47 - The Grand Old Master of Gloucester
Donald Dunkerson, known within his tight circle as The Grand Old Master, resembled how you might imagine Doctor Foster might look, perhaps after the huge bunch of miles and many days or even weeks it took him to finally achieve one of the most rain drenched and futile journeys of all time. And incidentally Donald lived in Gloucester and is, or at least had been, a doctor which eminently qualified him to recognise that being drenched at one in the morning could adversely affect someone approaching their ninetieth birthday. It is easy to assume that his saturated condition was due to some fairly tedious and persistent rainfall but that is not the case - the three firemen who extracted him from the well can attest to that.
Donald or Don as his neighbours called him or simply Dunkers as he was known all those years ago at boarding school where he learnt, more than anything else, to vigorously defend food, probably represented one of the last products of a bygone age. The Exeats taken in the form of long weekends away from the Brainery gave opportunity to hone the skills of the Master Prankster creating a genius of a fading art. The fact that the trail of his passing through time is littered with a steady stream of people in various contortions of laughter or despair or suffering the result of a rare backfire, is proof of this.
He is single and has been all his life. That did not mean to say he did not like women or even that he might prefer men, both of which were untrue. He adores women and relishes the company of men in those circumstances of comradery or daring-do or the japes that young men, particularly intern doctors it would seem, inflict upon the unsuspecting. Women were a constant mystery to him. He had searched for the ideal - someone who could offer all the attributes he knew he would demand and would be devoid of all the detriments he knew he would despise. Those pernicious traits he knew would result in the endless rows and the tears and emotional stress that eventually rips people apart to regret what should have been and that which could have been but was now too late. Many had slipped through his fingers. All had some fault that, however small, he suspected would end up as a catalyst and of great imagined magnitude even though in reality they would remain insignificant.
There were the vain women whose feet were too large but who insisted on shortening them by wearing shoes that were too small and those whose feet were too wide who insisted on wearing shoes that were too narrow. All these women suffered the same fate - blisters, corns, bumps and grazes, that required large plasters to bring relief. This particularly affected those who staggered inelegantly on six inch heels, a feat desperately difficult, Donald assumed, with shoes that were either too small or too narrow to offer sufficient stability to the supported stature. Having had impressed upon him, throughout his medical training, the need to provide assistance in times of clinical relapse he felt obliged to carry with him, when escorting such women, large plasters, those with the thick padded centres capable of copious absorption but also providing the best remedy for this foot phobia related distress.
Then of course the women with the many hair problems that severely restricted where they went and when they went out. The exciting day trips on sightseeing boats in blustery conditions when the wind swirled from behind a bulkhead that had been providing a perceived shelter dismantling in an instant the hours of careful preparation to ensure each strand was perfectly in its allotted position. The hilltops that were scaled on a perfectly still day with the naivety that the static conditions prevailed nine hundred feet higher to discover an hour later the same result as the sightseeing boat except trees and boulders were substituted for bulkheads but with the same, “never again,” conclusion. And the rain and its ability to change hair. Even the slightest hint of dampness conjures up visions of a frizz so large it blocks out the sun. A rain hat flattens and distorts. An umbrella creates an up-draft centered on the head. A quick rush to the car impossible in those inadequately sized six inchers, all resulting in the comment, “we are staying in today dear.” Donald had discovered that carrying hairspray, even hairspray with the toughness of the best maritime varnish, was not a solution because, quite perversely, these women liked the feeling that slightly waving hair added a subtle sexiness even though they were not prepared to endure any but the most minimal hair movement.
Maria had almost snagged him. A tall, strong, self-sufficient woman who, although she had long black hair was carefree with it, quite admired a frizzy look whose shoes matched her feet perfectly. An ideal height, perfect weight, could cook, converse intelligently but at the same time took great care to be non-confrontational. Donald had admitted to his best school boy buddy Dream on Robert whose vacant, loosely fitting eyes caused so much consternation, that he was smitten. All was well until Donald discovered Maria’s status driven membership of The Country Club and her contrived credentials. She, in fact, revelled in feelings of grandeur and thought as the wife of an eminent doctor she would greatly enhance that. Although dressing in the finest designer sportswear she had no intention of indulging in anything vaguely energetic. She did belonged to the Club Bridge School which on the face of it could be seen as a comforting benefit but as her permanent partner was Brenda Divine, the Agony Aunt from the local rag, Donald did not wish to have his problems, if he ever had any, conveyed by Maria to be aired in public by one he saw as an unqualified busybody.
Donald discounted the matronly types as being too fussy. Dismissed the house proud with visions of never ending demands to improve this or tinker with that. There were the do-gooders who sat on endless committees, would never be home and pinned notes on the fridge with instructions for dinner and to feed the cat and when home would soapbox talk a tirade of idealistic claptrap. And of course the mirror lookers who only got involved with themselves. So after some years his mission was abandoned and he was resigned to forever being a bachelor.
The Old Vicarage in a village on the outskirts of Gloucester was his home. Built in the early nineteenth century by the local Lord to house the Vicar who was the Lord’s third son who required the disproportionately large building that was ideal for Donald’s purposes. Providing adequate space for his surgery and although he did rattle about a bit he devoted most of the ground floor for community use. The gardens were extensive with manicured beds and an immense lawned area extending from the stone terraces surrounding the house to the orchard on the rear boundary. In the centre of the lawn was a well, the original water source, with a circular three foot high brick wall, thick wooden cap and antique hand pump. Over the years Donald had become a pillar of the local community, essential for everyone and respected and liked by all.
