,” I said, “than are dreamed of in your …”
The surgeon interrupted testily, saying every experienced medical practitioner knew that better than Shakespeare.
A year seldom passed without them encountering at least one inexplicable case. A hospital he would not name recently treated a woman, otherwise normal, for panic attacks caused by her certainty that a sudden shock would crack her into a million pieces. When every other therapy had failed a psychiatrist, thinking a practical demonstration might work, suddenly tripped her so that she fell on a padded surface which could not have injured a child, and she had cracked into a million pieces. “With tact,” said the surgeon, “your friend’s case may have a happier conclusion.”
It did. A month later the wound had been closed. Skin grew over it, a new ear, also a few strands of the white hair which elsewhere surrounds Dr MacLeod’s bald pink dome. He returned home and we meet once more for regular chess games. His character seems in no way changed by the accident. I am sometimes tempted to tell him that he is worked from inside by smaller people and always refrain in case it spoils his play. But maybe it would have no effect at all. Like many Christians he believes that a healthy body is a gift from God, no matter how it works. And like most men he has always thought himself unique.
A Unique Case is part of Alasdair Gray’s Every Short Story 1952–2012, published by Canongate. He will launch the collection as part of the Canongate Talk Series during Book Week Scotland, Wed 28 Nov, Summerhall, Edinburgh.