Very few doctors manage home visits any more. When I was a child, our doctor, wonderfully comforting and wearing a black jacket and striped trousers, would always visit at home if you had a temperature. True, the visits were largely a waste of time medically and, true again, were positively dangerous if you had a chest infection because he would sit at the end of your bed and smoke a gigantic cigar. However, it made you feel so much better and his black Wolseley Vanden Plas alerted the entire neighbourhood to the fact that a Byfield was unwell.
Bearing those early experiences in mind, I decided to visit Paddy Corkhill, who had been taken unwell not long after his recent early-morning drunken episode in Chambers. It is a strange feature of the modern world that, although Paddy and I had been firm friends for more years than either of us cares to remember, despite his somewhat lukewarm appraisal of my headship of Chambers during the infamous coup attempt, I had never visited his home. I was worried about Paddy. He seemed to be going downhill in a number of ways and when someone is described as having ‘taken a chill’, my mind immediately turns to those Victorian novels where ‘chill’ means that death is a chapter away.
He lives in a flat in Brook Green and it was a sunny morning, in a winter marked for its unusually high rainfall. As I walked along from Hammersmith Tube, I understood why my old doctor preferred home visits. There is something rather pleasant in being out and about whilst everyone else is away at work or engaged in household chores. It gives a sense of peculiar freedom and irresponsibility. Paddy’s cousin Fiona let me in. She looks after him as a kind of companion housekeeper, although I am not sure she is a particularly good influence on the drink front, as I have seen her consume more than Paddy at Chambers’ parties and with little or no effect on her balance.
It is fortunate that we rarely see our own accommodation with the same eye that views the abodes of others: the mark on the paintwork, the faded lampshade, the area of dust. Paddy’s garden flat certainly looked as if it could do with a touch of general sprucing up. There was a very alarming sound of coughing coming from what I was informed was Paddy’s bedroom. ‘He’s in there,’ Fiona said, unnecessarily. ‘I told him he should see the doctor but he won’t, of course.’ I squeezed past her in a narrow corridor and went inside. The patient was sitting up reading a newspaper, sipping a coffee and smoking a small Panatella. It was a rather lovely room with large bookshelves and a wonderful view on an extensive and surprisingly well-kept garden. Fiona had placed vases of early spring flowers everywhere which gave out an intense scent.
‘Sit ye down, sit ye down, learned Head of Chambers,’ said Paddy. ‘I must be near the end if you are here.’ I could at least comfort him on that score and explained we were having some kind of BSB audit in Chambers, so I had decided to make myself scarce. We had a most pleasant time: shamelessly reminiscing, noting the way life was slowly slipping from us, having some sherry and, later, soup that Fiona brought in. A long time must have passed as it was getting dusk when Paddy looked at me and said: ‘We had it good, Billy boy, didn’t we?’ I agreed. ‘Everything was good then: university, pupillage, chambers, people; even those ghastly old judges.’ I nodded.
‘And they paid us well for it. That was the crack. Paid us well for doing what we loved. Now they pay us badly to perform the intolerable.’ I looked into the dark garden. ‘We have won a great battle with our masters. But only to preserve very poor fees. And our masters don’t have to do much more, because that money will erode through inflation year after year after year. We never did manage the annual uprating, like everyone else, did we?’ ‘No,’ I agreed, ‘we did not.’ I could almost hear the drip of water upon stone.
‘Shouldn’t think a little glass of champagne would hurt us, do you?’ he said. ‘Or even another one, after that,’ I replied.
William Byfield is the pseudonym of a senior member of the Bar. Gutteridge Chambers, and the events that happen there, are entirely fictitious