In August, as he approached his ninetieth birthday, he was organising a garden party celebration for the entire village. Caterers were to spit roast a whole pig over open coals and vintners were in charge of all liquid refreshments. Everything was arranged and just waiting for the next day to arrive. Even the weather was promised as warm and sunny. Dream on Robert had come to stay.
The evening before the party he said to Donald in a very definite and complimentary way, “Dunkers old chap, we have had a monstrously terrific time for the eighty or so years I have known you and that has been an absolute pleasure. We have actioned your wonderful pranks that have amused and unfortunately distressed many but I feel it is now time to hang up that particular activity as I for one am starting to creak. What do you say we have one last effort. A final hurrah so to speak. Go out with a splash and all that.”
“I’m inclined to agree Dreamy old man,” Donald replied with a kind of resigned sadness, “the mind is willing but sadly the limbs are failing fast but I can muster the effort for such a final fling. What do you have in mind?”
“What about the old well number? One of your masterpieces that has not been attempted for over fifty years so nobody in this vicinity will have seen it. I know you have the stopper in the attic. What do you say? It would be spectacular would it not?”
“A grand idea Dreamy but we will need a trial run, we cannot trust to luck so we should have a practice now should we not? There is still a little time left.”
The inflatable, circular plug was recovered together with the large brick loosely secured to the bottom with a strong length of twine. Especially made for Donald for the culmination of his Best Man Speech from the rim of the well in the grounds of the Country House Hotel on the occasion of Robert’s wedding. The plug had been inflated five feet down, gripping the walls, with the brick in situ. Donald, standing on the rim speaking, had deliberately stepped back at the pertinent moment falling in to land on the plug engulfed in the satisfying sounds of the screams and yells of the startled audience ringing in his ears. The plug’s contact with the walls was sufficient to break his fall and at the same time, by vibration, the brick underneath was released falling to the water twenty feet below making a splash that was somewhat muffled but still loud enough to add credibility to the entire show. Crouched, Donald could then jump up and down on the springy plug and with gained impetus, leap out to athletically land on the rim in an unscathed condition enthusiastically shouting a loud, “Da…..Daaaaa,” with arms spread wide. Needless to say not all guests were amused. Some left with a suspected heart attack but Robert was convinced they were mostly second or third cousins that should not have been invited in the first place. Overall though the consensus was that this was THE Best Man Speech of Best Man Speeches.
It was just after midnight and by the light of an old Tilley lamp the plug was inflated but, due to lack of their suppleness, only about four feet down Donald’s well. Donald, by standing on a chair, could step onto the rim and even though he was a bit wobbly could maintain his position by holding onto the pump shaft. He then stepped back resulting in a brief moment before a loud, clear splash. Then quiet. Robert looking in and holding the Tilley lamp high could see the bottom of the well, fifteen feet down, with Donald half submerged and supported by the stopper.
“What’s it like down there Dunkers,” he shouted without the slightest concern, “very appropriate name, Dunkers, don’t you think? Is the water cold?”
“A trifle cool,” came the reply floating up the shaft with an echoey eeriness, “might you telephone someone? The fire brigade would be appropriate.”
It turned out that over the fifty years of storage the integrity of the valve had been compromised and the slight hissing of escaping air was masked by the similar noise of the pressurised lamp. Of course the bonding with the wall failed but as with all Donald’s designs there was a thought for safety and the beauty of this one was the resulting fall was cushioned and the air remaining in the plug provided buoyancy until rescue could be undertaken. The firemen built a winch and, due to the restricted space, lowered their smallest and lightest who turned out to be a young woman who was the leading firefighter in charge of the attending appliance.
They were all now seated in the kitchen drinking hot, sweet tea and laughing as both Robert and Donald regaled the young lady with tales of their many exploits. Donald was staring at Emma and saw something there that tweaked his imagination. He saw a woman with hair that although short had been stylistically cut to suit her situation. He could see she would not be bothered by the elements and certainly would never be caught in any undersized shoes and more than likely despised stilt like heels. She would avoid Country Clubs he was sure. Probably hated bridge and was sure to have no association with an agony aunt. She was fit, strong and capable. Was used to making difficult decisions. Would not panic, If any DIY needed doing she would be more than capable. Children would be a breeze. She was already doing good and if she did more good this would be taken in her stride. She wore no makeup. She did not need to. Her face did not require artificial enhancement except maybe some subtle lipstick to exaggerate her wonderful smile, one of those smiles that creased the corners of the mouth and slightly closed the eyes in a sexy way. In short Donald saw before him his perfect woman.
He looked at Robert who caught his stare, a pleading stare so full of emotion and tearful eyes and for the first time ever Robert managed to keep his vision still. Their eyes met in a knowing way. Robert, who had always been deeply involved in Donald’s searching, understood. He understood Donald’s look, a look of adoration, of love even but also a look of regret. Robert could see Donald genuinely felt a strong attraction, a bond, but also profound regret because at that moment, above anything else, Donald wished he was sixty years younger.